HomeBlogBioactivity and Me - What to Know Before You Go Bioactive
Bioactivity and Me - What to Know Before You Go Bioactive
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. That's where we come in. At Josh's Frogs, we've kept dart frogs and similar species in bioactive habitats for over a decade. Recent technological advancement, such as our new
BioBedding Tropical Substrate, has meshed well with previous vivaria techniques to make setting up a bioactive environment easier than ever.This blog will not show you exactly how to set up a bioactive environment for a specific species of reptile or amphibian. Instead, we'll explore the basic ideas behind bioactivity, and what you need to keep in mind before you start.
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.
What's all the fuss about?
Bioactive enclosures are all the rage in America. Up to a few years ago, keeping most animals (dart frogs excluded) in naturalistic setups with live plants, fungi, and tank janitors would have seemed an unusual idea. In Europe, this technique has been used for decades, and plays an important role in husbandry and breeding success with many reptiles and amphibians we still struggle to keep and propagate in captivity. When done properly, bioactive tanks are a great way to keep your pets in an environment that more closely resembles what they'd encounter in the wild, and requires less work on our part after the initial setup.
The Bioactive 6
There are 6 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.
Start from the ground up. Your substrate provides a place for fungi, bacteria, tank janitors, and plants to live. A proper substrate needs to be able to retain moisture without becoming waterlogged, cavities for your tank janitors to live in, and not break down for a long period of time. Otherwise, those cavities will disappear; the substrate will become anaerobic and grow harmful bacteria and probably kill your plants. Substrate depth is typically deeper in a bioactive enclosure, often 3-4"" deep, to support a large microfauna population. Deeper substrate will also provide plenty of surface area for beneficial fungi and bacteria to grow.Oftentimes the bioactive substrate is topped with a layer of leaf litter, which provides more nutrients to the substrate, allows the substrate to retain more moisture, and provides niches for microfauna and other tank janitors to dwell. Josh's Frogs BioBedding Tropical is a great bioactive substrate for tropical or subtropical conditions.
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. To accelerate this and ensure your bioactive tank gets the fungal boost it needs, add a bit of Josh's Frogs Bioactive Booster.
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.
Creepy crawlies seldom save the day, but they're the heros of your bioactive enclosure. 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), some roach species, and even earthworms may make up an appropriate clean up crew for your bioactive setup - do your research! Many bioactive keepers 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 or millipedes.
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?
Intrigued? You should be! 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 a healthy 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.Watch some of our YouTube videos on assembling a bioactive enclosure: