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post #1 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-24-2018, 09:11 PM Thread Starter
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several years ago, i wrote this on another forum:

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at some point, nearly every aquarist dreams about a tiny representation of a piece of the earth that is completely closed off from all environmental input. you know what i mean, the ecosphere type setups that are completely sealed, only letting light in and very rarely, if ever, air. it is a beautiful idea, it is essentially creating a microcosm, a single window into the entire process that take place on earth. you know, the process we passingly refer to as ecology. it is a dream that has been with aquarists and naturalists for years. some say it has never been done, many say it cannot be done.

that last assumption is complete BS. the one prior only partially so.

before i explain that it is not only possible, but indeed very simple, to create a self sustaining closed system, let me dispell any delusions of grandure that may be building up in anyones head...

you will never be able to keep a healthy goldfishautolinker.com autolinking image in a closed ten gallon aquarium.

...ever.


i have spent the last fifteen years or so getting closer and closer to that holy grail of aquariums, and i have learned a LOT of lessons along the way. here are a few things i have learned and come to realize that may help someone else who chooses to pursue this "unsolved equation".

first and formost is the size and complexity of the animals and plants that are to be kept in a sealed system. lets say we take a small fish, the dwarf livebearer (heterandria formosa), and a simple plant, java moss, and put them together in ten gallon and seal the lid. we will add light and keep the temperature stable, but that is about it. the rest is up to the fish and the plant.
ok, so we have a fish that will live a lonely life in ten gallon tank. that would be kind of like giving you about half an acre of living space. in fact, you would have about half an acre of lawn, about 60 feet of space above your head, and lightly filtered sunlight. now, lets place ourselves into the fins of our new sealed systems inhabitant. for a little while, things are ok, kinda lonely, but hey, at least you have some room to move around. after a little while, you start to get hungry. this is a problem... there really isnt much to eat, but if you look really hard, you can usually find some tiny bits of dying plant matter to eat, as well as the ocasional tiny copepod here and there. its a good thing you have a tough stomache, otherwise you might be in trouble. so food is taken care of, for now. as the first day drags on, things seem not so bad, the light is hitting the plants and the plants are quickly using up all that annoying CO2 in the water with you, giving you plenty of nice fresh oxygen to breath. along with the CO2, the plants are also soaking up all the nasty stuff that you release with your number ones and number twos. the food sucks, but hey, you cant really complain too much.

later on in the day, god decides to turn off the lights. you expected this, nothing new. after a little while however, that nice little oxygen bar you had sitting on top of that nasty tasting plant starts to get a little stuffy. you see, plants only exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide while the lights are on. without the photo in photosynthesis, plants have to use oxygen from the water and expell excess CO2, which they can no longer use. as the new king of your own little ecosystem, this translates into a really lousy day. the CO2 levels are rising, the O2 levels are dropping, and that friendly plant which is now using oxygen faster than you are, doesnt seem so friendly anymore. not only that, the water is getting sharp! by the end of the night, there is so much CO2 in the water that the PH has dropped to dangerous levels and you are really starting to feel the heat. the acid water has left your gills inflamed and you are starting to feel like you are literally suffocating. it wont be long before you slip into unconsiousness...

about this time god(the "benevolent" owner of your new little world) decides to be merciful to you again and turns the light on. slowly, you come out of your oxygen deprivation induced stupor and start to look around. it seems your not the only one who suffered last night. that plant you were hanging out at yesterday has several leaves that look soft and pale, with tiny holes in them. it obviously had a lot of trouble last night, as several patches of it have begun to die back. that means more lousy tasting food for you, which is great and all, except that you still feel sick from last night and really have ZERO appetite. after a while though, the parts of the plant that are still alive soak up a lot of the CO2 and things start to get a little more tolerable. the water never quite returns to that freshness that it had on that first day, but eventually you feel good enough to get hungry. this time, there is plenty of dead and half dead plant for you to eat. with nothing else to eat, you gobble it down. by this point you are relatively comfortable again. what is left of the dying plant is starting to rot, so the place is getting a bit stinky, but you arent hungry and at least you dont feel like you are suffocating anymore.

