How To Make a Bioactive Terrarium

An increasingly popular subject in the reptile community is the bioactive setup. I will be explaining how to put together a bioactive enclosure for a tropical setup, when you’re building one at home. Our setups are on 12x12x18 inches. Exoteric enclosures. It will be tropical. This set up is suitable for Cuban false chameleons. Not only do bioactive setups provide more of a natural look to your reptiles enclosure. They also create a bit of their own ecosystem. They are somewhat self-sustaining the micro-organisms help clean up waste products and that goes back into the soil. Which helps the plant grow. If this cycle just keeps going around not to say you don’t have to do any cleaning whatsoever. It definitely helps reduce the amount of cleaning you have to do. 

The Layers Of A Bioactive Terrarium

there are four or five different layers to a bioactive setup depending on how you look at these layers. 

The bottom layer is the drainage layer. This is an environment for beneficial bacteria and it helps aerate the soil above it and prevent it from becoming anaerobic or oxygen lacking.

The next level up is your substrate barrier which prevents the substrate above it from seeping through and mixing into the drainage layer. 

Above The substrate barrier is, of course, your substrate layer and this is where a lot of you are macro-organisms are going to be burrowing around aerating the soil. They’ll be breaking down detritus or rotting matter which then breaks down and feeds the plants in that layer as well. They create that cycle mostly in that substrate layer. 

Above the substrate is your Spagna moss and above that would be your leaf litter and both of those work together to help insulate the substrate below and therefore hold in humidity it’s in these Spagna moss and leaf litter layer that you have isopods living as well. They don’t burrow as much as the springtails do so when you set up a bioactive enclosure you of course work from the bottom up.

Drainage Layer

For our drainage layer. We’re just going to use clay balls. 

If you want you could instead use lava rock and this is a very lightweight porous rock. Just like the clay balls are lightweight and porous. Basically, you want something with a lot of surface area and the ability to soak in water so that when the water starts to dry out it can reinvent it back into the enclosure it basically just hangs on to the water to keep the humidity levels more stable and because of the amount of surface area that this porous substrate has there’s a lot of nooks and crannies for beneficial bacteria to cling on to and establish themselves. You can use lava rocks if you want. They’re a little more expensive though. From what we can tell clay balls are what most people use and they’re a little cheaper. 

Your drainage layer should be a couple of inches deep to allow water to pool at the bottom without it touching the substrate above and you want about half an inch of water at the bottom of these when your bioactive setup is active. If it completely dries out then the beneficial bacteria that are living down there will also die. That’s why you need some moisture, some water at the bottom of this drainage layer. Bacteria is essential not only in bioactive setups but also in like fish tanks because it breaks down waste products like the ammonia that reptiles produced that fall to the substrate and seeps through in with the water to the bottom of these. The bacteria will break down the ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates which get reabsorbed by the plants and actually act as the plants’ food.

Without the bacteria the ammonia that’s produced by the reptiles waste, any decaying plant matter, or any dead macroinvertebrates. All that ammonia collects at the bottom of the enclosure. Which can be detrimental to the overall health of the tank.

Since it usually takes a while for the bacteria to build we figured we just again kick-start it. Stress dime adds beneficial bacteria and works quite well, and it is good to get one to kick start your bacteria colony. 

Substrate Barrier Layer

The next layer is an easy one. On top of the drainage layer, you simply have to put a substrate barrier to separate the drainage layer from the substrate. That’s gonna go on top of the drainage layer. There’s a lot of reptile stores that sell this that’s cut to size for commonly used enclosure sizes. 

Important note: Pick your substrate barrier according to the size of your terrarium!

You can also just get screened or mesh from like a local hardware store which is what I will be doing as well. Then we just cut it to size. This we’re just going to simply place it on top of the drainage layer.

Substrate Layer

The next layer is the substrate layer. Let me explain how to set this up. The substrate layer is something that you can tweak and perfect on your own. We’re going to use one substrate layer that is prepackaged and store-bought. Will be using a mixture from Josh’s frogs this is their AVG mix and it’s been around for quite a while. Which is why we wanted to use this one today. This mixture contains tree fern fir bark charcoal which is also known as carbon Spagna moss and peat moss.

Peat moss picture
Peat moss.

Peat moss is not recommended as there’s debate on it being more of a finite resource and not very sustainably collected in from the wild. It provides the very nutritious substrate to use in our bioactive enclosures however in order to collect peat moss they have to excavate it by digging to the bottom of a bog and they pull it out which essentially destroys the bog in the natural habitat of countless species of not only reptiles and amphibians but other animals as well.

It also takes a very long time for peat moss to re-accumulate at the bottom of a bog which is why people are kind of saying that it’s a more finite resource just because of how long it takes to reestablish itself peat moss.

You’ll need approximately 4 quarts for your substrate layer which is a perfect amount for our 12x12x18 inch Exo Terra Terrarium. To the mixture, you have to add in some dechlorinated water enough so that when you squeeze it doesn’t drip but it holds its shape. 

Now is the point where you want to plant any live plants you want to add before you add the other stuff on top. You can also throw in some shed skin because macroinvertebrates will eat that too.

Sphagnum Moss Layer

The next layer is going to be the sphagnum moss on top of your substrate layer here and we’re going to dip it into some water to hydrate it first. It is expected to make a huge mess doing this don’t expect to be clean. Sphagnum Moss is used to helping insulate and hold in all the moisture below and therefore it won’t dry out as quickly. It also gives a place for isopods to run around since they don’t burrow into the substrate layer as much as the springtails do and finally, the sphagnum Moss layer also helps prevent the animal inside from ingesting too much soil. 

Leaf Litter Layer

The final layer is the leaf litter. The leaf layer which is also going to add another layer of insulation to all the moisture below and it also gives more shelter for the isopods and I mean they’ll eat these as they decompose. You can get these from again the amazon. This layer can be pretty sick because as they decompose they’ll just provide food and more insulation to what’s underneath them. 

Now we get to add life to them. You should add springtails, snails, and isopods. Adding the rest of the essentials for the enclosures such as UVB light. When everything is done. You want to maintain about a half an inch of water at the bottom of your drainage layer, to keep cycling through.

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