How do I build a vivarium for my Abronia?

Abronia graminea, also known as arboreal Mexican alligator lizards, is a unique species of lizard native to the highland cloud forests of Veracruz and Puebla in Mexico. Abronia have prehensile tails and overlapping scales, giving them an extremely prehistoric appearance. Abronia live high up in the tree canopy, and actually use bromeliads as shelter. Abronia are also viviparous, giving birth to 4-14 live young once a year or so. Abronia eat a wide variety of insects and other arthropods in the wild – in captivity, they thrive off of cricketsphoenix wormshorn worms, and other live feeder insects. It is important to dust all feeder insects with a quality vitamin/mineral supplement.

Abronia are also endangered in the wild, due to habitat destruction and an inability of the lizard to adapt to disturbed habitat. Because of this, there should be an increased emphasis on breedingAbronia in captivity, so that future generations can enjoy this amazing creature.


 Abronia graminea in a bromeliad. This species of Abronia commonly has a yellow right around it’s eyes, which fade to white in captivity.

I’ve been fascinated by this species for a very, very long time. Longer than I knew what this species was called, as a matter of fact. Years ago, I came across a picture of a green Abronia, simply labeled as an arboreal alligator lizard. Little other information was given, but it began a quest that finally culminated over a decade later with the purchase of a single male CBB Abronia graminea in August. Shortly thereafter, I began construction on a 24”x18”x36 Exo Terra Glass Terrarium, determined to replicate a Mexican cloud forest, and make my new captive feel more at home.


Sandblasted manzanita in place in the vivarium. Sandblasted manzanita is a great vivarium wood – it is hard, durable, and will not rot for several years.

 This vivarium already had a background in place – to replicate it, check out the blogs Dont Back Down From the Background and How To Create a Fake Rock Background. I used some nice pieces of sandblasted manzanita, one of several varieties of vivarium friendly wood we carry I arranged the wood in a way that would create perching and climbing areas for the Abronia, as well as plenty of nooks and crannies to shove epiphytic plants into. I was able to wedge all the wood into place without permanently attaching it, due to the fact I could push the wood into the background a bit. Then, I was ready to plant my future Abronia vivarium.


 I planted the vivarium in several steps before I thought it was truly finished. Whenever I plant a vivarium, regardless of what animal will inhabit it, I typically have a set arrangement in which I place the plants.

  1. Place focal plants first. This allows me to begin to interpret how the finished vivarium will work, and where the eye will wander when observing the vivarium. Generally, focal plants will be large, colorful, and/or have interesting patterns or leaf structure. Because these bromeliads were simply wedged into crevices between the manzanita wood, no soil was used – the base of the plant was gently wrapped in moist sphagnum moss.

  2. Place utilized plants. Depending what species will be inhabiting the vivarium, I then place specific plants that the animal will utilize. In this case, it is a larger bromeliad that the Abronia will use as a source of standing water and shelter. Other examples might be large, water holding bromeliads that Dendrobates ventrimaculatus will use to rear young, or a plant with large, smooth leaves that a Dendrobates tinctorius would lay eggs on. By placing these plants after the focal plants are in place, I can see how the utilized plants will be incorporated into the future plant layout, and make it pleasing to the eye.

  3. Place background plants. The deeper your vivarium, the more important this step is. As the vivarium becomes more densely planted, it will be more difficult to plant background plants as time goes on. Background plants will serve to add to the illusion of depth, making it appear that the tank extends much further back than it actually does. Background plants may also serve a more practical purpose, such as providing a surface for the vivarium inhabitants to scale or climb on. In this case, the primary background plant is a species of Huperzia/Lycopodium, planted in a ball of damp sphagnum. Later, the misting system output will be located directly above the plant, providing it with much needed moisture.

  4. Place side/accessory plants. At this time, begin to fill in the sides of the vivarium. These plants will eventually help to break up the lines formed by the background and geometric nature of the tank, making the interior of the vivarium appear much more natural. Straight lines rarely occur in nature, and these plants will help absolve any apparent straight edges. In this case, we are replicating a cloud forest, so a variety of epiphytes are used, including Tillandsias and an ant plant.

