How to Set Up a Paludarium for the First Time

There are so many different types of aquariums that we hobbyists may keep. Until I decided to start researching and upping my education big time, I had no idea how many types there are! Like a paludarium or a brackish tank.

One of the most interesting varieties I’ve found is the Paludarium, which, as it turns out, are easily maintained, especially compared to those aquariums from aquarists who go crazy with the aquascaping.

They basically take care of themselves, if you have the right ingredients in the mix. Plus, you can add more critters in a more diverse freshwater ecosystem than with other aquarium types.

Let’s take a look

What is a Paludarium?

Image by Scott Wilson on Flickr

Paludariums are a type of aquarium that features a mixture of land and water. This is a natural environment that is friendly to a wider range of creatures than the average aquarium.

Each paludarium is custom made to replicate a variety of real life environments such as streams, rain forests and wetlands.

The word, ‘paludarium’ originates from two Latin words. ‘Palus’ is a word that means marsh or swamp and ‘arium’ means a location or receptacle.

Two common words that use ‘arium’ is terrarium and vivarium. While these three terms are similar, they all mean different things.

Vivarium originates from Latin ‘vivere’ means ‘to live’. Any type of home for animal to live in is a vivarium. This is also the umbrella term for any type of tank.

Terrariums are a type of vivarium. These tend to have low humidity, lots of plant life and no aquatic life.

Paludariums are terrariums that include a body of water. These typically have aquatic and terrestrial features.

What Are the Layers of a Paludarium?

For every Paludarium, there are multiple layers that create that stunningly unique tiny world inside of your fish tank.

Author note: The key to doing this whole thing well is planning ahead of time – knowing exactly what you’re going to do with each layer and how they will blend together to create this unique environment.

They’re a complex system, even if they’re reasonably self-maintaining once built.

Water Layer

The most obvious section of your Paludarium is the water layer. The water layer section is only partially full because of having a land layer to transition to.

The water layer requires the same things that the water of a standard aquarium needs: filtration, water changes, the correct pH balance, heat, air movement, et cetera. But since there’s less water, there’s less work regarding all of this.

The one part that’s more work in the water layer, however, is that amphibians and other non-fish inhabitants create more waste than fish.

Aand this thinner water layer means the Paladarium will need more frequent cleaning if the population is heavy. So, consider how much effort you want to put in before selecting the number of fish and other critters to stock.

If you have a fish tank that’s 75-gallons with 15 gallons of water, you’ll need a 50 watt heater instead of the 300 watt version needed for the full tank.

And your filtration will only need to be functional for a 15-gallon tank, rather than the full 75-gallons. This will, of course, vary depending on what species you stock.

Land Layer

As you design this layer, you’ll need to consider the plants, animals, and, of course, the aesthetics for a careful balance.

The nutrients in the land need to meet the plants’ needs, while avoiding anything harmful to your land animal critters’ sensitivities or needs.

The height of the land layer will also impact whether or not you have a moist or dry zone in your Paludarium.

Author note: If you have amphibians, you’re going to need a moist zone for them, whereas if you’re keeping reptiles, you’ll need a dry zone for them to warm themselves in their lighting setups, like they would in the wild.

You can also have a dry zone as part of your canopy layer.

The Transition Layer

Most Paludarium owners attempt to replicate a lakeside or riverside environment. Because of this, the substrate leads to the land portion of the Paludarium.

This transition layer is particularly important is you add any air breathing reptiles or amphibians that need easy access to both water and land.

Some things that help with this transition zone are plants, rocks, sloped substrates, and driftwood. These items create a sort of bridge for the critters from water to land and visa versa.

Top tip: You may also want to build a custom fitted divider or two to help keep substrate securely in place in that transition location between land and water.

Canopy Layer

paludarium canopy layer

The last layer we’ll talk about is the canopy layer – the section that tends to go unnoticed or way overdone when designing a Paludarium.

The tall plants with big leaves that cover the top of the tank, the bigger rocks, and pieces of driftwood can be a part of this canopy.

The canopy layer is mostly inhabited by reptiles, amphibians, and plants, so if you’re option for a fish-only tank, you won’t need to worry about this layer too much, apart from the aesthetic aspects.

If, however, you’re keeping climbing reptiles and amphibians, you’ll have to design the canopy to allow for basking spots for your critters.

Supplies, Materials, and Equipment for Your Paludarium

Before you start acquiring your fish and animals for the new Paludarium, be sure to collect all equipment and supplies ahead of time.

There are some basics that are obvious – like, well, a fish tank/aquarium, substrate, plants, and water – but there are some additional items that can help you create the setup more easily, quickly, and cleanly.

Mandatory Item: Paludarium Lighting

Every Paludarium needs the proper lighting setup.

