The History of Pico Reef Biology

Pico Reefs | 25th February 2010 | Article by Brandon Mason | View comments (126)

The ‘tank’ as of 24th February 2010

The idea for a truly long term micro/pico reef (for this article, one gallon or less) came to me as I was graduating college and searching the early internet forums for ideas on small reef aquaria in 2000-2001 to see what was possible and establish the current limitations of small marine aquaria. The smallest I could find, in the history of reef aquarium work altogether and in a lot of searching online, were 2.5 gallon tanks- some ranging back into the 1970′s (Thaler Puddle, Dr. Ellen Thaler for example) and an article on interviewing DC Potts about his successful pico tank from the late 90′s.

Feb 20th 2013:

In 2001, even pictures of quickly-assembled gallon and half-gallon experimental aquariums (now common) were not available across the web, especially those using synthetic saltwater, so it was truly untested waters to work with half gallon aquaria that had to meet strict criteria to be valid in my opinion: they had to develop and sustain a diverse population of stony corals, benthic organisms and coralline algae, meet all water support needs with reasonable care (for example, no daily water changes) and they had to last-as long or longer than large aquaria without going eutrophic (high nutrient/algae dominated) relying on biology, not mechanical devices, to run the micro ecosystem. In hindsight they would break every rule the current establishment held against ultra micro aquaria, using simple science anyone could replicate, and the vast resources of the web had the friends I’d need to do it.

Lastly, they had to stand the test of master aquarists across the internet when reviewed-the technophiles like the guy at the rock concert who can tell when the guitarist messes up a single note. Emerging from all that scrutiny and time in preparation should be a new way keeping corals in the home…it’s still evolving as we all exchange ideas and new designs on blogs like this one.

The Reefbowl

One day when walking through Wal-Mart and thinking about design options, I noticed the curved 1.5 gallon vases for a few dollars and thought that would be a neat trial run, a seven dollar reef aquarium. When looking at the vase and thinking about substrates, pumps, etc it dawned on me the little plastic dishes I was using in the lab to keep pothos vines watered seemed the exact diameter of these large vases, maybe it would function like a lid if inverted? So I took the vase home, filled 1/3rd of it with oolitic substrate and saltwater and decided to bubble it instead of a pump, primarily I wanted to use gear I already had and the old aquarium pump happened to be there.

I knew not to add animals; this was just to test heating and salinity control. Well in four days the salinity had only increased from 1.023 to 1.024, the water line dropped only a quarter inch, and that was it-the design was lucky and worked perfectly with no further modifications. For the first time, a gallon reef aquarium had surpassed the top off requirements of a 100-gallon aquarium without complex equipment, and it was easily repeatable to anyone who wanted to try with common Wal-Mart supplies. The air stone met all the circulation requirements of the tank, it kept CO2 from accumulating so it lent strong pH support, it is the absolute ideal way to run a vase reef for these reasons, above any water pump. No animals in situ mind the air bubbles whatsoever… Normally, this combination of gear would be frowned upon in the established reef circles, so this presents another way to bend the rules unique to pico reefs.

The vase continued to evolve and it can be found by searching for anything with vase reef or reefbowl (non spaced) in the wording, there are thousands of threads about it all over the web because I spend a lot of time promoting, discussing and helping others replicate the art. My current vase reef is 4 years old and I expect it to run much longer barring hardware failures (knock on wood). Recently my friend Mark K. (Warlion) developed the vase even further by drilling the line access into the vase, rather than over the lip. This has added two more days between top offs, an unheard of maintenance schedule for any reef aquarium.

Additional pico reef photos can be found here.

The 1/2-gallon PalmTop Reef-No Evaporation

As the reefbowl sat and inspired me further, collecting simple corals that got along well, other ideas such as complete sealing came into mind and one day it snapped in my head to simply include a refugium as a rear subdivision in a tank, obscured by a false reef wall, to use photosynthesis to pump out oxygen under a sealed lid. This would bind respiratory waste CO2, stop evaporation altogether, it would bind up nitrogen and phosphates in the macro algae to some degree, and combined with weekly water changes (something not procrastinated if only one gallon and three minutes) the Palmtop Reef was assembled out of a special beta tank available at the time.

The first long term half gallon reef aquarium documented on the internet, and still the only fully documented sealed reef aquarium (non evaporating) of any size, this helped pico reef keepers find a unique niche among large-tank husbands who were once sure such a thing was impossible I could see in the web forums. Together online we worked out a carbonate dosing system for the micro tank which produced miniature acropora tabular growth and copious coralline algae, this indicated the ion support was spot-on even with no testing of any water parameters outside of salinity! My simplicity requirements had been met–no exceeded.

There was so much helpful input from other posters along the way to help me further my cause, Lunchbucket (Eric Peterson) is a fine example, he and I go way back in the reef forums (before 2003) and his tanks were a source of wonder for me as well along with many other board regulars who chimed in with support and help as needed …all the help needed was on the internet and for that I am so grateful.

Chemical/Physical Changes

Over the years in discussing forum threads about keeping marine aquaria in odd shaped containers, we are starting to see how shapes beyond the standard open square aquarium greatly change, and assist, the keeper if they are willing to make tradeoffs. The first tradeoff is fish, don’t use them in any pico reef is my best advice. I have experimented with fish like gobies before, and don’t agree they should be kept in ultra small aquariums. By excluding fish in the design, there are no size restrictions for aquaria that can grow scleractinian corals.

For example, the fluted vase reef design is an absolutely critical shape for many reasons. The slant of the neck above the water line and under the lid forms a catch surface where the popping bubbles eject various fragments and wastes from the water column; this can be wiped periodically and is essentially a functioning skimmer. The lid rests on the inner diameter of the vase neck, something not possible in square tanks, and this directs the splatter back down into the bowl and away from the edges where salt creep would form in the usual situation around a lid, and it also seals the tank, taking it from a 2x daily top off opened to a twice weekly top off with a lid!

Continuing the ways container shapes change the physicality of a reef aquarium, Orb-type nano reef aquaria reveal an ever-increasing surface area for evaporation to occur as the water level drops (small surface area when full, large surface area approaching the equator of the orb or bowl) so the salinity increase is on an apparent log-scale just like pH, it’s not a consistent evaporation rate when compared to a square tank. Evaporation rates between days 3-4 are markedly faster than on days 1-2 on a globe/orb saltwater aquarium after a top off because as the water level drops more surface area is exposed to amplify water loss.

For total salinity control, small containers that can be sealed, and subdivided for plant growth, are the right size to use small lights and pumps that would otherwise overheat a larger sealed reef attempt and these small containers are also dwarfed by a basic desk fan when cooling needs arise during summer months. Knowing these variables ahead of time greatly hastens reef work in odd or small containers; this is helpful to keep in mind.

Just to mention a few final observations, which are better left as subject material for expert marine biologists, pico reefs are also changing what we observe as allelopathy or “war mechanisms” in scleractinian or “stony” corals because of the concentration ratios seen in these tiny tanks. How is it possible for 15 genera of coral, plus assorted invertebrates and mollusks, to share a gallon of water day after day in between servicing for years and not nettle the water into a mucus-laden soup?

These answers can be found in the further study of pico reef biology, there should be lots more to come over the new year as others make their observations known and we all continue to create a collective knowledge pool for the matter.

In closing, some people feel the micro reef designation will soon become the most popular in the hobby for a number of reasons listed in common nano reef articles (cost/footprint etc). A keeper or a future keeper of pico reef aquaria will have done much online research to get where they want to be since that is the only material available on the matter, so this networking combined with the use of maricultured corals and tempered experimentation should continue to bring our hobby into new homes at an astounding, and ethically sustainable rate.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss pico reef biology even further, be sure to leave a comment below.

About the author:

a unique passion for the smallest reefs since 2001... Discovering new techniques to forward coral husbandry and aquarium science is not size restricted, it's creativity restricted.

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126 Responses on The History of Pico Reef Biology

  1. yolanda says:

    hi again, would you like me to re-post those last msgs here? they were very helpful. also, i’m not sure if it is diatoms b/c they won’t come off and the rock stays brown. they’re that color in the original setup picture, i think, but maybe more pronounced? also, i think maybe some of the purple coralline is turning green, is that possible?

    lastly, my temps range from 74-77 w/o a heater. is that ok or is that too much of a swing?

    things are going good! i just added another cerith, a zoa and sand polyp yesterday!

  2. Brandon Mason says:

    No its ok I wrote those custom for you no need to repost. If the temp taken is accurate then thats too low. Keep the pico in between 76-78 for the correct metabolic rate for the tank.

  3. Brandon Mason says:

    Regarding your rocks with that brown, any time you see it, make it gone. In your case lift out the rocks, and swish them around in a container of clean new saltwater, maybe brush it off to assist.

    Put them back in the tank clean, work lightly around whatever corals you have glued or attached to the rock.

    Repeat as needed, at no time should a pico reef have an invader its a simple as that. Many threads exist on various peoples ideas on how to deal with pico reef invaders, many offer the “let it run its course” option, its a different method vs what sustains the longest lived pico reef.
    My peroxide threads pretty much rely on people to follow common methodology, we only get them after everything else has failed

  4. yolanda says:

    thank you so much!!

