Beginners Guide To Paludariums: Stocking, Building & More…

A paludarium is a blend between an aquarium and a terrarium.

In this tank you can keep creatures from the land and water together in perfect harmony. It can hold frogs, lizards, and other terrestrial animals in addition to fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Not only are these tanks very attractive but they can be very educational too.

A paludarium allows you to bring a piece of nature home with you, offering an opportunity to observe exotic plants and animals.

Are you ready o take on this challenge?

Read on to learn how to set up your own paludarium including stocking ideas and much more…

Waterfall in Paludarium

What is a Paludarium?

Close up Paludarium

We all know that an aquarium is an aquatic tank.

And a terrarium is a terrestrial tank.

So what is a paludarium?

A paludarium is a tank which contains both water and land. It comes from the Latin words paludal (marsh) and arium (enclosure). You may have also sometimes heard people call them an aqua terrarium.

The purpose of a paludarium is to keep terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals together. The combination of both land and water allows for a wider variety of tank set ups. This type of tank can host miniature versions of freshwater swamp environments, mangrove swamps and brackish coastlines, ephemeral pools and even tropical rainforests!

Paludariums are perfect for crabs, turtles and other critters that spend their time on both land and water.

They are usually a little larger than a fish tank – 15 to 20 gallons is the typical minimum size. They come in a variety of different shapes and sizes.

A paludarium offers a spectacular conversation piece and the perfect home for exotic pets. They provide the opportunity to observe exotic animals in a space that is as close to their natural environment as you can get.

Vivarium, Terrarium and Paludarium Explained

You may find yourself confused between paludariums, vivariums and terrariums. So what is the real difference between the three?

Paludariums are essentially an aquarium with added land. It is meant to simulate a wetland environment and may include a mix of species from all over the world.

Terrariums are a tank designed for terrestrial animals and plants. It is the kind of tank that you would keep a bearded dragon or a tortoise in.

A vivariums simply means “place of life” in latin. It simply means an enclosure where there is life inside. Both paludariums and terrariums are actually types of vivariums.

Paludarium Ideas

A 40 Gallon Paludarium

Tropical Rainforest

A tropical rainforest is the most popular type of paludarium.

Think of the Amazon River basin or a rainforest in Africa or Southeast Asia where many popular aquarium fish come from.

You can keep colorful Bromeliads and Orchids, while decorating the aquatic and semiaquatic areas with Java Moss and Anubias. Your aquatic section can keep a few Angelfish or Discus, Cardinal and Neon Tetras and Zebra or Giant Danios.

Poison Dart Frogs and Tree Frogs can inhabit the canopy of your artificial forest.

Mangrove Swamp

A mangrove swamp is a tropical brackish water environment that is around the roots of the mangrove tree. Since you cannot keep mangrove trees in a tank you will have to try something different when designing a mangrove biotope.

You can use mopani wood as a substitute.

Use Mini Orchids, Bromeliads and other flowering epiphytes to furnish your land areas. In the water you can grow Tapegrass or Lemon Bacopa and float Duckweed along the surface. Mudskippers, Mollies and Archerfish are three excellent fish to introduce to your mini mangrove swamp. Red Claw Crabs will fit in to your semi-aquatic sections too.

Brackish Coastline

Brackish environments are great for Fiddlers and other bay-dwelling crabs.

You can use sandy substrate to create a miniature beach inside your tank.

In nature these bays are usually home to seagrass beds. However, seagrass is notoriously difficult to grow in captivity. Tapegrass makes a good substitute and it can withstand higher salinities and lower temperatures. You can also include Marimo Moss and other kinds of algae.

Gobies, Blennies and other small minnows that can handle salinities between 12 and 15 dGH can be included as well.

Turtle Habitat

Turtles have very specific tank conditions so this is one of the more difficult tank setups to do.

It is also one of the few setups where it is better not to include fish or invertebrates. Omnivorous turtles are likely to snack on these. The design of your turtle habitat largely depends on what kind of turtle you keep.

You should furnish the terrestrial area with moist potting soil or another type of substrate with fine grains.

Include rocks or logs for your turtle to bask on.

Use creeping vines, Bracken Fern and Liverworts in your land and semi-aquatic sections. Your aquatic section can feature Moneywort vines, Waterweeds and Bladderworts.

Types of Plants for Paludariums

Paludarium with Plants

When it comes to picking out plants for your paludarium, you do not need to limit yourself to what grows underwater.

You can keep terrestrial plants, aquatic plants, semi-aquatic plants and even epiphytes in these enclosures.

