Tips for the Naturalistic Look – March 2014

By Jennifer Greene

Often, we get requests on YouTube, Facebook, as well as in our stores and at shows for tips on how to make a nice looking vivarium, terrarium, or even just a simple cage.  When training new staff members, it is often one of the things most asked of more experienced staff – “Why do your cages always look so good?”

Vivarium designed by one of our most experienced cage builders, Jon Blakemore!

Designing a beautiful cage just isn’t something that comes easily to some people.  In fact, for most of us, it wasn’t something we were just born able to do.  Much like any other type of artistic ability, designing nice looking cages is something that you can get better at through lots of practice.

However, if you don’t have the opportunity like we do to build and take down cages every day, I’ll share with you a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years here at LLLReptile.

Tip 1: Put Tall Stuff in Back!

This might seem really, painfully obvious to you at first, but there’s more to this than simply “don’t block your own view”.  Not blocking your view is, of course, the biggest reason not to put tall stuff in the front of the cage, but hopefully you don’t need me to explain that in detail.

However, there is more to it than giving yourself an open view.  Notice it says “Put tall stuff in back!” not “IF you have tall stuff, put it in back”.  You actually WANT taller things in your cage, and especially in the back.  When building cages for climbing species, they’ll need the taller items to climb on and feel at ease, and even when building cages for terrestrial species – give them things to climb on!  That measly little 18″ of cage height is nothing compared to the bushes, rocks, and other terrain irregularities found in the natural habitat of pretty much everyreptile.

More to the point of simply making something look pretty, putting tall things in the back of the cage provides visual interest.  It gives your eyes a direction to follow, and makes the cage look deeper and fuller to have things of differing height.

Note the use of cork hollows and grapewood to use all of the vertical space in this cage.

Tip 2: Slope the bedding so that it is deeper in the back than the front.

This ties in with Tip 1, as it makes it much easier to add taller plants and items in the back snce there is already a bump in the substrate.

Tip 3: Use flat pieces of wood or corkbark to create “corner planters”

This is where you wedge a large, flat piece of wood in the back corner of a cage, fill up the space with your planting material (I prefer coconut fiber), and stick a nice plant back there.  In shorter cages (18″ or less), I’ll use a pothos or similar vine type of plant, as it’ll spill over the wood and grow out in a sort of plant waterfall.

Some types of vines will climb up a textured background, making a great natural curtain that many frog and small lizard species love to hide in.  The cage to the left uses both live plants and coconut hides to provide a pretty and functional environment for dart frogs at the LLLReptile breeding center.

The rocks and coconut hut hide the root base for both plants in the back of the cage.

Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to move things around!

Whenever staff here at LLL build a cage, we move things around pretty constantly.  Any YouTube video we’ve put up on our channel has on average, at least 10 minutes of “I hate this!  It looks awful!  Maybe if I put this here… No, how about here… No, wait, here… No, no, I’m going to put it… Nope, that looks bad too.”

It’s okay to rearrange everything you want to put in the cage at least 5 times.  You might want to rearrange it all a few more times, just in case.  For example, check out this video of me building a Crested Gecko vivarium.  It’s one of the first we ever put up on YouTube of building a vivarium, and I move everything I put in the cage at least twice before settling on where it’s going to go.  And that’s totally fine!  How else will you decide what looks good and what doesn’t?

Tip 5:  Use a nice water bowl

Nothing makes a cage look like junk quite as fast as seeing a flimsy tupperware as the water dish, or a dirty dog bowl.  Pick up a nice corner dish that you can easily clean, or for added coolness, try using a waterfall or bubbling fountain.

Tip 6: MOSS.  Moss EVERYWHERE. 

I am a firm believer in that there is no such thing as too much moss in a cage.  Not only does it help with humidity, but somehow a cage just doesn’t look finished until moss has been added.  Here at LLL, we’ll often keep a big orange bucket full of water and New Zealand Sphagnum Moss so that we can easily add moss to any cage we build.

You can also use green sphagnum moss to create a more natural feel to a cage.

Tip 7: Keep Practicing!

Pretty much the simplest, easiest way to get better at cage building is to keep practicing.  Try new items, move things around, add new plants if you decide you don’t like what you put in there anymore.  Your cage is not set in stone, and it doesn’t have to stay exactly the way you first set it up forever.

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You’d be surprised at what items end up being preferred by your animals.  Try these neat false Mushrooms on Rocks – they’ve got perfect little depressions in them that get small puddles of water.  Dart frogs love sitting in them!

