Whether you’re an aquarist looking for a new hobby, or a gardener looking to expand their collection of indoor plants, a paludarium is the best of both worlds. We’ve created this step-by-step guide to introduce you to paludariums as well as teach you how to build your own perfect setup.
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What is a paludarium
A paludarium tank is a type of terrarium that contains both terrestrial and aquatic elements. This semi aquatic environment is if one is looking to keep aquatic or terrestrial inhabitants, and is especially useful for those keeping semi-aquatic animals such as toads, and salamanders.
The word paludarium is derived from the latin word for swamp, palus. Paludariums do appear somewhat swamp-like as they contain both land and water elements. For many hobbyists, paludariums can provide hours of entertainment!
What is the difference between a vivarium and a paludarium?
The word vivarium is defined as “an enclosure for keeping or raising and observing animals…,” and can encompass many different types of habitat or ecosystem in an enclosed container. On the other hand a paludarium is a semi-aquatic enclosure that can house both land and aquatic inhabitants.
In other words, all paludariums are vivariums, but not all vivariums are paludariums. A vivarium can be a terrarium, greenhouse, fish pond, aviary and many more!
Types of tanks
Choosing the proper tank for your intentions is just as important as choosing the decorations and animals that go in it. Before building your paludarium, read this section to determine if another tank like a riparium is better suited to your needs. Each vivarium ecosystem has its own advantages and disadvantages.
In a nutshell, a vivarium is just another word for an enclosure that replicates the native environment of a species. This term can encompass many different enclosures including an aquarium, terrarium, aviary, greenhouse, ant farm, and many others.
The appeal of a vivarium is that you can create a habitat for a large variety of species.
A terrarium is a branch of vivariums and is a dry enclosure where plant life and terrestrial animals can inhabit. There are open terrariums (which don’t have a lid), and closed terrariums (which do have a lid). Closed terrariums tend to house inhabitants that need a moist environment such as green frogs, or carnivorous plants. Open terrariums would be excellent for air plants because they maintain dry conditions.
Ripariums are an extension of paludariums and generally replicate a riverbed. Some hobbyists like to form habitats that have large amounts of plants, while others like adding animals to create the desired effect.
How to make a paludarium
How you create your paludarium tank really depends on your preferences. There are different ways to combine terrestrial and aquatic elements. It can be as simple as letting a piece of wood float in your tank’s water, or it can involve creating a jungle of plant species and animals.
Each paludarium can be divided into 3 sections: the base, middle, and top. Continue reading to find out more about each of these sections!
The Top – Canopy
The canopy takes up the top third of the paludarium and provides shade, hiding places, and a dry spot for animals that prefer to be out of the water. A majority of this area will be filled with plants, though decorations such as lizard hammocks, or basking rocks would fit well here.
The Middle – Land
The land area of the paludarium tank consists of a hard barrier like an acrylic wall or rock, that blocks the water section from the land portion of the tank. This allows soil, sand, and other earth-like material to build-up. The land section is where both terrestrial species and semi-aquatic species will live and will need to be able to accommodate a variety of habitat.
If your paludarium tank doesn’t have a canopy the land portion must have ample shade and basking spots to allow your animals to rest, as well as provide adequate conditions for your plants.
The Base – Water
The water area of your paludarium is where your aquatic animals will thrive. This area is important as it provides moisture for the land section and canopy portion of your tank which affects humidity levels in the enclosure (especially if it’s open-lid).
Now that you know the sections of a paludarium it’s time to start planning your own. There are four basic designs when it comes to paludariums;
For this design you can use an acrylic wall that is glued in place in an aquarium to separate the land and water column.
For this design, you need two barriers on either side of the terrestrial portion. This concept can be used if you want to keep two aquatic species that don’t get along with each other as the land creates a natural barrier between them.
