Setting up a Bioactive Enclosure for your Reptile

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Setting up a Bioactive Enclosure for your Reptile

African Fat Tailed Gecko exploring its Bioactive Setup
African Fat Tailed Gecko explores its Bioactive Enclosure

Bioactive Setups

In its basic form, a Bioactive setup is any type of enclosure that employs one or more species of Invertebrate to clean up waste products. Of course, there is much more to setting up a Bioactive enclosure than throwing a few bugs in to your normal, sterile type setup. This article hopes to explain the process, in as simple terms as possible, to be the basis of ones understanding. From this, they will expand further as they research the method.

Before we get down to it, though, I would like to clear up a common misconception that seems to be spreading throughout the community.

There is no such thing as a ‘part bioactive setup’.

I understand what people are attempting to say when they use this term, but understanding why it is not a valid term should help to understand the rest of the setup, and remove some fears about.

As discussed, bioactive setups are any where one or more species clean the environment. So adding a handful of Springtails to an enclosure makes it Bioactive. Not well established, of course, but there will still be an element of cleaning, even if you still spot clean daily. Having no Inverts at all, but lovely live plants is not bioactive; this is a Live Planted, or even Naturalistic. More on the terms used can are here; https://bioactiveherps.co.uk/enclosure-types/

Semantics out of the way let’s get down to business.

Planting

You may, or may not, be using live plants, so I will cover them here just in case. Picking the plants you will choose is a very personal journey, based on what strikes you as looking nice, whilst also being suitable for the enclosure. You should also bear in mind whether the inhabitant is likely to eat the plant at all, as some plants can be toxic if too many get ingested.

When planting, the best tip I can give (based on personal experience/failure) is to ensure that you get your substrate mix pressed in as close to the roots as possible, to ensure water filters through to the plant, rather than meeting a gap barrier and dropping straight down to the drainage layer.

To do this, create a hole in the substrate where you would like the plant to go. Before taking the plant out of the pot, put it in the hole and decide if that is definitely the place you want it.

If it is, soak the soil in the plant pot. Really saturate it. Now tip the pot and tap the bottom to release the plant. You will find that the soil will start to break away, opening up the roots of the plant. Place this, soil and all, into the hole you dug and refill the hole with your substrate. Firmly press the soil in around the roots.

Once you have finished with your plants, stand back and admire your work
When buying plants, be cautious of using Garden Centre plants that are often treated with fertilisers and pesticides. It is advisable to repot these plants and grow on a windowsill for a few weeks, to remove any trace of these Chemicals. Otherwise, buy from a Reptile Specialist pet shop, where they should have ensured this process has occurred before they get to you.

Custodians

Finally, the Coup de grâce, adding your cleaners!

Let us start by going over some of the choices available to the bioactive scene, and their pros and cons.
Springtails

These little bugs are the backbone of any bioactive setup. Their key is sheer numbers. Springtails breed well and can colonise an enclosure fast. They prefer setups that have areas of high moisture, and thrive in tropical setups. Yet, they can get used in dryer setups by utilising leaf litter, logs, water bowls and other items to create damp, hidden areas. There are no cons to these amazing little hexapods, unless you don’t like tiny white jumping bugs in your setup I guess.
Temperate Woodlice

These often come under the name of European Woodlice and actually consist of many different species. The most common of which come from the families Armadillidium and Oniscus. Armadillidium are often referred to as ‘Polys’ or ‘Pill bugs’ due to their defense mechanism of rolling into tight balls. Oniscus woodlice do not have this ability. Instead, they get identified by a large, pale skirt around the entire outside of their bodies. Temperate Woodlice are much more tolerant of dryer conditions than their tropical counterparts, and so perfect as an addition to Bearded Dragon setups. They will thrive in tropical setups too. Temperate woodlice are also much bigger than Tropicals, with some species attaining almost an inch in length. As with all Woodlice, their exo skeleton is a brilliant source of calcium, so they also make great feeders.

Tropical Dwarf White Woodlice

As the name hints, Tropical Dwarf White Woodlice are small, approximately 5mm or so, white and love Tropical setups. They are actually a species from Brazil called Trichronorina tomentosa, and God only knows who the first person to think they’d be a great addition to Herpetology was! These guys won’t do as well in dryer setups, tending to die off much easier than the Temperates, but given time, they will explode in any warm, humid setup and perform very well, attacking waste organic matter and burying it below the soil.

