Bioactive Chameleon Enclosure Build: Part 1 – What’s “Bioactive?”

It’s difficult to replicate both the beauty and complexity of a chameleon’s natural habitat, but with a bioactive enclosure, you can come close. Follow along with us as we build a bioactive habitat for one of our Panther Chameleons.

Chameleon’s are sensitive animals with complex needs. For many reasons, they are not considered “easy keepers” or “beginner friendly” pets. Important considerations for any chameleon enclosure are proper cage size, uvb lighting, temperature range, humidity range, basking range, water source, water drainage, climbing surface, shade, and privacy. In addition, females require 24/7 access to a suitable bin for egg laying (regardless if she’s ever actually mated). I’ve found that with a bit of planning, and upfront expense, a bioactive enclosure helps to provide a more natural environment, while also helping to more naturally balance some of these elements and requirements of chameleon keeping.

So what, exactly, does “bioactive” mean? Well, the literal definition is “having an effect on a living organism,” or “having a biological effect.” For our purposes, the latter is probably a more relatable definition. In reptile and amphibian keeping, the term is loosely interpreted as: a moderately self-sustaining, self-cleaning environment.

The natural environments for various species can be wildly different, and as such, so should their bioactive environments. This applies even for species that seem closely related – such as Jackson’s and Veiled Chameleons, two of the most popular species of chameleons kept as pets. For example; Jackson’s Chameleons, which are native to the mountain regions of East Africa, require lower temperatures, higher humidity, and a different vitamin supplementation than Veiled Chameleons, which hail from the warm, fertile areas of The Middle East. As such, the habitat of a Veiled Chameleon would not be suitable for a Jackson’s Chameleon, or even other Chameleon species!

In my mind, the goal of a bioactive enclosure, for any species, is to provide a few key things:

  • a more natural look and feel through plant and feature design, taking design cues from the specie’s natural, wild environment.
  • a natural soil composition, free of additives, which provides substrate and nutrients to plans, moisture retention and dispersion, egg laying options, and a habitat for insects.
  • a “clean up crew” consisting of various insects which work to naturally decompose feces and decaying matter, as well as to naturally aerate, fertilize, and maintain plant soil. This clean up crew can also act as a naturally reproducing food source.
  • a method for automating and regulating water and humidity.
  • an appropriate light and temperature range.

That seems like a short list, right? Not quite… there are some important considerations to take into account for each. Let’s take a look at some things to consider for the main components of your enclosure.

Size

It’s important to take the minimum recommended enclosure size for your species into consideration. This is a very important factor that provides adequate space for plants, climbing and perching surface area, room for temperature gradients, and general comfort for the animal or insect. Although, initially, a smaller enclosure may seem large enough to accommodate the animal, it may not provide physical and mental stimulation, nor enough space to set up a proper habitat. Think of it this way… humans could live, sleep, and exercise in a room the size of a small bathroom. Many humans do, and it’s called a “prison!” You, and your animal, would be much happier and more comfortable with more than “just enough” space.

Bigger is always better in terms of your animal’s comfort, however, a larger enclosure will likely also require more planning, materials, and cost. My recommendation, if going bioactive, is to try to go at least a little larger than the minimum size recommendation, as you will lose some “real estate” to soil and structures in your enclosure. For my build, we are adding a stand that also acts as a substrate tray that expands the height of our enclosure by approximately 2ft. The enclosure we are using is a Dragon Strand Large Clearside Atrium, which provides 45 x 22 x 44 inches of living space. With our substrate stand, after soil and plants have been added, will provide approximately 45 x 22 x 60 inches, or 40 sq ft of interior space. By contrast, the minimum recommendation for a juvenile to adult Panther Chameleon is roughly 24 x 24 x 48 inches, or 16 sq ft. The substrate stand also raises the enclosures to the perfect viewing height.

