Background & Decoration in a Rainforest Vivarium

Wouldn’t it be great if your vivarium was as beautiful as functional?

While it is always important to address the functional aspects of a vivarium first, you’ll eventually want to turn your attention to the enclosure’s aesthetics.

This means decorating the vivarium so that it stops looking like an animal’s cage and starts to look like a rainforest.

This isn’t terribly difficult to accomplish, and it is often fun to express your creativity by decorating your pet’s vivarium. Additionally, there are no “rules” to follow when doing so.

As long as the decorations are safe for your animals and unlikely to cause husbandry-related problems, just about anything is fair game. In fact, many decorative items can actually provide tangible value for your pets.

Rainforest-style decorations come in many different forms, but some of the most common decorative categories include:

  • waterfalls
  • backgrounds
  • plants
  • wooden items
  • rocks

Remember: there is no reason you have to use items from every category. If you don’t want to include any vines, for example, just skip them. If you want to focus on attractive rock structures and formations, then go right ahead.

Again, as long as you provide for your animal’s needs and use safe materials, the aesthetic decisions are entirely up to you. Your tree snake won’t care if you use a fancy background, nor will your gecko hold your plant selections against you.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls are one of the most popular decorations hobbyists like to include in rainforest vivaria. Unfortunately, they are also one of the most complicated features to implement.

Personally, I tend to discourage first-time vivaria designers from including waterfalls. But, when constructed by those with a bit of experience, skill and gumption, they can be one of the most spectacular ways to decorate the enclosure.

You’ll need a few basic things to create a waterfall:

  1. A water reservoir near the bottom of the enclosure
  2. An elevated place from which the water can plunge
  3. Some type of splash wall, across which the water will flow
  4. A pump (and length of tubing) to move the water from the reservoir to the discharge site

It’s also a good idea to incorporate a filter into the waterfall. It can simply be a mechanical/sponge filter to remove sediment before it passes through the pump.

Build a Pond

Because you’ll need a water reservoir, it generally makes sense to simply build a “pond” into the vivarium’s basic design. You’ll place the pump in or near this reservoir, ideally in a place that is hidden from view. The intake will draw water from the reservoir and pump it through a length of tubing up to the top of the waterfall. You can also use a submersible pump.

Most splash walls are constructed from rock or plastic. However, you could also use wood or foam, as long as you coat it in a non-toxic sealant. Run the tube behind the splash wall and aim its opening toward the front of the structure. The splash wall will need to sit in (or very close to) the water reservoir. This will ensure that the pond doesn’t empty as water splashes everywhere.

But, while it is relatively simple to set up a basic waterfall, tweaking it to ensure it works properly is an entirely different matter. You’ll usually have to make several different adjustments to the pump, splash wall and reservoir to achieve the desired effect. Accordingly, you’ll want to ensure the waterfall is established and functioning properly before adding your animals to the habitat.

Backgrounds

While some hobbyists prefer the look of a plain glass or plastic backdrop, others prefer to decorate the back of the habitat.

Backgrounds range in complexity from photographic “wallpaper” to elaborate, three-dimensional structures with live plants and flowers.

There are several different ways to implement these plans. For example, if you prefer a simple, clean and modern aesthetic, you may wish to simply paint the back of a glass habitat black (paint the outside of the glass). Alternatively, an appropriately sized photograph of trees or vegetation is often easy to install and requires no maintenance.

However, most hobbyists interested in creating a rainforest vivarium will prefer to create more elaborate backgrounds. Some of the best ways to do so include:

  • Applying an expanding foam product to the back of the vivarium to create a three-dimensional base. Once the foam cures, silicone can be applied to the surface as an adhesive. Add coconut fibers, moss, topsoil or some other natural-looking material to the silicone and allow it to dry in place.
  • Use one of the commercially produced vivaria backings, like Epiweb. These backgrounds come in a variety of different forms. But most are designed to be topped with plants, coconut husk or other items. These commercial products are generally easier to use than expanding foam. But they don’t allow you to create drastic depth variation and textures the way expanding foams do.
  • Attach cork bark panels to the back of the enclosure. There are a variety of ways to do so, but I like to use Velcro strips. This way, you can remove or adjust the panels as necessary. However, you could also use silicone if you want the cork bark to be permanently attached to the back.

