As you might imagine, we receive a lot of inquiries and questions from hobbyists about how to start a blackwater aquarium. Some range from the most basic ("What exactly is "blackwater?") to the obscure ("Is the Icana River blackwater?"), to the "tactical" ("In what order should I add the leaves into my tank?").
The specific questions we receive are really interesting, because I'd say that a smaller and smaller percentage of the questions we receive are of the "What is blackwater?" type, and a far, far greater percentage are "How do I do...?"
That's pretty incredible to me. It's a benchmark, really. A sign of progress. A tangible result of the community of hobbyists that we have attracted, doing all sorts of work in this unique segment of the hobby. It's a testimony to YOU- our "Tint Nation"- and your energy, enthusiasm, and spirit.
All of that energy and enthusiasm- a huge amount of it, I might add- has bound us- and made our community even more enjoyable to be a part of!
Now, a lot of people do ask about getting started with blackwater tanks, or shifting an existing aquarium to blackwater. And I think this is something that we, as "practicing" blackwater enthusiasts have sort of already developed- to a certain degree- "best practices" for- techniques or a "cadence" to create such systems.
I think this is important.
With more and more hobbyists wanting to try their hand at these aquariums, we owe it to them to develop some generalized "guide' to our best techniques, and we'll be working on that over the next few months- with your help! It will be great for ourselves, our community, and the hobby as a whole. Sharing what we've learned as a community about this formerly obscure specialty will be a tangible demonstration to the hobby of the power of community and open-source sharing.
Use of natural materials for blackwater, clearwater, and brackish-style botanical systems is on the rise, with increased awareness and interest from multiple areas of the hobby.
Today, however, I'm in one of those "postulating moods", where I'm thinking about those more obscure things we could do within the context of more natural aquarium keeping in general, to facilitate more successful keeping and breeding of some species. We do some interesting things already, as many of you know!
As aquarists, we have worked out "ways of doing stuff" that emulate, in some manner, the processes which occur in nature to achieve the results we are looking for. This has been a continual process since the hobby began...but we're getting better and better at it!
One of the older practices in breeding of some fish- for example, Corydoras, Brochis, and Aspidorus catfish- is to gradually drop the temperature in their aquariums some 10 degrees Fahrenheit (6.5 degrees Celsius) via a single water change or perhaps multiple water changes over the course of a short span of time. This practice serves to simulates the influx of cooler water via rain during the wet season in their natural habitats, which is typically winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
Now, the idea of lowering temperatures slightly via water changes during a specific period of time might be just what it takes to stimulate spawning in fishes like Corys, which is a very interesting practice. However, I can't help but wonder if "stepped up" water changes in general (with water at your usual "working temperature") and perhaps variations in lighting and water level/movement with in the tank, to simulate the wet or dry seasons experienced by our fishes in their wild habitats can bring some sort of additional health/well being benefit to all sorts of fishes, besides just triggering spawning behavior.
I've even though about the idea of increasing the number of leave and other botanicals during certain times of the year to correspond with the seasonal influx of these materials into the waterways where the fishes live, wondering if the possible resulting pH reductions, microorganism blooms, etc. could yield any benefits to our fishes. We do hear a lot from customers who have reported that fishes like cichlids, characins, and some Anabantoids spawned shortly after the introduction of a set of aquatic botanicals.
Now, none of these concepts are revolutionary, which will result in some epic breakthroughs...but I cannot help buy wonder if employing some of the practices usually reserved for spawning fishes- and practices of environmental manipulation in general- simply for the purpose of attempting to more closely replicate the conditions in the natural habitats of our fishes-would be of any benefit? Small, incremental variations and changes to our typical practices, which, over time, add to the "set of tools" we have at our disposal to successfully maintain the west variety of fishes for the longest periods of time in our aquaria.
I mean, I suppose it could be argued that environmental manipulations are essentially "stressors", which trigger fishes to spawn or whatever as a result of genetic programming which says. "Uh- oh- stuff is changing real fast around here...this could be bad! Time to reproduce while we still can!"
So, by the same token, you could probably make the case that seasonally varying your tank conditions just to simulate what goes on in nature IS sort of an "induced stress"- yet one which the fishes are genetically adapted to over eons, and can yield positive benefits in the context of what we do.
We're at a unique time in the history of aquarium-keeping, right?
We have access to amazing fishes. We have equipment which gives us precision control over water movement, temperature, lighting, with an accuracy never before seen. We have all of these amazing foods. We have excellent filters, filter media, etc. And, if we apply a bit more creativity and utilize the advanced equipment we have at our disposal to accomplish some cool stuff via simple environmental manipulations (Hey, let's increase the flow out of the internal pump to simulate the greater water velocities of those streams during the wet season!"), there's no telling what the long-term, incremental benefits to our fishes might be. Not everything will be a "Eureka!" moment, but there will be plenty of "Hmm...thought so" moments along the way- all of which can gradually add to the "state of the art" of "best practices" within our hobby.
Looking to nature seems to have rarely done us wrong. Most of the best practices we've developed to take care of our fishes have resulted from these interpretations of what goes on in nature, and applying them to our aquariums.
The whole idea of playing with botanicals in our aquariums is not just to create a pretty look- it is to impart some of the same compounds- tannins and humic substances- into the water in our aquariums that we see in nature. It's resulted in a number of benefits for our fishes-such as arguably more vigorous health/appetite/behavior, better coloration, and even (anecdotally?) induced spawnings.
The thing I love the most about where we are in the blackwater/botanical "movement" at the moment is that we've sort of penetrated the "WTF?" phase, where the hobby at large viewed these aquariums as more of a "side show" oddity, and now we're in a dynamic, creative, and expansive mode where the idea of incorporating natural materials into the aquarium environment is seen as a logical addition to our skill set.
Every aquarium that is set up, every fish that spawns, every lesson that is learned, every idea that is shared, opens our minds to the possibilities that are out there. Everything counts -because the impact of seemingly small things can be incredible.
Keep deploying your creativity, dedication, determination, enthusiasm, and above all...patience- to all that you do in this hobby, and the rewards will be many.
Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay relentless. Stay undeterred. Stay dedicated...
And Stay Wet.
Have you ever seen someone's beautiful aquarium, thought to yourself, "I really want to duplicate that in my next tank!"- and you proceed to attempt to replicate it?
Yeah, I think we've all done something like that before.
It's one of those hobby "constants"- we see something someone else has done well, and we attempt to recreate all or part of it in our own systems. And why not? It's part of the "aspirational" aspect of aquarium keeping. Now, granted, you'll never fully duplicate that tank exactly like the original, but you can bring elements of it into your own design...I mean, you should, right?
Why would you want to have the exact same thing someone else did?
It's the same as when we attempt to recreate wild habitats from which our fishes come. We take the elements which we find attractive, interesting, and functionally beneficial, and try to replicate them in our tanks. This is a great thing, IMHO, because it keeps us thinking about the needs of our fishes and about the components which make up their environment.
And, as we've discussed before, there is no "rule" (except maybe in some contests) which says you have to use the exact materials found in the specific habitat you're trying to replicate. The idea is to do an aesthetic and functional facsimile of the habitat.
I recall having a few tanks over the years that, either through the result of good planning and execution, periodic tweaks, or just plain old luck, stuck out as some of the better work that I've done in the aquarium world. "Better" meaning that they had components that I'd want to play with again.
Well, looking at them now, they had a lot of "aesthetic issues", but I was able to take components of them and use them in my more recent work.
And I've always kept elements of them in my mind, telling myself, "I'm gonna do that tank again- only bigger..." or whatever. A process...
I'd "reverse engineer" which elements conspired to create such a successful tank, and work to incorporate them in my "Version 2.0" or whatever tank I was doing. I think we all do this. And we should, really. And "iterating" off of other people's beautiful work is really fantastic, right?
Some of the best tanks I ever had, success-wise, were simply as a result of "benign neglect", or as one of my friends used to say- "letting Nature take it's course." You know, planting the tank and just letting the plants grow, not "messing" with stuff too often. Oh, sure, I'd conduct water changes and such, but that was about it. These were almost "jungle-like" in appearance, with killifish fry all over the place...really successful, cool systems for their intended purpose. I did a number of fry grow-out tanks in this fashion, and loved them each and every time. And I learned a lot about management of aquarium systems with these "jungles", too.
In a way, the blackwater, botanical-style aquariums that we allow to evolve "uninterrupted' to a certain extent are the absolute embodiment of this idea. There is much to be said for starting with a great "foundation" and allowing nature to do what it's done for eons. And replicating our own work by simply setting up a system in such a way as to accommodate this process is a classic example of successful aquarium "reverse engineering", isn't it?
I'm probably rambling a bit too much on a topic that doesn't need as much explanation as I'm giving it. However, I receive a lot of correspondence from hobbyists who want to create aquariums with certain elements in them from other tanks they've tried, and wonder if the botanicals and such will work with them.
I say, "Of course they will!" I mean, the reality is that you can incorporate all sorts of approaches (within reason) into an aquarium, and it may take you in any number of directions.
And that, in my opinion, is one of the joys of aquarium keeping. "Cherry-picking" elements from systems that we love or worked well for us in the past, and incorporating them intentionally in a new tank is always fun. It's how we progress, learn, develop technique, screw stuff up, and generally advance the state of the art in aquarium keeping.
And it's pretty damn fun, too.
If you're not already, don't be afraid to reverse engineer in your aquarium efforts. You just never know what might come of it! maybe something better than "V2.0" for sure!
Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay experimental. Stay adventurous.
And Stay Wet.
One of the things I've really enjoyed lately is discussing the work on my own aquariums, and the trials and tribulations which accompany them. Our blog yesterday about my latest home blackwater aquarium seemed to generate a lot of PM's and email about the use of some of the materials I selected, specifically Mangrove leaves and wood...
So, it seemed as though it would be a good time to go into just a bit more detail on them!
Now, with the mangrove leaves, it's sort of interesting...I admit that I selected them for this freshwater aquarium for two reasons: First, they look really coo, providing a sort of "generic" kind of "tropical look" for the tankl! And second, there are instances of mangroves in freshwater habitats, so it would be worth experimenting with them in this tank for "performance" purposes (i.e.; how they break down, impart some tint to the water, accrue biofilms, etc.).
It was important to think of them in the context of a brackish mangrove habitat first, and to consider just how this applies to our blackwater world.
As in our blackwater systems, fungi and bacteria in brackish and saltwater mangrove ecosystems help facilitate the decomposition of mangrove material. Interestingly, in scientific surveys, it's been determined that bacterial counts are generally higher on attached mangrove leaves than they are on freshly-fallen leaf litter, and this is kind of interesting, because ecologists feel that attached, undamaged mangroves leaves don't release much tannin, which, as we know might have some anit-bacterial properties. However, it's also been found that materials like humic acid, which are abundant in the mangroves, stimulate phytoplankton growth there.
So, armed with this sort of information, I went ahead and figured I'd give 'em a shot. And the bottom line is, they work great! A lot of people wondered if there would be any release of salt from the leaves, and I knew that there likely wouldn't be, because a) root membranes in many species prevent salt from getting into the plant in the first place, and b) some species, such as "White Mangroves" (which we don't use), develop thickened succulent leaves, discarding salt as the leaves eventually drop.
So the reality is that by the time we utilize the dried, fallen leaves, there is no salt in them. And, if there were, it would be released out in the preparation process anyways! This makes sense, as even with my trusty digital refractometer and the introduction of unprepared Red Mangrove leaves into a container of straight reverse osmosis/deionized water resulted in no detectible salt concentration, even after several days.
It makes sense, of course, because, as mentioned above, by the time the leaves fall from the Mangrove trees, and salt has already been released.
And from a durability standpoint, in my experience, they last a good long time submerged. Even though the Red Mangroves, in particular, are a bit more "crispy" when we receive them than the "Yellow Mangroves", they last for several weeks before softening. I've had them last well over a month before breaking down...Now, that's hardly scientific, and can vary from tank to tank based on many factors, ranging from water parameters to the infauna and fish population. However, for our general interpretation, this assessment is "accurate enough", lol.
As part of our "Estuary" line of brackish-water materials, we've been offering Red Mangrove root sections for some time. Just what they sound like- these are thick, woody sections of the prop root of the mangrove tree, and they are cut into little "log-like" sections, varying in both size and thickness. However, they are much, much thicker and more "substantial" in general. We occasionally get some larger, more "curved" root pieces (premium ones), which are awesome, too.
The bulk of the bark will be stripped away from these root pieces. They are available in two sizes, "Regular", with lengths of 12 to 18 inches (30.48- 45.72cm) and an average diameter of 1.25 inches (3.17cm) and "Large", with lengths of 16 to 24 inches (40.64- 60.96cm), and an average diameter of 1.75 inches (4.45cm). You'd use these in conjunction with the thinner branch sections to create a more "complete" look for your habitat...and that can include their use in a "straight-up" freshwater tank!
And, with mangrove root sections, the same physiological processes and factors apply. You're unlikely to find much residual salt in them. I never detected any leaching of salt at any level in my aquarium, despite extensive use of mangrove roots for the hardscape.
One thing that I have observed in regards to utilizing the mangrove root sections in my aquariums is that they tend to accrue biofilms and even some "beard algae" much more significantly than some of the other wood we use for this purpose (ie; Manzanita, etc.). I personally feel that this is because mangroves grow in very nutrient-rich habitats, and have very efficient internal structures and tissues to transport and store nutrients. And I think they have "pockets" of locally-stored nutrients in their surface tissues which facilitate the growth of these life forms.
Consider that, when the roots are chopped away from actively-growing trees (As ours are. Remember, they're legally acquired from the City of Honolulu, removed as part of their attempts at eradication of the Red Mangroves- which are an invasive species in Hawaii), they may contain some of the stored nutrients and other materials in their tissues, which, at least in theory, could leach into the water column over time.
