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An aquarium (plural aquariums or aquaria) is a vivarium consisting of at least one transparent side in which water-dwelling plants or animals are kept. Fishkeepers use aquaria to keep fish, invertebrates, amphibians, marine mammals, and aquatic plants. The term combines the Latin root aqua, meaning water, with the suffix -arium, meaning "a place for relating to".
An aquarist owns or maintains an aquarium, typically constructed of glass or high-strength plastic. Cuboid aquaria are also known as fish tanks or simply tanks, while bowl-shaped aquaria are also known as fish bowls. Size can range from a small glass bowl to immense public aquaria. Specialised equipment maintains appropriate water quality and other characteristics suitable for the aquarium's residents.
History and popularization
In the Roman Empire, the first fish to be brought indoors was the sea barbel, which was kept under guest beds in small tanks made of marble. Introduction of glass panes around the year 50 allowed Romans to replace one wall of marble tanks, improving their view of the fish. In 1369, the Chinese Emperor, Hongwu, established a porcelain company that produced large porcelain tubs for maintaining goldfish; over time, people produced tubs that approached the shape of modern fish bowls. Leonhard Baldner, who wrote Vogel-, Fisch- und Tierbuch (Bird, Fish, and Animal Book) in 1666, maintained weather loaches and newts.
In 1836, soon after his invention of the Wardian case, Ward proposed to use his tanks for tropical animals, and in 1841 he did so, though only with aquatic plants and toy fish. However, he soon housed real animals. In 1838, Félix Dujardin noted owning a saltwater aquarium, though he did not use the term. In 1846, Anna Thynne maintained stony corals and seaweed for almost three years, and was credited as the creator of the first balanced marine aquarium in London. At about the same time, Robert Warington experimented with a 13-gallon container, which contained goldfish, eelgrass, and snails, creating one of the first stable aquaria; he published his findings in 1850 in the Chemical Society's journal.
The keeping of fish in an aquarium became a popular hobby and spread quickly. In the United Kingdom, it became popular after ornate aquaria in cast iron frames were featured at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1853, the first large public aquarium opened in the London Zoo and came to be known as the Fish House. Philip Henry Gosse was the first person to actually use the word "aquarium", opting for this term (instead of "vivarium") in 1854 in his book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. In this book, Gosse primarily discussed saltwater aquaria. In the 1850s, the aquarium became a fad in the United Kingdom.
Germans soon rivaled the British in their interest. In 1854, an anonymous author had two articles published about the saltwater aquaria of the United Kingdom: Die Gartenlaube (The Garden House) entitled Der Ocean auf dem Tische (The Ocean on the Table). However, in 1856, Der See im Glase (The Lake in a Glass) was published, discussing freshwater aquaria, which were much easier to maintain in landlocked areas. During the 1870s, some of the first aquarist societies were appearing in Germany. The United States soon followed. Published in 1858, Henry D. Butler's The Family Aquarium was one of the first books written in the United States solely about the aquarium. According to the July issue of The North American Review of the same year, William Stimson may have owned some of the first functional aquaria, and had as many as seven or eight. The first aquarist society in the United States was founded in New York City in 1893, followed by others. The New York Aquarium Journal, first published in October 1876, is considered to be the world's first aquarium magazine.
In the Victorian era in the United Kingdom, a common design for the home aquarium was a glass front with the other sides made of wood (made watertight with a pitch coating). The bottom would be made of slate and heated from below. More advanced systems soon began to be introduced, along with tanks of glass in metal frames. During the latter half of the 19th century, a variety of aquarium designs were explored, such as hanging the aquarium on a wall, mounting it as part of a window, or even combining it with a birdcage.
Aquaria became more widely popular as houses had an electricity supply after World War I. Electricity allowed artificial lighting as well as aeration, filtration, and heating of the water. Initially, amateur aquarists kept native fish (with the exception of goldfish); the availability of exotic species from overseas further increased the popularity of the aquarium. Jugs made from a variety of materials were used to import fish from overseas, with a bicycle foot pump for aeration. Plastic shipping bags were introduced in the 1950s, making it easier to ship fish. The eventual availability of air freight, allowed fish to be successfully imported from distant regions. In the 1960s metal frames made marine aquaria almost impossible due to corrosion, but the development of tar and silicone sealant allowed the first all-glass aquaria made by Martin Horowitz in Los Angeles, CA. The frames remained, however, though purely for aesthetic reasons.