Plants

Plants are an inextricable component of most rainforest vivaria. They not only provide aesthetic value, but they often satisfy husbandry requirements too. For example: the golden pothos. You may enjoy the leaf color, while your pet will appreciate the convenient drinking surfaces they provide.

There are a variety of plants you can use in a rainforest habitat. Most species that are neither dangerous to the touch nor covered in sharp spines or leaves will work for snakes and carnivorous lizards. However, it is important to select only non-toxic species for use in habitats containing herbivorous or omnivorous species.

It can be difficult to be certain which plants are safe for reptiles, as relatively little research has been conducted on the topic. Also, it is possible that reptiles are able to distinguish between toxic and non-toxic plants in ways we don’t fully understand.

Good idea: consult with your veterinarian before placing any plants in your pet’s habitat. Or at least take a look at a toxic plant list.

As a rule, you’ll typically want to select plants that thrive in humid, dimly lit conditions to ensure that they will work well in your vivarium. Also, be sure to pick plants that will fill different structural roles.

Pick a Good Combination

For example, you’ll likely want a combination of:

  • Groundcovers
  • Climbing vines
  • Shrubby plants
  • Tree-like plants
  • Flowering plants

By utilizing plants with these varied growth habits, you can add texture, depth and realism to the vivaria. Note that some plants may be capable of filling different roles, depending on the size selected and the manner in which you prune it. Several Ficus species, for example, could serve as a shrubby plant or a tree-like plant. Similarly, most pothos plants will grow as a groundcover or a climbing vine.

Just resist the urge to select too many different species, as this will often create a cluttered appearance. As a rule of thumb, pick only four to six species for your habitat.

Note that while most keepers interested in creating a realistic-looking rainforest vivarium prefer to use live plants exclusively, there is no reason you can’t incorporate artificial plants too. Artificial plants rarely look as nice as live plants do. But, they are obviously easier to care for and will work regardless of the vivarium’s conditions.

Artificial plants are especially helpful for “filling out” various parts of the habitat, while you are waiting for live plants to grow and take up more space.

Wooden Items

There are a variety of wood materials and products that work very well in rainforest vivaria. Wood not only looks quite natural, it is generally pretty affordable (sometimes free), easy to work with and lightweight. Wood can also be used in a number of different ways in the vivarium. For example, you can use wood to:

  • Provide perches for climbing animals
  • Create a background for the habitat
  • Serve as a mounting spot for plants or flowers
  • Impart greater interest and variety in the vivarium floor
  • Hide or obscure maintenance items, such as pumps or thermometers
  • Provide hiding or basking opportunities for your pets

Different types of wood work best for different applications, so decide how you want to use the wood before you decide which wood to use. Then, once you know the basic size and shape you need, you can start searching for the actual items.

Generally speaking, branches and vines work best for perches. You’ll usually have to collect branches yourself, but pieces of grapevine or manzanita often work. You can typically find these types of wood through retail channels.

Cork Bark

As discussed above, cork bark is fantastic for creating natural-looking backgrounds. It also works as an anchor site for plants, flowers and other items. Just find a well-suited nook or cranny in the bark to provide as much support as possible, and then use wire or adhesives to keep the item in place.

Cork bark is also very helpful for creating hiding places or visual barriers. Note that cork bark comes in flat sheets, as well as tubular lengths. Flat sheets are best for constructing backgrounds, but tubes can be used as perches or hiding spaces. This includes hiding spaces for your animals and maintenance equipment.

You can even use a tube of cork bark to create a “tree” in your enclosure. Just select a bushy, lightweight plant to serve as the tree’s crown. Set the cork tube on one end (be sure to anchor it into place). And then place the plant (inside a pot or container) inside the top of the tube.