then someone turns off the lights again. you begin to go through the same hell you went through last night, only this time its worse. the plant is sucking up oxygen again, but its not the plant that is bothering you, its the combination of the plant and the bacteria that are eating the dead plant parts that are sending you for a loop this time. if it were just the plant, it wouldnt be so bad. the ph and CO2/O2 swings would be less severe tonight than they were last night, as there is less plant to compete with you now. add that pesky bacteria culture though, and now you have a recipe for disaster. by the time the lights come back on you are barely alive, sitting at the bottom of your tank gasping for air in an oxygen deprived coma.

eventually you wake up feeling absolutely miserable. during the night, your body shut down all non-essential processes. that means you took a nice massive number two while you were out of it. that really sucks, because you werent even done digesting that food. your situation now is looking pretty bleak. the water never really returns to the state it was on that first day as the bacteria are using up any extra oxygen just as fast as the remainder of the plant can produce. on top of that, you are slowly suffocating, you are weak from not really being able to even eat the nasty nutrient deplete food you ate yesterday, and you have have digested strings of plant matter hanging out your back end. you try moving around to several places in the tank, looking for better water. its useless, it all sucks. unfortunately, the god of your world sees you swimming around slowly and thinks that you are doing fine. to him, you must be healthy, so he keeps up what is obviously working.

later, he never fully understands why you were dead the next morning.

so, now everyone should be clear on why you would never be able to simply seal some fish up and have any positive results. now that that is clear, on to the second half of this incredibly long winded post...

Replicating Nature

the first mistake i see in almost every system that i have seen that supposedly recreates mother earth is that the lights go off at night. it is a rediculous notion that because we have a night, no light should reach a closed system for half of every day. let me dispell this myth: a closed system should ALWAYS have a light on it. this may not make sense at first, but think about it, when does the sun not shine on the earth? at night? nope, just shines on the other side. we are still connected to the side the sun shines on by the biosphere. if you were to completely replicate nature, you would need two tanks that can circulate water and maybe air between them and only light one at a time. you would never under any circumstances turn off both lights. well, you certainly could if you wanted too, but it would be nothing like earth, which is always bathed in sunlight.

the second mistake i often see is the assumption that a fish, provided with a plant that it can eat, will be able to live off of that plant. from time to time i still see bettas being sold with a bamboo shoot in its bowl with the idea that the bettaautolinker.com autolinking image will live happily off of the roots of the plant. its the same kind of mistake that uneducated pet owners make when they assume that feeding their turtles and bearded dragons lots and lots of lettuce will keep them healthy. if you were to replicate nature, you would have to create a system that can grow enough food to meet ALL of the nutritional requirements of its highest level organisms as well as maintain good gas and nitrogen levels. you would also have to find a way to safeguard your food populations from extinction. this means that at least some of each species would have to be protected from the animals that eat them so that they can produce a constant supply of food. without this, you will never be able to reach or maintain a balanced ecosystem.

the third mistake i see is the misconceptions about size. im talking about the living-thing-to-environmental-space-ratio(aint that a mouth full). to put the good ol reference(nature) into perspective, think about how big living things get on earth. then imagine the size of earth itself. put the two next to each other and you start to get my point. if you were to put even a tiny dwarf livebearer into a ten gallon tank it would be like expecting a creature half the size of the moon to live on earth. if you have ever tried sealing a container and saw what lived after a year, you would have noticed that the things that remain generaly need a microscope to examin. life does not die out completely as long as energy can go into the system(light), but nothing big lives for long.
this is what i meant by a sealed self sustaining closed system being quite simple to set up. the question is not about whether it is possible or not, but rather about the definition of success. personally, i find microscopic life to be just as fascinating as macroscopic. a closed system can certainly sustain microscopic life for seemingly indefinite periods of time, therefore a balanced closed system can be created, at least by definition. well, sort of... a truely closed system that actually lives would break the third law of thermodynamics... but thats beside the point.

