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What is the Difference Between a Terrarium and an Aquarium?

E.D. Bickford
E.D. Bickford

The biggest difference between a terrarium and an aquarium is the presence of water, and the types of plants and animals that commonly inhabit each also tend to be quite different. In general, aquariums are filled completely with water. This water can be fresh, salty, or brackish depending on the contents, but the contents all have an important thing in common: they are capable of existing under water. Fish are popular choices, as are sea snails and certain corals and anemones. Terrariums, on the other hand, may include some water features, but are generally not actually filled with water. These tend to be enclosed habitats for plants and may also be homes for certain land-based creatures, including some types of reptiles, insects, or amphibians. In most cases there are a number of similarities between the two types of habitat when it comes to size and placement, and both can be modified to fit within a lot of different environments. The plants and animals in each aren’t usually interchangeable, though.

Basic Concept

A frog in a terrarium.
A frog in a terrarium.

Both terrariums and aquariums serve a similar purpose, namely to act as microcosms of the natural world. In this setting a “microcosm” is essentially a miniature version. The enclosed space is a recreation of a natural setting, usually complete with plants, animals, and terrain elements like rocks, dirt, or sand. In general both are made up of glass or clear plastic, which allows people on the outside to closely observe the workings of the environment that’s been contained.

An aquarium.
An aquarium.

Most feature plants, but this isn’t essential, particularly where aquariums are concerned. Both also tend to be most common in individual homes among amateur botanists and more casual pet owners, but again this isn’t exclusive and both sorts of habitats are also used in more serious research endeavors. In these respects the two types of space have a lot in common. The most profound difference comes in terms of habitats studied or observed, with aquariums capturing instances of undersea or underwater life while terrariums recreate earth-based scenes.


Terrariums rarely contain water.
Terrariums rarely contain water.

There is some evidence suggesting that terrariums came first, at least when it comes to popularity within the scientific community. Dr. Nathaniel Ward, an English physician and amateur botanist, is credited with creating the first terrarium in the early 1800s, basically by accident. As the story goes, he had been out gathering cocoons, and he placed them in a covered glass jar for storage. After a few days he noticed that there were tiny plants growing in the jar next to the cocoons. Enthralled by what he saw, he began to construct terrariums to study ecosystems in miniature.

Differences in Habitat

Terrariums typically contain soil, rocks, and plants.
Terrariums typically contain soil, rocks, and plants.

The primary and most significant difference between a terrarium and aquarium is water. A standard terrarium focuses on some element of the natural, land-based habitat just as Dr. Ward’s did. Some are based wholly on plant life, but they can also feature things like frogs, lizards, or insects. The main idea is to create a small little world complete with all elements necessary to sustain life.

A pet lizard would live in a terrarium, as they are land-based animals.
A pet lizard would live in a terrarium, as they are land-based animals.

Aquariums are almost always filled with water, and the creatures that live in these settings are those that are typically considered “aquatic.” Fish are common additions, as are certain corals; things like sea spiders and eels can also be present. Aquariums help people view and observe sections of life that would otherwise happen out of sight beneath the surface of lakes, reservoirs, and oceans.

Ecosystem Possibilities

It is possible to recreate almost any ecosystem between these two models, though some of the world’s harsher climates and conditions might take more care to closely replicate. Things like temperature sensors, salinity meters, and air quality gauges can help owners keep the internal environments in either setting closely controlled. Even habitats that are designed to be more or less recreational need occasional monitoring and cleaning to keep them healthy.

Soothing Effects

Studies have shown that a terrarium and aquarium both evoke a sense of peace in their surroundings. Human heart rates have been measured to noticeably decrease in a room that has an aquarium, for instance, which is often one of the reasons why doctors’ offices and medical clinics feature these sorts of attractions. Additionally, the process of creating a terrarium and setting miniature pieces into play is said to have soothing effects on the creator.

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Discussion Comments


My fish tank just broke but I have a terrarium not being used. Is a dry terrarium water-sealed so I can put my fish in it?


Aquariums with jellyfish are supposed to be very peaceful. So much so that there are places in Japan where people can go specifically to sleep next to a jellyfish tank.

It's very expensive though, and most people couldn't keep a jellyfish tank at home as the current needed to keep them alive has to be very strong and large.

You can also get fake jellyfish tanks which just look like live jellyfish but I don't know if they have the same effect as a live aquarium or terrarium would.


You can also buy micro terrariums, containing small terrarium plants that can be used as pendants. Usually they just have a small bit of moss or a tiny fern or something.

I have also seen aquariums made into clothing, like those goldfish high heeled shoes that were supposed to be popular a while ago.

I don't think many people would actually wear those though.

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    • A frog in a terrarium.
      A frog in a terrarium.
    • An aquarium.
      By: Matthew Jones
      An aquarium.
    • Terrariums rarely contain water.
      By: elodie bailly
      Terrariums rarely contain water.
    • Terrariums typically contain soil, rocks, and plants.
      By: Wicker Paradise
      Terrariums typically contain soil, rocks, and plants.
    • A pet lizard would live in a terrarium, as they are land-based animals.
      By: mgkuijpers
      A pet lizard would live in a terrarium, as they are land-based animals.