And, these roots do leach tannins into the water, much like any other wood- but in a very noticeable amount! You'll get some real nice reddish-brown "tint" from them! That's cool, but I understand that some of you may have concerns about the surface "biocover..." So, if I were you, I'd probably handle the wood differently than I did before using it in my aquarium (I literally added it to my tank, filled it, and called it a day). I'd probably let these roots saturate for a few weeks in a container of fresh water, at least letting them re-saturate and perhaps release- or begin to release- the bound-up materials and organics contained in the their tissues.
In the end, both of these mangrove-sourced materials can certainly be utilized in your blackwater, botanical-style aquarium, with the typical due consideration paid to preparation, and the understanding of how they will react within the closed system aquarium.
Like everything we do in this realm, use of mangrove materials is an "evolving" art, which puts you- the user- squarely in the "bleeding edge" of aquaristics when playing with this stuff! You are making literal "ground floor" contributions to the "state of the art" in our botanical-style aquarium "practice" when you incorporate some of these materials into your system!
So, if I haven't yet freaked you out with talk of algae, biofilms, and organics...I say, give mangrove materials a try in your next FRESHWATER system (well, "tinted" freshwater, that is!).
Stay experimental. Stay cutting edge. Stay creative. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet!
One of the promises I made to you was that I'd periodically update you on my latest home aquarium build...because we receive a lot of question about it, and because it's fun to share! (and, because by committing to writing about it, I'll stay on top of this stuff, lol).
As I've worked with with my latest home blackwater aquarium, a 50-U.S. gallon system, I've had the opportunity to look back and see the progress ("evolution") that this tank has made towards realizing the vision I've had for it. It's something I don't do very often, but it's actually fun to look back at the "humble beginnings" of your aquarium and see how it's progressed.
This tank was a real leap of faith for me, particularly because I was using some materials that I had not played with in a pure freshwater aquarium before- mainly mangrove root sections and mangrove leaves. I mean, brackish, yeah...freshwater? Nope.
I knew that the leaves should be okay. I've tested them before in pure freshwater (okay blackwater), but not on a large scale, in terms of being "major aesthetic contributors" to a non-brackish scape! And the wood? I just wasn't 100% certain if there would be any issues with the fishes, in terms of any residual salt or minerals leaching from them. Of course, there was not. No detectible salt or any issues with TDS or anything negative as a result of using several large pieces in my 'scape.
And that was another thing. Of all the blackwater, botanical-style aquariums I've played with before, this one relied on nature the most to really "fill in the blanks" in the 'scape. My inspiration was pics I've seen by my friend, Mike Tuccinardi, and others, of submerged tree trunsk/branches in South American flooded forest areas. Something about them that I find alluring!
I created a wood stack that, at first, literally looked like I was trying to build a campfire! Part of the reason was that I had this vision of a pic of submerged fallen tree trunks, and I decided to utilize some mangrove root pieces which literally looked like logs. And, well, there are only so many ways to stack logs in a glass box, right?
And this is where those of you who are more experienced at the BWBS aquarium game will understand: I fully intended for nature to do some of the "detail work" in making this hardscape come to life. It's a gradual process: You do enough of these tanks, you realize that you'll get some leaching of tannins into the water, a little "patina" of biocover on the wood which sort of "softens" it's appearance; ultimately, a healthier growth of biofilm and a bit of decomposition of the outermost layers of residual bark, which goes the wood an "aged" look that you just can't rush. A look that really makes it appear as though it's been down for a long time!
As I began adding the leaves and botanicals, I could feel it coming together more. Like the whole 'scape was "evolving" both with and without my intervention. You know how that is, right? You just sense that your aquarium is gaining some momentum...sort of "turning on" biologically, and breaking down some of the materials you've placed in it.
This one went through a bit of a "hazy" period (about 3 weeks worth) for two reasons: First, I decided to minimally wash the sand that I selected for the thin substrate layer, which added a bit of turbidity to the water. Why would I do this? Two reasons: 1) I did a lot of research on siltation and the interesting manner in which fine silt contributes to the "biological filtration" in river systems, serving as a sort of "substrate" for bacterial growth, and creating a more "muddy" bottom look.
2) I've seen an interesting optical "sparkling effect" with light reflecting off of super-fine particles which I thought would provide an interesting look under LEDs (I'm brave, right? The stuff I'd do in the name of "experimentation!"). Okay, I did sort of get the "sparkly" look in the water column itself, but the silt never really created a more "muddy-looking" bottom. The takeaway here is that if you want a "muddy/silty-looking" substrate, you need to use...mud or silt! :)
Oh well, next time!
The other reason for the slight "haze" was that I decided to minimally prep the mangrove roots, as opposed to subjecting them to a prolonged submersion before incorporating them into my scape. Since I always use my own systems as a "testbed" for ideas before making recommendations to you, it's sort of necessary to do weird stuff with botanicals and such!
Now, as I suspected, mangrove is kind of "rich" wood, because of the rather porous nature of it's structure, there is some bound-up organics within it's tissues that, upon submersion, will gradually leach out (along with a lot of nice tannins, by the way!). And this material could result in a bloom of bacteria initially. Anyways, the "haze" diminished after a few weeks (which, when you play a patient, "long game" as I do, is nothing, really!), and the water took on the expected tint and that sort of interesting "turbidity" (one of my friends calls it "texture" or "flavor", lol) that botanical-style, blackwater aquariums display as the materials start to break down.
I have always used minimal mechanical filtration (basically, a micron filter sock) to counter the "texture" (lol), while still letting it have a natural look, like you see in so many pics of the igapo flooded forests of South America...
I admit that, very early on, I had a dubious and very short-lived flirtation with some aquatic plants (I wanted to use Anacharis, which is actually found in some of these habitats)...and it looked...well- out of place. Okay, it looked stupid, actually. This is one of those cases where you do those "edits on the fly" to your well-though-out plan, and realize that it was pretty solid to begin with, and didn't need the "edit" at all!
The other noteworthy thing about this tank is the limited "diversity" of leaves and botanicals that I used. This is a recurring theme with me lately...
Although I gradually increased the quantity of materials, regularly (and continuously) adding more specimens, I kept the "diversity" low, and I think it paid off as they began to break down. It sort of created a more "homogenous" look...as if the materials which accumulated in this region of the "flooded forest" were limited mainly to the trees and shrubs "growing" in the immediate vicinity. (even though some of these materials would simply NOT be found there..remember, it's a representation!):
The materials that I used in this aquascape:
Even with just six different botanical items, the "tapestry" of the botanical "bed" within the system is pretty diverse, and once these materials soften and start to break down, formed a very nicely textured feature, filled with lots of nooks and crannies for my fishes to explore and hide amongst. I can't say enough about the Mangrove leaves and Jackfruit leaves, btw.
Not only do they have a really cool "jungle look"- they last a very long time as compared to other leaves, and are a perfect size for what I was trying to achieve! And catappa bark- well...if you're not using it, let's just say that you're missing out on an aesthetic and functional "accessory" that will really enhance your aquascape!
As with all of my aquariums, my maintenance is pretty simple and consistent; that is, 20% weekly water exchanges with straight, non-reconstituted RO/DI water, rinsing of the micron socks, siphoning any "nuisance" decomposing leaves from the substrate/wood as needed, and that's about it. Any algae that I might find (rare) on the glass is scraped regularly. My aquarium has a simple, off-the-shelf auto top-off system the "Smart ATO Micro"), fed by a custom made 7 gallon reservoir. I love auto tops off, because it holds the water chemistry consistent and really keeps pace with the evaporation in this open top aquarium. I highly recommend one!
The system has matured nicely, and my fish selection has remained simple, yet effective for the setup. Of course, all of these specimens are available from us here at Tannin Live! Thus far, we've added Rummynose Tetras, Ruby Tetras, the ubiquitous Checkerboard Cichlids, Diptail Pencilfishes, Pygmy Corydoras, and Bleeding Heart Tetras. It's a lively, yet peaceful selection of complimentary fishes, which, although largely subtle in coloration, work perfectly with the earthy color palette of a botanical-style blackwater aquarium.
One of the things I love the most about this tank is how some of the photos give you the impression that you're actually snorkeling in an iagpo- something that I love! We've received a number of comments to this effect, and I think that, as an aquarist, no higher compliment could be paid!
There is obviously a ton more I could discuss about this aquarium, as you could about any one that you execute, but I think we've covered enough to give you a nice update for now about this simple, ridiculously achievable system. I haven't really delved into the water chemistry of this tank- that's another topic for another time. However, suffice it to say that it's been remarkably stable and I've had no issues at all with fluctuating pH (6.65) or Dkh.
What I like most about this tank is that it's been a sort of "demonstration" test bed for some of my favorite concepts, techniques, and products. Mainly, it's a good working example of utlizing a range of "off-the-shelf" (LOL) botanicals and equipment and deploy them against an inspiration from nature.
It's been an example of an "evolving" aquarium, and the way little decisions and deviations in your plan can impact the overall tank. Most important to me, it's been an example of how to deploy patience and common sense husbandry to achieve a very "mature-looking" natural system in just a few months. By not making "knee jerk"-style "corrections" to things, and not worrying about the biofilms, water color, or even cloudiness- and simply "keeping your eyes on the prize", it's never been easier to achieve a stable, easy-to-manage blackwater aquarium.
And next month, we'll be releasing a very professional video on this tank by the wickedly talented 'scaper/photographer, Johnny Ciotti, to give you that "extra" look at this simple, but ever-evolving blackwater microcosm. Look for a lot more video content on a variety of botanical-style aquariums from Tannin in 2018, along with an evolving website and functionality!
Well, that's it for now. I'm following up on my promise to you to "check in" on this tank from time to time. We receive a lot of requests to talk about this one, so I hope it was of some interest (and perhaps, inspiration!) to you!
Stay diligent working your plan. Stay inspired by nature. Stay patient. Stay excited. Stay passionate...
And Stay Wet.
Damn I hate that term, "hack!"
To many, it implies a sort of inside way of doing stuff...a "work-around" of sorts. A term brought about by the internet age to justify doing things quickly and to eliminate impatience because we're all so busy. I think it's a sort of sad commentary on the prevailing mindset of many people.
We all need stuff quickly...We want a "shortcut. "Personally, I call it "cheating."
Yes. With what we do, a "hack" is trying to cheat nature. Speed stuff up. Make nature work on OUR schedules.
Bad idea, if you ask me.
In our game of aquariums-particularly the blackwater, botanical-style ones, the idea of "hacks" seems sort of contrary to all that we proffer here: Patience, time, embracing the process, etc. Yet, curiously, a fair amount of questions trickle in about how to achieve certain things quickly in our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums. And you know what the most common "hack" question we receive is?
"How do I get my tank to tint up faster?"
I swear, I'm totally serious.
This is literally how cool stuff is getting in our world! We went from an aquarium culture that was practically horrified at the prospect of a tank with brown water and decomposing leaves, to one that is now impatient about achieving dark water and all of its collateral benefits...quickly, I might add!
Interesting paradigm shift of sorts, huh?
Now, in all fairness, most of us understand that there are real no true "shortcuts" in any part of the aquarium game, but I do understand that there is a certain degree of impatience with this. The typical newbie to the "tint" world sees all of these pics cool tanks, of natural habitats that they've always dreamed of replicating, and even though he or she totally understands that it's a natural process that takes time, wants to "get in the game" as quickly as possible!
Think about it: Many of you have probably been a bit nervous and excited about doing blackwater; it's a totally new look, new approach, and new mindset, and you've deployed some "mental energy" to embracing it. You might have even been on the receiving end of some criticism from your "clearwater" friends!
So, yeah, you're eager to see that water turn color!
Now, here's the deal.
Certain botanicals do seem to impart color to the water more quickly than others. I honestly don't know if it's because they have more tannins in their surface tissues that leach out quickly upon immersion, or if there is some other specific reason. With botanicals like leaves, it's understandable, because most of the popular ones that we use (with the exception of say, Magnolia) have very thin tissues that start to break down quickly after immersion and begin imparting tannins to the water quickly. And of course, cones tend to break down quickly, making them a favorite of "tint hackers" everywhere!
One observation that I have made- besides the fact that pretty much every botanical I've worked with seems to impart some tint to the water it's submerged in, is that some of the palm-derived products, like "Coco Curls", "Rio Fruta", "Terra Sorrindo", etc. seem to impart a lot of color really quickly. In fact, "Rio Fruta" seem to really pack a wallop, delivering a pretty dark tint immediately after preparation. Oh, and on at least a few occasions, when dealing with a frustrated hobbyist who's tank just didn't seem to "tint" up after repeated additions of botanicals, we discovered that they were using rather substantial amounts of activated carbon in their filters!
Bye, bye, tint!
Now, to be clear once again, this is really a piece on the aesthetics of tinted water and the patience which needs to be deployed by the aquarist to get there safely; we're not really getting into the chemistry behind this within the scope of this particular blog pos. However, it's important, as a "general rule", to understand once again that ANYTHING-botanicals, rocks, substrate- whatever, will have some impact on the aquatic environment. Not necessarily "chemical" ( in the case of say, "inert" materials such as plastics and maybe some substrates), but definitely a "physical impact" of some sort.
And yes, then there is "the pH thing..." We all know by now that you typically can't take water that has a pH of 8.2 and a hardness of 10dKH or whatever, and expect it to rapidly drop to 6.2 with a dKH of like 2 simply by tossing in some Catappa leaves. If the water in your aquarium is just plain old HARD, you're not likely to see the pH decrease in any meaningful measure with the addition of a typical load of botanical material to your tank. You need to have "softer" water (i.e. water with less carbonate hardness) to more easily affect pH levels using botanicals. And you'll need to read up on managing pH in low carbonate hardness environments. Education is important.
So, yeah- you can't expect "miracles." On the other hand, you CAN expect changes.
You can and should monitor basic water chemistry parameters during your entire "tint process", and you should be extra slow and careful when attempting to add botanicals to existing aquariums with fish populations. We say it over and over, but it would simply be recklessly irresponsible for us to tout all of these "benefits" of adding stuff without counseling you on the potential dangers. We've done crazy stuff repeatedly with botanicals in our own test aquariums- stuff you'd NEVER do to your own tanks- in the interest of finding out what could go wrong.
