Common Features of Captive Ecosystems

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Frakes (1994) compared each of the methods discussed above and concluded, "Several methods have been shown to be successful with certain organisms when properly applied." M artin Moe1 has pointed out to me that this is simply attributable to each approach providing an "adequate substitute" for the natural environment of the organisms that have been successfully maintained. The fact that these approaches all have drawbacks simply serves to demonstrate that man cannot create a perfect copy of a true ecosystem. But all types of captive ecosystems share common features. This universality of underlying principles applies not only to marine aquariums, but to freshwater aquariums and

1 Personal communication.

various types of artificial terrestrial habitats as well.

As the marine side of the aquarium hobby returns to its roots through its current fascination for aquariums dominated by invertebrates, undoubtedly among the earliest of marine tank subjects, so has the freshwater hobby seen a resurgence of interest in the oldest kind of aquarium, the planted freshwater tank.

Aquarists have long known that vascular plants, while actively growing, remove pollutants from aquarium water. This is, in fact, the oldest form of aquarium "filtration." Displays of tropical fish were created during the Victorian era, for example, in enormous planted aquariums, long before the advent of the kinds of equipment so familiar to aquarists today. Dutch-style planted freshwater aquariums may have inspired the aquascapes of Smit's Dutch-style minireefs, with their lush growths of seaweeds.

Fifteen years ago, when the fish display with dead coral was the only type of marine aquarium most people had ever seen, I wrote about, and published photographs of, high-biodiversity marine aquariums featuring photosynthetic invertebrates, macroalgae, and live rock (e.g., Tullock, 1982). In particular, I emphasized the role of photosynthesis in maintaining the aquarium ecosystem and recommended high light intensities, about four times what was typically being used at the time. I offered, however, no new technical aid (apart from shoplights that could be bought at any hardware store) and certainly nothing as flashy as the wet/dry filter that Smit was to write about later. As a consequence, little note was taken of my work.

The early history of invertebrate aquarium keeping, at least in its manifestations as a new segment of the aquarium industry, is a history of escalating attempts to find a technical solution (wet/dry filters, redox controllers) to every

Natural reef tank with an impressive vertical grouping of leather corals (Sarcophyton sp.) propagated by cutting.

Captive Air TankReef Aquarium Images

problem. In short, just as the marine business was driven by fish sales in the early days, in the last ten years it has been driven by sales of technology. And all the while, as Lee Eng in the '60s and I in the '80s had demonstrated, better results could be had more easily by facilitating, rather than attempting to constrain technically, the natural rhythms — chemical, physical, and biological — that evolve in the aquarium if suitable natural sources of microorganisms and small invertebrates are implanted. Lately, aquarists have welcomed this saner, more holistic approach.

To return to the question I posed earlier, why then does the general impression linger that marine aquarium keeping is such a difficult proposition? I suggest that too many would-be marine aquarists see only the artificial, big-fish, big-tank aquarium that many shops still offer as a "real" marine aquarium. Obtaining satisfaction from a system such as this can be both expensive and time-consuming. If a store sells "reef" systems, too often a costly, complicated array of equipment and technological aids, in the outmoded style of the '80s, is presented as the only way to achieve results. Sometimes, people are told to start with the "easier" undergravel-filter "beginner's" system for fish. Later, they may "graduate" to the supposedly greater challenge of the reef tank. The truth is, a natural marine aquarium with a diverse community of organisms can be the least difficult sort of marine aquarium to maintain.

Richly populated reef system with a Rainford s Goby, one of many species that do best in established, natural systems.

The history of marine aquarium keeping in the United those of others whom I have personally observed) main-

States can be divided into four general eras. An early, ex- tained with simple, natural methods and scarcely any perimental era preceded the commercial era, during which equipment. I'm not boasting, merely asserting that there better air-cargo service made marine fish widely accessible. is a better, simpler, and cheaper way. Dr. Paul Loiselle once

When the introduction of the wet/dry filter ushered in quipped to me at a conference that some marine aquar-

the technological era, the business climate (these were the Reagan years, remember) was ripe for an explosion in the industry. New products, new ideas, and many new aquarium stores sprang up.

With some hobbyists and businesses, the hightech era is still in full swing. An English hobbyist magazine recently featured an example of such a system (Dakin, 1995). The aquarium s owner,


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