You might’ve seen the words “terrarium” and “vivarium” used interchangeably. But technically speaking, they aren’t the same. Knowing the difference is very important before buying the right enclosure for you.
Buying a terrarium instead of a vivarium, and vice-versa, can throw your entire setup out of whack, and your pets or plants will suffer the consequences.
So, how do these two differ, and when should you choose one over the other? Keep reading to find out!
Quick Comparison: Vivarium versus Terrarium
|Definition||An enclosed space for keeping living animals and plants, designed to simulate their natural habitat||A container or enclosure for keeping plants and small critters, typically made of glass or plastic|
|Size||Usually larger than terrariums, as they are designed to simulate a more natural habitat||Can be smaller, as they are often used for keeping plants and tiny animals|
|Lighting||May require more complex lighting systems, as vivariums aim to mimic natural sunlight and climate||Lighting is often simpler, as terrariums may not require as much artificial light or UV radiation|
|Humidity||May require more specific humidity levels, as vivariums aim to replicate a natural ecosystem||May require no specific humidity levels, as they are often used for plants or critters that thrive in a wide range of humidity|
|Materials||May use a wider variety of natural materials, such as soil, rocks, and live plants||May use fewer natural materials such as soil, sand, and wood sticks due to their smaller size|
|Animals||Often used for larger or more complex animals that require a more natural habitat, such as reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates||Often used for smaller animals, such as insects, invertebrates, and small reptiles|
What is a Vivarium?
The word “vivarium” derives from the Latin “vivere,” which means “to live,” and the suffix “-arium,” meaning “container.” In the broadest sense, a vivarium is an enclosure meant for keeping live animals, typically reptiles, fish, insects, and so on.
Vivariums (or “vivaria,” if you want to be fancy) are specially designed to accommodate the living requirements of a given animal species.
In that sense, the total size, dimensions, build, equipment, and interior décor of the enclosure all come together to simulate a given set of environmental conditions in which an animal thrives.
We can separate vivaria into many subcategories based on the types of animals they accommodate. For example, a vivarium meant for fish is also known as an “aquarium.”
On the same note, we also have vivaria for reptiles (herpetarium), insects (insectarium), and semi-aquatic animals (riparium), among others.
As you can see, “vivarium” is a general term that includes many types of animal enclosures. But, for the most part, people only use the word to refer to reptile enclosures.
Keeping this in mind, when people think of a vivarium, they typically imagine a roomy enclosure with a clear front wall, built-in ventilation, a front opening for easy access, and obscured sides to keep the animal feeling safe and comfortable.
This type of vivarium (the herpetarium) looks and functions very differently from other types like aquariums or insectariums.
But for this article, know that I’ll use the word “vivarium” to refer to reptile-only enclosures. So, let’s learn more about reptile vivariums!
Types of Vivariums
Reptile vivariums generally have the same build I’ve already mentioned. They should have small holes on the front or sides to allow proper ventilation. The sides are obscured to create a safe ambiance for the animal.
Finally, the enclosure has a low front door for easy access during maintenance and feeding.
All that being said, vivariums can come in different materials, all of which have some pros and cons.
While they look the same, different vivariums accomplish different things and are best suited for different reptile species. Here are the main types:
These vivariums come in smaller standard sizes and are basically repurposed aquariums. New models come with built-in ventilation and front doors, making them suitable for keeping reptiles.
However, not all models have obscured sides, so glass vivariums might require some DIY modifications.
One advantage of glass is excellent humidity retention. These vivariums are also quite cheap. On the other hand, glass has poor temperature retention and is very heavy and fragile.
Plastic enclosures can be made of PVC, acrylic, ABS, or other materials. These enclosures are lightweight, durable, and shock-resistant, providing excellent heat and humidity retention.
The biggest downsides to plastic have to do with aesthetics. Plastic scratches easily, and it will eventually get stained.
These are very cheap and are best suited for animals with low-humidity needs. A mesh screen vivarium is obviously the best if you’re looking for excellent ventilation.
On the other hand, these enclosures don’t hold heat or humidity. The mesh obscures the view, and the metallic corner posts keeping the cage together are prone to rust.
Wood vivariums used to be all the rage a few decades back. They look natural and are quite affordable. However, they’re best suited for animals with low humidity and moderate temperature requirements.
Wood soaks up moisture like a sponge, which makes such enclosures prone to mold.
Even treated wood can get warped or bumpy due to high moisture levels. Wood is also porous, so it traps dirt and is hard to sanitize.
And let’s not forget that wood is one of the most flammable materials— not a good match for extreme temperatures like those in a basking spot.
Saving the best for last, here we got high-density polyethylene (HDPE). This is another type of plastic, but it deserves its own category. Compared to other plastics and glass, HDPE has all the benefits and none of the downsides.
