Bioactive Terrarium or Vivarium

Bioactive Enclosures: What to know and how to build them

Dragonhaus LLC ·

Reptile keeping has been rapidly growing interests over the past few years, and  amateur keepers typically start with one common question: What type of enclosure should I keep my reptile in to properly suit its needs? Now you can find a variety of different answers ranging from small simple enclosures to intricate wall cages, but the most utilized, self-contained, natural enclosures are bioactive. If you haven’t heard this term, you may be more familiar with bioactive terrariums, or vivarium. In this article we will go over what bioactive enclosures are, why they are good for your animals, and how to make your own vivarium or you can watch our video here! At the end of the article see our interview with Certified Vet-Tech Lindsey Clemmer- VanOrman!

What is a Bioactive Enclosure?

A bioactive enclosure is a self-contained ecosystem capable of housing and maintaining a variety of animals, horticulture, invertebrates, and tiny micro-organisms. All of these beings have a very unique role to play when it comes to mimicking the natural environment of your pet. This provides the reptile a home that is better suited for their health and longevity.

When a vivarium is properly set-up, the detritivores (also known as the “Clean-Up Crew”) breakdown the waste and convert it into nutrient rich soil for their plant neighbors. This reduces, if not eliminates, the need for constantly cleaning up after your reptile.

The environment a vivarium can mirror vary widely depending on what the needs are for each specific animal. For example, you don’t want a Chinese water dragon in an arid enclosure. So it is EXTREMELY important to know about the natural habitat of your animal. Due to how specifically catered each enclosure must be, most keepers design and convert their basic cages into their own aesthetically pleasing bioactive enclosure. Now this may sound like a daunting task, but it is actually quite simple and very fun! All you need is: A base enclosure, your rock layer, a substrate barrier, substrate, the Clean-Up Crew, plants, heating/lighting, and finally your pet! Now let's get what you need and bring your bioactive enclosure to life.

What You Need

Enclosure

Your enclosure is possibly the second most component to your reptile vivarium (other than your scale baby!). With this being the base of your terrarium, it needs to be durable, waterproof, and fire resistant. Most importantly, you want to make sure that your enclosure is the proper size to fit your reptile. A common practice is to use a cage that fits the average adult of the species you are housing. Recently, Keepers have been migrating to PVC enclosures as they provide all the necessary requirements, as well as being surprisingly light! In our demonstration, we are using a Dragonhaus Small Arboreal Enclosure, starting from the base enclosure. It is important to seal the enclosure with silicone to prevent any leaking from critical areas. Once your sealant is all dry, it is time to decorate the inside walls to your liking (at this step most use only paints, stickers, ect.). All done? Great! Now let's move to the next step!

Drainage Layer

The first layer of your vivarium plays a variety of important roles in maintaining the overall health of the ecosystem. The two common drainage layers are lava rocks and porous clay balls, with clay balls being the cheaper and more popular option. Your rocks can be layered to your design, get creative with it!! Keepers commonly design their vivarium with little hills, water-falls, or even caves! The important thing is that this layer is deep enough to hold the excess drainage from the substrate layer above, without the excess water overflowing into the substrate. This can cause your substrate to become oversaturated, causing the heath of the terrarium to quickly deteriorate.  

This porous rock layer also has a couple other benefits to increase the longevity of the ecosystem. The pores allow water to seep in and store itself in the rocks, so if the water level starts to dry out, the rocks will release moisture back into the enclosure. All of these nooks and crannies also allow for beneficial bacteria to grow and thrive in this layer. This bacteria helps with decomposition and provides the horticulture with nutrients to thrive. Over time the beneficial bacteria will grow, but some keepers like to kick-start the colony growth by squeezing water out of a fish tank filter and adding that water to the enclosure. If you don’t own a fish tank, you can go to your local pet store and ask if they can assist you. 

