Bioactive enclosures are very attractive options for your pet reptile or amphibian! It’s hard not to fall in love with the idea of a miniature ecosystem thriving in your care. But do you know what you need to consider while building one? We created this blog post as a resource, so you know which questions you need to ask while planning your next bioactive build!
We have a worksheet you can download here and write notes on as you plan your build!
When working through this blog and its accompanying worksheet, you may need to revisit sections once you’ve completed others, as many answers to some questions inform or complicate others.
Let’s get started!
Who is this terrarium for?
The first thing you need to ask yourself when planning your build is “What animal is this terrarium for?” It might seem like an obvious question, but the answer informs all the decisions you’ll need to make when choosing your terrarium’s parts. The first thing this informs is what style enclosure you’ll need to get for your animal. If your animal is arboreal, you’ll need a tall enclosure with plenty of room for climbing and enough horizontal space for jumping. If it’s terrestrial, your enclosure will need to favor floor space over height. Finally, if it’s fossorial, aquatic, or semi-aquatic, you’ll need horizontal space with enough depth to add plenty of substrate for burrowing, or water for swimming. Some animals may even fit into multiple categories, so you will need to plan on getting or building an enclosure.
How much space will you need?
The next thing you’ll need to ask for your build is “How big should the enclosure be?” A good place to start is the care guides you can find online for your animal. Start with the minimum recommended size for your animal and come back to this question later once you’ve started to make decisions for hardscaping and plants. You’ll have to consider how much space your substrate, backgrounds, branches, water features, and other elements will take up. You’ll also need to take into account that live plants will grow over time and will use more space unless trimmed. Once these elements are accounted for, consider how much room is left and ask yourself the following:
Is this enough space for my animal to exercise while exploring and foraging?
Is there space for temperature and humidity gradients, and is there room in those microclimates for my animal?
Of course, space minimums are just the least amount of space needed, so if you can afford it, feel free to go bigger and offer your animal even more space to thrive and explore! While planning your enclosure size, also consider where in your home you’ll be placing the enclosure! It will need to be away from direct sunlight and not in front of a vent to avoid temperature issues. Speaking of maintaining proper temperatures…
What environment is best for my animal?
You’ll need to ask yourself, “What environment is my animal from, and how am I going to simulate it in my enclosure?” Consulting your animal care guides will give you suggested temperature and humidity ranges to start building the proper environment. Once you’ve determined the appropriate environment, you’ll need to figure out how you will use light, heat, and water elements to simulate it.
Lighting and Heat
Most reptiles benefit from UVB, and it should be considered for all reptile enclosures. Your animal care guide should tell you what UVI is best for your animal and recommend some bulb options. While UVB T5s can support some plants, if you’re going to have live plants, adding an LED bulb to your lighting array will be significantly better for sustaining healthy plants. Finally, for your lighting array think about how you are going to provide heat for your animal. Elements like halogen bulbs and ceramic heat emitters are great for ambient and basking heat but can speed up the evaporation of humidity, which is good for arid environments, but sometimes overpowering for humid environments.
Enclosure tops have a finite amount of space making light planning and placement important when using multiple bulbs. You’ll also need to consider shade as well. All animals need an option to escape heat and UVB, so if light is spread out too much, there will be no escape. We recommend keeping lights close together when possible. For arboreal set-ups specifically which may have limited horizontal space, we recommend placing lights towards the front of the terrarium, allowing for shade in the back. For more horizontally oriented set-ups, you can choose one side of the enclosure for light and the other for shade. Ideally, your plants will also provide shady areas for your animal. This method also allows you to limit escaping humidity by covering part of the screen top with something like a Pangea Acrylic Insert.
While planning your lighting, also consider which humidity elements you’ll need to add. If you plan on adding a misting system, dripper, or fogger, you’ll need to account for any space these elements will take on your enclosure’s top. If your animal requires misting or fogging, we recommend aiming the misting head or fogger hose toward your plants both for the atmosphere and to offer places for water droplets to collect that your animal can drink from.
What’s going in my terrarium?
Hardscaping, or the solid elements in your enclosure creates the structure of the habitat and makes a huge difference in the usability and aesthetics of the enclosure. Your reptile’s natural behavior will help determine which elements to use for the hardscaping.