Driftwood

Driftwood pieces can also be quite attractive in rainforest vivaria. They can be used as mounting locations for plants, and some may function well as hiding places, basking spots or perches.

Half-buried in the substrate, driftwood can mimic tree roots.

Rocks

Rocks are perhaps more commonly associated with desert-style vivaria, but they can work very nicely in rainforest-style enclosures too. Thematically, they work best with vivaria that seek to emulate a riparian area, such as the bank of a creek. Rocks are common in these areas, where erosion has washed away much of the surface dirt.

Rocks in rainforests are shaped by water more than rocks found in arid areas. Those ones are shaped more significantly by sand, other rocks and wind than water. Accordingly, you’ll want to select relatively smooth rocks when trying to design your rainforest habitat. This doesn’t mean all of the rocks in the habitat must resemble polished glass, but you don’t want them to look like crumbly sandstone.

Assuming that they don’t feature sharp edges, most commonly encountered rocks are safe to use in your pet’s habitat. However, while the rocks themselves are relatively benign items, the soil, organic debris and microscopic lifeforms living on their surfaces can occasionally be harmful.

Wash any rocks you intend to use with soap and warm water. Then, set them out to dry in the sun for a day or two before adding them to your vivarium.

Care is required when adding rocks to a vivarium. Given their weight, they can represent a serious hazard to your pets. Ideally, you’d use only flat-bottomed rocks, and you’d place them directly on the floor of the habitat, before adding substrate and other decorative items around them. However, this is not always possible.

Sometimes, you’ll want to stack rocks on top of each other, or you’ll need to balance them in unnatural ways. There are too many variables at work to provide specific recommendations, but you’ll need to ensure that they are securely anchored into place.

How to Anchor Stones?

There are several different methods and materials that can help you accomplish this goal, but a few of the most popular choices include:

  • Using silicone as an adhesive
  • Using expanding foam to create a “pocket” (and secondarily, as an adhesive)
  • Wrapping wire around the rock to anchor it to some other object
  • Tying the rock in place with twine (note that some varieties may rot over time)
  • Constructing a wooden, plastic or foam “base” which cradles the rocks and is then covered in substrate

Miscellaneous Items

Rocks, branches, vines and other things that are common in rainforests should make up the bulk of your habitat decorations. But there’s nothing wrong with expressing your creativity and adding an unusual item or two.

Truth is that the term “unusual items” varies from one hobbyist to the next. And the decorations they use may range from the slightly odd to the surreal.

Bones

For example, many hobbyists like to include decorations made from bone, such as skulls, femurs or turtle shells. These types of items aren’t exactly common in rainforests, but you probably wouldn’t be surprised to come upon one of them, either. Animals do die in the rainforest, and their bones stick around for a while before they break down.

Ruins & Waste

Slightly more unusual items may appeal to other hobbyists. For example, while they may not be very common, you could conceivably find things like old wheels (or entire cars), hand tools or house ruins while exploring a rainforest.

And adding scaled-down models of these types of things to your habitat will not only make it unique. It can actually add a bit of realism, as many reptiles and amphibians gather around garbage dumps and other areas associated with human habitation.

Models & Figures

At the completely ludicrous end of the spectrum, you could even add superhero action figures, replica rocket ships, toy sharks or model trains to the vivarium if you’d like to do so. Many vivarium enthusiasts may recoil at these ideas, but strict realism isn’t the goal for all keepers. Besides, you’ll never forget a vivarium that features these types of items, and there’s something to be said for constructing a vivarium that is memorable, above all else.

No matter how closely you stick to reality, be sure that any of the miscellaneous items you select are safe for your pets. Inspect them closely for any loose or moving parts, be sure that they are not coated in toxic finishes and avoid adding anything small enough that your pet could swallow.

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Ben Team

Ben Team

Ben is a life-long environmental educator who writes about the natural world. He’s kept and bred a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians over the last three decades, but he’s always been particularly fond of snakes in the genus Morelia and monitor lizards. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler.

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