In a bio-active setup we are creating an ecosystem complete with living organisms in the soil. Isopods and springtails are the workers living in the base of your enclosure that turn waste matter into nutrition for your plants. The cuc (clean up crew) are a key difference between a well planted enclosure and a bio-active enclosure.
There can be many reasons to go bio-active. In some regions it can make it easier to balance humidity, yet in other regions make it more difficult. Thus there is no straightforward answer as far as the benefit in chameleon care. So why then? Basically it is simply a style and extra challenge to seek to simulate the chameleons natural habitats. If you are simply looking for a quick fix to cleaning your enclosure, you may be on the wrong path without considering the extra tasks involved with bio-active.
• Soggy soil. This is a common problem in first time setups. This is caused by incorrect drainage. Figure out the max amount of time you think your misters will run and make sure you have proper soil for drainage. Soil additives that can help make for better draining soil include sphagnum moss, horticultural charcoal, orchid bark, and sand (vermiculite, pumice, and perlite are also great options for potted plant drainage, not generally recommended for bioactive substrates).
• Enclosure pests. This is another common problem, but is also usually caused by the soil being too damp. So once we solve that, the problem usually decreases at dissipates. Ants and gnats are common enclosure pests, although generally safe may be a bit annoying for both chameleon and owners.
• Plant Pests. These are the enemy of the bio-active enclosure. Because most bio-active enclosures are pretty permanent, it is important to make sure all plants that go in are pest free. A q-tip with alcohol may be used to spot clean any infected plants. Substantially infested plants may need to be removed, treated with insecticidal soap, and quarantined before replanting.
• No overflow drainage. Though it may never be needed it is highly advised to have a means of draining excess water. This can be a hole drilled in the side of the enclosure, but it is easier to simply leave a down tube (a piece of plastic tube, like pvc, that is set upright so a drain tube can be lowered into the drainage area to siphon out the excess.
The first thing to decide is what is practical for you. If things get too complicated too fast, many keepers, especially beginners, can become overwhelmed and give up. Here are some helpful points and tips to establishing a bio-active enclosure for your chameleon.
1. For screen cages, create your bio-active environment in a lightweight container that can fit into your screen cage. Something like a plastic flower pot can work well. If you would like to see your layers, a 10gal or other appropriate-sized aquarium will work great to set up as the base. Remember the final soil level will come to a couple of inches from the top (this is usually sufficient to keep the little isopods in). This also allows you to remove the Bio-active part and fix it if necessary. Your screen will catch any escapees, there is no need to pack around the edges, between the pot and edge of the cage, clean is easier to maintain.
2. Lights!!! And not just the UVB light for your chameleon. There are many options to choose from. LED plant lights that screw into a standard dome (use in multiples) are often an easy inexpensive start, they are also good for getting light down to the lower parts of a tall cage. There are also many other types of strip or pendant LED plant lights. It is possible to go too bright. An easy test is to try it yourself. If possible get your head under the lighting, you can set it all on a screen or hang it from a board. How bright is it to you? Is it in their direct line of sight or is it above them? If you have to squint when not looking directly at the lights, it is too bright. Most plants we would use for chameleons will do great in this light.
3. What is a CuC? This is the microfauna living in the substrate, aka the clean-up crew or CuC. For enclosures, the commonly used CuC includes isopods and springtails. There are again many options here. A quick Google search will introduce you to the many types of isopods. They can even be collected from your yard, but it is suggested to keep the culture for 90 days before introduction. This will make sure they are going to survive and gives them time to multiply into a sizable colony. For springtails, your enclosure will benefit from a group as small as 10 or so but will be best with a culture of 50-100. As for isopods, a minimum of 10 adults will do, but 20 adults or more is best. These will establish nicely in 3-5 weeks.
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