Hey there, fellow reptile enthusiasts! If you’re looking to level up your bearded dragon’s living space, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to guide you through the fantastic world of bioactive bearded dragon enclosures. A bioactive setup is a great way to provide your bearded dragon with an enriching, natural environment that closely mimics its native habitat.
Plus, it can make your life as a pet owner easier in the long run by reducing maintenance tasks. So, let’s dive into what a bioactive enclosure is and why it’s worth considering for your bearded dragon.
What’s a Bioactive Enclosure?
A bioactive enclosure is designed to replicate the natural ecosystem of your bearded dragon, complete with live plants, a suitable substrate, and a cleanup crew of microfauna, such as isopods and springtails. These tiny critters help break down waste and prevent mold and odor, creating a self-sustaining environment that can reduce the need for frequent cleaning.
Your bearded dragon will benefit from this setup because it’s more stimulating and closer to its natural habitat, which can lead to a healthier, happier pet.
The benefits of a bioactive enclosure don’t stop at creating a more natural environment for your bearded dragon. By incorporating live plants and microfauna, you’re also helping to maintain a more stable humidity level, which is crucial for your bearded dragon’s health.
Moreover, a bioactive setup fosters natural behaviors such as digging, climbing, and basking, which contribute to your bearded dragon’s overall well-being.
Now that you know what a bioactive enclosure is and why it’s worth considering, it’s time to start planning your bearded dragon’s new home. In this guide, I’ll take you through each step of the process. Let’s get started!
Before we jump into the guide, let me give you a quick rundown of what will be covered, and a summary of the process.
To set up a quality bioactive bearded dragon enclosure, you will need a few things:
- A quality bearded dragon tank
- A good heating & lighting setup
- A natural substrate blend for bearded dragons
- A microfauna (the bioactive component)
- A natural environment (like plants)
To set this all up from scratch, you will need to go through a few steps:
- Get the bearded dragon tank, and ideally the lighting and heating components ready to go
- Get the substrate – either store-bought or mix-it-yourself
- Introduce the microfauna and start setting up the environment
- Set up the temperature, humidity, and lighting in the tank
- Give it a day or two to grow and stabilize
- Observe and adjust as needed to get a perfect bearded dragon climate going in the enclosure
- Introduce your beardie to the tank
Now let’s go through all of this step-by-step so you can set up your own bioactive bearded dragon enclosure like a pro!
Choosing the Right Enclosure
Picking the perfect enclosure for your bearded dragon’s bioactive setup is the first step in creating a thriving environment for your scaly buddy. There are a few factors to consider when selecting the right enclosure, such as size, material, and ventilation. Let’s take a closer look at each aspect to ensure you make the best choice for your bearded dragon.
Size is crucial when it comes to choosing an enclosure. Bearded dragons are active reptiles that need plenty of space to roam, climb, and bask. An enclosure that’s too small can cause stress and negatively impact your dragon’s health. Here are some general guidelines for enclosure sizes based on your bearded dragon’s growth stage:
Hatchlings (up to 4 months old): A 20-gallon tank should be sufficient for hatchlings, providing enough space for exploration without being overwhelming.
Juveniles (4-12 months old): For juveniles, a 40-gallon tank is a suitable option. This size will accommodate your growing dragon and its increasing activity levels.
Adults (12 months and older): Adult bearded dragons require a minimum of a 75-gallon tank, but a 120-gallon tank is ideal for giving them plenty of room to move around.
Material is another important factor to consider. Glass tanks are popular for bearded dragon enclosures, as they offer excellent visibility, are easy to clean, and can retain heat well. However, you should be mindful of the weight, as larger glass tanks can be quite heavy.
PVC enclosures are another great option, as they are lightweight, well-insulated, and provide better humidity control. The choice between glass and PVC often comes down to personal preference and budget.
Ventilation is essential for maintaining a healthy environment within your bearded dragon’s enclosure. Adequate airflow helps prevent excessive humidity and mold growth, both of which can cause health issues for your bearded dragon. Look for enclosures with mesh tops or built-in vents to ensure proper air circulation.
Lastly, consider the overall design and accessibility of the enclosure. Front-opening enclosures are a popular choice among reptile keepers, as they provide easy access for cleaning and interacting with your bearded dragon. Additionally, they allow for better control over heating and lighting setups.
With your enclosure selected, you’re one step closer to creating a bioactive paradise for your bearded dragon. In the next section, we’ll explore the different substrate options and how to prepare them for your bioactive setup.
Substrate Selection and Preparation
The substrate is the foundation of your bearded dragon’s bioactive enclosure, playing a crucial role in mimicking their natural environment and ensuring the health of both your dragon and the cleanup crew. Choosing the right substrate can be overwhelming, but don’t worry—I’m here to help you navigate the options and find the best fit for your setup.
When selecting a substrate for your bioactive bearded dragon enclosure, it’s important to consider a few factors:
Moisture retention: A good substrate should retain some moisture to help maintain humidity levels without becoming soggy or promoting mold growth.
Texture: Bearded dragons need a substrate that’s comfortable to walk on and allows them to dig and burrow.
Safety: Avoid substrates that can cause impaction if accidentally ingested, such as sand or small pebbles.
Creating the Substrate
Since bearded dragons live in arid, sandy regions in Australia, the bioactive substrate needs to mimic this natural environment. Because the substrate will be so dry, you also won’t need a drainage layer, like you might need for other reptiles.
If you want to make your own substrate mix, a good guideline to follow is this: (1)
- 40% organic topsoil
- 40% fine sand
- 20% Zoo Med Excavator Clay
Make sure to buy all the ingredients from reputable reptile brands! If you bring in any material from the wild, like soil from your garden, you risk bringing bacteria or unwanted insects into the tank which can harm your bearded dragon or worse.
The sand also needs to be reptile sand, not play sand or other cheaper alternatives.
Alternatively, you can also buy the complete substrate pre-mixed if you want to save yourself the effort and make the whole process easier.
Preparing & Installing the Substrate
Once you’ve mixed or bought your substrate, it’s time to prepare and install it in your enclosure. Start by cleaning and sterilizing your chosen substrate to eliminate any potential contaminants. You can do this by baking the substrate in the oven at 200°F (93°C) for about 30 minutes or by using a commercial substrate sterilizer.
Next, layer the substrate in your enclosure, aiming for a depth of 4 to 6 inches to provide ample space for burrowing and plant roots. To further promote healthy plant growth, you can mix in some leaf litter, such as dried oak or magnolia leaves, which will break down over time and add nutrients to the soil.
With your substrate in place, you’ve laid the groundwork for your bearded dragon’s bioactive paradise. In the next section, we’ll dive into the cleanup crew – the core of what makes the entire enclosure bioactive!
Cleanup Crew (Microfauna)
A successful bioactive bearded dragon enclosure relies on a thriving cleanup crew of microfauna. These tiny critters help break down waste, dead plant material, and uneaten food, keeping your enclosure clean and reducing odors. In this section, we’ll explore how to choose the right microfauna for your enclosure and how to introduce and maintain a healthy population.
When selecting microfauna for your bearded dragon’s bioactive setup, you’ll want to consider a few factors, such as their ability to survive in the enclosure’s conditions and their compatibility with your bearded dragon. Here are some popular cleanup crew options for bearded dragon enclosures:
Isopods: Also known as “rolly pollies” or “pill bugs,” isopods are excellent decomposers and can help break down waste and dead plant material. There are many species of isopods to choose from, such as dwarf white isopods, powder blue isopods, and giant canyon isopods.
Springtails: These tiny insects are another great addition to your cleanup crew. They consume mold, fungus, and decaying matter, helping to maintain a healthy environment. Springtails are available in various species, such as silver, tropical pink, and temperate white.
Earthworms: While not as commonly used in bearded dragon enclosures, earthworms can be a helpful addition to your cleanup crew. They aerate the soil and help break down organic matter. However, they may not be suitable for enclosures with very dry substrates.
Growing your Microfauna
Once you’ve chosen your cleanup crew, it’s time to introduce them to your enclosure. Start by placing a small population of microfauna in the substrate and allowing them to establish themselves for a day or two before adding your bearded dragon. This will give them time to reproduce and form a stable population.
To encourage their success, provide them with a moist area in the enclosure where they can retreat to avoid drying out. You can achieve this by creating a “moist hide” using a piece of cork bark or a small container with damp substrate or sphagnum moss. This works the same way as a moist hide for your bearded dragon, but should be very small to keep your beardie out. This one’s for the microfauna only!
Maintaining a healthy cleanup crew population is crucial for the success of your bioactive enclosure. You can support their growth by providing a supplemental food source, such as leaf litter or commercially available isopod or springtail food.
Additionally, monitor your enclosure’s temperature, humidity, and cleanliness to ensure it remains suitable for both your bearded dragon and its cleanup crew.
With your microfauna in place, you’re well on your way to completing your bioactive bearded dragon enclosure. Next up are plants and landscapes!
