Beginners guide to Paludariums
“I’m thinking of setting up a paludarium!” The average person on the street probably doesn’t know what that means, and maybe you don’t either. So, let’s explain what they are and how to build them. Paludariums are becoming more and more popular in the tank and aquarium keeping community. Everyone knows what an aquarium is, but these are kind of like the next level. The Latin word “Palus” means marsh or swamp, and “arium” means a place.
They’re a semi aquatic habitat, which means they can house a broad range of animals and plants, be them terrestrial (land dwelling), aquatic or semi aquatic. What semi aquatic means, as you can probably deduce from this, is that there is a land and a water habitat in the same tank. This makes paludariums able to house more types of species than most of the other typical setups you usually find. A simple way to describe them as a basic concept is as “a terrarium, but with fish”.
What’s the appeal?
Well, the concept of having multiple species from various walks of life all in one place is appealing. It gives added viewing please and instead of having a chunk of forest, or a section of ocean, you’ve got your own cut out of the planet in a tank! Even in a smaller tank, you can get the feeling of having a really rich ecosystem always at work. With a good set up, you can build an environment that’s fairly self maintaining.
A lot of people spend a fair amount of time trying to pick the right tank to set up into a paludarium, it’s true that you do have to give it some thought, but we’ll walk you through the things to keep in mind, and hopefully you’ll be able to find a suitable tank sooner.
You’ll want to keep in mind the number of inhabitants you want - obviously a 40 gallon aquarium isn’t a 40 gallon aquarium if half of it is for land animals.
You’ll also want to make note of the general layout you want, you can sketch this out if you wish, or find inspiration on Pinterest (and follow us, too! @yourpetguides)
If you want to include a waterfall, these can look amazing but obviously take up space where the waterfall is, and you’ll also need a layer at the bottom of the tank to take in the water for it, so you don’t suck up any aquatic animals.
You’ll need a tank no smaller than 10 gallons, but to have an effective paludarium we’d say opt for 20 gallons or more, a 50 gallon will give you ample space for animal life, and lots of room for decorations. If you’re going with water features, like a waterfall, we’d say opt for at least 40 gallons.
While it’s true that paludariums allow you to house terrestrial animals such as lizards, with aquatic animals, we’d say opt away from housing snakes in a paludarium. There’s a risk of drowning, the fact that snakes are best kept alone, and their waste will be difficult to clean and if it gets in the water, will be very difficult to clean and will negatively impact your aquatic species.
The most important thing to remember when placing animals and plants in your tank is conflicts between species. It’s possible for some plants to be toxic if ingested by some species.
Also, some animals may not get along with others. Be aware of these relationships when creating the habitat in your tank to avoid unwanted casualties. Another important step is that every paludarium’s water, just like a regular aquarium, must be cycled before animals are placed. We’ve got a guide on cycling aquariums here, it’s just the same as your paludarium.
When we’re looking into plants there’s typically two options keepers go for - form or function. For example, some keepers like plants that look aesthetically pleasing, whereas some will opt for plants that are slow growing so as to reduce the need for ongoing maintenance such as pruning.
Floating plants can be great options for your aquatic portion. They're great for shy or nocturnal fish as they’ll provide the cover they need. A few options here are Salvinia, which is a floating fern. There’s also button and lemon fern too. Java moss is a great plant for aquariums too, though it isn’t a floating plant. It’s really good at producing oxygen and reducing nitrates, and it grows on surfaces. You may need to superglue it down to start it off, or buy it in moss ball form.
Vine plants are a good option for up top - creeping fig or devil’s ivy can cover the walls of a paludarium while also creating a kind of natural curtain, providing a hiding place for your terrestrial species. They can also grow down into the aquatic section, which also helps to provide shelter for your aquatic inhabitants too.
Bamboo is an excellent choice as it can grow in both water and soil, and lucky bamboo is commonly used for its appearance.
Setting your paludarium up
The best way to start your first paludarium is to do it in stages. Experiment with smaller tanks first, then move onto larger ones with more variety in them. Most people opt for a regular glass aquarium so you get to see your creation from more angles.
Whatever materials you choose to construct your paludarium with, make sure that they’re aquarium safe!
Let’s break construction down into steps - Step 1, the initial planning.
Map out where you want the land area and the water section to be. You might want to sketch it up on paper first, going from a top down view, as well as a front view so you’ve mentally understood how everything should be positioned before you come to add anything to the aquarium. It makes sense to add the land portion first, and you’ll need to keep the land from being flooded.
The main way other paludarium builders do this is by adding plexiglass between the sections to keep the water in the aqua section, and the soil/substrate in the land section. You can then fade the ground into the aqua section by super gluing rocks to the aqua side of the plexiglass, or even sculpting your transition with foam. Use silicone to create a watertight seal around the plexiglass. Preventing flooding is an important step to ensure your land section, and the animals on top of it, will thrive. Once your sections are divided, you can add your land portion.
Step two, constructing the land portion.
You can use many things to construct the land portion of your paludarium - wood, sand, rocks and soil. When you’re doing this section make sure you’re thinking ahead - what will be easier to clean or harder? Opt for easy options - the aesthetic might be nice, but you may grow to hate maintenance day if you’ve set it up in a difficult way. You can use foam sealant to build up areas too, underneath the substrate. Many people also use this to create different levels to the paludarium, and decorate it with stones to make it look more organic.
Step 3 - substrate and plants
Now will be the time where you add your soils and any plants that you want to add to the land section. Keep in mind that you’ll want to place the plants that can tolerate more water, closer to the water. You can also start adding in things like vines and hanging plants.
Step 4 - adding the water
The last step is to add your water. This section will help keep your tank humid and should have all of the parts to a full aquarium. You should have a filtration system set up, be it a sponge filter if you don't have a large bioload, it could be a submersible filter with an adjustable pipe up top, which could become your waterfall feature - adding oxygen to the water. Importantly, this section needs to be cycled - you need the beneficial bacteria in there before you add any tank occupants. You can read our cycling guide here.
Step 5 - the mid section
Many people like to have an area between land and water that terrestrial animals can explore. This could be a floating shelf or a small beach style transition. Common materials are cork or PVC. Moss can be grown on your floating shelf and added as a food source for the animals in the tank.
Step 6 - the waterfall
We’ve mentioned this slightly already, but many people like to add waterfalls to give their paludariums a peaceful vibe. You can do this as part of the filtration set up, or by adding another pump solely for the waterfall. The main way people do this is by building up a larger section above the water level, some opt to do this with expanding foam. They then sculpt this how they see fit, so that it flows into the water. They then finish this off by super gluing rocks and stones, as well as dirt in the gaps, to create an organic appearance. This is completely optional, but that’s how you’d go about it.
You’re all set! Once your water is cycled and you’ve made sure only to use aquarium safe materials, you’re ready to add your inhabitants! Good luck on this journey, and remember that you’ll get better at crafting them over time - keep your first build simple, so that your learning curve is smaller as you’re likely to be more successful than if you try to build the most amazing tank all in one learning experience.