And stuff can go wrong.
In almost every case, the worst thing you can do is to add a large quantity of materials to an existing, populated aquarium all at once, or in a very short time span. By "very short", I mean like 2 or three days. It's just flat-out bad practice. Rapid environmental changes of all sorts are extremely stressful to fishes, if not fatal. Even if the materials being introduced are properly prepared, you're still putting fishes at risk by rushing things. Under certain circumstances, pH CAN drop quickly. Biofilters CAN be overwhelmed. Dissolved oxygen levels COULD drop quickly. Some animals may display extraordinary sensitivity to change, as well. These are rare events, but they do happen. If you roll the dice by rushing things, you might dodge the bullet once or twice, but eventually, gambling with the lives of your fishes WILL come back and bite you on the ass. It's just that simple.
Don't rush the process.
We don't. You shouldn't, either.
All of the beautiful tanks you see featured here and in our social media feeds didn't get that way quickly. And the aquarists who manage these beauties didn't rush the process to get there. They were patient. Perhaps they WERE impatient at some point, but through the "school of hard knocks" and the acceptance of the realities of "hacking" things, they became VERY patient. You will become patient, too.
Again, if you want to get a "tint" more quickly, we suggest that you incorporate some of the materials discussed above into your "initial load" of botanicals- but go slowly. Enjoy watching the tint "turn on" and seeing your microcosm evolve. There is an old (LOL) expression in reef keeping that "Nothing good happens quickly in a reef tank", and I think you could definitely take out the "reef" part and apply this logic to ANY aquarium type.
So, "hacking" in the context of a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium is a potentially detrimental, even lethal thing.
Remember that part of the fun is creating your little aquatic world, and seeing the reactions of the animals and the overall aesthetics of your aquarium change regularly are extremely enjoyable. You should make it a habit of taking pics of your aquarium from the start to see for yourself (and to share with others) the amazing and very distinct changes that occur as your system matures and evolves over time. And you'll be surprised how dark the water can get in a relatively brief span of time.
So don't look for "hacks."
No shortcuts. No rushing the process. Simply embracing and enjoying the journey at every phase.
It's totally worth it.
Today's simple, but important reminder...
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay engaged. Stay in control.
And Stay Wet.
I had occasion to chat with a few friends lately who are really into the aquascaping world. They are super talented and gifted artists, from whom I learn so much. Sadly, though, they reflected stories of resistance and judgement from when they tried to push the boundaries a bit, and it made me kind of sad.
It made me reflect on my own journey just a bit.
People ask me all the time what influences my taste in aquascaping. They want to know why I'm so fascinated with leaves, wood, seed pods, and stuff. Like, how did this get into my head? And I think it's pretty obvious that I simply love the aesthetic- the diversity, the tones...
My peers in the reef keeping-world ask this of me a lot, wondering why I seem to have "given up" the splashy and exotic color palette that accompanies the reef keeping world for the organic, earth-tone-influenced world of botanical-style, blackwater aquariums.
It's funny, because I didn't "give up" anything. I love both. However, too many of my reef-keeping acquaintances that are sort of set in their ways; perhaps seeing me evolve a different path was disconcerting, frightening, or just plain amusing. And that's okay. I have my own tastes- as everyone should- and they encompass a variety of things. What's sad is the resistance to different ways of thinking.
It's common all over the aquarium world, but really prevalent, IMHO, in the aquascaping world, as I've found out in the first few years of Tannin's existence. For all of the progressive guys trying new ideas and new things, there was a huge pushback from the "establishment", which seemed to me to discourage ideas which didn't' fit the prevailing style.
These poor guys (and girls) really have taken a lot of heat- and I commend them for being strong.
Some of the best aquascaping advice I've ever received was also some of the worst: "Copy an existing work that you like- exactly. Work with it for a long time and gain confidence with it before moving on to a design of your own"
But good. Perhaps, if not taken too far?
I mean, I suppose it's good because we all aspire to create stuff that pleases us. Nothing wrong with that. And of course, for many hobbyists, that might mean recreating an aquascape that we saw online, at the LFS, a fellow hobbyist's tank, or one of those international competitions. Gaining inspiration from the work of others is great...It gives us a "guideline", so to speak, for creating our own version of the word.
Artists have been doing it for centuries- drawing inspiration from others, then sort of "tweaking" their own versions. Nothing inherently wrong with this.
When it starts becoming a "paint by numbers" thing, with everyone trying to create an aquascape that meets someone else's rigid "formula" for theme, layout, composition, stocking, etc., it's "unhealthy", in my opinion. Like, this will get me lambasted throughout the competitive aquascaping world, but I, for one, am a bit tired of aquscapes that contain sand waterfalls, floating cities, "beach scenes", "enchanted forests", etc.
I mean, it seems to me that to place highly in one of those contests, an aquarium has to look like something out of "Lord of The Rings" -some weird fantasy with an underwater twist. 'Scapes that employ these things are studied, analyzed- revealed as THE way to 'scape. Anything that seems to deviate from this is just sort of shrugged off as a "nice try" or something equally dismissive. Now, don't get me wrong. The skill required to create these tanks is amazing...it's not a matter of "talent" iMHO. It's a matter of the talent pushing in a direction that seems so..I dunno...force, maybe?
From the outside- especially to someone like me who comes from the reef aquarium world, which has went through similar "copy this exactly in order to have a successful attractive tank" periods, its all too familiar- and all too frightening. Even kind of funny, too. A sort of "paint by numbers" approach to 'scaping, quantifying, and looking at the aquatic world. Trying to be exactly what we see elsewhere, not what we feel in our hearts. I have no problem with different styles of aquascaping.
I have problems with fear of innovation.
I just wonder why, for so many years, so many aquascapers worldwide seem to have been "held hostage" by this mindset that you have to do it like everyone else in order for your work to be taken seriously. Of course the argument is that this is NOT the case, but as an outsider, it was blatantly-and painfully-obvious to me immediately. I had a hard time understanding why so much talent went to doing derivatives of the same thing.
Why? To be cool? To belong? Because we want so badly to be like the great aquascapers that we'll forcibly subscribe to some rigid style? Would the great Takashi Amano want this? I don't think so. His greatest works were those that embraced the concept of "wabi-sabi", in which nature guided them. There are no floating cities or floating forests and underwater waterfalls in nature. So how did all of this stuff become the accepted norm? Where did the "aquascaping hegemony" decide to take this weird turn?
I have no idea. I merely suggest that we consider the absurdity of this close-minded thinking when choosing to replicate the work of others- no matter where they are from or who they are.
You're better than this.
Don't get me wrong, there is enormous discipline and talent that goes into the creation and maintenance of these fantasy-inspired aquascaping works, and many are achingly beautiful. I wish I had 1/10th the talent of some of these people. The problem, as I see it, is that many of the high-placing and winning aquaecapes in these competitions are crushingly "formulaic"- simply trying to "one up" or play off of the creations of others, and not really forging new paths- and this directly influences the larger aquascaping world. I suppose that's how inspiration and "movements" work, but scarier to me is the sort of closed mindset which often accompanies it.
