The other day, I was chatting with a friend about some upcoming aquarium projects that we're both doing, and we were discussing our fish selections, often lamenting the lack of availability or difficulty in obtaining various species.
"I'd do a whole tank around that one...just can't find the damn fish anywhere..."
You've had those conversations, too.
As a lifelong hobbyist, I've spent a lot of time reading about, researching, observing, and collecting tropical fishes- just like most of you.
It's a big part of the hobby for many of us!
And, in all of those years of researching, I couldn't help but wonder about some of "those" fishes- you know, the ones that are found in scientific studies and papers- fishes that seem to be ridiculously abundant in their natural habitats- swarming in and out of view in all of those underwater Amazon videos-yet almost never even show up as a blip on the radar for the hobby!
What gives? Why do we rarely see them in the hobby?
Now, there are plenty of reasons why some seemingly abundant fishes never show up in the trade, the primary one being that the collectors are simply not aware of any commercial value for them, and are far better off, from an economic standpoint, when they bring in 5,000 Cardinal Tetras instead of the abundant, but commercially "uninteresting" Hemmigramus elegans, for example.
A basically grey, nearly monochromatic characin has little in the way of value to the exporters, who need to satisfy the demands of hobbyists worldwide. Now, if suddenly there was a huge demand for this fish from the hobby world, or if it was determined that they contained a protein in their tissues that is effective at treating cancer or something, we'd see 'em coming in by the ton!
Duh. Easy. Obvious.
So it's really about demand.
And that makes sense.
Now, when you think about it, a fish being relatively drab and unremarkable in appearance has at least one benefit- it takes external pressures off of the wild populations of many species!
Yet, of course, as a hobbyist, I find myself wanting some of these less "interesting", yet relatively "common in nature" fishes to work with! I know from the marine livestock industry that some of the more rare, less in-demand fishes will come in with more common species as "incidental by catch" on occasion, and the sharp-eyed hobbyist/collector can score a somewhat rare, albeit nondescript Tang, for example that just shows up in a shipment of 400 more commercially-viable Acanthurus leucosternon, or whatever.
(Acanthurus chirugus Image by JT Williamns, used under CC BY 2.5)
And it's the same in the freshwater market, of course. Sometimes a few of these (hobby) oddities will trickle through in a group of more widely known, more commercially viable species. And occasionally, they find themselves in the hands of some really sharp retailers who understand the (hobby) scarcity of the fish and their value to a hobbyist. This happens a lot with dwarf cichlids, like Apistogramma, and with catfishes, like Corydoras.
And that's what's fun, to me. You never know what might make it through!
It's no secret that I've been obsessing for sometime about the small, relatively nondescript characin, Elachocharax pulcher. Part of one of my fave families, Crenuchidae, these are little, darter-like fishes that are common and abundant in the litter banks of Amazonia in South America, yet virtually unknown to the hobby.
They obviously would work really well in the leaf-litter beds that we're somewhat fond of replicating in our own aquariums, and would no doubt be popular within our tiny community of enthusiasts! They're cool enough that even hobbyists who have never heard of or seen them could be enticed to keep some if they were actually available!
Of course, I have no illusion that us 1% of the 5% of tropical fish enthusiasts who make up the segment of biotope-oriented characin lovers who keep leaf litter aquariums would even show up as an economically viable segment worth catering to by collectors!
However, what if a few of these cool fish got through...and what IF some capable hobbyists were able to breed them in viable numbers? Not only would success with obscure species like this release us from our reliance on chance collection/importation of them, it could possibly even permanently satisfy a demand- regardless of how tiny- for this cool little fish in the hobby!
And, most important, it could conceivably prevent any sort of need to continue to remove them from the wild. It's that "what if?" that keeps a lot of us dreaming!
A very selfish and kind of a fantasy-like, almost blissfully ignorant point of view, I suppose, but fun to think about, right? Yet, entire specialties in the hobby, such as killifish keeping- are built upon this idea of obtaining and breeding relatively obscure species )and variants from different geographic localities) of fishes.
