The Secret Things Living in Your Aquarium

When you first start looking through a microscope
at microorganisms, it’s very obvious that each little cell is its own thing. But then, as time goes on, and you start to
understand their relationships and their dependence on each other, and also everything’s dependence
on them, each microbe starts to feel like a piece of some much broader, even global
organism. And of course, species of all kinds and sizes
have their ecological impacts. And this actually becomes much more obvious
when you make that ecosystem less global by, say, putting it in a little box. And you might have seen one of these boxes
recently…maybe in your home, or at a restaurant, or the doctor’s office. We are talking, of course, about aquariums. This tank is just one of those tanks at a
mall aquarium store. It’s got some reefs and some fishes swimming
around, living in full display for people passing by. But just give it a moment…just a few seconds. And there. That is the disembodied hand of an aquarium
shop worker who probably went to work expecting the usual aquarium shop business, until James,
our master of microscopes, came in and asked if he could please have some water from the
tank. Science is always a team effort, and fortunately,
this shop worker was a willing collaborator, searching around for biofilm and other bits
from the tank in response to various requests thrown his way. Of course, there are plenty of macroscopic
animals in the aquarium to admire. Have you ever wanted to see what a starfish
looks like when you’re really up close? Yeah. I mean, of course you have. But the real focus of this expedition wasn’t
the fishes or the large invertebrates that we can clearly see with our own eyes. What we want to see is what else is in that tank. This question is actually pretty important
for any aquarium you might want to set up at home. Sure, you might be most excited about the
fish. But fish waste is full of ammonia, which can
accumulate to toxic levels if left unchecked. In nature, microbes play an essential role
in the nitrogen cycle, including taking extremely stable atmospheric nitrogen and turning it
into nutrients like these Trichodesmium do, or by consuming nitrogenous waste. To make sure that aquatic ecosystems have
the same cleaning abilities built in, people install bio filters that contain nitrogen-consuming
bacteria in their aquariums. It’s sort of like building wastewater treatment
into the artificial ecological neighborhood. And beyond the basic care of keeping tanks,
scientists have been studying the microbial composition of aquariums to explore all sorts
of questions. One group collected tank water from seven
Rhode Island pet shops to examine the diversity of microbial communities between them, finding
potential sources of pathogens that might require further study. Another group observed that freshwater aquarium
bio filters are dominated more by ammonia-oxidizing archaea than they are by bacteria. There are, of course, also large aquariums. Like very large. So large you have to drive out to visit them
so you can stand in awe. And yes, scientists have been studying the
microbiomes of these large tanks too. This includes a study of the Ocean Voyager
exhibit in Georgia, one of the largest aquariums in the United States, where 14 months of tracking
the microbial community of the exhibit revealed a surprising dynamic and changing community
despite the relative stability of the water itself. Just for reference, the Ocean Voyager exhibit
contains about 6.3 million gallons of artificial seawater, and it houses very cool, odd animals
including the blacktip reef shark, the longcomb sawfish, and the porcupine ray. In contrast, the mall aquarium has a lot less
water in it, and the fish are not quite as varied. But fortunately, we don’t need millions
of gallons of water to find fascinating ecological diversity We just need a microscope. So we were pretty impatient to see what was
in that carefully obtained, mall tank water. One of the first organisms that caught our
attention was foraminifera, this kind of conch shell-looking thing. Foraminifera, or forams for short,
are protists, and they can be found living all over the ocean, both in terms of depth
and geographical location. There are around 4,000 species of forams around
the world, of which we found only a handful in this sample. Their shells come in different shapes and
are made up of different material depending on what species they are. Now forams may look innocuous, but they’ve
been around for over 500 million years. And with all those forams living and dying
over that long period, their shells have built up on the deep ocean floor, accumulating to
the point where in death, they’re practically a geological entity. In turn, the chemical composition of their
shells has helped us better understand how our oceans and climate have changed over millions
of years. But while we were watching our new foram friends,
something else came along. You can see it here, that long, thin line
snaking between the magnified sand grains. It looks like a worm, but we think it’s
actually a Tracheloraphis, and I do not know if we’re pronouncing that correctly, a mysterious
single-celled organism. It’s difficult to find a lot of information
on Tracheloraphis, probably because it’s been difficult to culture in a lab for further
study. Even filming it turned out to be a challenge. The slide we were watching it on had too much
sand and debris in it for us to get a good recording. So we tried moving it over to a new slide,
taking off the coverslip and using a micropipette to grab it. Except that once we removed the coverslip,
that little guy just disappeared! It took 3 hours to find it and prepare it
in this sample, but it was worth it for this close up view of just how weird this unicellular
organism is. What else did we find? An amoeba spreading against microbial fauna
as its own internal crystals sparkle, like an opening in tree branches that give way
to a galaxy. There also long cyanobacteria stalks, the
idling dinoflagellates, the stunning trichodesmium filaments, and this ciliate who seemed to
not quite know what it wanted to be doing. I know that feel, buddy. And all of this from some scoops taken from
a mall aquarium…all of these organisms make those clear boxes of glass not just a storage
tank for some pretty fish, but a living ecosystem with millions of organisms all depending on
each other to turn the basics of chemistry into the majesty of life. Thank you for coming on this journey with
us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. And if you like this show, who you really
want to thank are these people whose names are on the screen right now, our patrons on
Patreon who make it possible for us to search through grains of sand for hours so that we
can get a good picture of a weird micobe. Thank you for indulging with us and allowing
us to indulge in this curiosity. If you want to see more from our Master of
Microscopes James, check out Jam & Germs on Instagram And if you want to see more from us, you can
find us at


  1. Thank youuuu for the distraction of everything that's going on around us! I can just come here whenever I feel like it and find cool science, lovely music, and a relaxing (and educational) voice

  2. although i don't have a microscope(yet) , this channel has totally changed how i think about the world.

    I completely changed my inner city garden with just a scoop of healthy soil from a forest.

    I also had a home made self sustained environment in a jar. it had a little algae growing under the water, just 25ml's of water from my local park, and 2 weeks later, the algae is almost gone…

     really appreciate these microbes so much more after thinking about them from a different angle

  3. Looking at that last cilliate that seems confused, reminds me of a little electronic cat toy that gets one of its wheels or steering projections broken. The truth is that no matter how complex the life appears, a single celled organism is just a simple machine, whose complexity is bubbling up on the scale of molecules. Nothing in the macro-world can be modeled as complexly, and when macro systems get even close to the complexity, we are stuck studying them in the same way, experimentation.

  4. Hey yall should do an episode on viruses, and the diversity, and satellite viruses. Especially cause of the pandemic, some education on how they work might help some people

  5. Is fresh water aquarium interesting because of the salinity and density differences? I mean, everything is interesting, but is there a dramatic change?

  6. I love my 300gal reef tank. Sadly the wild versions of these are dying due to the increase in carbon dioxide being absorbed into the water. Tanks will soon be the only way to see living coral.

  7. 6:36 reminds me of that organism that took a chunk out of the membrane of another organism, last season.

  8. Makes me wonder how many mass extinctions were due to the deaths of microorganisms, rather than changes in the macroenvironment…?

  9. There are no fish shaped like stars. No Star Fish. They are more accurately and correctly called Sea Stars, like there are Sea Urchins, Sea Cucumbers, Sea Pens, Sea Slugs, Sea Horses, Sea Dragons, Sea Jellies, and Sea Hares. Fish are tetrapods, have scales or denticles, fins, a lateral line, two eyes, gills and are vertebrates.

  10. I had some strange organisms that thrived in a jar i had been growing bamboo in- i have to change the water weekly though, but they died out before then. Some of them were long and black, and most of them were tiny, white and only visible under a light.. dunno what they were tho

  11. 1:04 holy crap that shadow reflection of that person walking by scared the hell out of me I thought it was a reflection from my monitor not part of the video LOL

  12. Always feels totaly like the god old times playing spore, watching this Videos with this kind of background music 😀

  13. What a SILLY, Cilly Ciliate that was!! Like a cracked out little mouse…. lol…
    You know what would be SOOOOO SUPER AWESOME!!???? If you had a contest where the winner/winners get to send you a water sample from their personal fish tanks or ponds or something and you guys do what you do with their sample and make videos on them!!!!!
    That was such a good idea i felt a strong need to like it myself..😂

  14. As an fishkeeper I can say without a shadow of a doubt, if it were not for microbes my fish would die within less than a few days.

  15. Forams are awesome! I studied them in Micropaleontology & especially the benthic forams are wonderfully diverse with their different shell-materials, buildplans & ornamentation 🙂 Thanks & keep up the great work!

