Terrarium vs Vivarium (+ Other “Ariums”) Explained

Hello, and welcome to the unoriginal world of naming different growing containers with frustratingly similar names.

Today we’re talking terrariums and vivariums (plus paludariums, aquariums and more). They’re all closely related in name and in nature, so you’d be forgiven for mistaking one for another.

In fact, people do it all the time. 

These naming conventions are supposed to make it clear what’s going inside them. The problem is, the lines have gotten a little blurred. 

You might think, “Who cares if I call it a terrarium or vivarium?”

Well, they’re fundamentally different in many ways.

They’ll often need different containers, materials, plants and care techniques. Following a shopping list or tutorial for the wrong one can set you down a path to failure.

Terrarium and vivarium both use the Latin suffix arium meaning “container”, but the different prefixes tell us what they’re designed to contain; terra meaning “earth” and vivere meaning “to live”.

So, what is the difference between a terrarium and a vivarium?  Though both environments and can look very similar in terms of plants and earth; terrariums are designed to raise plants, and vivariums are designed primarily to be a habitat for an animal.

This guy is in a vivarium

5 Key Differences Between Terrariums and Vivariums

  1. Terrariums replicate natural environmental processes, whereas vivariums employ artificial aspects. Terrariums are generally a plant environment sealed in a glass container to look after itself, but vivariums often use pumps, filters and external light sources to create the right conditions for animals.
  2. They are constructed differently. All the extra artificial components of a vivarium necessitate a different construction (good luck fitting a ventilation fan in a bottle) so if you follow the wrong advice on a build you’re going to end up with a strangely built terrarium for your plants. 
  3. They require different conditions for their inhabitants to thrive. Humidity, watering frequency and light levels are all going to be different for a container keeping lizards vs a collection of only plants and mosses
  4. Vivarium plants are not necessarily good terrarium plants. Probably the most likely mistake a terrarium builder can make, and it’s not our fault if they’re incorrectly labelled as “terrarium plants”. For example, vivariums are generally bigger than your average terrarium, so you might find bigger plants like philodendrons being recommended, when they’d probably overgrow an average sized terrarium. 
  5. Vivariums are planted differently. You’ll often see vivarium plants grouped into categories like “foreground plants”, “carpeting plants” and such. In theory you can take this approach with a bigger terrarium, but it’s not typically the same process.

The Problem With the Term “Vivarium”

The term vivarium is the anomaly here. 

As you’ll see later in the article, there are lots of different “ariums” and each describe a different environment. Terrarium meaning land and aquarium meaning water for example.

Then we have vivarium, which roughly translates to “place of life”.

But life isn’t an environment, it’s a feature – and an ambiguous one at that. 

Plants are living after all, does that make a terrarium a type of vivarium? Then again, a typical vivarium does contain earth elements, and could feasibly be a terrarium with animals…

So, is a vivarium a type of terrarium, or vise-versa?

You could go around in circles forever with this reasoning. To me, the naming comes down to practicality, not pedantic classification. 

It’s the priority behind the system that matters.

The priority of a terrarium is to create an environment where your plants thrive. Whereas, the pets are the priority in a vivarium, and the plants take a secondary role in making the animals comfortable and happy.

Look, this isn’t a super strict rule, I’m not going to crack down on everyone who has an undocumented woodlouse in their terrarium.

But it is important that you optimise your system for what you want to grow. 

Learn Your “Ariums”

The naming madness process doesn’t stop with terrariums and vivariums. There’s a host of other containers/environments that follow the same pattern. 

  • Mossarium – A mossarium is a container dedicated entirely to growing moss. It might sound a little dull but you’d be surprised how beautiful these can be. I am partial to a bit of moss though. 
  • Aquariums – Come on, we all know what an aquarium is. Coming from the Latin “aqua” meaning water, these environments are fully aquatic, and can be used with saltwater or freshwater to raise all manner of fish and crustacean. 
  • Oceanarium – This one you might not have heard of. It’s basically a large aquarium, 
  • Paludarium – A paludarium contains both earth and aquatic elements. Fitting for a word that comes from the latin word “palus” meaning swamp. They’re never really swamps though. Rather an even split between an aquarium and a vivarium, favoured for raising semi-aquatic animals like lizards and frogs. So, they’ll often contain basking rocks, some sort of waterfall and some undergrowth for amphibians to hide.
  • Riparium – Ripariums are similar to a paludarium, in that they too contain earth and aquatic elements. But rather than an even split, in a riparium the land takes a complementary role in creating a shoreline. The purpose of a riparium is to create an environment like a riverbank. After all, the word comes from the Latin “riparius” meaning shore.

Then you also have ariums that follow the animal pattern.

  • Insectarium – A habitat built to raise all manner of insects from beetles to worms.
  • Formicarium – Otherwise known as an ant farm.
  • Penguinarium – The rocky environments you see in zoos with a big pool in the front.
  • Dolphinarium – You get the idea.

In the End, Does it Matter?

As long as you’re aware of the differences, then no. 

Call your collection of mosses a penguinarium if you like, I just wouldn’t recommend following care advice for one. “Feed two fishes per day, every day”.

It doesn’t upset me that the terms are used incorrectly, but I do hate to see people waste time and money on irrelevant things. Hopefully this article has helped in some way to steer people in the right direction.

Over to You

Am I the only one who notices this?

Personally, I’ve seen a lot of misinformation out there on the internet. But maybe it’s just me who cares haha.

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