  5. Fill in the gaps. At this stage, step back and observe the vivarium for a couple minutes. Get a feel for how your eye flows from plant to plant. I’m sure you’ll find that a particular gap or two simply makes something scream out as unnatural. Go ahead and place additional plants in these gaps, adding to the finished appearance of the vivarium.

  6. Add foreground plants and accents. These are located up at the front of the vivarium, and will add to the illusion of depth in the vivarium. In this case, I placed a pair ofTillandsias in the central branch towards the top of the vivarium. To view into the vivarium, you have to look past the plants, aiding to the illusion that you’re peering into dense jungle. Josh’s Frogs Sheet Moss was also added, to replicate epiphyte laden branches covered in lush moss. This gave the vivarium a finished, grown in look, as if the tank could have existed like it is for several years.

  7. Plant terrestrial plants (not pictured). Since this particular Abronia vivarium was focused on epiphytic plants, terrestrial plants took a back seat, and were not planted until substrate was added. Taller plants should go towards the back, while shorter, creeping plants should be utilized up front.

  8. After the vivarium has grown in, add additional plants (not pictured). It’s pretty hard to get all of the planting correct initially. Remove any plants that are dead or dying. If some plants are not doing well, remove them or relocate them to a new position in the vivarium. If there are any gaps in growth that look unnatural, add some plants there.


 The simple bottom of an Abronia vivarium, comprising of a hearty layer of ling fiber sphagnum moss and leaf litter.

 For the substrate in this vivarium, I went with a 3 inch layer of sphagnum moss, covered in leaf litter. In the wild, Abronia will take shelter in damp moss during dry periods, or periods of extreme temperatures. Should the humidity or temperature in this vivarium drift outside of the animal’s comfort zone, the deep layer of long fiber sphagnum moss will serve as a refuge. As such, it will have to be changed every couple of months, and springtails and isopods will only minimally be depended on for waste control. The added layer of Sea Grape leaves is just for looks. If this vivarium was for any other species, I most likely would have utilized the typical hydroton/substrate barrier/ABG/sphagnum/leaf litter substrate layers.


 Fans in place to provide ventilation for the Abronia gaminea vivarium.

 For this tank, a 4 bulb 24” HOT5 fixture was utilized, with 3 x 6500K t5 bulbs and 1 x 6% Arcadia UVB T5 bulb. The lights will run 12 hours on/12 hours off, and create a bright environment, mimicking the naturally bright canopy environment Abronia are native to. The heat put out by T5s is relatively minor, but does create a warmer spot of approximately 85F towards the top of the vivarium. UV light is necessary for Abronia to create vitamin D3 and metabolize calcium, and greatly aids in them staying a bright blue/green color. In captivity, reduced UV exposure often leads to a blue/gray animal.

Being from the canopy, ventilation is very important. I utilized 2 small fans to blow air into the vivarium, thus providing great ventilation – both the plants and the Abronia greatly appreciate it! The fans are on an electronic timer and run for 15 minutes 4 times a day.


 An ultrasonic humidifier, modified for vivarium use.

 In order to provide humidity, a two stage approach was used. A MistKing Automatic Misting System was utilized, with 4 nozzles that mist for 30 seconds at a time, 4 times a day. In addition to this, an ultrasonic humidifier for home use was modified. The output nozzle was removed by prying it off with a screwdriver, and an aquarium gravel vacuum was siliconed into place. The siphon hose of the gravel vacuum can then be inserted through a hole in the screen top of the vivarium, and used to ‘fog’ on a regular basis. Using a timer, the ultrasonic humidifier goes off for 15 minutes at a time, 6 times a day.


 The ultrasonic humidifier creates a very eye catching fog effect in a vivarium. Just keep in mind that fogging does not replace the need for misting, and can quickly saturate a vivarium that is not well ventilated.


 After installing the background, hardscape, plants, and electronic devices needed to run it, a finished Abronia graminea vivarium, mimicking the cloud forests of Mexico.


 Male Abronia gaminea, enjoying his new naturalistic vivarium.

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