Ecosystems

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Ecosystems

December 20, 2016 - 14:42

We always talk about our Koi ponds as ecosystems, where our Koi live in harmony with their environment.  In our home ponds, we are trying to reproduce the natural conditions that Koi have evolved for.  But what if you could keep fish and plants on a much smaller scale than a pond?  OK - I know this article isn't about Koi, but it is about a miniature ecosystem that has survived for over 25 years!  I was fascinated, and hope you enjoy this article as much as we here at K.O.I. did!  Read it by clicking on the title or picture...

The Jar that Stands the Test of Time
by Steven Hinshaw
From Modern Aquarium – Greater City Aquarium Society (NY), May 2014

 

It has been just over 18 months since our family moved from Sitka, Alaska to San Antonio, Texas to continue my wife’s career in the United States Air Force.  Wow!  What an adjustment, moving from an island community of 8,000 people with one small pet store to the vast expanse of the city of San Antonio, population 2 million, with many tropical fish shops!  At least the weather is consistent; in Sitka it rained every day, with the average temperature being 50°F; here in south Texas it never rains, and it’s hotter than the dickens every day!

Following my article in the June 2012 issue of Modern Aquarium, several members of the Greater City Aquarium Society have asked about that antique bottle aquarium.  Did it make the trip to Texas?  I am happy to let y’all know that the jar is doing well and thriving!  This was not the case when it first arrived.  A touch and go critical care situation that required some real patience, a year of rebounding, and a re-evaluation of the philosophy behind the tank had me wondering if it was going to survive at all.

The backstory:   After my wife’s grandmother passed away in Winterport, Maine in the late 1980s, we made arrangements with the family to live in her house.  In exchange for rent, we agreed to clean the place out and ready it for sale.  During one weekend project we unearthed an antique glass carboy from a corner of the musty old basement.  Since we didn’t have much money, we realized the opportunity that this jar could make a good fish tank.  Thus, it was set up with gravel from a donor tank, filled with water, and planted with a variety of Sagittaria from another friend.   Finally, from yet a third friend’s tank, we introduced snails by dropping them into the narrow mouth one by one.  That was 25 years ago!

Essentially the jar is maintenance free.  Every six months or so we may add a quarter cup of water, but that’s it!  It’s its own little biome in the Universe of Our Lives.  Despite our family pictures now being digital, we still have some old photo albums.  While sharing this “old fashioned” media with our kids it is quite fun to see this jar pop up in various pictures from our past.

The jar moved 300 miles to the west, where my wife attended medical school in Vermont.  There it remained for about five years, until being put into a cardboard box and wedged into the back f our Subaru Legacy wagon for the drive to Alaska some 5,000 miles away.  At each stop we would take it out into the sunshine for some much needed photosynthesis!  The plants did die back a bit, but survived.  It was never as robust as when it lived in the Lower 48—a rainy mild climate with predominately overcast skies were probably the influence—but it did produce a clone jar that has done very well and is still in Sitka.

Thirteen years later, we were faced with the problematic task of moving the jar to Texas.  We had sold just about everything, including our vehicles.  My wife had fl own ahead to establish her new job; the kids and I were to board the Alaska Marine Highway’s M/V Columbia ferry for a three day and three night sail to Seattle, Washington, from there catch Amtrak’s Coast Starlight down to Hollywood, and after getting saturated with movie stars, hop onto the midnight train east via the Texas Eagle to San Antonio, Texas.   The plan was to use a luggage hand truck to transport the jar through all these adventures, but the reality was that the jar was a liability and would BECOME the adventure instead of being a part of it!  Discussing the time frame with the movers, we determined that the household goods would arrive a few days after we did—about two weeks in transit.  And so began the careful packaging of the jar for the movers.

Worrying about the lack of light in the box, I rigged up several LED flashlights that had a lifespan of about five days.  I didn’t know if the wavelength was correct, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.   I taped the lights in strategic locations on the jar to maximize their illumination.  The jar was then placed into a robust cardboard box padded with linens and towels.  Again it worried me to seal the jar, creating a potentially anaerobic environment.  Alternatively, I couldn’t have water all over the place, so the top was plugged with a laboratory stopper and secured with rubber flashing tape like that used in window installations.  To protect the “neck” and “finish” of the jar protruding from the top of the box, a cap was made from four-inch thick foam insulation board and placed on top of the box.  This in turn was wrapped in heavy duty packing tape, and finally sealed with padded reinforced mover’s paper.   After being catalogued onto the manifest as “#007- Glass Jar” and labeled:  “GLASS JAR - THIS SIDE UP”, it was loaded into the container to be barged down to Seattle and then trucked to San Antonio.

Indeed, transporting the jar on our travels via boat, train, taxi, bus, and on foot would have been a nightmare, and would have prevented us from “gitting where we needed to git!”  Its fate was now up to the Aquarium Gods!  Counting my blessings, there were multiple times en route where I was glad not to have had it. 

Upon our arrival in San Antonio, my wife Leslie greeted us at the train station in the wee hours of the morning.  My initial impression of the place was that it was hot, despite the time of day!  The mood at least was cooled just a bit when she informed us that our goods were delayed.  Instead of trucking the container across the country, they had continued down the coast and were going through the Panama Canal!  It was unclear when the shipment would arrive.  “Bummer for the jar,” was my first thought.  Several weeks passed and still no goods.  Finally we were notified that a delivery had been scheduled, but because it was the height of the military transfer season, the crates had been holed up in a warehouse for the past two weeks and would have to remain there another week.  “Oh, that jar is doomed,” I lamented.

