Monday, 24 February 2014

Living Fossils

Most children go through a  dinosaur phase, but it has been more than a passing fancy for my oldest, who has wanted to be a palaeontologist since he was 3 years old. So we have the usual collections of rocks and fossils, but sometimes it is nice to see something alive, much as it was millions of years ago. There are some plants and animals that have remained virtually unchanged. Of course none of us can go out a  coelacanth to add to our fish tank, but there are some relics of the dinosaurs age you can keep in your own home.

Fancy three eyed, prehistoric, cannibal pets? Try Triops.

We absolutely love triops. For those of you unfamiliar with these lovely creatures - they are the oldest living animal species on earth. Triops cancriformis has existed virtually unchanged for 200 million years. They have three eyes - hence the name triops and appear to keep growing as long as they live shedding a complete skin every few weeks. These little creatures allow children to own and observe a living fossil, a creature that shared the earth with the dinosaurs, and has survived a number of mass extinction events. There are only two drawbacks to these little beasties in my opinion. The first is that they are short lived. These animals evolved to hatch out in puddles grow and mate quickly ( oh and they can mate and produce young all by themselves - a single animal can impregnate itself and produce young) and then die out leaving the eggs behind for the next rainy season. The second problem is that they are cannibals. No matter how many hatch out - I always end up with one big fat one. I am going to try more substrate and plants next time though in the hopes that some hiding places may increase the survival rate.

In the past - I have bought a number of triops kits. They tend to be fairly expensive for what you get - a packet of eggs - usually this exact same packet eggs stamped Triops USA from Netyfish, a packet of food and a small plastic container completely unsuitable for raising a triops to adulthood. The purchase price for these kits ranges from £9.50 including postage to £21.99 with an average price of around £11. These eggs will cost you £3.00 including postage from Amazon, and if you want the food that will cost you additional £2.00. Postage is automatically combined if you purchase the two items together. It isn't an absolute requirement, but I do prefer to use the prepared triops food when they first hatch, switching to larger foods as they grow. One pack of triops food should be enough to last the average lifespan as the only food.


Ideally you need 4 litres per triops. The containers sold in kits are usually about 1/2 litre. Obviously this is not going to work. I use a cube type fish tank which works quite well. If growing triops in the summer, you can use a plastic goldfish tank, or any other large clean container that has never had soap in it. Any soap residue will kill these. A large well cleaned glass jar will work, as will a goldfish bowl. Even a big new bucket, although that would not provide ideal viewing opportunities. In the winter however you will need a heater - which means you need a glass tank. This is one area where I take issue with many of the kits which claim these can live at room temperature. The recommended temperature is 22 degrees. I have found these do very well without a heater in the summer months, which are still obviously below these temperature, but these are not going to hatch without daytime temperatures of at least 14 degrees and preferably higher, nor will they survive a single night in autumn to winter unless you leave your radiator on 24/7 or use an aquarium heater or heat lamp. Personally I don't quite understand the recommendation of a heat pad or heat lamp made by many triops enthusiasts. An aquarium heater id the ideal way in which to keep an aquarium heated.

You can use a small aquarium filter once your triops reaches 1/2 " or more in size, but a small air stone would probably be better, and unless you happen to have a large a number of triops that have refrained from eating each other, this really isn't necessary. You may also choose to use any substrate suitable for tropical fish, but again it is not required. If you have access to a bit of pond mud, this may provide additional nutrients, but it will also cloud your water.

Please note - these things are microscopic when they first hatch - it will take awhile before you can see them swimming about.


You are meant to use distilled water or rainwater only. I have used rainwater when possible but have also used tap water as long as it is well aged. I simply scoop a bit from my fish tank. Chlorine will kill them though and the drops used for tropical fish don't seem to work for them as other substances in the water that settle with time may pose a problem.


Your triops favourite food will most likely be his siblings. After he has dispatched all of these he will eat triops food, fish food, blood worms, dried brine shrimp, daphnia, tubifex worms, alagae wafers or anything you could feed tropical fish. They love algae as well. They will also eat - a pinch of dog food, lettuce, spinach, apple, boiled carrot or potato, peas, corn, cress, aquarium plants, even the roots of grass. They will eat cooked meat as well, but this will pollute your water quickly. I have allowed mine a tiny bit of cooked chicken, but remove anything leftover after a couple of hours.


This is the worst thing about these creatures. The lifespan is meant to be two months. I have had one for three and a half and it grew huge, but there really is no way to keep these creatures for years. You may be able to hatch the offspring - this requires completely drying out the substrate, preferably for months and then rehydrating. The eggs can not hatch without a dry spell. They also will not hatch until temperatures are right, laying dormant for many years if necessary before the conditions for hatching are correct. They can survive freezing to almost boiling temperatures while dormant.


I do think these creatures are quite educational, but only if you take the time to learn about them. Just watching them swim about isn't highly educational, but if you look them up online, find out how they evolved, how the planet has changed since the first triops appeared and ask why these little things have survived longer than any other animal on the planet - they become highly educational. Our guesses for their survival include: The ability for only one to reproduce, the ability to remain dormant for many years until conditions are right for survival of the hatchlings and the ability to eat virtually anything. I would also recommend " When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched and Pterosaurs Took Flight - A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic". The mention of triops is limited, but this does give an idea of what the world was like in the early Triassic just after the Permian Extinction, which the triops is listed as a survivor of, although to my knowledge the fist fossils date back to just after the event. " When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before Dinosaurs " would also be quite useful as this discusses life before the curtain fell on most of the earth's life forms.


Yes, but preferably for children over age 4. I would also explain to the child before the triops are hatched that they have a very short lifespan, and will not live for more than a few months. My children are still always disappointed when they die, but always want to try again with a new one. If you are wanting to test a child's commitment to keeping a pet though, this might be just the thing. If the child grows tired of it and will not care for it anymore, you won't have too many months of looking after it yourself, and it is pretty low maintenance. I only wish they could breed a strain with a longer lifespan.

I would certainly recommend this package of eggs over any of the sets going. After all, all you can really use out of the triops sets is the eggs and the food so why pay for a plastic bowl and a fancy box?

Summary: A unique chance to own a pet that shared the earth with dinosaurs.

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