What is a bioactive setup, and how do you go about building one?
Are they good for your pet crested gecko?
To put it simply, a bioactive enclosure is a natural tank setup which replicates your pet’s natural environment as closely as possible.
It integrates tiny living creatures like isopods and woodlice and certain types of fungi to take care of any waste products created by the animal and plants living inside.
While this sounds like a daunting task with many moving parts, it is a fairly straightforward process and will provide your crested gecko with a beautiful, self-cleaning environment very similar to the rainforest biome they are native to.
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What You’ll Need For A Crested Gecko Bioactive Setup
Although bioactive habitats are intricate and detailed, the items you will need to construct your own are readily available from most pet shops and reptile supply shops online.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A sealed, watertight, waterproof enclosure. The best materials for this are plastic and glass tanks. Avoid wood, mesh, or screened enclosures because they are prone to drying out quickly.
- (Optional) Spray foam and silicone to decorate the background of the enclosure, including any additional decorations like corkwood, pieces of driftwood, substrate, and platforms for the gecko to climb on.
- Bioactive substrate. You will need a few different types to make up the entire drainage layer:
- Mesh landscaping fabric. This will be part of the drainage layer, too, and will help water drain to the bottom but catch any loose substrate.
- Your “cleanup crew.” This will be composed of live, insect-like creatures like isopods and hexapods.
- A wide variety of real plants with sturdy leaves to place throughout the tank.
- Pothos vines
- Bird’s Nest Ferns
- Chinese Evergreens
- Jade Jewel
- A UVB bulb. Crested geckos don’t need much UV rays, but a small amount is still beneficial to their bone health.
- A heat source
- A thermometer and hygrometer to monitor the temperature and humidity level inside the tank.
How To Set Up Crested Gecko Bioactive Substrate
Step By Step Crested Gecko Bioactive Setup
Step One: Clean and prepare your enclosure.
Again, the enclosure used in the video is linked in the previous section.
Clean it thoroughly if it hasn’t been already.
This enclosure is the perfect size for a crested gecko from hatchling to adult, and it provides the vertical space they need to climb and explore.
Be sure the tank walls are secure and watertight.
You will soon be filling this space with lots of plants, tiny insect-like creatures, and substrate.
Step Two (Optional): Create a custom background for the enclosure.
While not a necessity for your gecko’s survival, this step will help them be more comfortable in their enclosure and make the tank look more cohesive and natural.
You could just print out a photo of a rainforest setting and paste it to the back of the enclosure, but many reptile keepers choose to create their own with spray foam, silicone, corkwood, platforms, plants, etc.
Feel free to get creative here to make the setup as natural-looking as possible.
You could even attach the loose substrate to the background with silicone to make it look more natural.
Be sure any materials you use are non-toxic, and if you use spray foam or silicone, let them dry completely for a couple of days before proceeding with the rest of the setup.
You will notice the spray foam expands as it dries, so after it’s dry, trim it down to give it a more textured appearance.
Step Three: Create your drainage layer for the vivarium.
For a drainage layer, a variety of different substrates are acceptable.
The example in the video uses HydroBalls by Zoomed, tiny clay balls used to absorb moisture and allow water and waste material to drain.
Aquarium pebbles or any kind of small stones work well, too.
On top of the HydroBalls, place a layer of mesh landscaping fabric cut down to the size of the tank.
This will allow water to drain to the bottom layer without letting any substrate fall through.
Then, on top of the fabric, cover it with a layer of Josh’s Frogs BioBedding.
You will want enough to cover the mesh fabric evenly, so around a half-inch to an inch (2.5 cm) is sufficient.
If you don’t find the product listed above, a soil layer or a layer of coconut fiber also works great for this purpose.
Above the BioBedding layer, you will want to start seeding your live springtail culture.
Springtails are tiny hexapod creatures which will work to break down waste material as well as mold and mildew coming from the plants and lizard living above them.
Josh’s Frogs also has a springtail culture kit for this purpose which is used in the video.
Sprinkle the tiny bugs evenly on top of the BioBedding, being careful not to spill any of them outside the enclosure.
Next, add another layer of BioBedding on top of the live springtails.
This substrate is perfect for your crested gecko setup as it retains moisture well and contains nutrients for plants and springtails throughout the tank.
On top of the second layer of BioBedding, spread a thin layer of leaf litter such as Josh’s Frogs Live Oak Leaf Litter to give your springtails plenty of plant material to feed on so they have the energy to break down plant and animal waste later.
After the leaf litter and BioBedding layer, add a layer of Dwarf White Isopods on top.
This is another species of tiny creatures which will assist the springtails in breaking down waste material.