Another wonderful Tropical species, these are the ideal intermediate between Temperate Woodlice and Tropical Dwarf Whites. They reach sizes of around 1 to 1.5cm long, have glossy grey, or sometimes orange, bodies and never stop moving. These are also more tolerant of dryer enclosure, provided they get given warm, moist refuges to hide in.

Mealworm/Darkling Beetles

The standard Mealworm is not only useful as a feeder, but now works well as a cleaner bug too. Both the Adult Beetle and the Juvenile Larvae will consume any organic (and even inorganic – http://www.iflscience.com/environment/plastic-eating-mealworms-could-help-reduce-landfill-waste) material in the enclosure. They also thrive under the high heat of Arid setups, making them ideal as a diurnal cleaner to work alongside woodlice and springtails. Whilst they can survive in some Tropical setups, if it is too wet, they won’t last long.

 

Earthworms

Whether it’s the smaller Dendrobaena worm or the much larger Lob Worm, Earthworms are a must for any Live planted setup. They drag waste organic matter down below the ground for bugs, Fungi and Bacteria to work on, and their movement encourages aeration of the soil, which improves water drainage. Their castings also serve as nutritious pellets for plants to absorb vital nutrients for growth. Even the smallest tank should have a population of Earthworms.

The list of Custodians is far from exhaustive, with new and interesting options get thought of almost daily. I also include Dubia Roaches, Suriname Roaches, Beetle Grubs and more into my setups, as they can all serve a purpose, even if it is just turning the soil over through movement.

When adding your bugs, try to spread them across the entire enclosure to ensure they aren’t hiding close to where you left them in one end. Also, give them some time to find their way to hiding spots before adding the intended inhabitant. This will prevent a full on gorge fest, leaving you with very few cleaners.

Maintaining your new Bioactive Enclosure

The main draw of a Bioactive setup is that they are a self maintaining eco system. You don’t need to clean or interfere much, meaning less stress on the animals, and more time for you to enjoy them without them becoming a chore.

But, it is not as simple as throwing bugs into the enclosure and hoping they keep it clean. It can take a few weeks, up to a few months depending on the enclosure size and environment, to have a self maintaining system.

During the first few weeks, remove waste as you see it. Don’t worry too much if some gets left behind, pull out the bulk of the waste. It can also be beneficial to use some form of extra diet to help numbers grow and sustain. Tried and Tested methods include Fish Food, Mushroom, Brewers Yeast, Spirulina or any other waste organic matter. There are also a few pre made Custodian diets available now, which save time and effort getting food in, and store for long periods of time.

You will begin to notice that each bit of waste gets covered in Springtails and woodlice before you can go to pick it out. This is a good sign your system is establishing well.
Other good signs include;

Strong Plant Growth – Plants can thrive in a Bioactive System, as waste gets broken down into nutrients for them to absorb.
Mushroom Growth – You may notice Mushroom and other fungi developing. 99% of the time, these are harmless white mushrooms. This is another part of the Nitrogen Cycle that is occurring in your enclosure, showing that beneficial bacteria are at levels where the Ammonia is being broken down in to Nitrogen based compounds.

If you have any concerns about the Mushrooms, just pull them out, but they will disappear over time as the system settles. They’re also a great booster for springtails once the head has begun to wilt.

Conclusion

There is no single method to creating a Bioactive Setup. Experiment and throw ideas around to see what works for you, your cleaners and your animal. Join forums and Facebook groups, like Bioactive Vivaria Worldwide, to see what other people do, and to discuss your own methods and watch the community evolve as we learn more about the natural habits and behaviours of animals free to hunt, move, bask and act more naturally than they could before. And have fun with it, Reptile Keeping shouldn’t be a chore, it’s an opportunity to connect with nature in the home, in a way we never could in the wild.

© Tarron Boon and Bioactive Herps, 2016, Image © Tarron Boon, 2019.

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Comments (18)

  • Debbie Wright Reply

    Very informative and have followed your advice and am happy with the results.
    I have very happy herps.
    Thank you ?

