The Peculiar Paludarium, Part I
What is a Paludarium? Paludariums are a type of vivarium (a space dedicated to the naturalistic rearing of plants and or animals) that has both land and water elements. It differs from a riparium (a system that replicates the environment where the water meets the shore) in that there is a dedicated, “land” portion, whereas paludariums frequently have no dry areas – only planters where plants can take root, but below the waterline. While paludariums might be plants only, they can also house turtles, frogs, or reptiles in the land portion while also having fish and aquatic plants below the water line.
Where do I start? Paludariums usually start when a piece of hardscape (rock or wood etc) speaks to you, or you have a plant or animal you would like to focus on displaying. While paludariums can house anything from dragonflies or ants to turtles or monitors, we are going to generally focus on designing a tank for smaller things that don’t tear up their environment as much as monitors or turtles. There are lots of great options of prebuilt habitats that can be inserted into aquariums for these types of things if one was to desire it. So – if you start with an animal, you will want to fully research the requirements so you know what type of habitat it needs, and how much space it will need both above and below water. How does it transition between the two habitats, and what will you need to do to accommodate these behaviors? Local Pet stores that have access to larger pieces of wood or rock or large assortments of aquascaping materials are an ideal place to get started thinking about how you might creatively use those elements to form an appropriate habitat, or alternatively, start with the raw materials, build something beautiful and then see if there’s anything that might be suitable for such a space. Almost certainly, and nearly regardless of size, guppies or a betta fish could be housed in the aquatic portion of the paludarium.
So, you’ve chosen what you want to keep, and you’ve acquired the supplies to do so…now how do we go about putting this all together? There are a few different basic methods that we will outline here, but creativity and your imagination are always going to be an important element to these plans. Sometimes searching on google or YouTube for “paludarium” might be enough to see a style or build method that sparks your imagination.
Creating a Shelf: While there are many ways to do this, one of the easiest ways is to use light diffuser or “egg crate” which is a PVC plastic meant to diffuse light in commercial settings. Essentially, you build a box that will support your land features. The egg crate is easy enough to cut with wire clippers, or even heavy-duty scissors, and then heavy-duty outdoor zip ties will help to hold things together. If you are going to put anything heavy on top of this, it's best to cut pieces of PVC pipe to support the middle of your shelf from underneath. Purchasing black egg crate will help to obscure it, and you can further decorate by covering it with aquarium safe silicone and sticking gravel to that or just by obscuring the sides with driftwood and rocks that will help the inhabitants get in and out of the water to the shelf. Window screen can be used on top of the eggcrate box so that substrate can be held in, and then plants can be planted on this platform!
Wet Side, Dry Side: This method is simple – make a waterproof boundary between the water area and the dry area. The disadvantage here is that it can be an inefficient use of space in the display, but not if it's well planned. One easy way to do this is to position rocks and driftwood around what you would like to be the base of your dry side, and then use expanding great stuff foam to make it be a solid wall. You would then fill this with a substrate and start adding plants. Additionally, glass or other aquarium safe materials can be used to make an aquarium inside the aquarium, seal it, fill it with substrate and use rocks and driftwood around the edges to hide the glass from view! Some people simply divide the aquarium in half – and while this is doable, it should be done in a way where part of your viewing experience isn’t looking into the bottom of the land area where there’s nothing but dirt and roots – unless you find that interesting!
Emergent Features: The easiest way to build a paludarium is to simple use rocks and driftwood that will extend above the surface of the water. Some creative planting might allow you to hide small planters for riparian plants, or pockets can be drilled and cut out of some items to form small places to plant as well. Epiphytes (plants that with roots that attach them to a surface such as a tree, or a rock, not in soil) are great for this type of display, and we will touch more on them later. Greatstuff brand foam is another great choice here for creating small, creative ways to add plants.
Generally, we find it's best to allow the materials to guide you in the process of creating this environment. Find some cool pieces of wood or even some rocks that speak to you. In its most simple form, a paludarium could just be rocks or driftwood that sat on the bottom of the aquarium and extended up out of it, allowing animals access to both areas. Again, proper research into the fauna you would like to keep should be able to tell you about the special requirements for these animals, and allow you to acquire a large enough aquarium, and then plan for a large enough land space. Hopefully this has perked your interest in designing a paludarium! If so, watch this space for future updates on appropriate plants and inhabitants for this environment! As always, visit your LFS and see what they have to offer (and let them know Aquatropic sent you!)