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How to Improve your Reptile's life with Bioactive Enclosures

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

We love our animals. We feed them, care for them and take them to the vets when they get

sick. We welcome them into our families and give them a safe home. A special home with no predators, plenty of food and warmth, it's ideal!

When we want to spoil our cats and dogs we often buy them special treats, let them run around outside and play with them to spoil our fur-babies. Even rabbits and guinea pigs, we let them have time outside in a run to feel grass underfoot and smell fresh air. So how can we do this for our more unusual pets?

Reptiles and amphibians deserve to be spoiled just as much as other pets! It's just hard to know how to do this sometimes. A fantastic way to do this is naturalistic and bioactive enclosures!


So first of all: what is bioactive?

Bioactive is basically an advanced method of keeping involving the use of soil, live plants and small invertebrates known as 'Clean Up Crew'. Together with the reptile (or amphibian) this creates an entire functioning ecosystem!

In our ZooLab session, 'Habitats', you can learn all about our different animals and where they live in the wild.

Plants: Provide hiding spots for the animal, as well as purifying the air and removing harmful

nitrates from the soil (which build up over time). Always check that plants are safe for your

specific reptile before putting them in your enclosure.

Clean Up Crew (CUC): Eat waste material produced by the reptile or amphibian and prevent


Soil: Provides natural digging opportunities for the animal, and a medium for the plants to grow.

Leaf litter: For the Clean Up Crew to eat and hide under.

Heat source: It is important to use an overhead, light emitting heat source such as a basking

bulb, as this provides deep penetrating heat, unlike heat mats, which will not penetrate the

substrate and can potentially be dangerous.

Bioactive can seem daunting at first but it is definitely worth it! When functioning correctly, this does not need to be fully cleaned out! It provides a natural and enriching environment for the animal to thrive in and explore. They are also much nicer to look at in your house!

Naturalistic enclosures also replicate the animal's; environment, but without real plants or Clean Up Crew. This needs to be cleaned out periodically but still retains many of the benefits of bioactive!

What works for one species may not work for another, as we need to consider the animals natural environment. Leopard geckos, for example, will have very different requirements to tree frogs.


Clean Up Crew

This is a variety of small invertebrates used for their role as detritivores to break down organic matter and turn it into plant fertiliser. There are lots of different types and have different jobs, so it's good to have a variety if you can.

Springtails - Incredibly small invertebrates which are a staple in most bioactive enclosures. They like it quite moist so in arid enclosures will mostly be found under the water bowl. They maintain the ecosystem by eating mould and dead plant matter.

Isopods - These are woodlice like you find in the garden! There are thousands of species, and some people buy 'fancy' tropical ones to keep as pets for hundreds of pounds (look up 'rubber ducky isopods'; to understand why). Some good tropical varieties are dwarf whites and dairy cows (just make sure to provide enough protein if you go with dairy cows). Isopods eat faeces and other waste matter.

Worms - This can be anything from earthworms to morio and mealworms. They aerate the

substrate and keep it from becoming too compacted.

Beetles - Mealworms and morioworms are readily available as reptile food. They eventually

pupate into darkling beetles which are very useful in a bioactive enclosure. They may even

reproduce and you could end up with a breeding population (free gecko snacks anyone?)


Tropical Bioactive Enclosures

Tropical species of reptiles and amphibians (crested/other arboreal geckos, tree frogs etc.) often prefer hot, humid environments. For these animals I recommend a drainage layer of clay balls to prevent the soil becoming too waterlogged. Organic top soil is ideal as it is safe for animals and will allow plants to grow. Adding cocofiber to this mix can help raise the humidity.

Suitable plants:

  • Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)

  • Golden Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

  • Snake plants (Sanseveria)

  • Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)

  • Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa)

  • Dwarf umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola)

  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)

  • Chinese evergreens

  • Orchids

  • Bromeliads

  • Begonia


Arid Bioactive Enclosures

Arid means a fairly dry environment (great for leopard geckos, bearded dragon etc.). You may think this means you cannot have live plants, but this is untrue! You just need to choose hardy plants which do not require much watering (snake plants, spider plants and succulents are great options!) There is no need for a drainage layer in this type of enclosure. It is a good idea to add play sand to your organic soil to better replicate their natural environment. Adding excavator clay will help the animal to dig and even create burrows!

Suitable plants:

  • Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)

  • Golden Pothos* (Epipremnum aureum)

  • Snake plants (Sanseveria)

  • Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)

  • Elephants bush (Portulacaria afra)

  • Turtle vine (Callisia repens)

  • Dracaena

  • Yucca

  • Succulents

  • Spineless prickly pear

  • Desert ornamental grass

  • Philodendron*

(those with * next to them may be unsafe for plant eating reptiles such as

bearded dragon)


Snake Bioactive Enclosures

Snake bioactive enclosures for corn snakes, royal pythons, boas, milk snakes, king snakes, rat snakes. The most important thing for snakes is that they won't destroy the plants by bulldozing over them! Use hardy plants like in an arid enclosure and make sure the enclosure is large enough for your snake to move around in. Think about your snake's wild habitat. If they like high humidity, add cocofiber to the mix. If they dig or burrow, add excavator clay. If they come from dryer environments, add play sand to firm up the soil.



Heat -The most common method of heating reptile enclosures is a heat mat. Heat mats

produce surface heat which will not penetrate a deep soil layer. In nature, heat comes

from the sun above! Give your reptile a mini sun in the form of a basking bulb!

Overwatering - If you overwater your plants, your animal, clean up crew and plants will

not be happy!

Plant lighting - Often this problem comes from those already familiar with UV bulbs for

their animal. Unfortunately UV bulbs are not enough for plants to thrive as they need a

different wavelength of light. Aquarium white LED lights are ideal as plant lights, or

reptile companies do make them (but will put a dent in your savings!)

Greedy reptile - It's happened to all of us. You've got your beautiful bioactive enclosure

all set up, planted your plants, chosen your clean up crew. Then, within days, it appears

your gecko has eaten everything in sight and is looking very smug. Keep half your clean

up crew back to breed just in case this happens, and top up if you need to. Choosing

CUC which are adept at hiding (such as dwarf woodlice, springtails and worms) can also

help prevent this.

There is no single right way to do a bioactive enclosure and it may take a little trial and error. If you are unsure or have never used loose substrate for your reptile before I recommend trialing with a naturalistic enclosure to start with! You can use loose substrate and bury the plants in their pots until your comfortable with this new type of husbandry. It is not easy, nor is it a solution to not cleaning out enclosures! It can take a lot of work and perseverance but in the end it is worth it for the physiological and psychological welfare of your reptile. Reptiles have even been shown to bond with their owners if provided with a suitably large and enriching environment (Hoehfurtner, Wilkinson, Nagabaskaran, Burman, 2021).


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