Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Beautiful Balanced Ecosystem For Your Desk

As I write this post, about a dozen brine shrimp dart about in a softball-sized globe on my desk. They nibble on green algae coating the rocks inside. I have never fed them, nor cleaned the bowl, nor aerated their water. Their clear glass home is sealed airtight. Nothing goes in or out.

These shrimp are my carefree pets, living in a completely self-sustaining world. The algae produce food and oxygen from room light, the shrimp make carbon dioxide for the plants. Together the organisms support each other with no input from me, other than appreciation. Their globes are little sustainable planets of sorts, a balanced ecosystem that could in theory continue for years. We've had ours for only a few weeks, and we've grown quite fond of it.

These mico-worlds, called Ecospheres, have been around for some time and they come in several shapes and sizes. They are the easiest aquarium you'll ever find — and a lovely reminder of our self-sustaining eco system.

You can find these at stores like Brookstones for about $65, or you can purchase them from eco imprints for even less, including costs to customize with a subtle logo or message. Find out more here.

Keep in mind a system this small is sensitive to room conditions, and it can be easy to kill off the inhabitants before you find the optimal place in a room — which is warm but not brightly lit. The question many Ecosphere owners want to know is, how long will they live and can the shrimp reproduce? While an individual shrimp can live for up to 5 years, unlike most marine invertebrates, the endemic Hawaiian red brine shrimp reproduce very sparingly. There are reports of Ecospheres hatching shrimp fry, but they are rare enough to offer little hope yours will. However, even if the shrimp die, the algae will continue to live for decades or longer — an additional ecological lesson.

These little orbs of self-sustaining life are great instructional aids. If you like living things nearby but don't like the slavery of upkeep, they're perfect pet/gardens, ideal office mates, and they make wonderful sustainability-themed gifts.