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Hot Weather Herp Tips – Summer’s Effect on Reptiles and Amphibians

Green AnoleMost herp enthusiasts know that amphibians are usually quite sensitive to warm temperatures.  However, reptiles, even those native to tropical and desert habitats, may be severely impacted as well.  Following are some general guidelines to keep in mind at the height of summer – please write in for more detailed information about the animals in your collection.

General Considerations

Even within the hottest of natural habitats, herps find ways to escape temperature extremes.  Millions of years of evolution have brought us a great many surprises in this regard – Australia’s Water Holding Frog, for example, thrives where most unprotected creatures, even reptiles, would cook in short order.  So while desert adapted animals may be better suited to withstand heat, do not assume that they will be fine without special attention. Read More »

Terrarium Plants: Best Hardy Houseplants for Reptile and Amphibian Tanks

House plants in terrariums

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Baumpython

When I first began keeping reptiles and amphibians a lifetime ago, the live plants at my disposal were limited to cuttings I could beg, borrow or steal from my green-thumbed mother. Today we are very fortunate in having an astonishing variety of available orchids, mosses, ferns and plants ideally suited for use with reptiles and amphibians. For those of us with wide interests, this diversity is a real pleasure…in fact, co-workers at the Bronx Zoo have at times accused me of expending more effort on my exhibits’ flora than its fauna! But in both zoo exhibits and at home, I frequently fall back on old favorites, especially several inexpensive and readily available house plants. If you are not skilled or interested in plant propagation, but wish to provide your pets with the many benefits that live plants confer, the following species should be of interest. The plants covered here are but a small sample…please post notes about your own favorites below.


Note: Please post below if you intend to keep live plants with herbivorous lizards or turtles, so that we can discuss any problems may arise if foliage is consumed. Please see the article linked below for information concerning pesticides that may be present on commercially-grown plants.


Wild Pothos

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Nyanatusita

Pothos or Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum)

This attractive, hardy vine is one of my favorite plants for use in terrarium and zoo exhibits. Widespread from India to northern Australia (and feral elsewhere), Pothos will grow equally-well in sphagnum moss, water, soil or gravel. If rooted in shallow water, it takes the form of an emergent plant, and thus looks well in bog terrariums. Grown as a floating plant, it will send out long roots, creating a dramatic effect and helping to improve water quality. Draped over logs and rocks, or left hanging, sinuous aerial roots will quickly form, lending an “over-grown” effect to your terrarium.


Many folks are surprised to learn that Pothos left unchecked can become quite large – I measured the leaves of some old specimens in Bronx Zoo bird exhibits at nearly 3 feet in length and 14 inches in width  (please see photo).


Peace Lily

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Kurt Stüber

Peace Lilly (Spathiphyllum spp.)

This very familiar house and office plant is another that can be used on land or in water. Much like Pothos, its root system is quite dramatic when seen below water, and will be used as a hiding and foraging site by newts, aquatic frogs, small turtles and similar creatures. I’ve written a separate article on its care and use…please see the link below.






Other Useful, Hardy Houseplants

Earth Star

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Chhe

Earth Star (Cryptanthus spp.): I learned about this Bromeliad from an arachnologist who kept spiders in unlit terrariums. It is nearly indestructible, and excellent for use with spiders, amphibians and other animals that prefer low light levels; the leaves flush red when exposed to light.


Jade Plant (Crassula ovata): A beautiful succulent, ideal for desert and semi-desert terrariums; the thick branches take on fantastic shapes.


Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana): native to West Africa and not related to true bamboo, this popular plant is usually sold rooted in water. Kept so, it makes a nice emergent “swamp” type plant, or it can be planted moist soil.


Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron scandens oxycardium)

Arrowhead Vine (Syngonium podophyllum)

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)

Miniature Wax Plant (Hoya bella)

Dwarf Columnae

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Franz Xaver

Dwarf Columnea (Columnea microphylla)

Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum variegatum)

Zebra Plant (Aphalandra squarrosa)

Asparagus Fern (Asparagus densiflorus)

Bird’s Nest Fern (Asplenium nidus)

Miniature Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila minima)

Hooked Strap Plant (Anthurium hookeri).

Coffee Plant (Coffa arabica)


Further Reading

The Peace Lily as a Terrarium Plant

Terrarium-Safe Plants: Avoiding Pesticides

Exciting New Exotic Animal Displays in our Reptile Room

In the Reptile Room section of our Lancaster, Pennsylvania retail store, our expert staff is always creating new and exciting displays.  These amazing displays rarely get the exposure they deserve – so we wanted to take a moment and highlight their extraordinary work on That Reptile Blog. Check them out below or stop by our store and see for yourself!



Mantella Tank

This display features the unique Mantella frog (Mantella ebenaui) in a 40 gallon Marineland Perfecto aquarium.  The brown variety of this rare frog is native to Madagascar.  The landscape includes river rock gravel, topped with several live plants, including creeping fig, liverwort and begonia.  The staff has also included a mini water reservoir with several small goldfish.