You can use LED, fluorescent or compact fluorescent fixtures, but the LED are going to be the easiest to maintain and ensure have the proper full light spectrum required by your plants and animals inside the tank.

Full spectrum lights provide a balanced, natural look. Plants need PAR (Photosynthetically Active Radiation), as well, which is found in concentration in the red and blue zones of that spectrum.

Top tip: Plants that need higher light also need PAR for their health. Medium to low light Paludarium plants do fine without the PAR.

Basking animals like turtles and lizards require higher heat temperatures, as well, so they need a basking bulb that’s either hot or bright enough to reach the surface where they hang out.

For climbers, this isn’t as challenging, but be especially aware of this need for non-climbing critters – like turtles.

The exact wattage for the bulbs varies on a few things, including:

  • Distance of light to floor
  • Area covered
  • Types of animals kept
  • Types of plants kept

Absolute Necessity: Paludarium Filtration

When picking a filter for your Paludarium, canister filters are one of the best choices. This type of filter is efficient, low noise and the filtration media itself can easily be customized.

Another advantage is that they allow the outflow to be set up with a line so that water can be directed to the upper areas of the tank.

It is important for your filter system to have good outflow. With a good outflow it can function as a water pump to keep your plants healthy.

If you are making a smaller Paludarium, a good option are submersible internal canisters. These will allow enough space for nitrifying bacteria to grow.

Depending on how many plants you are using, you always have the option of using them to replace the mechanical filtration completely. With enough plant growth and a minimal animal population, the plants alone can filter your tank.

Highly Recommended Element: PVC Egg Crate

When designing your Paludarium, you should consider using PVC egg crate as a building material.

This versatile material is easy to find, can be found at numerous hardware stores (or even just only), and it is safe to use and does not leach chemicals into the water.

Another great reason to use egg crate is because of how easy it is to shape it to fit your needs. Using a knife or par of shears, the egg crate can be shaped into platforms, islands and guards for filters and pumps.

Top tip: If you use the egg crate for building shelves, it is important to include substrate for space of animals or plants.

If you decide to use egg crate for plants, you can use a variety of substrates. To help gravel or soil stay in place, you can add a plastic mesh on top of the egg crate itself.

The plants that are grown on an egg crate shelf can send its roots through the crate and directly down into the water.

Super Helpful Item: Spray Foam

The first thing you think of for creating a vivarium is probably not something like spray foam, but this supply is actually a really important component for creating a tight, airtight water seal.

It fills, seals, and insulates gaps up to one inch. You’ll want to purchase expanding insulation foam – used for windows and doors – to make sure it meets all your needs.

It can be added to rocks, egg crate, or aquarium glass to seal, build, or fill in gaps. If you’re planning to use on rocks or to create a background, though, make sure you get the foam in the right color.

For safety purposes, ensure that the foam is completely dry and separate before any animals, plants, or even the water come into to contact with it.

Also, the fumes aren’t good for your health, so please use protective gear and only work with fresh foam in open spaces.

One nice thing about the spray foam sealant, too, is that you can add bits of soil, sand, or coconut fiber to the outer coating before it dries to bump that aesthetic naturally.

Best Paludarium Plants

aquatic plants
Image by Scott Wilson on Flickr

The best Paludarium plants that we can recommend come in a variety of types, from fully aquatic to semi-aquatic and terrestrial plants.

Fully Aquatic Plants

While designing your Paludarium, make sure to consider the fact that there will be less water volume compared to other aquariums. This difference in water will cause a limit to the height of the aquatic plants you can select.

This water limitation can impact both the height and the aesthetic look of plants. For example, if both Vallisneria and Amazon Swords lack sufficient water, they will grow in a busy and cramped way.

One common solution to the lack of water is the use of plants that do not grow tall, including creeping plants.

Bear in mind, that if you do not layout your plants correctly, the canopy plants may block needed light for the rest of the plants. One way to get around canopy issues is to pick plants for the lower level that are low light plants.

Another way to fully use your Paludarium’s space is to use aquatic species that float. Plants like Duckweed and Water Lettuce offer a different look, as well as can help remove nitrate from the water, helping the ecosystem remain healthy.

Partially Submerged Plants

In nature, there are a variety of plants that grow in transition zones in nature.

Plants like Anubias, African Water Fern, Java Moss, and Java Fern can grow either above water or submerged. Plants with this kind of variety are perfect for Paludariums.

Another option for your tank are plants that do well while having both submerged roots and leaves immersed in water.

There a number of these plants that are easy to find, for example, Golden Pothos (more commonly called Devil’s Ivy) is one of the most popular houseplants in the world.

It is a fast-growing streaked vine that has broad leaves that animals like to perch upon.

Another easy to find plant is the Hygrophila. These grow easily and are normally sold as pure aquatic plants, however, they will continue to shoot upwards even after they break the water column.

