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Information gathering for potential bioactive tegu enclosure.


New Member
First, hello, and apologies for making my first post here so extremely long-winded. I'm from New York State, and I'm a pretty new hobbyist, starting with my leo, Nemy about a year ago now. I got her for my oldest last year as a full grown rescue, and through no real fault of hers, Nemy became mine shortly there after. I've grown to love her. While leopard geckos are cool, I really want something more tropical or sub-tropical, and preferably big. Hence, why I'm here, asking for advice. I have a space in my living room that I plan to build a custom 10x6x8 foot enclosure in, and I'd love for opinions and ideas regarding the design. So, without further adieu, here's what I've come up with so far:

The plan is to build a beautiful, bioactive vivarium for the tegu to explore, complete with cleanup crew and (hopefully) lots of edible vegetation for both it and me to enjoy.

It will have a 3-4 feet deep substrate system. I will likely start with a 3" or so deep drainage layer (probably just some large gravel or something to keep cost down) atop a pond liner, with a screen or barrier of some kind and a layer of slate or similar over top to keep the reptile from digging into it. The rest of the substrate will be mixed with various biodegradables and such, based on the Biodude's method. I'll probably use Biodude's Terra Firma substrate, unless someone has a recipe for a good DIY version?

I was thinking about planting various vegetables and fruits for it to much on. I know it's likely they'll be destroyed, but I'd like to give it a shot anyway.

It will have lots of hides, above and below "ground".

It will have lots of driftwood, rocks, and other decor.

It will have lots of space for digging.

The vivarium would be allowed to establish for likely a year or more. I would "burn in" the UV lights to get them dialed in, and then shut them off until the tegu was introduced. That would also give me time to figure out what I can and can't grow in there.

For heat and UV, I plan to use DHPs and Arcadia UV lights, but which ones and how many are TBD, as I won't really know what the enclosure needs until it's built.

Since tegus like to soak, I was thinking about incorporating a water feature with a waterfall. I'd start with some rocks built up and glued and/or siliconed together around the perimeter of the feature. Then, line it with pond liner and then with more rocks (likewise bonded together) before adding sand and some crushed coral for some buffering. There would be a small chamber that I would block off from the reptile with a large river rock, that would house some coarse sponge, the waterfall pump, an inlet for an auto topoff (similar to what you'd find on a reef tank) and another pump that I would put on a timer, that would pump water through a kind of home-made sprinkler system for the terrestrial plants, and finally one more pump I'll have on a switch, connected to a hose that will go to a drain for water changes. These would sit lower than the "floor" of the "pond", and I would be able to fully adjust the water level by moving the ATO sensor/float up or down to the desired level. The water fall would be made of more pond liner and more river rocks. I would also add lots of floating plants, epiphytes and mosses both in the water and on the waterfall. Finally, I would fully cycle the water feature before introducing the tegu. Good idea, or way too ambitious? Safe for the animal?

And that's where I'm at right now. So here's a few questions for anyone willing to answer:

What materials should I build this with? Will appropriately sealed plywood hold up over time, or should I spring for custom PVC panels? I may use tempered glass for viewing the substrate layer, so I can build hides against it and maybe be able to look in at the tegu when it's using them. The doors will be tempered glass, to hopefully minimize scratches. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.

Plant selection? I was thinking lettuce, spinach, kale, maybe grape vine, and maybe some dandelions? Of course, more is better, so if anyone has other ideas, please let me know. Also, more delicate plants will be planted in a raised bed with an open bottom to the rest of the substrate, and covered in chicken wire or similar to keep the tegu out of their roots. Also, not all of the plants need to be edible, but they do have to be non-toxic (obviously).

I was thinking about using Cree LED flood lights for the primary lighting, as they're inexpensive, should last 10+ years, designed for outdoor use, dimmable and I've seen them used with great success growing plants in aquariums, so they should be good for terrestrial plants. Not to mention they have a 90+ CRI, so the colors of everything should pop really well. Good idea?

Recommended controller for the enclosure? I plan to use dimming timers for the regular lights, so they won't be on the controller, but I want as many options for temperature and humidity control as possible. I do plan to have a misting system on the controller, and the reservoir would also be used by the ATO for the water feature. I have an RODI unit that can make up to 150gpd, so no issues with running out of water for it.

And my last questions are: What would you change, add or remove? Am I just crazy, and this would never work? If not, should I consider a different animal instead?

If you read through all of that, thank you. I've been researching, dreaming and planning this for months now, and I'm starting to get to the point where I could begin building it, if only I knew what I was doing! LOL. But really, this will be my first custom enclosure, and while I've built a few things, I've never tried to undertake anything like this. I've been interested in a tegu since I saw Gus on Clint's Reptiles a year before I got Nemy, but I never thought I'd be able to have one. Now that I can build this enormous enclosure, the only reservation I have left is that I really want it to look natural and "grown in", and while I'm not sure that's possible with a tegu, I'd still like to try.

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