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  • Postlarval Kow

    Christopher Marks

    Congratulations to community member @Postlarval Kow and his 4.6 gallon pico reef aquarium for being selected for our September 2021 Reef Profile! This SPS-encrusted peninsula style pico reef is an absolute marvel to view from every angle. In this article Postlarval Kow shares his experiences in the hobby and this aquarium's journey over the past two years. Please share your comments and questions in the comments section below, and be sure to follow his aquarium journal for additional photos, history, and information about this amazing pico reef tank.

    Postlarval Kow 4.6gal Peninsula Pico Reef


    Tank Specs

    Display: Ultum Nature Systems Rimless 4.6 Gallon
    Rock: About 5 pounds of recycled rock
    Sand: Coarse crushed coral
    Lighting: AI Prime HD
    Heater: Free Sea 50watt

    Chiller: N/A
    Circulation: AquaClear 20 and Koralia 240 Nano
    Skimmer: N/A
    Filtration: N/A
    Filter Media: Occasional floss
    Top Off: Smart Micro ATO
    Dosing: N/A
    Controller: N/A

    Salt: Instant Ocean Reef Crystals at SG 1.025

    Water: LiquaGent 4-stage 75 GPD RO/DI

    Established September 2019




    Peninsula View



    Maintenance Routine

    This system is designed to be minimalistic in equipment and actual work. We never tested anything beyond salinity and temperature, and never will. If something looks off in a small system, a well made water change should fix it (exception: dinoflagellates). Every two to three weeks the tank gets a 50% water change. Feeding happens sporadically, perhaps twice a week, and includes a pinch of Reef Roids mixed with 15 mL of tank water and a fifth of a beer bottle cap of frozen mysid for the fish. If I am at home at night I tend to scrape off algae with a Nano-Flipper and then wipe down the glass to make it shine.


    • Orchid dottyback Pseudochromis freidmanni

    Soft Corals

    • Zoanthids (Rasta, Whammin Watermelon, Hailander, Fiesta, AoG, Cats Eye, Gooshter, SunnyD, Scrambled Eggs, Laser Lemon, Unknown Green and Blue with Spades)

    • Ricordia florida (Rainbow)

    LPS Corals

    • Chalice (Hollywood stunner)

    • Tongue (Orange with purple tips)

    • Hammer (Branching pale green)

    • Turbinaria (Green fire)

    SPS Corals

    • Birds nest (Neon Green)

    • Montipora (Stubbs Green, Mystic Sunset, Rainbow, Sunset, Melonberry)

    • Acropora (Red Planet, Off-brand Tricolor)


    • Astrea Turbo Snails

    • “Orange” Hermit Crab (Taco)

    • Scarlet Hermit Crab (Fajita)

    • Pacific Blue Leg Hermit (Tamale)

    • Money Cowrie (Rangoon)

    • Sea Stars, Flatworms, Red Bugs, Nematodes, and all the standard hitchhikers.


    During 2003, I had a run in with a precocious juvenile bicolored damselfish while snorkeling that ended up shaping my life. In short, I got bit by the reef bug – hard! I ended up studying the ocean as a career (marine ecologist), and have spent a lot more time underwater than I ever would have imagined, both in the sea and with my hands (and sometimes whole body) in aquariums. I devoured the knowledge that was available on Reef Central and on Nano-Reef and have had a reef tank of some sort ever since 2004. The monthly reef profiles taught me everything I know about caring for marine systems, and it is such an honor to have my little water box featured here.


    This tank started out as the first system my girlfriend ever set up, after she came home with a gift of 20 year old live rock (and countless bristle worms) in a bucket. We cobbled together a bare-bones set-up that thrived for a year, until I rushed a water change with an uncalibrated refractometer and killed all the invertebrates while out of town for a week. This tank is the second iteration using the same in-tank equipment, surviving livestock (fish and the crabs) but with “new” rock and RO/DI water for greater consistency. Learning from disaster, now the refractometer is calibrated before every water change and lines were added to the water change bucket to help avoid improper salinities.

