One of the reasons why bioactive vivariums appeal to so many is because they’re frequently advertised as “zero-maintenance.” Sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it is. Bioactive vivariums certainly can decrease the amount of time and even money you have to spend on common maintenance tasks, but the truth is that a bioactive vivarium requires its own regular maintenance in order to be healthy and functional throughout the lifetime of its reptile occupant.
So what exactly do you need to do, and how is maintenance different for different types of bioactive terrariums? Josh Halter of The Bio Dude, a ReptiFiles Official Sponsor, explains in this month’s guest post:
When considering bioactive vivarium maintenance requirements, there are many factors that come into play:
- biome type
- average temperature and humidity
- amount of available organic matter
- nutrient depletion over time
All of these factors greatly affect how we should care for bioactive terrariums as they age. But before we really dive into the subject, we need to talk about dirt.
Not all soils are created equally, so as you read the rest of this article, keep in mind that it was written with the assumption that the soil in the enclosure is healthy and fully functional. A “fully-functioning” soil is defined as a soil that is aerating effectively from the top layer to the very bottom layer. It also must be able to provide and maintain essential air pockets for proper root development and the prevention of anaerobic bacteria formation. Finally, a fully-functioning soil must allow for beneficial microbiological processes to take place and form symbiotic relationships with plant roots and organic matter.
Biome #1: Tropical & Neo-Tropical
Tropical and neo-tropical biomes are your typical rainforest. These are divided into different levels. Starting from the bottom and moving toward the top, you have:
- Forest Floor (lowest)
- Emergent Layer (highest)
Few reptiles are found in the emergent layer of the rainforest — this relatively harsh environment of strong sunlight, low humidity, and strong winds is ruled by monkeys, bats, birds, and butterflies. So we will be focusing on the first three layers in this article.
The forest floor layer of the rainforest is the lowest layer. It’s dark (receiving less than 2% of available sunlight), cool, and humid. Plants are sparse, and instead the ground is covered in rapidly-decomposing leaf litter, twigs, branches, fruits, and seeds from the layers above. It also features large buttress roots from the mature trees above.
For reptiles that dwell on the rainforest floor (ex: Red-Eyed Crocodile Skinks, Nile Monitors, Tegus, Hingeback Tortoises, Boas), you will need to do the following to maintain your bioactive habitat.
One of the most important things you will need to do for a bioactive rainforest floor vivarium is drain the drainage layer on a regular basis. Drainage layers are often composed of materials such as HydroGrow, LECA, Growstone, and perlite, and the objective is to prevent the water in the drainage layer from reaching the soil.
To drain your drainage layer, simply use a small tube and siphon the water out, letting gravity do the work. Excess water in the soil causes bad bacterial growth that can later cause health issues to develop in your plants and animals.
With the humidity of the rainforest floor layer being around 75-100%, your organic materials will get broken down by biological processes much faster. You will need to add biodegradable materials such as leaf litter, sphagnum moss, and wood pieces to your soil on a frequent basis. Without these biodegradable materials, your clean up crew will not have enough food to eat, and one may start to outcompete the other, throwing your setup out of balance. Your soil may also begin to stagnate and lose its supply of essential nutrients. Expect to have to replace your biodegradables roughly once per quarter. The nice thing about having BioShot, springtails, isopods, and other clean up crew organisms in a bioactive enclosure is that they help aerate and replenish nutrients in your soil.
Other regular maintenance tasks for forest floor bioactives:
- Pruning plants
The understory is the next level up from the rainforest floor. There’s not much sunshine in this area — only 2-15% of what is available in the emergent layer — so plants here have large leaves to collect as much as they can. Shrubs, ferns, climbing plants, and young trees are found here, as well as a variety of mossses, lichen, and fungi. Insects are particularly abundant.
Reptiles such as Crested Geckos, Day Geckos, Leaf-Tailed Geckos, and young Boas can all be found in the understory, where they enjoy mild to moderate temperatures and moderate humidity with spikes throughout the day. Many understory reptiles make trips up into the entry level canopy to warm up, expose themselves to UVB, and find food.
Maintaining an understory- or canopy-type bioactive terrarium requires care that is similar to maintaining a forest floor-level bioactive, but with a few essential differences.
Like a forest floor bioactive, you will also need to drain the drainage layer as needed in order to maintain proper soil function. Biodegradables should be replaced once per quarter or as needed.
Animals living in an understory- or canopy-type bioactive are likely to defecate on the plants, which means that you may need to clean their leaves if biological processes or the clean up crew is unable to take care of it.
Other regular maintenance tasks for understory and canopy bioactives:
- Pruning plants
The canopy is above the understory, and forms a 20-foot-thick “roof” for the rainforest at about 60-90 feet above the ground. Here, it’s a maze of leaves and branches and it’s easy for animals to hide from predators. Food of all kinds is abundant in this level, and so is the variety of animals — the canopy contains 90% of the species found in the rainforest.
