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  1. #1
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    My Bioactive Arid/Desert Enclosure for Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

    This topic will be for updates on my planted arid bioactive enclosure, which has native desert plants and blue death-feigning beetles as the clean-up crew. I wanted to document this here, as it has taken me a ton of research and I have not found an equivalent tutorial or how-to anywhere online yet.

    I initially assembled this terrarium on 10/31/2020, after doing much research. It is NOT fast, and I do not intend to say that you can quickly assemble this; however, you could probably speed up the process by purchasing plants instead. I chose to use native desert plant seeds because I wanted something that actually looked like a desert landscape rather than the plants you can find at most garden stores.

    This is a very long post, but I wanted to share it as essentially a tutorial for those who may be interested in making something similar. Again, it is still a work in progress and I do not consider it "finished" as of yet. I will edit this main post and/or add posts below to show my progress, but wanted to explain the process I have gone through so far, before adding other posts below.





    The Substrate:
    My substrate/soil is a mixture of:
    - Play sand - 50 lb bag (anything non-play sand has sharper edges and can scratch your snake, from what I have heard... not sure how important it is, but I didn't want to have to redo my enclosure. Play sand is cheap and available at most hardware stores.)
    - Coconut coir - I bought three "bricks" but I think I used one and a half or two of the three bricks for the mixture.
    - Worm castings (4q bag)
    - Terracotta clay (I used leftover potter's terracotta; I think purchasing a small jar of 100% clay for cosmetic face masks would work well, too.)
    - Some generic Tums/antacids, maybe like half a container? I did this to add calcium to the soil, both for my beetles and to change the pH of the soil to be more like the soils of the Southwestern United States. Grind/crush them up first.





    The Plants:
    Why seeds?
    You can purchase plants for this enclosure. I chose seeds because I wanted native desert plants, and, not living in the Southwest, I cannot get those. Seeds do have some advantages, though.
    - Growing from seeds allows the plants to be better adapted for their environment. Because I bought a big mixture of seeds, this allowed me to see what responded best to my particular lighting setup, ambient and under-tank temperatures, and watering habits, and this method will allow the best-suited plants to grow, without you having to purchase a plant, troubleshoot, and watch it slowly die lol.
    So, I bought:
    - Native desert seed mixes - I bought a few from Native Seeds/SEARCH.
    - Brittlebush seeds - They have these at Native Seeds/SEARCH too. Many of these sprouted, so these would be good to try.
    - Creosote seeds - I bought on eBay. These tolerate dry conditions well and take pruning well, but need some moisture to sprout. They can dampen off and die kind of easily, as seedlings, in my experience. However, I got two of them to live, so it may be worth a try.



    (Brittlebush seedling)

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    (A grassy plant that did well in my vivarium; please help me ID it if you know what it is)





    Plant Care and Watering:
    - Kelp meal - this helps germination and is a good fertilizer for plants. Native Seeds/SEARCH also sells this I think.
    - Ollas - You can DIY these from small terracotta flower pots (would have to be two tiny ones glued together; there are tutorials elsewhere for this), purchase them (Etsy has smaller ones and custom ones), or make them yourself if you have access to clay, a kiln, and a couple of hours. I am going to emphasize that these are one of the most important elements of the enclosure, because ollas:
    A) Keep the top of the soil dry.
    B) Encourage the blue death-feigning beetles to lay eggs in the soil.
    C) Keep the soil evenly moist to aid in the above, as well as prevent root rot of plants and prevent humidity spikes in the enclosure.
    D) I had a problem with bagworms getting into my enclosure. If the soil is not moist on the top, then it will discourage/not attract pests to the enclosure. Bagworms are easy enough to just scoop up and throw outside (or, if you are feeling evil, you can squish them and your beetles will eat them). I try not to kill things, and, prevention is better anyway.
    E) They also are nearly undetectable and are buried underneath the soil, with an opening up top to put water in.
    - - Ollas work through porous clay. The water inside of them slowly hydrates the soil around it as it seeps through the clay. If you make them yourself, don't glaze the water-holding portion, and use a porous clay body like terracotta.
    - As an alternate to ollas, you can use those glass plant-watering globes, but I did not have good results with them consistently draining water out of them. Also, they don't look as good because you can see them.
    - If you don't go this route, please water by digging a little hole with a stick or your finger, watering in that, and covering it up again with soil. Do not leave water on the surface of the soil.





