Update Dec. 27, 2022:
SelfSustainingEcosystem.com does not manufacture Ecospheres. We cannot recharge your Ecosphere.
The company that produces Ecospheres, Ecosphere Associates, went out of business in early 2022. I was able to establish contact with the previous owners to find out what happened. The business closed due to increasing pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting supply chains and recent legislation in Hawaii that limits the capture and sale of wild marine life, including Opae’ula shrimp.
Update Dec. 30, 2023:
I found a manufacturer on Amazon selling a product that is identical to Ecospheres called “Ecosmos”.
There was a gap in the market for the last couple years that seems to have been filled by a new company selling a functionally and aesthetically identical product. I haven’t purchased one myself so I can’t vouch for it with 100% certainty, but here’s a link if you want to check them out for yourself. They even sell the exact same ecosphere size variations. Here is the small round “Ecosmos” ecosphere.
Purchasing an Ecosphere in 2024
The original Ecosphere is no longer available for purchase from the original manufacturer (Ecosphere Associates, located in Tucson, AZ).
However, it should be clear that there was no secret recipe – the Ecosphere is so successful as a self sustaining ecosystem because of the Halocaridina rubra, or Opae’ula, which are extraordinarily resilient and long-lived compared to other shrimp. The rest of the components of the Ecosphere are unremarkable – the sphere has a removable plug to fill the aquarium, the water is a brackish mix made from marine salts, and the microbial/algae population is recruited from an existing aquarium.
Given the simplicity of the system, it’s very possible to make your own Ecosphere – the guides on this site can help you in setting up your own aquatic jarrarium. Alternatively, new vendors have cropped up online selling Ecosphere knock offs. I haven’t purchased them, so I can’t vouch for them, but they look pretty identical. Let me know your experience if you get on!
Recharging an Ecosphere in 2024
Previously, I declined all requests for Ecosphere refreshes and maintenance because SelfSustainingEcosystem.com is not the manufacturer.
However, I am now leading the science development of a mission to send an Ecosphere to the International Space Station to monitor the impact of the space environment on a self sustaining aquatic ecosystem. In pursuing this, I’ve established a mature Opae’ula colony and gained quite a lot of experience with this ecosystem.
I am now offering Ecosphere recharges within the continental US for $100 USD. Yes, this is fairly expensive, it’s intended to artificially limit the number of recharge requests I receive. Recharging ecospheres is not meant to be a business for me, but a way to spread awareness and passion for closed ecological systems.
My Ecosphere recharge service is more of a rebuild – I will empty your container and refill it with an improved version of the ecosystem that we use for research ( the major change is that it includes a living Chaetomorpha macroalgae instead of the dead Gorgonia sea fan decoration).
Send me an email through the contact form and I’ll get back to you as soon as I see it.
The EcoSphere is the most recognizable of ecosystem-related products. It’s the poster child for self-sustaining ecosystems in the public’s mind.
And, truthfully, it’s one of very few products that actually does meet the standards to be truly self-sustaining. It is materially-closed. The only input is energy from light and ambient temperature.
Even more impressive, the EcoSphere achieves these criteria while being a successful commercial product. Their website boasts of having sold almost a million of the little globes. It’s easy to understand why: they’re not prohibitively expensive, they require virtually no maintenance, and they are actually interesting. Anyone could toss some green, slimy algae in a ball and it would stay green for many years. Having active, macroscopic critters in the form of shrimp is what makes that EcoSphere truly unique.
That being said, there is some contention surrounding the EcoSphere – namely, the fate of the shrimp.
Halocaridina rubra, often referred to by its Hawaiian name “Opae Ula” or Red Volcano Shrimp, is an incredible little crustacean. They can tolerate the extreme conditions found around, well, volcanoes. They can survive in tide pools, which are generally harsh environments. These shrimp even live up to 20 years, despite being less than an inch long.
This makes them an excellent candidate for an EcoSphere… because it is also, unfortunately, a harsh environment. Ecosystems with a small volume are very sensitive to change, be it temperature, light, or chemical levels. Leaving your EcoSphere on a shelf with too much sun for even one day could prove lethal if the water gets too warm.
While light levels can be controlled, the chemical profile of the closed system is beyond tampering. The most common failure point for an aquatic ecosystem is ammonia toxicity – as waste is generated and as organisms die, they decompose into ammonia, which needs to be converted into nitrite and then nitrate so it can be eaten by plants or algae. You can imagine in a tiny ecosystem like this one, a single shrimp dying is a significant amount of the biomass in the system. Introducing all of that ammonia into the system at once can cause a toxic shock, interrupting or destroying the microbes that are needed to convert it into less toxic substances. Small systems like the Ecosphere walk a fine line trying to balance life and death to avoid being overwhelmed.
That is the primary argument against Ecospheres – you are jailing shrimp in a tiny volume of water that may or may not slowly choke them with their own waste. It’s very difficult to tell beforehand if that will be the case, as ecosystems are generally too complicated to be replicated reliably. And since the system is closed, you can’t measure the water parameters or adjust them.
In my opinion, the bigger issue here is that many Opae Ula are wild-caught. They’re incredibly hard to breed in captivity, as hobbyists could tell you, so the shrimp used in the original EcoSpheres were harvested from the islands of Hawaii. The bottom left shrimp in the picture below has fertilized eggs visible, but the babies never arrived!
Is wild-caught shrimp sustainable? I’m not sure. We’ve witnessed the perils of over-fishing many other times, though. Wild-caught stock is the seedy under-belly of the aquarium trade, and I’d rather not support it.
Apologies if this review sounds scathing – I don’t hate the EcoSphere. I actually quite love them. In fact, I am sending one to the international space station as part of my Master’s research on closed ecological systems! Check out the details here.
You could always make a jarrarium yourself (for cheaper), but not everyone wants to do that. If an EcoSphere sparks in a child a love of science, or convinces an adult to care about conservation, then its good will far outweigh any harm.