There are now around 60 million aquarists worldwide. In the United States, aquarium keeping is the second-most popular hobby after stamp collecting. In 1999 it was estimated that over nine million U.S. households own an aquarium. Figures from the 2005/2006 APPMA National Pet Owners Survey report that Americans own approximately 139 million freshwater fish and 9.6 million saltwater fish. Estimates of the numbers of fish kept in aquaria in Germany suggest at least 36 million. The hobby has the strongest following in Europe, Asia, and North America. In the United States, 40 percent of aquarists maintain two or more tanks.
Most aquaria consist of glass panes bonded together by silicone, with plastic frames that are attached to the upper and lower edges for decoration. The glass aquarium is standard for sizes up to about 1000 litres (250 gal). However, glass is brittle and has very little give before fracturing, though generally the sealant fails first. Aquaria come in a variety of shapes such as cuboid, hexagonal, angled to fit in a corner (L-shaped), bow-front (the front side curves outwards). Fish bowls are generally either plastic or glass, either spherical or some other round configuration.
Acrylic aquaria are also available and are the primary competitor with glass. Acrylics are stronger than glass, and much lighter. Acrylic-soluble cements are used to directly fuse acrylic together (as opposed to simply sealing the seam). Acrylic allows for the formation of unusual shapes, such as hexagonal. Compared to glass, acrylics are easy to scratch; care must be taken with organisms with shells and teeth.
Laminated glass might be used, which combines the advantages of both glass and acrylic.
Large aquaria might use stronger materials such as fibreglass-reinforced plastics. However, this material is not transparent. Reinforced concrete is used for aquaria where weight and space are not factors. Concrete must be coated with a waterproof layer to prevent the water from breaking down the concrete as well as prevent contamination from the concrete.
A kreisel tank is a circular aquarium designed to hold delicate animals such as jellyfish. These aquariums provide slow, circular water flow with a lack of physical objects. Originally a German design (kreisel means spinning top), the tank has no sharp corners, and keeps the housed animals away from the plumbing. Water moving into the tank gives a gentle flow that keeps the inhabitants suspended, and water leaving the tank is covered by a delicate screen that prevents the inhabitants from getting stuck. There are several types of kreisel tanks. In a true kreisel, a circular tank has a circular, submerged lid. Pseudokreisels have a curved bottom surface and a flat top surface, similar to the shape of either a "U" or a semicircle. It is possible to combine these designs; a circular shaped tank is used without a lid or cover, and the surface of the water acts as the continuation of circular flow.
Aquarium size and volume
An aquarium can range from a small glass bowl containing less than a litre (34 fl.oz.) of water to immense public aquaria which can house entire ecosystems such as kelp forests. Larger aquaria are typically recommended to hobbyists due to their resistance to rapid fluctuations of temperature and pH, allowing for greater system stability.
Reef aquaria under 100 litres (20 gal) have a special place in the aquarium hobby; these aquaria, termed nano reefs (when used in reefkeeping), have a small water volume..
Practical limitations, most notably the weight (one litre of fresh water has a mass of 1 kilogram (8.3 lb gal-1), and salt water is even denser) and internal water pressure (requiring thick, strong glass siding) of a large aquarium, keep most home aquaria to a maximum of around 1 cubic metre in volume (1,000 kg or 2,200 lb). Some aquarists, however, have constructed aquaria of up to many thousands of litres.
Aquaria within public aquariums designed for exhibition of large species or environments can be dramatically larger than any home aquarium. The Georgia Aquarium, for example, features an individual aquarium of 6,300,000 US gallons (24,000 m3).
The typical hobbyist aquarium will include a filtration system, an artificial lighting system, and a heater or chiller depending on the inhabitants of the aquarium. Many aquaria incorporate a hood, which prevents evaporation and protects fish from leaving the aquarium (or anything else from entering the aquarium). They also often hold lights.
Combined biological and mechanical aquarium filtration systems are commonly used; these are designed to either convert ammonia to nitrate or remove it or sometimes remove phosphate from water, removing nitrogen being at the expense of aquatic plants. Particulates incorporated into the filter can provide energy for microbes and sponges that do things like nitration. Filtration systems are often the most complex component of home aquaria.
Aquarium heaters combine a heating element with a thermostat, allowing an aquarist to regulate water temperature at a level above that of the surrounding air, whereas coolers and chillers (refrigeration devices) are for use in cold water aquaria, or anywhere the ambient room temperature is above the desired tank temperature. Thermometers used include glass alcohol thermometers, adhesive external plastic strip thermometers, and battery-powered LCD thermometers. In addition, some aquarists use air pumps attached to airstones or water pumps to increase water circulation and supply adequate gas exchange at the water surface. Wave-making devices have also been constructed to provide wave action.