  • Terrestrial Plants: These are your typical land plants that grow in soil. You can grow them from seeds in the tank itself, or grow them in pots before transporting them to your tank. Common terrestrial plants for a paludarium include Ivy and Fig vines, mini Ficus plants and Bracken ferns.
  • Aquatic Plants: Tapegrass, Bacopa, Anacharis and Rotala are all popular aquatic plants. These plants can grow submerged or floating along the surface of the water.
  • Semi-Aquatic Plants: These plants can grow either submerged or partially submerged and are good for decorating the shallow pools and swampy areas in your tank. You may be surprised to learn that many of your favorite aquarium plants are actually semi-aquatic. These include Anubias, Crypts and many aquarium mosses.
  • Epiphytes: Bromeliads are one of the most famous epiphytes, along with several species of moss and small ferns. These plants do not need soil to grow. Instead they grow attached or anchored to rocks and logs.

Now that you know all of the different types of plants to choose from, let’s take a look at some of the factors involved in picking out the perfect plants.

Light is the most important factor to consider.

Some plants can only grow in very specific light intensities and you will need to consider this when setting up your land and aquascape. Canopy plants for instance will need a higher light intensity than low-lying shrubs and mosses.

You will also need to consider the temperature. Many plants need very specific temperatures to grow and you do not want to place a tropical plant in a temperate tank.

Moisture is another major factor. Every plant’s tolerance for dryness and moisture is different and upland plants usually grow in drier environments than those found on the forest floor.

Finally, there is the matter of compatibility with your animals. Animals that graze on plants can make it very difficult to keep a fully planted tank.

Types of Animals for Paludariums

Red Claw Crab

In a natural wetland both land and water animals can live together.

Your job when stocking your paludarium is to make sure you pick animals that will not harm each another.

A paludarium gives you the opportunity to keep animals that would not fit into a standard aquarium, such as Mudskippers and frogs.

Crabs are among the best animals that you can keep in this tank. Just remember that crabs are often aggressive to each another and to other invertebrates, so keep compatibility in mind unless your crab is the only critter in the tank.

You can also keep a few of your favorite shrimp here too, such as Cherry, Bee and Amano Shrimp.

Frogs are another one of the most common animals to keep in this tank, particularly Poison Dart Frogs. Tree Frogs are another spectacular type of frog that you can keep in a paludarium. These tiny frogs do not disturb fish and tend to remain in the upper levels of the tank.

Salamanders are slimy amphibians that look like small lizards. They are generally very peaceful and spend most of their time hiding under rocks and logs. The Axolotl is the most well-known species of captive salamander, but this is certainly not a beginner friendly pet. Other popular species include the Tiger Salamander and Fire Salamander. For an alternative to the salamander you could try a newt. These tiny lizard like amphibians are a little more friendly to beginners.

The most popular paludarium reptile is the turtle but you will need an especially large tank to keep one. Most turtles are not safe to keep with fish or invertebrates too. Box Turtles, Red Eared Sliders and Painted Turtles are among the most popular species to keep.

Small lizards can live in the terrestrial uplands of your paludarium. Skinks and geckos are among the most popular but you can even keep a chameleon in a larger tank.

As for fish the possibilities are almost endless.

Danios, Gouramis, Tetras and Rasboras can all live in the aquatic sections of your tank. You can keep a few colorful Killifish in the smaller pools of water, which mimic the ephemeral pools where the fish occur in nature.

In a brackish tank you can keep a few Mollies, Gobies and Archerfish. Mudskippers are a semiaquatic fish that can live in both the land and the water in a mangrove swamp biotope too.

Moss In Paludariums

How To Build A Paludarium

Before you start building a paludarium you will need to plan your build.

The first thing to consider is your budget.

While certain setups will always be more expensive than others, there are many low budget options available.

Remember that in addition to your tank you will also have to purchase heaters, filters, lighting systems, and other equipment. Then, of course, there are the care expenses of the animals and plants.

Another thing to consider is the size of your setup and how much space it will take up. What room are you planning to keep your tank in? Make careful measurements of the space you have created and find a tank with the right dimensions to fit into that space.

You will also need to think about the required tank size for the animals and plants that you want to keep. Turtles and snakes will need a much larger tank than a few crabs or small lizards.

Finally, consider your own skill level and your ability to care for each and every critter in the tank. Not all fish, amphibians, or reptiles are beginner friendly.

Land Section

Once you have planned your paludarium you can start by setting up the terrestrial sections first.

Use a plexiglass divider to separate the land and water sections – this way you will be able to work on each section on its own.