 

Vivarium Humidity – March 2014

By Curtis Pieramico

When setting up a certain cage for different species of animals you have to look at key points in that specific animal’s environment. One way to find these points is to look at the environment in which they come from. We can only try to mimic that environment to the best of our ability, and for a good portion of different species of frogs the best way to mimic this is by building a vivarium. A vivarium is simply described as a naturalistic, self-sustaining environment for your animals to live in. This would include proper lighting, substrate, foliage, moisture and climate. When dealing with the humidity aspect in particular, there are several different ways that will help you all having to do with the idea of a vivarium.

Tropical Vivarium setup for dart frogs

One of the very first steps you go through when building one of these style tanks is the substrate, and in humidity control your substrate will play a big role. A good way to start of is by using a bottom substrate such as Hydroballs or a crushed lava rock. After this layer you usually put a divider such as a mesh or polyfoam followed by the bedding that you are going to plant with. The reason you need these different layers is for drainage of the tank and moisture control with your environment. The simplest way of looking at it is when you plant something in a pot, the pot usually has a little hole on the bottom for the excess water to seep out of it.  This layer of rock or hydroballs is just acting as that drain hole, but without the need for drilling a hole in the bottom of your cage. Without this layer your tank would begin to fill up with water and start to smell very stagnant and gross. Another reason I like to use this layer is because it makes it much easier to regulate how much water you are adding to the environment. If the water hanging down in the Hydroballs is filling up quickly it is a good idea to mist a little less, and if the hydroballs remain dry you can probably mist a little heavier to help with plant growth and humidity. With these layers down you need to put down your substrate and there are a couple different ways of doing this when using live plants in your enclosure.  There are many different substrates from many different companies that you can use for the top layer of your vivarium and much of it just comes down to preference.

A Coco Soft or Eco Earth bedding usually suits the plants well and holds in moisture good but what you can always add on top of this as a little finishing touch is either a live pillow moss or a sphagnum moss. Both of these will help regulate the humidity in your enclosure and make the environment look very appealing as well.

Once you have your cage setup, the plants planted and watered, you have to start thinking of how you want to mist your cage to keep the humidity better regulated for both your plants and animals. This is one of the different aspects of a living vivarium, you are now taking care of both the animals inside the enclosure as well as the enclosure itself.

The two main misting systems are either automatic, or by hand. If you go with an automatic misting system most will have timers that either come with them or can be purchased separately.   This way, your cage is able to be misted at several different times of day instead of just when you are home. The advantage, in my opinion, of using a hand spray bottle or pressure sprayer is that you are watching the environment as you are misting so you are a little more hands-on with the vivarium. Lately, I have just been doing both so I can both watch the environment as well as keep the humidity up at multiple times throughout the day!

A majority of different species of frogs live in either damp environments or very humid environments, so the closer you can get to the climate that they live in, the better. A couple other ways to do this, besides misting the cage, would be to use different humidifiers and water sections in the vivarium. A humidifier in this type of setup is usually a fogger, and specialized versions for terrariums are made by a couple different companies. This you can also keep on a timer, which will pour a light fog into the cage, increasing the moisture and thus the humidity in the environment. The water section I am referring to is very interesting in a vivarium, this is like a built in water bowl for both your animals and to add additional water for your plants. You would incorporate this water section in the stages of putting your layers of bedding in and it can get as intricate as adding a man-made waterfall or feature to the water section.

One of the author’s dart frog tanks filling up with fog.

Everything I’ve said about different humidity techniques are all great ways to make sure you are getting the moisture and humidity that both your plants and animals will need to thrive. The key is to not just add all of the extras and make your cage as moist as it can be, but to find a good balance of both drier and more humid times of day that the plants and animals you have thrive in.

Although frogs and other species do not need to be kept in environments such as these vivariums it just seems to make it both a little more eye catching for everyone, and easier to maintain and keep your animals doing well. The biggest part of these vivariums that makes it a little easier to maintain is that you are not only looking after the animals but the environment as well. The cool part is these two bank off each other left and right making them perfect for each other. The more you water your plants to help them grow, the more humid the environment is for your frogs to help them thrive, and once you have the humidity down in the environment everything will just seem to come second nature.

Owning One of the World’s Deadliest – March 2014

By Noah Collins

Dart frogs have made their way into the herpetology field. Though some species are quite deadly in the wild, a simple change in diet stops the production of poison for captive specimens. In captivity, dart frogs are fed a diet that consists mainly of flightless fruit flies or crickets. Drosophila hydei and Drosphila melanogaster, the most common fruit fly species used used, as well as crickets are not rich in the alkaloids needed to produce the frog’s poison. In the wild, dart frogs feed on invertebrates from Central and South America where insects rich in theses alkaloids thrive. The frogs are able to synthesis these alkaloids from their prey in order to produce their toxins. As dart frogs secrete poison that predators must ingest, rather than actively injecting toxins into prey (the way venomous snakes do), they are considered poisonous rather than venomous. In fact, some dart frog species are considered the most poisonous animals on planet Earth. In order for a frog to harm another organism the toxin must enter the body through a cut or be ingested. Fortunately, captive dart frogs pose no risk of hurting humans.