This material is lightweight and has excellent heat and humidity retention. It’s also durable, shock-proof, and impact, scratch, and chemical-resistant.
However, the superior quality comes with a considerable price tag— roughly double the price of high-quality PVC enclosures.
Benefits of a Vivarium
Vivariums are designed to promote optimal environmental conditions for reptiles.
Generally, this means they allow for the addition of equipment like heat lamps, thermometers, etc. Vivariums also come in various sizes and dimensions to accommodate even the larger reptile species.
The variety of materials and builds make vivariums highly versatile. The typical PVC vivarium, for example, is excellent for keeping tropical reptile species. This build perfectly simulates high temperature and humidity conditions while providing suitable ventilation.
On the other hand, wooden vivariums are best suited for desert species that tolerate lower humidity levels.
Speaking of versatility, vivariums also allow the inclusion of other natural elements, such as live plants. Plenty of plant species thrive in the hot and humid conditions needed for reptiles.
And, of course, let’s not forget about the convenience. Vivariums have built-in doors at the bottom front of the enclosure.
This gives you easy access for cleaning and feeding your pet without disturbing or startling it.
The front opening is very important, as most reptiles dislike being approached from above. They perceive this as a threat.
What is a Terrarium?
The word “terrarium” is derived from the Latin word “terra,” meaning “earth.” Simply put, a terrarium is an enclosure designed for keeping live plants (and sometimes small insects).
Unlike a vivarium, a terrarium is a self-sustained enclosure, so there’s no need for additional equipment like heaters or artificial lights.
Also, unlike a vivarium, a terrarium is typically a completely transparent glass container with just one opening, typically at the top. Since a terrarium is only meant for live plants and microorganisms, space is not a constraint. Terrariums can come in all shapes and sizes, from a plain jar to a large box.
Terrariums are virtually identical to aquariums in build, so many people typically repurpose aquariums to grow plants.
Types of Terrariums
Terrariums serve mainly as a container for soil and plants and don’t need to fulfill other functions like a vivarium.
Considering this, terrariums can be made of any transparent material. But since most terrariums are repurposed aquariums, they’re typically made of either glass or plastics.
The material doesn’t matter that much. When it comes to terrariums, we separate them based on their build.
Keeping this in mind, we have:
These terrariums are sealed with a top lid or door. The closing plays an important role in trapping humidity in the container.
The fully sealed container also filters the sun’s rays, so the plants won’t be exposed to direct sunlight.
Closed terrariums are best suited for plants that thrive in high-moisture environments.
Basically, these are the opposite of a closed terrarium. These enclosures have a free opening, typically at the top. This allows for good air passage and direct light exposure, creating a suitable environment for plants with low humidity requirements.
Benefits of a Terrarium
Terrariums make beautiful decorative elements in a home. They come in various shapes and sizes, and you can even make one yourself out of an old aquarium or glass bowl. Terrariums are fully transparent, allowing for good light exposure and easy viewing.
They’re quite easy to modify to suit different plant species. In theory, any closed terrarium can be transformed into an open one by removing the lid or door at the top.
While a vivarium can also hold plants, the reverse may not be true. A terrarium is generally not a good choice for keeping reptiles.
That’s because of the enclosure build. Due to being fully transparent and opening at the top, terrariums could cause stress for reptiles. Terrariums might also make it harder to maintain optimal enclosure temperature and humidity.
However, an acrylic terrarium can trap heat and moisture very well. Using a mesh top lid could also provide some ventilation for the reptiles.
Comparison of Vivarium and Terrarium
Now that we’ve got a general overview of the two enclosures, let’s recap.
Here are the main differences and the best uses for each:
Vivariums are made from various materials, including glass, plastics, mesh, and wood. But glass and plastic are the most common and versatile.
Beyond the material, vivariums are specially designed with reptile welfare in mind.
These enclosures have obscured walls and just one clear front wall. The front wall also includes small vents and an opening for easy access into the enclosure.
A vivarium can come in various sizes and dimensions. However, they’re all large enough to allow for additional equipment like heating lamps, artificial lights, thermometers, etc.
Terrariums are fully transparent and made of either glass or plastic. They have a top opening that may or may not be sealed to preserve humidity. Most terrariums are smaller than vivariums.
They lack the vents and obscured sides needed in a reptile enclosure. Terrariums made from aquariums can be modified to keep reptiles by covering the sides and using a mesh top for ventilation.
Vivariums and terrariums fulfill different environmental requirements, but there is some overlap. Depending on their material, vivariums can simulate different environments and climates. The right vivarium depends on the reptile species in question.
For example, if you wanted to keep a crested gecko, you’d need a vivarium that can maintain high temperatures and humidity. In that case, a plastic or glass vivarium would be ideal.
If you plan to keep a hognose snake, on the other hand, you may also opt for a wooden vivarium, which provides high temperatures and low humidity.