(Yes we obsess...Chromaphyosemion sp.- Image by Mike PA Calnun)
And of course, it's not limited to killifishes.
I can imagine if I polled a random group of you, there would be many fishes (from different families of course) just like my little friend, Elachocharax, which would be treasured by a tiny group, and diligently maintained, spawned, and preserved for future generations to enjoy.
So, yeah- we keep an eye out on wholesale stock lists and intently scrutinize vendors' and dealers' tanks, hoping, waiting, and watching. They may not be with us in the hobby right now- for any number of reasons, but these "out-of-sight" aspirational fishes are what keep a lot of us going...
They're always on our minds.
What's your dream fish, and when will it show up?
Do you look for "substitutes"- or hold out for the "real deal?" How badly do you want it?
Stay curious. Stay alert. Stay diligent. Stay persistent. Hell- Stay relentless.
And Stay Wet.
Let's face it; pretty much no matter how we 'scape a tank, our fishes will ultimately adapt to it. They'll find the places they are comfortable hiding in. The places they like to forage, sleep and spawn.
It's what fishes do. It's what they've done for eons.
And as aquarists, what we've done for a century or so is try to create optimum conditions for the fishes we keep. This includes both the physical and chemical environment. We've talked a lot about the chemical environment, vis a vs our botanical-style blackwater systems. Today, let's just think for a few moments about the physical environment we create for our fishes, and why.
When we're planning an aquascape, we spend an enormous amount of time selecting the right materials: Rocks, wood, botanicals, etc., to get the right "feel" to our 'scape. This is a most enjoyable and interesting phase of an aquarium build, for sure- but take yourself out of the "I'm-gonna-enter-THIS-ONE-in-the-aquascaping-contest-and-place high" mindset for just a second, and put yourself into the mindset of...a fish.
Yup. Think like a fish for a second.
I mean, sure, I'll bet that fishes like living in those insanely cool 'scapes you see in all of the contests; however, those are mainly designed and constructed for the pleasure of humans, right? They're designed for our tastes. Specifically, for human judges, who evaluate a design-based on a set of specific criteria. "Iwagumi" looks really cool, but I'd hazard a guess that you won't find many of these "submerged Stonhenge" features in the natural streams and rivers of the world.
I'm just gonna go out on a limb and make that speculation...
So what about considering just how the fishes interact with the aquascape you create?
Again: Think like a fish a bit more.
Really. It might be kind of fun-and educational- to think about where your fishes are found in the natural streams, lakes, and rivers they come from...and "work backwards." I mean, fisherman have been doing this for eons...why not fish hobbyists?
Let's look at some of the features in natural bodies of water where fishes are commonly found...this might give you some insight into how to incorporate them into an aquascape. We can kick off this occasional "series" with a very cursory look at rivers and streams, where a good chunk of the fishes we keep in aquariums seem to come from.
Here are just a few of the many features of streams and rivers that fishes LOVE to congregate in...Think about how you might consciously incorporate some of them into your next aquascape!
First off, a few "sweeping generalities." Fishes tend to live in areas where the food and protection is, as we've talked about previously. Places that provide protection from stronger current and above-and below-water predators. Places where they can create territories, interact, spawn and defend themselves.
Bends in streams and rivers are particularly interesting places, because the swifter water movement will typically carry food, and the fishes seem to know this. And if theres a tree branch, trunk, or a big rock (or rocks) to break up the flow, there will be a larger congregation of fishes present. So, the conclusion here is that, at least in theory, if you design your scape to have a higher "open water" flow rate, and include some features like rocks and large branches, you'll likely see the fishes hanging in those areas...
In situations where you're replicating a faster-flowing stream environment, think about creating some little "rock pockets", perhaps on one side of the aquarium, to create areas of calmer water movement. Your fishes will typically orient themselves facing "upstream" to catch any food articles that happen on by. So, from a design perspective, if you want to create a cool rock feature that your fishes will likely gather in, orienting the flow towards it would be a good way to accomplish this in the aquarium.
