Everything You Need to Know About Bioactive Terrariums

There are about as many types of bioactive terrariums as there are people who maintain them. You can create these terrariums with different plants, different microfauna, and different reptiles or amphibians.

They can be different sizes and have a variety of different décor. 

But what stays the same is the basic premise. This page is a detailed guide for everything you need to know about creating and maintaining bioactive terrariums 

Check out the table of contents to find the information you need. You’ll find advice on how to get started, as well as recommendations for particular aesthetics.

Table of Contents

The Tye-Dyed Iguana’s Top Advice on Bioactive Terrariums

Why Reptile Keeping is the Best Hobby for Crafters

How to Start Your First Living Vivarium

Answers to Your Questions About Vivariums and Bioactive Terrariums

What kinds of habitats can I create?

What are the basic things I need to buy for an inexpensive bioactive setup?

What are tank custodians and what do they do?

Does a bioactive terrarium require maintenance?


Types of custodians

Breeding custodians


Bioactive substrate options


The Tye-Dyed Iguana’s Top Advice on Bioactive Terrariums

The articles in this section offer some general advice on bioactive habitats, also known as vivariums…  

Why Reptile Keeping is the Best Hobby for Crafters

Creating interesting terrariums is a crafter’s dream. For some, bioactive may just be a way to create a more self-sufficient ecosystem. But for others, a lot of the fun is in creating a particular aesthetic.

Some of the fun you can have with decorating a bioactive terrarium includes using spray foam and paint, and installing foggers and waterfalls in ways that make them look like a natural part of the habitat.

Find out more about crafting interesting habitats in the full article.

How to Start Your First Living Vivarium

Want a step-by-step guide for a natural-looking terrarium? Here it is:

  1. Get the supplies—foam sealant, dry substrate, wood or bark, clear silicone sealant, a utility knife, paper towels, a spray bottle of vinegar and water mixture, and of course, a glass terrarium.

  2. Clean the tank with the vinegar water and paper towels. Use the utility knife to scrape off any calcium deposits if the tank was previously used.

  3. Plan the layout by placing the wood and bark pieces in the configuration you like.

  4. Apply spray foam around the décor to hold it in place and let cure for 24 to 48 hours.

  5. Create the look you want and room for other accessories by cutting the foam with the utility knife (you’ll want to cut off all the smooth surfaces for the next steps).

  6. Apply silicone sealant over the foam.

  7. Add substrate to the silicone; this is how your substrate will stay in place on the wall of the terrarium.

  8. Spray the vivarium with a bit of water and add any other decorations or hides before adding your exotic pet.

Read the article for the full process (and to see a video tutorial).

Answers to Your Questions About Vivariums and Bioactive Terrariums

The articles above have general guidance on going bioactive, but they don’t cover specific details. Below, you’ll find specific answers to some of the common questions about bioactive habitats:

What kinds of habitats can I create?

A lot of people who create bioactive terrariums like to keep things as natural looking as possible, but that doesn’t mean everything is actually natural. A few things that keepers like to add to their terrariums are fake rock walls that look realistic and waterfalls or streams.

You can find out more about ways to decorate a naturalistic vivarium in this article.

What are the basic things I need to buy for an inexpensive bioactive setup?

Creating a bioactive terrarium setup may sound expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. You only need a few basic items, including: 

  • A tank

  • Pebbles

  • Substrate mesh

  • Substrate

  • Leaf litter (which you can get for free, by the way)

  • Microfauna

  • Plants

  • A grow light

Learn more about going bioactive on a budget in this article.

What are tank custodians and what do they do?

Tank custodians are microfauna (tiny animals) that are also [word for things that eat decaying matter]. They take care of a lot of tank cleanup in bioactive setups because they eat decaying plant matter, fecal matter, and the shedded skin of reptiles. Custodians are an important part of what makes maintaining a bioactive setup easy.

Common tank custodians include:

  • Isopods

  • Springtails

  • Earthworms

Read this article to discover more about custodians (and isopods in particular).

Does a bioactive terrarium require maintenance?

Yes, there are a few bits of upkeep you'll need to stay on top of with a bioactive terrarium. That includes:

  • Cleaning the glass

  • Misting the tank

  • Trimming plants

  • Adjusting microfauna populations

That being said, your cleanup crew (made up of microfauna) will take care of a lot of the day-to-day maintenance. 

Find out more about the minimal upkeep required with a bioactive setup by reading this article.

Now, let’s go on to information about the specifics of bioactive terrarium setups… 


As mentioned, you have a variety of custodians to choose from. Some people even like to select them based on their aesthetics because many microfauna perform very similar functions.

Types of custodians

All custodians are detrivores. That means they eat dead organic material from plants, animals, or both. This eating habit is precisely why they make excellent bioactive terrarium maintenance workers.

Some custodians are better than others with particular types of exotic pets, like reptiles and amphibians. One thing to check for is whether your reptile or amphibian can eat tank custodians. In some cases, this is fine and even desirable as an extra nutrition source for the larger animal.

Find out more about types of custodians at these links:

Isopods Vs. Millipedes

Springtails Vs. Earthworms

Most Popular Custodian

Breeding custodians

Most microfauna are extremely easy to breed on your own. Once you establish a bioactive setup, you should easily be able to maintain a fairly constant custodian population. All it takes is a starter colony, an appropriate environment, and a sufficient food supply.

Find out more about breeding your own custodians at these links:

How to Breed Your Own Isopods: Part 1

How to Breed Your Own Isopods: Part 2



Bioactive terrariums can be built for either exotic pet keeping or indoor gardening. In either case, and in a full bioactive setup with both plants and animals, the minimum for creating a bioactive habitat is organic substrate and microfauna.

Bioactive substrate options

In a regular exotic pet terrarium, you don’t necessarily have to use organic substrates. As long as the terrarium bottom is covered in something that can be cleaned or scooped that is safe for the animal, you’re good to go.

With a bioactive setup, on the other hand, the substrate is not only where the larger animal puts its waste; it’s also where the microfauna and plants live. And that means you need to make the setup suitable for the microfauna habitat, plant environment, and pet waste cleanup, as well as potential waterflow for plants and animals.

Find out more about substrate for vivariums at this link:

Bioactive Substrate Layers and Setup