Setting up a Bioactive Enclosure for your Reptile
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 making the jump.
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;
Semantics out of the way let’s get down to business.
When designing a bioactive setup, your most important concern is the husbandry requirements of your chosen Herp; after all, what is the point in having a beautifully decorated, self maintaining system if your reptile will not thrive in it.
Whether Arid, Tropical or another environment, it needs to work for the species concerned. From here, you can begin to look at the type of cleaners you would like to use. Your main concerns should be the following;
Does it concern me if they become food?
Becoming food is not a big problem, provided the inverts are safe (especially if collected from the wild) and either breed enough to take a hit on numbers, or are easy to buy, to top up their population.
Bioactive setups actually stem from the Amphibian keeping sector. Springtails and Dwarf White woodlice where bred as a food source for the inhabitants. Due to the nature of feeding live food, many of these escaped their fate and set up home in the enclosure where they had benefits to the environment that stretched beyond the basic need of being food.
Will they cause stress to the inhabitant(s)?
This is very important, the last thing we need is for our animals to be in a constant state of stress, which can lead to death. Thus, picking our cleaners based on habits is key to a healthy, thriving ecosystem. Methods for picking include Size (springtails are tiny and will hardly bother a 4ft Royal Python) Waking hours (using diurnal species in a nocturnal animals enclosure will reduce the time in which they cross paths) Behaviour (cleaners that tend to hide out under leaf litter or logs are less likely to get munched).
Will they survive?
Survivability comes down to the type of environment each cleaner has evolved to thrive in. Tropical Dwarf White Woodlice will colonise a warm, humid enclosure quick, whereas they will die off even quicker in an Arid, desert type enclosure.
There are some cross over’s, where certain species that may not appear to survive well in one setup, will do fine if there are areas created for them to hide out during the majority of the day. We will discuss this further, later in the article.
So, now we have our desired pet, we’ve done our research and know exactly what type of environment we want. We’ve even made some in roads into deciding what type of inverts we would like to see in the enclosure. How about we look at actually building the setup?
The first layer of a Bioactive system is a matter of choice. Will you need a drainage layer?
Drainage layers are an area at the bottom of the enclosure that raise substrate off the floor, and provide a space for excess water to drain out of the soil. This system prevents the substrate becoming waterlogged and rotting the roots of any plants.
Drainage layers are generally used with live plants, in enclosures that get regular spraying. They are not as necessary in dryer enclosures, where live plants will be more drought tolerant or regular spraying isn’t carried out.
There are few options for creating a drainage layer;
HydroRocks – These are, by far, the most common method amongst keepers that are looking for a simple drainage system. They are lightweight, expanded clay balls that fill up the space. Their honeycomb centre not only makes they lightweight, but it also helps use a system called capillary action to draw water up and back into the soil should it dry out. This reduces the risk of plants going too long without water. Being lightweight, they are also more convenient should you need to move the enclosure. With the weight of the soil added, you will be glad of any weight savings in this instance.
Egg Crate – Egg crate are panels of plastic that form a false floor with which to hold the substrate up. These get used in setups that contain moving water sources, such as small rivers and ponds. They create a large void under the substrate for water to flow into, whilst still maintaining the drainage properties required. They also allow for filters and pumps in the enclosure.
Gravel – Gravel is often cheaper, but the least effective method of drainage. Whilst it creates large spaces for the excess water to filter into, it is heavy and doesn’t have the same capillary properties of HydroRocks.
If using this layer, try to get at least an inch or so in height to ensure the system will not fill up too quickly. For most enclosures, this layer will get a little damp but will rarely, if ever, completely fill with water. Yet, if you are an extremely wet enclosure, adding a siphon into the drainage layer may be of benefit in the future.
How ever you make your Drainage layer, it is important to use some sort of drainage mesh. Drainage Mesh prevents substrate and bugs from getting down into the drainage layer and blocking up spaces.
Drainage mesh can be any permeable item, such as weed mesh, fleece liners or pre fabricated plastic mesh.
One downside to drainage layers, which we have come across, is that any species of burrowing Reptile may find themselves underneath it. We have experienced a female Timon tangitanus disappearing for a few days, whilst laying eggs in the HydroRocks layer. This is definitely worth consideration when planning your enclosure.
Once you have your drainage layer (or as your first step if you won’t use one), you should place your substrate in. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the advantages of different types of substrate; but, it is best to use a mix of different materials to get the best environment for the cleaners and inhabitants. Different mixing materials can include, but are not limited to;
Top Soil/Compost – Organic or fertiliser/pesticide free is important for inhabitant health
Peat – Peat is a an absorbent substrate mix for plants and bugs alike. Buy responsibly sourced peat, as it has a high economic importance. Peat is also perfect for adding structure to substrates, making them better for burrowing animals.
Coir – Coir is the husk of coconuts. It often comes in dehydrated blocks and has brilliant moisture retention abilities
Orchid Bark – Used in a mix, Orchid Bark creates spaces for bugs to collect and water to free flow through
Moss – This is another great addition for moisture retention, whilst also breaking down slower to feed plants and cleaners.
Sand – Play or Desert sand helps create drier setups, and is great for burrowing species.
There are many more options available, but it can often work out cheaper to buy pre-made mixes that get designed for certain environments, especially if only doing one or two small enclosures.
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.
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.
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.
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 ‘Roly 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.
Tropical Grey Woodlice
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.
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.
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.
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.