Animals that live in this layer of the forest require higher basking temperatures and stronger UVB. Ambient humidity is lower here than in the other two levels, but it spikes at certain points throughout the day. Reptiles that live in the canopy include species such as Iguanas, Prehensile Tailed Skinks, Vine Snakes, and Green Tree Monitors.
When replicating an canopy layer environment, the most important thing you’ll need for your bioactive is a thick substrate — a really thick substrate. At least 8″ should be used to accommodate the extensive root systems of the large plants that you’ll be using in such an enclosure. You will likely not need a drainage layer as long as you’re using a good bioactive-friendly substrate.
Restock your enclosure with biodegradables every 6 months. Since you’re using larger plants (ex: trees and shrubs) for a canopy layer bioactive, replacing lost nutrients in the soil is essential for the long-term health of your plants.
Other regular maintenance tasks for canopy layer bioactives:
- Misting, as required by the animal
- Watering plants
- Replenishing isopods and springtail populations
Biome #2: Temperate
The temperate biome is fairly diverse, and includes habitats such as deciduous forests, grasslands, and shrublands. What they do have in common, however, is a wide range of temperatures and distinct seasonal climate changes. This is arguably one of the easier types of bioactive enclosure to maintain.
When replicating this biome in a bioactive terrarium, you will not need a drainage layer. But you will need at least 5″ of soil to help ensure long-term success with this type of bioactive. Many of the animals that reside in this biome are burrowers, and require a dry top layer, but also need damp middle and bottom layers of substrate to create different pockets of temperature and humidity for regulating homeostasis. Examples of reptiles that live in temperate biomes include Corn Snakes, Three-Toed Box Turtles, Kingsnakes (not exclusively), and Ameivas.
With this type of bioactive vivarium, you’ll want to provide more biodegradables, and thoroughly mix them into the substrate. This practice creates microbial hotspots within the soil, and is imperative for success since you’re not using a drainage layer. Expect to add more biodegradables every 3-4 months or so.
Although you want the top layer of the substrate to be dry, you will need to mist or water the enclosure regularly to ensure that the lower layers of substrate are moist. That being said, you should never have a consistently wet top layer or puddling in the bottom layer (you will be able to see this if using a glass enclosure). If left like that for too long, the soil will stagnate, encouraging a population explosion of bad bacteria and killing your bioactive processes, potentially requiring the entire enclosure to be tossed and restarted.
Biome #3: Arid
This biome includes habitats such as desert and savannah. These environments are very dry and have little available water. Plants are scarce, and the ones that are present have adapted to survive in this low-moisture environment. This biome typically experiences high levels of UVB and moderate to high temperatures, with small caverns under rocks or wood that create cooler, slightly more humid microclimates. Animals that thrive in an arid biome include Uromastyx, Bearded Dragons, Desert Iguanas, and some Kingsnakes.
The soil for an arid bioactive terrarium is one of the hardest to create because the top layer must be dry (similar to that of a temperate enclosure), with some moisture in the lower layers. Occasional light misting or watering of the enclosure can accomplish this without raising humidity dangerously high. The exact humidity you need will depend on the individual requirements of the species you’re keeping.
You only need to replenish the biodegradables about once a year.
For species that need a humid hide, such as Leopard Geckos, replace the sphagnum moss in the hide once every two months. This helps ensure cleanliness and encourages bioactivity.
Plants should be lightly watered once a week or so, depending on the plants’ needs and the moisture content of the substrate.
Although the arid biome is a fairly harsh environment, microbiological processes and clean up crews can mature just as quickly as in a tropical setup. However, spot cleaning logs or rocks may be necessary on occasion, especially on elevated surfaces where isopods can’t hide from predation.
How to replenish essential nutrients in a bioactive enclosure
While reading this article, you likely noticed that essential nutrients kept getting mentioned as an essential part of regular bioactive terrarium maintenance, but were not elaborated on.
Throughout the life of a bioactive enclosure, certain nutrients eventually get depleted from your mini-ecosystem:
Calcium: Important for cellular health in plants, as well as maintaining soil alkalinity and salinity. Also helps maintain general chemical balance.
Magnesium Sulfate: Plays a major roles in plant roots’ ability to absorb nitrogen.
Potassium: Responsible for part of the process of photosynthesis in plants, and helps regulate C02 (carbon dioxide) intake, which is critical to the production of ATP (energy) in the plants’ cells. Generally produced as a byproduct of organic matter decomposition, but can also become depleted.
Phosphorus: Plays a vital role in plant root growth, helping them form symbiotic relationships with beneficial mycorrhizae fungi.
Nitrogen: Provides “food” to plants for healthy growth and development. This is a key element for a healthy bioactive terrarium.
