Multiple Species Habitats

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HUSBANDRY HINTS

MULTIPLE-SPECIES HABITATS

One of the most commonly asked questions among beginning reptile hobbyists is whether or not different species can live together in a single enclosure. While this may seem like a silly question to more advanced keepers, it is not without some merit. Why would it not make sense to keep one desert species with another? Or multiple tropical species in one giant terrarium?

The answer to this herpetological conundrum is neither short nor straightforward. Although many experienced keepers are now realizing that certain species can live together under correct conditions, there are still many details that must be considered and much careful planning to be made prior to undertaking such a project.

In this article the reader will be familiarized with some of the special needs involved in planning, constructing, and stocking a multiple species enclosure. This piece is by no means intended to exclude beginners, but is must be noted that one should have a thorough understanding of basic reptile husbandry prior to engaging in the type of projects discussed below.

Furthermore, readers should understand that much of the content herein is still considered controversial in some circles. Keep in mind that the author nor editor make any claims as to the absolute appropriateness or guaranteed success of keeping multiple species together. The goal here is to introduce the interested hobbyist to some of the pros and cons of multi-species habitats, as well as some of the many considerations that should be made during the planning stages.

As with any aspect of herpeteculture, there is more than one right way to maintain multiple species together. What follows is based upon the observations of the author as well as upon other compiled sources of data and personal communications. Only after carefully reading this article in full should the decision be made to undertake such a "risky" endeavor.

NATURE VS. CAPTIVITY

In the wild, many reptile and amphibian species have overlapping ranges and share their habitats with each other. However, in nature, there are no boundaries. There are no glass walls or screened panels forcing a group of animals to live in close contact. This simple fact is a direct answer to the so often posed quandary, "But they cross paths in nature, right?" Yes, they do, but they don't have to, and they can flee at any time.

Also, in nature reptiles and amphibians are being subjected to their optimal living conditions. This is not to say that contemporary herp keepers are incapable of properly providing for their charges, but that there is no substitution for mother nature. Wild animals receive a perfectly balanced diet, exposure to natural sunlight, and the ability to locate more suitable surroundings should the need arise.

As a result, wild animals are not going to be predisposed to many of the maladies that frequently present themselves in captive animals. Issues with malnutrition and environmental stress are quite rare among animals in the wild, and therefore these animals will often prove sturdier overall than those reared in captivity. So in short, the harmonious cohabitation that occurs in the Costa Rican rainforest is less likely to present itself in the terrarium.

NATURAL HABITATS

The first and perhaps most basic thing to consider when selecting species to house together are their natural habitats. For example, keeping desert species with tropical species would simply not work. Regardless of how much effort was put into the terrarium design, one or both species would not have their environmental needs met.

On a more specific level, the actual geographic origins of the species should be considered. In general, animals from the same area, be it a region, country, or even mountain range will fare better than those found in opposite sides of the globe. But limitations still exist. While rosy boas and bearded dragons may both be loosely classified as "desert" animals they would fail to make acceptable roommates.

Additionally, there can be great variation among plant life, temperature, and humidity within a relatively small given area. This too must be taken into consideration. For example, a given locale of Panama may have both cool highlands and warm, muggy valleys. Thus one cannot assume that because any two given species hail from the same country, that they have similar environmental requirements.

BEHAVIOR

Some of the most successful multi-species setups contain both arboreal and terrestrial species. Animals that are truly arboreal in nature rarely spend time on the ground, while terrestrial animals will only seldom climb, and when they do it is to a lesser extent. By paring terrestrial species with arboreal ones the keeper can rest assured that the animals will rarely, if ever, be competing for the same space.

Overall demeanor and predatory tendencies should be considered as well. Certain species are more bold and aggressive while others tend to be submissive and timid. When choosing animals to keep communally, one should strive for species with similar levels of activity and aggression.

Furthermore, species that are noted as being especially territorial (male inguanids and agamids) should be avoided in multi-species terrariums. While the majority of this energy is typically geared towards conspecifics, it is not unheard of for males of different species to engage in various combat behaviors.

SIZE

The size of the animals being considered, as well as their adult size, should be kept in mind as well. Even placid animals may prey upon cage mates if the size difference in great enough. Unfortunately there is no way to predict with any certainty how much size variation is acceptable. However, a general rule of thumb is that the smallest inhabitant should be no less than 75% the size of the largest animal in the enclosure.

CAPTIVE REQUIREMENTS

The specific husbandry needs of a given animal are based mostly on their natural habitats and behaviors. However, even animals with similar natural histories may have differing needs in captivity. Aspects such as basking temperatures, humidity levels, and need for full spectrum lighting should be considered.

Green anoles, American tree frogs, and rough green snakes are often housed together without incidence. However, both the snake and lizard species mentioned will thrive only when provided with full spectrum light, while frogs typically shun such illumination. This is not to say that this trio is not an acceptable grouping, but that dense foliage must be provided to provide the frogs with shade will providing the other animals with appropriate basking spots. This is just one example of the many special considerations involved with designing a communal habitat.

DIET

The captive diets of the animals being housed should be kept in mind as well. Some animals are insectivores that will readily accept a variety of small invertebrate prey. Others are vegetarian and will only be bothered by the presence of feeder insects within the enclosure. Still others have even more specialized dietary needs pertaining not only to the type of food, but also to how and when it is offered.

In the case of snakes which are almost always rodent eaters, additional measures will need to be taken to ensure the animals overall health and well being. Most notably is the practice of separating communal snakes during feeding. This allows the keeper to closely monitor which individuals are feeding regularly and which are not while also ensuring that more than one snake does not try to consume the same prey item.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The art of keeping reptiles is just that, an art. While it is a medium that can be easily mastered by anyone willing to learn, there remain certain aspects that are still evolving. Only time and experience can truly prepare a reptile owner for the myriad of surprises that captive herps tend to offer.

However, this is not a bad thing. Simply further evidence that we are always learning and making adjustments based on past failures and successes. This is all particularly applicable to the matter at hand, which is housing various species together in a single enclosure. While it is more often that not scoffed at by many hobbyists, we must not fear experimentation. After all, it was only through much experimentation and trial that our hobby has become what it is today.

Perhaps multi-species vivariums will be the next wave in popular herpeteculture. Perhaps they are the next "big thing" just waiting to be properly explored and implemented. In short, the use of good judgement, moderate experience, and a bit of luck can result in a multi-species habitat that is not only functional, but extremely rewarding to the keeper as well.

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