What is an ecosphere?

The general definition of an ecosphere is a closed planetary ecological system, consisting of all living organisms and their environment.

But, in this article we are talking about a jar filled with creek water, not an entire planet.

And in this context, an ecosphere is still a closed ecological system, but on a much smaller scale.

The basic idea of a jar ecosphere is that the environment within the jar can sustain itself without your help.

If functioning correctly, the ecological processes within the jar, like the breakdown organic matter, provide nutrients for bacteria, algae, and other organisms to grow and reproduce.

Algae is especially important in an ecosphere because it produces oxygen for other creatures.

But, resources are severely limited in an ecosphere, so larger creatures, which need significantly more food and oxygen, are not able to survive.

Only the smallest and most adaptable creatures are able to survive and participate in the ecological cycle of a closed ecosphere.

So, why create an ecosphere?

For me, creating an ecosphere allowed me to observe the tiny, yet amazing, creatures that live in something as simple a pool of creek water.

Studying these creatures gives us the opportunity to show others why even small natural habitats deserve to be preserved and treasured.

If you would like to see how I created this ecosphere and which creatures I discovered inside it, check out my DIY ecosphere video:

For those who enjoy a more detailed explanation of creating an ecosphere, keep reading.

Steps for Creating an Ecosphere

The process of creating an ecosphere is relatively simple, with the basic idea being to fill a jar or glass container with water and gravel from a source like a creek or pond.

But, there are some things to be aware of if you want your ecosphere thrive and continue to sustain itself.

Step 1: Select a container with as little visual distortion as possible.

Clear glass jar for ecosphere.

Glass storage jars work well, but I have noticed that glass clarity varies by brand.

You may need to test out a few different brands to find one you are happy with.

Being able to observe the tiny creatures inside your ecosphere is the main reason to have one, so finding the right glass container is crucial.

As for the size of an ecosphere jar, I find that 1-1.5 gallon jars work best, but many people use much larger or much smaller containers successfully.

Step 2: Visit a local creek, stream, or pond with vegetation

Creek pool filled with duckweed.
A creek pool filled with duckweed is the perfect spot.

Find a creek, or similar habitat, full of vegetation.

Vegetation growing in, and around, the habitat attracts a wide variety of animals and provides the best chance of discovering interesting creatures.

Step 3: Add gravel, sand, and organic matter.

gravel and organic matter for an ecosphere.

Some of the most interesting creatures in a creek are not free swimming, but instead live underneath rocks, sticks, and decaying leaves.

Scooping up decaying plant matter from the bottom of the creek bed will yield more interesting animals than simply adding a few rocks and sticks to your jar.

Step 4: Be Careful

Ecosphere jar

Creating an ecosphere is about learning and appreciating tiny creatures that most people have no idea even exist.

Scooping up debris and gravel can disturb the habitat, so limit your collection area to a small section of the stream.

That way the rest of the habitat remains unspoiled.

And the disturbed spot will quickly return to normal after a couple weeks.

Also, be careful for your own safety.

It is easy to slip on algae covered rocks, or receive a painful bite from some of the creek’s more aggressive inhabitants.

Step 5: Do not shake the ecosphere

Jar ecosphere
This ecosphere is ready to be taken home.

Try to prevent your ecosphere from being knocked over or roughly shaken as you transport it home.

Not only could this harm some of the creatures inside, but water visibility will also suffer for a number, preventing you from clearly observing the inhabitants inside for a number of hours.

Step 6: Select a well lit spot

Ecosphere under an LED light.

Once you get home, find a quiet spot for your ecosphere.

Placing it near a window is popular, but I find that placing an ecosphere too close to a window promotes rapid algae growth.

This typically leads to a jar filled with green water, making it much more challenging to observe the animals inside.

Instead, placing your ecosphere under an LED aquarium light, or a desk lamp, will allow you to adjust how much light your jar gets and how rapidly the algae inside will grow.

Animals in an Ecosphere

crawdad or crayfish macro shot.
I caught this crawdad while scooping up gravel for the ecosphere.

The main reason to build your own ecosphere is to observe the fascinating creatures inside it.

In this next section, I will show you some of the most interesting animals that can end up in your ecosphere and whether they are suited to life in a jar.

Giant Water Bugs

Giant water bug, also known as a toe-biter.
Notice the needle-like mouth part.

Giant water bugs (family: Belostomatidae) are members of the “true bug” order, Hemiptera, and live in freshwater habitats like ponds, streams, and creek pools.

These monster bugs are fierce predators, preying on tadpoles, small fish, and other insects.

Also known by the name “toe-biters,” the giant water bug possess a needle-like mouth piece that can be stabbed into its prey (or a human toe).

