What is a bioactive substrate and what does it mean for bearded dragons?
What benefits might it provide for your reptilian friend?
You may have been researching and come across the term “bioactive.”
While you’re interested, you want to make sure it will work for you and your bearded dragon before committing to a bioactive terrarium.
We understand and are ready to help you get closer to enriching your pet’s life.
When done correctly, a bioactive setup will help with your pet’s mental enrichment, support their immune system, and need less overall cleaning than a standard bearded dragon setup.
What You’ll Need
- Organic Potting Soil
- Isopod or Other Live Insect Starter Kit
- Silica-free play sand
- Climbing branches
- Herb growing kit or Other Safe Plants
How To Set Up Bioactive Substrate Video
How To Set Up A Bioactive Bearded Dragon Substrate Step By Step
Step 1) A Possible Tank Upgrade
You may have the bare minimum size for a bearded dragon tank.
While a bioactive substrate may be used in the normal 40-gallon enclosure, it will be more successful and healthier in a bigger tank or wooden setup.
Pro tip: If you are using a wooden enclosure with a glass or wire face, make sure to waterproof the wood before laying down the substrate layers.
Since you will be adding moisture regularly, you do not want the wood to rot and break over time.
For extra waterproofing, put a pond liner between the bottom layer of substrate and the wood.
Step 2) Drainage Layer
While unnecessary, a short drainage layer at the very bottom of the enclosure may help correct problems caused by overwatering.
Good materials for a porous substrate drainage layer include:
- Lava rock
- Plastic egg crate lighting diffuser
If using the lighting diffuser, you may want to zip tie it in for extra support, as it will be under a significant amount of weight.
Gravel is not recommended for drainage of this type since it is too heavy and does not absorb water.
Step 3) Add Substrate Layers
Though most owners layer their substrates, keeping the driest on top, if your beardie is a digger, the substrate layers tend to get mixed together anyway.
This is also the step where you would add earthworms into the substrate if you are using them.
Keepers experiment with their substrates depending on how much their bearded dragon digs, fears about digestive impaction, and what will best keep their cleanup crew and plants thriving.
In any case, we recommend mixing any play sand you use with topsoil to reduce impaction risk from eating sand.
One setup of percentages to use is 50-60% rinsed silica-free play sand, 30% untreated organic topsoil, and 5-10% coconut husk chips or reptichips.
The video above goes a slightly different route, mixing 80% soil with 20% play sand.
You will want to put down or layer 6-8″ inches (15-20 centimeters) of substrate for the average bearded dragon.
The deeper the substrate layer, the better support for good bacteria and insects in your cleanup crew.
Pro Tip: If your female bearded dragon is gravid (pregnant) or needs to lay infertile eggs, you will need up to a foot (30 centimeters) of the substrate.
Not laying even infertile eggs may cause egg binding or dystocia and be very harmful to your pet.
Step 4) Add The Cleanup Crew
A cleanup crew in a bioactive setup is a mix of micro and macroorganisms, usually naturally occurring bacteria in the potting soil and whatever insects and earthworms you add to the soil’s top layer.
If you want your potting soil to pick up even more good bacteria, lay it out outside before adding it to your substrate.
This cleanup crew is mainly in the habitat to combat fecal matter buildup and fight any bad bacteria in the space.
You want to add insects which will tolerate a drier environment.
While you should be adding moisture on the cool side of the enclosure, the basking hot side will get drier and more hard-packed as it sits under the heating lamp.
Good animals for a desert include:
- Isopods (dwarf purple recommended)
- Dubia roaches (added benefit of food source for your pet)
- Fly larvae
- Superworm beetles and larvae (also a food source)
- Mealworm beetles and larvae (also a food source)
- Dermestid beetles and larvae
- Crickets (also a food source)
- Compost worms
Each of these species has different environmental and food requirements for survival.
You should research each before committing to one.
You want them to survive as well as your bearded dragon does to keep the terrarium “self-cleaning.”
Do not add any insects which may harm your bearded dragon, either through biting or from your pet eating them.
Elder bugs and glowworms are especially toxic.
Pro Tip: A predatory insect like a wolf spider in the terrarium may help cut down on pest insects.
Make sure it cannot bite or harm your bearded dragon before putting it in the environment.
Step 5) Add Other Items
Scatter some leaf litter on top of your substrate layer.
Leaf litter provides great places for your cleanup crew to hide and cool down.
Contact your local conservation organizations or plant nurseries for free or low-cost options.
Climbing branches from pet stores or foraged branches make great additions to a bioactive setup.
Make sure there are no aggressive insects in any foraged branches.
Mites especially can harm a bearded dragon.
Step 6) Install Safe Plants
Since part of your substrate is made of soil, plants which thrive in somewhat sandy soil make great additions to the environment.
Make sure you install an LED light to help any plants grow at the top of the enclosure.
Most bearded dragon enclosures are kept out of direct sunlight.
Either plant them directly into the substrate or keep them in their pots.
Safe plants include:
- Prickly pear cacti (trim regularly, keep in mind sharp spines may harm your pet, specimens without spines are available)
- Dwarf jade plants (regular jade plants are mildly toxic)
Keep in mind your bearded dragon may step on, dig up, or nibble on any plant in their enclosure.
Therefore, you want to make sure anything you buy is not toxic and will not harm them if they eat it.
Make sure any plants you buy are pesticide-free.
Organic plants have usually not been treated with pesticides.
If the plants are not organic, make sure to wash them thoroughly or let them grow outside of the enclosure for a couple of months before installation.
Step 7) Mix Up Substrate
Mix up the top layer of your substrate.
Let it sit for 20-30 minutes to let the dust settle before reintroducing your bearded dragon into its new environment.
Questions For Bioactive Environments And Bearded Dragons
What Is A Bioactive Environment?
A bioactive environment, in reptile husbandry terms, is a captive environment which as closely as possible replicates an animal’s natural environment.
The process has also been described as creating a living environment, especially since a bioactive terrarium will include micro and macroorganisms in a reptile’s native habitat.
Though tropical bioactive environments have been used for a long time with tropical lizards like chameleons, creating more arid bioactive environments is relatively recent.
Bioactive substrates and environment creation for desert lizards like bearded dragons are somewhat in the experimental stage.
A bioactive substrate will encourage a bearded dragon’s natural behaviors of digging, burrowing, and thermoregulating in a best-case scenario.
If the balance of organisms in the substrate and the type of substrate is correct, the insects and good bacteria present will aid in breaking down fecal matter and combatting bad bacteria in the enclosure.
If you have chosen to set up a bioactive terrarium, we strongly encourage you to do your research and set the environment up properly.
Improper setups may lead to illness and even the death of your pet.
Ideally, the substrate will contain enough good bacteria and macroorganisms to combat the bad bacteria produced by waste matter and stagnant air.
Common substrates like play sand, reptile carpet, and sand mats tend to trap the bad bacteria rather than work through it.
Ideally, a small amount of bad bacteria in a bioactive setup will help strengthen your pet’s immune system, much like a vaccine would with a human’s immunity.
Most bearded dragon owners stick with minimalistic and sterile enclosures which may not be mentally stimulating for their pets but are easier to clean and manage.
While these terrariums have their advantages, keepers who promote bioactive terrariums suggest these are stagnant environments and not the best for healthy dragons.
What About Impaction?
Any loose substrate, especially one containing sand, raises fears of digestive impaction.
Impaction is an intestinal blockage, usually caused by ingestion of substrate.
More recent research suggests bearded dragons who are not receiving proper nutrition will eat their substrates in order to get the right minerals and vitamins, which then leads to digestive impaction and problems.
No matter what, make sure your bearded dragon is eating a varied, balanced diet which is nutritionally complete.
Provide a fresh, clean source of drinking water at all times.
Set up a UVB light in any enclosure to ensure your beardie gets proper amounts of vitamin D3.
If necessary, add a powdered calcium supplement to your pet’s diet 2-3 times a week.
Bioactive substrates may not be the right choice for baby bearded dragons since they tend to be messier eaters and sometimes accidentally eat substrate.
What About Humidity And Temperature Issues?
While bearded dragons are native to semiarid and arid environments, contrary to popular belief, they tolerate various humidity levels.
Current research suggests the fungal and bacterial blooms in closed terrariums are more likely the result of stagnant air rather than humidity levels, which are too high for bearded dragons.
If your humidity levels in a bioactive environment are higher than normal, we recommend properly cross-ventilating rather than reducing moisture.
Your cleanup crew will need a certain moisture and humidity level to live and operate, and a completely dehydrated environment is not great for your pet either.
Normal levels during the day should be between 30-40%.
A humidity rise at night is normal.
Nighttime humidity levels should be between 40 and 60%.
You may see temperature requirements for a bioactive environment higher than usual for a bearded dragon.
The mid-range for the basking spot will be 100-130° degrees Fahrenheit (38-54° C), but some keepers go much higher.
A high temperature will boost a bearded dragon’s metabolism and help keep the cleanup crew healthy and happy.
The cool side temperatures should remain the same, as thermoregulation will be especially important.
Before setting up a bioactive terrarium, make sure your pet is in good health.
While they have many advantages over sterile terrariums, bioactive environments are not recommended for lizards with compromised immune systems or those suffering high levels of parasites.
An injured or ill bearded dragon may need to live in a sterile environment for a while until it recovers.
What Are Some Common Mistakes With Bioactive Environments?
Since bioactive reptile setups have become more popular, keepers have gone through a lot of experimentation to get them right.
However, there are still some common mistakes which make the process harder.
Buying Non-Organic Potting Soil
Though treated potting soil is more widely available and cheaper, the treatment has usually removed all the microorganisms present in organic soil.
The pesticide content and chemical fertilizers present may also cause harm to your bearded dragon and your cleanup crew.
Not Watering The Soil
This is especially important if you include plants in your setup, but your cleanup crew needs moisture too.
Humidity should be corrected through cross-ventilation and a drainage layer if you have one.
Not Planning Ahead
While there is always room to correct mistakes or make changes, you should have a plan in place for how you want your bioactive environment to look and how you want to start it.
If needed, do your research, especially on what cleanup crew will work best for you in an arid terrarium.
Planting The Wrong Plants
While many desert plants are recommended for bioactive setups, you will want to make sure they thrive in your pet’s environment.
Avoid any plants which are toxic to bearded dragons.
Though succulents are a popular recommendation, they are both sensitive and expensive.
A bearded dragon may attempt to dig up or walk on any plant in its enclosure, and succulents usually do not survive a trampling.
Herbs and hardy desert plants are best since they are both inexpensive and may provide a source of fresh greenery for snacks.
We hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and have learned how to set up a bioactive substrate for your bearded dragon.
If done properly, a bioactive substrate is a great source of mental enrichment for your bearded dragon.
You will want to make sure to follow the list of required items above, as well as the step by step instructions.
An improper bioactive setup could be extremely harmful to your bearded dragon.
Bioactive terrariums are also not recommended for unhealthy or injured bearded dragons.
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