An aquarium's physical characteristics form another aspect of aquarium design. Size, lighting conditions, density of floating and rooted plants, placement of bogwood, creation of caves or overhangs, type of substrate, and other factors (including an aquarium's positioning within a room) can all affect the behaviour and survival of tank inhabitants.
An aquarium can be placed on an aquarium stand. Because of the weight of the aquarium, a stand must be strong as well as level. A tank that is not level may distort, leak, or crack. These are often built like cabinets to allow storage, available in many styles so it can match room decor. Simple metal tank stands are also available. Some sources say that polystyrene should be placed under the aquarium as a safety precaution.
Large volumes of water enable more stability in a tank by diluting effects from death or contamination. Any event that perturbs the system pushes an aquarium away from equilibrium; the more water that is contained in a tank, the easier such a systemic shock is to absorb, as the effects of that event are diluted. For example, the death of the only fish in a three U.S. gallon tank (11 L) causes dramatic changes in the system, while the death of that same fish in a 100 U.S. gallon (400 L) tank with many other fish in it represents only a minor change in the balance of the tank. For this reason, hobbyists often favour larger tanks, as they are more stable systems requiring less attention to the maintenance of equilibrium.
There are a variety of nutrient cycles that are important in the aquarium. Dissolved oxygen enters the system at the surface water-air interface or through the actions of an air pump. Carbon dioxide escapes the system into the air. The phosphate cycle is an important, although often overlooked, nutrient cycle. Sulfur, iron, and micronutrients also cycle through the system, entering as food and exiting as waste. Appropriate handling of the nitrogen cycle, along with supplying an adequately balanced food supply and considered biological loading, is enough to keep these other nutrient cycles in approximate equilibrium, but not forever.
The solute content of water is perhaps the most important aspect of water conditions, as total dissolved solids and other constituents can dramatically impact basic water chemistry, and therefore how organisms are able to interact with their environment. Salt content, or salinity, is the most basic classification of water conditions. An aquarium may have fresh water (salinity below 500 parts per million), simulating a lake or river environment; brackish water (a salt level of 500 to 30,000 PPM), simulating environments lying between fresh and salt, such as estuaries; and salt water or sea water (a salt level of 30,000 to 40,000 PPM), simulating an ocean or sea environment. Rarely, even higher salt concentrations are maintained in specialized tanks for raising brine organisms.
Saltwater is typically alkaline, while the pH ( alkalinity or acidicity) of fresh water varies more. Hardness measures overall dissolved mineral content; hard or soft water may be preferred. Hard water is usually alkaline, while soft water is usually neutral to acidic. Dissolved organic content and dissolved gases content are also important factors.
Home aquarists typically use tap water supplied through their local water supply network to fill their tanks. Because of the concentration of chlorine used to disinfect drinking water supplies for human consumption, straight tap water cannot be used in the USA. In the past, it was possible to "condition" the water by simply letting the water stand for a day or two, which allows the chlorine time to dissipate. However, chloramine is now used more often as it is much stabler and will not leave the water as readily. Additives formulated to remove chlorine or chloramine are often all that is needed to make the water ready for aquarium use. Brackish or saltwater aquaria require the addition of a mixture of salts and other minerals, which are commercially available.
More sophisticated aquarists may make other modifications to their base water source to modify the water's alkalinity, hardness, or dissolved content of organics and gases, before adding it to their aquaria. This can be accomplished by additives, such as sodium bicarbonate, to raise pH. Some aquarists will filter or purify their water prior to adding it to their aquarium. There are two processes used: deionization or reverse osmosis. In contrast, public aquaria with large water needs often locate themselves near a natural water source (such as a river, lake, or ocean) in order to have access to water that does not require much further treatment.
The temperature of the water forms the basis of one of the two most basic aquarium classifications: tropical vs. cold water. Most fish and plant species tolerate only a limited range of water temperatures: Tropical or warm water aquaria, with an average temperature of about 25 °C (77 °F), are much more common. Cold water aquaria are those with temperatures below what would be considered tropical; some varieties of fish are better suited to this cooler environment. More important than the temperature range itself is the consistency in temperature; most organisms are not accustomed to sudden changes in temperatures, which could cause shock and lead to disease. Water temperature can be regulated with a combined thermostat and heater unit (or, more rarely, with a cooling unit).
Water movement can also be important in accurately simulating a natural ecosystem. Aquarists may prefer anything from still water up to swift simulated currents in an aquarium, depending on the conditions best suited for the aquarium's inhabitants. Water movement can be controlled through the use of aeration from air pumps, powerheads, and careful design of internal water flow (such as location of filtration system points of inflow and outflow).
