There is a scientific term used which is called ‘the gradient concept’. This term basically describes how various marine organisms can be graded according to the amount of light which they receive.
There are two zonal categories which are most commonly used, these are the exposed and the semi exposed zones.
The exposed zone is an environment which is in shallow water and receives a lot of strong sunlight. This is the zone which is typical of the upper reef, otherwise known as a shallow reef. The water currents in this zone are normally quite fast and chaotic, therefore any organisms which live in this area have to be able to withstand such high currents. Due to the high currents there is normally a lot of suspended matter moving around in the water; however with the strong water current a lot of the filter feeding organisms struggle to extract these from the water. This zone is where the majority of the light loving high current SPS corals live and is effectively the environment which we attempt to replicate in the majority of our reef aquariums.
The semi exposed zone is similar to the exposed zone but both the light and water currents are considerably less. Because of the lower water currents filter feeding organisms are able to extract the particulate matter from the water more easily. This zone is similar to that of deeper reef conditions, and is otherwise known as the back reef. In this zone there are still a huge range of photosynthetic organisms which can survive but this zone, because of the lower light conditions, also provides the non photosynthetic organisms with a place to thrive. Again this environment can easily be replicated in our reef aquariums.
In the marine aquatic world there are effectively three more zones which are:
- Semi Cryptic
- Filter Feeding
The semi cryptic zone is the zone which occurs in the sections of the reef which are either deeper down the face or in naturally occurring overhangs in the reef structures. This zone has a very low light level and can only support photosynthetic organisms which can survive in this type of area.
The cryptic zone is the zone which occurs in the sections of the reef where light if any is far too weak to support any photosynthetic organisms in any way at all, and can only support non photosynthetic organisms. In the natural reef this occurs either within caves or deep into the overhangs of a reef structure.
The filter feeding zone is effectively a combination of the semi cryptic zone and the semi exposed zone. The difference in this mixed zone is that there is little light but very strong water currents, therefore particulate matter in the water can be delivered and consumed via the various filter feeding organisms. This zone is normally where the non photosynthetic soft corals occur.
Understanding the differences between the zones enables you to be able to see what zones you currently have in your aquarium – you will be surprised as to how many you actually have. You will probably find that you have many or even all of these types of zones in parts of your aquarium, however some may be quite small – e.g. small caves in the rock face.
You need to consider these types of zones when setting up a new reef system and also when introducing corals into the aquarium. When purchasing a new coral you need to understand the requirements of the coral and ensure that you have an area of the correct zone available in your aquarium to support it.
In your aquarium you will have various zones in various sizes, however one which is a valuable addition to the aquarium is the implementation of a designated cryptic zone.
A designated cryptic zone can easily be implemented into an existing system by adding a new aquarium into the system, possibly next to the sump, in the sump etc. This aquarium is filled with aquarium water via an overflow from the main aquarium or a tee off from an existing overflow. A small amount of substrate needs to be added. On top of this substrate is placed some pieces of live rock, sponges, sea squirts, non photosynthetic corals etc – effectively any non photosynthetic organism which can survive in a cryptic zone. The aquarium should then be effectively covered up to prevent any light from entering. Dirty water (un-skimmed as DOC’s are a requirement in this area) is fed to this aquarium at a very slow pace and there is minimal water current. This un-skimmed water is best fed into the cryptic zone along the top of the water. What this does is allow the particulate matter in the water to slowly settle down onto the organisms so that it can be consumed. The matter also falls onto the substrate. This allows for the growth of the organisms and therefore more removal of particulate matter from the water. Water from the cryptic zone normally overflows down to the sump so that it can be skimmed therefore for this reason you will need to install the cryptic zone aquarium higher than the sump so that it can overflow. It is also advisable to add some types of cleanup crew into the cryptic zone aquarium so that they can deal with any particulate matter on the substrate, rock work etc.
I have seen various designs of a designated cryptic zone in use. Some have even been combined with deep sand beds/plenums. Occasionally if you open up the covers and have a look you will be amazed at the life which is growing in there and how fast it grows. The thing I like about a cryptic zone is that sponges can quite easily grow. Sponges are a good filtration tool and utilising a cryptic zone will afford you the opportunity to grow some of them.
Of course more than one zone can be implemented whether this is directly in the display aquarium or by using external aquariums.