  5. James Henson says:

    Hello again. I greatly appreciate the information you shared with me earlier. My 2 gal. Reef has be up and going for over 3 months now, and it has by far outperformed my expectations. I have more than a dozen different corals, a small emeral crab, two blue hermits, three snails, brittle star and a small cucumber.
    The tank is sealed with almost zero evaporation .
    I would love to send you some pics of my Slightly unique skimmer design. But I am viewing this on my iPhone , and have had know luck figuring out how to post pictures .
    Thanks again for all of the useful information that greatly comtributed to my success with this project.
    I have 200 gal. Reef built in my wall but I absolutely love this little tank.

  6. BeastModeREEF says:

    Peace Brandon,

    Here’s the link to my updated pic of my Vase Reef.

    New video is coming soon.

    Blessings To All..

  7. yolanda says:

    i added more questions and replied to your last messages at…sorry to post here but it’s been awhile and i’m not sure you knew…thanks!

  8. […] { googletag.display('div-gpt-ad-1335891499411-1'); });…o-reef-biology Check that link out. I'm going into this well educated, for the most part. I didn't wake up this […]

  9. […] time I post, if you're wondering why I'm putting a reef in a vase, this link will be helpful:…o-reef-biology Went to Goodwill last night and picked up my 'tank' :P Also picked up an extra just in case […]

  10. Peace Brandon,

    I’m taking a chance to show you my updated Pico Vase Reef since I’m still “awaiting moderation” for the 2 previous posts.

    Anyway, it’s now the 8th month with our Vase Reef and it’s doing GREAT!!! As you can see from the pic, all the corals are growing and spreading. Still doing the weekly water changes and I’ve added a 25% mid-week water change but no feeding on this day. Just replacing some trace elements and calcium with this change, and it’s helping the corals much.

    Still no coralline algae on the glass as I’m constantly making sure it doesn’t take hold on the glass and I don’t want the algae using up the little calcium and trace elements needed for the corals. I do have the GSP growing on the back glass and I’m going to remove them and use that space for my mag-frag plugs, to put more colorful zoanthids.

    Still caring for this Vase Reef as if it were day 1. Anyone with pico reefs should invest in a large magnifying glass. Believe Me, it has helped in spotting anything you don’t want in your pico. Well, enjoy the new update and please comment.

    Blessings To All.

  11. […] started a week after my first aquarium, my Neolamprologus multifasciatus tank. Largely inspired by Brandon Mason's Vase Reef. The Tank: The container is a 1.5g glass drink dispenser I got at Walmart. It measures about […]

  12. jorge says:

    Hey I had a 5g pico and have opted to try your design. What do you do to control algae any clean up crew and by feeding what do you feed also how did you drill the thin glass on the vase? Thanks!

  13. Brandon Mason says:

    Hi Jorge nice to meet you

    The glass was drilled by my skilled friend and musician Mark K, warlion online…he’s deft with a dremel and the build pics above show his steps with putty and water

    My way of pico reef keeping would be summarized this way:
    -no fear of large water changes, frequently changes all of the water when available. Relies less on equipment and nearly no testing of water params due to the water changing.

    - I practice zero algae tank keeping, at no time can you find algae in any of my tanks as detailed above in the links to our algae control threads.

    -low fish bioloading or the use of no fish, coral and invert focused systems

    -strong use of two part dosers and strong calcium and alk levels

    -my systems employ evaporation controls so that topoff is limited or in the case of the sealed tank topoff is not required.

  14. Brandon Mason says:

    2014 Update

    Reefbowl doing well, the major regret I have now is ever using red corallimorph mushrooms in the design. they have taken over 1/3 of the bowl which isn’t hard to do when the total aquascape is 8 inches across :)

    but really its a struggle, they are stinging other corals. as my youtube videos show, 35% peroxide does not kill zoanthids or mushrooms, it induces pedal laceration and division/budding reproduction as a paradoxical effect to stress. so it makes the problem worse

    my red mushrooms are immune to fire burning, yes fire burning.


    here’s how it works. I can stick a blue jet windproof flame lighter in the empty bowl during a water change. but you can only deploy fire in a delicate, photon degraded hobby glass sphere only so long before waste gas is an issue, o2 displacement, and raw stress. so about 10 second bursts is all I can do…and thats not long enough to even marginally singe a red mushroom hanging in the air.

    try it, it wont kill them, you dont even have to have 9 year power morphed resistant corals from a reefbowl :) its just a fact that mushrooms are too wet and too slimy to be killed reasonably by fire.

    so next up is me buying a 280.00 laser…

  15. Brandon Mason says:

    Few more updates for May 2014:

    -will do majano wand as opposed to the laser for the red mushrooms. It will take some time for my blastomussa colonies (over ten years propagating within pico reefs, this is my last of the mother colony) to recover, I’ll post some pics of damage before and after and probably some removal vids using the wand. Amazon, majano wand. $119 thanks to friend seabass ion for the referral.

