If you’re in the market for a low-cost, low-maintenance, low-commitment but high-interest pet, you can’t do better than triops. What are triops? Also known as tadpole shrimp, triops are a kind of ancient branchiopod, or gill-footed crustacean. They look like miniature horseshoe crabs, but generally only reach about 3 inches in length. They’re found in temporary ponds in deserts (as well as in rice paddies, where they’re considered a nuisance), which explains why they’re perfect for commitment-phobes. The average triops only lives about 50-90 days. Like some alien offspring, a triops will grow right before your eyes from microscopic nymph to adult in just a few days. In fact, the only downside to keeping triops is when sensitive family members must deal with their passing (although, of course, that can be a learning experience too). But you can always comfort them with the thought that a triops is designed to leave behind a nice cache of drought-proof eggs to spawn the next generation before its temporary swimming hole dries up.
Raising triops is easy. Kits can be found in toy stores, science museum gift shops, and online. (Be sure to get a brand that sells lab-raised eggs and doesn’t harvest triops from the wild.) You can order a deluxe kit with an aquarium, thermometer, magnifying ruler, colored gravel and glow-in-the-dark beads (for night-time viewing, I assume) for around $15. But with a few household supplies you can do just as well with a simple packet of eggs and nutrient for about half that price. That’s what we used. Although we followed the instructions in the envelope, as we discovered (when a second generation hatched on its own after we set the aquarium aside and forgot about it) there are several tweaks to the package directions that will make your experience even easier and more fun:
- A gooseneck desk lamp with standard incandescent lightbulb can keep your aquarium warm, if needed. But watch the thermometer, as you don’t want to cook your pets.
- Only use a dozen or so eggs. Triops are cannibals, and you’ll only end up with two or three by the time they’re full grown anyway. Save the remainder for do-overs.
- Don’t worry about starting in a small cup and moving to a larger tank. Our triops were very happy in a recycled clear plastic salad bar container, with a small “V” cut out of one side for air. Avoid direct sunlight to keep algae growth down.
- Put a layer of sand in the bottom and watch your triops make interesting patterns as they brush along the bottom. They can also lay eggs in the sand, providing you with your next generation.
- The nutrient “tea bag” provided with your kit contains even smaller swimmers for your baby triops to eat. Once your first generation has passed on, leave the tank alone and you’ll have plenty of “nutrient” for future generations.
- Remember to use only non-chlorinated water (some recommend distilled water to start).
Triops aren’t just entertaining. As you watch them grow and feed and change, sometimes hour by hour, you can’t help wanting to know more. Why do they swim upside-down while they eat? What are all those little feet for? Last year, when we raised our first triops, all we had to rely on were a few helpful websites. But now everything you want to know can now be found in a new book by Helen Pashley called Triops: A Very Unusual Creature. Although written on an easy-reader level (and sometimes a bit too stiltedly), this slim paperback is full of information. And the photos by Lori Adams are sharp and detailed, perfect for helping you to figure out the various body parts on your very unusual creature. Keep a copy near your tank for reference. (Thanks to Little Science Books for sending us a copy!)