The ocean teems with microscopic and almost microscopic life. Plankton is a collective term for any free-swimming or free-floating fish larvae, invertebrates, or algae smaller than a few millimeters in length. If the organism lives attached to a solid surface or crawls on or among the particles of the substrate, we call it a ben-thic organism. Both plankton and benthic organisms are important components of the ecosystem, providing food for many types of larger creatures, and carrying out the important function of reducing larger debris to smaller and smaller pieces easily decomposed by fungi and bacteria.

Sediment that accumulates in the refugium tank (a separate chamber that provides an opportunity for the reproduction of desirable microinvertebrates unhindered by predation) has been called magic mud. Like live sand and live rock, magic mud harbors abundant microfauna that contributes to aquarium waste management. For this reason, you should not be too scrupulous in trying to remove every spec of debris from your tank. Fine debris causes problems only when it inhibits water flow through some component of the filtration system, or when it is obviously providing a growing medium for slime algae or sulfide-producing bacteria. If you check on your tank every day, you will quickly notice slime algae growth. The odor of sulfide resembles that of rotten eggs, so you are unlikely to miss that, either. The simple remedy for both problems is to siphon out the pile of offending material. Leave the rest of the refugium and the main display tank alone. When you give your minireef the hurricane treatment described earlier, expect an unusually large amount of magic mud to gather in your refugium. Check about a week after the hurricane to see if any piles of it need to be siphoned out.


By giving careful thought to both the types of materials used and their placement, an aquarist can create an underwater scene that greatly resembles its natural counterpart. Choosing materials derived from the sea, such as coral sand and coral rock, provides an authentic backdrop for fish and invertebrates. Where living corals would be impractical, artificial ones have been developed that are difficult to distinguish from the real thing. The ultimate in authenticity can be achieved using live rock and live sand, in effect literally transferring small bits of the living reef into the aquarium tank. The aquarist can arrange any of these materials, using tricks borrowed from Japanese gardeners, to convey an illusion of space or intimacy, depending upon the requirements of a particular design.

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