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Bioactive Substrate in your Dart Frog Vivarium

In the wonderful world of dart frogs, one of the key ingredients to a successful dart frog vivarium is a well put together Bioactive Substrate. This blog will be primarily focused on the use in a dart vivarium, but the methods, tricks, and tips are transferable to some other animals as well. In this blog we will share with you how to start a strong bioactive layering system. The life span of a well implemented Josh’s Frogs bioactive dart frog layering system is about 2 to 5 years, saving time and money. While going bioactive may seem difficult and intimidating, it is incredibly easy as long as you follow all of the steps. As always if you run into problems or questions we are always here to help .  

The System

Bioactive substrates really are living and breathing mini ecosystems. It's important to set them up properly and know the different parts of the system so that you can make informed decisions to ensure the health of your vivarium.  An improperly cared for layering system will cause it’s lifespan to diminish quickly.  

Drainage Layer

Let’s start with the foundation of this system, as any strong house needs an even stronger foundation. The drainage layer is comprised of False Bottom and a small layer of water. Hydroton (also known as LECA, for light expanded clay aggregate) is a great choice for the false bottom or drainage layer in a vivarium. LECA is a natural product, made from heated clay. It retains moisture, provides lots of surface area for bacteria and plant roots to grow, and wicks water, which will help maintain humidity in a vivarium. Installing this important piece of system is very easy! You will want a misting device filled with RO water, a dust mask, gloves and the proper amount of False Bottom . Once you are ready to install, put on your dust mask and prepare for a small dust cloud. This process is best done outside. Pour in all of your False Bottom, aiming for a layer  about 2 inches deep. I like to suggest between 2 and 3 inches as it gives you a little more leeway with your water level. The more drainage layer you have, the more time you will have to notice your water level getting too high. Now spray the False Bottom down using your RO water until the dust is all settled and the False Bottom is damp enough to keep the dust down. The False Bottom is abrasive, so now it is time to put your gloves on.  Flatten the False Bottom to create an even surface . Now to help start off with a steady humidity in the tank, add RO water until there is a thin layer of water at the bottom of the drainage layer (1/8th to 1/4th an inch). That’s it!  Drainage layer installed!

Substrate Barrier

The next step is to ensure that nothing from any other layer gets into the drainage layer by installing a Substrate Barrier.  If debris get down into the drainage layer or the water level reaches the upper layers, it can cause blooms of harmful bacteria that can effect the health of your frog or even cause death. With that in mind, ensure that when you are installing the barrier it is pressed tight to the walls and corners of the tank (I will give you pointers as we go). Whether you receive your Substrate Barrier pre-cut or you have to cut your own, you want to make sure you always over cut your barrier by at least an inch. Many times people will cut them to fit perfectly which I have found can lead to debris sneaking through to the drainage layer. When I'm building a tank I always over cut my Substrate Barrier by at least one inch if not several inches. To install your Substrate Barrier , line it up with the center of your tank so that the edges fold up the wall at least an inch. Installing this barrier properly will also include steps in the ABG layer and the Sphagnum layer as well. For now all you need to do is lay it centered over the False Bottom and your mission is (mostly) complete.


I get a lot of questions about our ABG mix and why it is important to use compared to other types of soil. The main reason using ABG is super important is that most soils do not drain the way ABG does. It's very important to move any excess water through the layers on a vivarium in a timely fashion. Many soils will remain waterlogged and over saturated for too long, and this can lead to the harmful bacteria mentioned earlier. Besides draining water well, ABG is formulated to retain the correct amount of moisture in a high humidity environment. It promotes healthy plant growth and supports healthy microfauna. All in all, if you want your bioactive substrate system to last for a long time, Josh’s Frogs ABG is the way to go! Installing the ABG layer is a sinch! Here at Josh’s Frogs we like to make our products fun and eye catching, so we typically leave our ABG mix in layers in the bag. The first task is to mix these layers up. The easiest way I have found is to simply dump the ABG in a 5 gal bucket and toss it around until it is completely mixed up. You can also so it in the bag is extra space is a little tight. Grab your mister and mist the walls of the vivarium. Press the substrate barrier into the wall so that it lightly sticks. Scoop the ABG onto the Barrier and flatten the ABG as you are adding it, pressing outward near the edges occasionally to ensure the barrier is snug against the wall of the tank. Once you have your ABG layer installed and flattened, mist the sides down to rise any debris from the false bottom or ABG .

Sphagnum Moss

The next step is a ½ to 1 inch thick layer of Sphagnum Moss . This layer is very important because it keeps the frogs away from the abrasive materials in the ABG and Drainage layer. It also helps to evaporate water into the air to maintain humidity in the tank.  Another important job the Sphagnum Moss layer takes on is the habitation of microfauna such as springtails and isopods. To install this layer soak the Sphagnum Moss  to re-hydrate it. Submerge in water for 2-4 hours to ensure the moss is completely saturated. Put on your gloves - this moss can come in with thorns and branches that can really hurt! Wearing gloves will help alleviate some of the potential pain of encountering one of these items. If there is any of the substrate barrier still exposed along the wall simply fold it down over the ABG mix. Wring out the Sphagnum Moss until it stops dripping water when you release it and spread the Sphagnum Moss across the ABG. Make sure the Sphagnum Moss is spread evenly so that all of the ABG is covered. I like to take a little extra and line the walls with about an extra inch and press it down tight so that it seals the sides. Once your layer is down, press the rest of the Sphagnum Moss firmly so that it is lightly packed.  

Leaf Litter

This last step is potentially the easiest and most fun part of this substrate layering system. It’s the leaves ! Toss them in like confetti on my birthday (Yes, I require confetti along with my cake and ice cream). Just like the cool fall winds of Michigan, there is no rhyme or reason on how the leaves are layered. Simply create a chaos of falling leaves for the frogs to hide in . After all your hard work, you have now successfully installed the substrate layering system! With the addition of live plants and microfauna, your vivarium will hold a cycling ecosystem designed for the health and happiness of your dart frogs. Learn more about plants in your bioactive system here: Plants in Your Bioactive Dart Frog VivariumLearn the benefits and additions of microfauna to your bioactive terrarium here:  Microfauna in Your Bioactive Dart Frog Vivarium

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