What makes this set up special, is that the tank is fully sustaining ecosystem that requires no filtration and little maintenance.  The system relies on the live plants and gold fish to digest nutrients created by the breakdown of uneaten food and waste.  The only maintenance required is feeding the Mantella and trimming back plants as needed.  This set up is maintained by several members of our staff, including Josh Mangan.




 IMG_0876Volcano Tank

This awesome “active” volcano was handcrafted by our Reptile Room associate Jesse Taylor.  The inventive design includes a Zoo Med Repti-Fogger surrounded by natural Eco Earth bedding.  The fogger releases a steamy mist that creates the appearance of volcanic activity.  Housed in an 18 in. x 18 in. x 24 in. Exo Terra Glass Terrarium, the ecosystem also includes an Eco Earth and live seasonal moss base, as it is prepared to hold African Reed Frogs.



IMG_0952Customized Blue Gliding Frog Terrarium

Created by Reptile Room supervisor Ryan Chillas, this great set up features two Vietnamese Blue Gliding Frogs.  To best replicate the natural environment of the frogs, Chillas created a detailed, natural set up that includes a water reservoir and waterfall.  He added a river rock base and several live plants, including creeping fig, liverwort and a peace lily.

To create the waterfall, Chillas borrowed some non-toxic expanding foam sealant from our pond section.  He used it to fashion a back wall that holds an Aquatop fountain pump.  The pump draws water from the bottom reservoir and moves it to the top of the foam wall.  Chillas also added petrified wood and rocks throughout the foam wall.  Adding live plants, it creates the perfect climbing environment that the arboreal Blue Gliding Frogs would find in their natural habitat.


If you’d like to check out these great displays, stop by our Reptile Room in our Lancaster, Pennsylvania store. In addition to these animals, we also have a large variety of lizards, tortoises and spiders to pique your curiosity.  You can check with Josh, Jesse or Ryan in person or speak with any of the members of our helpful expert staff.  We are always ready, willing and able to answer any questions you might have!





Terrarium Safe Plants: Tips for Avoiding Pesticides


African violet

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by רנדום

Each year, a wider variety of beautiful and interesting live plants becomes available to keepers of amphibians, reptiles, scorpions, tarantulas and other terrarium animals. Responsible suppliers to the pet trade should propagate plants without relying upon pesticides, but many hobbyists are rightly concerned about the possibility of poisoning their pets. While working at the Bronx Zoo, I had access to professional horticulturists who provided me with some safety measures one can employ to assure that plants are safe for use in terrariums.


Pesticide Types and Uses

Pesticides may be classified by the site at which they exert their effects. Surface pesticides remain on stems and leaves, and are usually mixed with adherents in order to improve their sticking power. Adherents are chemical compounds that may also be harmful to terrarium animals. Systemic pesticides diffuse into plant tissues – these are less commonly used on house and terrarium plants than are surface-acting chemicals.


Many species that are marketed as house plants are much favored by animal-keepers as well. Included among these are pothos, peace lilies, Chinese evergreens, cast iron plants and snake plants. These plants have almost certainly been treated with pesticides, as they are grown in large propagation operations, and not specifically sold for use in terrariums.


Carpet moss

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Upload Bot (Magnus Manske)

Various ferns, mosses, bromeliads and carnivorous plants raised by those who target pet keepers as customers may or may not be pesticide free (please see below, and post a comment for further information).


Risks to Reptiles and Amphibians

The skins and exoskeletons of reptiles and most commonly-kept invertebrates may be relatively impervious to pesticide poisoning by casual contact. However, traces may enter the animal if tracked onto food, or, perhaps, via the pedipalps of spiders. Herbivorous species may also sample plants, including those generally considered to be distasteful.


Red eyed treefrog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Charlesjsharp

Amphibians are very sensitive to chemicals of any type. Their porous skins allow substances as small as oxygen molecules to enter the body, and pesticide toxicity has been well-documented in field and lab studies (I once observed autopsies of male African Clawed Frogs that had been exposed to a common pesticide…the unfortunate fellows had developed ovaries!). While tree frogs and others that spend their time on plants are most at risk, pesticides can also diffuse through the tough skins of desert dwellers such as the Colorado River Toad.


Detoxifying Terrarium Plants

Plants treated with surface pesticides can be rendered safe by washing with water. Be sure to rub the leaves, stems and roots with a clean sponge, and rinse well; submerging the plant and swishing it about afterwards is also useful. I always discard the soil that arrives with plants, as pesticides that have dripped off the foliage during application will accumulate there. Vinegar, lemon oil and other products are frequently recommended as well, but I’ve not found these to be necessary.


Long-nosed Chameleon

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Flickr upload bot

There aren’t any well-established practices where systemic (absorbed) pesticides are concerned. Horticulturist co-workers at the Bronx Zoo suggested a 30 day waiting period before any suspect plant was placed into an exhibit. I did well with that protocol at the zoo, and have continued to use it in my personal collection.


Sources of Pesticide-Free Plants

Most terrarium plant suppliers rely (or claim to rely!) upon pesticide-free growing practices. I do not have much recent experience with any of the major growers, but can ask colleagues in the zoo and private trade for their opinions if you are unsure of your source. Please post any questions or comments below.




