Projects for the Nature Geek: Create a Tabletop Ecosystem

Geek Culture

Njbiosphere1Njbiosphere1Summer may be drawing to a close and the kids are in school but there is still time to launch an outdoor project or two with the geeklets. Any project that will give you an excuse to get outside with the young ones is a good one. You can still build a tipi or, you can create a tabletop ecosystem.

Create a Tabletop Ecosystem
The natural world is amazing (but you knew that). Human beings are compelled to command nature, I think. This may be cultural conditioning but it is even evident in the latest "green" trends we see as well as our attempts to harness nature for energy. Even so, I can’t think of a better illustration of nature’s complexity by creating a mini example of it right on your tabletop. Plus, it is a project that easily involves the kids and provides a great biology lesson. More after the jump.

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Making a tabletop ecosystem (or biosphere, ecosphere, ecobottle, or biojar) has been covered elsewhere. Make magazine has published instructions that make the whole thing easy as pie. Last year I posted on my attempt at creating a mini example of a New Jersey ecosystem in a mason jar. That attempt, though pretty, unfortunately qualified us for expulsion from Olympus. But learn from our mistakes we do and two attempts since have produced results of more duration at least before the apocalypse. (We’ll get it sooner or later…)

For any attempt at this you will need a jar with a sealable lid, water, plants, animals, bacteria, and sunlight. Putting these items into balance though is another matter. One of the things we learned in examining our past failures is the fact that our local temperate east coast ecosystem is one tricky bugger. Life in New Jersey ponds and streams has evolved and adapted to severe temperature gradients and seasonal conditions. Balancing these cycles and recreating the appropriate gradients are apparently the key to sustaining the eastern environment in miniature. Hard to do in a sealed jar, on a desk, under some lamps.

The creatures and plants needed for this guide from Make‘s video come mainly from the local pet store, which is supplying tropical specimens more accustomed to a stable environment, and thus can produce a more desirable result.

More ambitious attempts at the ecosphere can be made using larger, more decorative bottles or jars or even sturdy clear bags. This website (though low rent in appearance) provides some good ideas for your own attempts with a list of submitted progress from others and their ecosystems in action – along with documented deaths of worlds.

The folks at Cephalopodcast has an informative list of links that to help with the stumbles that happen on the way to creating your biosphere. One of these sites provides great hints and how-tos to set you off right.

A little research goes a long way. For more information on pond organisms such as amphipods and other crustacea, the University of Amsterdam has an easily navigated listing of various species. You can also visit for more comprehensive detail.

Share your personal attempts at this project in the comments.

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