Red Slime... Algae?

You've just set up a great reef tank and your sand is clean and your live rock seems to be flourishing. Then without warning, over the weekend, all that great sand and rock is covered with a thick mat of slime. So, what is it and why is it bad? Maybe, even more importantly is the the question of how to get rid of it.

Very likely the little buggers that are causing all of you pain and suffering are collectively, commonly referred to as Red Slime Algae. But oddly enough, it is not algae at all. This common title is actually a misnomer on two counts, the first, as I have just mentioned is that this substance is not really algae at all, instead it is actually a form of bacteria. In fact the more correct term for this life-form is Cyanobacteria. For our second misnomer, Cyanobacteria actually translates as "blue-green" bacteria, not red at all. But even this proper name is a bit misleading because in fact this annoying carpet of critters can come in many colors, from the blue-green that it's name implies to red to even almost black.

What's the difference between bacteria and algae? Great question! In the easiest sense of distinction algae is a very biologically simple plant made up of eukaryotic cells (this means that algae cells do have a nucleus). Algae comes in many forms and colors just as Cyanobacteria does. The difference then, is that Cyanobacteria is an even biologically simpler organism, namely, bacteria. Cyanobacteria, then isn't a plant at all, nor is it an animal. All bacteria, including our cyan/red/black carpetting friends are members of a different classification known as Monerans and while cyanobacteria does seems to be photosynthetic they tend to thrive equally if not more so on nutrient items found within the water itself than on provided light. The final easy difference between algae and cyanobacteria is that while algae is made of many eukaryotic cells, cyanobacteria is comprised of prokaryotic cells (this means that cyanobacteria cells do not contain a nucleus).

For the most part cyanobacteria is reletively harmless, however ugly and frustrating that it may be. But if left untended it can very quicky cover not only your sand and liverock but, also your glass, back wall, and corals. Because more light reaches the sandy bottom than the undersides of rocks and other places that might be in shadow or less easy to carpet, corals and features resting on the substrate or other flat surfaces will be the first to be affects. For example a plate coral that has placed it self or been placed on the substrate where it can streatch out and thrive will be in the perfect range for a flanking invasion of bacterial forces. The plate coral will likely become annoyed and close up giving the bacteria an excuse to continue their ground covering. Because a plate coral is mostly photosynthetic in nature, it certainly wont be long until all you have left is a bleached skeleton of a coral that was. The decaying and disolving of the coral body and algae within, unfortunately serve to feed the cyanobacteria menace.

So, what does the cyanobacteria eat? Cyanobacteria eat like algae by absorbing nutrients from the water through their cell membranes. Once such major food source for cyanobacteria happens to be phosphates. A phosphate (PO4) is a chemical compound consisting of the elements phosphorus and oxygen and are generally released into the water through the decaying and disolving of biological waste. This can be as plant or coral material, waste from uncured live rock, dead fish, excess food, biological waste from fish, or even melting pockets of phosphates near your cities water supply or your houses well. As mentioned above sunlight also contributes to the emergence of cyanobacteria, but because everything else in your tank needs light it is wise to treat this as a water condition problem rather than and equipment or lighting issue.

Ok, it's a water problem. How do I correct the issue? There are a few steps that you can take when trying to get rid of this nuicence. The first and most obvious step is to do an immediate water change making sure to remove all of the slimy mass as you can without causing stress to your coral, clams, or other bottom dwellers. Then if possible use RO (reverse osmosis) water as your new fill water. If this is not possible you should still use charcoal filtration of some type to remove any thing else that may serve as fuel for the bacteria. Following the fitration you should go about adding your fill water as normal, using your typical substances and temperatures and salt. Even after this cleaning and water change is done there will still be areas of cyanobacteria just waiting for the next coral to die, you to feed your fish more than they can eat, or for your tank inhabitants to use the little fishes room. This is where a specialized cleaning crew or chemical agents can be used.

Likely the only cleaning crew member that you will be able to find is the Black Sea Urchin. Though, in most cases, it's more likely that the cyanobacteria will grow faster than the urchin can eat it. The outcome of this will likely be that the urchin will simply not get all of the nutrition that it needs to survive due to the substrate being locked from the carpet of of the slime. A far better solution is to consult your local fish store (LFS) for chemical treatments. Many of these treatments claim to work within 24-48 hours. Though, more reasonably it will take more than one treatment to resolve the problem. Whichever option you choose, make sure that it is not one that will stress or poison any of your live stock. Also, make sure to ask your LFS employees if they have tried any of the treatments they sell and if so, which one worked best for them. Then as always be sure to consulte and follow all of the directions on the packaging to avoid over or under-dosing your tank.

The best course of action for continued freedom from this purple pest (or red, or green, or brown, or black) is to do weekly water changes with RO or carbon filtered water (remember RO water is the best) and to be sure to not overfeed you fish and other livestock. Another option for a bit of security is a product that is quite often referred to as a phosphate sponge. These are available from almost every LFS and will assist in filtering out excess phosphates in your tank's water. All of these are made of reletively the same substance, but almost every one of them come in different forms. Again, ask your LFS employee which one would be the best fit for your tank.

As a note about the damage that cyanobateria can cause to your corals and other sensitive bottom dwellers, it may be a good idea to pick up some bottles of suplements to assist your damaged friends in healing and getting back on their feet.

Overall, if the cyanobacteria is taken care of as soon as it is noticed and is then maintained properly, you should be able to keep the level of annoyance these billions of bacteria might have otherwised cause to an unnoticable minimum.

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