Optimal Reptile Enclosures

Some of REPTILES’ most popular articles have been those that instruct readers and provide tips for setting up attractive naturalistic vivariums. You know the type: They are often planted with live plants; they contain attractive wood features, such as bark and branches; there may even be a water feature in the form of a small waterfall or a pool. Vivariums such as these are little slices of nature, a mini-biotope in your living room that may be the closest thing to nature your captive reptiles will ever experience, especially if they were born in captivity.

There’s no denying the eye-catching appeal a well-maintained naturalistic vivarium can provide.



There’s no denying the eye-catching appeal a well-maintained naturalistic vivarium can provide. Of crucial importance is ensuring that your setup matches the animal you put in it. I can recall with horror instances when I learned about, for instance, a lush, tropical vivarium that housed bearded dragons or a desert-oriented enclosure containing green iguanas. The intent of the owners of these animals may have been good, though it was misguided and by not doing their research beforehand they took some serious missteps. And who pays the price? The animals, of course. That’s why research about the reptiles and amphibians you want to keep as pets is very important before you actually bring them home.

I have kept both naturalistic enclosures and more basic ones. The absolute most basic enclosure I ever had was a tank of water that contained a common snapping turtle. That is everything that was in it: water and a snapping turtle. There was no land area, no décor of any kind, and no substrate on the bottom. It was a simple functional aquarium, and it was very easy to clean. The turtle did fine in it, too, so it met all of my snapping turtle-keeping goals.

One of my fancier enclosures was a 65-gallon woodland-style vivarium, with a small waterfall and a pool, live plants, a soil substrate and other naturalistic features. I set it up in the dining room where others could enjoy it, and visitors to the house always took some time to see what the occupants were up to. The focus was on amphibians, with a few different species of frogs, newts and salamanders. The sole reptile denizen was a single Asian water dragon that immediately proclaimed himself King of the Vivarium. He could always be found perched on the uppermost branch right in the middle of the enclosure, looking down, perhaps with some disdain, upon the lesser-evolved citizens crawling around below (I’m sure they were lesser-evolved in his mind – they were crawling around in the dirt, after all).

It was with this nifty and appealing setup that I learned another harsh lesson the hard way. This one being to always ensure easy entrance and exit to a pool of water, especially if there is any depth to it. I neglected to take this into account, and a healthy pair of emperor newts paid the price for my ignorance. I found them dead in the water one evening. They entered the pool, couldn’t crawl back out, and drowned. Those emperors were so personable, not to mention beautiful, due to their orange and black coloration. When I walked up to the front of the enclosure they would see me and emerge from beneath the bark slab where they lived, curious to see if I was bringing food. They were really cool, and I still get mad at myself when I think about what happened to them.

I also had a tiger salamander in that enclosure. He was fat and healthy. His specialty was pawing at the front of the enclosure, smearing mud all over the lower few inches of the glass front. He would crawl upon the soil substrate, and that combined with the moisture inherent in the enclosure resulted in a smeary bottom few inches to the front glass pane after he was done pawing at it. That used to drive me crazy, and I was forever trying to keep it clean and pristine.

Most of my other enclosures have been, in regard to mimicking nature, somewhere in between my sparse snapper tank and the vivarium described above, probably leaning a bit more toward the less-than-fancy. My snake cages were always very basic, with newspaper or carpeting in the bottom, a water bowl and a hide box. Sometimes I would include a thick branch for them to crawl upon. Snakes tend to trash their enclosures, especially if they’re set up with fragile items, such as plants and whatnot.

I did have one other more naturalistic enclosure, though it wasn’t terribly complicated and was very low maintenance. It was a desert vivarium for bearded dragons. It had a sand substrate and an assortment of attractive rocks, with some climbing branches. It served its purpose well, and the dragons seemed to like it. My parents used to love watching my bearded dragons. Over the years when I was growing up they were always quite tolerant of my penchant for keeping herps. Mom never was a big snake fan, like many moms. I probably helped shape that reaction to snakes, because she occasionally found herself confronted with escaped garter snakes when we lived in New Jersey, and no sooner had we moved to California when a wild-caught gopher snake disappeared into the family room sofa. But she loved the bearded dragons, and both she and my dad enjoyed watching the dragon feeding frenzy whenever I would drop a handful of crickets into their enclosure.

Do reptiles in naturalistic enclosures live longer than those kept in more basic setups? There have not been any studies to determine the answer that I know of. I know animals in both types can live quite long. It’s not always practical to keep herps in naturalistic setups, especially if you’re a large-scale breeder using rack systems. I imagine animals in more natural-looking vivariums probably enjoy some psychological benefits because while the captive environment may not exactly reproduce their original habitat, it comes closer than a more basic setup. This likely goes double for wild-caught animals.

The important thing to remember when setting up any reptile enclosure is to ensure that it’s safe (e.g., easy in/out of water pools) and meets the occupants’ needs in terms of temperature, lighting, humidity, etc. Hiding places are extremely important, whether they are provided by a pretty piece of bark and plants, or a Rubbermaid container turned upside down and with a hole cut in its side. Ease of cleaning is pretty important, too. If cleaning the enclosure is a huge chore, you may get tired of it and end up neglecting the enclosure, to the eventual detriment of your reptiles’ health. Luckily, it is possible to set up naturalistic enclosures that are in many ways self-sustaining, and while spot-cleaning will always be necessary, total breakdown of the setup is not.


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