Measure the dimensions of your land section and determine the elevation. Tall canopy plants and animals that need to stay dry will need access to higher ground.

Now you can layer the substrate based on natural soil stratification, with the finest grains going down first. After you set your substrate you can place any decorations you like. Rocks, logs, bogwood, and flowerpots make great decorations and shelters for your terrestrial animals.

Your land section should also have a natural transition zone where it meets the water. This area is the lowest and the most moist area and can be populated by mosses and other semi-aquatic plants.

Substrate And Plants

The type of substrate you use depends on your chosen environment and the natural tolerances of your plants and animals.

You can use soil, gravel, sand, or mud.

Fine grains should be the bottom-most layer, followed by medium sized gravel, pebbles, and finally large cobbles. Your topsoil layer should be dry soil.

Some plants and animals do not need a stratified substrate and will do just fine with a uniform substrate type.

Your aquatic section and your land section should use two different kinds of substrate. For example the bottom of your water level can be made of sand, while your land section is made up of soil.

Separating your plants into different growth zones will help you to determine how to layer them. The canopy includes your tallest plants that reach most of the light.

The understory is the middle level beneath the canopy, which includes low-growing shrubs and ferns. Beneath that is the forest floor populated by mosses and liverworts.

Most tank plants are grown as starters in small pots which you can plant and cultivate. However you can choose to plant from seeds instead though your plants will take much longer to grow this way.

Water Section

Setting up the water sections of your paludarium is just like setting up an aquarium.

You will need to place place your substrate first and partially fill the bottom with dechlorinated water. At this point you should only fill with enough water to submerge your substrate.

Now the substrate will have to settle (this can take up to 3 days). Feel free to work on your land sections while you wait.

Once the substrate has fully settled you can add the rest of the water, set up your filter, heater, and any other equipment you have. Once all the equipment is added you can start the tank cycling process.

After 2 weeks the cycling should be complete and you can check your water parameters to make sure they are acceptable to your critters and plants.

Once your tank is fully cycled you can add your fish and invertebrates.

Waterfall Setup (Optional)

A waterfall can really draw attention to your paludarium.

Not only does a waterfall look beautiful but it also creates currents and oxygenates the water.

A beautiful waterfall is not too difficult to set up.

First you will need to set up some rocks and wood in a vertical formation that allows the water to flow down over them. Position your filter inlet at the top of these rocks and logs, so that the water will trickle down. This works best with external filters.

When you turn the filter on the water pumped into the tank will create a cascade as it flows over the rocks and logs.

Acclimating Your Animals

It will take a bit of time for your animals to adjust to their paludarium.

Before you add them to your tank you should quarantine them for 2 weeks to rule out any infections or parasites that may spread to the others in the tank.

Use the bag method to acclimate your fish.

Float your fish in a small plastic bag over the surface of your tank and gradually let the water from the tank to flow inside. After about an hour of acclimation you can safely place the fish in the tank.

Invertebrates like snails and crabs can use the drip method.

Place the invertebrate in a container and use a hose to siphon water from your tank to the container. Continue dripping water until the animal is completely submerged, then watch closely for any adverse reactions. Place the critter in your tank once you are sure they have adjusted to their new water.

Terrestrial animals like frogs will need to adjust to your tank’s temperature, air quality and humidity.

Leave your pet in their container from the pet store when you introduce them to your tank. Turn off any lighting systems and open the container and wait for the animal to venture out. Give it up to an hour to get to know their new environment before you turn on the lights.

Wrapping Up

No matter your budget or your skill level there is so much that you can do with a paludarium.

Many of the most interesting exotic pets can live in this sensational setup. The miniature replica of their natural environment allows you to get a glimpse of how they live and behave in the wild.

Herp lovers can create the most realistic replica of their pet’s natural habitat, while aquascapers can design the perfect underwater habitat for their favorite fish.

No matter what your interests are a paludarium is worth keeping.

What kind of paludarium do you want to keep? Let us know in the comments section below…

David Thomas Author Bio Picture
David Thomas leads the team at Everything Fishkeeping as the Editor-in-Chief. David has been keeping fish since he was a child. In his first tank he kept goldfish and since then he has kept over 30 different species. Now he has 4 separate tanks and his favorite is a 100 gallon freshwater tank with a school of Rasboras, Tetras and Loaches.

1 Comment

  1. I have a rough green snake. Im hoping a small pond like area with tall branchy areas with moss and fens will keep the humidity up. I love fish so I might try to put some in as the rough green snake prefers insects. I plan on some floating water plants like duck weed will hide the fish if the snake gets interested.

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