What is a Terrarium?

Mary McMahon

A terrarium is a container designed to hold small plants and animals in controlled conditions. Its closed nature creates an environment that is easy to control, allowing people to simulate everything from the desert to the rainforest. Terrariums are often used by scientific researchers to conduct studies, and people also keep them as hobbies to display various plants and creatures of interest. They can be purchased from companies that specialize in them or made by hand; people who want especially large or custom-fitted ones often end up making their own.

A small glass terrarium.
A small glass terrarium.

The defining feature of a terrarium is that it is an enclosed replica of a natural environment that is in contact with the earth, so some sort of soil, sand, or rock must be present. Typically, the container is clear, allowing an unobstructed view of the contents, although it can also be built from wood and other materials with sliding panels to allow a view.

This terrarium simulates a desert environment.
This terrarium simulates a desert environment.

When the top of the container is closed, it tends to be warmer and more humid, while open-topped ones are cooler. If animals are kept inside, screens may be used to allow ventilation without permitting escape; rare plants may also be protected with screens on the off chance that insect predators take an interest in the plant life.

A terrarium is kind of like an aquarium for plants.
A terrarium is kind of like an aquarium for plants.

Lighting in a terrarium can be controlled with the use of internal and external fixtures. Automated lighting systems can even be used to simulate natural conditions, with a set number of hours of daylight followed by night. Temperature is controlled with the assistance of heat lamps and heaters, such as heated rocks, with users keeping a thermometer inside to track the conditions. Controlling humidity is also important, as is the regulation of ventilation.

People who keep insects and small reptiles usually use terrariums for their charges, sometimes simulating the natural environment of their pets to make them feel more comfortable. One may be small enough to fit on a countertop or a desk in a classroom, or it may be much larger; entire rooms can be used, for example, for the purpose of studying large plants and animals. To prevent escape, a double door system is often used, so that the outside door never opens directly onto the inside.

There are also some specialized types of terrarium. An insectarium, for example, is designed for keeping insects, while a lepidoptery is a facility for raising and studying butterflies. A paludarium includes a water features, such as a flowing stream, and may have some similarities to an aquarium.

Small plants and animals are kept in terrariums.
Small plants and animals are kept in terrariums.

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Discussion Comments


I've been to the butterfly house at the zoo many times, and I've never heard it called a lepidoptery, however it seems like it would qualify as a terrarium. Is this right?

It has the double door system at the entrance and the exit, and when you walk inside it you feel like you have entered a completely different climate. It's actually one of my favorite places. I had never thought of it as a terrarium though. I didn't realize they could be so big!


I remember having a glass terrarium when I was a kid. It was very small and only had plants in it, no animals. It had an open top, but the weird thing is that I don't remember ever putting any water in it.

This doesn't make any sense to me now, and I'm probably just forgetting that part, but are there terrariums that need absolutely no outside assistance to survive?


It can be really easy to let a terrarium go bad, by which I mean get overgrown or dirty, especially if there are animals inside. Think of it as needing at least as much care as a fish bowl, and you should be able to keep it in control.

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