Substrate

seed pod
A Ram’s Head Seed Pod in my bioactive enclosure

Substrate is the material that you line the bottom of your enclosure with. Your substrate choice(s) should be based on a few factors:

  • the species’ climate (arid, tropical, temperate)
  • the species’ propensity to eat substrate
  • the species’ propensity to dig and/or tunnel
  • water features, misting, and drainage
  • the plant species used
  • the clean up crew used

The soil will also fill the bill for my female chameleon’s “lay bin,” which is an area of deep, moist substrate where the chameleon can tunnel down deeply to safely lay her eggs. The soil that I am using will maintain a tunnel shape without collapsing on her.

Substrate, by definition, means “the surface or material on or from which an organism lives, grows, or obtains its nourishment.” While many consider dirt or sand to be substrate, it should be a bit more complicated than that. You’ll want to take all of the above into consideration, and concoct your own perfect substrate mix. For example, the substrate mix that I will be using is a mix of both sand and soil, as well as mixed in sphagum mosss, leaf litter, decaying wood, peat, and stone. This mix is not only optimal for the types of plants that I will be using, but it also provides drainage, soil aeration, soil nutrients, and food for my clean up crew. For a dry, arid environment, such as one you might create for a Leopard Gecko, you might instead choose a mix of clay-like soil with well draining, loamy soil sections for plants like succulents and cacti.

Later, when you’ve added humidity and all the other components to your enclosure, your enclosure and its soil will likely cycle itself. You might notice a mold or fungus bloom for a few days. This is normal and nothing to panic over. Your new environment is just naturally balancing itself out. The clean up crew that we add later will feed off this mold and fungus, and keep it in check.

Drainage

Drainage goes hand and hand with substrate. You may not need a drainage layer, but you should still carefully plan around it. The soil that we will be using for our substrate mix is called Terra Firma substrate, from The Bio Dude. This soil has lots of organic material, such as small sticks and hardwood chunks, however, one of my chameleons has a tendency to eat soil. The wood particles in the soil pose a major impaction risk for him, so I will be sifting the top 2-3” of soil, and leaving the wood down below where the plants and clean up crew can still benefit from it.

The Terra Firma soil is designed so that it does not require a drainage layer, however, I will be amending the soil with sand to create a bit more drainage for my more tropical plants. As such, and despite the claim of not needing drainage, before adding the soil I will be adding a layer of “NEHerps’ LD” to the very bottom of the enclosure, which is a light weight drainage layer made of a recycled glass and clay material. Other popular drainage media includes rocks, pebbles, clay balls, and hydroballs. The “LDL” I went with is quite light consider the bulk of the product. It looks like chunks of rock, but is extremely light and porous. I’ll add a layer of mesh above the drainage media, which will help minimize soil erosion and runoff. The drainage layer will also keep my plants from sitting in water, a recipe for over watering and root rot.

So I have a drainage layer, but where does the water go? There’s three options that come to mind.

  1. The easiest, in my mind, is to drill a hole into the bottom of your enclosure and add a drain. You can get creative and add a gasket and spigot, or a gasket and hose, or simply just a hole that allows the excess water to drain off into a bucket. Occasionally check and empty your drain bucket, done! If you go this route, I’d recommend some sort of gasket around the hole to ensure you don’t damage any wood that might have been used for your cage or stand.
  2. Since drilling holes in things can be scary, another option is to add a small PVC pipe to the corner of the enclosure, going all the way down to the bottom. You would then add your drainage media, screen, and substrate around it, with the pipe sitting vertically in a corner, flush with or just above the soil level. You can then add a cap or a large rock over the pipe to hide it. Then, you can occasionally use a shop vac or an inexpensive water pump to suck up any excess water from the bottom of the enclosure via this pipe. You may want to consider either adding a piece of screen around the bottom of the pipe, or some larger rocks around it, to prevent you from sucking up any of the drainage layer media.
  3. Another option is to create a water re-circulation and filtration system. This is a complex setup that might work well for frog keepers, but would be very complicated in many other enclosures.