Of primary concern to the aquarist is management of the biological waste produced by an aquarium's inhabitants. Fish, invertebrates, fungi, and some bacteria excrete nitrogen waste in the form of ammonia (which will convert to ammonium, in acidic water) and must then pass through the nitrogen cycle. Ammonia is also produced through the decomposition of plant and animal matter, including fecal matter and other detritus. Nitrogen waste products become toxic to fish and other aquarium inhabitants at high concentrations.
A well-balanced tank contains organisms that are able to metabolize the waste products of other aquarium residents. The nitrogen waste produced in a tank is metabolized in aquaria by a type of bacteria known as nitrifiers (genus Nitrosomonas). Nitrifying bacteria capture ammonia from the water and metabolize it to produce nitrite. Nitrite is also highly toxic to fish in high concentrations. Another type of bacteria, genus Nitrospira, converts nitrite into nitrate, a less toxic substance to aquarium inhabitants. ( Nitrobacter bacteria were previously believed to fill this role, and continue to be found in commercially available products sold as kits to "jump start" the nitrogen cycle in an aquarium. While biologically they could theoretically fill the same niche as Nitrospira, it has recently been found that Nitrobacter are not present in detectable levels in established aquaria, while Nitrospira are plentiful.) This process is known in the aquarium hobby as the nitrogen cycle.
In addition to bacteria, aquatic plants also eliminate nitrogen waste by metabolizing ammonia and nitrate. When plants metabolize nitrogen compounds, they remove nitrogen from the water by using it to build biomass that decays more slowly than ammonia-driven plankton already dissolved in the water.
Maintaining the nitrogen cycle
Although informally called the nitrogen cycle by hobbyists, it is in fact only a portion of a true cycle: nitrogen must be added to the system (usually through food provided to the tank inhabitants), and nitrates accumulate in the water at the end of the process, or become bound in the biomass of plants. This accumulation of nitrates in home aquaria requires the aquarium keeper to remove water that is high in nitrates, or remove plants which have grown from the nitrates.
Aquaria kept by hobbyists often do not have the populations of bacteria needed to detoxify nitrogen waste from tank inhabitants. This problem is most often addressed through two filtration solutions: Activated carbon filters absorb nitrogen compounds and other toxins from the water, while biological filters provide a medium designed for colonization by the desired nitrifying bacteria. Activated carbon and other substances, such as ammonia absorbing resines, will stop working when their pores get full, so these components have to be replaced with fresh stocks constantly.
New aquaria often have problems associated with the nitrogen cycle due to insufficient number of beneficial bacteria, known as "New Tank Syndrome". Therefore new tanks have to be matured before stocking them with fish. There are three basic approaches to this: the fishless cycle the silent cycle and slow growth.
No fish are kept in a tank undergoing a "fishless" cycle. Instead, small amounts of ammonia are added to the tank to feed the bacteria being cultured. During this process, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels are tested to monitor progress. The "silent" cycle is basically nothing more than densely stocking the aquarium with fast-growing aquatic plants and relying on them to consume the nitrogen, allowing the necessary bacterial populations time to develop. According to anecdotal reports of aquarists specializing in planted tanks, the plants can consume nitrogenous waste so efficiently that the spikes in ammonia and nitrite levels normally seen in more traditional cycling methods are greatly reduced, if they are detectable at all. "Slow growth" entails slowly increasing the population of fish over a period of 6 to 8 weeks, giving bacteria colonies time to grow and stabilize with the increase in fish waste.
The largest bacterial populations are found in the filter; efficient filtration is vital. Sometimes, a vigorous cleaning of the filter is enough to seriously disturb the biological balance of an aquarium. Therefore, it is recommended to rinse mechanical filters in an outside bucket of aquarium water to dislodge organic materials that contribute to nitrate problems, while preserving bacteria populations. Another safe practice consists of cleaning only one half of the filter media every time the filter or filters are serviced.
Biological loading is a measure of the burden placed on the aquarium ecosystem by its living inhabitants. High biological loading in an aquarium represents a more complicated tank ecology, which in turn means that equilibrium is easier to perturb. In addition, there are several fundamental constraints on biological loading based on the size of an aquarium. The surface area of water exposed to air limits dissolved oxygen intake by the tank. The capacity of nitrifying bacteria is limited by the physical space they have available to colonize. Physically, only a limited size and number of plants and animals can be fit into an aquarium while still providing room for movement. Simply, all kinds of biology decay, and biological loading refers to that rate of decay in proportion to tank volume.