    Blue Death-Feigning Beetles:
    - I chose these because I saw one tarantula forum talk about them for a bioactive tarantula enclosure. I liked that they are long-lived and would be more like a small group of pets rather than a nameless assemblage of an unknown number of insects cleaning my tank. I purchased seven beetles for my enclosure.
    - I will not post a ton about their care here, because that can be found on other sites. However, I have a few observations I wanted to share:
    A) I feed mine almost exclusively vegetable scraps (leftovers from my own meals or from my iguana's vegetable mix on top of his food). They love corn, peas, squash, but do not like greens of any kind.
    B) I do not see them breaking down leaf litter or chewing on dead or live plant leaves or parts.
    C) They seem to eat bits of soil, but I think they are drinking moisture from the soil. They will pick up a small piece of moist clay and put it in their mouth?
    D) I have read that they will become darker if they get too humid. One of mine has stayed dark forever, but it may be because she sleeps in the humid hide and returns to the same place each day. This has not affected her survival as far as I can tell? Going on six months of that, so I think they are okay, at least in my sheltered environment.
    E) They seem to have set places they sleep in, and have some kind of little social order. I wish I knew more about it. They're cool.
    F) Buy "imperfect" beetles for a discount; you can tell who is who and give them names like "Stumpy."
    G) I will feed them dead insects sometimes. If I find a dead cockroach or something (I promise my house isn't that disgusting, but I do live in Florida), I will put it in the cage, and they will rip it apart and devour it. But, because they are scavengers, I do not believe insects are an essential part of their diet. Meaning, I wouldn't go out and purchase insects for them to eat.
    H) It is apparently difficult for them to reproduce in captivity, but not difficult for them to make larvae. Mine have produced larvae. The larvae, I hope/think, replace the need for an invertebrate in the soil. The larvae should aerate the soil and keep it healthy by eating... whatever they eat, and creating little larvae poops. In this way, the blue death-feigning beetle can inhabit both the soil and the terrestrial portion of the terrarium, without you having to buy another species that lives under the soil.
    I) They can't climb smooth surfaces. I never see them climb on my plants, or attempt to climb plants. They can get a pretty good grip on the rocks I have, but sometimes fall off the pieces of driftwood I have. They can right themselves on their own, fortunately.






    A Few Notes on Humidity:
    - Trans-Pecos rat snakes require pretty dry conditions (with a humid hide available). You can be less stringent about this with other somewhat arid/desert species, probably, but this enclosure is for a very low-humidity, high-ventilation setup. I mitigate the humidity by:
    A) No moisture on the surface of the substrate.
    B) Screen top.
    C) Glass terrarium.




    Assembling the Enclosure:

    These amounts are for a 48" x 18" x 18" Carolina Custom Cages enclosure, which is 67 gallons.

    I planned what side should be the humid side and put the under-tank heater on it. I waited like an extra two weeks because my heater wasn't here yet, but I knew it would be too hard to get it under the tank once I had like 100 lbs of soil and rocks in it.

    I think I used either one and a half or two bricks of coir (moisten it in a bucket and mix up). I used almost all of the play sand bag, leaving maybe 5-10 lbs left over. Put in the whole bag of worm castings. For the terracotta, I really don't know how much I used, and it wasn't a whole lot... I would guess no more than 5-10% clay maximum. I mixed these in one of those 5-gallon buckets you can get at hardware stores. I also put in crushed up Tums. Mix it well. The coconut coir will be moist, but the soil as a whole should not be noticeably moist once you add in everything else.