    To set up the second round (i.e., this system), we prepared a few gallons of tank water, went to a local fish shop and purchased about 8 pounds of rock from the store's system. The shop owner was kind enough to also give us a couple gallons of water and a bucket to transport the rock so that we had a minimal crash enroute home – key because we already had fish and crabs that needed to live! We then chiseled down the rock to make a fun shape with plenty of holes for the fish, dumped and cleaned the old system and put in the new substrate and rock. We did daily water changes of about 50% for a couple days, saw no ill effects, and then bought some snails and went back to weekly water changes. After two weeks, I grabbed a couple fresh montipora frags, and the tank was off and running – those two nickel and dime size frags now dominate the tank.

    After a year of slowly adding more corals, I upgraded the lights from the generic Amazon fixture to a higher quality, more attractive and more customizable AI Prime system. The only other major change was a move to a new apartment four months ago. To do this, I had water ready at the new place and had measured out a hunk of clear vinyl flooring to sit beneath the stand to make cleaning spills easier. I also decided to buy and install the hanging kit from AI to give the system an even cleaner look. I drained the tank into an 8 gallon Rubbermaid bin with a lid and then placed the completely coral encrusted rocks inside it. Frags and lose zoanthids ended up everywhere of course. I grabbed the fish, threw him in and then we moved the entire system in the backseat of the car. It proved impossible to completely recreate the same placement of the rocks, which unfortunately caused the fiesta and whammin watermelon colonies to melt to about 10% of their previous extent, but the tank rapidly regained its luster after the move and is growing fast again. Since moving I went from weekly water changes to once every 2 to 3 weeks, and the tank has seen no ill-effects. The birdsnest browned out a bit, likely because the tank gets direct eastern sun in the morning. I have also started running floss in the outflow of the HoB filter, because an increase in apartment windows led to an increase in plants, and an increase in plant-associated bugs floating around in the system each day.


    My Philosophy

    My philosophy revolves around slow changes, simple set-up, surging flow, stable salinity, showcase-ability and sustainable sources.


    • Slow Changes
      I am 100% in agreement with the “only bad things happen fast” mantra of keeping a reef tank. Do not impulse buy and do not overreact. After getting the nitrogen dosing system rolling (clean-up crew and a fishy), start with a hardy but wildly attractive coral or two and watch how they react to your system. Polyp extension and growth will tell you all you need about how your tank is doing. The only thing I do not go comparatively super slow with is acclimation. I bank on my system being a higher quality environment than a stagnant plastic bag. For acclimating corals, I place the new arrivals in a glass bowl and dilute the bag water with 50% water from my tank. Subsequently, I dump and replace 50% of the water after 15-30 minutes, twice, for a maximum acclimation time of an hour. I use vigorous basting and a visual inspection to get rid of pests.
    • Simple Set-up
      I dislike additives, testing or added filtration, and trust that the scientists at Instant Ocean know what corals need after decades of product development. If you stock slowly and get into a good rhythm of water changes with your system, it will flourish; the corals want to live and grow after all.
    • Stable Salinity
      You need high quality water and RO units these days are cheap; mine was like $75 on Amazon. You also want to make sure that evaporation does not doom your tank – especially if you have an open top – so an auto-top off is also a must. Finally, you want to make sure that you do not force wild swings in your tank so a properly calibrated refractometer is crucial. I often travel and need to feel comfortable leaving the tank alone (or pestering a friend to look at it once a week).
    • Surging Flow
      Good gas exchange enables a system to process nutrients and (many) corals love flow. If you look at polyps closely on an actual reef, they are always moving around, even when there is little detectable current for the diver. I think this tank has like 600 gallons / hour of flow on a system that holds about 3 gallons of water. I love watching polyps sway around, and the antics of a fish trying to grab morsels of food in high flow are hilarious.
    • Showcase-ability
      Do not put anything in your tank that you are not infatuated with. Space is at a premium and you want to enjoy your tank – not curse a plague of GSP or poncillopora. Same line of thought – make sure that the tank’s components look nice. Switching to an elegant light hanging from the ceiling and hiding a heater in a HoB were some of the best decisions I made. Also, the rimless systems with high clarity glass are so cool. Arcylic is a demon once it gets scratched. Once a specimen is acclimated for a day or two, don’t be scared to break it off the plug and glue it where you want it. Plugs are ugly. A peninsula set-up gives you 3 different sides to view, enabling a variety of colonies to be showcased. I have the light schedule adjusted to the evenings, when I am likely to be around to enjoy it.
    • Sustainable Sources
      The hobby has developed to a point where there are industrial coral and fish aquaculture operations. If you love the ocean, minimize what you are taking from it. The rock I have has been recycled through other people’s systems, the corals are all aquacultured and the fish is farmed. The only thing from the wild is the clean-up crew, which typically consists of species that are prodigious breeders that are naturally subject to high levels of predation and replacement.


