When it comes to bioactive cleanup crews, there’s nothing better than the tag-team duo that is the isopods and springtails.
They work together to keep the terrarium clean and they help to enrich/aerate the substrate for the benefit of your plants.
What’s not to love?
Find out what makes these natural microfauna partners such a great unit, and how to maximize their effectiveness together.
Go team bioactive!
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The Bioactive Clean Up Crew – An Overview
A “bioactive” terrarium or vivarium is one that uses microfauna (i.e. tiny animals) and microflora (i.e. microbial organisms) to regulate the environment.
Just as nature has its ways to recycle decaying plants and organic mater, a bioactive setup hopes to achieve the same.
Albeit on a much smaller scale.
Today we’re focusing on the microfauna aspect of this natural puzzle. How can combine the advantages and properties of different species to create the healthiest self-sustaining environment?
Thankfully, in the league of bioactive bugs fighting to be at the top – there’s a clear set of finalists.
The isopods and the springtails.
And, in this game there’s no need to decide on a winner. We choose both!
Isopods and springtails make a good combo because they work both independently and synergistically. Sure, either is a good choice on their own – but together they’re stronger.
Next, I’ll break down how.
Isopods for Terrariums
Isopods are the great recyclers of a bioactive setup.
Any decaying organic material (commonly known as “detritus”) is fair game for these hardcore munching machines.
They’ll make sure that any departed plant matter or mosses are taken care of before any rot sets in.
Just note, excess plant material alone is not enough to sustain them. You’ll have to further drive that process by supplying them with plentiful leaf litter and soft driftwood chunks (e.g. cork bark).
It’s all worth it though, because all of the nutrients that they consume are released back into the substrate via their fertilizing poop (also known as “frass”).
The circle of life is wonderful isn’t it?
The burrowing nature of isopods also helps to aerate any substrate that they end up tunneling through. So as you might imagine, having a healthy colony of isopods in a terrarium can really keep that soil soft and tilled.
Finally, in a reptile vivarium they can serve as a healthy snack!
Best Isopod Species
There are a lot of isopod species on offer these days, and they’re not all created equal in cleanup potential.
We want an active and hungry team of feeders, ready to chow down on any unwanted material.
And, we need species that are going to thrive in the warm and humid conditions of a tropical terrarium or vivarium. That rules out some of the drier, more temperate and arid species.
Here are some good choices for different setups.
- Trichorhina tomentosa – The Dwarf White Isopods are perhaps the most popular choice for planted terrariums and vivariums. Being a dwarf species, their small size and shy nature helps them move undetected by any of your tanks inhabitants, and population wise they’re easier to manage. Dwarf Purple Isopods are available too!
- Porcellio scaber – This tropical species needs lots of humidity, and so they fit well into a bioactive terrarium environments. They also come in diverse amount of color morphs, giving you lots of options to run with aesthetically (e.g. Lava and Dalmatian).
- Porcellionides pruinosus – The Powder Orange Isopods (and Powder Blue) are a staple for a vivarium ecosystem, and are one of the longest running cleanup crew members. Great for medium sized tanks.
- Porcellio laevis – The Dairy Cow Isopod is one of the larger species and they’re super active. Perfect for bigger containers with plenty of food to process. They’re also bold enough to work on the surface of the substrate, so they make an accessible food source for reptiles. Zebra Isopods can work too!
Springtails for Terrariums
The primary purpose of springtails in is mold control.
Realistically, mold is going to be an ongoing issue in a hot and humid terrarium, and springtails love to eat it.
They’ll eat all kinds of mold, fungus and spores – helping to keep any outbreaks under control and often stopping it before it even gets started (which is why I recommend them in all terrarium setups).
What makes springtails and isopods such a good pairing is that the best environment for isopods is prone to mold – so they essentially cover each others weaknesses.
Not just because isopods like it humid and moist, but they also need decaying organic matter and supplementary foods.
Adding fruit and vegetables to feed isopods is a great way to supplement their diet, but sweet moisture-rich chunks are a potential mold eruption waiting to happen. Especially if you add too much for the isopods to consume in one sitting.
That’s where springtails come in. They’ll readily eat any mold outbreaks, and they’ll consume the same food as your isopods – helping to clear away any wastage so it doesn’t mold over.
In fact, the we can put the appetites of the springtails to further use in a terrarium/vivarium.
- They out-compete any pesky mites and fungus gnats for food.
- They also eat isopod frass, helping to further spread the fertilizing goodness to the plants.
Best Springtail Species
Unlike isopods, springtails haven’t (yet) developed much of a hobby culture.
So we don’t see anywhere near as much breeding attention or unique variations coming through the pipeline.
However, springtails retain a natural diversity of color and environmental specialization – hurray!
To be honest though, you’re most likely going to go with the two most common choices.
- Tropical White Springtails (Collembola sp) – The most common choice for tropical terrariums (as you might imagine from the name) these do better in higher temperatures. Though they reportedly reproduce at a slower rate than their temperate counterparts.
- Temperate White Springtails (Folsomia candida) – These are still common choices in the terrarium industry, despite being named for temperate environments.
In reality, there doesn’t appear to be a big practical difference in tropical vs temperate springtails. Pick whatever seems the most suitable and give it a try.
Alternatively, you can also try springtails in Pink, Silver and Black, but they’re not tried-and-tested like the white ones.
Results may vary!
Starter Cultures – How to Get Started With Isopods and Springtails
Most often, an isopod culture will come in a small container with some sort of tropical substrate material, e.g. sphagnum peat moss.
This can often be added directly to your container and mixed into an area of the existing substrate.
Whereas it’s more common for your springtail culture to come with charcoal instead, you can still add this in if you wish (charcoal does bring benefits to a tropical substrate) or you can easily “rinse your springtails in.”
I.e. If you flood your charcoal container with water, the springtails will usually float and you can tip them straight in whilst holding back the charcoal chunks.
👉 Check out my full guide on How to Culture Springtails for more help!
Provided you already have sufficient bioactive materials in place (like leaf litter) then that’s about all there is to it.
It’s probably worth providing a little bit of supplementary springtail and isopod food right away just to get them off on a good foot, but they’ll take a little while to get settled in their new space.
Over to You
How have you used isopods and springtails in your terrarium/vivarium?
Do you have any favorite species combinations? Let me know in the comments below!
Or if you need to go back to basics, What is an Isopod? is your best bet.