Home | Amphibians | Choosing the Ideal Substrate for Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates – Part 1

Choosing the Ideal Substrate for Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates – Part 1

Western Spade-foot Toad Bark, moss, sand, coconut husk, wood chips …selecting the proper substrate for one’s pets can be a difficult task these days (in contrast to years ago, when we were limited to newspapers, earth or gravel!).  Please check out our extensive line of Reptile and Amphibian Substrates to see examples of what is available.

Factors to Consider

A number of factors – some obvious, some not – must be taken into consideration when deciding upon a substrate.  Some of the most important are as follows:

Texture: delicate skins may be injured by contact with rough gravel or wood chips.  Burrowing amphibians are especially at risk, but reptiles are not immune.  I have known Nile Softshell Turtles to suffer fatal wounds from concrete-bottomed exhibits, and even hard-shelled turtles may abrade their plastrons while climbing onto rough basking sites.

Ability to be Swallowed: the potential for injury from ingested substrate is becoming well known.  However, the problem is not an easy one to address.  Especially confusing is the fact that captives can suffer blockages from the same types of substrate that they ingest and pass in the wild – I have seen this with Surinam toads (sand), Asian Water Dragons (moss) and others.  Perhaps the animal’s state of hydration or diet has an influence on the ability to pass substrate with the feces, but for now many questions remain.

Types of Food Consumed: substrate may allow earthworms and waxworms to burrow out of reach – this is especially concerning for shy species that will not feed while being observed.  Other substrates stick to salad and moist food items, increasing the likelihood of ingestion.

Plumed BasiliskMoisture Retention: in some instances, such as where Poison Frogs or Spotted Salamanders are being kept, we will want a substrate that retains water and remains moist.  At the other extreme, reptiles adapted to arid habitats, such as Leopard Tortoises and Horned Lizards, are usually susceptible to fungal infections if kept upon a substrate that retains even a slight bit of moisture.

Rainbow Boas, Basilisks, Green Tree Pythons, and other wet-forest reptiles do best when the substrate stays moist for several hours and then dries out completely.

Ability to Support Burrows:  while some fossorial (burrowing) animals will adjust to artificial caves, others will not thrive unless provided with a substrate into which they can burrow.  Some, such as Sand Boas, Glass Lizards and Giant Millipedes, push through the soil or sand and do not create distinct shelters.  Spadefoot Toads, many Tarantulas, Tiger Salamanders, Emperor Scorpions and others excavate burrows that may be quite extensive and used for years.  For these animals, the consistency of the substrate is important, lest their shelters collapse.

Cleaning Frequency: ease and frequency of substrate changes must be considered.  Most snake and tortoise enclosures will need complete substrate changes.  Complex, planted set-ups cannot be easily dismantled, so their inhabitants must be chosen carefully.

Egg Deposition: if animals are likely to lay eggs within the terrarium, the substrate should be of a type that will allow the eggs to thrive until discovered.  The tiny eggs of many geckos and anoles are easy to miss, and may desiccate if deposited in a dry area.

Golden PothosLive Plants: the needs of live plants must be considered in light of the cleaning/substrate removal that will be required.


Further Reading

Confirmed burrowers can be challenging to keep.  Please see my article Burrowing Pets for ideas.

Western Spade-foot Toad image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by TakwishPlumed Basilisk image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Hans Hillewaert


  1. avatar

    Hey frank

    I had some questions on building enclosures but wasn’t sure where to put it so ill just do it here. Im currently building a tank 4 my gargoyle geckos out of wood, and i want to coat the wood with something so it wont rot. I dont know if varnish or paint would harm the animal and want to hear what u think, and what would be safe and non-toxic 4 other reptiles in general.

    I also have some wood branches lying around that i dont know if it would be safe or not. Would Mallow be okay? it has 5-petal flowers that are a bluish purple, and the center is spongey in smaller parts. the bark would be off and i would bake/boil it to kill of pests.
    Also what about ivy? it grows really wild in my yard and the older parts are thick and i thought “hey, those look kind of like those fake vines you buy from the store!” so could I use those in an enclosure?
    I know you did an article on poisonous plants in the bird blog, but i noticed some magor differences. like it said that peace lily was toxic, and so was pothos, philodendrons, Mother-in- Law’s Tongue, and a couple of others. i think it would be good to do an article on toxic plants just for reptiles to avoid any confusion, if you ever have the time.

    thanks a lot, and i appreciate your response.

