Terrarium with TerraClay

How to set up a desert or steppe terrarium?

Contrary to common beliefs, only a small portion of deserts are typical sand deserts. Their soil most often consists not only of sand, but also of gravel, rock parts and clay materials so it is compact and the corridors dug by animals do not collapse. Thanks to the clay content, water from scarce rainfall can be retained for longer in the deeper layers of the soil and it evaporates more slowly than from typically sandy soils. The above seems clear but the question how to sensibly set up a desert or steppe terrarium remains. Is it even possible to replicate such conditions in a terrarium?

The desert as a habitat

Deserts are large areas that lack a dense vegetation cover. They are characterized by significant diurnal temperature differences, a constant water deficit and strong sunshine. Deserts are mainly found in the tropical and subtropical zones, often transitioning seamlessly into semi-desert and later into steppe or savanna. Animals inhabiting desert, semi-desert and steppe areas have developed a number of traits to adapt to these extreme water-poor environments, where hot heat pours from the sky during the day, temperatures drop as low as near zero at night, and rainfall is sporadic and often occurs only at one time of the year. One such adaptation is spending the hottest part of the day and the coolest part of the night in underground burrows.These burrows serve them as a hideout from environmental conditions and predators as well as nests for breeding. They have more stable temperatures (lower than at the surface during the day, higher at night) and higher humidity.

Fauna of desert areas

The fauna of desert areas is poor, although it is still richer than one might expect. As for invertebrates, you can meet a lot of insects here, such as locusts, cockroaches, bugs, beetles, ants and termites. Arachnids are also common, and among them: spiders, scorpions, and solfuges. The most numerous group of vertebrates are reptiles – various species of lizards (agamas, iguanas, varans, geckos and zinnias), snakes and turtles.. Smaller reptiles use ready-made, abandoned burrows of larger reptiles, rodents and other mammals. The larger ones, such as monitor lizards and uromastyces dig such burrows themselves using their strong, sharp claws.

Few people realize that the deepest burrows discovered so far among vertebrates are actually dug by yellow-spotted monitors (Varanus panoptes). They dig deep into the soil in spiral corridors ending in a nesting chamber up to 4 meters deep. Often more than one female uses a single burrow, and studies have shown that dozens of species of other animals use these sites as their shelter. The burrows are also often formed in termite mounds. It is obviously easier to dig in soil already dug by termites, besides, there is more food in such a place. The burrows have lower temperatures and maintain a fairly high humidity, which prevents overheating and dehydration of animals, especially during the hottest part of the day. At night, in turn, it protects them against excessive cooling. Desert reptiles are so strongly associated with their burrows that population size is often determined by the number of burrows they inhabit.

What substrate to choose for a desert terrarium?

To set up a desert or steppe terrarium, you need to choose the right substrate. Substrates with added clay will work best. They are much better than sand alone. Moreover, they allow for reproducing the natural microclimate of underground burrows. This is especially important not only for the proper course of the moulting process but also for the health and well-being of the animals.

Leopard gecko in terrarium

Leopard and fat-tail geckos, central bearded dragons, spiny-tailed monitors, Hermann’s tortoises, Russian tortoises or royal pythons are some of the most popular species found in terrariums. Unfortunately, contrary to a common misconception, they do not live in sandy deserts and should not be kept on sand alone.To recreate a natural microclimate in their terrarium, it is worth reaching for Tropical TERRAClay.

Tropical TERRAClay substrate for desert and steppe terrariums

What is Tropical Terraclay? TERRAClay is a structural substrate based on quartz sand and clay with calcium carbonate. It does not contain colorants and preservatives. It makes it easy to set up a desert or steppe terrarium.

Terrarium with TERRAClay

Surely, when preparing to set up such a terrarium, you have wondered how to recreate this difficult environment. How to achieve a satisfactory visual effect, and at the same time provide appropriate living conditions for the animal. Tropical TERRAClay is your answer. Working with this substrate is very easy, thanks to the right ratio of sand to clay (2:1). It can be used dry or wet. You can easily shape various forms from it, as well as combine different elements of terrarium decor. You can also create a structural background and underground burrows.

Underground burrows in terrarium

Dry substrate forms a hard and compact structure in which animals can still dig, allowing you to observe their natural habits. The compact structure also minimizes the negative effects of eating the substrate by the animals. In addition, it helps to keep the terrarium clean. Animal feces and food debris are easier to remove from the compact surface than from loose sand. On the other hand, after wetting, the substrate it becomes malleable again so you can remodel the decor of your terrarium according to your current needs.

Above all, however, Tropical TERRAClay allows you to maintain adequate humidity in your desert terrarium. It perfectly absorbs water and retains it in deeper layers helping to recreate natural microclimate of underground burrows.

Desert Terrarium

TERRAClay in practice

  • it can be used dry or wet
  • moist substrate can be freely formed
  • add more water if you need more plasticity
  • if you increase the plasticity of the substrate, you can paint with it, for example, a background of Styrofoam
  • you can mix the substrate with coconut fibre
  • you can make the burrows by yourself or leave it to animals – thanks to the clay, dry substrate forms a hard and compact structure in which animals can still dig
  • if you moisten the dry substrate, you can remodel it again
  • the substrate is available in yellow, brown and red colors, you can freely mix them to get the desired visual effect
  • to make the bottom for 60×40 cm terarrium , you need about two bags (2×5 kg)

Dawid Krótki


Das S.K., Joshi M., Sahoo S. (2015), On the population status of Indian spiny-tailed lizard, Saara hardwickii outside the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, with a preliminary report on the herpetofauna of Sariska National Park, Herpetology Notes, volume 8: 51-54.

Doody J.S., Soennichsen K.F., James H., McHenry C.R., Clulow S. (2021) Ecosystem engineering by deep-nesting monitor lizards, Ecology, 0(0), e03271.

Doody J.S., James H., Ellis R., Gibson N., Raven M., Mahoney S., Hamilton D.G., Rhind D., Clulow S., McHenry C.R. (2014), Cryptic and Complex Nesting in the Yellow-Spotted Monitor, Varanus panoptes, Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 48, No. 3, 000–000, 0000.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *