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Vivarium, Terrarium or Aquarium; What's the difference?

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 1 Jun 2018 | comments*Discuss
Vivarium Terrarium Aquarium Pets Exotic

Anyone interested in exotic animals is familiar with the words vivarium, terrarium and aquarium; they feature so frequently in any talk about keeping unusual pets that the differences between them can often almost fail to register.

There's even an ongoing debate over the correct plurals, with the battle lines clearly drawn between those who stick to the Latin - as in aquaria - and those who believe that the whole thing should be brought up to date, seeing nothing wrong with "aquariums".

Whichever side of this particular debate you choose to stand, the fact is that although vivarium, terrarium and aquarium are often used, if not quite interchangeably then at least fairly loosely. So what is the difference - and does it really matter?

The Aquarium

The aquarium is undoubtedly the easiest and certainly the most well known amongst pet keepers and the general public alike - the ubiquitous "fish-tank" being a familiar household item for generations, although they have changed over the years. Gradually evolving alongside improvements in technology, glass panes held with special putty in metal frames gave way first to plastic frames and then the beautiful all glass, silicone-sealed tanks available today. These - along with the typically smaller, all-plastic moulded tanks - are unbeatable as homes for the wide range of water-living species in today's pet shops.

The Terrarium

However, when is an aquarium, not an aquarium? With many an "aquarium" tank having been put into use to house non-aquatic pets - especially in the early days of reptile keeping where specialist equipment was not available - there's an obvious source of confusion and the answer is, of course, when it's a terrarium!

Interestingly, although today the word "terrarium" is widely understood to describe a home for terrestrial animals rather than plants, this use is a fairly modern one. The first terrarium was invented back in 1827 by Nathaniel Ward, a London doctor and amateur botanist, to house his fern collection safely away from the growing levels of pollution being generated by the local industries of the day. His work led to the development of "Wardian Cases" which were used in large numbers by explorers to contain the exotic plants they had collected on the voyage back to Britain.

For pets such as land crabs, many newts and various kinds of frogs which need access to areas of both land and water, a hybrid form of tank exists - the aqua-terrarium. The derivation of this composite word is blindingly obvious!

So What's a Vivarium?

Any container which makes a home for your pet is a vivarium - from the Latin "vivere", to live - which means that technically you could possibly even argue that a rabbit hutch qualifies, though it's not something you're ever likely to hear being said! From this it's pretty clear that every aquarium - as well as every terrarium and aqua-terrarium - is a vivarium, but not every vivarium is an aquarium.

The term can be particularly useful to draw a distinction between when you are speaking generally about all kinds of exotic animals as "vivarium pets" rather than making a more specific point about either aquatic or terrestrial ones.

Does It Matter?

Today there is such a wonderful array of tanks and vivaria (or vivariums, if you prefer) gracing the average exotic pet shop that it's hard to imagine the time when the only choice you had was how big an "aquarium" to buy. The days of carrying your tank home and then having to set about making your own escape-proof lid are not so very long ago - so it's pretty clear that for many kinds of animals, it really doesn't matter if you use an "aquarium" without water to house them - and least of all from their point of view.

However, there are times when a specialist vivarium comes into its own and many of the "high-end" units are remarkable pieces of furniture in their own right, making them ideal not only as homes for your pets, but also as display pieces and talking points in your living room.

Opting for one of these Rolls-Royces of vivarium design buys you an impressive level of convenience and a quality of finish. You can certainly house your animal perfectly adequately for considerably less cost - but then buying one of these was always going to be more for the pet-keeper than the pet!

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For amphibians, such as frogs, newts, etc, why not an "Amphibiarium?" HA, tongue-in-cheek.Maybe?
Peaches - 1-Jun-18 @ 7:51 PM
There's actually a big difference in the materials used to make aquariums and terrariums.You can't take ANY aquarium and turn it into a terrarium because not all silicone used to peice them together is heat proof, terrariums tend to have a source of heat for the animal liveing in them.The problem with turning a terrarium into an aquarium is not all terrariums were built to handel the weight and pressure an aquarium is responsible for. Both of which could lead to disaster so before you try to convert aquariums to terrariums and vice versa check the manufacturers warnings.
Doesn'tMatter - 27-Feb-17 @ 7:43 PM
Pictures of each type may have been useful.
Stephen - 23-Dec-15 @ 6:14 AM
@Fred. Great, hope you find these features useful.
KeepingExoticPets - 26-Sep-14 @ 9:40 AM
I will use my vivarium/terrarium for my Salamander.I call my salamander "Tiggy."
Fred - 25-Sep-14 @ 2:03 AM
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