Custom Search


Friday, March 12, 2010

How to Create a Naturalistic Vivarium

Photo: My Poison Dart Frog Vivarium 

In my last post, I introduced you to Blue, my pet poison dart frog.  In this post, I will describe how to successfully create a natural habitat for your dart frog.  You can still apply the basic principles for creating setups for other reptiles/amphibians (e.g., geckos, small lizards, etc.).  Just be sure to research climate conditions, native plants, and so forth that are unique to your pet. 

The Terrarium

  • I chose an acrylic terrarium made by Zoo Med with a front access.  
    • Pros: Easy front-access, lighter weight than glass aquariums, sturdier than glass
    • Cons: Difficult to clean hard deposits off of acrylic without scratching surface, air flow holes and screen top make it a challenge to keep the humidity level high.
  • I still love the Zoo Med Terrarium because the front access makes it super easy to trim back my plants, feed my frog, etc.  I solved the humidity issue by bringing the soil up past the air flow lines, covering most of the screen with a uv light fixture, and using a fogger machine

 Create a Drainage Layer

  • You need to create a drainage Layer for your plants. If the plant's roots are left in standing water, then the roots may rot, causing you problems. You can avoid this by using a layer of pea gravel, lava rock, or clay balls to create a drainage area for your plants.  My drainage layer is between 1" to 1.5" deep.  
  • I used Hydroton (LECA) clay balls.  These things are great because unlike gravel, they are SUPER light.  Not all pet stores carry these, and if they do they may provide a small quantity at a higher price.  I would try your local garden center first and/or compare online prices.  

Protective Mesh

  • You are going to want to provide a porous, protective sheet on top of your drainage medium to prevent your soil from settling into the cracks of your drainage layer.
  • You can re-purpose old window screens.   If you don't have any old ones, you can get a whole roll of New York Wire 30117 Fiberglass Screen Cloth Ready Rolls for less than $10 at your local hardware store or online.    

Non-Toxic Substrate
  • The quality of the substrate you grow your plants in is very important! You do NOT want to get ordinary potting soil. Potting soil is filled with fertilizers and other additives that is great for plants, but can be harmful and sometimes fatal to your herp. 
  • I know a zoo keeper who uses "Edna's Best Potting Soil" to create vivariums for the zoo's herps. It can be difficult finding a retailer that sells it so please visit their website and type in your zip code to find a store near you that will carry their soil. Their website is
  • You can use other organic soils that do not contain those white pellets.  The white pellets can be harmful if ingested by your herp.  I have used "Organic Choice" (made by Miracle Gro) without any problems.  
  • I have about about a 3" layer of soil on top of the screen mesh.

Miracle Gro Organic Choice Pot Soil, 16 Qt

Choosing Plants 
  • Dart frogs live in humid climates and are often found in bromeliads or in leaf litter.  
  • For my dart frog, I used a bromeliad, a few different ferns, blue star creeper, and a Korean rock fern.  
  • When selecting your plants, try to choose plants of varying height.  For example, I chose tall ferns as a background plant.  Then I chose different ferns as a mid-ground plant.  Then I chose the blue star creeper and Korean rock fern as foreground plant.  You can always trim back plants to the desired height, but you will have to do less maintenance if you put low-growing plants in the front.  

Planting Plants
  • I do not recommend sticking the pots directly in the soil unless you personally grew these plants or you are certain the plants have not been treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  Your dart frog has sensitive skin and it can fall seriously ill or even die from exposure to these chemicals. 
  • Please remove the plant from its pot, and gently pull away as much soil as you can from the roots. Then rinse away the dirt from the roots in room temperature water. I prefer to treat my water by putting a few drops of de-chlorinator. If you don't have this, you can leave your water out in a sterile, non-metallic open container for about 24 hours. This will allow the chlorine and the fluoride to evaporate.  

Do NOT use synthetic fertilizers! As I mentioned before, it can be fatal to your herp. If your plant is in serious need of a pick me up, I would suggest using an organic fertilizer.

Pest Control
Do NOT ever use pesticides on your plants.  It can be fatal to your herp.  Instead physically remove unwanted pests.  If there are too many to kill, you can try removing your dart frog and then flushing your terrarium with carbon dioxide to kill the pests.  You are supposed to seal the terrarium so the CO2 cannot escape.  I have never done this myself, but there are people who say this works.  Just remember to remove your dart frog first or you will end up killing it too.

I used a pre-made vivarium foam background by Exo Terra for about $14.00.  However, a cork/bark tile background or natural wood tile background would also look nice.
Exo Terra Background 18 inch x 18 inch for PT2605

The plants need UV lighting to grow.  I chose a low-heat emitting aquarium lamp with a uv fluorescent light bulb.

Water & Special Effects
Although dart frogs need humid environments, they do not need pools of water to survive.  Deep ponds should be avoided because dart frogs cannot swim and will drown.  If you would like to create a waterfall or pond feature, then make sure the pool is shallow enough so that the dart frog can stand in it with its head out of the water or create a pondless waterfall.  I chose to embed a shallow dish of water in the soil, and then used a fogging system to help keep the humidity levels up.  I also water my plants because the fogger alone does not provide enough moisture for my plants.  I always use room-temperature, pre-treated water.        

Zoo Med Repti Fogger

My favorite part of this process is landscaping my dart frog's habitat.  You can shape your landscape by religiously trimming and training your plants.  I use small scissors to trim my plants, and remove any browning foliage.

No comments: