For the past year or so, I’ve had this persistent thought of creating an aquarium. It’s rooted from when I learned about axolotls. Ever since I learned of them, I wanted to make an aquarium and house one. However, after research into maintaining an axolotl habitat, I quickly learned that there is a lot of upkeep. Aquariums require water changes, filtration, tank cleaning— and axolotls, have even more specific needs because of their fragility.

Not only do aquariums require a lot of upkeep to keep it healthy, they are expensive. You have the tank, substrate, food, decorations, and fish themselves. It quickly adds up, and if you want to have a healthy and diverse aquarium, it’s an investment.

So the idea of an aquarium was out of the picture. But it never really left the back of my mind. I still loved the idea, I just knew it wasn’t possible at the time.

That was until I saw a video on YouTube by Jartopia [YouTube Link]. He created a DIY ecosphere using a stream in the woods. The substrate, decor, plants, and organisms were completely natural. The only cost was that of the mason jar. After a month, his ecosphere had more organisms than originally put in, a result of eggs in the substrate hatching. I loved the idea, and began to research what ecospheres are and how to create one.

EcoSphere™ Closed Ecosystem.
EcoSphere™ Closed Ecosystem.

What are ecospheres?

Ecosphere is actually a product, sold by Ecosphere Associates. They are enclosed aquariums that act as a self-sustaining, closed ecosystem. However, “ecosphere,” has gained more generalized usage, and is used to refer to self-sustaining closed ecosystems, rather than the company itself.

The goal of ecospheres as mentioned, is to replicate an ecosystem, on a smaller scale.

”An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life.” – National Geographic

So, I decided to make one. They are not hard to make at all, especially on the scale of a mason jar. The smaller you build an ecosphere, the less biodiversity there can be. For beginners like me, the mason jar ecosphere was perfect. I hope to create bigger and more biodiverse ecospheres once I get the hang of landscaping and aquascaping to make prettier looking environments. I also need to make sure this ecosphere survives, because not all will. Finding the perfect balance of plants and animals is hard to do: you have to make sure the plants have enough carbon dioxide and that the animals have enough oxygen from the plants. One without the other results in death.

How to Make a DIY Ecosphere

There are two main types of ecospheres you can make: aquatic and terrestrial. Aquatic ecosystems are fully submerged underwater, with plants and organisms that live underwater. Terrestrial ecosystems are land-based, with no water (except for an initial spray of water to hydrate all of the plants and create a rain-cycle). I personally chose to make an aquatic ecosphere, because as I mentioned, the idea of an aquarium is something I’ve been wanting to do. I will go over the basic steps for both types. It is up to you to create your own variation and make your ecosphere unique to you.

Aquatic Ecospheres:

  • Get a mason jar. I used a 32oz jar. [Walmart.com]
  • Find a natural water source. This can be a river, creek, pond, lake, etc. It needs to be well-vegetated, meaning there are aquatic plants. Try and find the most stagnant area, as moving water does not provide the most suitable area for finding substrate and plants with eggs.
  • Create a false bottom. Simply put small to medium sized rocks in the bottom, taking up about 1 inch in height.
  • Create your substrate layer. Time to get your hands dirty! Sift through the floor of the water source and grab a handful. Whatever is on the floor of your water source will also be the floor of your ecosphere. This depends what your water source is: it may be sand, gravel, rocks, soil, or a mixture. This layer should be 1 – 1.5 inches.
  • Plant some plants. This was the part I had the hardest time with, as the water source I chose did not have many aquatic plants. I ended up finding a plant underwater, but I’m honestly still unsure whether it was an aquatic plant or if the water had just risen and submerged it. This step is vital, as without an aquatic plant, the carbon dioxide produced by your animals will not be able to be converted to oxygen. There are tons of options for plants, such as floating plants (duckweeds and water lettuce), submerged plants (coontails and pondweed), and emergent plants. You will want to try and stick with either floating plants or submerged plants, as the mason jar has limited room for growing out of water. Grab the plant(s) by the roots and plant them within your substrate. The more plants, the better.
  • Fill with water. Last, but not least, fill the mason jar with water. Do this slowly, to discourage any displacement from strong water flow.

Terrestrial Ecospheres:

  • Get a mason jar. I used a 32oz jar. [Walmart.com]
  • Find the ecosystem you want to replicate. Whether it’s a forest, a park, or your backyard, anywhere works!
  • Create a false bottom. Simply put small to medium sized rocks in the bottom, taking up about 1 inch in height.
  • Create your substrate layer. Create a 1 – 1.5 inch layer of soil. This should be a given, but make sure to use the soil of where you are at, not potting soil. This will increase the odds of biodiversity as there will more than likely be baby worms and eggs within the soil layer.
  • Landscape your ecosphere. Since this will not be flooded with water, you can design it any way you want. There are some awesome ideas on YouTube, like this. You can use rocks, twigs, leaves, whatever you want. This is the time to give the ecosphere your unique touch.
  • Plant some plants. Since this is terrestrial, finding plants to plant will not be hard. Just make sure they fit within your tank. Planting moss is always ideal. Simply scrape a moss layer off of a tree or the ground and put it on your landscape (putting it on a rock never fails).
  • Find some animals. Since you are not relying on water to contain our animals, you will need to put your own animals in there. Earth worms, beetles, and wood lice are always great starts to terrestrial ecospheres.

What’s Next?

Once you have created your ecosphere, it’s time to wait. Remember, the goal of ecospheres is to mimic ecosystems in a closed environment. There should rarely be human interaction. If you did a terrestrial ecosphere, you might want to spray the plants down with a mist of water, to get the water cycle going. The water will evaporate, condensate on the glass, and then precipitate back into the false bottom. Other then that, that’s about it! Sit the ecosphere somewhere that it will receive sunlight, but not direct sunlight. Window seals work best for this. The sunlight will promote plant growth. Sunlight can also promote algae blooms in aquatic environments, so if you notice an excess amount of algae, reduce the amount of sunlight the ecosphere is receiving.

Check back in a week. Check to make sure all of the plants and animals are healthy. Death is natural, but if most or all of your plants or animals are dying or dead, that signals a bigger problem. If the plants are dead, that most likely means there is a lack of carbon dioxide. If the animals are dying, the plants are not producing oxygen or there is a lack of food.

Check back in a month. If your week check-up was fine, after a month, you might notice some animals that were not in there before. This is a result of eggs in the substrate or attached to the plants hatching.

After a month, and everything is still self-sustaining, you can add more biodiversity. Freshwater shrimp and snails are a great option for aquatic ecospheres, and will deal with any algae. Millipedes and beetles will help deal with plant and animal decay in terrestrial ecospheres.

My Aquatic Ecosphere

Aquatic ecosphere

Here is my aquatic ecosphere! It has a rocky substrate layer, one plant, and a couple of snails. I couldn’t identify the plant, and honestly, I’m not sure if it’s even aquatic. I’m only two days into this, so if my ecosphere is dead in a week, I will know where I went wrong. I have seen the snails move, which does give me hope. But I also see them hanging around the top of the jar, which can mean they are looking for oxygen. Either way, it was fun to create regardless if it dies. I will learn from my mistakes and hope to create a longer lasting one.

I will be posting ecosphere updates in the comments of this post, so if you want to keep up with the progress (or future ecospheres), make sure to bookmark this post or save the link somewhere handy.

If you decide to make your own ecosphere (which I encourage all of you to try and do), feel free to post an image link in the comments section! You can use websites like Imgur to upload images. I’d love to see your creations!

Thank you for reading, and I hope you learned something and I hope I encouraged you to go out and try and create your own self-sustaining ecosystem in a jar.

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