In the world of animal care, there’s one thing you can always count on: there’s always more to learn. The science of caring for wild and domestic animals is constantly improving, and the Nature Center staff continually strives to provide the best husbandry available. One of the most recent changes we’ve made is creating bioactive terrariums for the reptiles and amphibians.
That sounds complicated, but the concept is simple: self-sustaining ecosystems recreated under human care. These microcosms vary widely from largely human-maintained to entirely self-sufficient, but the basic ingredients include live plants, invertebrates, and even fungi to establish a natural cycle of nutrient break-down and regrowth. This mirrors the animal’s wild habitat and encourages natural behavior while maintaining ideal climate conditions. The results are not only biologically beneficial for the animal but beautiful from the human side of things as well.
So far, the Nature Center has converted three enclosures in the Appalachian Station to bioactive, with more in the works. The most recent renovation was for Spazz and Stubs, the rough green snakes. The good news for anyone interested in going bioactive at home is that premade kits exist that make it an easy step-by-step process, but plenty of zoos and hobbyists do the research and craft their own ecosystems from scratch.
We started with a drainage layer and screen under the soil. Our native species require a mid-to-high humidity level, and we don’t want the soil holding water. The soil, primed with beneficial microorganisms and nutrients, was mixed with leaf litter and sphagnum moss to provide cover and food for the invertebrate “clean-up crew” that does the heavy lifting of a bioactive enclosure. Harmless springtails (tiny ‘snow fleas’ with no relation to actual fleas) and isopods (‘rolly-pollies’ or ‘pill-bugs’) break down organic waste and keep the soil healthy for the plants as well as reducing the amount of time the human caretakers spend cleaning. Live plants utilize the animal waste while helping maintain proper humidity and providing natural textures, smells, and even tastes for the animals themselves. The Nature Center incorporates both live and artificial plants to ensure we can match every environmental need of the animals. To complete the picture, specialized lights provide the wide spectrum necessary for both plants and animals.
The next time you visit the littlest locals in the Appalachian Station, check out how their habitats are always changing. Everyone in the picture benefits: the keepers, with less time cleaning and more time enriching the lives of the animals under their care; you, the visitor, with more natural environments and behaviors to admire; and best of all the animals, who benefit from having a little slice of the wild crafted just for them.