    January 14, 2018 at 9:45 pm
  • Megan O'Neal Reply

    My boyfriend says this is a bad setup for ball pythons because of the humidity. Is there a way to control it?

    January 26, 2018 at 3:40 pm
    • Tarron Boon Reply

      Hi Megan,

      A bioactive setup, as discussed in this blog post, is one that uses micro fauna and micro flora to control and remove organic waste, such as faces. It should be maintained and managed in a way to ensure the husbandry of the animal is paramount. It is possible to create a Bioactive Enclosure for most species, from Arid Scrublands where humidity is kept as low as possible, to the 100% RH enclosures of the most tropical species. Like any enclosure, it just relies on the keepers husbandry standards maintaining it correctly.

      So in short, yes, it is perfectly possible to control the humidity as required to create a bioactive enclosure for a Ball Python.

      Thank you

      January 26, 2018 at 11:18 pm
    • Mark Reply

      Ball pythons need high humidity anyway

      April 23, 2018 at 4:42 am
  • Nick Reply

    Hey I live in a tropical climate, and as such i wonder if the “clean up crew” would spread from my enclosure and into my home. Seeing as the general atmosphere of the surroundings will also be appropriate for them.

    thoughts?

    February 20, 2018 at 1:28 pm
    • Tarron Boon Reply

      yes, there is a possibility this could happen. We have it in our homes in the UK occasionally too, especially with our heaters.
      Honestly, I’m not sure of a great way to combat it, as it’s not something I’ve really had to do myself, but if you join the facebook group Bioactive Vivaria Worldwide, there may be some keepers from your area that can help.

      Thank you

      February 22, 2018 at 1:38 am
  • harry Reply

    Would this suit my iguanas viv?

    February 16, 2019 at 10:51 pm
    • Tarron Boon Reply

      Yes it would 🙂

      February 24, 2019 at 8:45 pm
  • Mark Berman Reply

    How often do the springtails need to be added? Do you just add them at setup and they reproduce so no need to add them again? So it’s just a matter of putting in crickets and mealworms and spraying every morning?

    May 1, 2019 at 11:58 pm
    • Tarron Boon Reply

      This depends on the enclosure and management of the environment really. In ideal setups, the springtails will breed but some may find topping up every couple of months will help keep the population up.
      it’s also not quite as simple as adding cleaners and spraying. You will need to spot clean when you see the need for it. Don’t trust the enclosure to just be perfect, it won’t be. Adding Bioactive herps Bio Boost can help massively though, as it is teeming with the microbes that convert waste into plant food.

      May 2, 2019 at 10:48 am
  • Alexis Reply

    I was wondering if a bio active setup needs a certain type of lighting im currently trying to figure out but cant quite find any info?

    June 3, 2019 at 1:38 am
    • Tarron Boon Reply

      Hi Alexis, for lighting you need to consider the needs of the animal and the needs of the plants. All reptiles will utilise, and therefore require UVB lighting but plants also require a specific wavelength/colour/intensity of light. We recommend the Reptile Systems New Dawn range or the Arcadia Jungle Dawn range for plant lighting.

      June 4, 2019 at 1:07 am
  • ThiccBoi 3000 Reply

    How would you heat a bioactive setup with a heat matt?

    July 22, 2020 at 11:09 am
  • Billy Reply

    Would a drainage layer still be required if I don’t intend on using live plants for my leopard geckos vivarium? I don’t want the humidity to end up being too high.

    October 1, 2020 at 7:37 pm
  • Melissa Reply

    Hi! I was wondering if you need to clean anything else than the glass with a bio active setup? If so, what and how often?

    October 26, 2020 at 12:24 pm
  • Anna Reply

    I can’t thank you enough. Thank you again for this awesome review.

    November 19, 2020 at 9:50 am
  • Stacey walters Reply

    Hi great article
    Can I ask is it absolutely necessary to cycle a bio active setup before introducing a gargoyle gecko
    Thanks in advance

    January 16, 2021 at 1:56 pm
    • Tarron Boon Reply

      You can put your animal straight in, but the tank still needs to cycle, so you’ll have to do more regular spot cleaning as you go. If you use the Bioactive Herps Ultimate Boost, it will help speed it up a bit.

      January 17, 2021 at 9:54 am

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