Bumblebee Dart Frog – Dendrobates leucomelas

One of the most interesting species of poison dart frogs is the Golden dart frog (Phyllobates terribilis). This species of dart frog, when encountered in its natural habitat, is the most lethal. In the wild this species can create a poison called Batrachotoxin. Batrachotoxin is classified as a neurotoxin, and usually causes an organism to suffer from cardiac arrest. There is currently no cure for an individual who has had Batrachotoxin poisoning. This poison is so powerful that it is said to be much stronger than Morphine. The Phyllobates genus of poison dart frogs contain the only species of dart frogs that can create this poison. Due to the high toxicity, Amazonian natives use the frogs in the genus Phyllobates to hunt. The natives gently wipe their darts or arrows on the frogs back so that their prey will die when the darts or arrows stab into their bodies. This way the natives do not have to hit their targets with a lethal shot, but rather just pierce the skin so that the prey will succumb to the poison. The terms “Dart Frogs” and “Arrow Frogs” commonly referred to by hobbyists, derive from the way natives use them to hunt.  The term is generally applied to any of the small, brightly colored South American frogs, but only 3 of the most toxic species from the Phyllobates genus are actually used by Amazonians to poison the tips of their darts.

Some of the most common types of dart frogs in captivity are of the Dendrobates family. The Bumblebee dart frogs (Dendrobates Leucomelas) are one of the most abundant dart frog in captivity.  Bumblebee dart frogs produce a different kind of poison than the golden dart frogs do in the wild. Bumblebee dart frogs, as well as other Dendrobates species of dart frogs, produce Pumiliotoxin. Although this toxin is not as potent as Batrachotoxin, it still can be very dangerous. Even being hundreds of times less potent than Batrachotoxin, Pumiliotoxin causes paralysis, difficulty moving, and in severe cases death. This toxin causes irregular muscle contractions, putting the heart at risk.

Another species of dart frogs that is capable of producing Pumiliotoxin is the Dendrobates tinctorious, or the dyeing dart frog. One color variety is commonly mistaken for being a unique species – the blue azureus locale.  This frog is very unique in its display of vibrant blue colors. Each frog has a unique pattern of black spots on its back making it possible to identify between other frogs of the same type. This is similar the Bumblebee dart frogs because each Bumblebee dart frog has a unique banding that can be used to tell the frogs apart. These are frogs all have unique patters that distinguish them individually in a similar way that finger prints are used to distinguish human apart.  They also have different morphs of dart frogs in captivity. These morphs are caused through selective breeding. Breeders have created banded Bumblebee dart frogs where solid bands of black and yellow wrap the frog.

There are hundreds of types of poison dart frogs available to be kept as pets. Most species can live five to seven years in captivity. Because they have a decent life span in captivity, there is large number of offspring that can come from just a single pair. This is allowing them to become easily available and due to the sheer number available, new morphs are being created regularly in more species than just the Bumblebee dart frogs.

Since dart frogs cannot make poisons in captivity, they can make a great display pet for hobbyists because they are diurnal (awake during the day). Most dart frogs have vibrant colors used in the wild to show that they are dangerous and warn predators to stay away. Because of this, a dart frog’s security does not come from hiding like most animal species, but rather from being out in the open displaying warning colors. The dart frogs in captivity behave in the same ways they behave in the wild. Most dart frogs are not going to hide or sleep all day. This makes them a great “show” animal. Dendrobates auratus dart frogs are green and black, and their patterns often resemble a camo design. Again, each design is unique to each frog. They are one of the few dart frogs that are green in color. Although these frogs blend in to the green environment around them more so than species like the  Dendrobates tinctorious, they still stand out. Species like the Dendrobates auratus are a little shyer in captivity. Though they are out during the day, they are quicker to hide than other dart frogs if spooked. This type of shy behavior can be related to how potent the frog’s poison would be in the wild. Usually the most poisonous are brightly colored and the less poisonous are more likely to be subtly colored.  Although color can be used to describe how toxic the frogs can be, size does not relate to the toxicity of the animal.

