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Mike Maddox on Nano Reefs
Keeping a Nano Reef is a Whole Different Ball of Wax

Nano reefs are smaller systems that can prove ideal for many reef aquarists. Keeping a nano reef is not, however, the same as keeping a larger reef. In fact, there are many who say that a reef tank should never be smaller than 50 gallons. Not so for aquarist Mike Maddox, whose numerous and varied success with nano reefs led him to author a four part series on Nano Reef Aquaria at the Captive Aquatics blog, and we recently sat down with Mike for an exclusive interview about nano reefs.  

BZN: Thanks for your willingness to share your insights on nano reefs with Blue Zoo News readers. I think a good place to start is to ask you what you would say to a Fennerite (as in a Bob Fenner fan) who has the notion that  an aquarium containing cnidarians will not experience long term success in anything less than 50 gallons of water?

MM: While I could be called a "fennerite" more than not, the success of nano reefs is obvious. I am a "fennerite" to the point where I would (and will) discourage mixing anemones with corals (in most systems) and discourage anemones in nano aquariums, but I am definitely a fan of nano reefs and know they can be successful (I have had one for several years!).  

BZN: Just so we are clear, in your opinion, what is the maximum and minimum size of a nano tank?

MM: I generally quote Julian Sprung on the maximum nano size—at 30 gallons.  I personally put the minimum size at two and one-half gallons, which is a commercially manufactured size, as well as being the smallest size that’s practical for water motion—remember: water motion is more important than lighting!

BZN: Do you subscribe to the principle of at least one pound of live rock for ever gallon of water in a nano tank?

MM:  Yes and no. I don’t think a hard and fast rule is a necessity, because there are as many successful ways to run a nano aquarium as there are successful nano aquariums, so to speak. I have about six pounds of rock in my eight gallon nano reef, and I could easily get away with less or more. I would put a minimum at around half a pound per gallon and one pound per gallon as nearing the maximum. Too much rock interferes with water motion.

BZN: If you had to narrow it down to the essentials, what would you say are the keys to success with a nano reef system?

 MM: Water changes and careful stocking. I see no reason to dose anything in a nano aquarium, because there is no reason to not being performing 50- to 100-percent water changes weekly or every other week, at the least. When stocking, ensure that compatible species are chosen, that the animals aren’t too aggressive, and that they all have similar requirements. 

BZN: What advise might you give to the novice aquarist about appropriate bioload for a nano system?

 MM:  One small nano-compatible fish such as a small goby, clownfish or basslet per ten gallons of water, and stop buying coral once you can’t fit anymore in your tank with at least 2-3 inches between each animal. I actually like to keep fish out of my nanos, simply because I enjoy the greater invertebrate biodiversity that occurs when there aren’t any fish to eat it!

BZA: How is stocking a nano aquarium different from stocking a larger system?

MM:  There is a big difference! In a larger aquarium, allelopathy isn’t nearly the issue it is in a nano aquarium. There have been several times I have seen a tank full of unhappy inhabitants for no apparent reason, only to be told that the aquarist decided to put in a bubble coral, or a hammer coral, or another highly aggressive and highly allelopathic animal. Choosing inhabitants that won’t (literally) chemically ‘nuke’ each other to death is very important. It’s also important to choose animals that won’t physically sting each other to death. One must avoid aggressive corals in nano aquariums. 

BZA How is maintaining a nano system different from maintaining a larger system?

 MM:  Water chemistry issues are radically different and less forgiving in a nano aquarium. It is so easy to chemically “crash” a nano when using supplements, especially buffers and calcium supplementation, because even a slight overdose can cause a lethal precipitation.  All of these problems and more can be solved with weekly water changes of at least 50-percent. Doing so saves you from having to dose any additives. 

BZA: Do you think a beginning aquarist can have success with a nano system, or do you suggest that novices start with a larger system first?

MM:  I feel the issues with a beginner nano are much the same as any beginner aquarium: the more knowledge you obtain, the greater your chance of success.  An ‘all-in-one’ nano aquarium, properly stocked with quality live rock and easy-to-keep corals has a high chance of success.  The issues arise when the aquarist doesn’t take the time to properly educate themselves about the hobby.  The information is out there, it just requires a time investment and the will!

BZA: A nano reef will require pretty aggressive fragging down the road, will it not? What advice do you have regarding fragging coral for novice aquarists with a nano reef?

MM: All too often people think of nano reefs in the same way as a regular reef, just smaller. In my opinion, very few ‘fraggable’ corals make good nano reef candidates. Sure, there are a couple such as acans, blastos, monti caps, etc., and the process couldn’t be easier—simply break or saw a piece off.  You won’t kill a healthy ‘fraggable’ coral like this, I promise. 

BZN: Do you think that the "plug-and-play" nano systems on the market make good sense as a first system, or do you encourage people to build their own system based on their planned stocking list?

MM:  Most all-in-one nano aquariums are excellent, and I highly recommend them. I also think all-in-one nanos help prevent ‘light-hype’—the fad of putting a ridiculous amount of light over a reef aquarium. I most definitely encourage a pre-planned stocking list—I don’t know how many times I’ve uttered “plan the aquarium around the inhabitants”!—no matter what kind of aquarium is used. 

BZA: In your opinion, what are three of the best nano species?

MM:  Ricordea florida and most any species of zooanthids are ideal corals for nano reefs because they’re colorful, fast growers, hardy, able to tolerate a wide range of light intensities, and not aggressive unless physically touching another coral.  I think Royal Grammas make excellent fish for nanos. 

BZA: How about pulsing Xenia?

MM: Xenia is great—fast growing, non aggressive, and fun as it adds motion.

BZA: Well thanks, Mike. We really appreciate your willingness to share your experience and expertise regarding nano reefs, and we will certainly encourage Blue Zoo News readers to visit your blog at https://blog.captive-aquatics.com for the full four part series on nano reefs.

Published 17 April 2009. © Blue Zoo Aquatics  



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