RSS The Ecosystem Aquarium Method: What?s in the Miracle Mud?

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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  Of all the articles that I’ve written and all of the talks I’ve given over the years, none have stirred the souls of reefkeepers as much as my discussions of “Miracle Mud” and what it does and doesn’t do. For the sake of clarity again let me state I do not work in the industry, I work in molecular diagnostics in oncology. Also I do not receive any compensation from Leng Sy or Ecosystem, although over the years I probably have gotten a couple of hundred pounds of mud to experiment with. And also for those of you who wish to question my credibility in this matter because I am a friend of Leng’s, let me clarify that if I only talked about products from non-friends in the hobby, I could only discuss a goldfish bowl from Walmart.  At this point in my life I much prefer to have people as my friends than as my enemies, but I understand the need for vigorous debate.

It is hard to believe that I first wrote about Leng and his “Miracle Mud” (yes I know the worst marketing name in the hobby) 19 years ago (PDF Link). At that time, we were all looking for the next magic bullet to push us over the top to make the keeping of fish and corals, and not just sps, but pretty much all corals, easier and more successful.  The general thinking then, unlike today, was that we would eventually find the one best way to keep things alive. 

For that reason, when someone came out with a new idea that seemed to be a major leap forward everyone jumped on the bandwagon with both feet.  Some of theseadvancements were indeed major steps forward in the hobby, i.e., Actinic fluorescents, skimmers vs trickle filters, 20,000K metal halides, etc., while some were flops such as magnetizing your water or feeding your tank from bottles that smelled like rotting fish. So when I went and saw Leng’s tank and his facilities it was a real eye opener and did indeed make me question what I was doing.

For those of you who weren’t in the hobby then, you have to understand how much different what Leng was doing was from the majority of tanks.  First, Leng had what was then a large display tank of over 300 gallons. And in it, he had not only a wide variety of some of the most colorful corals I had ever seen, but he also had an incredible number of fish in the tank.  The fish were not just the typical small reef fish that were the norm then, but he also had huge angelfish, tangs and wrasses.  Fish that at that time were typically not kept in a reef tank. 

To this day I still remember the Red Sea Emperor Angelfish that was so spectacularly colored that for the first time I understood why it was called an Emperor. Unlike most of the large angelfish and tangs that were seen at that time, these fish were perfect.  When I say perfect, I mean without a blemish, which in itself was unique because at that time a lot of large fish of these types suffered from lateral line disease.  The corals were also perfect.  Again, for the first time, I saw corals that were not only extremely colorful, but most also had polyp extension even during the day. 

If this wasn’t enough, Leng had also cornered the market on Montipora capricornis colonies, including his now famous Leng Sy cap.  I know now this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then these corals were unheard as no one had them and despite the countless trips I had made to pick corals at the many wholesalers there, I had never seen one before, let alone the number and varied colors that Leng had. 

Seeing all of this for the first time would have been impressive enough, but when I saw the foundation of this system when Leng opened the cabinet underneath the tank, I was dumbfounded.  There was no skimmer, no trickle filter and actually no type of filtration that I had seen or even read about before.  Underneath was just a large sump filled to the brim with Caulerpa and underneath it several inches of what looked like mud.  On closer inspection, the mud and Caulerpa was teeming with life. Amphipods, copepods, worms, snails and many animals I had not seen before lived in the mud and the Caulerpa.  It really was a little ecosystem.  Leng had been working on this system for several years doing lots of experiments on many tanks and fish, before perfecting it and letting me see it. He was another “mad scientist” like many of us were at that time, who were trying to maximize our success in the hobby.  He just did it in a way that he perceived to be more “Natural”.

Despite seeing how successful that tank as well as several other tanks Leng had going were, I was still skeptical but was excited to try this method.  Despite Leng’s recommendation to the contrary I used the Miracle Mud in my tank in combination with protein skimming.  After 19 years I am still using it that way, in fact all of my tanks over the past 19 years have included a protein skimmer as well a refugium holding Miracle Mud and Caulerpa.  I have experimented with all kinds of lighting, water movement, feeding, nutrient and calcium supplementation and housed countless different types of fish and corals, but the one thing that has remained constant over this time is this type of filtration has always been used. I did this despite Leng and many of my friends constantly telling me I was doing it wrong.  