Further Reading


The Peace Lilies in the Terrarium


Wild-Caught Insects as Reptile Food: Pesticide Concerns

Cold Weather Tips for Reptile, Amphibian & Invertebrate Owners


Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Eric Johnston

Whether you keep a single, cold-hearty Common Snapping Turtle or a large collection of tropical lizards, frogs and tarantulas, cold winter weather brings certain challenges.  This is especially true for those of us who, in the interests of environmental and financial responsibility, do not wish to super-heat our homes in order to satisfy our pets’ needs.  While working at the Bronx Zoo, I always sought the advice of our staff electricians when faced with heating issues.  Today I’ll review what I’ve learned there concerning various types of heating devices, cage material and location, insulation and other topics that take on special importance when temperatures drop.


Seek Professional Advice

I always advise herp keepers facing extreme winters to speak with an experienced electrician.  Most of us know a great deal about our pets’ needs and the available heating products, but as “electricians” we are usually “self-taught” (not a term that should be used in connection with electricity!).  Incorporating an electrician’s expertise will save time, money and, most importantly, assure our safety.


Concerning safety, please be aware that free-roaming dogs, cats, ferrets, tortoises, iguanas and other pets cause a number of fires each year (pushing papers and other flammable items close to heaters and bulbs, knocking over heaters, etc.).  I have first-hand knowledge of several such incidents, as well as others caused by improperly-located heat bulbs…please exercise caution.


Be sure to show your electrician the bulbs and other equipment that you use, and request guidance concerning safe distances from plants and other flammable objects, extension cord use, etc.  Don’t forget thermostats and rheostats – I was surprised to learn that these can sometimes drain enough power to interfere with the functioning of heaters and bulbs.


t246145Room Temperature and Cage Location

Room temperature will greatly affect you choice of heating equipment.  As most folks lower their heat at night, be sure to monitor temperatures at this time.  Oil-filled radiators may be a useful option, especially if you house your collection in a single room.


It’s important to have a detailed temperature profile of the rooms in which your terrariums and cages are located.  The Zoo Med Digital Infrared Thermometer  provides a simple, effective means of accomplishing this.  Pointing the thermometer at an area or surface will give an instant temperature readout, allowing you to identify the warmest and coolest places in the room. While exterior walls, floors and window areas are obvious cool spots, each home is different, so be sure to check carefully.  A simple terrarium re-location may save time, effort and money.


Terrarium ambient and basking temperatures should be carefully monitored, day and night; a huge array of herp-specific thermometers greatly simplifies this task.  Zoo Med’s Hygrotherm Humidity and Temperature Controller and other light and heater timers can help create healthful environments while cutting heating costs.


Iguana basking

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Paul Kehrer

Insulating Terrariums and Cages

Insulation is not often used by herp and invertebrate keepers, but I urge you to look into the many possibilities.  I first discovered insulation during a power outage, and was surprised by the results I achieved.  I’ve since met several people who significantly cut their heating costs by lining terrarium and cages walls with various insulating materials.  Styrofoam, cork panels, polyethylene, polystyrene, foil fiberglass, bubble wrap and other home insulating materials  may all be put to good use.  Towels and blankets can be pressed into service during emergencies.


Wood and Masonite-sided cages will retain heat more effectively than glass, but all can be improved by the addition of insulation.  If such does not compromise your pet’s health, relocation to a smaller, more easily-heated enclosure might be worthwhile.


Bulbs and Heaters

Ceramic heat emitters, heat bulbs, under-tank heaters, red/black night bulbs and heat tapes are the most commonly-used heating devices.  Each provides heat in a different manner, although in certain respects there are overlaps as well.  The species you keep, your home’s temperature profile, and the characteristics of your pet’s enclosure will determine which method (or methods) should be used.  Please post below for specific information pertaining to your collection.


Slimy Salamander

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Patrick Coin

Species Choice

If you live in an area that experiences extremely cold winters (or hot summers), you may wish to tailor your collection accordingly.  For example, axolotls, spotted and slimy salamanders, wood frogs and many other temperate zone amphibians are quite content at 55 F (fire salamanders that I attempted to chill down remained active at 40 F), but many do poorly when temperatures rise above 70 F.  Common musk turtles, northern five-lined skinks, Eastern garter snakes and other reptiles that range into cooler regions are also relatively easy to maintain during cold winters.  There’s certainly no shortage of interesting, cold-hearty species, and many are in need of study and captive breeding efforts.



A cooling off period during the winter can be beneficial for those species that experience dormancy in the wild, and is often essential to breeding success.  However, this step must not be undertaken lightly, and details vary by species.  Please post below for specific information on the animals in your collection.


Emergencies and Power Outages

Hand warmers and battery-operated aerators (for aquatic amphibians and fishes) should be available for use during power outages. I’ve not used a generator at home, but relied upon them several times during my years working at the Bronx Zoo…well-worth investigating.


Chilled reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates should be gradually warmed, not immediately placed at their optimal temperatures.  Heating pads are very handy in these situations.  Please post any questions or observations below.




Further Reading

The Best Infrared Temperature Gun for herp Terrariums


Hibernation/Brumation: Bearded Dragons and other Reptiles

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