Calculating aquarium capacity
An aquarium can only support a certain number of fish. Limiting factors include the availability of oxygen in the water and the rate at which the filtration can process waste. Aquarists have developed rules of thumb to estimate the number of fish that can be kept in an aquarium; the examples below are for small freshwater fish, larger freshwater fishes and most marine fishes need much more generous allowances.
- 3 cm of fish length per 4 litres of water (i.e., a 6 cm-long fish would need about 8 litres of water).
- 1 cm of fish length per 30 square centimetres of surface area.
- 1 inch of fish length per gallon of water.
- 1 inch of fish length per 12 square inches of surface area.
Experienced aquarists warn against applying these rules too strictly because they do not consider other important issues such as growth rate, activity level, social behaviour, surface area of plant life, and so on. To some degree, establishing the maximum loading capacity of an aquarium depends upon slowly adding fish and monitoring water quality over time, essentially a trial and error approach.
Factors affecting capacity
Though many conventional methods of calculating the capacity of aquarium are based on volume and pure length of fish, there are other variables. One variable is differences between fish. Smaller fish consume more oxygen per gram of body weight than larger fish. Labyrinth fish, having the capability to breathe atmospheric oxygen, are noted for not needing as much surface area (however, some of these fish are territorial, and may not appreciate crowding). Barbs also require more surface area than tetras of comparable size.
Oxygen exchange at the surface is an important constraint, and thus the surface area of the aquarium. Some aquarists go so far as to say that a deeper aquarium with more volume holds no more fish than a shallower aquarium of the same surface area. The capacity can be improved by surface movement and water circulation such as through aeration, which not only improves oxygen exchange, but also the decomposition of waste materials.
The presence of waste materials presents itself as a variable as well. Decomposition in solution tends to consume oxygen. Oxygen dissolves less readily in warmer water; this is a double-edged sword as warmer temperatures make more active fish, which in turn consume even more oxygen. Stress due to temperature changes is especially obvious in coldwater aquaria where the temperature may swing from low temperatures to high temperatures on hotter days.
From the outdoor ponds and glass jars of antiquity, modern aquaria have evolved into a wide range of specialized systems. Individual aquaria can vary in size from a small bowl large enough for a single small fish, to the huge public aquaria that can simulate entire marine ecosystems.
One of ways to classify aquaria is their salinity. Freshwater aquaria are the most popular kind of aquarium due to their lower cost and ease of maintenance. Marine aquaria generally require more complex equipment to set up and maintain than freshwater aquaria. Along with fish species, marine aquaria frequently feature a diverse range of invertebrates. Brackish water aquaria combine elements of both marine and freshwater fishkeeping. Fish kept in brackish water aquaria generally come from habitats with varying salinity, such as mangroves and estuaries. Certain subtypes of aquaria also exist within these types, such as the reef aquarium, a type of marine aquarium that houses coral.
Another classification is by temperature range. Many aquarists maintain a tropical aquarium as these fish tend to be more colorful. However, the coldwater aquarium is also popular, which may includes fish such as goldfish.
Aquaria may be grouped by their species selection. The community tank is the most common type of aquarium kept today, where several non-aggressive species are housed peacefully together. In these aquaria, the aquarium fish, invertebrates, and plants probably do not originate from the same geographic region, but generally tolerate similar water conditions. Aggressive tanks, in contrast, house a limited number of species that can be aggressive toward other fish, or are able to withstand aggression well. Species or specimen tanks usually only house one fish species, along with plants, perhaps found in the fishes' natural environment and decorations simulating a true ecosystem. This type is useful for fish that simply cannot be housed safely with other fish, such as the electric eel, as an extreme example. Some tanks of this sort are used simply to house adults for breeding.
Ecotype, ecotope, or biotope aquaria is another type based on species selection. In it, an aquarist attempts to simulate a specific ecosystem found in the natural world, bringing together fish, invertebrate species, and plants found only in that ecosystem in a tank with water conditions and decorations designed to simulate their natural environment. These ecotype aquaria might be considered the most sophisticated hobby aquaria; indeed, public aquaria use this approach in their exhibits whenever possible. This approach best simulates the experience of observing an aquarium's inhabitants in the wild. Matching a tank to the environment at the source of fish usually serves as the healthiest possible artificial environment for the tank's occupants.
Most public aquariums feature a number of smaller aquaria, as well those greater in size than could be kept by home aquarists. The largest tanks hold millions of gallons of water and can house large species, including sharks or beluga whales. Dolphinariums are aquaria specifically for housing dolphins. Aquatic and semiaquatic animals, including otters and penguins, may also be kept by public aquariums. Public aquariums may also be included in larger establishments such as a marine mammal park or a marine park.