Introduction: How to Make a Closed Aquatic Ecosystem

Picture of How to Make a Closed Aquatic Ecosystem

Do you want to create a self-sustaining aquatic ecosystem that will teach future generations about marine life and the environment around us?

Join us in creating an aquatic ecosystem in a half a gallon jar with a glass lid home for 3 Japanese Algae Shrimps with 2 Anacharis. This is an excellent project for school-aged children.

A closed ecological system will stay alive on its own without any outside input. The shrimp eat algae, and the algae and aquatic plants use the shrimps’ waste as food. Starting off with pond water is a great way to ensure that there will be ample algae and other beneficial microscopic organisms. Though it is not required for this project, the ecosystem will do better with a ventilation hole. This allows gas exchange with the outside environment. With proper ventilation, your ecosystem could live for a decade or longer!

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

Picture of  Gather Your Materials
  • Sealable Glass Jar with a rust-proof lid
  • Aquarium Gravel or Sand
  • Fresh Pond Water (or Algae pads if pond water is unavailable)
  • Leafy Plants for breeding and shelter. Some varieties popular with shrimp, found in local pet stores, include: Anacharis, Java Moss, Java Fern, Dwarf Anubias
  • Shrimp and/or snails. Ghost Shrimp, Cherry Shrimp, and Japanese Algae-eater make good choices.
  • Small aquarium net
  • Optional: moss ball, helps with breeding, provide additional shelter and trap phosphate in addition and/or substitute aquatic plants.
  • Power Drill
  • Glass drill bit
  • Eye protection

Note: If you don’t have access to pond water, use tap water instead and prepare the jar at least a day in advance to allow the water treatment to be completed. Shrimp need the algae from either the pond water or algae pads for nutrition before the plants produce their own.

Step 2: Drill Hole in Lid of Jar for Proper Aeration

Picture of Drill Hole in Lid of Jar for Proper Aeration

CAUTION: Drilling through glass can be dangerous. Only an adult should use the drill. Use a glass drill bit and proper eye protection.

Step 3: Wash Jar

Picture of Wash Jar

Step 4: Put 1 to 2 Inches of Gravel in the Bottom of the Jar, Enough to Anchor Your Plants.

Picture of  Put 1 to 2 Inches of Gravel in the Bottom of the Jar, Enough to Anchor Your Plants.

Step 5: Collect Fresh Pond Water

Picture of  Collect Fresh Pond Water

Step 6: Fill Jar Halfway With Pond Water

Picture of Fill Jar Halfway With Pond Water

NOTE: If you do not have pond water, use filtered or tap water and 1 or 2 algae pads depending on size of jar. Let sit uncovered for 24 hours to allow chlorine to evaporate.

Step 7: Float Bag With Shrimp And/or Snails in Jar for 15 to 30 Minutes.

Picture of Float Bag With Shrimp And/or Snails in Jar for 15 to 30 Minutes.

This allows the temperature in the bag to equalize with water temperature in the jar, minimizing stress on the shrimp with a sudden change in temperature.

Step 8: Anchor Plants in Gravel

Picture of Anchor Plants in Gravel

Step 9: Using the Net, Scoop the Shrimp Out of the Bag and Transfer Them to the Jar.

Picture of Using the Net, Scoop the Shrimp Out of the Bag and Transfer Them to the Jar.

Step 10: Fill to About a Half-inch From the Top With Pond Water.

Picture of Fill to About a Half-inch From the Top With Pond Water.

Do not leave too much airspace or you could get white deposits on the inside of the jar.

Step 11: Enjoy Your Ecosystem!

Picture of Enjoy Your Ecosystem!

Keep indoors in indirect sunlight at room temperature and your ecosystem should last for several years.

NOTE: Keep out of direct sunlight to avoid algae overgrowth. You do not need to feed the shrimp since they eat the algae. It is unlikely that you will need to add water if you keep your aquatic indoors away from direct sunlight.

If you find algae overgrowth, try adding another shrimp or a few snails. In time, the ecosystem will come into a balanced state where the wastes of one organism are used as food by another organism. This is an excellent way to show children how our larger ecosystem recycles nutrients, with plants converting the carbon dioxide that we exhale into oxygen, and bacteria turning our wastes into soil nutrients for future generations of plants. Humans and animals, in turn, inhale oxygen and eat plants, taking those nutrients back into our tissues. It is quite beautiful how so much life can thrive by using the same molecules over and over again.


chrysmcvay (author)2017-07-25

Does the container have to be glass?

CarmelH4 (author)2017-06-13

Hello! I know this is a bit late, but do you know what would happen if you didn't make an air hole?? Thanks :)

marvic2409 (author)2016-07-30

My shrimp died one day after i put them in i followed all the instructions

marvic2409 (author)2016-07-30

My shrimp died why?

CaitlinW1 (author)2015-04-24

This looks like an amazing project unfortunately leaving tap water out for 24hrs doesn't get rid of harsh metals and other chemicals in the tap water, I would suggest getting a water conditioner and filter from a pet store (I remember seeing a miniature filter for under $3 in the featured section here on instructables that would be perfect for this ecosystem)

HatM1 (author)CaitlinW12016-04-10

The idea of an ecosystem is not to need a filter. Start with balanced chemic free water or pond water, and get small snails or shrimp to eat the muck. The concept of the experiment is to sustain an ecosystem without the use of outside sources. Which means it produces its own oxygen, filtration, etc in a totally sealed environment.

OrginalCanadian (author)HatM12016-05-03

However filtering the tap water of metals added artificially (intentionally or unintentionally) is no different than just using pond water.

He is not saying filter natural water but filter artificial water.

RosalynC2 (author)2016-04-18

It looks amazing and easy to do. Can't wait to give it a try. Can I use water from a creek?

mgoodman8 (author)2016-02-08

I built this and followed the directions exactly. I got a 3 quart jar (similar in shape to the one you used) I drilled a hole in the top, I got 4 ghost shrimp and I put in a small Anubis plant. I added a moss ball and I put water conditioner in the jar and let it sit for a day. For some reason my shrimp died about a day after I put them in. Does anyone know what could've caused this?

HatM1 (author)mgoodman82016-04-10

You have to be sure the water is wither pond water, or the original fish tank water which you can top off with bottled water. If youre using saltwater creatures, you need a saltwater source like the ocean. Be sure not to stress out the shrimp. Meaning keep them covered in the dark to sleep for a while before transfer. Make sure the water is the same temperature or close. Otherwise, keep in a sunny place. Also dont wash your container w soap. If you did, boil the soap off of it anf try again.

bpalani made it! (author)2016-04-03

Its so easy and finally done, came amazing

The Oakland Toy Lab (author)2015-04-16

Excellent aquarium! And a great talk about recycling nutrients. Thank you much!

amberrayh (author)2015-03-27

This looks like a really fun project. Thanks for sharing! Do you do any testing of the pond water before you use it?

vs29 (author)amberrayh2015-04-01

No we did not, but this is a good suggestion. High levels of aluminium is harmful for aquatic life, and will effect the life of the close ecosystem. However, this usually is found near nearby coal mining.

brian.gilbert.7161 (author)2015-03-28

So excited to try this project!! Thanks for the tip on allowing water to evaporate the chlorine for 24 hrs. That will be super important in ANY fish/aquarium project we take on! Very cute! Also, love that it won't need much maintenance as a regular aquarium!!

shortiemctall (author)2015-03-28

Haha we used the same cookie jar for my goldfish lol

NathanSellers (author)2015-03-27

This is a cool project. I love stuff that is more self sustaining. Thanks for sharing.

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