I hate stuff that stifles creativity or discourages innovation outside a given set of rules. This is supposed to be fun. I hate when my talented friends jn the 'scaping world told me they were being criticized or risked being marginalized by venturing down the blackwater/botanical-style path...as if "rebelling" somehow.
There's nothing "wrong" at all with the brilliant work these people are doing as entered in the big international competitions. If it was viewed in the same fashion that we view concept cars at auto shows- you know, the absurdly futuristically styled ones with glass domes, hologram instrument panels, etc.- stuff that might eventually "trickle down" to production vehicles in terms of style or technology- then I get it.
But it's not that way. The message that is clearly being sent is that in order to be taken seriously as an aquascape artist, you need to do it THIS way.
Why do I find this so personally offensive?
It's just that, well- it all starts looking the same after a while, and we continue to force ourselves to view every single one of these derivative works as "aspirational", as if our own stuff is just sort of..there. There are talented aquascapers all over the world who do amazing work, with their own sense of style, without the influence of others- simply based on what pleases them- what's in their heads, or based on what they see in the natural world.
The natural world. Cool.
Since starting Tannin, we've been blessed to have struck a chord with hobbyists who are looking for a slightly different direction. It's fun to see people take the botanicals we offer and run with them, so to speak- creating aquaecapes and aquariums that speak to their own tastes. A new palette of materials for a hungry aquascaping crowd eager to try something a bit different. We're honored to offer something a bit different to play with. There is no "right or wrong" in expressing aquatic creativity.
And the resistance from the "outside world" from this crowd seems to be breaking down. A fresh breeze (having nothing to do with Tannin-just a general attitude change, I think) seems to be taking over. It's as if someone finally said "enough", and fresh ideas are becoming more welcome.
And what of our botanical-style blackwater aquariums?
Sure, an outsider could say that all botanical-style tanks look the same- like a big pile of leaves and stuff...
And that's where they have it wrong. You give your tank a "track to run on", so to speak, with a hardscape concept or whatever...and then nature takes over and fills it in. Evolves it. You're letting Mother Nature do a lot of the work for you, in terms of letting things happen.
Not resisting it.
That's kind of our way. Accepting the transient ways of nature and the processes involved.
Oh, and let's never get judgmental, close-minded, arrogant. We need to be welcoming, innovative, kind. Embrace many styles and apply our love for this stuff to them. Share with newcomers and old-timers alike. Let's not become overly enamored with ourselves or what we do...lest we end up reflecting the same attitudes that I just expressed such disdain for.
Ok, deep breath.
The big takeaway of this op-ed today?
Just be yourself. No matter what anyone says. No matter what everyone else thinks is "The way."
I leave you with one of the greatest, most inspiring advertising passages ever written, the famous Apple "Think Different." passage- a narrative which perhaps speaks to this very school of thought:
"Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."
Find your love. Express it. Share it. No matter what anyone says.
Stay true to yourself.
Stay proud. Stay unique. Stay bold. Stay patient. Stay open-minded.
And Stay Wet.
I have no idea what put me on this course, but I'm still pre-occupied with the idea of tanks run amok...sort of..Have you ever had that tank where the plants kind of grew out of control a bit, covering a lot of space in a "jungle like" canopy of green?
You hear that term "jungle" tossed around in fish circles quite a bit to describe a tank that, for whatever reason, got "out of control", with rampant plant growth (or coral growth, in the reef world) seemingly in every direction.
Like, that's a bad thing?
I suppose, one could make the argument that if you're trying to achieve one of these "artistic", yet sterile-looking "fantasy-world" 'scapes that seem to do so well in international aquascaping competitions these days, this could be your worst nightmare. I know that there are a number of these "aquarium-as-kinetic-art" people who look at our idea of a "botanical-style" aquarium like one of mine or yours, with it's dark brown water, "deliberately aggregated confusion" of leaf litter in various states of decomposition, seed pods, biofilms, and randomly-placed plants, and laugh in disgust.
It's indicative of rigid thinking.
The kind of thinking that doesn't allow us the comparative luxury of understanding the beauty in all natural processes, even when not controlled by man. It's a form of stubbornness that we in the hobby have perpetuated in the past few decades, seemingly rejecting any way of aquascaping an aquarium other than discipline and perfect, if not artificial-appearing order. To "let things go" to some extent is simply considered "bad technique" or "laziness" on the part of the owner.
On the other hand, when you think about it, and ponder why the plants or coral are growing out of control, we tend to pin it on the laziness of the hobbyist. Laziness? In what way? A plant or coral did so well that it grew to massive proportions, and took over a tank because it was- well, happy. And we call it laziness? Someone did something-provided some means-for the life forms to grow like they did.
I'd say that's doing something right!
Really, I kind of think it's symbolic of success, in some fashion. I mean, you've got a plant or coral- or groups of 'em- that are so happy that they are literally growing into...a "jungle."
Why is this a bad thing? Is it because it's not healthy for the life forms residing in it? Is it bad because we didn't apply some sort of manicuring or "control" to it? Or, is it because we somehow feel it represents a "rejection" of the accepted notion of "how to do things?"
Oh, sure, sometimes these things happen because the hobbyist was busy- traveling, dealing with other life issues, etc.- and nature just kind of "took its course. So, they weren't "intentional"- but the fact is- the life forms in the tank grew. And grew some more. However, the tank was obviously set up correctly in order to facilitate even this unchecked, unplanned growth, right?
Like in an untended garden, a certain degree of natural chaos ensues when you don't trim, organize, and otherwise "manage" a planted aquarium or reef. Some will thrive, some will do okay, and some will crash.
And then, there are those among us who deliberately attempt to cultivate a random, seemingly "jungle-like" tank because they love the aesthetic.
And guess what? That's wonderful, too.
My friend Dave is one of the most talented reef aquarists- okay, overall aquarists- I've ever seen. His reef tank is one of the most vibrant and diverse in the US, and his knowledge of system design, equipment, husbandry, and overall technique is far beyond the level that many will ever achieve. I remember a couple of years back, Dave said, "I wanna do a freshwater tank, with livebearers and tetras and the fish I remember from when i was a kid. And I want a JUNGLE of plants!"
And he did it.
And you know what? This seemingly random, choked-with-live-plants aquarium is teeming with life. Healthy, colorful, beautiful life. Living in splendor, really. And I think it's one of the coolest tanks I've ever seen...Just flat-out alive. It holds you in a sort of fish-geek "trance"; you could literally stare at the thing for hours! Again, there are many who would levy the "ignorance", "neglect", "lack of style" arguments against this tank.
But Dave could care less.
Dave did it because he liked it.
That's actually hard for some people to stomach.
And I get it. A lot of hobbyists won't like this, any more than they like my idea of blackwater tanks with decomposing leaves.
And I get it.
What I don't get is that we ascribe the terms "laziness", "sloppy", "chaotic", or "undisciplined" to systems that are "outside the norm." To me, to ascribe such terms to what are aquarium which meet one of the primary goals of the aquatics hobby- to provide a comfortable, healthy environment for our captive animals-is, itself "lazy", "sloppy", and definitely "undisciplined!"
