The topic of substrate is a challenging one, since there is so much variety and a wealth of opinions in the industry.
When designing a suitable herptile habitat from the ground up, the question of bedding, or substrate, is an important one. Some prefer aesthetics, while for others function outweighs form. For the majority, however, the question of what substrate to use remains a heavily weighted question.
The topic of substrate is one of the most challenging topics to discuss, as there are so many conflicting opinions as to what is the best, worst, prettiest, cleanest, etc. The information that follows is based on my personal opinions and experience.
There is no doubt that the current trend in herpeteculture is toward the most natural terrariums and self-sustaining vivaria. Yet even in this perpetual quest to replicate nature, retailers still deal with synthetic representations of reality. Unfortunately for dedicated hobbyists, there isn’t a “Costa Rican Rainforest in a Can” available.
Despite this, I must admit that the ability to recreate a herp’s natural habitat in captivity is better than it has ever been. And while mimicking the impeccable work of Mother Nature may not be the hobbyist’s priority, there are many acceptable alternatives that can be made available in a retail setting.
Good bedding choices depend on the animal. However, for the sake of clarity, we can loosely group some of the viable options.
Tropical herps (ball pythons, boas, iguanas, frogs, etc.) prefer bedding that will retain some moisture and promote healthy levels of humidity. Numerous brands of reptile bark and coconut husk derived substrates are available, the latter of which is often sold in compressed bricks that “inflate” into large amounts of a soil-like substrate when soaked in water. These tropical choices tend to naturally be darker in color, and will likely require regular misting to maintain the proper amount of moisture.
Herps from temperate or more arid environments (bearded dragons, leopard geckos and cornsnakes) do best on bedding that remains dry. For these animals, wood and paper based products are best. Shredded or chipped aspen, dry bark or any other wood chip product works well. Avoid cedar at all costs; the resins from this wood are toxic to herps, and fortunately are not found in products designed specifically for reptiles.
Sand is a popular choice for beginners due to its natural look and intuitive nature. However, sand not always the best choice. Only a handful of the hundreds of reptile species kept in captivity actually live on sand. In addition, sand is often implicated in cases of gastrointestinal impaction. Nonetheless, healthy herps that are properly warmed and hydrated can typically pass small amounts of sand with no consequence.
New substrates are constantly being made available, and the forward-thinking retailer will have no choice but to make constant strides to keep up with the trends. This will ensure that one is not only able to stock the most reasonable selection of beddings, but also able to pass on important information to inquiring customers.
In my many years of herp-keeping, I have concluded that there is no “right” or “wrong” substrate. The best solution is the one that works in any given situation. I may sell four bearded dragons in a given day and recommend four different bedding solutions based on the specifics of the set-up and size/age of animal being housed.
Jonathan Rheins is an avid herpeteculturist and a manager at LLLReptile & Supply Co. in Escondido, Calif. When not fulfilling that position, he spends his time working with and writing about a wide variety of exotic reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.