How to Set Up a Nano-Reef Tank
A New World
Fishkeeping has changed in the last 50 years. I still remember that metal-framed glass guppy tank that was accidentally smashed by my brother and myself during horseplay. About 30 years ago, I set up my first saltwater fish tank decorated with coral rock and gravel. A few inverts such as anemones and crabs were included, although they didn't do as well as a clownfish that lived for 6 years.
These days saltwater fishkeeping is a whole new art thanks to more information on the nitrogen cycle, flow rates, additives, and lighting needs, especially for sedentary invertebrates like sea anemones and soft corals. A few years ago, it was suggested that saltwater tanks include at least 20–30 gallons of water, but with more knowledge concerning reef maintenance and greater expense in reef set up and upkeep, articles and publications have been coming out on how to maintain nano-reefs, or reef tanks of 10–20 gallons or less.
Beginning Steps for Setting Up a Nano Reef
My first step last Friday was to purchase an 8-gallon Aqueon Evolve plastic tank with included LED light and hidden filter. I also purchased salt mix for 10 gallons (Instant Ocean, the same brand I used 30 years ago for a fish only tank) and some CaribSea Arag-alive live sand with small enough grains to allow creatures to easily burrow.
The proper amount of the salt was placed in the tank with enough distilled water to bring the water level within about 1" off the top (in an estimated 1 cup salt per 2.2 gallons of water). A sealed plastic bag of distilled water was also placed in the tank to displace enough water to leave space for later insertion of the live sand and rock. The filter was then run to mix the salt. This took about a day. Then the sand was added, which clouded the water considerably and released a few small swimming crustaceans about the size of daphnia.
A day or so later, I added some live rock and rock rubble in a pile to provide cover for later creatures and to help seed the tank with beneficial bacteria. This rubble contained a few tiny filter feeders which opened their tentacles that evening. Parts were also covered with red coralline algae. The pile, which consisted of 2 baseball-sized pieces of rock plus rubble, was about 4.5 inches tall by 5 inches in diameter. The tank was maintained at room temperature in my fish room (75–80 degrees Fahrenheit).
Adding Bigger Creatures
Five days after the addition of the live rock, I checked various water parameters and took a sample to the fish store to have it checked. Our results agreed. Nitrite and ammonia close to zero, nitrate less than 5 ppm, s.g. 1.0235, and pH 7.8. The last measurement seemed kind of low, possibly due to the live sand, but we decided to add some critters anyway. I picked out 2 blue legged hermit crabs and 2 red head gobies, the latter possibly a pair, based on differences in size. The crabs and gobies were separately bagged and when I got them home, I acclimated them by floating the bags in the tank and adding some tank water to the bags bit by bit over half an hour. I initially removed some of the bag water to allow more space for tank water. After 4 or 5 tank water additions, the bags were upended into the tank. Note that I only waited 5 days for creature addition, hoping that the live sand and rock had sufficient bacteria to process any nitrogenous wastes.
Performing a First Water Change in a New Aquarium Setup
By now, I have had several days to watch the two gobies and 2 hermits. The hermits are active day and night, but more so at night. The gobies are constantly active by day and have the coolest way of turning their heads from side to side. There is a little chasing, but no real conflict between the gobies.
Today I noticed that one of the hermits has traded his/her smooth dark shell (possibly a Cerith shell) for a white knobby shell that I didn't even know was in the tank (must have been hidden in live rock or rubble-maybe a vase shell (Vasum). Also I siphoned out 1 gallon of water into a gallon distilled water jug and poured in some premixed water (marine salt + RO water from the fish store) from a 2.5 gallon distilled water jug.
Actually, I measured the new water by using it to fill an empty gallon jug first. So far I have avoided having to get a 5-gallon bucket, the 2.5 gal. jug being the largest I have. I've also been daily feeding the fish and crabs. Food has included cyclopeeze, decapsulated brine shrimp eggs, and chopped frozen mysis shrimp. The gobies go after all 3, and hopefully, the crabs are scavenging leftovers, although I have been careful to minimize the amount of food added. I have also turned off the filter for a few minutes to allow the food to be eaten before it is pulled into the filter.
I guess in a few days, or so I can recheck water parameters and make sure that they are staying stable.