now, after having said all this, i still believe that it is possible to create a sealed system that can support fish. it would just have to be very complex, with ways to circulate resources around it while maintaining a balance of the resources and life within it. i for one am going to continue to find ways of creating this system. my goal is to be able to create a system that can live for 20 or more years without any resource input except for light and heat energy. i believe i am a lot closer than most, and i believe it is possible, even though i am highly skeptical of even myself.

anyway, i hope you all enjoyed the long read and maybe walk away from it either inspired or enlightened. my hope is that someday someone will create what i view as the holy grail of all aquariums.

who knows, maybe it will even be you?
i have always been fascinated by sealed systems, sealed tanks. and, i still want to work on creating one. well, i want to set up another sealed tank, to keep some small fish in. i have done it before and met with some success, until i tore it down after several years and released the fish. but, i think i can do better than i did then.

right now, however, i am deployed. so, all i can do is think about the different life forms that i would want going into this tank, and how to set it up. everything from the lights, methods to move water, the animals, plants, algae, substrate, etc. all of it. for right now, its just a thought exercise. all input is welcome.

so, to start with, this is the goal: to create a tank that can keep a healthy population of fish indefinitely. in order to do this, i would need a way to control that fishes population. i would also need a bunch of critters that can cycle resources inside the tank. for every way that nutrients get locked away and sequestered, there would need to be a way to unlock them and put them back into circulation. for this reason, i am going to want a LOT of different critters in the tank. most of them probably small. i would probably even want a way to promote decomposers like fungus in certain areas.

i would also want a way to circulate water, but it would have be a method that didnt need electric chords going into the tank. so, solutions there would need to be driven by magnets from outside the tank. i dont think that would be too terribly difficult to create.

i am posting this thread to this forum because it presents a lot of difficult problems to overcome, and needs a lot of critical thinking to be successful. i do NOT want to simply put some pond mud and a plant or two into a jar and seal it up. i want to create a tank that has a LOT going on, complex enough in its ecology to be able to balance itself in a way so as to support a BREEDING population of fish. numbers of generations is going to be the measure of success.

i know there are a lot of very smart cookies that frequent these boards, so im putting this thread here to generate discussion and new ideas.

to start, my target fish is most likely going to be heterandria formosa or one of the elassoma species.

actually, now that i have been thinking about it for a bit, i think there may be a better solution for circulation than magnets... wireless power coils. basically, i would build some pancake coils below the tank and wirelessly transfer power into coils in the tank. hmm...
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"The ecologist is continually having to look at the aspects of nature with which he is unfamiliar and perforce must be an amateur for much of his working time.... professionals may carp at omissions, misconstructions, or even downright errors in these pages. perhaps ultimately they may forgive them for the sake of the overall vision that only the amateur, or the ecologist, blithely sets out to experience."G. Evelyn Hutchinson

Last edited by Darkblade48; 05-25-2018 at 04:15 AM. Reason: Please use the edit function for back to back posts to keep threads cleaner
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post #2 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-24-2018, 10:30 PM
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I saw this in target.com, basically the exact same idea, not sure if anyone ever bought one of this and if this actually work or not.

https://www.target.com/p/ecosphere-1...12#lnk=sametab
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post #3 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-24-2018, 11:15 PM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by corgifishkeeper View Post
I saw this in target.com, basically the exact same idea, not sure if anyone ever bought one of this and if this actually work or not.

https://www.target.com/p/ecosphere-1...12#lnk=sametab
wow, i had no idea target was selling those things.

i have known about them for years. they are pretty bad though... Opae ula are nearly bulletproof. you can toss them in a tank, do next to nothing, and they will breed for you. but, they rarely ever breed in the ecospheres. if they do breed, they typically only breed once and then thats it.

its a slow death for them, though they can survive for a very long time. they would actually make an excellent species to try hermetically sealed, but they need more than the ecospheres have in them.

if only there were a fresh water version...