Since vivariums only have one clear wall, they don’t allow much visible light to pass through. Thus, vivariums typically require a lamp to simulate the reptile’s natural day-night cycle.
But that’s not all. Vivariums require quite a bit of equipment and more maintenance work to run.
Reptiles are very sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations. You must create a heat gradient to help the reptile regulate its body temperature. You’ll also have to mist the enclosure regularly, especially while the reptile is shedding its skin.
Terrariums are more forgiving and straightforward. You don’t need a heater, thermometer, or artificial light.
Terrariums are almost entirely self-sustaining. Most plants thrive with moderate to bright indirect light, so keeping the enclosure near a window is enough.
For the most part, the temperature is a non-issue. Most plant species do just fine at room temperature year-round. The only thing that matters in a terrarium is the humidity. Some plants require more, while some need less to avoid root rot.
High-humidity plants thrive in a closed terrarium, while low-humidity ones are best suited for an open terrarium.
Maintenance includes watering and misting the plants on a regular schedule.
Plants take center stage in a terrarium. These enclosures are specially set up to accommodate various species, thanks to the manageable humidity, neutral temperatures, and moderate indirect light exposure.
Depending on the terrarium size and type (open or closed), you can keep virtually any plant or combination of plants in there. Closed terrariums are humid and receive only indirect light exposure, for example.
This makes them suitable for growing moss, baby tears, peperomias, nerve plants, ferns, pothos, begonias, orchids, and even carnivorous plants!
Open terrariums don’t keep humidity well and may provide direct sunlight exposure, depending on the terrarium’s placement (e.g., near an open window).
These terrarium setups are best suited for hardier species like air plants, snake plants, button ferns, jade plants, aloe, cacti, and other succulents.
Then, there are vivariums. These enclosures may sometimes contain live plants, but the reptile is the most important element. The environmental parameters in the vivarium, plus the presence of a live animal, impose some restrictions on what plants you can keep in a vivarium.
For the most part, vivariums must sustain high temperatures, roughly 70-85°F. The basking spot might reach temperatures as high as 95-100°F!
Then, vivariums often include bright artificial lights to simulate the reptile’s natural sleep-and-wake cycle. Right off the bat, that means vivariums can only accommodate plants with high heat and bright light tolerance.
Then, we must narrow the list further down to reptile-safe plants only. That’s because many plants can be toxic for pets if ingested, especially if they contain a high amount of oxalic acid.
Finally, the plants you choose must tolerate the humidity range in a given vivarium. This can range from roughly 30-80%, depending on the reptile species in question.
Keeping all these requirements in mind, some of the best vivarium plants include
Boston ferns, sphagnum moss, inch plants, snake plants, spider plants, succulents, pothos, bromeliads, echeveria, palms, and ficus.
The two simulate distinct environments, so they’ll end up looking quite different. A terrarium is a self-sustained, all-natural enclosure.
It contains a combination of soil, various plants, pebbles, stylized rocks, and sometimes other natural ornaments like driftwood. Overall, a terrarium looks like a small garden or lush forest.
A vivarium emulates a reptile’s natural environment. Depending on the species, the enclosure might look like a little desert, a tropical forest, or a collection of rocky outcrops. Vivariums make use of more decorative elements, both natural and artificial.
Many enclosures include hideouts, artificial vines, climbing ledges, small ponds, and more. Vivariums use inert sandy substrates more often, especially if there are no live plants.
If live plants are present, they’re typically oriented strategically based on their size and light tolerance, with tall plants in the back and carpeting plants in the front.
There’s no shortage of animals you can keep in a vivarium. Provided the enclosure meets the right size, temperature, and humidity requirements, you can use them for snakes, geckos, iguanas, chameleons, skinks, newts, and turtles— you get the point.
Terrariums, on the other hand, are typically unsuitable for keeping pets. The lack of heating and ventilation translates into unstable parameters.
The enclosure construction itself is also not suited for reptiles. The fully transparent walls would let the pet exposed to perceived threats in the environment, causing unnecessary stress.
But some animals can still live in closed terrariums. In fact, some people add various invertebrates to complete the closed ecosystem.
You may add small invertebrates like isopods, springtails, earthworms, spiders, leaf insects, or snails if you want.
By the way, people also add small invertebrates like isopods and springtails in planted reptile vivariums.
These tiny insects act like a cleanup crew, transforming the vivarium into a bioactive enclosure.
At first glance, terrariums and vivariums might seem like the same thing. But they differ significantly in purpose, construction, setup, and compatible inhabitants.
Terrariums are meant for keeping plants (and sometimes insects). On the other hand, vivariums can keep various animals and a few hardy plant species.
In this sense, vivariums are more versatile. If you want to keep both reptiles and plants, this would be your best choice.
If you’re only interested in plants and want to pick from as many species as possible, a terrarium would be a better fit and more aesthetically pleasing.