This design requires no barriers and is the easiest paludarium to create. In fact, the landscape can be made out of a large piece of wood, a thick patch of floating plants, or a floating styrofoam planter to grow herbs on. This design is also beneficial if you have species that spend the majority of their time in the water, and just need the occasional time on land such as salamanders.
In this design you fill the aquarium partially with water, secure a shelf to the side of the tank, and build your landscape on top of it. This allows more room for animal species to spread out.
Construction of land area
For the iceberg and divider designs begin by installing your dividers. They should be glued in place with aquarium safe adhesive such as cyanoacrylate-based super glues and water tight. Fill your tank with an inch of water to ensure that there are no leaks. Afterwards you can begin adding substrate to build the land part of your paludarium.
For the shelf and floater designs begin by filling your paludarium partially with water. For the shelf, increase the water level until it is at the height you would like your landscape to start. Remember, there will be a few inches of soil on the shelf so you don’t want it too close to the top of your tank. Install the shelf with aquarium safe adhesive and allow it to dry before beginning to add soil.
Adding substrates and plants
Now you can begin to add plants and other substrates to your tank. If you would like to add aquarium gravel or sand to the water portion of the paludarium this is a good time to do it, otherwise, proceed to shaping your landscape how you would like it and begin to add terrestrial plants or rooted aquatic plants.
I find it easier to add aquatic vegetation that aren’t rooted after the addition of any fish so they don’t get stuck in the leaves.
Now it’s time to finish adding your paludarium plants. Most species will thrive in paludariums, but you’ll have to take note of which plant species like to have their feet wet and which ones prefer dry conditions. Some common plants include spider plants, Brazil Sword, African violets, swordplants, wisteria, and cardinal flowers.
Carnivorous plants do especially well in paludarium tank conditions as they replicate their natural environment in the swamp.
Many hobbyists use their paludariums to create an aquaponic system. For instance when growing herbs or floating plants you can leave their roots dangling in the tank and allow the fish to provide the necessary nutrients. In turn the plants will help fix the nitrogen in your aquarium.
What moss to use for paludarium
A crowd favorite for paludarium and vivarium building is moss. There are several varieties of moss that will thrive in paludarium conditions, however choosing the right kind depends on several factors. When choosing moss for your tank you should consider the following questions;
- Does it like wet or dry soil?
- What is the growth rate?
- Lighting requirements?
- Where does it like to grow?
- Will your animals eat it?
- How do I plant it?
- How to clean it?
Most moss is what we consider to be epiphytic plants. This means that it grows on vertical structures such as tank walls, rocks, and wood.
Moss will trap debris and begin looking dingy after a period of time (some will even look sad if they don’t get enough water!). Before purchasing your moss check and see if there is a way to rinse the dirt out.
Once your paludarium substrate and plants have been added, slowly increase the water to the desired level. The water level should be below the soil, but close enough that amphibians and other semi-aquatic animals can climb onto land without issue.
A good method is using semi aquatic plants as a barrier as it will help keep substrate in place while extending leaves into the water that animals can use to climb onto terrain.
While there are hundreds of paludariums to choose from, the three below have been hand-picked due to their dexterity and beginner-friendliness.
This enclosure is larger than life and has plenty of room for you to build the paludarium of your wildest dreams.
This tank is excellent and features a wide and deep design that allows a large amount of space. Arboreal species would do well in this enclosure. Vents are included to allow airing.
This enclosure is the best option for keeping aquatic and terrestrial life in the same tank. With a wide base and dual access doors, it is easy to clean your aquarium and provides plenty of natural space for your animals.
Amphibians, fish, and other aquatic animals do well in this enclosure. The aquarium portion of the tank can hold water up to 10 inches deep giving room for medium sized fish. Substrate heater can also fit underneath which is excellent for tropical animals.
This tall paludarium kit is perfect for owners that want a little water section with lots of room to put large and tall plants.
This sleek, minimalist-looking tank is a great option to start your paludarium. It includes a filtration system to keep the tank clean and wabi kusa mats to help start your plants.