Checking the Tank over the Course of a Week
Noticed what looked like a dead hermit crab today (4/3), but it was only a shed carapace. Both hermits are still moving around. Also tried gobies on sinking cichlid pellets (medium size). They grabbed them hut spit out (too large and hard). Hopefully they will eat them later!
On 4/5, dropped by the fish store to get extra filter inserts for the Aqueon tank. Also checked on possibly getting some zooanthids to add to the nano. pH is still about 7.6 and they suggested I bring in water sample on 4/7 to see if I need to add a buffer. Also suggested addition of African Rift Lake salts to help buffer the tank. I added 1/8 tsp., checked a few hours later and added another 1/8. Checked Saturday, and no great pH increase, so I added another 1/4 tsp. of Rift lake salts. I do have some liquid rift lake buffer, but they said not to use that yet. Also have discovered a sea anemone type creature with a tentacle spread of about 1/4 inch at the base of one rock and the second hermit crab has shed. Hopefully tomorrow (4/7) I can get some buffering done, have a photo of the anemone checked to make sure it isn't the dread Aiptasia glass anemone, and maybe add a zooanthid if water is OK.
Achieving the Proper pH and Specific Gravity
Dropped by the lfs (local fish store) today and found that pH is OK (8.2, my pH strips are not correct) but specific gravity is around 1.020 and I am shooting for 1.024-5. They suggested water changes until I get there. I corrected the new water to 1.027 and then added 1 gallon to the tank. Tank is still around 1.020. I will need some additional water changes, so I mixed up 2 more gallons with RO water and will check it tomorrow. The anemone I saw was ID'd as a clove polyp. They can spread, but not as badly as Aiptasia. It is a type of soft coral related to pulsating Xenia.
Adding More Sessile Invertebrates
After getting pH and specific gravity right where I wanted them and having ammonia and nitrite check out as 0, I was able to add a couple sessile invertebrates. These consisted of a zoanthid or colonial anemone colony containing green and brown tentacled polyps with orange to red centers and a reddish purple encrusted piece of coral skeleton that eventually (a couple days) bloomed into green star polyps, with ghostly greenish tentacles containing photosynthetic zooxanthellae.
All did OK for a week and then I felt able to add some cylindrical stemmed caulerpa algae (said to be relatively slow growing) and a single red mushroom polyp. The former went into a back corner of the tank and then I tried dropping the latter into a crevice in the rocks, but it soon contracted and sank out of sight, so I placed it on the sand against a dead coral branch. Another few days saw the appearance of some red and some green bubble algae, forms that can overgrow a tank.
Red Bubble Algae
How to Deal With Red Slime Algae
In addition to getting red bubble algae, the dread red slime algae also appeared on rocks and sand. Each day I scraped it off and it was back the next day, threatening my button polyps (zoanthids). Finally, I tried some erythromycin provided by my lfs (this algae is actually a bacterium). Within 2 days the red slime was gone. However, my zoanthid colony had closed up and would not open. I attempted to move it to a higher spot in the tank and 2 or 3 days later, 3 or 4 polyps of the approx. 20 opened.
A check of the online info turned up a bunch of possible problems with these button polyps. Apparently, they are sturdy in the long term but sensitive in the short term to aluminum, handling, fish nibbling, parasitic snails and sea slugs, and changes in water parameters. In one case, an aquarist got his polyps to open just by changing the specific gravity by .001 unit. In other cases, they seem to have been closed for weeks or months and then opened up and reached good condition again.
To confuse the matter further, I had added a Poly-Filter pad to the tank a couple days after the medication. I've just decided to avoid any changes to the tank for awhile and see if the polyps come around. They already (May 3) are partly open (about half of them for part of the day). Maybe they just need to adapt!
My mushroom polyp, by the way, has not divided yet but opens up quite well. There are now 5 clove polyps connected to each other by runners (stolons) and the star polyps are doing well. A strange little (2-3 mm high) transparent vase shaped object has appeared on the rocks with a couple of filaments sprouting from the top. It might be a small tunicate. A tuft of filamentous red algae the diameter of a dime is also growing daily.
How to Remove Bubble Algae
I found an online instruction on how to remove extra bubble algae with a scalpel and rigid siphon tube to avoid the spread of spores from broken bubbles. Tried this a little, but the red bubbles are not really a problem yet.