Terrain Features

Before adding plants or anything else, you should have at least a rough idea of what sort of terrain features you’d like to add. This could include things such as branches, large pieces of cork bark, logs, rocks, caves, hides, water features, and wall features. Water features, such as fountains and waterfalls, are not recommended for chameleon enclosures for a few reasons: chameleons don’t typically drink from water bowl (though a few keepers have trained their chameleon to drink from a shot glass!), they tend to be hot spots for bacterial growth, and chameleon’s are truly gifted at aiming their poop at objects in their enclosure. That beautiful fountain is very likely to become a chameleon toilet.

Depending on the features you add, you may or may not want to add them before adding substrate or plants. For example, I’ll be adding large pieces of wood to the walls of my enclosure, some of which I will use to mount epiphytic plants, so I’ll secure those in place before adding any substrate, features or plants, to ensure they have a good foundation. I’ll also add most of my cork bark tubes and horizontal branches before adding plants, as I want those to be focal points of my build that I design my plants around.

Plants

Now we get to the fun stuff! Designing the layout and planting the enclosure or vivarium is the best part! You should choose plants that thrive in the light, water, and humidity levels that your will live in. Carefully consider the placement of your plants to ensure they receive the appropriate amount of light, water, and temperature. Ferns, for example, often prefer high humidity and low light conditions, making them perfect plants for the bottom of your enclosure, where as some bromeliads prefer bright light, excellent drainage, and lots of water… making them a great choice for mounting epiphytically at the top of your enclosure, in direct path of your water source.

You should also carefully research any plant you choose to use, as many plants are toxic – not only if eaten, but they can be toxic by contact, as well (ex: poison ivy). There are several lists of pet safe plants and toxic plants out there, but I like to use the ASPCA’s list of toxic and non-toxic plants. Their list is very large and includes information about how the plant is deemed toxic. Just because a plant is listed, doesn’t mean its a plant you can’t use, but you should take into consideration its toxicity levels and forms, especially if your animal likes to nibble on plants. Some plants are not necessarily deadly, but they may cause stomach irritation and vomiting in large quantities. Others may be considered toxic because they are high in oxalates, which can cause mild irritation, but can also interfere with vitamin absorption when consumed in high quantities. Pothos and Schefflera, two very popular choices for chameleon enclosures, are both listed as toxic due to high oxalates, but are widely regarded as safe by chameleon owners. Another list, which lists plants deemed safe for chameleons can be found here, on FL Chams’ website. Neither of these lists are comprehensive, but a great resource and starting place. Use your best judgement and make an informed decision.

Lighting

Lighting needs vary greatly between species and plants. You should pay particular attention to whether or not your animal requires any level of UVB lighting (which helps produce vitamin D, both of which are crucial to the absorption of calcium). Some animals, such as dart frogs, may not require any UVB lighting or D3 supplementation at all, whereas others, such as chameleons, have such specific UVB needs that too much or too little can be fatal. Be sure to do your research on this subject. If your animal requires UVB, there are different “strengths” of UVB, as well as different bulb types. It’s highly recommended to use linear UVB bulbs instead of compact and/or spiral bulbs, as the amount of UVB emitted from compact/spiral bulbs is minimal and very short ranged. Also keep in mind that UVB bulbs must be replaced on regularly scheduled intervals, as the UVB output degrades over a few months.

Drake says nope to UVB, you should, too.
Drake knows what’s up.

Your animal may also benefit from, or require, a basking light. A basking light creates an area that simulates the warmth produced by sitting in direct sunlight. This warmth is used by many species to aid in digestion. Some species, like Leopard Geckos and Bearded Dragons, require belly heat instead of basking heat, so again – do your research on your animal.

Be sure to very closely monitor you basking temperatures, and use a bulb appropriate for your species, as well as the age of your species. Babies and juveniles often need lower basking temps than adults. Basking temps that are too high can severely burn your animal, to the extent of melting off its scales and skin. Many keepers use a combination of inexpensive devices to monitor their enclosure’s temperature ranges, especially the basking temps. You can also use a temp gun, in addition to permanent thermometer, to spot or double check temps. When reading temperatures, keep in mind that your animal’s back will be several inches higher than the spot you are reading – so take into account that the actual temperature your animal feels could be several degrees higher.

