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We are going to plan and begin a very large project that will be interesting, will be beautiful, and will be fun. We are going to start learning about ecology, which is a study of the relationships between organisms and their natural environment.

Let's build a small eco-system, and watch it work. Do any of you have an aquarium at home? Isn't it beautiful? Did you help your parents put it together? It's hard to tell which is more fun; planning an aquarium, getting it set up, or watching it afterward. If we do it right, it will work well, and it won't be hard to keep it going properly.

Some kinds of fish will live in anything--even a large jar with gravel in the bottom could be an aquarium. Of course, it would have to have a wide top, so the fish could get enough oxygen. Also, in a simple aquarium of that type, we would be limited as to the kinds of fish that could live in it.

The best kind of aquarium is the kind you buy at the pet store. They come in several sizes and shapes, and the other equipment needed to have a perfect ecosystem can be
purchased along with the aquarium. Since we don't have a large amount of money for this project, and we don't have much space to set it up, we will buy a 20-gallon rectangular aquarium.

Many times, people buy aquaria (that is the plural of aquarium) and don't set them up properly, the fish die, and the people put the aquarium in the garage. A few years later, they decide to sell them for a small amount of money. Unfortunately, aquaria that are used briefly, then left empty, usually leak when they are filled again. It is best to buy a new one from the pet store. We will be very careful with it so it will last a long time, and many classes of students will be able to enjoy it.

When we carry it into the classroom, we will not carry it by the frame at the top, but will lift it from the bottom, where it is strongest. We'll think about it for awhile before we decide where to put it, because it can't be moved after it is filled.

We have to decide whether we want fish that do not need warm water, or the kind that are more delicate and need for the water to be a certain temperature. If we have an unheated aquarium, we can have mainly goldfish, mollies, and platys. If we heat the water and have a cover for the aquarium, we can have many different kinds of tropical fish. The cover helps to keep the temperature constant, and helps to keep the water from evaporating.

Another decision we have to make is whether to have a saltwater, or a fresh-water aquarium. The people at the pet store can advise us, but there are books that we can read to find out the differences. Generally, saltwater aquaria require more care, as we would have to be very careful about the chemical balance in the water. If it gets too salty, the fish die. If it isn't salty enough, the fish die. There is an instrument called a hydrometer (pronounced "high-DROM-mitter") that can be floated in the water that tells the salinity (how much salt) of the water. If it shows too much or too little salinity, either plain water or chemical has to be added. If it isn't done soon, the fish will die in a matter of hours. Further, at the pet store, the saltwater fish are more expensive than the freshwater fish. I think for the classroom, a freshwater aquarium will be best.

Since the classroom has a formica countertop, we don't have to worry about the surface where the aquarium will be. However, if we were going to put it on a nice table, we should have either a large tray or several layers of waxed paper under the aquarium to protect the surface of the table. Also, while the aquarium is being set up, it is a good idea to have towels around it to catch the drips. Of course, we have to place the aquarium near an electrical outlet, because we have to plug in the filter, the heater, and the light.

When we buy the aquarium, the people at the pet store will help us with the other items we need. Gravel is very important. They have many different colors of gravel, and they also have pebbles, which are pretty to have on top of the gravel. The bottom of the ocean is mainly "earth colors," which are many different shades of brown. We certainly would not find red sand or gravel on the bottom of the ocean. Or bright blue or green. If we want our aquarium to look natural (like nature made it), we will get the earth colors. Of course, it has to be washed before we put it into the aquarium, or it would make the water cloudy, and maybe even put something into the water that wouldn't be good for the fish. The amount of gravel we need depends partly on the type of filter we will have. There are also many kinds of ornaments you can buy for the aquarium. Unfortunately, they are places for debris to collect, and foul the water. For this same reason, we don't want to put big rocks in it. Of course, we can't have sea shells in the freshwater aquarium, because they dissolve slowly, and put lime into the water. This would kill our fish.

There are two main kinds of filters. One kind of filter is a little square plastic container that sits in the corner in the back of the aquarium. It has cotton in the bottom and charcoal in the top. The motor stirs the water, and brings it through the filter. This filter has to be removed and cleaned once in awhile. Further, the gravel has to be cleaned to get rid of the debris (pronounced "deh-BREE"), which is the aquarium garbage. This is done with a kind of vacuum cleaner, called a "dip tube" or "siphon." If you have this kind of filter, the gravel can be higher at one of the aquarium, and then the debris would go to the low end, and would be easier to siphon than if the gravel were level.

The other kind of filter is installed right on the bottom of the empty aquarium, and the gravel is poured on top of it. The under-sand filter does not have to be cleaned, and generally works better than the other kind. The motor which stirs the water and puts air into it, at the same time, draws debris down to the bottom of the aquarium, into the gravel. The debris sets up a bacterial action, which, if properly balanced, is good for the fish. With this filter, the gravel should be level throughout the aquarium, and should be about one and one-half inches deep. When you have an under-sand filter, the gravel needs to be siphoned, and also turned, but not often. I think this kind would be best for us.

We need, also, to decide upon the kind of motor we want for the filter. One kind sits behind or beside the aquarium and has little plastic tubes going from it to the large tubes which lead to the filter. Some of those motors make a lot of noise, and that can be very annoying. There are silent-running motors, which cost a little more money, but sometimes it is better to spend a little more. There are also motors called "power heads" that are inside the aquarium. They put more oxygen into the water than the regular kinds, and don't make noise, either, and cost about the same as the silent-running outside motors. That is probably the kind that we should get.

Now that we have our aquarium, and have installed the under-sand filter and the power head, have poured in the gravel, and have placed some pretty pebbles on top of the gravel, it is time to start putting in water.

We can use water from the faucet. If we live in a city or suburban area where water comes to us in pipes, rather than from our own well, our water is treated with chemicals to make it safe for drinking. If we have our own well, the water probably has minerals in it that are okay for us, but might not be good for the fish. Whether we have minerals or chemicals in our water, we will have to let the water stand somewhere for a few days, not in the aquarium , for the unsafe elements to evaporate. That usually is not practical, since 20 gallons of water requires a large container, and would be too heavy to move when it was time to put it into the aquarium. Instead, we can get a "water treatment" from the pet store to make the water safe for the fish. We're going to put a small plate into the aquarium, and gently pour the water onto it, rather than onto the gravel. Do you know why we'll do that? If we poured the water onto the gravel, it would make a ditch in the gravel, and it would make the water get cloudy. That would not be good. We'll just fill the aquarium half full, and put in some of the water treatment solution we got from the pet store. Also, we can put in the plants.

Plants are a very important part of the aquarium. They make it look pretty, they put oxygen into the water, they use carbon dioxide (which is exhaled by the fish), and they give the fish places to play and to hide. The debris in the aquarium is good fertilizer for the plants. There are many different kinds of plants that are good for aquarium, such as Anacharis, Ludwigia, Vallisneria, and sword plants. We can't just dig up some plants from our gardens, because most plants won't grow under the water. Water lillies and lotus, like we see in some ponds and streams require really cold, fresh, running water, and wouldn't grow in the aquarium, either. The pet store usually has one aquarium with nothing but aquarium plants in it, and we can just choose the ones we like. Most aquarium plants have very small, short roots, and long blades or stems, although there are a few that don't grow tall. Most of them are green, but some are reddish-brown, and it is nice to have some of each. Some have large, flat leaves, and some have lacy leaves. It is best to have a variety, as some kinds of fish like certain kinds of plants.

Having chosen the plants we liked, and having put about half the water into the aquarium, we will plant them in the aquarium. Just push aside some gravel, sit the roots of the plant onto the floor of the aquarium, and push the gravel back so that it is all around the plant, and holds it securely. Probably five plants are enough for our 20-gallon aquarium, one or two that are short and spread out, and three that are long, each with different shapes of leaves. We will arrange them so that they are not all in a row, but look like nature may have put them there. They need room to grow and spread out, and not to get tangled with the other plants. Also, the plants that are in line with the power head will bend with the stream of air coming from the motor, so we should put a low-growing plant closest to it, then a long one with sturdy blades or leaves that won't get torn up by the draft the power head makes.

The next thing to install is the heater. Usually it is a little glass tube with a coil inside, that hangs inside the back of the aquarium and has an electric cord that plugs into the socket. Most aquarium heaters do not have thermostats (a gadget that turns the heater on and off when certain low or high temperatures are reached). There is a sticker that we can put on the outside of the side of the aquarium, near the back, that is actually a thermometer. (All a thermometer does is to measure heat and cold, and tell us what the temperature is.) The different-colored area shows us what temperature the water is. We turn the aquarium heater on, just a little, and in a few hours, look at the thermometer. For tropical fish like we will have, the water should be between 73o and 78o. They can live in water temperatures of 70o to 85o, but not for very long, and they don't feel well in extreme temperatures. If the water gets too warm, we'll turn down the heater; if it doesn't get warm enough, we'll turn it up. Only a little, tiny bit, because a large turn would make the heater stay on too long, or stay off too long.

Cool-water aquaria don't have to have heaters, unless the winters are too cold for the fish. The cool-water aquarium should be between 65o and 70o, although the fish can live in water as cool as 50o or as warm as 75o. If the weather is very warm in summer, the filter aerator will cool the water.

If we take good care of our aquarium, the water won't need to be changed hardly ever. If something happens (like if the fish get a disease) to make it necessary to change the water, we do it carefully. First, we dip out some of the water and put it into another container. Then, with our nylon net, we catch the fish, and quickly transfer them to the water we dipped out. After the fish are all out, we remove the plants and the rest of the water. The gravel has to be washed again, of course, and the plants need to be rinsed, gently, in fresh water. We need to use our plastic scouring pad to clean the sides of the aquarium, then rinse the sides by wiping several times with a cloth that was dipped into fresh water.

The last step, of course, is to rebuild the aquarium just like we did the first time. We can't add the fish right away, as the water temperature has to get to the correct point, and the chemical we used to treat the water has to be thoroughly distributed by the filter. Since the eco- system we built with the first fish we had has now been destroyed, some of our fish might not survive the change of water. This is the main reason that we don't want to change the water unless some condition makes it certain that the fish will die if we don't change it.

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