Can You Use a Terrarium as an Aquarium?

One of the fascinating aspects of fish and reptiles is that though they live in diverse environments that neither can really be entirely comfortable in, how we house them at home is not that dissimilar. They’re even put close together in a pet store. 

Something about the fact that they are both in some sort of tank just makes it easier for the clerks and clientele to demarcate that this is the area of the store for turtles, lizards, snakes and fish. 

It’s worth noting, however, that while it’s incredibly easy to turn an aquarium once full of fish into a terrarium, the reverse is not also true. Terrariums make awful aquariums.

In this blog, we’ll go over the differences between the two as well as explain why using an old terrarium as an aquarium would be a mistake. Then we’ll tell you how to do the reverse. 

What is the Difference Between an Aquarium and a Terrarium?

The difference between aquariums and terrariums can be found in the very names by which we call them.

“Aquarium” contains the word “aqua”, meaning water. This would be the precise opposite of “Terra”, meaning land. 

So naturally, aquariums are made for creatures that live in water, while terrariums are built for land animals like reptiles and snakes. So an aquarium would primarily be concerned with keeping the animals inside in water and keeping that water clean. 

As such, an aquarium is a sealed environment where the water can be completely contained. The last thing you’d want is a leak in your aquarium. 

Terrariums are built for land and creatures that breathe air. Not only is it not necessary for the terrarium to be waterproof, you don’t necessarily want it to be. The animal inside will need air to naturally circulate through a grate or mesh on top rather than a seal. 

But there are plenty of reptiles that can easily, safely and comfortably be kept in a dry aquarium. 

What Happens If You Put Water In a Terrarium?

The reason aquariums are so good for keeping water is that they are made of a special kind of silicone that makes them waterproof, incapable of leaking easily. 

You could conceivably add water to a terrarium, but it would no longer be a terrarium, it would become known as a paludarium. Terminology aside, it’s not like you can simply add water and start calling it something else. 

Terrariums are made differently, set up for drainage to change the water inside. They are layered with pebbles and gravel that are there to bring the water to the plants. A paludarium has an entirely different set up. 

How to Turn an Aquarium into a Reptile Terrarium

Here are nine easy steps to turning your aquarium into a terrarium that can house your most prized plants. You’ll also be able to create a brilliant, beautiful environment with plenty of plantlife your animal can enjoy. 

Step 1: Choosing the Right Aquarium

Aquariums, new or old, can make excellent terrariums with just a few slight modifications. Any size aquarium can make a terrific terrarium, so long as they can properly house whatever animals and plants you want to keep inside.

Ideally, you’ll want at least a ten gallon tank. If you’re going to be loading it with wildlife both plant and animal, you’ll want a lot of room for it to breathe. If you’re reusing an old aquarium, be sure to clean it thoroughly using disinfectant and water. 

Step 2: Creating a Layer of Gravel at the Base

Potted plants are far easier to deal with. They have a base that includes a drainage hole to make watering go smoothly. You don’t have that kind of luxury in a terrarium, so you have to create your own. 

You’ll want to create a layer approximately one to one-and-a-half inch thick, which in many cases can take up to two bags of gravel. Don’t worry about being exact, you can go as high as two inches for adequate drainage. The important matter is that you have enough for water to easily drain underneath, and there’s no harm in overfilling. 

Step 2: Adding a Sphagnum Moss Layer

Sphagnum moss is an important addition between the gravel and your topsoil, as it ensures the topsoil won’t go into the gravel too quickly. Think of it like creating a very small diorama-like display of the first layer of the earth. You want to approximate that as best you can. 

Soak the moss in warm water for a few minutes before opening the bag. Be sure to squeeze any excess water from the moss. Then, spread a layer across the gravel. It doesn’t have to be incredibly thick, and one bag should be more than enough to fill the space. 

Step 4: Adding Activated Charcoal

Activated charcoal may not be on your list of things to put in your terrarium, but NASA disagrees. It’s fair to say they’re the experts on the matter, and they say it helps filter the water as well as prevent fungi from growing. 

Again you won’t need to overdo it, just a thin layer of charcoal should be more than enough. The charcoal will also help remove any odors that might develop. 

Step 5: Adding Soil Mix

Choose which soil mix you’d like to work with, as there are plenty on the market. Which you use will depend on what kind of plants you intend to grow. 

One thing you may not have considered is how to aesthetically apply the soil so it makes your terrarium look particularly special. Try adding about three inches of soil in the front of the aquarium (not a terrarium yet!), then start lessening the amount by a few centimeters as you go back. 

This creates a really interesting curve that makes it look as though you scooped this area right out of nature, perfectly encased. 

Step 6: Adding Decorations

Here, you can go nuts. There are plenty of decorations and living quarters for your reptiles that you can purchase at the pet store. You can also get creative and make your own. Pick up rocks from outside and scrub them clean, making sure they can’t bring in any viruses. 

Houses for a reptile vary depending on the size of the creature and where they enjoy living. Vines, branches, statues, tiny little enclosures in which they can hide – all are easily available. 

But you’ll always want some kind of plant life for your creature to properly feel at home in your newly converted reptile terrarium. 

Can I Use an Aquarium as a Reptile Tank?

Aquariums are often used by people as reptile tanks, though it’s most certainly not recommended. They are designed for housing fish, and fish live in water. Some reptiles, such as turtles, spend most of their time in water, but they still need a beach to really feel like they’re not in foreign territory. 

So while it’s certainly possible if you have no other alternatives, it’s not advised. 

Still, no matter what reptile you have, if you are going to do use an aquarium, some modifications are required. 

First, you have to ensure no gaps are in the aquarium where the reptile can escape. If the animal requires a humid climate, a plastic screen should be used on top to limit the airflow, though it should have holes so the creature does not suffocate. 

Here are the Reptiles that do Best in Modified Aquariums. 

  • Small Turtles

Young turtles, or turtles that aren’t going to get very big, tend to thrive in these environments. Red-eared sliders and painted turtles are aquatic turtles that love the water. 

  • Small Snakes

Ball pythons, kingsnakes and snakes that are about the same size can live in aquariums. You can also keep younger large snakes such as boa constrictors, however this would need to be a temporary situation. 

Any snake above five feet should be housed in a custom built reptile cage. 

  • Small Lizards

With proper lighting and a screen lid, several small species of lizards can live in aquariums. The only issue is that lizards are crafty little creatures, and they’ll take any opportunity to escape. If you’ve got something like a chameleon, who has a built-in camouflage system, you’re going to have a pretty hard time tracking them down. 

It’s one of those questions people often get stuck on – like the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. You know what the difference is, but sometimes you can’t recall which does which.

And much like those two professions, they can’t be easily reversed. An aquarium can be turned into a terrarium, however a terrarium cannot be easily or practically turned into an aquarium. It would result in a leaky aquarium. 

It’s always better to use the tanks that are specifically designed to house the creatures and plants that you choose to keep in your home, but there are times when that’s not always possible or easy. What matters is that the animal, whatever kind you have, is happy. 

Also read

Can You Put Moss Ball In A Turtle Tank?

Best Turtle Tank Dividers

How To Fix Cloudy Turtle Tank Water


Aquariums & Terrariums Differences: 9 Important Do’s And Don’ts –

Terrarium VS. Aquarium VS. Vivarium – Differences Explained –

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