An almost automated fish farm (but not for Minecraft)

I was following @upulie on Twitter, when I saw that she was using this app, Periscope, to give a demo of what she does in the lab. Hey, I thought, I could do that, so I tried it, and gave a tour of my cheapass zebrafish facility (you don’t need the app to watch it). This is not my fish facility.


That’s the big boys’ and girls’ system at the University of Oregon. So be warned: I just have a single small rack with 8 populated tanks. Also, it’s got nonstop water gurgling and bubbling, so it’s hard to hear me over the pleasant, soothing sounds. My students and I built it out of a plastic rack from Lowe’s, a bunch of PVC pipe, some hydroponics widgets, a big pump, and a cow trough. Our tanks are plastic Kritter Keepers bought from Amazon. The whole thing cost less than $500, and it’s grossly over-engineered. We were basically collecting from two tanks at a time all summer long, and it produced 50-100+ eggs every day, routinely. We’d only need a handful for observations and experiments, and the rest got thrown into an incubator (or down the drain), and the survivors were raised to produce another generation that will be ready to pump out eggs for us next summer. Or I could collect eggs every day during the school year, except that I’m expected to teach, not just play with the fishies.

I should mention that this is also a low-maintenance system. I feed the fish twice a day — you know, the usual sprinkling of a few tasty bits of ground-up invertebrates on the surface — and top off the reservoir and check the water quality once a week. It just keeps going, and would grow and grow if I let it. Zebrafish are so easy.

Periscope is also really easy. I’ll probably try it again later this week; I thought I’d give another tour, this time of my nice Leica scope with epifluorescence and DIC and a Jenoptik cooled CCD camera, which is also a little farther away from the gurgling water system, so maybe I’ll be more audible. Later still maybe I’ll set up some embryos/cells on the scope and give a close-up look at how baby fish are made.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to try some small scale zebrafish production, there are lots of sources. I stole many of the ideas from my pal, Don Kane, who has instructions for a similar little system for zebrafish. Or you can read Lawrence and Mason, who give an overview of basic principles. Kim et al. also published a detailed description of their homebuilt system. Or, if you have lots and lots of money, there are companies that build specialized racks and water systems just for zebrafish, and you don’t even have to get your hands wet or sniff PVC solvent or buy a bunch of interesting valves and widgets that will put you on a DEA list somewhere.


  1. blf says

    Don’t be fooled. The pacific-looking albeit loud alleged zebrafishyfarm is a diversion, hiding the deeply buried vats with the ominous gurgling, puffs of noxious gases, roars, and occasional screams, where ye madde perfessor carries out his real so-called “experiments” (not to mention his underseas hollowed-out volcano lairs).

  2. wzrd1 says

    Wow! That’s an immense amount of effort to maintain (the University of Oregon setup)!
    Just the feeding alone has to be labor intensive as all get-out!

    And to think that I complained about a plain home model aquarium with a few tropical fish in it…*

    *I’ll admit, I’d be going a lot automation crazy if I had to deal with Oregon’s facility. But then, the thought of getting onto a ladder to maintain the upper levels of tanks, well, that’d be simply asking for a major disaster as I fell from the ladder – taking a rank of tanks with me.

  3. dick says

    blf @1, “…underseas hollowed-out volcano lairs.” in Minnesota? Or are you referring to the sea that existed there a hundred million years ago? Otherwise PZ is a fabulous Engineer, having built a tunnel over 1000 km long, under the Great Lakes.

  4. dick says

    blf @1 this is curious, because if PZ designed & built the tunnel, maybe he’s a reincarnation of the Olympian god Hephaestus, whose Roman name was Vulcan, from which we get the word volcano to which you alluded. Hmmmm.

  5. dick says

    I guess I should’ve said that Hephaestus was the artificer of the Olympian gods, which takes us back to PZ’s construction project.

  6. kestrel says

    That is so cool, thank you for the tour! I raise several species of Australian rainbowfish, and I originally used the Critter Keepers too. I’ve been told I’d have more success in hatch rates with a larger tank though as these fish are fairly sensitive, so I’m switching to 5 or 10 gallon glass tanks and have a bunch of Critter Keepers for sale. For the rainbows we use a mop, not marbles, but marbles for zebras are one of those tried and true things.

    I love that you’re using a water trough for your reservoir. The whole system of your water changes is great. I just use a siphon but I don’t have that many tanks!

  7. MichaelE says

    Very interesting, very interesting indeed. Do show more of this magical “your workplace” place :D I’m sure there are other interesting things to see.

  8. says

    Rainbows are about twice the size of zebrafish, so I’d think the small Kritter Keepers would cramp their style. We can keep 20-40 zebrafish in each one.

  9. blf says

    We can keep 20-40 zebrafish in each one.

    You keep about minus 20 zebrafishies (20 – 40 = -20, usually) in each tank? Or should that be about 20 antizebrafishies?

    So, in addition to the mysteries of how poopyhead gets to his undersea volcano lairs, where exactly said lairs are, and precisely what he’s growing in the various vats, we have a new puzzle: Just what is really in the so-called “zebrafishyfarm tanks”?

  10. moarscienceplz says

    I was curious to see PZ’s setup, but Periscope wants access to my camera, location, contacts, and a shitload of other stuff, so no, thanks.

  11. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Bioballs, immersion pump, sand filter…that set up has all the component parts of our worm-farm septic system though in a much smaller scale. Hell, there’s even a cow trough within sight of our septic, mind you, it’s actually being used to water cows.

  12. blf says

    The first rule of Zebrafish Club is…

    The Zebrafish Club is over there. This is the Zebrafishy Movement, unless there’s been another schism.