Planting and Landscaping
Incorporating live plants into your bearded dragon’s bioactive enclosure not only adds beauty but also contributes to a healthier, more natural environment. Plants help maintain humidity levels, improve air quality, and provide additional hiding spots and climbing opportunities for your bearded dragon. In this section, we’ll discuss how to choose the right plants and landscape elements for your setup.
Plants for Bearded Dragons
When selecting plants for your bioactive enclosure, it’s essential to choose species that are safe for bearded dragons and can tolerate their heat and light requirements. Here are a few popular plant options for bearded dragon enclosures:
Succulents: Hardy plants like aloe, haworthia, and echeveria are great options, as they can withstand the heat and provide visual interest to your enclosure.
Air plants: Tillandsias are unique, low-maintenance plants that don’t require soil and can be attached to branches or other décor items in the enclosure.
Grasses and ground cover: Plants like blue sedge, snake plant, and creeping fig can create a lush, natural ground cover and provide additional hiding spots for your bearded dragon.
Ferns: While ferns may require slightly more care than other options, they can add a vibrant touch of green to your enclosure. Bird’s nest fern and Boston fern are suitable choices.
Before introducing any plants to your enclosure, thoroughly rinse and inspect them for pests, and remove any chemical residue. You may also want to quarantine new plants for a couple of weeks to ensure they’re pest-free before adding them to your setup.
Landscaping for Bearded Dragons
In addition to live plants, consider adding other landscaping elements to create a functional and engaging environment for your bearded dragon. Here are some ideas:
Hides: Provide multiple hiding spots using cork bark, half logs, or commercially available reptile hides. Hides offer your bearded dragon a sense of security and a place to retreat when they need some downtime.
Climbing structures: Incorporate branches, driftwood, or rock formations to create a dynamic, three-dimensional environment that encourages climbing and exploration.
Basking areas: Ensure your bearded dragon has a designated basking spot by placing a flat rock or basking platform near the heat source, allowing them to thermoregulate effectively.
With your enclosure planted and landscaped, you’re well on your way to creating a thriving bioactive habitat for your bearded dragon. Most of it is already done!
Lighting and Heating
Proper lighting and heating are essential components of any bearded dragon enclosure, and a bioactive setup is no exception. In this section, we’ll discuss the types of lighting and heating you’ll need for your bearded dragon’s bioactive enclosure and how to set them up correctly to ensure your pet’s well-being.
UVB Lighting: Bearded dragons require UVB light to synthesize vitamin D3, which helps them absorb calcium and maintain healthy bone growth. Without adequate UVB exposure, your bearded dragon may develop metabolic bone disease. For your bioactive enclosure, choose a high-quality UVB bulb, such as a T5 or T8 linear fluorescent tube or a mercury vapor bulb. Make sure the bulb provides adequate UVB output (10-12% is ideal) and replace it according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, typically every 6-12 months.
Basking Light: Bearded dragons are ectothermic, meaning they rely on external sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. A basking light will provide the necessary heat for your bearded dragon to thermoregulate effectively. Use a halogen or incandescent bulb in a reflective dome fixture to create a basking spot with temperatures between 95°F and 110°F (35°C to 43°C). Ensure that the basking light is positioned directly over the basking area and monitor the temperature using a digital thermometer with a probe or an infrared temperature gun.
Ambient Lighting: In addition to UVB and basking lights, your bearded dragon will benefit from ambient light to help simulate a natural day/night cycle. You can use LED lights or low-wattage incandescent bulbs for this purpose. Be sure to maintain a consistent 12-hour light/dark cycle to support your bearded dragon’s circadian rhythm.
Nighttime Heating: While bearded dragons generally don’t require supplemental heat at night, you should provide a nighttime heat source if your enclosure’s temperature drops below 65°F (18°C). Ceramic heat emitters (CHEs) or under-tank heating pads are suitable options for maintaining nighttime temperatures without emitting light, which could disrupt your bearded dragon’s sleep.
Make sure to read our guide on Temperature Management for Bearded Dragons!
When setting up lighting and heating in your bioactive enclosure, be mindful of the plants and microfauna. While they can tolerate some heat, excessive temperatures or direct exposure to basking lights may damage them. Position your lights and heating elements in a way that meets your bearded dragon’s needs while also considering the well-being of the plants and microfauna.
Make sure to let your tank just be for a few days and carefully monitor the temperature and humidity levels. In a bioactive enclosure, there are now many variables that can affect the climate in the tank. Make sure it is stable and in the right temperature and humidity range before you introduce your bearded dragon!
