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 – read on to find out why those differences matter.


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Ariums: Similar Names, Different Purposes

Terrariums and vivariums 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 means “earth,” and vivere means “to live.”

So, what is the difference between a terrarium and a vivarium?  Though both environments 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 animals.

Let’s dive in deeper.

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 themselves (see my “What is a Terrarium” article for the specifics). Whereas vivariums often use pumps, filters, and external light sources to create the right conditions for animals.

Vivarium with misting system and plants
This vivarium has a misting system at the top left!

#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 will all be different in a container for lizards compared to a tropical plant or moss terrarium.

#4: Vivarium plants are not necessarily good terrarium plants.

The better ventilation that vivariums provide allows for the growth of particular species that require it (Bromeliads probably being the main type here). Whereas these plants may struggle in a sealed container that’s designed for tropical closed terrarium plants.

#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 describes a different environment. Terrarium means land, and aquarium means 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 vice-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 play a secondary role in making the animals comfortable and happy.

rainforest themed planted terrarium
The plants are the priority in this terrarium build.

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

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

👉 Read moreVivariums – Everything You Need to Know (From the Ground Up)

Learn Your “Ariums”

The naming madness process doesn’t stop with terrariums and vivariums. A host of other containers/environments 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.
Mossarium with rock and wood pieces
Joe from Ome spiced this mossarium up with some hardscape pieces!
  • 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 crustaceans. 
  • Oceanarium – This one you might not have heard of. It’s basically a large aquarium. Interestingly, I get most of my terrarium design tips straight from the aquascaping world.
  • Paludarium Paludariums contain both earth and aquatic elements. Which is 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 favored 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.
Paludarium with fish and light system
Some paludariums house two species – one for the earth element and one for the aquatic. This build has fish!
  • Riparium – Ripariums are similar to paludariums in that they 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 “ripa,” meaning river.

Then you also have ariums that follow the animal pattern.

  • Insectarium – A habitat built to raise all manner of insects, from beetles to worms (though there are some terrarium/vivarium insects we recommend everyone adds).
  • 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 hate seeing 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.

If you’re looking to make a vivarium, I’m afraid I won’t be much use, but if it’s terrariums you’re after, check out the Essential Guide to Tropical Terrariums.

21 thoughts on “Terrarium vs Vivarium (+ Other “Ariums”) Explained”

    1. Indeed. someone has had too much time and therefore has come up with a few different names for one and the same thing. LOL

  1. Haha thanks for the information. I just finished working on a vivarium but after reading this article i was like “oh so this is a terrarium then” HAHAHA

  2. Thanks for this – my snake is in a vivarium but when someone asked me the other day what the difference was to a terrarium I’d couldn’t actually say – every days a school day 🙂

  3. yeah I do ready about both terrarium and vivarium. these terms are real little bit confusing me from the begging , but as i go through reading there meaningful I learned that they are different at some point. Now my question is that , is there any difference between vivarium and ecosystem?

    1. The word vivarium mostly refers to the container itself, but to be fair, in context it does tend to mean the ecosystem within too.

  4. This was SO helpful, I had no idea paludariums were a thing, but I’ve been researching pet snails, and happened to come into possession of a ~50 gallon vertical tank. Much bigger than I needed for my snails, so I wondered about having a aquarium+terrarium combo, for snails and a betta (which I’ve owned before). This gave me all the terminology i need to figure out if its feasible for me!

  5. Totally into terrariums now. I was unsure of the kind of people in this crowd, but I’ve never laughed and learned so much in so little time.

  6. In the world of reptiles, we do the opposite for vivariums and terrariums. A terrarium is an artificial environment for reptiles, usually desert dwellers and reptiles or other critters that would want a more sandy or rocky environment. Like you said Terra for earth right? Basically just a dirt/sand/woodchip substrate.
    A vivarium on the other hand would have a more natural soil substrate with living plants and insects to mimic the natural environment of reptiles that live in more humid environments. Like you said viverre for to live.
    In the pet hobby, artificial aspects are expected for both and the vivarium is the more likely of the two to be self sustaining or a closed system. Often times, especially in Canada, where I’m located, heat pads and uv lamps are usually required (depending on what you’re raising). I’ve also a fair amount of experience with a lot of the other “ariums” as well. I’ve yet to do saltwater, but I’ve had all sorts of freshwater tanks, paludariums, and ripariums as they relate to hobbyists.
    This is a great article other than that bit of semantics or pedantics to be argued, but thats a given in the hobbies regardless especially when talking about multiple hobbies like herpetology vs horticulture vs fishkeeping

    1. Thanks for your insights Josh! It just goes to show, depending on the context there’s a good justification for using the terminology in all sorts of ways. I have no strong preferences either way, I just wish they were consistent. 😂

  7. And so at 65yrs I have read everything here and am more confused than ever! I wish I could post a photo for you to see, My open tank has half water with fish ( fan tails ), and the top half I have plants from down the woods and river bank, primarily Moses and tiny ferns, so How am I to call the tank please? ( getting old is fun )

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