  16. I've worked at a fish shop. Have you ever tried to make a saltwater tank like that??… shit. Its science at that point.. hahaha

  17. Did not clean my 220 gallon aquarium (Oscars, pair of jack Dempsey, Arowana, even Discus in the same community), for about five weeks. Just let undergravel filters do the job. The water was pristine, clear, no odor. Siphoned some water & detritus from the gravel, and WOW! the bacteria was incredible. Good bacteria. Bacteria necessary for a aquarium survival.
    And if your water does appear cloudy, or has a stagnant smell…definitely get a Diatom Filter. Using one, you only need change some of the water once a month, or even once every couple months. Diatoms, also filter-out a majority of harmful bacteria. Leave the mess in the undergravel filter alone, unless it starts to clog-up.

  18. We found plenty of tracheloraphis studying the meiofauna of the wadden sea. they are very vulnerable and got squashed by the cover glass so we had to build an aquarium of sorts by breaking a cover in half, putting a drop between the glasses and a fresh cover on top.

  19. hi, you should take water coming from a low-tech aquarium, there is plenty of life in it. in my walstad aquarium i can spot some paramecias, hydras, black worms, and a lot of microscopical animals

  20. Hmm, music does the charm. I lack the charm, so I miss the music. Yet, why don't you experiment with that, and find new vibes, new… depths of not only waterlife, new depths of impression?

  21. I've got two freshwater tanks and I'm curious about the differences in microbes found in freshwater vs saltwater tanks. I've been considering picking up a microscope so this might be something I'll look into myself.

  22. It sounds like you are trying in a very cringy way to do a extra 'professional documentary voice' with a lot of whispering? Can you please try to speak normal/clearly and not in a whispering/fake-ASMR way? I know you can do that, since you are speaking normally in other videos and in parts in this video aswell.

    I know you have put quite a lot of effort into producing this and hope this doesn't like overly harsh criticism. Personally for me this takes away a lot from the overall experience.

  23. My goodness, you have such a soothing voice. Am a I learning or being hypnotized. "You will love microbes. When I countdown . . . Thanks for doing this so well.

  24. Hi, I am searching for a nice microscope. Can anyone recommend me a good one for under 300$? This microscopic world fascinates me.

  25. You could literally spend an entire life looking at water droplet after water droplet under a microscope and it would never get boring

  26. I love seeing the little copepods in my freshwater tanks and knowing that they are giants of the microcosmos, and that the smaller inhabitants are in there even if I don't know who they are <3

  27. James and Hank scoop a droplet from a tank,
    They want to see what peering in can give,
    What secrets big might there be hidden in,
    What could there be that's not in river bank?

    And there he is: mysterious, quick and long;
    Maybe staring back from the grain of sand?
    Maybe he's aware of his keeper's hand?
    If not then why did he decide to go…

    — eh sorry I'm too lazy apparently to keep writing this. I love the video though!

  28. It's ironic that the beauty of animal life that can be seen easily by the unaided eye is so much more brilliant and flashy and colorful in seawater, but the reverse seems true to a certain extent at the single cell microorganism level.

  29. Cool! Aquariums are what reignited my interest in microorganisms. Also, props to James for his microscope skills. I bet it's hard to keep the little guys in the shot, but he does it and well.

  30. Tracheoloraphis, a member of the Karyorelicteans, can be found at over 1 mm in length. (Source: Wikipedia). They are considered Meiofauna. This ends our Scientific Vocabulary Corner.

  31. My cat loves watching that silly ciliate at the end! She almost never pays attention to the TV, but that little guy got her attention!

  32. I know this section isn't a place to make requests, but, it would be awesome if we could see the corona virus under a microscope. It would be very interesting to see what it looks like and how it moves, functions, etc.

  33. WE WANT BLOOD! By that I mean please show organisms inside (and on) our bodies, including organisms in the blood.

  34. Freshwater next!
    Then collab with King of DIY and Life in Jars, then we'll turn you into another aquarium channel!
    It's all going according to plan, muhuhaha! >:D

  35. JttM always makes me smile. This one was no exception especially since I'm having a serious think about setting up an aquarium… again… This time though, I'll be armed not only with fishy knowledge but also with a strong inclination to put smears of some of the goopy stuff from the bio-filter under a microscope. Way to explode the pleasure factor from a water filled glass box!! 😍

  36. Can you film some covid-19 or is it too small? I know it's a macabre request but that's sometimes the nature of life-saving science. Maybe something related to it that's not so dangerous. I don't know. It's just that the microcosmos is a big part of humanity's experience right now. Not in a good way, unlike this terrific channel.

  37. please make more on that godly single cell slithering microbe…….he seem very clever and intelligent and dynamic from his movements and style.

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