    -in doing pms at ( I stumbled across an unspoken detail I’d been relying upon for new keepers to know…air current requirements of the reefbowl. My vids show strong current, air on high pretty much, but others took it to mean even light bubbling would work and that should be clarified:

    A reefbowl is unique in the reef keeping world due to being able to dial in your evaporation rate for a given time interval simply by adjusting the velocity of your airstone. You can dial it down so low that your topoff is once a week :) but that’s not the intended gas exchange for long term use, corals will suffer. Being able to skip a single day without topping off on a non sealed, non ATO (auto topoff for salinity control) reef tank already means you are spoiled rotten dont ask for too much of it first week lol

    I’m putting this here because lots of readers are directed here in pm to pick up all our brainstorms on reefbowling and I don’t want to overlook that detail again.

    You will be able to dial down the typical metabolic rate for your bowl into something useful for a 3-5 day vacation occasionally no problem, but typically you need to be topping off every other day as that means you are driving the gas exchanges we want for a high energy micro reef.

    I’d really like to know from some of our recent posters above how things are going. After an initial touch base people tend to modify these things on their own…

    For fun scavenger hunts, try and figure out how my friend cichlidmania26 on youtube figured out how to get a reefbowl to run .023-.025 (an acceptable max range for a pico reef on a slow evaporation challenge test) TWO WEEKS untouched

    His trick was so simple I’d have never thought about it. Simplicity making the hugest impacts was the whole point of this article and thanks for reminding me of that with your awesome two week trick CM26 you have my respect.

  16. Brandon Mason says:

    What to have in place when setting up your reefbowl, pre-empting the inevitable power outage:

    mine is simply another airline input into the lid. since my reefbowl has so much live rock, literally packed wall to wall, I have to use 4 line incursions into the bowl now that it has advanced age:
    1. heater line cut and spliced into the grommets shown above
    2. airline input
    3. second airline input (one isn’t enough w this much lr)
    4. battery backup airline input

    How to handle temps on a reefbowl in power outages:

    -winter, see car battery+radioshack power inverter options. can run a standard tank heater all weekend.

    -summer, consider the full water change technique using water prepped to 78 degrees in a cool water sink to bring down temps of your holding water while you are having a heat spike

    consider wetting paper towels and putting them in the fridge or freezer to zap cool them, then lay them all over the bowl to evap cool. Ive done this twice now in the dead heat of summer while AC units were being replaced and my house was 90 inside for two days. to beat that, I did back to back water changes when temps went above 84 and just toughed it out until they fixed the ac and the reefbowl went on just fine.

  17. Peace Brandon,

    On hot days, my home is usually around 84 deg. My vase got as high as 86 deg. for a few hrs. Then it goes down in the evenings to around 82.

    In that case, I will do a 1qt. water change daily, no feeding. If the temp. is around 82 in the morning, I will replace 1qt. with aged prepared saltwater and have that temp. around 80. Then I drip this into the vase.

    Also, I removed the airstone, made an air diffuser out of a small Poly-Filter pad, cut 1″ x 3/4″ piece, use a pen to poke a hole 3/4 deep into the pad, inserted the airline tubing into that piece, put into the vase, and increase the air output on the air pump.

    My DIY Poly-Filter pad diffusser acts as an air stone with larger bubbles, and at the same time, it creates a suction on the pad and collects some of those free floating particles in the vase. It also changes colors after a few days, indicating that it’s working as an absorbent filter.

    Ammonia,Phosphates, Organics are removed by this process, resulting in less stress on corals from the heat wave and results in crystal clear water.

    Poly-Filters is highly absorbent and removes many organics, harmful compounds, and changes a certain color indicating what it’s removing. In my case, it’s always brown, meaning organics.

    That’s how I’ve dealt with my mini heat wave last year, which lasted almost a month. Everything thrived and nothing was lost or bleached. I think that the worst thing to do in that situation is to make sudden, drastic temperature changes. That will stress the corals, and stability is what we’re after.

    If your vase is getting too hot, move it to a cooler location, add a fan, or do what I did here. Don’t look at the temp. of your vase, see that it’s 86, then do a water change that’s 82 deg. You may get away with this once, but if you’re having a heat wave, then I recommend the above and the least amount of sudden temperature changes.

    If you have a water pump circulating in your vase, remove it, as this will generate more heat in the water column, and add an air diffusser and air pump. Water pumps in a vase can increase the temp. up to 4 degrees on small pumps.

    Blessings To All.

  18. beastmodeREEF says:

    Peace To All,

    Here’s Maritza, The Vase Reef 2014

    Blessings To All.

  19. Brandon Mason says:

    I enjoy reading your updates and have linked your tanks in several threads, you are indeed following through nice job ~


    current trends I’m getting in pms across reef forums and online threads:

    how to know if your light selection is right for any pico reef, not just a reefbowl-

    There is a great method nobody uses to select lighting for nano reef use, its simple. be able to link a thread where your light added basal mass and vertical height to sps on a frag.

    We tend to select lighting based on price first, then a few pics. Doesn’t all bluish lighting pretty much look great on a nano? Spectrum charts and constant updates to led vs t5 vs mh vs pc (my reefbowl still uses 1990s era power compacts) make your first lighting choice an impossible guess, start with a light that simply is shown to grow coral vs the sales pitch that really caught your eye

    Don’t think old fashioned reef lighting was terrible, it still grows my sps. In this article we have proof that cheap 13w pc bulbs and ballasts from will grow sps.

    But these run hot, and burnout fast as the trade off, with no particular spectrum bragging to bring to the table.

    Call power compacts what you will, but they pass the only test that matters, so feel free to choose among any reef light spanning the last 20 yrs for your pico reef, it will work if it can pass the test

    I’m in the market for LED now, to clean up my install. It will be my first LED for coral use (talk about behind the times) and this test has already been applied…Currently a custom bulb is my top runner, myriad examples simply show sps adding mass and the reefbowl has mass to support. It produces copious frags of low end montipora and acropora lol

  20. yolanda says:

    hi brandon,
    long time no see! my pico is still alive! i don’t know i’d say it’s thriving, since i’ve been terrible about maintenance the last several months or so, but here is an update:

    some questions about your previous update above:
    1. so, kind of a bummer to read about your red mushrooms, b/c guess what kind i have? LOL so, can i just take it off the live rock and give it away? mine isn’t glued down.
    2. i have an airstone. i don’t know that i’ve ever adjusted the airflow. i didn’t even know you could. i think i put it on max when i first installed it. but with the lid, i can go for a loooooong time without a top off. so long, i can’t even estimate. i don’t test everyday, but when i have, i’ve never been below 1.022 or 1.026 and 99% of the time i’ve been between 1.023-1.025. should i switch to a different air source.

    thanks for your help!

  21. yolanda says:

    Also, can you just link to cichlidmania26′s video? I tried searching, but I don’t even know what I’m looking for! Thank you.

  22. Brandon Mason says:

    Hi Yolanda thanks for the updates, the system looks great.

    Regarding cichlidmania26 he may have changed his profile name I no longer see it on the searches, that was a couple years ago he and I were in communication. Either way its still a great and simple mod he did, he simply added a low level powerhead in the tank for major circulation and turned the air down to a trickle resulting in a two week topoff ability…not good for daily running, but an amazing occasional way to get out of town unshackled lol

    the mushrooms you have are a double edged sword. you simply must choose based on future visions for your aquarium as to whether or not you should house them. they are excellent starter corals, mine hitchiked in on a little frag and I had chose to keep it

    they cant be removed from the rock without leaving pedal tissue behind that grows into new corals./ mushrooms

    removing the entire rock and trading it would be the right way, or like Im faced with you remove them after the fact with majano wands or very destructive rock scraping, these are things to consider when housing mushroom species in pico reefs that will one day wind up housing sps and lps as well.

    its also possible your mushroom will stay contained, unable to predict. the potentiation within that species is what to consider, not a guarantee as to whether something will or will not overtake a system.

    your zoanthid pictures show something called a raised or extended hydrodynamic profile, typical for pico reef conditions. compare and contrast this growth form to the natural mat growth form of colonial anemones/zoanthids which were shown in that thread as short and stubby, all interconnected by the fleshy connective tissue. it means your zo’s are having to compensate for something, typically light or flow. there is no guarantee it can be fixed, I have zoanthids that display both growth forms at the same time in my bowl.

    Per your reports about parameters, nothing should be changed about your air usage. considering I too have the same air usage and zoanthids with good and bad hydrodynamic profiles, there is no known way other than guesses as to how to fix it.

  23. Brandon Mason says:

    I believe he posts under Tyler Johnson now on youtube, he has many bowl videos
    he does really well with them

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