I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

I’m sure this will be the first in a lengthy series of posts with this same title.

Teacher, mother, secret ... wait.  No.

Teacher, mother, secret ... wait. No. Ow.

Let’s explore lighting.  The day that someone says that they want to start a reef tank, someone needs to pick them up by their hair and give them a lecture in energy transmission between organisms.  In all ecosystems, on land or in the sea, it all starts with Mister Sun.  If we can save some time and fast-forward through basic ecology, we agree on two things.  First, we are aware that the food chain draws its initial source of energy through sunlight; second, we don’t have ample natural sunlight penetration in our homes to reproduce conditions found twenty to sixty feet below sea level on a tropical reef for fourteen hours a day (and exposure to moonlight for the remaining ten).

There’s an ongoing science to reproducing these lighting conditions in the home.  Some of the most recent stuff is fascinating, and not just for fish geeks.  It’s long been accepted that the greater the wattage, the better for corals and livestock that engage in photosynthesis.   But lately, we’re exploring different lamps and even LED technologies to produce different wavelengths in the light spectrum, and what we’re gradually learning is that certain fish and coral appear to be best-suited to not only a certain amount of light, but light from a certain spectrum.

Darn skippy I'm getting a clam!

Darn skippy I'm getting a clam! But how to keep it alive until it dies a natural death at the age of two hundred and fifty, now that's the question!

Now, with a little bit of foresight we can see a Huge Fight brewing in the future.  The majority of reef tanks kept by hobbyists are collections of oddities from the oceans of the world.  As long as a species has been designated reef-safe and other hobbyists have reported that it appears to be compatible with the other livestock in the tank, different species are dropped into the same tank without regard for geographic origin or, more importantly, the depth at which they typically reside in the wild.  These both affect the type of light and the quantity of light that reaches a specific organism.  The Huge Fight will likely come from the realization that plopping critters gathered from willy-nilly into the same glass box is done through generalization of information (e.g.: “clams need light!”) instead of specialization of information that takes the needs of individual species into consideration (e.g.: “clams need light in spectrum blahblah for 6 hours a day, and another spectrum for 4 hours…” etc.).

At least the bane of the tank is a lovely color.

At least the bane of the tank is a lovely color.

Which leads me to Peyssonnelia squamaria, or the point of this post.  Peyssonnelia is an encrusting macroalgae.  Some of it hitchhiked in on one of the pieces of live rock I used to set up the 30g reef.  It’s a plating algae and behaves the same way as coralline algae; indeed, much of what I’ve read on Peyssonnelia groups it into the same category as purple coralline because of the way it behaves.  But it’s not.  It’s a pest algae, and much in the same way that hair algae took over the Teabox, Peyssonnelia is taking over the 30g.  It grows slightly faster than many of the sea matt corals, including my favorite zoanthids, and is gradually covering them up.

Or it was.  About two months ago, the lighting fixure that was over the 30g developed a short.  The fixture is a Nova Extreme Pro with T5 lighting, which a fairly new fixture that uses high-output T5 lamps to duplicate multiple spectrums of light.  If you want, you can swap out different bulbs in the lamp to create different lighting spectrums; I had it set with half-daylight (yellow-white), half-actinic (blue) lamps to create a spectrum with 50/50 lighting.  When the fixture lost half of its lights via the short, I sent it back to the factory to be repaired.  However, I have SPS coral in this tank so I needed a high-output lighting fixture to keep them alive while the primary fixture was repaired, so I got a 150watt Sunpod, which offers a single intense spectrum of yellow-white light (yeah, yeah, the ad says blue – it depends on what you read).

And the Peyssonneliabegan has begun to shrivel.

When I saw this, I gave myself a good, solid head-smack.  If Peyssonnelia is similar to coralline, then it thrives under actinic lights.  I thought back and realized that it had begun growing out of control right around July, which was when I installed the T5 light fixture.  When I cut it off from the blue spectrum, it lost part of its energy source; it’s still able to live under the yellow-whites, it just doesn’t get as much of what it needs from this spectrum as it does from a blue spectrum.

I have two choices.  I can break down the 30g tank, but apart from the Peyssonnelia it is doing remarkably well and I don’t want to do that, or I can try to starve it out with HQI lighting.  The whole process has been extremely expensive and I have quite the pissy attitude towards Peyssonnelia at the moment, because light fixtures are the most pricey component of a reef tank.  There is Peyssonnelia on all of the rocks and coral, so unless it dies off entirely (unlikely), I can’t go back to using the T5 fixture… drat, darn, and strong swears I want to use.  I adore that fixture.  It runs cool and the tank sparkles in different shades of blue.  if I do keep the tank up, I can’t stick with the 150w Sunpod, since it’s a cube tank and the light from the Sunpod is insufficient for the volume over the long term.   So this is two expensive light fixtures that are now useless on this tank.  Goodbye money, I’ll miss you and please remember to write.

(I haven’t found anything that eats Peyssonneli, by the way, except maybe a parrotfish, and you can’t cram one of those in a small tank.)


~ by KBSpangler on March 19, 2009.

7 Responses to “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”

  1. Just a random Ursula fan who has been following your blog. I’ve been wanting to get a tank set up. I had a freshwater one a few years ago and I quite enjoyed it. I was thinking of making another freshwater but then got toying around with the idea of a saltwater and started doin some research. Then Ursula announced she was setting up a nanoreef and now I’m seriously considering a saltwater. I was wondering if maybe I could use you as a sounding board for tank ideas? Maybe ask some noob questions (and maybe not so noob questions), get some points clarified. I don’t know any hobbyists in my area and would really like to speak with someone in the hobby. Thanks.

    • I’m flattered to be asked, but I don’t know if I’m the right person to help. I’m fairly new to this myself and I’m still learning, so I might very well steer you in the wrong direction. I’d recommend starting by checking out the posts at:


      This is a forum for nano-reef hobbyists. I’d recommend browsing the beginner’s forum and the member’s tank thread forums. There’s a lot of information for new nano-reef hobbyists in the first, and some great examples of successful tanks in the second.

      • Thanks a bunch for the link. I’ve been pouring over the forums all this weekend. It really does have a bunch of good info.

  2. Since I’m studying chemistry all I can think is “did nobody think to do a chromatography examination of the algae to find out what specific frequencies need to be removed?”
    This developed into “I bet you could whip up a quick column to find out what colours need to be removed” and finally reached “no one is going to be able to do that or tweak their lamps to remove those colours.”
    Red algae… if every other photo-synthesiser is not red/orange, removing as much blue as possible will really hinder them. Green tones might also be feeding them, but I’m guessing since nothing is green that those tones are too damn important. I hope you don’t have to tear it all apart… but I don’t have reef experience.

    • Yeah! We’re not there yet but that’s the awesome part, in my opinion. Someday real soon we’ll be able to check our pest algae and dial the spectrum on our LED light fixture to whatever spectrum significantly restricts growth. It will take quite a bit of research to figure out the specifics but I think that whoever figures out how to make lighting part of pest management will become decently rich, since it’s a chemical-free way to treat the tank and give the clean-up crew a competitive advantage.

      Of course, nature being what it is, one pest algae might die in a specific lighting spectrum while another thrives in it, thus letting reefkeepers swear and swear and swear and swear.

      • Once OLEDs become cheap (and possibly brighter for sunny-condition simulators) the colour choice should be close enough to deal with the pests one colour at a time. So… wait 10 years and buy a new light system? D:

  3. […] let’s distract me by going over aquascaping.  Remember a previous post when I went over the basics of lighting (– Cliff Notes version: if you want to keep coral and […]

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