Updated: Nov 20, 2021
Many of us strive to keep our pet reptiles or amphibians in a more naturalistic setup – something that reminds them of home, in our home. Live plants, microfauna (aka tank janitors – tiny bugs that help keep the tank clean), and natural tank decor are all hallmarks of a bioactive tank. But you can’t simply throw a bunch of stuff from nature into a glass box and have a blissful bioactive biome. A successful bioactive tank – one that reaps all the benefits of going au naturale – requires a bit of planning and a bit more research.
What exactly is a “bioactive enclosure”?
Keeping something in a bioactive setup is exactly what it sounds like – active life. Microfauna, such as springtails or isopods, are paired with other tank janitors to help keep the environment clean, as well as provide a minor food source for many herps. Fungi play an important role, too. Few of us would get excited about mold or mushrooms in our tanks, but these often overlooked decomposers play an important role in making nutrients (which were at one point waste) available to plants, and help keep a tank cycled and clean. Live plants utilize nutrients present in the tank to grow, while providing humidity and cover for your pets. To sum it up, in a bioactive enclosure you’re utilizing forms of life other than your primary inhabitant (live plants, bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates) to create a more natural, low maintenance habitat for your pet.
The Bioactive 7
There are 7 primary elements to any functioning bioactive enclosure. These elements work together in harmony to process and reduce waste in the system and promote a stable, healthy environment for your pets. Drainage Layer, Substrate, Fungi, Bacteria, Tank Janitors, Natural Decor, and Live Plants!
False Bottom is the ideal bottom layer of substrate for a living terrarium or vivarium. False Bottom is environmentally friendly, made entirely of recycled material, and light weight. False Bottom retains moisture and provides a void at the bottom of your vivarium for excess water to go. Utilizing this in a naturalistic vivarium fosters a humid environment, healthy soil conditions, and superior plant growth.
ABG mix is a premium substrate for tropical vivariums. A precise blend of tree fern fiber, charcoal, sphagnum peat, long fiber sphagnum, and fir bark, this substrate is capable of lasting several years when used properly. Originally perfected by the Atlanta Botanical Gardens of Atlanta, Georgia, this substrate will support a sizable population of microfauna while allowing plants to thrive. It is a good idea to wet the substrate before placing it in the vivarium.
When discussing bioactive enclosures, there’s always a fungus among us! Fungi may not be plants or animals, but they play a vital role in the bioactive enclosure, as they function as decomposers – they render dead things (plants, insects, and the like) and waste down to basic nutrients that plants can use for growth. Some fungi even work in unison with plants to help them take up waste more effectively and help them grow faster. The mushrooms you’ll see pop up in your tank are simply the reproductive portion of the fungus. The bulk of it, known as the mycelium, exist as small, threadlike structures in the soil. The vast majority of fungi are harmless and will show up seemingly out of nowhere over time.
Bacteria will grow in a bioactive tank. Most species are either benign or beneficial, but some can be harmful. To ensure that healthy bacteria set up shop in your bioactive enclosure, make sure you use a well draining substrate and don’t let it become waterlogged. You want the substrate to stay airy – occasionally turning it over with a fork can help reduce the risk of bad bacteria growing. Bad bacteria often have a sulfur or rotten egg smell to them. If your soil stinks, it’s probably due to a buildup of bacteria. Turn the substrate or replace it. We don’t recommend adding bacteria directly to your substrate – currently, composting bacteria are most often added to bioactive setups, which only serve to break down the substrate faster and are not needed for a healthy environment.
Various microfauna / tank janitors / clean up crew species can be added, depending on the environment, to help break down and remove waste, serve as an in-tank food source, and even compete with baddies. Undesirables such as reptile mites require moist places off the host to reproduce, and your tank janitors fill those spots in a well-functioning bioactive setup, making it difficult for parasitic mites to colonize your pets!
Springtails, isopods, superworms and mealworms (and beetles), and even earthworms may make up an appropriate clean up crew for your bioactive setup – do your research! Many bioactive keepers wish to collect these animals from the wild, but we recommend captive cultures of inverts to reduce the chance of introducing something harmful to your tank.
What’s a natural setup without some natural decor? Various rot resistant woods, such as mopani, Malaysian driftwood, manzanita, and cork make great additions to a tank. Inert rocks or cholla wood also make good choices. Natural decor provides more living space for your tank inhabitants, as well as niches and visual barriers and hides. Wood will slowly break down, providing a great source of food for isopods.
Something’s gotta use up all those nutrients the bioactive environment is making available. Luckily, photosynthetic protagonists are up to the task! Plus, they look great while doing it! Plants will remove nutrients from the system while they grow, which can then be removed from the enclosure when you trim them. They’ll contribute to a higher humidity, and provide plenty of natural cover for your animals to take advantage of. Did I mention live plants look amazing in an enclosure?
A bioactive approach to animal keeping opens up a whole new world! No longer are you keeping a pet, you’re suddenly recreating one of the earth’s great biomes on a nano scale. It is helpful in this pursuit to have a basic understanding of ecology and biology. If you don’t understand the basic ecological concepts surrounding nutrient cycling before you start a bioactive terrarium, you sure will afterwards!
Remember, a properly functioning bioactive enclosure is an amazing chance to provide your pet with an enriching environment. Once established, the habitats are visually appealing, easy to care for, and about as natural as your pet is likely to see in captivity. If, however, a bioactive enclosure is not set up properly, it can become dangerous to your animals’ well being quite rapidly. Do your research, but trust me, it’s time well spent.