"The ecologist is continually having to look at the aspects of nature with which he is unfamiliar and perforce must be an amateur for much of his working time.... professionals may carp at omissions, misconstructions, or even downright errors in these pages. perhaps ultimately they may forgive them for the sake of the overall vision that only the amateur, or the ecologist, blithely sets out to experience."G. Evelyn Hutchinson
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post #4 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 12:52 AM
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Is it still a closed system if you supply outside energy?

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post #5 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 02:21 AM
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Good to here from you B!
I will be following and thinking about this..
Is water movement really necessary ?

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post #6 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 08:34 AM Thread Starter
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Good to here from you B!
I will be following and thinking about this..
Is water movement really necessary ?
thanks! its good to be back.

as for moving water, it may not be necessary, but i think it will help. algae grows in different forms when water is flowing over it quickly.

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Is it still a closed system if you supply outside energy?
in the strictest sense, technically, no. but, by that definition, neither is the planet we live on.

"The ecologist is continually having to look at the aspects of nature with which he is unfamiliar and perforce must be an amateur for much of his working time.... professionals may carp at omissions, misconstructions, or even downright errors in these pages. perhaps ultimately they may forgive them for the sake of the overall vision that only the amateur, or the ecologist, blithely sets out to experience."G. Evelyn Hutchinson
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post #7 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 08:53 AM
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when does the sun not shine on the earth? at night? nope, just shines on the other side. we are still connected to the side the sun shines on by the biosphere.
Haha what?? Are you saying that when the sun is shining in China, it is somehow influencing my plants here in Canada??
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post #8 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 10:23 AM Thread Starter
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Haha what?? Are you saying that when the sun is shining in China, it is somehow influencing my plants here in Canada??
absolutely, 100%.

if the sun were not shining on china whenever the moon is out over canada, you probably wouldn't even be around to enjoy your plants at all.

think about it like this... if the sun stopped shining on the earth completely, how long would it take for the earth to run out of enough oxygen to support organisms that need it? this is exactly what happens when we turn the lights off in a sealed system. the oxygen levels start plummeting. let that go on long enough, and the organisms inside run out of enough oxygen to sustain life. they suffocate.

if we are going to emulate planet earth, then part of the system needs to be producing oxygen while the other parts are consuming oxygen. really though, just about everything that produces oxygen also consumes it, they just produce an excess. without light, everything would just consume oxygen without producing any. fortunately for us, the atmosphere is quite large, so we dont feel the immediate effects of our side of the planet going dark. this is also why any sealed tank would need a good amount of air space: all that air helps to stabilize the swings in gas levels.

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absolutely, 100%.

if the sun were not shining on china whenever the moon is out over canada, you probably wouldn't even be around to enjoy your plants at all.

think about it like this... if the sun stopped shining on the earth completely, how long would it take for the earth to run out of enough oxygen to support organisms that need it? this is exactly what happens when we turn the lights off in a sealed system. the oxygen levels start plummeting. let that go on long enough, and the organisms inside run out of enough oxygen to sustain life. they suffocate.

if we are going to emulate planet earth, then part of the system needs to be producing oxygen while the other parts are consuming oxygen. really though, just about everything that produces oxygen also consumes it, they just produce an excess. without light, everything would just consume oxygen without producing any. fortunately for us, the atmosphere is quite large, so we dont feel the immediate effects of our side of the planet going dark. this is also why any sealed tank would need a good amount of air space: all that air helps to stabilize the swings in gas levels.


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post #10 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 04:18 PM
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in the strictest sense, technically, no. but, by that definition, neither is the planet we live on.
I agree that our planet is not a closed system.

While you can define what is inside, don't you also have to account for its interactions with its surroundings? I think that is the hard part as you do not have as much control.
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Lol!


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ok... well, thank you for your incredibly constructive input.

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I agree that our planet is not a closed system.

While you can define what is inside, don't you also have to account for its interactions with its surroundings? I think that is the hard part as you do not have as much control.
yes, you would have to account for interactions with its surroundings. but, those interactions will be limited to energy from its surroundings. heat, light, electromagnetic radiation, etc.

its all part of what makes this such an attractive problem to me think about. lots of stuff to consider.

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post #12 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-25-2018, 08:48 PM
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I think the problem you're going to run into, assuming everything works at first, is controlling the fish population. You need an alpha predator, and you need it to be something that will reproduce for you, but will do so slowly enough to not overpopulate itself. The trouble is, any fish that's of a proper size to eat only tiny fish isn't an alpha predator, it's low on the food chain and therefore breeds fast.

What size are you thinking this would be?

Have you considered just leaving a light on part of the tank constantly, to avoid some of that oxygen swing?


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I think the problem you're going to run into, assuming everything works at first, is controlling the fish population. You need an alpha predator, and you need it to be something that will reproduce for you, but will do so slowly enough to not overpopulate itself. The trouble is, any fish that's of a proper size to eat only tiny fish isn't an alpha predator, it's low on the food chain and therefore breeds fast.

What size are you thinking this would be?

Have you considered just leaving a light on part of the tank constantly, to avoid some of that oxygen swing?
i plan on splitting the tank into two sides, with a mesh in between. the mesh will have to be fine enough to prevent fry from entering, but course enough to let food items like ostracods through. ill also probably have light shining on the fish side, which will also have algae. the idea is to create an area where the fish cannot get into, an internal refugium of sorts, to prevent them from wiping out the food populations.

as for a predator, i have been thinking about that too. the problem is that in my case, the fish WILL be the alpha predator, so they will have to be controlled in the same way that all alpha predators will be controlled: through starvation. now, that said, heterandria formosa are also generalists. they will eat some algae and some plant matter as well. if they do that, then they will likely all survive in a sickly form for quite a while.

since i would rather have a small healthy population of fish than a sickly large population of fish, ill probably use high powered UV cutting lasers to cull them, if i have to. not the greatest option, but adding more predators only kicks the starvation control higher up the food chain. environmental stress, even if artifical, is the only other way i can think of to control their population.

if you can think of another method, im all ears.
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post #14 of 21 (permalink) Old 05-26-2018, 01:06 PM
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I remember scientists at NASA did a closed-off, long-term stable environment with some crustaceans and some moss. They admitted that they could not go more diverse than this and create something stable. You are clearly very interested in ecology. There are many aspects of aquariums that need research, reproducing Earth in a glass box is futile. I encourage you to use your time and resources researching other aquarium topics... substrates, algae, plants .

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at some point, nearly every aquarist dreams about a tiny representation of a piece of the earth that is completely closed off from all environmental input…it is essentially creating a microcosm, a single window into the entire process that take place on earth


Leaving apart the issues of light, Moon’s gravity and Earth’s gravity you will still be left with a multitude of complex interactions needed to recycle whatever is necessary for life. Being so diverse these interactions require specific physical and chemical parameters, call them “micro niches “. Due to physical limitations these micro niches cannot exist in a small environment. To re-create such diverse and stable environments you would need … a planet.

So, we’ll not fix any nutrients, nor recycle a great deal of metals, we’ll also not have a lot of links in the food chain, nor will we provide allochthonous nutrients from the surrounding land … You can go down the limitation list until you are left with a bowl, water and a rock. That will be a stable, long lasting ecosystem. Not so many elements of Earth in there!