Lastly, add de-chlorified water to your enclosure, filling it halfway up the rock layer allowing enough space between the substrate and the water. Once you filled your enclosure, take the time to do a spot check for any leaks, and repair them if so. Now you want a substrate barrier to lay over the drainage layer. This is typically a screen that is large enough to allow water drainage, but small enough to keep the soil above from falling into the drainage layer. With this all set up, now it's time to choose the necessary substrate. *It is important to note that if your enclosure does not require a humid environment, or live plants, the drainage layer can be excluded. Again, everything depends on the needs of your animal.)

Substrate

The substrate/soil layer is where all the magic happens that is critical to the health of the ecosystem within your reptile display. It's very important to understand what kind of ecosystem you want to create, as the substrate is the layer designated to be the primary controller of humidity in the enclosure. The composition of the substrate also is dependent on if you are using a drainage layer or not. For example, if your pet enjoys the arid, desert-like environment, then you may want to add a little more sand to mirror the terrain, and individually pot any plants. The potted plants will allow you to manually water each plant to avoid over saturating the substrate.

Lets dig into the composition of the substrate layer. There is no shortage of materials that you can include in your soil, and what is used typically varies from keeper to keeper. There are local shops and stores that will have premade substrate for the specific kind of animal that is being housed in the vivarium. However, the most common practice is to make your own from a mixture of some of these common items: organic topsoil, forest floor or 100% cypress mulch, sand, compressed coconut, peat moss, and activated charcoal/carbon. This step can be a bit controversial in some herpetology communities, so make sure you do the research on what reptile will be calling the terrarium home so you can cater to their needs more closely. 

Once you have all your materials collected, combine them into a tub and mix it up. Make sure you get the components as evenly distributed as possible. Next, as a small amount of water to help the soil combine together. After your soil is mixed add it on top of your drainage barrier (or directly to the enclosure if you opted out of the drainage). Lastly add a layer of dry forest floor on top of the soil to prevent your reptile from getting scale rot. Now that you are all done, it’s time to move to the Clean-Up Crew!

The Decomposers

So we've gotten this far, and now we start to think of what stinks… the waste! It's no secret that by making your enclosure bioactive, you are going to reduce, if not eliminate, the janitorial dooties that come with owning any critter. Why not outsource that work to our detritivores. These critters are going to be the clean up crew, and in some cases a tasty snack, for your pet. Now These critters will break down the fecal waste, sheds/molts, and dead plants into nice and nutrient rich soil for the living plants they share the ecosystem with. They play a key role in keeping the terrarium clean and self-sustaining. Now what kind of detritivores you chose is completely up to personal preference, but a lot of keepers like to find a nice balance between a few different kinds. Here is a list of the most commonly used decomposers:

  • Springtails
  • Dubian Roaches
  • Isopods
  • Woodlice
  • Earthworms
  • Millipedes
  • Various Beetle's

As stated multiple times before KNOW WHAT YOU NEED FOR YOUR ECOSYSTEM. Some of these critters will not survive or do an optimal job in certain environments, so you want to do your research and understand what to use where. For example, in a more tropical, humid environment it would be best to go with springtails, isopods, and earthworms, while your desert ecosystems will house more beetles/roaches. All in all, you want to make sure to only use the BEST for your beloved pet. 

Horticulture

Time to add your plants!!! This is the next to last step before your scale baby calls it's new enclosure home. You want to make sure you add plants that are suitable with the corresponding environment. In your tropical vivarium, you will be doing little if any watering as the ecosystem will be self sustaining. On the other hand, your desert plants should be potted separate from the substrate, and make sure you water them accordingly. This will help prevent your arid substrate from becoming oversaturated, ruining the ph balance of the soil.

After you get everything planted, add a layer of leaf litter on top of the substrate. These leaves will help the beneficial bacteria and fungi grow and thrive, as well as, provide a good source of plant food and nutrients as it decomposes. 

Also, you may want to take this opportunity to add any perches, rocks, or any other enrichment to give your animals plenty of things to explore!

