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Taken from my blog hedgehogsofasgard.com (post link: http://hedgehogsofasgard.com/post/159081372716/how-to-set-up-a-bioactive-or-naturalistic)
Any updates or new information will be posted on the blog and can be found under the FAQ/links page.


This step-by-step guide will show how to set up (and maintain) a bioactive or naturalistic enclosure for your hedgehog.
Let's take a closer look at the differences between bioactive and naturalistic enclosures first:

The naturalistic enclosure

An enclosure which features natural elements such as wood, rocks, and sometimes live plants. Can have natural substrate (like soil) too, but often has 'artificial' bedding such as wood shavings or paper bedding for easier cleaning (the substrate should be loose, no liners).

The bioactive enclosure

An enclosure which not only features natural elements (and often live plants), but has a substrate mix consisting of different types of soil, sand, etc. in which invertebrates (the "clean up crew", also known as cuc) live, thus essentially creating a tiny ecosystem in which the waste gets broken down by the clean up crew. Ideally, the keeper doesn't have to clean the enclosure except for the occasional spot cleaning. A bioactive enclosure mimics the natural habitat of the animal as closely as possible.

Disclaimer: a bioactive enclosure isn't just an easy option for "lazy people" who don't like cage cleaning. While bioactive is commonly used for reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates it is less popular with mammal keepers. In general, keeping a mammal on bio is deemed more difficult due to the larger amounts of waste they produce and the strong urine.
This means the process of maintaining a bioactive enclosure involves a lot of trial and error and following this guide will not guarantee success.

Why bio or naturalistic?

Naturalistic and bioactive enclosures are catered to the hedgehog's natural needs: things like burrowing, nest-making and foraging for food. They stimulate natural behaviour, thus helping to keep your hedgehog happy and healthy - both mentally and physically.

What you will need

  • For bio: a vivarium (terrarium) or similar closed-off enclosure (you don't want the cuc escaping). Cage type is less important for a naturalistic set-up.
  • For bio: the enclosure needs to be a minimum of 4 x 2 ft (120 x 60 cm)
    Smaller enclosures will put too much of a strain on the cuc. Bigger than the minimum is always better!
  • Substrate
    For bio: cococoir, coconut husk, eco potting soil (no added fertilizer), reptile sand (or other sand with varied grain), sphagnum moss and partially decomposed leaves. If you're planning on planting a lot of plants, get clay hydroballs and a substrate divider (mesh) too.
    For naturalistic: same as for bio, or bedding like finacard, aspen, carefresh, back 2 nature etc.
  • Natural elements such as cork bark, cork tunnels, wood, stones, leaf litter, hay, dried reed, bamboo etc.
  • Plants (fake or real. See safe plant list below)
  • For bio: the clean up crew such as springtails, tropical woodlice, temperate woodlice, mealworms, morioworms (super worms), ****roaches (like dubia), earthworms and dermestid beetles
  • A daylight lamp to provide suitable lightning for the plants (and the animals)
Got everything? Let's get started!

Step 1. The natural habitat

Before we start with setting up the enclosure, let's take a closer look at the natural habitat of the the African pygmy hedgehog (white-bellied/four-toed hedgehog, Atelerix albiventris).

Location: Central and Eastern Africa
Habitat type: savannah, cropland, prefers open grassland and avoids forest areas and swampland
This means we will be setting up an arid, savannah/grassland type of enclosure which will be relatively dry and with lots of "clutter" on the bottom.

Step 2. Adding substrate

For naturalistic: substrate doesn't really matter, it can be any loose bedding you prefer. Mixing several types of bedding (like having different types in certain spots of the cage) is another option too.

For bio: mix the substrate. A good ratio is approx. 40% cococoir, 30% eco potting soil and 30% sand. Mix the partially decomposed leaves and the coconut husk through the substrate. The leaves will provide a needed "kick-starter" food for your cuc.
The substrate layer should preferably be at least 4 inch (10 cm) deep, but the thicker the substrate layer, the better. The top layer can dry out fast depending on your enclosure (it dries out faster when the light and heat lamps are on), so a thick layer of substrate will stay more moist on the bottom for a longer time, which is better for the clean up crew. If you have a thick substrate layer you can add some more sand to the top layer of the substrate.

Because the enclosure will be relatively dry, we do not need a drainage layer (if going bio) like rainforest-type vivs do. A drainage layer is made out of (for example) clay hydroballs with a screen/mesh divider between the drainage layer and the substrate. The excess water drains out of the soil which avoids the substrate becoming waterlogged and root rot.
In an arid enclosure you won't need as much water, and if any plants are used, they need to be of a type that can withstand drought and only need occasional spraying. Therefore most bioactive hedgehog enclosures will not need a drainage layer.

Read more about substrate mixes here (this article focuses on more heavily planted enclosures, but is still useful).

Step 3. Adding plants (& safe plant list)

Safe plants for hedgehogs (which also do well in arid enclosures) are:

  • Air plants (Tillandsia)
  • Grasses like Carex, Stipa and Festuca
  • Sansevieria
  • Echeveria
  • Chlorophytum
If you don't want to pot plants in the substrate, air plants are an easy option. They can be glued to wood or cork bark (make sure to use animal safe glue).
Other plants can be potted directly into the soil or in a (plastic) pot. The hedgehog might uproot the plants in its search for insects, so don't get too attached!
Grasses can be used both alive and dead - dried grasses will give the enclosure a nice savannah touch.