Step Four: Mist the layers, place plants and decor
Finally, mist the substrate layers with water to keep the entire complex moist and hydrated.
After this, you’ll be able to add finishing touches such as live plants, barks, mosses, and some extra leaf litter to the enclosure.
Get as creative as you’d like.
Just make sure your gecko has lots of space to climb, explore, and hide if they choose to do so.
Don’t forget any food or water bowls you plan on adding to the tank.
Step Five: Add your heat and UVB lighting to the enclosure.
Although many reptile owners will tell you crested geckos don’t necessarily need UVB to thrive, these geckos still benefit from a small number of UV rays in their enclosure.
The ZooMed ReptiSun Compact Fluorescent Bulb is a great choice as it is only 13 watts and has a 5% output, which isn’t much, but it’s just right for your crested gecko.
A low-wattage heat bulb or ceramic heat emitter such as the ZooMed 25W Nano Ceramic Heat Emitter is perfect for heating.
Crested geckos only require temperatures of around 80 to 85° degrees Fahrenheit (29° C) at most, so anywhere from 15 to 40 watts will be sufficient for your tank.
Adding a thermometer to the tank will help you find the perfect placement and distance for the heat emitter.
A hygrometer will also be helpful to monitor the tank’s humidity level, which should be around 50 to 60% for a crested gecko.
If the humidity is too high or too low, all you have to do is either let the tank dry out a bit or mist it with more water.
If you need more details on this check out our post on crested gecko lighting and temperature requirements.
Step Six: Wait for the enclosure to settle.
Your hexapods and isopods will need some time to settle in and get comfortable before they can get to work and begin reproducing.
The plants inside also need time to root themselves properly.
You don’t want your gecko to destroy the plants and uproot them before they can establish themselves.
The recommended amount of time for this process is around a month, but some reptile keepers claim two weeks or so is adequate.
This will be the most difficult part of the setup process if you happen to be impatient, but it will be worth it when you finally introduce your gecko to their new home.
Step Seven: Put your gecko in the tank.
Finally, you will be able to introduce your gecko to their bioactive enclosure.
Your gecko could be shy at first, so be patient with them as they get settled into the tank you have carefully constructed for them.
Remember to carefully monitor the temperature and humidity daily and mist it with water as needed.
Check on your gecko daily to be sure nothing in the enclosure could potentially fall on them or harm them in any way.
Step Eight: Maintenance
Bioactive terrariums require a small amount of maintenance for optimal conditions in the long-term.
However, this is minimal and mostly just entails draining the drainage layer as needed by siphoning the water out with a tube.
Keep in mind: you will also have to add more biodegradable materials such as the substrate, plants, and leaf litter every four months or so, or around every quarter.
Your crested gecko cleanup crew of tiny isopods and hexapods needs plenty of food to eat.
Without enough for the entire group, they will compete with each other and threaten the balance of your entire natural setup.
Finally, you should water your plants in the enclosure frequently to keep them healthy and prevent them from drying out.
Trim any plant growth as needed.
You might also need to add more isopods and springtails if they aren’t reproducing fast enough, but they are usually self-sustaining.
Related Questions To Bioactive Substrate
Although a bioactive crested gecko setup seems very complex and difficult, it is quite simple and needs very little outside interference after the initial setup process.
Still, several environmental conditions need to be monitored and accounted for after you have assembled the enclosure.
Ask yourself the following questions to be sure your bioactive vivarium is complete:
- Have you constructed your drainage layer as recommended in the tutorial above? If not, go over each step carefully to be sure the proper drainage layer is complete.
- Are your live springtails and isopods settled into their enclosure? Remember, you will need both for your enclosure’s cleanup crew.
- Are you misting your enclosure and emptying the drainage layer regularly? These will need to be done daily to keep the tank humid and keep the drainage layer from overflowing with water.
- Are the plants inside the enclosure thriving, or are they wilting or drying out too quickly? If they are drying out, be sure to water them more often and trim them as they grow.
- Are the temperature and humidity settings correct for your gecko? As a general rule, around 80° degrees Fahrenheit (27° C) and 50 to 60% humidity is perfect for a crestie.
By accounting for every factor on this list, the environmental conditions for the enclosure should be perfect, allowing your gecko to feel right at home.
Although bioactive setups were considered dangerous and messy when the trend initially surfaced in the reptile-keeping community, they have since taken off and become the most common setup for various reptiles and amphibians.
Your beloved crestie will appreciate an environment reminiscent of their natural habitat, and you will also greatly enjoy looking at the beautiful, showy tank in your home and your crested gecko climbing about inside.