Star Tortoise Garden @
Star Tortoise Garden @

Vivariums for Tortoises

Vivariums aka terrariums

Vivariums are box-like, totally enclosed reptile cages with clear front doors. They can also be called vivs, terrariums or closed chambers. Among reptile keepers, these terms are often used interchangeably when referring to fully closed reptile enclosures. Using vivariums as indoor habitats for tortoises has been long debated among tortoise keepers, but in recent years vivs have again gained more popularity and acceptance, especially as baby tortoise enclosures for tropical species. Some love them while others don't.

The smallest vivariums have a too limited floor space and provide an inadequate temperature gradient. Therefore, choose the LONGEST vivarium possible with a height of about 2 ft, or more, to allow room for heating, basking, and UVB lights. It's much easier to create a temperature gradient in a longer, 4-8 ft (122-244 cm) vivarium than in a short one.

Stars vs Greeks

Regardless of species, fast growing baby tortoises need higher humidity than adults. Adequate humidity and hydration is extremely important for their well-being and also affects their shell development. Higher humidity level promotes smooth shell growth.

Vivariums work best for hatchlings and youngsters of tropical tortoise species like star tortoises. They retain warmth and humidity easily and thus help keep babies well hydrated.

Greeks tortoises and other similar dry area species can be raised in open top enclosures, but they need deep, slightly damp substrate areas for burrowing. This allows them to spend as much time as they wish in a humid environment.

vivarium / terrarium for star tortoise babies

Simple vivarium (aka viv, terrarium, closed chambers) setup for Burmese star babies. I pour warm water into the substrate as needed to keep it damp.

vivarium / terrarium / closed chambers  for baby star tortoises

This vivarium for Burmese star tortoise hatchlings is filled few inches deep with the smallest size coconut husk chips (BapiChips by ReptiChip). The wet coco chips keep the humidity up well as you can see from the front doors, and they don't bother my allergies too bad.

vivarium for baby star tortoises

This Burmese star tortoise baby vivarium (closed chambers) is filled with high grade New Zealand sphagnum moss. It is one of the two substrates my asthma and allergies can tolerate in a warm, humid vivarium. Moss is also very soft and easy for babies to burrow into. My favorite moss is Spagmoss by Besgrow. It is very clean and super absorbent. It holds humidity up very well inside a viv.

vivarium / terrarium / closed chambers for baby star tortoises

Vivarium for baby Burmese stars. Following current recommendations, the T-5 HO UV tube covers only half of the vivarium.

One side of the viv is bright and warm with a long UV tube, a basking bulb and a LED light. In the middle of the ceiling is a thermostat controlled reptile radiant heat panel to keep the minimum ambient temperature in the low 80's F. The other half of the viv is darker, a bit cooler, and more humid with many plants (fake or real) for hiding.

If you use the older style, less strong and less bright T-8 UV tubes you can cover 2/3 of the viv. The last 3rd of the viv will be a refuge from the UV radiation. Dark hides can be used as UV free hide areas as well.

Lighting & heating

Fully enclosed reptile cages can be quite dark because the ceiling and all walls are made of solid material. Only the clear front doors let in some natural light. Like living in a cave. Using bright day light bulbs and UVB for midday hours will help lighten the interior. See the lighting page.

Keep the basking end of the vivarium warmer and the other end cooler. Do check the temperature gradient and humidity levels carefully. You'll need to be sure that the conditions inside the cage are optimal. If the allover ambient temperature is too high, there's no place for the tortoise to escape the heat! See the heating page.

vivarium for baby Indian star tortoises

Vivarium for Indian star tortoise babies. Photo courtesy of Julius Guillaumey, France.

vivarium for baby star tortoises

Vivarium for star babies. Photo courtesy of Julius Guillaumey, France.

vivarium for baby star tortoises

Vivarium for star babies. Photo courtesy of Julius Guillaumey, France.

vivarium for baby star tortoises

Vivarium for star babies. Photo courtesy of Julius Guillaumey, France.

Vivariums & allergies

Vivariums & odors

Vivariums keep heat and humidity inside the enclosure and also help control substrate odors in the room. With this, I mean the smell of clean substrate itself, not the smell of accumulated animal waste.

This odor taming may help allergic and asthmatic keepers who are sensitive to substrates used in tortoise enclosures. Even so, some of the allergy irritating "odor" leaks out of the vivs through the space between the front doors and other small openings. If you keep your vivariums in your living space inside your home, this can be a problem. Moving vivs to the garage, or other non-living space, would be helpful, but then you would almost never see your tortoises. :0(

Regrettably, vivariums also concentrate the allergy causing allergens and odors. Retrieving babies for baths, placing food in the vivarium, changing the water, and other care tasks expose allergic keepers to the irritating odors inside the viv. Cleaning large vivariums can be especially difficult for allergics because you have to keep your head inside the enclosure and breath substrate odors during the whole cleaning process.

Vivariums & substrates

Many tortoise keepers like to use fir bark (aka orchid bark), as the substrate in their vivariums. Unfortunately, fir bark is awfully odorous and can be especially irritating to people with astma and allergies. So is cypress mulch. Both are extremely irritating to my asthma and allergies as well. I cannot use either one. Neither in a vivarium nor in an open top enclosure.

Coconut husk chips aggravate my allergies way less than fir bark or cypress mulch, but even coco chips can stir up my allergies, especially when used in a muggy vivarium. In a closed, warm, and humid space, substrate odors become strong, concentrated, and extra irritating.

Some brands of coconut husk chips are cleaner and less smelly than others. Try different brands until you find the best, least irritating one for you. My current favorite is BabiChips by ReptiChip. These coco chips are small in size, very clean, and have less string-like fibers.

The only other substrate I can tolerate in a humid vivarium is sphagnum moss. It's almost odorless, can hold a lot of water, is soft for babies to dig into, and easily keeps the vivarium air humid. For more info, see the substrates page.

Enlarging vivariums

For older youngsters, you can join two, or more, vivariums together by creating a doorway between them. For example, joining two 6 ft long vivariums together gives you a 12 ft enclosure.

You can remove whole walls or just cut a doorway between the vivariums. Smaller door openings are easier to patch up if you later decide to separate the vivariums again. Some vivarium sellers even build units with removable side walls to allow them to be connected.

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