A terrarium is a window into a biome; a slice of nature you can keep on your desk. It’s a dynamic, growing, and changing ecosystem that’s self-contained and self-perpetuating.
A terrarium is also a jar of dirt and some weeds. Depends on how you look at it.
What is a Terrarium?
“Terrarium” is a pretty broad term. It can describe a lot of different setups, but here is a working definition:
A terrarium is a sealed or unsealed container that contains elements of a terrestrial ecosystem.
What does that mean? What does a typical terrarium look like?
To start, a terrarium is a type of vivarium, just like aquariums, paludariums, jarrariums, and so on. A vivarium is just a container with some life in it. A terrarium, then, is a container with terrestrial (or land-based) life.
That will include microbes, plants, and even some (small) animals!
And, like vivariums, terrariums can be broken down into even more categories: orchidariums (for orchids), formicariums (for ants), and mossariums (for moss, duh) to name a few.
But that’s all just details – why are we even talking about terrariums?
Why you should build a Terrarium
People build terrariums for several reasons:
Terrariums as Art
A carefully-crafted terrarium can be very aesthetically pleasing. As a form of living art, few other decorations can match the natural beauty of a terrarium. People keep houseplants for the simple joy of having nature close at hand and for the splash of color they bring indoors. A terrarium does the same, but it does it on several levels.
After all, houseplants don’t interact with each other or anything else. They’re a beautiful, albeit static, addition to a space. Terrariums change as the plants and animals within interact with another, with the soil chemistry, and with the water cycle. Unlike a painting on a wall, a terrarium will be different everytime you look at it.
Terrariums as Pets
Easily the most common application of terrariums, people keep terrariums all the time for their pets. Lizards, snakes, tarantulas, bugs, etc. are often kept in bio-active terrariums (a terrarium with a healthy microorganism population, as opposed to a glass box with mulch/wood shaving floors).
However, that’s a somewhat narrow view of terrariums. Sure, most people are focused on the green anole lizard that is the centerpiece of a terrarium, but that reptile doesn’t have to be the whole pet. Instead, consider the entire terrarium to be a pet.
The lizard, the ferns, the pillbugs, the springtails, the moss… everything! It’s all part of a living system. The health of the terrarium as a whole is dependent on each of the constituent parts. You’re not just caring for a lizard, you’re caring for an ecosystem!
Terrariums as Experiments
This perspective is near to our hearts, here at Self Sustaining Ecosystem. Yes, a terrarium is artful and a network of living organisms, but it’s also an exercise in biospherics.
A terrarium can be set up as a totally-enclosed habitat. One that nothing enters or exits. A meticulous balancing act of nutrients and waste, of energy and entropy. It’s a dance of chemicals and the result is vibrant, vivacious life.
That’s our ultimate goal: to create a system that can sustain itself perpetually without any outside influence. Terrariums are the perfect tool to explore the concept – you can visually monitor the progress of a system through the glass without opening the container and you can seal it to allow light in but prevent anything from escaping.
Not to mention you can set up a terrarium for free in a few minutes with the materials in your house and backyard.
Terrariums are also a great model to explain and illustrate many concepts in ecology, making them an excellent learning tool for young and old alike.