    • avatar

      Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. Posting at this article is fine, thanks for the interesting comment.

      Choose a wood treatment or paint that will not break down when exposed to water/sun/UVB over time, as geckos will be licking water from the wood..outdoor products usually best. Be sure to follow directions re curing, so that the products sets well and there are no fumes lingering; I don’t have any names on hand, but can check further if you need. Birds and rodents that chew present more of a problem than lizards.

      Branches of mallow, fruit trees, oak are fine; parasites and other pests are rarely transferred this way, especially where non-native herps are concerned; I’ve used collected items for decades after rinsing with a hose. Bark can remain on if you prefer.

      You may be seeing English Ivy; I have used it in amphibian terrariums, but it is toxic if eaten. I’ve never heard of this as being a contact problem, i.e. for geckos climbing on it, and my treefrogs did fine, but I cannot say for sure. Pothos/Devil’s Ivy can be grown as a vine – buy a hanging basket and clip leaves where needed to create effect – likely easier to keep than Ivy, grows very well under herp lights.

      Pesticides used by nurseries that produce house plants can be a problem if licked from leaf surface; systemic types can leach over time, but there are ways to deal with this; please see this article on Plants for Amphibian Terrariums for more info, and feel free to write back. Thanks for checking the bird article. These on Reptile Gardens and Tortoise Diets are mainly food oriented, but may be of some use to you. I do hope to integrate all and add a bit in a future article – thanks.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    So my emperor scorpion just had 11 babies, me checking on her caused her to eat one so we are down to 10. I never see her out of her burrow, she has an undertank heater, and a heat light above, I know UTH are bad, but I live in alaska and my home is very cold, cold enough that I dont believe the light will keep her warm enough. Obviously Ill wait until her babies molt and can be moved to a seperate tank where she wont be able to eat them before I change the substrate. Anyways the question here really is I have her on eco earth coconut bark, it dries out so fast, and her burrow collapses when its dry, is there something that I can mix with the dirt to help keep the burrow and moisture longer?

    • avatar

      Hello Meghan, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog…yours is the first Alaskan scorpion I’ve dealt with! Undertank heaters do speed drying of the substrate, but since the scorpion has successfully bred you’ve no doubt hit upon the right temperature…I would stay with it for now.

      Females sometimes eat their young even during the course of catching prey, i.e. if one falls off while she’s after a cricket; but disturbing her will increase the likelihood of that. If she does not continually eat the young, its best to try and rear them together, at least for a few months – she’ll feed them and survivorship tends to be higher; please see this article for more info.

      You can mix regular topsoil in with the husk, along with some peat moss…or peat alone. It holds moisture and adds “structure”; sphagnum moss and fir bark can also be used, but best to grind these up a bit so they do not get in the way of the scorpions as they dig. A cave (artificial herp cave or cracked crockery flower pot, etc.) buried below the soil, with an entrance ramp leading down to it, is another option – this may be a good idea to try now, as you can add it without re-doing the whole tank. Or perhaps add the peat, etc slowly, mixing it in a little at a time. Changing the whole substrate at any time in the next few weeks, assuming you leave young with her, should be avoided.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Alright thank you, I bought “him” from the only pet store in town, she got so fat I thought Id overfed her, then a day or so ago she was covered in babies, so I cant say the temp was right for breeding her. I have a hollow half log burried half way in the ground, and a stick for her to hid under if she ever does come out at night to eat. The first scorpling to get eaten happened when it fell off and I messed with nature, Id obviously be a terrible god, and tried to put it on her back, I missed and dropped it on her arm and she ate it a few minutes later. Anyways thank you for the advice, add the peat when I can.

    • avatar

      Hello Meghan, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback; I’ve made more than my share of god-like mistakes as well!…but losing a few young that way is very common. Once they are more mobile the risk should lessen. You might try a red or black bulb (pet store may have in herp section, or you can order here) to help you watch them at night, will also provide heat without visible (to the scorps) light. If you can do so without disturbing her, some damp sphagnum or other moss, or a sponge, placed into the hollow log will create a moist retreat.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted…we still have much to learn, so any observations you might pass along would be most useful.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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