Lastly, your plants need light, too. Some UVB/D3 fixtures offer dual, or even quad bulb options, allowing you to add additional “daylight” bulbs that will increase light levels in your cage, and provide additional bright lighting for your plants. Personally, I’m using a dual bulb fixture along with a basking bulb, and one or more SANSI 40W LED plant bulbs. The SANSI lights are super bright, so bright I was concerned they were TOO bright, but my guys love hanging out under the plant bulbs. My plants are doing great and growing well with this setup. Some chameleon owners have purchased and raved about Jungle Dawn LED lights, but they are more than 2x as expensive as the SANSI, and I can’t imagine the results are 2x as good!

Your lighting choices will increase the temperature of the enclosure. For some species, that may be all that is needed to maintain a suitable temperature, but for other species you may need to look into adding additional heat via heat tapes or increasing ambient temperatures. As always, research research research your species!

Water and Humidity

Water and humidity needs vary greatly between species, much like everything else. Your watering system or method should be based on the research you have done for your species. Your water source should naturally add humidity, a drinking source, and water for your plants.

You’ll need to take into account the way your animal would hydrate itself and drink in the wild, and be sure to add a source of water that mimics that. Chameleons, for example, drink by licking water droplets off of leaves, as well as by opening their mouths and “licking their lips” during and after a rain storm. To replicate this, as well as to increase humidity and maintain plants, many chameleon keepers choose to use a misting system, such as a MistKing, to automate regular mistings of their enclosures. Others may choose a less expensive, manually operated pressurized hand mister. There should be at least two mistings of a few minutes each, but the duration and frequency should be designed around humidity readings and plant needs. Some species require higher humidity and more mistings than others. Some animals, such as dart frogs, might benefit from a fogging system, as well. The fogger can help to increase the humidity without creating a swamp from all the excess water. Foggers can also be helpful to those who live in drier climates and have difficulty maintaining humidity pockets.

Water features, such as water falls and ponds, are a tricky endeavor and require research and careful planning on your part. Often these water features need regular cleaning and water changes, or a carefully designed filtration system. Will your animal drink from or bathe in this type of water feature in the wild? If not, then in my mind, it’s not worth the hassle. Water features can be breeding grounds for bacteria, a drowning trap for feeders, and can literally become a reptile and amphibian toilet bowl. Chameleons in particular love to poop in and on stuff. They’re the pigeons of the jungle, don’t park your car near them.

Live plants will help to increase the relative humidity within your enclosures. They’ll also help to create humidity pockets, allowing your animal to move in and out of the plants when they need more or less humidity, light, or heat.

Water should be either treated with reptile/amphibian water conditioner, distilled, or reverse osmosis water. Common tap water often has chemical compositions that are a bit too harsh for your plants, insects, and animals. Tap water can also leave water spots on your vivarium’s glass.

Clean Up Crew

Last but not least, enter the wrecking crew… err… I mean, clean up crew. These guys are a wrecking crew. They will wreck any feces, decaying matter, shed skin, or dead bugs they find! A good clean up crew will serve many purposes, but the name says it all. Their #1 job is to help maintain the enclosure and keep things tidy.

Armadillidium Corcyreaum Isopods

There are many options when it comes to clean up crews. Your selection should be based first and foremost on the type of environment and climate within your enclosure. There are species of beetles and isopods that work quite well in dry environments, whereas other species, such as springtails, require a much more humid home. Here are a few examples of clean up crews for arid, tropical, and temperate climates.