    At this point, I assembled the rocks and made the hides. I bought the rock slabs at my local garden store. I made two hides, one on each side. I can't really give a tutorial on this. It took a lot of trial and error. I have not yet glued down the rocks because I thought I may rearrange them, but at this point I think I will keep them. Before I get the snake, I will "glue" the rocks together with aquarium silicone.

    >>>Something I would have done in retrospect at this point: before spreading the seeds, plant ollas in the parts of the enclosure you want plants in.<<<

    I spread a TON of seeds, every variety in every place I planned to water (this way, the most suited varieties will sprout in the best areas for them). I then sprinkled the dried kelp on top and misted thoroughly. I roughed up some parts of the soil because some desert plants germinate better in disturbed soils.
    - A note here: I saw, on a desert animal website, that blue death-feigning beetles eat seeds. I did not (and still have not) witnessed them eating any of the seeds, or trying to eat the seedlings, or anything.

    I then introduced my beetles to the enclosure!



    (initial hardscape of vivarium - 11/01/2020)

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    Notes on Seed Germination/Plant Lighting:
    To germinate the seeds, I used a plant grow light in addition to the 4500K daylight fluorescent tube in the Carolina Cages fixture. I would run the regular fluorescent 12 hours per day, and the plant grow bulb a little less (I would plug it in at some point and then unplug it later in the day). After the seeds sprouted and I had a couple seedlings (3"-4" tall), I ran the plant grow light for fewer hours because I noticed the plants were getting a little "sunburnt" or were drooping for just part of the day. This showed me I could start easing off on the light. In around February (so, 4 months), I started leaving the grow light on about half of the time. Starting in April and May (6 months), I am trying to leave the grow light off almost all of the time, since my tallest plant (the brittlebush) was too close to the light.








    I will post more updates below as I add more to the enclosure, and may edit this main post (if possible?) with other anecdotes that could help others wishing to build this.


    Just wanted to be clear that I don't have the snake yet, lol, so that could bring a few modifications to the setup. One modification I will have to make, will be a relatively shallow/small water bowl. I have already sculpted a shallow one that would prevent my beetles from drowning if they climb into it. I have also considered a somewhat taller water bowl with slippery sides so the beetles could not climb into it.


    Chronological progress photos:



    (initial hardscape of vivarium - 11/01/2020)
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    (Blue death-feigning beetles exploring shortly after initial set-up - 11/01/2020)
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    (Backdrop added, some seeds sprouting. Grow light is off, fixture on - 11/12/2020)
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    (Brittlebush seedling and some grasses; these "won" against the other seedlings and were best suited for my environment - 01/02/2021)
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    (Two blue death-feigning beetles hiding under a rock - 02/08/2021)
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    (Vivarium pictured with the LED plant grow light on - 03/27/2021)
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    (Brittlebush and creosotes, pictured with the LED plant grow light on - 03/27/2021)
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    Last edited by TofuTofuTofu; 05-03-2021 at 07:03 PM.

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    That's just looking amazing! And I can sure see why you like those beetles too. This is truly a top-notch effort on your part. Your future will be very lucky.
    Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.
    Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

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  5. #3
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    Today, I planted the ollas I took out of the kiln this morning.


    I made the ollas out of a terracotta clay. The only glazed parts are the lid and around the top, to prevent moisture from absorbing onto the surface of the soil. Here they are out of the terrarium.




    I made the long one to water all three of the "grasses" as well as the brittlebush, as there was a rectangular space open next to the back wall of the vivarium. In retrospect, I would have just put in a few round ones before I ever spread seeds and before anything sprouted, but because I didn't, I made the ollas to fit my current plants.




    (Planting the small olla)


    Here are the parts of the ollas you can see above ground. I may actually redo the tops and make them a non-shiny glaze, and make them more rock-shaped instead of a circular sort of dome shape.


