Closed ecological systems are ecosystems that do not rely on matter exchange with any part outside the system. Although the Earth itself fits this definition, the term is most often used to describe much smaller manmade ecosystems. Such systems are scientifically interesting and can potentially serve as a life support system during space flights, in space stations or space habitats. In a closed ecological system, any waste products produced by one species must be used by at least one other species.
The EcoSphere is the result of technology developed by two scientists, the late Dr. Joe Hansen and the late Dr. Clair Folsome at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. NASA was researching self-contained communities for space explorers to live in during long-term space flights. Out of this research came the EcoSphere. NASA had two programs that benefited from the discovery: Mission to Planet Earth, aimed at studying Earth’s environment, and the Space Program. If NASA could figure out how to sustain life in a closed environment, perhaps they could build space stations that would help in exploring our solar system… and perhaps one day, help us live somewhere other than Earth.
Along with shrimp, there is algae and filtered sea water. The EcoSphere also contains a sea fan (the non-living, branch like material), decorative shells, and lightweight gravel as a part of the working ecosystem. The sea fan and gravel provide surface areas for the algae and microogransims to grow.
The EcoSphere is a tiny working model of the Earth. It contains the same essential elements that are found on our planet- air, water, life (algae, microorganisms and shrimp) and land (gravel and sea fan). Life functions in the EcoSphere just as it does on Earth. The shrimp live by consuming the algae and breathing oxygen in the water. If you watch them closely, you will see them feeding on the algae and picking bacteria off the sea fan and lightweight gravel in the EcoSphere. The byproduct of which is shrimp waste and carbon dioxide to be broken down by bacteria and converted into nutrients for the algae. The algae survives by converting the carbon dioxide and light into useable oxygen which the shrimp will then breathe. The shrimp can also eat their own shed exoskeletons. Nothing in the EcoSphere goes to waste. Thus the EcoSphere is a perfect model of a balanced ecosystem where all inhabitants provide for each other to sustain a living environment.
- Reproduction of shrimp does occur in some EcoSpheres, but this is uncommon. The shrimp that are in the EcoSphere have purposely been chosen because they do not exhibit aggressive behavior towards each other.
- The algae and bacteria in the EcoSphere continuously reproduce. In fact, as time goes by, you can expect changes in the algae population in your EcoSphere.
- As you gaze into your new EcoSphere, please take notice of the amount of green algae. This initial quantity of algae is the innoculant for the system. Algae growth is expected, but it should not grow too quickly. Keep your EcoSphere at a consistent temperature between 60 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (15C-25C). Temperatures above 85 degrees put excess stress on the shrimp, and temperatures below 60 slow down the metabolism of the shrimp. Do not let the temperature fluctuate erratically. Do not place your EcoSphere on televisions, stereo equipment, fireplace mantles, or near heating radiators and vents.
- The EcoSphere needs indirect light, from either an artificial source or sunlight, for 6-12 hours every day. DO NOT place your EcoSphere in direct sunlight. If you place your EcoSphere in a room where plants flourish, this will be too much light. These systems do very well with low light levels. Light causes the algae to grow rapidly, which will change the chemical balance of the sphere and the shrimp will perish. If the algae begins to grow considerably, lower the light by shading the sphere or putting it in a darker area. If you notice that the algae is greatly reduced, you can increase the light level.
- Do not shake, drop, or otherwise treat the EcoSphere roughly. Remember it is someone’s home.
- From time to time you may wish to clean any film that may have formed on the inside of the glass. Some of the micro-organisms, which are of nutritional value to the shrimp, are capable of creating a thin film on the inside of the glass. This film is not harmful to the system.
- To make cleaning your Ecosphere easy, we have installed a magnet on the inside of the unit and supplied another attached to your EcoSphere handbook. To clean the EcoSphere, simply take the handbook magnet and bring it near the gravel at the bottom of the EcoSphere to attract the magnet on the inside of the EcoSphere. Once you have the magnets attracted to each other, proceed to drag the magnets across the surface of the Ecosphere in a light scrubbing motion to remove any excess film on the inside of the Ecosphere. It is not necessary to clean the entire surface at one time. If you lose your outside magnet, any refrigerator magnet will do. You will not harm the unit by moving it as you clean it.
The average life of an EcoSphere is between 2 and 3 years. The life expectancy of these shrimp is known to exceed 5 years, and the oldest EcoSpheres are now over 10 years old and still going strong. While we know that the life expectancy of these shrimp can exceed 5 years, we have no way of knowing how old each shrimp is as it is put in an EcoSphere. All things considered, an EcoSphere may last many years or not depending on the age of the shrimp and the environment in which it is kept.
Condensation forms on the inside of the glass periodically. If it is warmer inside the EcoSphere than outside, water will condense on the cooler walls of the EcoSphere. Sometimes, excessive condensation can give the illusion of a change in the water level.
- Since the age of each shrimp is not known, it is not unusual for some of the shrimp in the EcoSphere to perish. If the shrimp die all at once, this is a clear indication that the temperature limits were exceeded. If they die over a period of time, they are probably meeting their normal life expectancy. As long as there is one shrimp alive in the system, it is a functional ecosystem.
- The pale translucent shrimp-like bodies you may see lying on the bottom now and then are not dead shrimp, but exoskeletons. Shrimp are crustaceans. This means that they have their skeletons on the outside rather than on the inside. As the shrimp grows, it replaces it from time to time. After the old exoskeleton has been shed, the new one expands and hardens. It has been observed that a shrimp may molt once or twice a month in a normal environment. If a shrimp dies, the others will eat it, quickly returning the nutrients back to the system. The bacteria in the EcoSphere will also help decompose it within a day or so.