I'll try to get a picture of the partially open zoanthids.
An Update on the Condition of My Nano Reef
Thanks to all for your comments. FYI, I checked pH, nitrate, nitrite, alkalinity, s.g., and ammonia before adding any creatures. The live rock was from a local shop that has a large recirculating system. My understanding was that live rock/live sand could speed up the maturation process. Also had shop check above parameters before additions. The chemicals in pic 1 are a box of Instant Ocean to the right and a bottle of dawn detergent to the left which is actually on the back of a sink separate from the tank "stand."
To update you on the survival of original critters, one original zoanthid colony is doing well, mushroom polyps doing well, both gobies, astrea snail and both octocoral polyps doing well. Clove polyps have spread to 10 polyps. The other original zoanthid only has about 1 out of 6 or 8 polyps open, but I treated this one with nitrofurazone (possible "zoa pox"?) per some online advice and all still look alive , just not yet opening.
Have also added 2 more larger pieces of live rock (btw I understood earlier pieces were cured.), a few more mushrooms, another 2 zoanthid small colonies, and a Kenya tree coral. Parameters all still look OK, with ammonia 0, nitrite 0, and nitrate about 10 ppm. The filter insert does have carbon in it and I am using Poly-Filter material also, along with live rock rubble in filter. My big concern now is that new piece of rock has several small clams as integral part of rock. I could break off the outer valve and kill/clean out creature or just leave as is and hope that they do OK. I am feeding commercial phytoplankton every few days.
I appreciate all the input. This is a learning experience for me and hopefully also for you. I have been depending on the advice of the local shop (have been a customer for 50+ years) and a number of books including:
- The Nano-Reef Handbook by Brightwell
- Mini-Aquariums by Jay Hemdal
- Corals by Tullock
- a couple other coral books from the library.
Hopefully, I haven't added creatures too quickly. Everything I read says that zoanthids are easy to keep, but of the 4 colonies I have, only 2 have been trouble free. I have tried to stay with the ones that appear to be Zoanthus sp. since I understood the other genera tend to secrete palytoxin.
When to Add Livestock to a Nano Reef
Other than just waiting for a standard time, as long as water parameters are OK, what would be the best way to know when to begin adding livestock to a nano-reef? Guess I added stuff so early because I heard that live rock was an effective biofilter and was told that use of the live rock and sand with already established bacteria would naturally shorten the start up time.
Understanding Chemistry and Biology
I am retired, so have a lot of time to check water parameters. Also, I have a biology degree and worked for 5 years in industrial chemistry. Obviously, the biology and chem experience aren't necessary, anyone can use a test kit, but it may help me a little. However, over the years I have run into a lot of folks who were more successful than I was at keeping and breeding freshwater fish who worked at a wide variety of jobs. Just don't want to make the set up look too easy.
The Condition of My Nano Reef After 3 Months
Three months after beginning the set up, I feel like I have learned a lot, but still have far to go. Mostly I need to be patient and let things develop in the tank (less of a control freak). Button polyps are reproducing in a couple of spots, mushrooms are doing a bit better (I reduced light from 14 hours per day to 11 based on suggestion from my local fish store to get mushrooms to open more), gobies and Astrea snail are still OK, and I currently have 3 blue legged hermits and a few more spare empty shells.
Recently a couple of gastropods (snails) have shown up. Both appear at night. One looks spiny, but that is only his exposed mantle. I am betting it is some type of cowry, the shell once used as money by Pacific islanders. The other has a rather flat mahogany colored shell and a relatively large body "busting" out of the shell. Each of these is only about 3/8 inch long. A gammarus or "scud" type crustacean is also appearing occasionally day or night. Here is a pic of the tank with some of the life labeled. I will ID the labels next.
A Key to the Above Picture
Here are the animal names for the various labels above:
- Kenya tree coral
- Button polyps
- Button polyps
- Hermit crab
- Button polyps
- Mushroom polyp
- Star polyps
- Mushroom polyp
- Mushroom polyp
- Clove type polyps
- Button polyps
- Clam (oyster?)
- Codium intricatum algae (dead man's fingers)
- Spirorbic worms
- Button polyps
Not shown: astrea snail, asterina starfish, red face gobies (2), 2 more blue legged hermits, unknown sp. bristleworms.
