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Article - Making cavernicolous terraria decor

Posted 20-09-2009 at 01:27 PM by GRB
I've posted it here to avoid it being lost in a sea of other threads.

Making cavernicolous terraria


Cavernicolous animals are animals which inhabit caves and caverns. These cave dwellers can be classified into those which can only inhabit caves (Troglobites), to those which enter caves opportunistically and can survive outside of the cave (Troglophiles). A third variant includes those animals which utilise caves to hibernate or overwinter, called Trogloxenes.

I’ve been after some Amblypygids for several years and recently the opportunity arose in which to obtain some Damon diadema, so naturally I jumped at the chance of creating a large display tank to house these fascinating animals. Rather than sticking with a generic store-bought container, I decided upon a cavernicolous set up mainly because the increased complexity of such environments allows for greater freedom in creating terrarium décor.

A cavern theme also allowed me to mix my interest in arthropods with my collection of fossils as many caves contain rich fossil deposits within them, and I thought these might make for interesting and eye catching decoration. I thought this article might be of interest to people who want to recreate similar environments for their own pets, but who might not be familiar with the relatively easy techniques that give fast and decent looking results.


I planned on using a 45cm Exo-Terra cube vivarium, although I immediately decided that the supplied background would need some work to make it look the part. For the walls of the cavern I decided that flat cork back sheets (broken into irregular sections) would make a lightweight, cheap and robust material to build upon.

After a quick dry fit I removed the sections from the vivarium and began making them look more like sections of rock face. The first task was to seal the polystyrene back wall using pva glue, before spraypainting it black. You need to seal polystyrene as it dissolves with solvent based paints. The cork bark sections were also sprayed black.

Whilst this material was drying, I painted all the fossils using a non toxic, natural yacht varnish (Le tonkinois Vernis No.1). This is an important step as fossils containing pyrite could potentially leach iron oxides into the vivarium, and pyrite is known to degrade to a white powder in conditions of high humidity. Another reason was so that later coats of grout and paint could be wiped off without damaging the fossils.

The next stage was to add a 3D element to the sections. I used small coal blocks glued directly onto the wall material. A few fossils were also included with coal around to make them look as if they were recently exposed from the background matrix.

I then filled in the holes using black grout and covered most of the polystyrene in this grout to disguise the various holes. Once this had dried thoroughly I painted large regions of the wall sections with pva glue and scattered coarse sand over this to add texture. Don’t cover the entire piece with sand as this will make it look too uniform and ruin the effect. After drying, this surface was then sealed again using water and pva glue mixed 50:50.

Painting and finishing

Painting cavern décor relies on two basic techniques - acrylic washes and dry brushing.

Using acrylic washes is an easy and fast method of painting uneven surfaces such as these sand covered cavern walls. You need to water down your pigments to about 1:4 consistency with water which can then be applied using a spray bottle. I mixed a basic grey colour which matched the stone matrix around my fossils. I then varied that basic colour with small patches of reddish grey or bluish grey. This gave a base colour similar to a light slate.

Drybrushing is another simple technique ideal for creating a rock effect. The basic idea is to load the brush and then remove almost all the paint from the brush onto a rag or such. The nearly dry brush is then gently brushed over the area you want to paint where it gradually builds up highlights on any raised areas. This effect is best seen on the coal lumps where it highlights all the veins and natural creases. Just remember to keep a light touch and apply several layers. It gradually deepens the effect and can give great looking results with little effort.

After drying, the wall sections were then varnished again to seal them, this time with a full matt effect using the ‘gelomat’ solution (LeTonkinois and “Gelomat” mixed 50:50).

It was at this stage I decided that making a roof section was going to be exceedingly difficult, so I altered the section into a floor section.

The substrate was 1” of pea gravel covered with coir fibre and top dressed with microfossil grit. This is just a nice grit which contains fossils of no real value – tiny shark teeth, bits of coral and other such fragments. There’s no requirement to use such grit but I felt it would add some extra detail. After adding a few blocks of painted coal and some selected fossils the tank was almost finished. I just need to clean some of the excess paint from the fossils and add some more details, but the damon seem happy

The next stage is to create similar sections to form roof panels and another side wall, and I would like to also create stone pillars from modelling foam to complete the look.

For now however the vivarium is set up and complete (see below), and the whip spiders seem to be settling in well. I hope this spurs readers into creating their own display terraria, and hopefully illustrates that whilst there are great ready-made products out there, great looking terraria can be made for a fraction of the price with a little know how.

Now that I've made this, I think it would have been easier to start with a polystyrene box, which would have formed the walls, back and roof of the vivarium. However, I am happy with the results and all told, it probably cost around £30 for materials besides the fossils which I collect separately.

Total Comments 3


Very interesting mate! I have a whip scorp free to good home! Adult male as far as i know
Posted 19-03-2010 at 09:52 PM by _TiMiSdRuNk_ _TiMiSdRuNk_ is offline
GRB's Avatar
Hey Tim,

What species do you know? If you can't find a home for the little dude I could provide a house for him. I'm needing to watch how many pets I have however, otherwise I'd make a more solid offer on him.

Glad you found the blog interesting. I've tried some more ideas recently next time I get a large tub I might do another decorated tank, they are quite a bit of fun to make.
Posted 21-03-2010 at 05:30 PM by GRB GRB is offline
Stelios's Avatar
This is the first blog that I have ever read and I must say it will probably be the most interesting that I will ever read.
I thought that exo setup with the mosses was good, but this just eclipses that.
Posted 10-03-2011 at 04:13 PM by Stelios Stelios is offline
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