Nothing exists in a vacuum, and that basic principle holds true in your fish tank, too. The fish, the water, the plants, and even that little glowing treasure chest with a demon’s skull tucked away snugly inside are all part of the aquarium’s delicate ecosystem. The ecosystem lives and dies by what’s known as the nitrogen cycle. Aquariums of all stripes will have this, but all you need to know is this: The circulation of nitrogen-containing compounds is a natural process by which the decaying and dead waste products containing nitrogen are converted by bacteria into harmless substances that are absorbed by the tank’s plants.
To explain it another way, an the nitrogen cycle works like this: Ammonia is expelled by fish through the gills and in their waste products, and the nitrates in that are gobbled up by the plants as if they were a fertilizer, other toxic elements are converted to nitrates by the bacteria in the tank’s filtration system, and then ammonia is also turned into nitrates by the filtration system.
If you’ve ever left a glass of water out overnight, or have ever tasted stale water, you know water quality just dips over time. It happens. There’s nothing you can do to fight it, but by better understanding the nitrogen cycle that takes place in an aquarium, it will lead to your being better equipped and able to take better care of your fish.
In the wild, nature plants and bacteria break down all the harmful chemicals that accumulate in the ocean, pond, lake, or whatever. You can help out the the nitrogen cycle in your aquarium by putting a lot of plants with ample lighting in your tank. Bacteria, fungi, or any other microorganisms introduced into the bottom of your tank that can easily be exposed to air circulation will also help.
You want to assure the nitrogen cycle takes place in your aquarium, though, because without it, ammonia will start to accumulate. If your tank’s pH level is below 7,you’re fine, but check it often – and don’t be alarmed if the pH level rises after you change the water. It could be for any number of reasons, like your tap water having a different or fluctuating pH level.
The main thing to look out for is signs of poisoning: Fish panting heavily and spending most of their time just below the water’s surface is a surefire indicator that the nitrogen cycle is out of whack. So, do something about it!
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