  • Arid Climate
    • Beetles and Beetle larva, such as morio (super) worms, darkling beetles, and buffalo beetles – These guys are omnivores that don’t mind drier climates.
    • Giant Canyon isopods – This is one example of an isopod that doesn’t mind a dry climate. These guys can grow to 1″ in size, making them an occasional tasty treat for your animal, too! There are several isopods that do well in this environment, but all should be provided with at least one moist corner or hide to retreat to, when needed.
  • Tropical Climate
    • Springtails – tropical springtails are rockstars. They’re tiny little critters that live in the moist substrate of your enclosure. They eat fungus, mold, and decaying plant and animal matter. They can also be a naturally reproducing food source for very small reptiles and amphibians.
    • Dwarf White Isopods – one example of the many isopod species that will thrive in this warm, moist environment. They aren’t much larger than springtails, which makes them a favorite naturally reproducing food source in dart frog enclosures! Like all isopods, they’ll eat the bad stuff and keep your soil and plants looking spic n’ span.
    • Dairy Cow Isopods – these guys are my favorite, because they are so darn cute. As the name implies, these isopods have markings similar to a cow… and they eat like cows, too. These guys reproduce quickly and their small to medium size makes for a great snack, too.
    • Subterranean millipedes – some species of millipedes can be toxic, so take care here to minimize any risk. There are a few species of tiny subterranean millepedes which can be great additions. I have them in my enclosures. They’re too small for my chams to hunt, and they are rarely seen above the soil. These guys aerate the soil and eat decaying matter. Some keepers will use morio (super) worms or mealworms for the same effect. They work well, but will eventually pupate into beetles, so don’t be alarmed if you find one! Leave the beetle in the tank, as it will clean up, too.
    • Fly larva – if you have an arboreal or climbing animal, fly larva is a great choice. I release black soldier fly larva (BSFL) in my chameleon’s cages. The larva will climb through the soil and aerate it, eating any decaying matter it finds along the way. These guys are often used in compost piles as they will eat just about any food item, and create partially composted soil from their waste. After a few days, or weeks for BSFL, they will pupate into flies. These flies don’t last long in my chameleon enclosures… and I’d be willing to be they won’t last long with tree frogs and climbing geckos, either. BSFL are also a nutritious feeder for all your reptiles, as they are very high in calcium.
  • Temperate Climate
    • You can use many of the same clean up crew for both a temperate and tropical climate, however, you must be sure to select a springtail and isopod species that can tolerate dry spells. Tropical Springtails and Dwarf White isopods cannot. So try:
    • Temperate Springtails – Temperate Springtails are little more hardy then Tropical Springtails. They still need moist soil to survive, but can withstand temperature and moisture fluctuations much better than Tropical’s can. If you have a temperate enclosure,but your soil is completely dried out, then your watering and hydration method needs to be looked at.
    • Isopods – with a temperate climate, you have a huge selection of isopods to choose from! I’d avoid tropical isopods, as the temperature and humidity fluctuations might stress them. Don’t let that discourage you, though, as there are hundreds of species to choose from. Some of my favorite affordable isopods are Giant Canyon, Dairy Cow, Zebra, and Powder Orange.

Once you have acquired your clean up crew, it is recommended that you introduce them to your enclosure a few weeks before introducing your animal, which gives them a chance to reproduce and get established before being hunted down for lunch. That isn’t always feasible, so my method has been to keep the isopods and springtails in the container they were shipped in, or create a small habitat for them in cheap tupperware. I keep them fed (small carrot slice of isopods, or uncooked rice for springtails), and keep them moist (not wet – use distilled or reverse osmosis water). After a few weeks, you will hopefully start to find tiny babies in your culture.

Waiting to introduce the clean up crew may mean a little spot cleaning here and there, but otherwise your new bioactive enclosure will survive without them for a while. If you can’t bare the thought of waiting, be sure to purchase several dozen isopods. Once you have larger numbers to introduce, be sure that they have plenty of places to hide. Cork bark tubes and stone slabs or piles are nice places to hide. A thick layer of boiled leaf litter (boiled to kill any mites or pests) will not only provide cover and hiding spots, it is also a food source. The isopods and springtails will enjoy burrowing and muching on the cork bark and dry leaves, so be sure to add plenty! Giant Canyon isopods, will really tear up some leaves. Yummm yum!

ambanja chameleon
My Ambanja Panther Chameleon, Donnie.

Now that you have done thorough research on your species’ needs, and have all the major components of a bioactive enclosure set up and introduced, it’s time to add your animal and enjoy the show. Minimal maintenance should be needed from this point. Just keep an eye on your water, temperature, and humidity levels, and lighting with regular check-ups. Welcome to the Bioactive club!

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