Your very own self-sustained micro-ecosystem
By Ben Coxworth
January 22, 2010
Have you ever wanted to create your own little planet? Do you like aquatic life, but think that aquariums are too much work? If your answer to either of those two questions is Yes, then you might quite enjoy owning a miniature closed aquatic ecosystem. All you need is a credit card, or a clear glass jar, some stuff from a pond, and an appreciation for things that exist on a small scale. The result will be a self-sustained miniature world that doesn’t need feeding, filtration, or anything other than light, from the outside world.
Buy one ready-made
Miniature closed ecosystems were first developed in the early 80’s by NASA , in a study aimed at finding ways of supporting human life in outer space. That technology was licensed, and resulted in a consumer product known as the EcoSphere(R), which is still available to this day. An EcoSphere(R) is a glass globe with sea water, bacteria, gravel, a piece of coral, algae, several algae-eating shrimp and an air pocket all sealed inside. The algae converts light and carbon dioxide into oxygen, the shrimp breathe the oxygen and convert it back into carbon dioxide, the bacteria break down the shrimps’ waste, and the whole thing can keep itself going for quite a long time. “We regularly receive letters from customers stating their shrimp lived for up to 20 years enclosed” company VP Dan Harmony told Gizmag. “We hear this often from many customers, that their EcoSphere is five, eight, or even ten years old.”
Make your own
If you want a closed ecosystem that you know is done right, then an EcoSphere(R) is definitely the way to go. It can be quite fun and fascinating, however, to make your own freshwater version. There are numerous examples on the Internet, but probably the definitive how-to guide is a video posted by Make Magazine. What it boils down to is, you’re collecting water, sand/bottom debris and plants from a pond, sealing them in a jar with some air space at the top, then leaving everything in indirect sunlight.
Apart from throwing a few small snails in there, you don’t need to make a point of including any animals, as various creepy-crawlies will present themselves over time. One of the highlights of using pond life, in fact, is keeping track of the various water fleas, shrimps, worms and other things that seem to just spontaneously show up in there. Whatever you do, do not include anything like fish, tadpoles or large insects - not only is it cruel, but they won’t survive anyways. Some people will tell you that even keeping shrimp in a closed ecosystem is cruel. Given that it’s impossible for any human to ever truly know the consciousness of a shrimp, that’s a hard claim to address one way or the other. Decide for yourself.
It’s difficult to say how long a do-it-yourself system will keep going. According to various accounts, most of the more visible inhabitants die off within a year or two. The teeny-tiny zooplankton, however, can go considerably longer. In any case, whether you go commercial or home-brewed, a closed ecosystem is a fascinating macrocosm of the planet that all living beings share.