The Condition of My Nano Reef After 4 Months
At this point, red slime algae is not at all visible. I have 3 small shelled snails called Stomatella snails, two with a brown shell and one with a red shell. They appear to be algae eaters. I have also acquired a couple of detritus eating tiny serpent stars with a total arm spread about as big as my small fingernail.
At a relatively new local saltwater store, I found several colors of Ricordia, a mushroom polyp with tentacles covering the disk. These are said to survive photosynthetically, but also will take small food items, like small Mysis shrimp. I purchased two of these, one red and one yellow. Upon putting them into my tank, the yellow one became iridescent green and the red one became blue.
These colors do not appear to be a difference in lighting, they remain under different colored light. I don't know whether light quality or quantity or even water quality is responsible for the color change. They seem to be doing OK, except they are attached only to small pieces of gravel, and current in the tank was pushing one into the other which them moved toward a pink mushroom polyp and caused it to contract. I solved this problem by putting the first Ricordia into a seashell so it wouldn't be moved by the current.
I have also noticed a tiny gastropod which looks like a chiton. The color is kind of a red plaid. The largest bristleworm I have seen is about 2 inches long, with several in the tank. A close look at the front glass also reveals some tiny pods about the size of a daphnia. All these tiny inverts seem to be more obvious/active at night when a flashlight is used to illuminate the tank, but occasionally one is visible during the day.
The accompanying photo shows the tank as it is now, with the Ricordia at the lower right front.
The Condition of My Nano Reef After 9 Months
I have now reached the point where water quality and water change schedule is pretty stable. The current puzzle is where and how to place additional inverts so they don't negatively affect one another. I've moved the Kenya tree coral to the rear left which seems to have wiped out the green zoanthids in that area. I also added a mushroom leather coral as a possible hideout for an orange and white anemone shrimp (Periclimenes).
Unfortunately, the shrimp was killed after a couple of days by my red-headed gobies, one of which has taken up residence in an empty snail shell. I also saw one of the gobies kill a blue legged hermit crab which was out of its shell and trying to steal the shell of another. Several Ricordia and Rhodactis hairy mushroom polyps have been added and they seem to be the hardiest things I have.
Some of my zoanthids are also having trouble with debris settling among them followed by algal growth. I have added a small (150–200 gallons per hour) Rio+ 600 pump in the tank to increase current and keep the zoanthids clean. Also added a branched candy or trumpet coral (Caulastrea) which I accidentally split when operating in the tank. I used scissors to complete the split and placed the smaller frag elsewhere in the rockwork.
Several zoanthid colonies have been attached to the live rock with superglue gel (Loctite brand) or epoxy made by Instant Ocean. The former tends to dry white in seawater and is somewhat effective with gluing items to a flat surface. The epoxy works best to fill in around a frag that is placed in a hole or cavity. The pic below is a Palythoa type zoanthid that I tried to add, but it caused me to have an allergic reaction, so I returned it to the shop.
Here is the tank as it was before adding the new pump, with candy coral in upper right and mushroom leather coral in upper left.
Necessary Maintenance Tools
Here is a photo of most of the tools I use to weed and groom the nano-reef. That's a lot of stuff for an 8-gallon tank! Below is the key to the items and what they are used for:
- Angled scissors for trimming algae.
- Slotted spoon for picking up large items.
- Angled forceps for grabbing items in the shadow of a rock.
- Planting tool for pushing stuff into gravel (plastic scraper not used on acrylic).
- Disposable pipettes for dropping food on corals.
- Long extendable pipette, same use.
- Grilling grabbers for picking up large stuff.
- Algae sponge for acrylic tank (some are glass only).
- Baster for introducing food.
- Paintbrush for algae removal.
- Chopsticks for stirring gravel and algae removal in tight spots.
- Adjustable cutter/grabber designed for aquarium plant use.
- Large reptile feeding forceps, probably the most useful tool for grabbing, nudging into place, etc.
I have also used other size paint brushes depending on the algae removal site, as well as tried several tweezer type forceps, but the latter tend to rust, even if rinsed and dried. The variety of tools is needed because I am required to work around a lot of inverts and live rock in the tank without knocking any over or damaging them.
Questions & Answers
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