Best Animals For A Paludarium
Many smaller reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates do well in paludariums. The trick is sizing your tank appropriately. Animals placed in an incorrectly sized tank are more likely to experience stress-related health issues and decreased life expectancy.
Firebelly newts and Pacific newts are both commonly sold at pet stores and have beginner friendly care requirements. They will spend their time between both sides and will eat pellets, meaty foods, and frozen food.
Many aquarium and pet stores will sell American tiger salamander larvae (often mislabeled as axolotls), they are an excellent addition if you are planning on keeping peaceful fish. Adult salamanders will spend much of their time burrowed in the moist leaves, and many hobbyists consider them shy.
When it comes to frogs there are land and arboreal species. Arboreal frogs such as tree frogs will spend all of their time perched on the walls or high plant leaves. Land frogs such as dart frogs or bullfrogs are content to stay on the ground. Many hobbyists enjoy putting tadpoles in their paludarium and watching as they change into their adult form.
Shrimp and snails are popular additions to the aquarium portion of your tank as they are easy to keep, help maintain the water quality, and are peaceful tank mates. Be aware that any shrimp you keep might become a snack for another animal.
Danios, killifishes, basis, cichlids, and rasboras all do well in the heavy plant roots hanging from above. In a shelf tank catfishes and plecos will take advantage of this extra area and will often be seen hanging upside down.
Because paludariums usually have a small amount of water I recommend looking at very small fish such as neon tetra or guppy.
What reptiles can live in a paludarium
While they can do extremely well in the planted portion of a paludarium larger species will often struggle in home enclosures due to size restraints. Snakes such as the ribbon snake or rubber boa have the potential to thrive due to them being semi-aquatic, but could take up a majority of the room.
Small lizards such as geckos, Caiman lizards, Chinese water dragons, some chameleons, and skinks would all do well in this setting.
Best Plants For a Paludarium
Below we’ve chosen our top three plants for each of the areas of your paludarium based upon their utility, ease of care, and general appearance.
- Spider Plants
Why?: Easy to care for and already a common household plant. It likes high humidity environments and is easy to propagate.
Why?: With its unique leaves it adds a splash of color. With a maximum height of 6 inches and flowers that are white and red it’s an excellent addition that will provide shade for some of your more sensitive species, but still allow you to see them.
Why?: Another common houseplant, its dark green leaves provide a vining structure that can be wrapped around tank decor. With hundreds of varieties to choose from it tolerates a variety of conditions.
Partially Submerged Plants
Why?: An excellent epiphytic plant to grow along the border of the two areas. This species will produce emerald colored leaves and has compact foliage and reaches heights of 9 to 17 inches.
- Christmas Moss
Why?: In extremely humid tanks it will grow out of the water and brighten the landscape with its bold green. It will carpet over the environment, much like terrestrial moss does.
Why?: A big leafy, shade plant that will tolerate a wide variety of conditions as well as give ample hiding spots for your animals.
- Java Fern
Why?: Java Fern is a slow growing plant that is widely used in the aquarium industry. It is easy to care for, provides excellent hiding places, and can tolerate most conditions.
Why?: Bright green coloring, fine textured leaves, and rapid growth This is a great plant for tropical tanks and will provide a thick, bushy background. It is an excellent nitrogen fixer and will help maintain water quality.
- Micro Sword
Why?: As a carpeting plant, it will fill in the bottom of your tank and provide vibrant green coloring.
Do you have to change the water in a paludarium?
Yes, due to the low water level normal filtration systems will not suffice. While there should be some natural filtration occurring from plants in order for your tank to thrive, you need to conduct 80-90% water changes weekly.
In conclusion, if you’re looking to add variety to your aquarium or a little spice to your terrarium, creating a paludarium could be exactly what you need. As with all endeavors, in order for your inhabitants to thrive, planning, designing, and building a paludarium properly will save you much time and grief in the long run.