The goods did arrive a week later.  Wouldn’t you know, the second box off the truck was box #007, labeled “GLASS JAR - THIS SIDE UP”!

I quickly grabbed it from the burly mover and hustled it to the back yard.  It was over 100° in the shade that day, and I was concerned the jar would bake.  I also didn't want it to get sunburned, and so had to carefully acclimate it.  Outwardly, the box was in excellent condition, so the jar inside was probably fi ne.  It was the ecosystem I wondered about.

The box had been carefully deconstructed to expose the jar.  Upon unsealing the top, my nose was met by the sting of decomposition—a strong, putrid smell with tones of sulfur, and water the color of a smog-filled city.   With an involuntary grimace, I left it alone to breathe while I returned to help unload the goods.  All the while, my heart sank; maybe this was the end of the long-lived bottle aquarium.

Once things calmed down, I was able to objectively inspect the contents.  We still kick ourselves for not taking a water sample and analyzing the chemistry or biotics—the acidity must have been off the charts!   The original Vermont duckweed was alive—not surprising, as Vermont duckweed has to survive the severe and dark New England winter, and doesn’t mind foul water.  All that was left of the snails were their empty shells.  The Sagittaria had seen better days.  Giving us a glimmer of hope, there was still some life in one or two of the plants, which showed a hint of green in their blades.  What was going to be the saving grace were the yellow, anemic runners that had started from the bases of the plants and were now starving for light and less anoxic conditions.  If those plants could get through this bottleneck (pardon the pun) the jar would re-colonize.  Water changes were performed over the next several days.  Since we didn’t have any tubing, I stripped the wires from some electrical sheathing and used that instead tell you, we were so overwhelmed from moving that I didn’t think to go to a hardware store and buy tubing—I had needed something now, and that sheathing was the best thing around!

Unfortunately, San Antonio was experiencing record high temperatures that summer, and our house was not air-conditioned.  The jar baked in the Texas heat, and the plants succumbed to the climate.  The water was teaming with hundreds of wriggling mosquito larvae.  It was a mess!  At this point I had to re-evaluate what the jar meant.  It still had the original gravel.  The duckweed was still alive.  San Antonio water is very hard, at 15 to 20 grains per gallon, and thus store-bought distilled water had been used for the water changes to replace the original soft water.  Wait—the water wasn’t original!  I came to realize that the jar had always been dynamic, reflecting wherever we were living.  Even though the plant species had remained the same, they were of several generations, essentially replacing themselves.  The various critters had come and gone.  This was just another part of the jar’s story.  Then I remembered the clone jar in Sitka!  If I could get some of those plants into my jar, the genetic memory would be preserved—it would be the same again!  Seemed rational at the time.

My friend in Sitka agreed to send me some plants, but we were in a bit of a pickle.  It was too hot in Texas to send live things through the mail, and it was getting too cold in Alaska to ship as well.  Finally, after months of watching the weather on both ends, we found an opportunity and organized the shipment!  The timing was perfect, and the plants arrived in good shape, though the snails included did not.  Sagittaria is very brittle, and my friend had a bear of a time attempting to pull them out of his jar without damage!  Sagittaria is also very buoyant, and I had a heck of time securing them into the gravel!  Even cotton string tied to rocks didn’t work. 

After several months, the roots eventually took hold when twisted, plastic-coated wire shaped with a terminal loop, pressed and held the roots onto the substrate Cloning works!!!!  After a year, the Sagittaria have established themselves, while the duckweed has formed a thick green mat on the surface.  One of the local fish shops gave me a small rout of brown snails (exact same species as before), who endlessly clean the glass and plants.  Making the Texas contribution, fi sh have been added.   As a youth, I worked at a tropical fish store.  The owner would give me the stowaway bluefin killifish Lucania goodei (formerly, Chriòpeops goodei) that came in with the plant orders.  Wishing to reclaim that memory, I attempted to get some.  I was unsuccessful in getting healthy or live ones in the mail, the shops didn’t carry them, and I didn’t know where to collect them locally.   One of my correspondents, whom I met through the sale of a 1st Edition Exotic Aquarium Fishes, Phil Roe, owner of Roe’s Aquarium and Pet Co., in Rock Island, Illinois, suggested I try his favorite fish, Heterándria formòsa, the least killifish.  At my local fish shop, the owner was elated that someone would actually ask about them!  In the corner of the shop he had a small tank of them.  He said that they were hardy, and the best mosquito fish for outdoor fountains or ponds. Customers also liked them because they didn’t detract from the surroundings, being so small and dark in color.  I bought seven!  People call them mosquito fish because they are very good at controlling mosquito larvae, but as Dr. Innes points out in his description of the species, they are so-called because of their small size, not necessarily because of what they eat.  The school of this smallest livebearer has grown to just over a dozen, becoming the most sustained and successful vertebrate tenant.  I love them!  In fact, they are becoming my favorite fish!

What a pleasure to have an aquarium that “stands the test of time!”  I wonder what the next 25 years will bring for this well-traveled member of our family?

 


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