I think it only fitting to close with a quote by the late, great Takashi Amano- the man revealed worldwide as the advocate of what came to be called the "Nature Aquarium" style...Somehow, his simple words resonate, even if (IMHO) the message may have been misinterpreted by so many:
"...a layout that is created naturally over time appears a lot more natural than one that is maintained intentionally by the creator."
Reflect on these words.
Think about it the next time you see an aquascape which seems to follow no "rules" as laid out by those who feel it necessary to do so. Dare to think like and individual; to push yourself beyond the stubborn, confining barriers that some have imposed on the art of aquascaping.
Welcome in a new way of thinking, accepting, and being open-minded.
Welcome to "The Jungle."
Stay open-minded. Stay unique. Stay strong. Stay creative.Stay Bold.
And Stay Wet.
Today, wanted to get your thoughts on an idea that's been in my head for a while...
It's the idea of letting your blackwater, botanical-style aquarium "run on autopilot" just a bit.
What would happen?
We're all about diligent, thoughtful maintenance of our aquariums, right?
I mean, we spend a lot of time, money, and energy equipping our tanks with suitable gear, embracing excellent practices, and just stay on top of everything in general. Making sure that they run perfectly, and don't degenerate into some perceived "swamp" of death, lol.
So, what happens to our tanks if we sort of "let them go" just a bit? Especially, a botanical-style blackwater aquarium with a "deep leaf litter bed" or a significant assemblage of botanicals?Let's say that we stop doing weekly water exchanges and slip to say, once a month. Let's say all we're doing is topping off for evaporation during that time period, feeding fishes; that's about it.
What do you think will happen?
Will all of the botanical material continue to break down, keeping the water "tinted?" Will biofilms continue to colonize open surfaces? Will water chemistry swing wildly? Will nitrate and phosphate rise off the charts? Will the aquarium descend into chaos? I mean, I think I have some opinions on the matter, based on a tank or two I let run like that in tests...and it was literally "no big deal."
Of course, that was me and two tests...
And you have to consider how these tank operate in general, right? I mean, when you think about it, the botanical-style blackwater aquarium is sort of set up to replicate a natural habitat where all of this stuff is taking place already. Decomposition, enrichment, nutrient import/export...
How much more will things change by simply delaying water exchanges for several weeks? Will nitrate and phosphate accumulate? Or, will the bacteria, fungal growths, and other microorganisms and crustacean life living in our botanical substrates continue to do what they do- breaking down organic waste and reproducing? Is a sort of "denitrification" taking place in the botanical bed you've created?
I can't help but wonder if a botanical-style blackwater aquarium can better handle a period of "benign neglect" than many typical systems...Not that I'd want to do this, mind you... I'm a fairly diligent maintenance guy. I like my weekly water exchanges. But I can't help but wonder what happens in one of these systems if we let "nature take it's course" for a while?
An interesting question...and perhaps an interesting experiment for the intrepid hobbyist. Don't ask me why this was on my mind this morning...
I open the discussion up to you.
Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay ON it!
And Stay Wet.
Problem (prob*lem): a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
Requirement (re*quire*ment): a thing that is compulsory; a necessary condition.
Few columns that I've written in the last few months have drawn as much interesting response from our readers, and as much thought-provoking discussion as yesterday's piece on killifishes. And that makes me feel good- not only because there is a larger interest and hunger to learn about killies that I even imagined, but there is a big- BIG "perception problem" among retailers, hobby pundits, and even hobbyists about why they aren't more popular and available.
The discussion online and elsewhere has been surprisingly broad and wide-ranging, with both hobbyist and retailers chiming in. And this is really cool- because everyone seems to want the same thing- a broader availability and appeal for a magnificent group of fishes. And of course, many of the same concerns arise when we broach these kinds of topics: Hobbyists find certain fishes difficult to find. Retailers find the same fishes impractical to sell. A seemingly difficult conundrum.
Or, is it?
Lots of hobbyists tend to look at killifish as "problematic"- as if keeping them is fraught with issues that would keep them from ever being able to have a greater hobby appeal.
I just don't buy into that thinking. I just can't.
Now, I have a "problem" with classifying stuff as "problems" when it comes to our aquarium endeavors. I think we tend to consider the specialized requirements of keeping/breeding/marketing certain fishes as "problems" instead of simply as "requirements." What makes them "problems?" The fact that we can't just place a rare fish from a specialized environment into a glass of tap water and walk away? It's not a "problem" that corals require saltwater, light, and a chemical environment suitable for their long-term care. It's simply a set of requirements that we need to meet if we want to keep them.
Some killies are aggressive? Is that a "problem?" Well, only if you decide that they must be kept in community tanks with docile guppies or whatever. Some killies require brackish water. Is that a "problem?" Only if you don't have a way of mixing and measuring salt concentration.
If we want to sell rare Apistogramma to a wider market, it's not a "problem." It's a challenge to figure out a way to keep them comfortable and healthy in order to accomplish this, and to communicate this to prospective keepers. If we determine that it is not practical for us to meet the requirements of the fishes in order to keep them/breed them/sell them, well- then it's simply a situation where we cannot meet the requirements in order to accomplish this.
Just because I can't keep African Cichlids with my acid-water-loving tetras doesn't make them a "problem", right?
The word "problem", IMHO, gives us a cushion to fall back on when something want to we do in the hobby requires that certain steps which we are unaware of, uncertain of, unwilling to take, or cannot undertake- present themselves. The challenge is to determine if the requirements are insurmountable for us, or if there is a way we can meet the requirements in a manner that is practical, given our resources.
A great example was the blackwater world we are into here:
I think that the "problem" of blackwater tanks for years was that we saw them as "dirty", dangerous", "non-sustainable" etc. We didn't look at the blackwater environment as one that required that we meet a specific set of parameters. We didn't' look at keeping blackwater aquariums as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as hobbyists saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.
We made it a "problem."
It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to make "blackwater"- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.
But we did. And now, we approach keeping blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but a system which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.
Look, it wasn't like we were creating warp drive or nuclear fusion. But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was just a bit, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making blackwater aquariums far more common in the hobby.
And not quite so scary!
Let's not make every set of requirements of our fishes "problems." Rather, lets find out ways to meet their needs.
I think that we can do all sorts of stuff previously though to be unachievable, if we look at it in a more positive way. We've got this.
Stay excited. Stay challenged. Stay fascinated...
And Stay Wet.
One of the first real "speciality" fishes I got into in my earlier days in the hobby were killifishes. There was something extremely alluring about them to me- still is.
Perhaps it's the fact that they are (for the most part) small, super-colorful fishes who have managed to adapt and evolve to life in very unusual environmental niches, like puddles, small creeks, temporary pools- stuff like that. And of course, these are extremely "botanically-influenced" habitats, replete with leaves, soil/mud substrates, branches, etc.
Perfect for what we do!
I'm by no means a killie expert- but I am a huge fan of these fishes.