Heating and Lighting

Time to add heating and lighting to the terrarium. This step is where most of the common ecosystem health issues stem from, as there are more factors to take in when deciding on what fixtures to use. Let's start with the easy one, heating. When heating your enclosure you want to heat it like a normal one, using the necessary fixtures for the corresponding animal. One key difference to note is, you will want to put up proper heat guards or cages around the fixture. These must be strong and durable enough to handle any punishment the critter inside can dish out. It is also 

VERY VERY VERY important to note that, PVC enclosures heat up and retain heat faster than your standard glass or wood cages. You will want to closely monitor the temperature so that overheating can be avoided.

Now let's move to lighting.

Slither On In!!

The best time has arrived!!! Introduce your pet to it's new enclosure and let them enjoy! You may want to monitor your reptile and enclosure over the next few weeks. Make sure that your temperature and humidity are at appropriate levels for the biome, and correct any issues that may pop up. If you have any questions on setting up please feel free to contact us!

Interview with Lindsey

1: What would you say is the biggest benefit for the animal to convert into a bioactive enclosure.

I would say the biggest benefit is the enrichment. Both of my girls went straight to smelling and inspecting the plants! It's easier to keep humidity where it needs to be especially for humidity loving species. For ones that don't need alot of humidity, you can also do plants that are more specific to their region, along with reptiles that are herbivores, you can plant edible plants for them to munch on. 

2: What would you say is the biggest benefit for a keeper to convert into a bioactive enclosure.

Biggest benefit, is not needing to clean as often after it establishes itself. It becomes its own little ecosystem in there.

3: What do you prefer Lava Rocks or Clay Balls?

To be honest, you can use either, or none. I actually didn't use a drainage layer, if you go the route of no drainage layer, you have to be very careful of how much you water. I am extremely careful with how much I water my plants and soil, and make sure to let it dry enough between waterings. 

4: What substrate do you use?

I used a mix of Scotts organic topsoil, ecoearth, forest floor or 100% cypress mulch, and sand mixed together. A small layer of forest floor on top for a dry substrate layer to prevent scale rot, and then I put my leaf litter down of sea grape leaves and magnolia leaves. 

5: Which critters are best for decomposition? 

Right now I have dubia roaches and springtails in there. Springtails will help with your mold if you have any. And roaches will eat shed and feces. I will also be adding some isopods here in the near future. Probably some rubber ducky or zebra isopods. 

6: Are all bioactive enclosures the same, or do they need to mirror the animals natural environment.

You want ones that are close to the natural environment. So for a reptile that needs higher humidity, you want substrate that will hold humidity better. For an arid species such as a bearded dragon, leopard gecko, or uromastyx you would want one that would be more arid and have a better drainage layer that doesn't hold humidity as much.

7: What kind of plants should be used?

That's an as depends thing. For snakes there're lots of different ones that can be used that can't for lizards that are herbivores since they will eat the plants and it can be toxic for them. So when choosing your plants, make sure they are safe for you animal. I have a weeping fig (ficus tree), sansevieria (snake plant), dracaena lemon lime, pothos (devil's ivy), heartleaf philodendron, and spathiphyllum (peace lilly)

8: How often should it be cleaned.

When done properly, you won't need to change your substrate ever. You might need to spot clean in the beginning to help the isopods and things out to start off, but after it is established, you shouldn't need to change the substrate. Right now I'm doing some spot cleaning since it is still establishing itself fully.

9: These are supposed to be self containing, so should I still feed my reptile, or would it be over fed from the grubs in the substrate?

For snakes, you'll still need to feed them. As for lizards, you will still likely need to feed them as well. Since most of the bugs will hide during the day in the humid retreat of the soil and then emerge at night. 

10: From 1-10 how difficult was it to convert your Dragonhaus Enclosure in to a bioactive one?

It was extremely easy! I'd say 1 being the easiest and 10 being the hardest I'd say it was a 1.5. super simple! 

A little tip from me I want to add in! When doing a bioactive enclosure, a lot of people tend to forget about the plant lights and their plants die off. So make sure you get a good plant light! 6,500k plant light at least. I have a 22" Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED installed in my 8x4x4 and the amount of growth I've seen in the last month has been insane!!! Everything is taking off so fast!

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