Teach Outside
Resources and inspiration for current and aspiring outdoor educators and those interested in a natural learning environment.

Self-Contained Aquatic Ecosystems


Self-Contained Aquatic Ecosystems

I was asked to help with a shrimp raising protocol for BioCurious and to possibly teach some classes in building self-contained aquatic ecosystems housing shrimp. One goal is to simplify the procedure for creating the ecosystems. Another is to create an Animal Use Protocol for the shrimp. Additionally, the shrimp prices can add up, so I'd like to find a way to start a colony to use for future classes.


I purchased some supplies and started the aquarium. This evening I mixed some bright orange aquarium gravel with previously rinsed and dried activated carbon for Halloween colors. I put them in a previously washed Crystal Head vodka bottle with a small amount of Arrowhead spring water. Some of the carbon chips are floating on the water's surface. I tried swirling the water, and squirting water at the rocks with a pipette and am now resolved to wait 'til morning to see if they've sunk. A ghost shrimp is residing in a plastic bag with a floating aquatic plant for the night.


Air content and/or surface tension trumped the weight of carbon today and a quantity was still floating on top of the water this morning. I still couldn't push or twirl it down, so I ended up filling the container with more spring water and letting the rocks flow out the top into the sink and took some of them out with my finger as well. In the future, I think I should start with soaked activated carbon first, rather than the rinsed, dried and stored materials I used yesterday. I started with a small amount of purchased spring water as well.


  Container on hand containing rinsed, dried activated carbon from an aquarium supply store.


I wanted to make my first enclosed ecosystem Halloween based, since it will be Halloween soon and it's my favorite holiday! I am a big fan of activated carbon for its cleaning properties, plus it's my favorite color: black. I purchased bright orange aquarium rocks from Tropical Fish World.


I've raised tadpoles in purchased spring water before, so I was sure it would work for the enclosed ecosystem. Spring water contains essential minerals and eliminates the problems that treated municipal water has, eliminating the need for chlorine or chloramine neutralizers. I got this for $2.09 at a gas station.


A Crystal Head vodka bottle is perfect for a Halloween themed ecosystem!


I picked this plant because it looked like it was sprouting a flower.


There's the ghost shrimp!

The shrimp, plants, and activated carbon are all from Tropical Fish World as well. I also added three small shells for interest and for the calcium carbonate they would add to the water. A floating plant is also included and I was sure to get some duckweed when I fished it out at the store (I've been a customer there for about 18 years and have previously rented an apartment behind the place and felt it was okay to dig in myself!). I hope the plants and the water they were sold in provide enough food for the filter-feeding shrimp. I also noticed that the ghost shrimp tends to be on the bottom so I wanted to see how it would behave with lots of vertical options included in its space.

My next part of the project is to figure out how to breed some shrimp for a classroom of people to make their own ecosystems. I think it would be cost-effective and fun to raise them. Also, living animals aren't available year-round, and population crashes could result in not enough animals being available for a class. I got a sample list of shrimp that were available this week and their prices each so that I could research different kinds for the project:

Black Diamond, $5.99 (needs experienced keepers)

Crystal Red, $5.99

Orange Bee, $5.99

Blue Tiger Bee, $8.99 (wild caught from China)

Chameleon, $8.99

Red Skunk, $6.99

Singapore, $8.99 (4")

White Backed, $3.99

Cherry Red, $2.99 (hardiest)

Ghost (difficult to breed?)

The price of ghost shrimp was great: $0.99. Regardless, shrimp need to be ordered between 1:00 and 4:00 on a Monday for delivery on Tuesday, as they are not kept in any quantity in the store.

After a tiny amount of research, it looks like red cherry shrimp are a great way to start. They breed readily, are omnivorous, non-aggressive, and can tolerate a wider variety of temperature and pH than other hobby shrimp. They're the cheapest on the special list above, too. Here's a great site I found called PlanetInverts.


The shrimp was found dead this morning. I am considering three most likely factors:

-Not enough food.

-Too much trauma from having been left in the transport bag its first night at home.

-Ghost shrimp die-off, found to be very common in my internet research the other day. Ghost shrimp are most commonly sold for bait and are not well-handled, resulting in very common immediate die-offs.


On Monday I called to place my shrimp order of one cherry red shrimp and it turned out there was one in stock. I did three spring water changes in the ecosystem, removing the dead ghost shrimp. I put the new shrimp in with some of the water it came with. On Tuesday, the shrimp had molted. Today the shrimp is doing well and can be found using its entire aquatic environment. The price was more than I had expected, $6.54 in total, but I realized the owner had told me they are much smaller when they first arrive and that he had this shrimp and the ghost shrimp for a couple of months, which also rules out the ghost shrimp die-off possibility.


The cherry shrimp died couple months ago and the plants shortly thereafter. It had been doing a good job eating the dead plant material. I have kept the biosphere going, and a little plantain is growing up from the roots in the gravel.


By now this ecosystem has been long gone. I had it set outside for a long time and a bit of algae had grown inside. Eventually I dumped the contents out of the vessel and recycled it.

Lab notebook by Heather Taylor, teachoutside@gmail.com. You are welcome to share all materials with credit to her.