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Building Your Own Aqua-Terrarium

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In the 13+ years that I have been in the fish keeping hobby, I have shared an equal love for reptiles and amphibians. Throughout the years, I have kept a variety of fish, as well as various turtles, snakes, salamanders and other lizards, as well as frogs. With my years of experience with these wonderful and interesting creatures, it never occurred to me that I could have the best of both worlds, and merge the hobbies together. It wasn't until I saw the Viquarium in a box that I even thought of such a concept. In time, the River Tank kit also emerged on store shelves, and I even invested in a ten gallon River Tank myself. Of course it was far too small for what I wanted to live happily within it, but with inexperience comes trial and error, which results in education.

A few months ago at a local shop, I came across a 55 gallon Viquarium. It was beautiful. It had a natural decor complete with driftwood, live plants, assorted baby turtles (for display only), and a few small lizards and fish. It even had a waterfall. The only flaw was that it missed the point. These kits are designed to simulate a "natural" environment or miniature ecosystem for reptiles, amphibians, and fish. But with all the beauty of the red and brown wood, combined with the various shades of green plants, the thing that stood out the most was the dull grey piece of plastic which took up one corner of the tank, and ran through the middle, lengthwise until it ended abruptly where the water for the fish began. It was expensive too! For $60+ you could get a cardboard box, a few pieces of plastic, and an air pump. It was at this moment that I decided to create my own aqua-terrarium.

Fortunately, a few weeks prior to this experience, I relocated one of my pythons to a new home, which freed up a 30 gallon aquarium for my choice of use. Because I previously had a snake in it, I already had the tank and a screen top complete with locks. It was also just my luck that a local shop was having an annual 50% off sale for selected members. At this sale, I purchased a 25W submersible heater, a Fluval 2 internal filter, a tube of aquarium sealant, a few bags of natural gravel, some driftwood and lava rocks, and a bag of Fluorite. I ordered the Lizard Litter, moss, a temperature/humidity gauge, and the food dish from The plants and other rocks were either bought at other pet shops, or pruned from my 55 gallon plant tank.

It is important to note that I intended to have a "natural" set-up, and in doing so, I planned on separating the land from water by use of large rocks acting as a dam. Every experience is often a learning experience, and this was no exception. Within a week, I had to tear it back down because the water had saturated the soil to the point of making a mush which quickly grew mold. So, I decided to invest in a piece of glass to divide the land from the water. I measured the dimensions in terms of length and height, and went to the hardware store. The glass was inexpensive and so I bought three pieces of slightly different dimensions, just in case. After removing the entire contents of the 30 gallon, and blow drying it dry, I used the aquarium silicone to seal in the piece of glass. I then replaced all the contents of the previous set up and refilled the tank. As luck would have it, there was at least one leak in the seal I had created. It wasn't enough to flood the land side completely, but it was a bit too much and a few terrarium plants died as a result. The leak also meant that I had to add water to the land side every couple of days.

By this time, it was a full set up, complete with plants (both aquatic and terrarium), driftwood, rocks, soil, moss, a few fish, and 3 Gecko's (lizards). I thought it would be good enough to satisfy me. But I was wrong. The excess water on the land side drowned the moss, turning it to an ugly brown. The land side always had that "wet" look, which again started to grow mold. I knew I would again have to tear it all down and reapply silicone to the seal in hopes it would this time hold. Fortunately, while discussing this growing dilemma with a friend at a local fish store, he turned me on to a product called HoldFast by Aquarium Systems. This was an epoxy that (unlike aquarium silicone), was non-toxic to fish, began to dry in seven minutes, and completely dried within hours. Not only that, but you could use it underwater! This meant that I did not have to pull everything out of the tank (as I did too many times before). It did cost about $2 more than the silicone, but it turned out to be more than worth it. Once home from the store, I quickly placed a layer of this epoxy directly over the dried silicone on the water side. The silicone was strong enough to hold the glass in place, so I did not feel the need to epoxy both sides of the glass. My Aqua-Terrarium was finally complete!

Here is a brief, but entire description of the set-up as it appears currently: The tank is a 30 Gallon on Long aquarium. The glass partition is located just over half the length of the tank, and is sealed in directly across, so as to allow slightly more land than water. The land side consists of a layer of large natural gravel, about 5 inches deep. There is about 5 inches of Jungle Mix Lizard Litter. On top of that lies a 1 inch thick covering of sphagnum moss (also called shag moss). There is a large piece of driftwood which rises from the soil and has a stem leaning over the water, as well as one which is almost vertical. There are a few lava rocks in a neat pile towards the rear center of the land portion, as well as a piece of petrified wood in the rear on the left. In the front left is a shallow food dish for the Gecko's. The plants consist of an amazon sword which I took from my other aquarium, cut it down to about 2 inches, and it is now doing well, with about 8 leaves measuring 6 inches in height. There are also some plants which were sold as "bog plants" and bunched together, so I don't know their names.

The Water portion of the tank consists of a 3 inch thick layer of fine, natural colored gravel and Flourite. The Flourite makes up about 60% of the mix. There are two pieces of shale which cover the glass divider almost completely. There is a 25 watt heater in the rear of the tank, towards the glass divider. There is a large, thin piece of wood which rises from the water and rests on the land side, so as to allow the geckos access to the water (they can also stick to the glass). The Fluval 2 filter lies horizontal against the right side of the tank, but pushed to the back of the tank with the spout towards the rear of the tank. To cover up the filter, there is a large piece of wood, which stands on top of the filter and rests on the other piece of wood. The plants consist of 2 anubias nana (small), a bunch of Cryptocoryne wendtii (green and red mix), four green Sandy's, and a couple of small Java fern, anchored to the wood as well as to the gravel. The fish used to consist of a pair of Kribs, a Pearl Gourami, a Blue Finned Colombian Tetra and a Black Phantom Tetra, but the Kribs decided to spawn, and they became quite territorial, severely abusing the other fish, until I relocated them to another tank. Lighting consists of a double strip light with 2x15 watt triton bulbs. The tank sits on a cabinet stand, which conceals cleaning supplies, food, and books on gecko's and fish. I clean the gravel the same as in a regular aquarium. I recently added a black background, which makes the plants, fish, and set-up in general look more brilliant.

As far as setting one up on your own, you can see the equipment and method(s) I used. Most aquarists have a spare tank or two lying around, and various rocks, gravel and other equipment, which makes this project even cheaper. You could build a stand, or place the tank on a piece of sturdy furniture. For DIY info on stands, tanks, and other misc. projects, go to As far as decorations go, you can use wood and rocks found around the home, so long as they are properly sterilized and you have made sure they don't leach contaminants. A waterfall can be created by siliconing (or using epoxy), pieces of rock together and attaching tubing from it to the internal filter. As for inhabitants, think in the same way you would go about stocking an aquarium. Note size attained, and feeding habits. A Gecko could easily make a meal out of a Krib, but if he is well fed on meal worms or crickets, he most likely will never try to go for the fish. If you want creatures that will make use of the entire tank, Newts, and frogs as well as small turtles (though not in a 30G), would be good options. The possibilities are endless!

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