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ill probably use high powered UV cutting lasers to cull them, if i have to
So you want to create something like Earth but provide light 100% of the time and zap fish with lasers? My rock and water proposal would be more natural, just saying.

Also, why not let the fish starve? That is nature after all, it’s called bottom-up population control. Fish starve, get eaten, get parasites, large population wiped by disease… an earth-like microcosm needs to have all the parts of nature, not some sort of nirvana. I don’t want that in my aquarium and will certainly not strive to reproduce it.

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I remember scientists at NASA did a closed-off, long-term stable environment with some crustaceans and some moss. They admitted that they could not go more diverse than this and create something stable. You are clearly very interested in ecology. There are many aspects of aquariums that need research, reproducing Earth in a glass box is futile. I encourage you to use your time and resources researching other aquarium topics... substrates, algae, plants .
they may have admitted that they couldn't go more diverse, but that does not mean it would be impossible. as for learning about substrates and algae... i do. most of it is pretty boringly predictable. except for the algae, i love algae. i only learn interesting stuff when i try interesting things.


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Leaving apart the issues of light, Moon’s gravity and Earth’s gravity you will still be left with a multitude of complex interactions needed to recycle whatever is necessary for life. Being so diverse these interactions require specific physical and chemical parameters, call them “micro niches “. Due to physical limitations these micro niches cannot exist in a small environment. To re-create such diverse and stable environments you would need … a planet.
if it is impossible to cycle a nutrient or resource in an aquarium, then by all means, name them.

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So, we’ll not fix any nutrients, nor recycle a great deal of metals, we’ll also not have a lot of links in the food chain, nor will we provide allochthonous nutrients from the surrounding land … You can go down the limitation list until you are left with a bowl, water and a rock. That will be a stable, long lasting ecosystem. Not so many elements of Earth in there!
so, why is it assumed that we would need allochthonous materials in a fish tank? why wouldn't an autochonous system work? i have set plenty of tanks up that never recieved anything after day one outside of RO water to compensate for evaporation. they are actually MORE stable in the long run than the ones where i was slowly adding dissolved salts via tap water. those tanks eventually need a water change to go back to where they started. so far as the food chain goes, again, why is it assumed that there needs to be many links? regardless though, the system i would want to set up would have a lot of different organisms, multiple producers, multiple primary consumers, and one generalist to act as the top predator.

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So you want to create something like Earth but provide light 100% of the time and zap fish with lasers? My rock and water proposal would be more natural, just saying.

Also, why not let the fish starve? That is nature after all, it’s called bottom-up population control. Fish starve, get eaten, get parasites, large population wiped by disease… an earth-like microcosm needs to have all the parts of nature, not some sort of nirvana. I don’t want that in my aquarium and will certainly not strive to reproduce it.
im not trying to recreate a natural experience for an animal. im trying create a more complex system that is more or less stable. i have kept tanks that had breeding populations of Heterandria formosa in them that i never fed. they recieved only air, light, and RO water. one of those tanks lasted five years before i broke it down. they went through a population explosion that destabilized the tank until a few of the food items went extinct. for the next several years, the fish continued to live, becoming increasingly stunted. this time, i would much rather artificially control them until they pass that point. this time, i want to put controls in place to prevent that hurdle from happening. the goal is to have an ecosystem that supports a tiny fish with the resources that goes into it. i have no problem manipulating those resources, but i will not add more nor take any away.

if it werent for the things i have learned while attempting to set up tanks that sustain themselves, i wouldnt even be able to keep fish at all today. if it isnt your cup of tea, that is fine. i am still going to be thinking about it and im still going to try it.
rakali likes this.

"The ecologist is continually having to look at the aspects of nature with which he is unfamiliar and perforce must be an amateur for much of his working time.... professionals may carp at omissions, misconstructions, or even downright errors in these pages. perhaps ultimately they may forgive them for the sake of the overall vision that only the amateur, or the ecologist, blithely sets out to experience."G. Evelyn Hutchinson
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