One flexible plant is called Miramar Weed. This plan is known for being able to grow both under and out of water.

Terrestrial Plants

terrestrial plants
Image by Jean-Francois Brousseau on Flickr

Finding the right terrestrial plants is important, a focus should be Epiphytes. These are a type of plant that likes high humidity environment and grow directly from the substrates.

Examples of this kind of plant are orchids, Bromeliads, and air plants (also known as Tillandsia.)

Air plants are known for having a unique round and spiky growth pattern and flower.

If you are looking for a plant that is easy to build around and making your tank stand out, moss is a great choice. There is a variety to choose from and moss is also great at holding and transporting humidity throughout the area.

However many mosses can be difficult to grow due to varying moisture and light needs. Depending on the moss, it may be full aquatic, partly underwater, and others that are full terrestrial.

Java Mos (know as Taxiphllum Barbieri) is an epiphyte that is normally found underwater. But, this type of moss can inhabit both canopy and land areas as long as there is a constant spray of water and high humidity.

Best Animals for Your Paludarium

And then there’s the key feature most of us think about when it comes to any kind of aquarium or terrarium: the aquatic animals and fish.

So, let’s look at which ones work best in a Paludarium.

What Kinds of Fish Should You Stock?

paludarium fish

Pretty much any type of freshwater fish work in this kind of enclosure. There are some specific fish to consider include these popular choices.

What About Amphibians?

There are loads of interesting amphibians to house in your new Paludarium. They add interesting pops of color, behaviors, and unique texture needs to the whole setup. Some of the most popular amphibians include:

Reptiles You Might Want to Consider

pet frog

Generally speaking, you’re going to want to mostly consider small species of turtles and lizards for Paludarium. Since they’re sharing this space with other creatures, you don’t want to overcrowd anyone.

Unless, of course, you have a massive tank of multiple hundreds of gallons. Then you can consider something larger, but it’s still a better idea to go with smaller.

Some species to consider include:

  • Mud turtles
  • Musk turtles
  • Loggerhead musk turtles
  • Ornate diamondback terrapins
  • Bog turtles
  • Red-eared sliders
  • Southern painted turtles
  • Blanding’s turtles
  • Mississippi map turtles
  • Wood turtles
  • Spotted turtles
  • Common snapping turtles
  • Boyd’s forest dragon
  • Southern angle head dragon
  • Other water dragon species
  • Eastern water skinks
  • Bluetongue skinks
  • Green Three python
  • King Python
  • Carpet Python
  • Garden Three Phyton
  • King Boa
  • Rainbow Boa
  • King Cornsnake
  • Cornsnake
  • Milk snake
  • Cresent Gecko
  • Leopard Gecko
  • Large Daygekko
  • Spiketail Dragon
  • Bearded Dragon
  • Dwarf Monitor
  • Pearl lizard

And There’s The Crustaceans and Invertebrates

Finally, some of the other most interesting creatures you can add into your tank are crustaceans and invertebrates. Some you want to consider including in your Paludarium are:

Your Clean Up Crew

Aside from the main animal (and fish) features of your paludarium, you might want to consider some critters that are good at cleaning things up.

After all, most fish and critters are messy – and that means they leave behind a good bit of detritus, food scraps, and other things.

One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is including some animals that are scavengers,  bottom feeders, and algae eaters. Some of your best bets are as follows:

  • Ghost shrimp – scavengers who usually get along with most potential tankmates
  • Fiddler crabs – fun to watch and good cleaners!
  • Springtails – fungus eaters who also love to go after reptile waste and uneaten food
  • Isopods – sort of like potato bugs but actually crustaceans – and they’re amazing cleaners!
  • Siamese algae eaters – If they work with your fish pals, they’re a great option for helping you keep the algae in the tank down

Tips For Your Paludarium

Nepentes, or Pitcher - a genus of predatory plants of the monotypic family Nepenthaceae.

Here are a few helpful tips for your Paludarium setup.

  1. Go crazy with the plants. Seriously, you’ll regret not using enough, and so will your critters.
  2. Skip the foggers. No matter how cool they look, just skip them. They’re not really great. And they don’t help your animals, plants, or fish.
  3. Start with building the dry zone first. This will make adding in the water and canopy layers much easier. Lay the elements in, building up above where you’ll have the water layer and then add the plants and rocks, etc. before moving on to the next layer.
  4. Add hanging plants. They’re great for developing that canopy layer much easier than other types.
  5. Start off simple with your animals and fish. Choose a few species that work well together and build on as you gain experience. This will help you learn and develop your skills in care and maintenance without putting your animals and fish at tisk. And when the time is right, you can expand your paludarium into a larger fish tank.
  6. I highly recommend starting out with a larger tank than you currently need to reduce the stress on your animals as you grow.
  7. Use multiple colored plants and animals. They’ll help keep the environment interesting.

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