Nitrogen Cycle What is it?

What is the nitrogen cycle? 

The nitrogen cycle is the most important thing to understand when setting up and keeping an aquarium. This natural cycle is the process by which helpful bacteria break down organic waste into less harmful compounds. It starts with fish waste, dead plant parts and any other organic materials being broken down into ammonia. This ammonia is converted into nitrite by nitrosomonas bacteria. Both of these substances are poisonous to aquatic life and can be dangerous even in low levels. After nitrite is produced, further nitrobacter bacteria break down the nitrites into nitrates. Nitrate can then be removed by water changes and some will be used by plants and algae. All of these bacteria are naturally present in the aquarium from the beginning, but it takes time for them to grow to a level necessary for them to efficiently process the waste in the tank.

Why is this important? 

Without a properly established nitrogen cycle in an aquarium levels of ammonia and nitrite will quickly rise to levels that are toxic to your fish. This will lead to fish diying or becoming sick.

How long does this take? 

This all depends on how the tank was setup and what kind of tank it is. In a average freshwater tank 6-8 weeks is normal. In a marine tank this can vary but anywhere between 2-10 weeks is normal. Now with these time lines this does not mean the tank is fully cycled it just means that there are enough bacteria to handle small amounts of fish waste in the tank and fish should be added slowly. You know the cycle is done when ammonia and nitrite test at 0 and there are readable amounts of nitrate. 

How do I get the cycle started?

Again, this depends on the tank. With freshwater tanks adding a few small hardy fish can add just enough waste to get the cycle started. This is a little risky for those fish though since they will be exposed to ammonia and nitrite which could harm them. The best way to get the cycle started without adding fish is by simply adding some fish food. As the food breaks down ammonia is created which starts the nitrogen cycle. In marine tanks the best method is by adding live rock and feeding the tank, since live rock and live sand already contain bacteria the process has a jump start without needing to add live fish. Unfortunately the delicacy of many marine fish means it is still advisable to give the aquarium an appropriate period time to completely cycle and stabilize. It is not uncommon to cycle a marine aquarium with hardy fish like damsels, but this has its drawbacks. The primary issue with this is the difficulty in removing damsels from an established tank with live rock if you no longer want them due to the aggression they develop as they mature. In recent years there has been an increase in products that speed up the process of cycling your tank. These live bacteria supplements are advertised as a method of instantly cycling your tank so you can add fish immediately. I personally haven't tried many of these products so I can't say how well they work but I have used live bacteria from existing established tanks. This method uses filter material, gravel or bio material from a tank that has been running and has an established amount of bacteria. 

The nitrogen cycle is the most important thing to complete when starting a new tank. The misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of the nitrogen cycle is why tanks fail and people get discouraged in keeping fish. It is a process that takes a little time but it is integral to the longevity and health of your tank, and as we often say "patience is the most important tool for success with an aquarium."

Public Aquarium Review: Mote Marine Laboratory

Address: 1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy Sarasota Fl

Date: 6/27/18

Amount of time to see aquarium: 2 hours

This is another in the unofficial "Paul Tours Aquariums of the U.S." series.

Located in Sarasota Florida, the Mote Marine Laboratory is a medium sized aquarium that is split over multiple buildings. The actual aquarium is just one part of Mote's organization which also includes areas dedicated to research, aquaculture, and conservation. The exhibits in the aquarium area of the complex are focused on Florida's native fish and wildlife with a few exhibits featuring non native animals. The main building houses most of the fish displays along with a few outside displays. Across the street from the main aquarium are the enclosures housing sea turtles, manatees and otters with a bird area between the two buildings.

Out of all the exhibits at Mote the most impressive is the preserved giant squid. This is one of the very few places on the planet to have such a specimen on display. Previously only known from corpses found washed up on beaches across the planet, it wasn't until 2012 that video evidence of a live giant squid was recorded by a joint venture between Japan's National Science Museum, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK and the Discovery Channel.


The Bristleworm- Friend or Foe?

Ask ten people in the hobby about bristleworms and odds are good that at least half of them will tell you that they are terrible, horrible creatures that will kill your fish and eat your corals. There are a lot of opinions on these lowly creatures, and I have always argued that anyone that tells you that they are villains has resorted to judging a book by its covers (or a worm by its slime and spines) and overlooked how useful these guys really are. 

First of all, for those of you who don't know, a bristleworm is a common critter to find in any reef tank squirming its way through the sand and rocks in a never ending quest for food. There is no denying that they are not the most handsome of creatures, something which prevents many people from seeing their true beauty. Look upon the loathsome bristleworm and shudder!


Even this fuzzy nighttime picture doesn't do this guy any favors, there is no denying it. So why am I such a fan of bristleworms?

First of all a small disclaimer, I like all kinds of creepy crawlies and gross critters so I am predisposed to be partial to them and give them a pass that some people might not. BUT even if I wasn't a weirdo like that I would still argue for them, and here is why:

  1. Despite what many people think, they don't eat your livestock. If you see a bristleworm eating something in your tank it was already dead or close enough to have made no difference.
  2. They are free clean up crew. In the world of saltwater tanks the clean up crew is a vital piece of biological tech we have at our disposal, but all the hermit crabs and snails in the world won't get everything and they certainly won't eat all the stuff the various worms in our tank do. Bristleworms are free, repopulate themselves, stay hidden most of the time, and eat things that we don't want lying around our tanks.
  3. Liverock and substrate needs to be maintained. These guys get into places that almost nothing else can and they keep those areas free of detritus that would otherwise buildup and create nitrates and phosphates. No one wants those things getting out of hand!
  4. They help maintain the ecology of your saltwater tank. Of all the worms you want in your tank, these guys are the top dogs. They keep the other ones in check and prevent population booms of other critters.

Of course just like anything bristleworms have their cons as well. They can get out of hand if your tank isn't maintained properly and too much food is introduced to the tank, leading to these guys getting out and about more which most people don't enjoy. Also, touching them is painful so that is best avoided. Their close cousin the fireworm is downright dangerous, but thankfully it isn't often seen in home aquaria nowadays. 

So the next time you see the lowly bristleworm sliming its way through your tank late at night or in the evening look the other way and let it do what it does best. Or take a moment to marvel at an evolutionary powerhouse that has been keeping the world's oceans clean for millions of years and will do the same for your tank for as long as you have it. 

Inspired by nature...

I know what you're thinking. "What are these fish nerds talking about?! What does inspired by nature mean?"

That's what I'm here to tell you.

Paul and I have spent a long time keeping aquariums and building systems for fish, invertebrates, and plants to thrive in. We've spent time on the front lines of the retail world in little mom and pop fish shops and in the thick of it at one of the major big box pet retailers. We've worked as service technicians for other people doing it their way only to go home and do it our way. That isn't to say we didn't learn anything from the people we worked with and worked for, but at the end of the day we came to trust our way the most. The way we have come to believe is the best way, the way that takes its cues from nature.

What does that mean? We don't like to rely overmuch on chemicals. The most common aesthetic issue that a customer is concerned with is unsightly algae and many people reach for an algaecide first and ask questions later. That is our last resort. Imbalances between lighting, fish waste, overfeeding, and overpopulation are the most common reason for algae and so we work to achieve a balance between them.  Doing so solves the problem at its root and leads to a healthier more stable aquarium over the long term.

Plants are wonders of nature, little machines that turn waste into oxygen and beauty for our aquariums. Fresh or salt, every tank can benefit from a little greenery (or red in some cases) and we are always looking for new plants to incorporate into the systems we care for. Not only do they help balance an aquarium, they encourage natural behavior from the fish and invertebrates that call your aquarium home. Not to mention they are beautiful!

Everyone loves to ask me what a specific fish "does." Many of us grew up with the notion of fish that perform jobs within a tank, and while this frequently wrong or at least misleading there are a great many critters that do serve the role of aquarium caretaker. Saltwater reef tanks especially are home to innumerable small creatures that tirelessly work day and night consuming algae, uneaten food, waste, and the occasional body hidden away in the dark corners of your aquarium. These little guys are the unsung heroes of the aquarium world, and though many of them are unsightly there is a beauty in what they do. 

All of this is just a little bit of what it means to be inspired by nature, just some of the things we focus on when we set up and maintain a tank and this isn't the last time you'll hear me talk about what it entails.    

Public Aquarium Review: Florida Aquarium

Address: 701 Channelside Dr. Tampa Florida 

Date: 12/26/17

Amount of time to see aquarium: 2 hours

The Florida Aquarium is a medium sized aquarium located in the Channel District of Tampa Florida. This aquarium is focused on showing native wildlife of Florida but does have a large collection of animals from other parts of the world. My favorite part is the large bio dome area which starts with displays on freshwater springs and ends with exhibits on bays and estuaries. In the bio dome area are free flight birds and open exhibits. Upstairs is a section on Madagascar with in the bio dome. There is also a large tank with sharks and other fish of Florida's reefs. Outside they also have a water play area for kids. Overall the aquarium shows off Florida's wildlife and other parts of the worlds oceans very well.



Public Aquarium Review: Key West Aquarium


Over the years I have been to many different public aquariums along the eastern seaboard from large ones like Georgia Aquarium to small ones like Jenkinson's Aquarium. The first one I will be giving a review on is Key West Aquarium. 

Address: 1 Whitehead St. Key West Florida 

Date: 12/21/17

Amount of time to see aquarium:  1 hour

Key West Aquarium is a small aquarium with a focus on the local marine life of the Florida Keys. The aquarium first opened in 1935 but after a hurricane it was used as a rifle range until 1946. Overall it was a small aquarium but it was interesting to see the history of the aquarium with its older displays. 



Current Fish Breeding Projects

Since joining the main aquarium society I belong to I have turned in the following fish for BAP points:

Neolamprologus multifasciatus 

Gambusia holbrooki (Eastern Mosquitofish)

Poecilia sphenops (Short Fin Molly)

Xiphophorus maculatus (Platy)

Pelvicachromis pulcher (Kribensis)

Poecilia wingei (Endler's Livebearer)

Limia perugiae

Poecilia reticulata (Guppy)

Xiphophorus variatus (Variable Platy)

Poecilia latipinna (Sailfin Molly)

Melanoides tuberculata (Trumpet Snail)

Planorbis rubrum (Ramshorn Snail)

Procambarus fallax f. virginalis (Self-cloning crawfish/Marmorkrebs)

Heterandria formosa (Least Killifish)

Jordanella floridae (Florida Flagfish)

Poeciliopsis gracilis (Porthole Livebearer)

Xiphophorus helleri (Swordtail)

Pimephales promelas (Fathead Minnow)

Carassius auratus (Goldfish)

Danio albolineatus (Pearl Danio)

Neocaridina davidi (Cherry Shrimp)

Melanotaenia pygmaea (Pygmy Rainbowfish)

Micropoecilia obscura


Current Fish Breeding Projects

First, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Paul and I am co-owner of River to Reef. I am part of a few local aquarium societies and an active member in most of them. One thing that many aquarium societies offer is a Breeders Award Program (BAP) to encourage members to breed fish and help with conservation by breeding rare and hard to find fish and to provide a local source of fish. The rules are that the member must bring in 6 babies from the fish they have bred at 60 days old. Points are given to each species bred which range from 5,10,15,20,and 25 points. Currently I am trying to breed the folllowing

Tiger Limia (Limia sp. Tiger)

Goldbelly Topminnow (Girardinus falcatus)

Pelvicachromis silviae

Poecilia sp. Pelenque

Orange Laser Cory (Corydoras sp. Cw010)

Pearl Cichlid (Geophagus brasiliensis)

Convict Cichlid (Amatitlania nigrofasciata)


Thanks for visiting River to Reef's blog! In the days, weeks, and months to come you will find exciting new stuff here including informational pieces about fish, plants and invertebrates, aquarium news, and information about our company and how we are working to serve our clients. 

Come back soon!