Yet, for a lot of reasons, you don't see killifishes kept in biotope-themed aquariums. I know that part of the reason is simply that these are not the most readily-obtained fishes on the "open market", and that most are kept in dedicated breeding setups- you know, typically more "functionally" aquascaped than anything else.
And, for many decades (starting back in my teens...do the math. lol), I've read about killifish fanciers lamenting the fact that their fishes of interest seem to be relegated excessively to the speciality breeders, and aren't very popular- and, with very, very few exceptions, are simply not part of the larger hobby "game."
Various reasons have been discussed to death by killie fanciers over the years, ranging from the fact that most have no "common names" (a LAME argument, because there are some insanely cool, unusual characins, for example, which have very tenuous "common names", like "Reed Tetra", "Kitty Tetra", etc., and manage to make regular appearances in the trade-oh, and wild Bettas!), to the fact that they require "special conditions" in order to keep them. (Okay...they are often kept in plastic shoe boxes with no heaters or filters because they are so adaptable...is this what people mean by "special?")
Another weak one, (if you ask me!).
And then there is the argument that they are not particularly prolific breeders, or don't live too long (in the case of "annual" species, sure...but how many years have you kept a Cardinal Tetra alive for?). And funny, we're seeing more and more wild Betta species showing up in local fish stores worldwide...SOMEONE is breeding them. And they are finding a place in botanical-style, blackwater aquariums! Yep. Killies can, too.
(Nothobranchius kilomberoensis, image by Andrew Bogott- Used under CC BY-SA 4.0)
The reality, IMHO opinion (which will make everyone in the killie world hate me, of course) is that I simply don't think that we as killie fans have done a great job "de-mystifying" these fishes and their needs. We have seldom, if ever seen them being kept in anything other than a dedicated breeding setup with spawning mops and bare bottoms, which I think has perpetuated the popular perception that they require "specialty conditions" and tanks. Sure. some may be shy, skittish, aggressive, come from soft, acidic water, brackish(!), or whatever- but the last time I checked, we have this global community of skilled, adventurous aquarium hobbyists playing with blackwater, botanicals, and the availability of all sorts of "twigs and nuts" to create these kinds of specialty tanks.
We can keep these fishes with ease, so...
Time to call BS on these excuses.
Killies should be way more popular. Period.
They should be kept in dedicated blackwater, botanical-style aquariums designed to replicate, in some context, the habitats from which they hail. It's not that hard. One of my favorite aquascapers, George Farmer did this a while back with the diminutive (and occasionally-seen in fish stores) Fp. dageti Monroviae....and it was spectacular. We need more tanks like his... We've been doing it for some time with Apistos, characins, Anabantoids, etc. Hell, even the long-neglected Barbs and Danios are getting more play these days (a hobby "trend" I predict will be a "breakout thing" in 2018!).
(Go, George! "The Aquascaper" himself put down a Killie tank for the ages!)
Killies can totally be getting their fair share of expose to the larger hobby world. Killie lovers need to let go of 1978-era excuses and complaints about why they aren't out there, and simply share these fishes in more unique, relatable ways. We can't keep "self-medicating" on excuses and complain about it when the opportunity is there to "blow up" interest in these fishes! There's these platforms called ""Facebook and "Instagram" and "Snapchat"- crazy ways to spread ideas quickly...We should look 'em up once in a while, post something on a general hobby-interest forum- like a pic and descriptions of a cool display tank with killies- and get people talking.
It just hasn't been happing...
Of course, this is a real shame, because not only are the vast majority of these fishes beautiful and undemanding to keep- they'd be remarkable in a dedicated aquarium set up to replicate- at least in some part- their unique wild habitats. And most are incredibly sustainable, being relatively easy to breed in captivity...reducing environmental pressures on the wild habitats from which they come.
(Image by Bjorn Christian Torrissen, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
And they come from places like Africa and South America, which we already have healthy obsession with when it comes to creating biotope and biotope-inspired aquariums to replicate their unique habitats...so, just sayin'.
And you don't need a huge budget, all sorts of gear, or a big aquarium.
Killies would be perfect for smaller tanks, because many are ecologically adapted to smaller environments in the wild- like the aforementioned vernal pools, small rivulets, etc. Planted tank enthusiasts could hardly ask for a more sexy group of fishes for their small- and large- "contest-destined" aquariums! A great "foil" to the tiny "rasbora" varieties that are ubiquitous in "high concept" aquascaped tanks worldwide.
Why aren't we doing this?
I won't accept the excuse that "Oh, I tried it before but no one was interested." No, you didn't do it in an effective way that conveys the wonder and fascination of these fishes to a wider audience, and as a result, interest in these fishes is still needlessly relegated to the darker, more specialized corners of the hobby. Sounds like what was said about...blackwater aquariums...or brackish, for that matter, doesn't it?
Yeah, it does. And we know how that's sort of working itself out, right?
We can do this.
Just seeing an aquarium set up to replicate, say, a small vernal pool in West Africa, housing fishes from the genera Epiplatys, Rivulus, Fundulopanchax, or Aphyosemion- amazingly colorful, small, and interesting fishes- would blow away just about everyone in the hobby who has been on the fence about them for years! And really researching a proper biotope- or biotope inspired tank could teach the hobby and the non-hobby world alike about these amazing fishes and their often fragile habitats. And their unique reproductive strategies (as in the case of annual species and "bottom spawners") are amazing in and of themselves.
Oh, and you can economically purchase most of them as eggs (in water or peat moss) and raise them from fry yourself, easily and sustainably, as touched on before. One of the worst-kept hobby "secrets" there is, IMHO.
And these fishes are OUT there. Hello, American Killifish Association! Hello, killie hobbyist forums on Facebook. Hello Aqua Bid!
And yes, I'm hoping that we may offer some of these cool fishes on Tannin Live! later this year, too. They totally fit our market and area of interests.
And, if I say so myself, our range of botanical products at Tannin Aquatics is like, really perfect for all types of killie display tanks. Just imagine what you could do with a 2.5 gallon tank, some "Fundo Tropical", Jackfruit leaves, Catappa Bark, and a few other choice items from our collection? Maybe we need to do a dedicated millie-themed pack? Whatever it takes. A shameless plug, perhaps- but the point I'm trying to make is that we (by that I mean hobbyists in our community and beyond) have everything we need already to really work well with these fishes in a totally different way, and to help throw a bit more light on this unique group.
We just need to get out there, do a little research, and get a tank or two going. Oh- and we need to share this work. On the "big stage"- outside of dedicated killie forums and pages.
I'm sorry if I'm coming across a bit "harsh" on this. I can see how some folks might take this little kick in the ass in the wrong way- but I think that this "tough love" and request for us to look at what we're not doing well enough- from a big fan, no less- is warranted. I just get tired of hearing the same excuses for stuff with no new action being taken- especially when the excuses are made by incredibly talented people who can bring so much to the table...
Enough. 1978 is 40 years in the past. Time to work on the future!
In future columns, we'll touch more on the brass tacks of keeping these fishes and setting up a dedicated aquarium or two to feature them.
Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay communicative. Stay motivated...
And Stay Wet.