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Our Life With Triops

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"Grandma’s sending me some dinosaurs for my birthday," my son announced with excitement as he hung up the phone. “You put them in water and they come alive!” I had a feeling there might have been a misunderstanding, or, knowing my mother, some exaggeration at the very least, but I figured whatever she was sending would be fun for a five-year-old. When a package of Triassic Triops arrived in the mail a few days later, we looked at the small envelope with skepticism. Dinosaurs in there? It didn’t seem likely.

What Are Triops?
As it turns out, Triops aren’t actually dinosaurs – they’re crustaceans, like lobsters and crabs – but they do date back to the Triassic Period, even before dinosaurs ruled the Earth. What makes Triops unique is the way they hatch: The eggs have to dry out completely before they'll hatch in water. In nature, Triops live in temporary desert ponds. When the ponds dry out, adult Triops die, but the eggs remain until rain creates another temporary pond, then they hatch. The dried eggs can last for decades and still hatch when covered with water.

When dry, Triops eggs are in a state called diapause, a form of suspended animation. Scientists believe that diapause is the key to explaining why Triops survived when dinosaurs and other creatures didn’t. If the earth got too hot for the dinosaurs, or too cold, or there was a long drought and the dinosaurs died of thirst, the Triops eggs could just wait until conditions once again became livable.

Scientists are still trying to figure out how diapause works, hoping to apply the principle to such questions as slowing the aging process, stopping the growth of cancer cells, or traveling long distances in space. In fact, a recent space shuttle mission delivered Triops to an orbiting space station so they could study how diapause works in space.

Making Our Triops Feel At Home
The instructions for our Triops eggs were a bit daunting: You have to keep the water temperature between 73 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit; you have to use spring or distilled water; you have to keep the tank close to sources of both natural and artificial light. There were numerous repetitions of the phrase, “…or your Triops will not hatch & grow.” Yikes. After much deliberation, we found a suitable spot with plenty of natural and artificial light and limited access for our curious kitty (or so we thought). My anxiety was relieved when I noticed another note on the package reading, “YOU CAN'T MAKE A MISTAKE! We guarantee your Triops will hatch and grow -- or we'll ship you replacement eggs when you send a self-addressed stamped envelope and $1.00.” Phew!

After leaving the conditioning bag in the water overnight, we eagerly opened the egg container. Was it empty? The package said the eggs were small, but we had no idea how small. After serious squinting and careful focusing, we saw the tiny brown specks, tapped on the container to drop them in the water, and crossed our fingers that they would hatch.

The next morning we checked the tank but didn’t see any hatchlings. Not right away, anyway. More squinting and careful focusing revealed the tiniest creatures we’d ever seen, little white specks dashing about in the water. You had to get very close and watch carefully to see them, which we did on and off for most of the day. For the next few days the tiny Triops swam, dove, and knocked into each other constantly. They seemed to grow before our eyes. By day three, we could see them from across the room, no squinting or focusing necessary.

How Does Your Triops Grow?
We got our Triops eggs from Discoverthis.com, which sells only lab-raised Triops. While some companies take bulldozers into the desert to “mine” for Triops eggs, wreaking havoc on delicate desert ecosystems, these eggs are grown in a lab. Not only does this ensure high quality eggs, it’s the only environmentally-sound method of gathering Triops eggs.

Triops appear to have three eyes (thus the name Tri - ops from the Greek for “three” and “eyes”), and they get oxygen from the water through their feet. As they mature, they shed (molt) their exoskeletons frequently. It’s fun to watch them wriggle out of their tight shells, and the empty skeletons at the bottom of the bowl make a strange sight indeed! The Triops grow quickly until they reach their full size of between one and three inches. They have a relatively short lifespan - a few months at most - but they’re entertaining to watch while they’re around because they move constantly, swimming, diving, bumping into each other, and playing with their food and debris in the tank. Click here for our full set of Triops growing instructions.

A Tragedy Narrowly Averted
When we arrived home from a short trip to the grocery store on day seven, we were horrified to find the Triops bowl overturned on the floor. It appeared our cat had knocked the bowl off its perch. Water had spilled everywhere and I was sure our Triops fun was over, but somehow about five of the Triops were still inside. They swam about in what remained of the water, now dirty from the conditioning bag and a week’s worth of living. A few hadn’t been as lucky, lying motionless on the floor, but one hardy trooper was flopping about and I was able to scoop him up with a plastic spoon and place him back in the water.

We decided to take this opportunity to change the water in our tank a day early. (The instructions say to change the water on day eight.) Changing the water per the instructions seemed like it might be traumatic for the Triops and for us (dumping out one third of the water and replacing it with clean water, then repeating the procedure every three minutes until the water is clear), so we decided to pour the surviving Triops and remaining water into a new bowl, rinse out their home and fill it with clean water, then return them to the clean bowl using the plastic spoon. The procedure went well and our Triops seemed no worse for the wear. We gave them a bit more food and hoped for the best.

Triops Care and Feeding
Because waste accumulates in the bowl and the water becomes murky, you’ll need to change your Triops’ water regularly. If you choose to change the water in thirds, per package instructions, you’ll want to use some kind of netting or strainer to avoid throwing your Triops out with the tank water. We found it easier to gently remove the Triops to another bowl, rinse out the tank, fill with clean water, and place the Triops back in. Both ways seem to work.

And even though you want to start your Triops out in a small amount of water, like the slow-filling temporary ponds they’re used to in nature, as they grow bigger you can move them to a larger tank (holding a gallon of water or more). They’ll grow even larger if you do.

Triops: The Next Generation
Our Triops are turning out the be a great lesson in caring for pets and watching the complete lifecycle of an animal in just a few short months. Like the pumpkin in our garden, our Triops seemed to grow before our very eyes, holding the attention and interest of everyone in our house from my five-year-old son to his seventy-year-old grandma who happened to be visiting. They’re active little creatures who swim, dive, and play as enthusiastically as children.

When they’re gone, we’re going to try to scoop out some of the eggs they’ve laid and let them dry -- or we might just order another packet. That way, we can hatch more Triops when the mood strikes us. After all, they don’t take much looking after and they provide hours of amusement for the whole family (including the cat!).

Buy Triops here.
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