Interestingly I have finally been vindicated as Leng has actually now run experiments where he set up various tanks where everything was the same including the live rock, fish and corals in each tank, where the only thing that was different was the type of filtration.  In his experiment the tank that he felt did the best was one set up like mine, but where the skimmer only ran for only 6 hours per day.  I disagreed and felt that in the one where the skimmer ran constantly the corals looked better and was more akin to what I need, since my tanks are more densely packed than his experimental tanks. 

Much to his dismay, he did admit though that both of these tanks did better than either the tank just using just his traditional Miracle Mud system or the traditional Berlin system.  In addition to these experiments, Leng has also sent water from several of these tanks to Triton Labs for testing.  Unlike me, Leng does not believe in frequent water changes, and despite his not making frequent water changes the water quality from his tanks for the most part fell into what would be considered optimal levels by Triton. So Leng has done research to verify what we have been seeing all along, that his system does produce water of high quality.

Over the years many people have taken shots at Miracle Mud and the Ecosystem manner of filtration.  They have run technical analyses, questioned where it is from, questioned how it can possibly work or stated without trying it that it can’t possibly work or attacked anyone that has used it or that supports its use.  My tanks have always been out there to be seen, and for the past 19 years have contained Miracle Mud.  Are they perfect, heck no, I have too many corals and too many fish.  Part of this is because success causes you to want to add more and as a result I admit to going overboard in this regard. As I said in one of the first blogs I wrote here, “when assessing something in this hobby look at the tanks of the people making the claim to see if it is something that you think may help you be successful”. 

As we all know there are countless ways to do things in this hobby and be successful.  I am not a big advocate of keeping secrets, if something works for me I try to let others know as I want everyone to be successful. I don’t know how Leng came up with his formula, I only know that it works for me. By the same token, I do not know what is in several of the liquid supplements I use, only that when I use them my corals are much more colorful and show greater polyp extension and growth.  I also don’t know why two sets of similar LEDs produce markedly different results in my tanks, nor do I know why moving a coral 2 inches sometimes produces significantly better coloration and in other instances causes its demise.  So what I’m trying to say is I still do not know a lot, but I do know what works for me. 

Does Miracle Mud work for everyone? I don’t know, but I have seen enough beautiful tanks with people using it to accept that for most it probably helps improve their likelihood of success at least enough to make it worth trying.  Are there problems with its use? Well as opposed to what Leng used to suggest, I change mine out every 18 months to two years because that works for me.  The only real problems I have had or heard about is if the power goes out for a substantial period of time.  When this occurs the mud can go anoxic and once the power does go back on it may not only leach some harmful compounds into the tank, but it will also suck the oxygen out of the tank, this combined action can be harmful especially to the fish. 

What about the other products like Miracle Mud out there? I have not used them personally, but Leng has run long term experiments comparing his product with the others and while they initially looked comparable, over time the tanks using the other products produced more algae and did not sustain or produce the level of microfauna that Miracle Mud did. In fact in the Miracle Mud tank Leng now has a mandarin that has been living off the copepods produced in the Miracle Mud for 3 years, while the mandarins in the other tanks all died within 6 months.

I did not write this to be a commercial for Miracle Mud, nor do I want to be the spokesmodel for Leng, but I have gotten numerous requests for a discussion of Miracle Mud and an update, so I tried to provide a basis for discussion. I realize not everyone agrees with me nor should they. Should everyone use it? That is up to you, I tried to show what my experience has been with it and how I think it is just one more thing that has improved my success.  It may have only done this incrementally, but as this point in the hobby most of the improvements in our success are likely to be incremental.  When you see me or write me you can still ask “What’s in the Mud?’ but I still don’t know. 

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