Terrarium observatory

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Exotic pets have always intrigued me. When I was young, I had turtles, toads, mice, fish and many other varieties of pets. I always wanted a snake or tarantula, but my mother would have none of it. As I grew older, I had no time for critters to take care of. However, about a two years ago my aunt offered me a tarantula she caught in southern Colorado. I resisted at first, but she was persistent. My childhood curiosity eventually led me to cave and take Harry(the name given by my little cousin) home with me.


Rather than just be another caged critter, I wanted Harry's captivity to not be in vain. Thus, I set out to create the Observarium Terrarium, a habitat that would allow me to study the tarantula. The ultimate goal was to observe my tarantula from afar, unobtrusively. Night vision was a must because he was was most active while I slept. And, I wanted to be able to record the video and store long lengths of footage.

Apart from the video setup, I wanted to create the ultimate terrarium. Most setups seem too small in my opinion for the critter to have roaming room. Pets such as tarantulas and scorpions are kept in small cages. It is assumed that because they don't leave the vicinity of their burrow very often in nature that they don't need very large living quarters. I wanted my tarantula to have plenty of room. I had an extra 10 gal. tank, plus the one I received with Harry. They stacked on one another very nicely, so I decided to make a double-decker terrarium.


Keep it cheap. Any Terrarium, aquarium or vivarium setup can get expensive very fast.

My aunt just wanted to get get rid of Harry, so she offered me the whole setup, cricket cage and all, for $10! This was the main reason I couldn't resist. Buying a 10 gal. tank and a tarantula from a pet shop would cost you $50-$100+ depending on what breed you buy. The cost of owning an exotic pet was one of the main deterrents all those years. Finally, a cheap in.

If you have never owned an exotic but are looking to get into it, there are lots of cheap alternatives. My situation was rare, but it never hurts to know some people who know some people. There are sometimes people on Craigslist who are giving away setups for cheap (though there have been some issues regarding the trading of pets on these sites, be it for money or for free).

You can also purchase tarantulas, scorpions and other critters online. I have never done this, so I can't say how great of condition they arrive in.

I suggest going to the local exotic pet shop. That way you can see what you are buying. For more advice on buying exotics, see the references section for some great books on tarantulas and scorpions.

For those of you who already own an exotic pet of some kind, this may give you some ideas how to expand your setup.

Things to consider

  • This kind of setup isn't for all exotics. Many pets need very humid conditions to be comfortable. Electronics tend to work better in dryer atmospheres. Thus, it's best to only do this for invertebrates such as tarantulas and scorpions if you want the camera on the inside of the tank.
  • Be cautious of critters that can climb. Tarantulas may web your camera if they can reach it.

What You'll Need


  • Dremel Tool
  • Hot Glue Gun and glue
  • Electrical tape (or shrink-wrap)
  • Soldering Iron
  • Pieces for mounting (I used Erector set pieces)
  • Wood (Scrap or craft/balsa wood)

Electronic Components

  • Camera
    • Your choice of camera has the most impact on the overall cost. In order for the system to be completely wireless, the video would also need to be wireless.
    • Since my setup was going to be in an apartment, and my intentions were to record for long periods of time, I went the wired route.
      • This CMOS camera from Sparkfun was perfect: small, lightweight and it has IR LEDs built on to it for night-vision.
  • Arduino Pro Mini 5V
  • 5V Regulator
  • Bluetooth Modem
  • SHT15 temperature and humidity sensor
  • RCA Connectors (or any other 2-wire connector)
  • Hook-up Wire
    • 6 spools (3 for video and 3 for ground), or about 70-75 ft. of wire.
    • I recommend attaching both ends of the wire to a power drill. Have someone else hold the other ends while the drill winds the wires together. This will give you a nice tight cable.
  • Video Capture Device (I used an device, which was the cheapest).
  • An enclosure of some type.


  • Arduino IDE (any version should work)
  • EasyCap Viewer (for Mac) (*Recently ungraded to EasyCap Viewer 2)
  • Any Terminal program (Hyperterm, Tera Term, Z Term or the Arduino terminal all work, though some require and after ever character)
  • If your computer does not have bluetooth built in, you'll need to buy a USB Bluetooth Dongle and use some second party software to establish a bluetooth connection.

Terrarium Equipment

  • 2 10 gal. tanks
  • Lid that fits snug
  • Power strip and outlet timer(s)
  • Thermometer and hydrometer
  • Optional accessories (heat pad, heat light, decor)

Modding the top tank

  • Plan out how you want your tanks to be set up. You don't want a ramp that is too steep for the critter to get up. You also don't want it to be too close to the bottom of the other tank. There needs to be enough room for your pet to get through.
  • Cutting the hole
1. Decide which corner you want your hole to be in. This is important when it comes time to build you ramp.
2. Remove the plastic frame from the bottom of the tank.
3. Using a diamond tip cutting wheel, cut a square in whichever corner you chose.
  • Use a squirt bottle to keep the glass wet as you cut it.
Hole cut with Dremel. Be very careful when cutting glass. You can ruin your project with one wrong move
Attempting to smooth the edges didn't work very well, thus, I went the tape and glue route. The hot glue hasn't
  • Building the wall around the hole
1. Use a combination of electrical tape and hot glue to cover the sharp edges. Cut strips and cover all four edges. Seal the tape in place with some glue.
2. Cut two pieces of wood (or just use some scrap wood) that are about an inch and 1/2 high. Make the length and width an inch or two longer than your hole to give your critter room to get up from the ramp. Glue them into place once you have them positioned the way you want.
Make your walls high enough to hold sand or any other substrate, but low enough for you pet to climb over. The glue job is a little sloppy, but it's ok. Most of that will be covered up by the substrate you fill the tank with.
I'm a hot glue junky, it's just so fast and easy. I checked out some forums to make sure the hot glue would be safe. The general consensus is that it is. After a few years it is till holding up and hasn't done any harm. Use whatever adhesive you'd like. Just check that it is non-toxic.

Electronics Prototyping

  • Video Test
1. Test your video system before you do anything. If you have a wireless system, make sure the signal travels through your home without interference. For my wired system, I needed to make sure my long cable would be capable of carrying the signal to my room.
2. For a quick and easy test, attach one end of your long cable to the camera via the open header holes. Power the camera with a power supply or with a 12V wall wort. The data sheet states that the camera needs 12V to operate properly. Something worth noting when we're think about the rest of our system. Grab an RCA connector from an old gaming console or whatever you can find. Strip the outer sheathing off and solder the connector to the other end of the cable. Now plug it in to a televisions video input to see if the cable works.
2. The EasyCap video capture device I bought was supposedly windows only, but I manage to get it to work on my mac using the easyCapture software mentioned above. *The newer version (V2) captures video even better.
3. With the

Enclosing the electronics



  • Schultz, Stanley and Marguerite J. Schultz. . Woodbury: Barron's Educational Series, 2009.
  • Rubio, Manny. . Boston: Barron's, 2000.

Physical Design

Related Links

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