Bioactive enclosures have been a growing trend over the last few years. It’s not hard to see why. They look amazing, provide enrichment for your pet, and they even clean themselves! 

Bioactive reptile enclosures are a great way to mimic your reptile’s natural environment. And this can be done for both arid and tropical setups. 

Now, we do want to mention that bioactive enclosures are not a requirement for providing your reptile a good life. They are not for everyone and that’s okay! This guide is here for anyone who is interested in learning more about the basics of creating a bioactive enclosure.

What Exactly is a Bioactive Enclosure?

An enclosure is considered bioactive when plants, invertebrates, and microorganisms live in the same enclosure as a terrestrial species. Think of the enclosure as being its own mini-ecosystem! In this case, the terrestrial species is your reptile. 

The invertebrates or microfauna and microorganisms are commonly known as the “cleaning crew”. The cleaning crew will take any decaying matter, break it down, and turn it into a nutrient-rich solid for the plants. The plants in return provide cleaner air and even hide for the crew– or even the reptile! 

This differs from the more traditional enclosure where all of the tank maintenance relies on you. Traditional substrates do not need to support living organisms. They might not even be substrate at all. 

Here Are the Basics to Setting Up a Bioactive Enclosure

Besides your reptile, all (or most) bioactive enclosures have the same six “ingredients”: 

  1. the drainage layer
  2. a substrate barrier
  3. the substrate itself
  4. the “litter” layer
  5. plants, and 
  6. the cleaning crew. 

Depending on your reptile not all options for substrate, plants, and microfauna will be ideal. Always, always, always do research to see what is safe! And never bring in plants or animals from outdoors. You never know what parasites or toxins are present.

With that being said, here are the basics you need to know, starting with the bottom layer.

Drainage Layer

This layer will cover the very base of your tank. It will soak up excess moisture in your tank and eventually release it back into the soil. This helps keep everything from getting too wet and musty. Beneficial bacteria grow in this layer, too. 

Lava rocks and clay balls are the two most common materials used. Activated charcoal has been used as well to help with odor control. There is debate if a drainage layer is needed for arid setups. Use your best judgment and look at what plants and microfauna are used.

Substrate Barrier

This should be a durable material such as draining mesh or cotton foam that stops the substrate from mixing in with the drainage. Microorganisms may still pass through. This is fine and even recommended!


Substrate/soil is the most important part of a bioactive enclosure. This is where all the magic happens! You can either buy premade mixes or make your own. The mixture should be able to support plant life and microfauna, hold moisture, and be safe for your pet. Organic topsoil, coconut fiber/coco coir, orchid bark, and sphagnum moss are all popular options. 

“Litter” Layer

This is a mix of leaf litter, moss, and even some plant husks. This provides additional food for your cleaning crew so they don’t eat your plants instead.

Your Cleaning Crew

  • Isopods
  • Springtails
  • Fungi
  • Beetles
  • Woodlice
  • Earthworms
  • Millipedes

All are examples of what can make up the crew. Isopods and springtails are by far the most popular options and can be easy to find. Again, this all depends on the type of environment you are creating. For example, springtails can die if they get too dry so maybe look at different beetles for arid setups.


This is where people have a lot of fun with their setups. There may be some trial and error here as not all plants will thrive in a bioactive setup. Succulents and air plants are commonly found in arid enclosures. Pothos, ferns, peperomias, and bromeliads can be great for something more tropical. Do some research and make sure the soil will support what you have in mind!

To help with plant growth be sure to provide a full-spectrum growing light. A UVB alone is not enough for plants to photosynthesize and grow.

A note on hides: do not rely on plants to always provide sufficient hiding places. Provide hides and climbing areas as needed.

Finish Your Bioactive Setup

Now that you’ve got your bioactive enclosure all set up, don’t forget to add some feeders! Your reptile will have a blast hunting down prey like dubia roaches. Visit our shop to find the perfect size roach for your reptile’s needs!