Most reptiles and amphibians benefit from some sort of wood in their enclosure. Wood offers climbing options, visual barriers, and can help aid shedding. For arid and semi-arid setups, many kinds of wood will work great, such as grapevineor cork bark. In more humid environments, however, you’ll need to be more careful in choosing your wood so that you select a type that can tolerate the atmosphere inside without rotting or excessively molding. For example, a wood like manzanita would be a better choice than grapevine for tropical habitats.
You’ll want to avoid resinous wood, treated wood, or any wet wood for any enclosure because of the dangers they pose to your animals. Whether you buy from a pet retailer like us or harvest the branches locally, make sure you know the species of wood is non-toxic for your animal, and sanitize the wood. You can use heat, placing the wood in an oven set to 220°F (104°C) for 30 minutes to kill off parasites, bacteria, and other biologicals that could be harmful to your pet.
Rock and Stone
Many enclosures, especially arid and aquatic ones, benefit from rocks both functionally and aesthetically. Using flagstone to create Retes stacks is one of the most effective ways to use rocks to benefit many reptiles. When choosing rocks to incorporate, like wood, ensure the stone is non-toxic. Additionally, some stone leaches minerality, and that will also need to be safe for your pet. The aquarium hobby has established a wealth of knowledge about rocks suitable for enclosures, so we recommend referencing their knowledge when determining the safety for your animal. Like wood, you’ll want to sanitize your rocks as well. We recommend using heat over chemical sanitization as many rocks are porous. Scrubbing the rocks, and then boiling them for about 10 minutes is a good way to do so.
In addition to natural wood and stone, artificial plants, hides, and rocks can be added as well. While plastic pieces may clash with the natural aesthetic of your enclosure, these items are often function-first inclusions that may provide great benefits to your animal. Of course, like everything else, do your research on any artificial items and read reviews to make sure they’re a good fit for your animal.
Placing Your Hardscape
Now that you’ve determined what’s going in the terrarium, you’ll want to develop a plan for how your hardscape will be placed in the enclosure. First and foremost, consider your animal’s safety. Heavy objects need to be secured to the bottom of the tank, and no item should be placed in a position that is easily toppled over or could collapse onto your animal. Additionally, make sure there won’t be any unintended hiding places in the enclosure that your animal can get stuck or trapped in.
After safety, functionality is the next most important consideration in planning your hardscape. All elements should be intentionally placed at usable angles for your specific animal. If this pet is new to you, do your research for what is best for it. If you’re upgrading an existing pet’s enclosure, observe your pet’s preferences, and construct your plan to suit them. Branches at horizontal and diagonal angles work well for most set-ups, but arboreal animals will need vertical climbing options as well. You’ll also want to consider where your animal will be at different times of the day. For example, branches and stones should be placed in synchronicity with basking lights, choosing appropriately sized and angled platforms for an animal to soak in heat. Additionally, distance from your UVB bulb should be factored into this placement to ensure your animal is receiving an appropriate UV index. Finally, regarding functionality, hiding places need to be created in your hardscape. These spaces should be large enough to fit the animal, but not so big that they’re afraid a predator could join them. The best practice would be to offer multiple hiding places; some with one entrance, and others with multiple. These spaces should also be at different ends of your gradients. If housing multiple animals, you’ll need additional basking spots and hiding places.
Once safety and functionality have been accounted for, you can think about aesthetic choices. We won’t get too in-depth with aesthetics in this blog, but you may want to incorporate art principles such as movement and depth in your plan. Additionally, this is a good time to determine the placement of your dishes. These are often the last things placed in the enclosure, but you’ll want to incorporate them into your plan to ensure there is room for appropriate food and water dishes in appropriate locations.
What Substrate does my enclosure need?
Your substrate is another element that will likely have recommendations found in online care guides. It is also something that will be primarily informed by your animal’s natural habitat. Generally, you will want a substrate that drains well for arid and semi-arid set ups. Tropical and sub-tropical substrates usually have more absorbent materials that help maintain humidity for your pet.