    Learning Through Disaster

    This tank has had two major setbacks, one biological in origin and the other mechanical, and both are documented in detail in the tank journal.

    The rock that we used for the set-up had a most unfortunate hitchhiker lurking within its nooks and crannies: a foot-long, snail-killing demon of a bristle worm that was too big for the fish to handle (he tried). After many snails and sporadic sightings, patience (and a pair of locking hemostats) paid off and I managed to remove the beast from the system. My advice would be to use a freshly killed snail as bait to lure the worm into a compromising position. I only got the worm out because it had stretched across the entire tank as it was feasting on something and its head failed to see the hemostats until they locked on his midsection and ripped him out.


    Other biological wars over the past 2 years included a few aiptasia that needed to be killed (AiptasiaX works for me), a few valonia bubbles (remove colony, scrub off valonia, rinse with fresh RO water to burst unseen ones and then tank water to get em gone), dinoflagellates (decrease water change rate, increase nitrogen by adding a fish, insert UV sterilizer as needed), flatworms (naturally cycle – give it a second and just suck them out for a few days; I think the fish eats them now) and red bugs (still there… but the coral is growing). There are also coral battles ongoing, but that is just part of having a small system.

    The biggest hurdle that the tank faced was a complete malfunction of the ATO during a week of cold and dry Chicago winter that resulted in massive evaporation, air exposure, and chilling temperatures. I came back to an apartment that smelled like acropora mucus and a tank that was in rough shape and only half full - of hypersaline water. I acted slowly to bring the salinity and temperature back into line, and did a huge amount of water changes over the next few days to help deal with the coral toxins and death juices that were flowing around. Ultimately, the luster of one colony has never returned (the Sunset Montipora’s space got grown over) and one colony died (yellow tip acropora fully exposed to 66.6 degree air), but everything else has recovered marvelously. The other acropora was majorly impacted, but has since regrown up its lost skeleton and has carved out a new niche where it is sending up apical tips (it ate its way into prime real-estate at the expense of the rainbow montipora).


    Me diving to help clean the Shedd Aquarium Giant Clam Tank


    Honestly, anything that I know about keeping marine systems came from the Tank of the Month profiles on Nano-Reef.com and Reef Central. Kudos to Christopher Marks for keeping this site running for so long. Beyond the online world, I always enjoy visiting local shops to stare at fish and fragments and to see what healthy (and unhealthy) systems look like. One of the best resources for inspiration that rarely gets mentioned are public aquariums. Growing up it was always a treat when my parents took me to the National Aquarium in Baltimore or the invertebrate exhibit (RIP) at the National Zoo in DC. Nowadays, a walk thru the halls of the legendary Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is always inspirational.


    @Postlarval Kow

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    Congratulations! I really like your simple approach to keeping a reef. Your patience and planning have reaped a stunning little reef. Big kudos for sustainability!

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