With your lighting and heating in place, you’re almost ready to introduce your bearded dragon to its new bioactive paradise. In the next and final section, we’ll discuss ongoing maintenance and how to keep your bioactive enclosure in tip-top shape.
Ongoing Maintenance and Care
Although a bioactive enclosure requires less frequent cleaning than a traditional setup, some ongoing maintenance is necessary to ensure a healthy environment for your bearded dragon. In this final section, we’ll discuss the essential maintenance tasks and how to keep your bioactive enclosure thriving.
Spot Cleaning: While your cleanup crew will help break down waste, it’s still essential to remove any visible feces, uneaten food, or mold promptly. Spot cleaning not only keeps your enclosure looking neat but also prevents the buildup of harmful bacteria and fungi.
Water Dish: Ensure your bearded dragon always has access to fresh water by providing a shallow water dish in the enclosure. Clean and refill the dish daily to prevent bacteria growth and ensure the water remains safe for drinking.
Plant Care: Monitor your plants’ health, and trim or remove any dead leaves or branches. If a plant is struggling, consider replacing it with a more suitable species or adjusting its position within the enclosure to provide more or less light, as needed. Keep in mind that some plants may need occasional fertilization, but be sure to use reptile-safe fertilizers to avoid harm to your bearded dragon and microfauna.
Microfauna Population: Regularly check on your cleanup crew to ensure their population remains stable and healthy. If you notice a decline, you may need to adjust the enclosure’s conditions or provide supplemental food to support their growth. Additionally, if you find your bearded dragon is eating too many of the microfauna, consider offering a separate feeding dish with suitable insects to reduce predation.
Lighting and Heating: As mentioned earlier, it’s crucial to replace your UVB bulbs according to the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure your bearded dragon receives adequate UVB exposure. Monitor your enclosure’s temperatures and adjust the distance or wattage of your basking and nighttime heat sources as needed to maintain proper temperature gradients.
Periodic Deep Cleaning: Although a bioactive enclosure is largely self-maintaining, you’ll still need to do a thorough cleaning every 6-12 months. This involves removing your bearded dragon, plants, and décor items, and sifting through the substrate to remove any waste, mold, or dead microfauna. Be sure to replace any heavily soiled substrate with fresh, sterilized substrate to maintain a healthy environment.
By following these maintenance guidelines, you’ll be well-equipped to keep your bearded dragon’s bioactive enclosure in excellent condition. A thriving bioactive habitat not only provides a beautiful, naturalistic environment but also promotes your bearded dragon’s overall health and well-being.
With your bioactive bearded dragon enclosure complete, you can now sit back, relax, and enjoy watching your scaly friend thrive in their new, vibrant home. Happy reptile keeping!
How often should I mist the enclosure to maintain proper humidity levels?
Bearded dragons require a relatively low humidity level of around 30-40%. You may need to mist the enclosure lightly once or twice a day to maintain these levels, but be careful not to over-mist, as excess humidity can lead to respiratory issues. Monitor the humidity with a digital hygrometer and adjust your misting schedule as needed.
Can I use a heat mat in a bioactive enclosure?
While heat mats can be used in bioactive enclosures, they may not be the most effective option for bearded dragons, who primarily bask to absorb heat. A basking light is a better choice for providing the necessary heat gradient. If you decide to use a heat mat, place it on the side or back of the enclosure rather than under it, as it can cause uneven heating in the substrate and disrupt the microfauna.
Can I add live insects, like crickets or mealworms, as part of the cleanup crew?
While live insects can contribute to breaking down waste, they are not typically recommended as part of a bearded dragon’s cleanup crew, as they can become a pest problem if their population grows unchecked. Instead, focus on microfauna like isopods and springtails, which are more effective at maintaining a clean environment and less likely to cause issues.
How do I know if my bearded dragon is stressed in its bioactive enclosure?
Signs of stress in bearded dragons can include hiding excessively, lack of appetite, glass surfing, or changes in coloration. If you notice any of these behaviors, assess your enclosure to ensure that temperatures, lighting, and hiding spots are all appropriate. Additionally, give your bearded dragon time to acclimate to its new environment, as some initial stress is normal during the transition.
How can I prevent my bearded dragon from digging up plants in the enclosure?
While some digging is natural and provides enrichment, you can minimize the disturbance to plants by placing larger rocks or pieces of driftwood around their bases to act as a barrier. Alternatively, consider using planters or pots sunk into the substrate to protect the plants’ root systems from your bearded dragon’s digging activities.