Mycorrhizae: A type of beneficial fungus that plays important roles in plant nutrition, soil biology, and soil chemistry.
Aside from replenishing the biodegradables (tree bark, dry leaves, etc.) in your enclosure on a regular basis, it’s also important to “fertilize” your bioactive vivarium to keep it balanced and healthy over the long-term. You can use products like The Bio Dude’s BioShot and BioVive for an all-in one solution, or you can DIY by finding the each of the abovementioned nutrients and components at a garden center.
Just because bioactive terrariums require more maintenance that you may have originally thought does not mean that you have been misled and that a bioactive reptile enclosure is not for you. You can still achieve an enclosure that never has to be replaced or redone, and virtually never needs to be cleaned.
When creating a schedule of bioactive vivarium maintenance, you must first understand the needs of the reptile you’re housing inside it. The schedule, additives, and everything else about maintenance should put the inhabitant’s needs first. When done correctly, you create an environment that is not only beautiful, but can make a significant positive difference in the health, activity, and behaviors of your pet reptile.
The best part about keeping reptiles as pets is the fact that they are so unique from other animals. Nurture their instincts by keeping them as they would live in their natural habitat, and you will be rewarded with their best selves.
About the author: Since the age of 13, Josh Halter has had a passion for making his pets’ enclosures emulate their natural habitat as closely as possible. Decades later, this passion evolved into The Bio Dude. With a retail location in Houston, TX, USA, and shipping all over the country, this store makes planning and building beautiful, functional bioactive enclosures easy for anyone who wants to give it a try.
It’s essentially impossible to safely *prevent* algae growth. What you’ll have to do is scrub it off on a regular basis, which is what you should be doing anyway, as water features rapidly accumulate bacteria and need to be cleaned and disinfected frequently unless you have a properly cycled filter installed. This is the reason why I’m personally not fond of water features in reptile enclosures.
What should you do to prevent unwanted Algae growth on water features (such as a waterfall) in incredibly humid enclosures? is there a natural solution to the problem? I would rather not introduce harmful chemicals into my terrarium. It is for a snake, so hes not as sensitive as a frog might be, but still. I even bake my rocks and twigs before i put them in, let alone putting in some form of pesticide or chlorine!
Have you checked my green anole care sheet? https://reptifiles.com/green-anole-care-sheet/
What should I do if keeping green anoles there not mentioned what zones I want to create
It’s best practice to clean up any feces that you see, as the CUC will take care of the ones that you don’t see, and this helps reduce the total potential pathogen load within your setup.
If I have the clean up crew of isopods and springtails, do I need to clean out the feces left by my pacman frog or do I just let them do their thing?
Sounds like algae growth, probably caused by sunlight from a window hitting that side of the enclosure. It’s unsightly, but nothing to worry about. If it really bugs you, you can cover it up with some vinyl or cardstock.
Hi. My tank is starting to turn green on the drainage layer on one side of the tank. Any advice?
Yes — live plants are essential to a functional bioactive substrate due to their role in the nitrogen cycle. In fact, with sparse planting, routine partial substrate replacements are recommended by experts for optimal health of the ecosystem. So if you don’t have any live plants, the substrate still needs to be fully replaced on a routine basis.
Does the sub have to be changed if we’ve got a full clean-up crew in the tank? The info out there has been a bit inconsistent but I feel like you wouldn’t have to unless it gets odorous and gross. I’ve got a few superworms, mealworms that escaped the bowl, canyon and zebra isos, and arid springtails for my leopard gecko. I also mixed my own blend of eco earth, reptisoil, and spag and so far it’s actually been drying out quite nicely after misting/watering and the plants so far (~1 month in or so) have been doing well.
Old toothbrushes are great for this purpose! Use a dry toothbrush to dislodge dried waste, then scrub with a solution of veterinary disinfectant that is appropriate for use with porous materials, like F10SC or Clean Break.
How would you go about cleaning backgrounds that are fixed and wood, cork, and branches that are fixed? To rid feces and such?
No, when set up and maintained correctly, bioactive substrates can last 10+ years without needing replacement.
Sorry I meant to ask if I still have to change the substrate if it is bioactive
I’m afraid I don’t know much about keeping arachnids (or any invertebrates, for that matter), but it does sound like you’re keeping yours too wet. Reducing the amount of water in the environment and increasing ventilation is the best way to decrease humidity. If you need to mist frequently to keep the plants alive, then you probably need plants that are more drought-tolerant.
Awesome info! Would you happen to have any tips on how to create a bioactive environment in an 8x8x12 for a Regal jumping spider? One researcher described finding them in a semi-arid landscape in Florida. I do know I need to keep the humidity below 60% but I am having a lot of trouble doing that with the substrate I have. It’s time to switch it up I think, and maybe get rid of the drainage layer.