The bite of a giant water bug is not considered dangerous or medically significant to humans, but is reported to be extremely painful.

Toe-biters easily blend in with dead leaves and other debris, making it real possibility that one could end up in your ecosphere as you scoop up decaying vegetation.

The existence of these giant bugs in small pools and streams is a good reason to use a container to scoop up sediment and organic matter rather than using your hands.

While fascinating to observe, giant water bugs are poor inhabitants for ecospheres because of their size and need for large prey.

The toe-biter in my ecosphere was quickly returned to the creek, but I appreciated the time I had to observe this secretive predator.

Scuds

Scud or amphipod in an ecosphere.

Scuds (of the order Amphipoda), also called sideswimmers, are often referred to as “shrimp” or “insects,” but these invertebrates are actually amphipods, which are shrimp-like creatures with elongated bodies, but lack a carapace (or body armor) like crabs and lobsters.  

If you live in North America, the scuds commonly found in freshwater streams and ponds are likely of the genus Gammarus.

What do scuds eat?

Scuds are recyclers.

They eat detritus and decaying plant matter and also graze on algae, bacteria, and fungi.

Scuds are essential to creek and other aquatic ecosystems, serving as a cleanup crew.

Scuds also provide an excellent food source larger creatures, like fish.

In an ecosphere, scuds are some of the most desirable creatures.

This is because scuds can survive in conditions that larger aquatic creatures cannot.

In a sealed ecosphere, resources are limited, with decaying plant matter, algae, fungi, and bacteria being the main food sources.

Luckily, scuds enjoy eating all of those things and, therefore, tend to thrive in a ecosphere environment.

Scuds are also fascinating to watch, being extremely active.

Caddisfly Larvae

Caddisfly larva.

Caddisflies (of the order Trichoptera) look similar to moths, but unlike moths, caddisflies lay their eggs on vegetation near the surface of the water.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae falls into the water and begin a process that makes these insects some of the most interesting you can find in a stream habitat.

Caddisfly larvae use a type of silk to build portable houses made of sand, rocks, leaves, and bits of wood.

These self made tubes not only serve as camouflage, but also act as armor for the caddisfly larva as it crawls along the bottom of streams, ponds, and lakes.

Caddisfly larvae are one of my favorite animals to watch in an ecosphere.

They are relatively clumsy due to the heavy house surrounding their bodies, so watching them teeter around the jar is truly amusing.

Diving Beetles

Predaceous diving beetle (Dytiscidae)

Predaceous diving beetles in the family Dytiscidae (from Greek, meaning “to dive”) are a group of carnivorous aquatic beetles encompassing over 4000 species, with about 500 species existing in North America.

They are typically found in pool areas around streams, and in lakes and ponds.

Like toe-biters, diving beetles will hunt prey much larger than themselves, like tadpoles and small fish.

Their hairy, oar-like legs are adapted for swimming and these beetles are surprisingly quick.

Predaceous diving beetles are truly interesting to watch if you are lucky enough to find one.

These aquatic beetles are able to breathe underwater by bringing an air bubble with them.

The beetles are able to trap just the right amount of air to stay under water for many minutes.

Too much air would make the beetle overly buoyant and less able to maneuver underwater.

Too little air would limit how long the beetle could stay underwater.

In an ecosphere, these beetles are mesmerizing to watch as they refill their air bubbles and zip around the jar.

However, like the toe-biter, these insects are not suited for life in a jar.

The one I captured was fascinating to watch, but I quickly returned it to the creek pools where I found it.

Conclusion

The creatures described in this article are only a tiny sample of what you could find while creating your own ecosphere.

And if you live outside North America, even more species may be available for you to discover.

The diversity of life in creek, stream, and pond habitats is stunning, and something to be treasured.

And ecospheres are an excellent way to observe and appreciate the tiny creatures living in these habitats that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Ecosphere can sustain themselves for many years (if kept properly), but many of the most interesting creatures in a creek habitat will not be able to survive very long in an ecosphere.

I encourage those interested in making an ecosphere to keep them as a temporary tank, observing the amazing creatures inside for a couple weeks and then releasing them back into the wild.

This provides an excellent way to observe the amazing creatures inside an ecosphere while minimizing the chance that those creatures die.

I hope you enjoyed this small look into another world.

If you are interested in keeping small creatures as long term pets, check out my article and video tutorial on setting up a freshwater shrimp tank (real shrimp, not scuds).

And if you are interested in keeping fish, check out my article on the best fish for a 5 gallon tank.

As always, stay zen.

About The Author

Kevin is a betta fish keeper and planted tank enthusiast with over 16 years of experience as an aquarist. His mission with ZenAquaria is to help other aquarists experience the joy of fish keeping (and shrimp keeping) and the satisfaction of a well planted tank.

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