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How do I create a Terra Firma BioActive Setup?

How do I create a Terra Firma BioActive Setup?

From the desk of The Dude

What is a bioactive terrarium?
A bioactive terrarium is a self-sustaining, self-maintaining, direct replication of the natural ecological cycle that happens on the rainforest floor. The rainforest floor is composed of thousands of different detrivores that break down decaying matter to return nutrients back into the soil. Detrivores such as isopods and springtails are the most commonly seen on the rainforest floor.

Why go bioactive?
In any terrarium the soil is the most important part of the setup. The soil is the backbone for live plants, water drainage, and tank maintenance. Many times hobbyists will setup a terrarium and have to break it down months later because of the microbial build up in the soil, as well as the death of plants from using soil that becomes water clogged. Having a proper bioactive setup allows for optimum plant growth, but also allows for tank longevity (10+ years without a soil change) if kept properly. The detrivores established in the tank will break down feces and other decaying matter which recycle nutrients back into the soil, thus keeping the substrate fresh and ready for the next generation. Many small amphibians such as dart frogs relish the springtails and isopods as an additional food source. Having these microfeeders established will bring out unique behaviors in your pets such as foraging and hunting, and will thrive in an environment that is a direct replication of the natural ecological cycle they are accustomed to. 

How do I go bioactive with a Terra Firma setup?

Layer 1 - Terra Firma substrate

The bottom layer of your terrarium sits the bringer of life, the specialty terrarium soil known as Terra Firma. This specialty mix created by the dude is the staple for a living substrate. This substrate is specifically designed for biomes that can get quite hot, but have minor humidity spikes throughout the day. Not only does the Terra Firma not need a drainage layer, its design allows for proper water retention while holding all burrows and tunnels your critter creates! Terra Firma provides excellent organic nutrition for your vivarium by creating necessary air pockets for root development and plant health. These air pockets are also necessary for the springtails and isopods to create a sustainable population in the vivarium. . This substrate when used exactly as directed in the Dude's guide this substrate can last 10+ years in the terrarium without ever being changed. This mix should have at least a  3” layer in the terrarium. When this mix is added it should be dumped into a bucket full of water, and squeezed so it is saturated, but not dripping. This is the appropriate water balance that this soil will maintain during the life of the vivarium.

Layer 4 (above the substrate)

The true meaning of bioactive comes from these small organisms that are seeded into your terrarium after the previous steps have been fulfilled. These small insects, also known as detrivores are the key to the longevity of your terrarium. The isopods are larger organisms similar to the rolley polley insect we see commonly here in the USA. Isopods are your top janitors that will be established in your vivarium. They will quickly chase down a piece of decaying matter, cover it, and devour it very quickly. As they break down the decaying matter the essential nutrients are put back into the soil. Isopods are also an excellent source of bioavailable food for small amphibians and reptiles. They are very high in calcium, minerals, and vitamins that are a great supplemental source of food found naturally in the tank. These microorganisms will breed very quickly in the tank and create a small micropopulation that will establish quickly in your terrarium. Springtails are another tank janitor, but besides breaking down decaying matter they also flow through the soil. These small microorganisms will aerate the soil which help with drainage, root development, and longevity of the terrarium. These are also an excellent source of food for small amphibians such as dart frogs, and will encourage their natural foraging behavior exhibited in the wild. To seed your tank is simple. Simply dump a culture springtails and a culture of isopods into the tank and they will quickly form a sustainable population in the terrarium.

Layer 6 (above the microfauna)

Leaf litter is an absolute must when having a bioactive setup. Decaying plant matter is what drives the beginning process of the ecological cycle on the rainforest floor. As the terrarium progresses with age the leaves will eventually breakdown (with the help of the springtails and isopods) and put essential nutrients back into the soil. Leaves provide hiding spots for many small amphibians and reptiles as they forage on the forest floor looking for food. Leaves also help boost springtail and isopod levels in the terrarium. When initially seeding the terrarium with leaves I typically do a generous ½” layer. As the terrarium progesses with age, and the leaves start to breakdown. It is also recommended to utilize premium AAA Spag Moss. This moss provides excess moisture on the top of the substrate mix to help plants with shallow roots take hold. This moss also prevents the soil from sticking to your animals if they would venture on the floor of your terrarium, and also helps prevent ingestion of soil (especially with Chameleons). Prior to adding to the terrarium it is recommended to soak the moss in a bucket until saturated, but not dripping wet. Cover the substrate layer with a thin layer of moss that has a depth of about ½”. This will help retain moisture, and eventually breakdown putting essential nutrients back into the soil. It is important to use the moss sparingly, as it takes quite a bit of time to decompose. 

Written by The Dude himself, Josh Halter


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