There are species of dart frogs that stay very small like the blue jean (Dendrobates pumilio) dart frog. These frogs get no bigger than the average person’s thumbnail. This gives this group of frogs the widely used name of Thumbnail frogs. Most Thumbnail frogs are kept by experienced keepers because they can be less hardy than other species of dart frogs. Tinctorious species of dart frogs can get much bigger than thumbnail species. Some of these frogs get over two inches in length. Most Tinctorious species are territorial and will often bully other frogs of smaller size. Unlike the golden poison dart frogs who live in small groups, called an army, the Tinctorious species are more of loners in the wild. In captivity however, they can often be housed in pairs or trios. As long as the frogs are of similar size and have adequate room to roam around, they can do just fine together.  It is best to monitor your frogs closely when first introducing them, though, to ensure that there is no bullying between individuals.

Dart frogs are an animal that many scientists have taken an interest into studying. They are also making their way into the pet world and proving to be some of the most unique pets.  I highly suggest keeping one or more for yourself – there’s tons of species out there to try! 

Choosing the Right Bromeliad for the Tropical Vivarium – June 2013

By Bruno Magana

Among the wide variety of tropical plants suitable for the vivarium, there is arguably no other plant family more coveted than the bromeliads. As extensive as this family is, it can be quite difficult to figure out which ones will thrive in your set up. It is important to be able to distinguish between the types of bromeliads to know where the most suitable place in the vivarium is to plant them. Don’t worry, there are some interesting genera in this family that may narrow down your search.

Bromeliads are new world plants, which means they naturally come from the americas. Ranging from the east coast of the United States down into South America, you can imagine that these plants must have developed some interesting characteristics to overcome different habitats and climates. So it’s a relief to know there’s a suitable plant for almost any part of your vivarium.

The largest genus of bromeliads, Tillandsia, offers many suitable species for decorating pieces of wood and vivarium backgrounds.  More commonly referred to as “air plants”, tillandsia are probably one of the most recognizable bromeliads aside from pineapples (That’s right – pineapples are bromeliads!   Learn something new everyday huh?).  Tillandsias are mostly xerophytic epiphytes, which means they hold no water, but rather use specialized plant scales (trichomes) to collect water from the ambient air humidity. These are best suited for the top area of the tank were they get direct lighting – many of these plants will also appreciate the heat in such a placement. When you first acquire these plants, chances are they have not grown roots that would normally be used to anchor themselves to a surface. Using a small dab of non toxic adhesive, you can mount many of these species to decorate a piece of driftwood. Flexible wire can also be used to anchor tillandsia to a desired location. Many species of day geckos will even lay their eggs in mid sized tillandsia like T. Cyanea. Small species of chameleons may also appreciate T. Usneoides (commonly referred to as “Spanish moss”), as it can assist in their climb to that hard to reach basking spot.

Tillandsias in the Terrarium!

Some of the more exciting types of bromeliads are the tank epiphytes. These plants grow in such a way as to allow water to pool at the base of each leaf. To many species of frogs, this is the ideal nursery! Such a characteristic is also appealing for high strung tropical geckos in search for a water source.  Among these tank types, one of the most beautiful (in terms of color and pattern variation) genus is Neoregelia. While this genus ranges in size from small to mid sized plants, very few actually get very big. This is good news for that empty middle area of your vivarium! Many of these plants will attach themselves to wood in a similar way to members of the tillandsia genus, but they will also do fine in soil so long as it drains quickly. If you find yourself limited on space in your vivarium, these are a good choice because most Neoregelia grow flat rosettes. Not to mention many Neoregelia hybrids won’t exceed 5 inches or so! Small hybrids like “tiger pups”, “fireballs”, and “pepper” are suitable  to mount on cork branches or backgrounds going up the tank. Many species of dart frogs will readily rear tadpoles in these plants. Great news for anyone who fancies dart frogs!

Once you have your desired layout and the plants you have selected are in place, you may find yourself with a dull and rather boring patch of soil. It may take a long while before mosses thrive in this area and another plant may disturb the order of the set up. Fear not, there is a bromeliad for that! The genus Cryptanthus is a small group of bromeliads that really set themselves apart from most of the family. They are terrestrial plants that have a succulent appearance and often have wavy leaves. Cryptanthus need to be grown in soil. It is one of the few bromeliads that rely on the nutrients in the ground that can be collected with it roots (much like any other plant outside of the bromeliad family). You don’t need to dig deep for these plants, the roots grow out rather than down. This characteristic makes them good candidates for ground cover. Many smaller shy species of reptiles and amphibians will appreciate the shelters Cryptanthus will create.

Now that we have covered three genera of the bromeliad family, you should have a pretty good idea of their uses in the esthetic vivarium.

So go out and have fun with your next project. Remember that a happy plant will often result in a happy animal.