You will also need to ensure the substrate you use can support any plants you intend to add if you’ll be planting them directly in the substrate. Organic material, like topsoil or peat moss are good elements to include in your substrate mix and premade mixes like Pangea ABG Premium Substrate are excellent for tropical plants. Additionally, if your plants are directly planted, you’ll most likely need to add a drainage layer so water can drain from your substrate preventing root rot, as well as adding a natural aquafer that will help keep humidity level high and stable.
Another thing to consider when choosing a substrate is if your animal needs a substrate that can support burrowing. You will want to use a substrate that is good at clumping, including topsoil, peat moss, or ground coco coir in your substrate mix can help with this. Some enclosures set up for burrowing will not need a drainage layer because the tunnels will naturally aerate the substrate allowing roots to breathe. This also gives more room for burrowing and prevents your animal from becoming trapped under your drainage barrier.
What plants do I want to add to my enclosure?
When most people picture bioactive enclosures, they think of beautiful, lush green habitats filled with tropical plants. However, those plants may not work for your animal. In arid enclosures, for example, these plants would quickly wither and die. Here are some things we think you should consider before adding plants:
Maintaining plants is difficult in arid enclosures. If you want to add some, we generally recommend sticking to succulents and other animal-safe desert plants. Additionally, it can be a good idea to use the double-pot method. To do so, secure one pot into your enclosure, and keep your plant in a second pot that can be stacked inside the first. This allows you to pull your plants out of the enclosure for watering so you can give them the moisture they need without flooding your enclosure.
Tropical habitats are the ones most people envision when thinking of bioactive enclosures. The environment opens the door to many plants, but not all will work best for you and your animal. Common vining plants such as Epipremnum, Philodendrons, and Monsteras can look amazing scaling the back wall inside terrariums. However, many of these will take over a habitat if not trimmed. Woody plants like Schefflaras and Ficusbenjaminaadd climbing branches and a more forested aesthetic to your enclosure but can outgrow most enclosures. Other plants like Begonias, Allocasias, and Syngoniums are beautiful, but fragile and will be crushed by many animals. We recommend pairing delicate plants with lightweight animals, and make sure they’re hardy enough for your animal’s size and movements.
Preparing your Plants
While many common houseplants work well in bioactive enclosures, the pesticides and fertilizer in their soil can be very harmful. We recommend removing the soil and washing your plants before placing them in your terrarium. You can take this further by flushing your plants before you wash them, by thoroughly watering your plant’s soil with distilled or RO filtered water in the weeks leading up to planting them in your tank. Of course, you can also buy your plants ready to plant from vendors specializing in terrarium plants such as Glass Box Tropicals.
What Clean-up Crew should I add to my enclosure?
The last major element to consider when planning your bioactive enclosure is your clean-up crew! Detritivores are an essential addition to your enclosure for breaking down waste and plant debris. For arid enclosures, it will be difficult to keep many commonly available detritivores. However, isopods like Porcellionides pruinosisare somewhat tolerant of dryer climates. Additionally, some beetles, such as darkling beetles, are also good options for semi-arid setups. For tropical and sub-tropical terrariums, your best option will be a combination of springtails and isopods. Some isopods are better than others as a clean-up crew. We like Porcellioscaber,Porcellionidespruinosis, and Trichorhinatomentosa. However, if you plan on breeding, Trichorhinatomentosa AKA dwarf whites are known to eat reptile eggs.
Your detritovores are of course there to help clean up your enclosure, but they can’t survive on waste alone. In order for them to thrive, you will need to provide them with an ample amount of leaves and occasional vegetables. Otherwise, they will likely seek out your plants for food.
Some final considerations
Now that you’ve got a plan for everything going into your enclosure, there are a few final considerations to think about. Importantly, do you have enough time for the enclosure to establish before introducing an animal? Typically, the best practice is to allow about a month for your plants to grow, detritovores colonies to settle, and beneficial mycelium and bacteria to establish in the substrate. If you don’t have time for it to establish before your animal needs a place to live, where will the animal live in the meantime?
And of course, the last thing to think about is where you are going to source your supplies for your build, but you probably already know we’ve got what you need at pangeareptile.com! We’ve got plenty of options for substrate, wood, cork bark, hides, dishes, and isopods so you can build an incredible enclosure!