Step 4. Adding the clean up crew (bio only)

If you've added your substrate you can add the cuc. Springtails, tropical woodlice, temperate woodlice, mealworms, morioworms (super worms), ****roaches (like dubia), earthworms and dermestid beetles are commonly used in bioactive enclosures.
Springtails are very small but the backbone of any bioactive set-up. Unfortunately for us, they prefer moister areas. By providing moister spots underneath stones and cork bark you can keep springtails alive in more arid enclosures. The white tropical woodlice won't do that well in arid enclosures either, so temperate or grey tropical woodlice could be a better choice.
The hedgehog will eat part of the cuc (the larger ones like mealworms and super worms) so keep in mind you'll have to top up your cuc regularly.
Giving the cuc a few weeks to establish themselves before putting the hedgehog in is preferred.

Step 5. Adding other naturalistic elements

It's landscaping time! Probably the most fun part of setting up the enclosure. Let your imagination run wild and add (for both bio/naturalistic) cork bark, stones, logs, wood, etc.
A large piece of cork bark or a cork tunnel can be used as a hide. Add some hay and leaf litter for the hedgehog to sleep in.
Big, heavier stones and multiple pieces of cork bark or other wood are important in a bioactive hedgehog enclosure. Large stones will provide shelter for the cuc because the hedgehog will be unable to uproot them underneath a heavy stone.
By adding a bit of sphagnum moss under pieces of cork bark you will be able to keep those areas more moist for cuc like springtails and tropical woodlice, without having to constantly water/spray the entire enclosure.

A breakdown of a bioactive enclosure:

  1. Optional drainage layer (hydroballs) + mesh
  2. Substrate layer
  3. Cork bark hide with hay and leaf litter
  4. Live plants
  5. Wheel with 'hidden' litter tray (a wheel should always be provided, regardless of enclosure type)
  6. Twigs, dried reed, etc. higher up in the enclosure and on the background might not be of use to the hedgehog but look nice
  7. Large stones provide shelter for the clean up crew
  8. Cork bark with sphagnum moss underneath provides a moister hide for the clean up crew
That's about it for setting up a naturalistic or bioactive enclosure!
But when it comes to bio, the most difficult part is keeping your plants and cuc alive and happy.

Maintaining your bioactive enclosure

Maintaining a naturalistic enclosure is similar to what you'd do with any other enclosure type, but bioactive needs some special measures to keep it thriving. It can take several weeks to months for an enclosure to become fully, or nearly fully self-sustaining. With hedgehogs, fully self-sustaining might be impossible unless you're using an extremely large enclosure.

To help the cuc, remove leftover waste. How often you'll have to spot clean depends on the size of your enclosure and how well the cuc is maintaining it. Spot cleaning is especially important in the first few weeks when your cuc is still establishing.
It is preferred to give the cuc some time to establish without the hedgehog being in the enclosure yet. You can help the cuc during this time by feeding them some fish food, mushroom, brewers yeast, spirulina or any other waste organic matter.

In order to keep the springtails and other cuc which prefer moister soil happy, you can add some sphagnum moss underneath pieces of cork bark and keep it moist by lightly spraying the area regularly. How often you'll need to spray depends on how fast your enclosure dries out. This could mean you have to spray once a day, or a few times a week.
It helps a lot if the hedgehog is litter trained and uses one area to poop/pee instead of the entire enclosure. This is often close to the wheel. A 'hidden' litter tray underneath the wheel is optional - that way you can take the potty area out and clean it more easily, if needed. Some sphagnum moss underneath the wheel will give the springtails some moister cover in an area where you will need them most.

If everything goes well, beneficial bacteria will grow in the lower substrate layer and help break down urine. By occasionally mixing some of the top layer into the lower layer you will help this process. Due to the larger amount and stronger urine of mammals you might have to replace a part of the soil after a few months if you notice the urine starts to build up (mainly the potty area if you're not using a litter tray) - but whether or not, and when this happens will depend on your set-up.

Springtails (the little white dots) breaking down hedgehog waste

A bioactive or naturalistic enclosure is a great form of enrichment for your hedgehog and very mentally and physically stimulating. And it's beautiful and fun to watch!
Bioactive seems to be relatively new to the hedgehog world and it might not be doable for everyone due to the amount of research, work and dedication it takes (initially at least), but a naturalistic enclosure is very easy to set up.
And if you don't want to go full bio or naturalistic, you could always have a separate bio or naturalistic area in your cage (like a plastic tub) which can be easily taken out and cleaned. Your hedgehog will love it!

Read more here (including how you can make a background wall for your viv):

Bioactive hedgehog habitats: pt. 1
Bioactive hedgehog habitats: pt. 2
Bioactive hedgehog habitats: pt. 3
Bioactive hedgehog habitats: pt. 4

Example video of a bioactive hedgehog enclosure:


1 Posts
how do you keep the clean up crew from overpopulating? btw im obsessed with the idea of a bioactive enclosure :D
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