Setting Up Your Vivarium
With their beauty and ease of care, dart frogs are ever growing in popularity. Your vivarium can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. With so many options for vivarium setup available in today\'s world, dart frog enthusiasts are trending toward more naturalistic setups. Not only are these setups aesthetically pleasing, they also help the frogs to feel more at ease and allow you to view more natural behavoir. Whichever way you decide to go, there are some basic requirements for the frogs that you will need to keep in mind.
First of all, you will need to select an enclosure. The size of the enclosure will be dictated by the number of frogs you keep in it. A good rule of thumb is one frog per 10 gallon size. Whether you chose a pre-made, all-glass aquarium, or if you choose to make one out of other materials, keep in mind that dart frogs do require high humidity (80-100%) so it will need to be waterproof. Choose your materials accordingly. Also, be sure it is fitted with a secure top. In the wild, dart frogs can be found nesting in bromelaids up to 3 meters above the forest floor, so yes, they do climb. They can also squeeze through surprisingly small cracks.
Several different background materials can be used. Cork bark is usually the most popular, however, tree fern panels, coconut fiber, and coco panels are also used, and a combination of materials can give an interesting effect. Whatever you decide to use, secure it to the back of the enclosure using 100% silicone rubber sealant. Be sure the silicone does not contain mildew inhibitors - these can kill your frogs.
Drainage is very important in a rainforest vivarium. With the humidity in the vivarium reaching 100% and the frequent misting of the plants and frogs, insufficient drainage soon results in a saturated substrate and plants standing in water. A false bottom is one way to provide drainage. With a false bottom, you avoid having to drill a drainage hole in your tank or having to use heavy materials like gravel for drainage. Or if you choose, you can use Hydroton or alifor for your drainage layer. These are fired clay pellets that are very lightweight and pH neutral. The large size of the clay pellets provides excellent drainage and allows air pockets for the plant roots. You will need an approximately 2" deep layer of clay pellets if you use them for your drainage layer. If you use a false bottom, you can also use a 1" layer of clay pellets on top of your plastic eggcrate to provide extra drainage. If you do this, it is recommended to use fiberglass window screen on top of the eggcrate to prevent the clay pellets from falling through. You will also need to cut another piece of fiberglass window screen to place on top of your clay pellets to prevent your substrate from settling into the pellets.
At this point, you are ready for the substrate. There are many premade mixes on the market (Jungle Mix, Forest Floor, etc.) which will work well. There are also many "recipes" available on the internet for planting mixes that provide good drainage and nutrients for the plants using readily available nutrients. At Vivarium Concepts we custom blend our own substrate using a variation of the recipe the Botanical Gardens in Atlanta uses for their bromelaids. We do not recommend using potting soil in vivariums. Basically, potting soil only provides an anchor for plant roots - the plants quickly use all the available nutrients and it soon has to be amended with fertilizer. Also, once potting soil is wet, it packs down and can suffocate the plant roots, so it is not a good choice for a vivarium.
Whichever substrate you use, be sure that it does not contain the small styrofoam pellets so often found in potting soils -- these can be ingested by the frogs and may block their digestion and kill them.
Once you have your substrate in place, you can start landscaping your vivarium. This is the fun part! If you have chosen to use a water feature, this will probably be your focal point and you can start landscaping around it. Pieces of wood can be used for climbing and hiding places for your dart frogs as well as mounting epiphetic plants. Choose your wood with care. Not all wood is suitable for use in high humidity environments. Ghostwood, driftwood, and cork are some of the best choices. Use your imagination! You can use rocks or wood to build up terraces or mounds. Try different combinations of wood pieces and rocks. There is no right or wrong -- it's whatever looks good to you.
Fantastic backgrounds, waterfalls, ponds, islands, and other features can be created using Vivarium Concepts Quick-Dry Mortar (click here for more info).
Now it's time for the plants. Keep in mind that the plants you choose need to be suited to an environment of moist substrate, high humidity, and low lighting. You will also need to keep in mind the size of your plants in relationship to your setup. Although they start as small plants, most of the plants probably won't stay small. Some plants respond well to pruning. These plants can be kept proportional in size to the virarium. Use larger growing plants at the back of the tank and smaller ones toward the front. Vines and creepers can be planted at the back of a wood piece or at the back wall. These types can be "trained" to grow up the back wall, filling it in for a green wall effect, or they can also be entwined around a piece of wood.
It is best to "dry fit" your plants. This refers to setting them in place in the vivarium before you remove them from their pots. This way, it's easier to move them around and see how they will look in different places.
After you have decided on your final placements for your plants, you will need to remove them from their pots and prepare them for planting. Using distilled or treated tap water, rinse the entire plant in cool water. Rinse off as much of the potting soil as possible. Make a hole in the substrate large enough to accomodate the roots. Gently place the roots in the hole and pack the substrate around the plant carefully by hand. After all plants have been planted, gently mist the plants with distilled water to rinse any substrate from the leaves.
Using "Clean" Materials
Be sure to avoid plants, substrate, background, and other landscaping materials that have been treated with pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals. Even fertilizers must be used with extreme care, which is why we recommend using a substrate that does not require additional fertilizers. Beware also of chemicals that might be on your hands when you put them into the vivarium. Like all amphibians, dart frogs are very sensitive to chemicals and pollution -- these may be absorbed through your frogs' skin and can kill your frogs.
Your lighting is primarily for the benefit of your plants. Dart frogs do not require special lighting. In nature, they live on the forest floor among the leaf litter where very little sunlight penetrates Flourescent light fixtures with a full spectrum bulb will usually be enough light for most applications, however, if the tank is very tall or long you might be better off with power compact lights. Good light is very important in keeping the terrarium looking and growing well. A cycle of 12-14 hours on is usually sufficiant.
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All rights reserved. Photographis signed "Kevi" are by Kevin Danheiser.
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