    (The two "round" ollas)



    (The longer olla)



    While "planting" the longer olla in the back, I saw my first ever blue death-feigning beetle larva in my vivarium! I carefully put it back after I planted everything. I hope there are others, and am glad this is a good sign the environment/soil is at least suitable enough for this stage to develop.


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    Wow, talk about attention to details... Very impressive. (You should be doing this for a living somewhere- not that a "labor of love" doesn't have it's own special remuneration anyway.)
    Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.
    Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983)

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    This is awesome, I'm going to use this and slightly modify it (soil makeup) for egyptian tortoises.

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    Re: My Bioactive Arid/Desert Enclosure for Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

    I'm aware this is supposed to be about the entire enclosure, but those beetles are super super cool. It's prompted me to do a little research on them. I'm wondering how it would look to just have a colony of them on their own, not as a clean up crew but just as stand alone pets. Thanks for sharing!

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    Re: My Bioactive Arid/Desert Enclosure for Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

    People make colonies of them and they are super cool, I'm going to try to make one since I see them everywhere and they are amazing.

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    Re: My Bioactive Arid/Desert Enclosure for Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

    Quote Originally Posted by Bogertophis View Post
    Wow, talk about attention to details... Very impressive. (You should be doing this for a living somewhere- not that a "labor of love" doesn't have it's own special remuneration anyway.)

    Unfortunately, our society is generally terrible at placing people in jobs that reflect things they actually enjoy, lol. But thank you. This is my first setup like this (don't have any other pets who live in... containers), but I do think my history as a plant hoarder and artist has helped me in planning it out. I am enjoying having a small bit of desert in my home, and wanted it to be a visually nice display rather than a "typical" habitat with substrate, a pre-made hide, fake plants, etc

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    Re: My Bioactive Arid/Desert Enclosure for Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

    Quote Originally Posted by Hugsplox View Post
    I'm aware this is supposed to be about the entire enclosure, but those beetles are super super cool. It's prompted me to do a little research on them. I'm wondering how it would look to just have a colony of them on their own, not as a clean up crew but just as stand alone pets. Thanks for sharing!
    I do think this enclosure would definitely be suitable as a death-feigning beetle-only enclosure. They are so easy to care for. I feed them like, the equivalent of three small vegetable pieces a week (like, three pieces of corn, three peas, stuff around that size). There are usually one or two out and about throughout the day, and they are really fun to watch, and cute. I am not sure how old mine are, but I do like the fact that they can live 17+ years, because I would not like to be purchasing new ones to "replenish" my supply. It would certainly be a big bonus if mine successfully reproduced (like, not just larvae but ones that grew into the beetle stage) but I'm not pursuing that. There was a Youtuber (Aquaramix or Aquaramixpets is the channel I think?) who was the first to make a captive-bred one, but he incubated the larvae, which is more than I want to do right now. But maybe in the future, if I get bored.

    Oh, I wanted to mention, they will eat rabbit poop. I have given them a few of my rabbit's poops, and they will chew on the outside and leave a sort of little hay ball, but now I no longer see the remains of the remains, lol, so they either ate it all or hid it somewhere--either would be good for my setup. I have only tried one or two "pellets" at a time, and it takes them a while to break it down.

    My biggest concern with them would be whether they even break down snake poop (rabbit turds are more like, already dry balls of grass). I am okay with picking up snake turds and having them clean up any microscopic or little bits left over, though. That is what I will be most interested in seeing when I introduce my snake.
    Last edited by TofuTofuTofu; 05-04-2021 at 11:36 AM. Reason: typo

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    Just a thing I forgot to mention in the main post: I use distilled or spring water to water the vivarium. This is to prevent mineral deposits from crusting in the soil. My knowledge is limited on whether the minerals would adversely affect the plants, beetles, soil make-up, etc, but I just know from potting soil that it looks bad and would be difficult to fix in this setup.

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