Bringing the Jungle Home | Bioactive Chameleons

Authored by Karen Stockman of The Chameleon Farm


Two of the things new chameleon keepers are told

“don’t use glass, it will kill your chameleon” and “substrate is bad, it will kill your chameleon.”

I believed this wholeheartedly and for years used screen with a bare bottom and a couple of generic plants that were accepted by the community as safe and appropriate.

Pygmy Chameleon

Bearded Pygmy Chameleon (Rieppeleon brevicaudatus) Courtesy of Karen Stockman

After a few years of keeping chameleons I started keeping smaller species; Bearded Pygmy Chameleon (Rieppeleon brevicaudatus) and other small chameleons like the Tanzanian Montane Dwarf Chameleon (Trioceros sternfeldi) and more recently, (Calumma linotum). That was when I decided I was going to jump into planted glass vivarium set-ups. I had seen keepers with other reptile species creating incredible environments and thought it would work well for what I was trying to accomplish.

While I have used glass for my bioactive setups, many people create bioactive enclosures using screen cages. They use a deep substrate holder either in the bottom of the cage or set the cage on top of a large container and add plants. For this article I am setting up a glass Exo Terra terrarium but the same basic principles applying to screen enclosures.

It’s very important to remember, keeping chameleons in a glass bioactive setup is very different when compared to keeping in screen.

The solid sides on a glass enclosure hold humidity and temperatures better than screen. You will not need to water as much, in fact watering too much can lead to overflow problems and a muddy substrate. I know this because it happened to me when I decided to give a chameleon an extra misting session and forgot to turn off the mister! Despite that incident, I have found bioactive setups to be both easy to maintain and extremely good for chameleons.

Bioactive Chameleon Species

The short answer is: Chameleons of all types. Chameleons who love humidity do well in glass bioactive setups ups. Because glass can be quite heavy, smaller species are easier to keep in glass due to weight. Larger species would do well in a screen bioactive set up and it would be an especially great way to create an outdoor setup with plenty of light and shade gradients.

What are the benefits of a bioactive setup?

Not only is a bioactive setup a lovely addition to a room, it provides a natural and healthy eco system for your chameleon. Once properly set up it is basically self-cleaning. It is easier to maintain proper temperature and humidity gradients than in a bare cage.


Putting It All Together
There are a few different supplies needed when setting up a bioactive tank as opposed to a typical screen setup. You will want to gather those in advance.


Bioactive Chameleon Set-up

Courtesy of Karen Stockman

I am setting up a 24x18x24 glass exo terra for a pair of (C. linotum). It will be kept on a rack with other terrariums and I am setting it up right where it will be kept. My goal is to show that anyone can create a healthy, thriving bioactive set up fairly easily and it’s not just for “experts.” (read more about experts here The Real Experts

*Many people create custom backgrounds using foam and moss but I generally do not in my smaller cages, it just takes up usable space. It can be very useful in a larger cages, especially screen, as plants and ledges can be built into the background.

Hydroballs or lava rocks

Hydroballs (hydroton) are expanded clay pellets that are used to create a drainage layer so the soil is not over soaked. They are fairly lightweight and easy to find at reptile stores, online and at hydroponics or gardening stores. Some people use lava rocks for the drainage layer. They are a bit heavier than the hydroton but will work. Regular rocks, pebbles, or gravel would technically work but would add a very large amount of weight.


Screen or landscape cloth

This is placed over the hydroballs to prevent soil from just falling into the drainage layer. It allows water through but not the soil. I am using fiberglass screen for this build.

There are many choices for substrate. I like to use ABG (Atlanta Botanical Gardens mix – a ready-made substrate for bioactive enclosures), I am also using some organic topsoil (no fertilizers added), and some reptile soil that I have on hand. The goal is to get a mixture that won’t stay soggy and heavy but will drain well and provide a good environment for plant growth as well.
This is a good time to add a small hose or tube in a corner to enable you to remove excess water from the bottom of the tank. It can then be attached to a wet/dry vacuum to suction out water. I generally don’t do this in smaller set ups but I have had them in larger enclosures.

Clean-up Crew
The clean up crew, or CUC is a crucial part of a bioactive set up. These are the little critters that live in the dirt and eat dead bugs, poop and decaying plant matter. Without them these things would just accumulate and create a smelly unhealthy environment. Isopods and Springtails are commonly used. I also like to add earthworms; dermestid beetles and millipedes are a few other options.

At this point I add live plants and branches/vines. I like to find things that are leafy and have many branches to provide cover and climbing areas; and will also do well inside under artificial lighting. In one of my terrariums I used some freshly cut grape vines from my backyard. I expected it would just be a stick for climbing and basking but it actually rooted and several branches and leaves are now growing all over it. Plants growing and thriving is a good sign that the environment is healthy.

At this point we are just about finished. I add a layer of leaf litter and some cork bark to give the CUC places to hide and hang out; then add lights and an automatic misting system. Now all we need are the lucky residents to move in.

Creating bioactive enclosures has been an amazing experience for me; a bit of a learning curve to adjust to the differences in maintaining a naturalistic setup versus a bare-bottomed screen cage but entirely worth it seeing the more natural behaviors of my chameleons. And the day that I saw tiny baby pygmy chameleons walking around with the adults–from eggs that were laid and incubated entirely in the terrarium–I knew I made the right choice.