Among the richest habitats for fishes in streams and rivers are so-called "drop-offs", in which the bottom contour takes a significant plunge and increase in depth. These are often caused by current over time, or even the accumulation of rocks and fallen trees, which "dam up" the stream a bit. (extra- you see this in Rift Lakes in Africa, too...right? Yeah.)
Fishes are often found in drop offs in significant numbers, because these spots afford depth (which thwarts the hunting efforts those pesky birds), typically slower water movement, numerous "nooks and crannies" in which to forage, hide, or spawn, and a more restive "dining area" for fishes without strong currents. From an aquascaping perspective, this gives you a lot of cool opportunities.
If you're saddled with one of those seemingly ridiculously deep tanks, a drop-off could be a perfect subject to replicate. And there are even commercially-made "drop-off" tanks now!
Overhanging trees are common in jungle areas, as we've discussed many times. Fishes will tend to congregate under trees for the dimmer lighting, "thermal protection", and food (insects and fruits/seeds) that fall off the trees into the water. And of course, if you're talking about a "leaf litter" or botanically-influenced aquascape, a rather dimly-lit, shallow tank could work out well.
Lots of leaves, small pieces of wood, and seed pods would complete a cool look. For a cool overall scene, you could introduce some riparian plants to simulate the bank as well. A rich habitat with a LOT of opportunities for the creative 'scaper!
Why not create an analogous stream/river feature that is known as an "undercut?" Pretty much the perfect hiding spot for fishes in a stream or river, and undercuts occur where the currents have cut a little cave-like hole in the rock or substrate material near the shore.
Not only does this feature provide protection from birds and other above-water predators, it gives fishes "express access" to deeper water for feeding and escaping in-water predators!
Trees growing nearby add to the attractiveness of an undercut for a fish (for reasons we just talked about), so subdued lighting would be cool here. You can build up a significant undercut with lots of substrate, rocks, and some wood. Sure, you'd have some reduced water capacity, but the effect could be really cool.
In the end, design and build the aquascape that makes you happy.
However, if you're trying to create something a bit different and perhaps a bit more true to nature, you might want to take a little "field trip" to a nearby stream, river, creek, lake, etc., where fishes and other aquatic animals reside, and observe things from the perspective of how they interact with the features of the environment.
You should "get outside" and do this once in a while! You'll definitely leave with some inspiration, ideas, and just maybe, a slightly different perspective on aquascaping than you've previously had!
And in the end, gaining a fresh perspective and new inspiration for your hobby is never a bad thing! So, "thinking like a fish" isn't such a bad idea, is it?
Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay unique...
And Stay Wet.
When we think of interesting ideas for aquascapes, we often have a particular fish or group of fishes in mind. It's the "traditional" way aquarists have developed aquarium schemes for a century or more.
Sometimes, we are interested in fishes from niches that require a little more research and foresight into their needs; we need to contemplate what materials to use that would more authentically "accessorize" their world!
Lately, I've been sort of interested in the ecology of streams with more water movement than the typical inundated forest floors that we tend to model our aquariums after. They are very interesting from a variety of standpoints- in particular, the "structure" that they encompass.
Current in wild streams effects the underwater "topography," with stream structures, like submerged logs, sandbars, rocks, etc. These structures, larger and heavier than say, leaves- still move around a lot as the result of the current, regularly changing the "aquascape"...Much in the way we might move a few things around now and again during maintenance!
And the overall idea of keeping an aquarium replicating such a habitat with a fair amount of current is not at all outside of the "concept" of a botanical-style approach. It's all about the concentration, diversity, and size of the materials used.
And where there are fishes- there are food sources...
In a study I found of the feeding habits of fishes from fast-moving streams in Brazil, it was noted that the diets of most of the resident species were (aquatic) insectivorous (35.7%), followed by detritivores (21.4%), benthivores (14.2%), omnivores (14.2%), herbivores (7.1%), and piscivores (7.1%). This is interesting, because almost all of the nutrition derived by the resident fishes is from the streams themselves, as opposed to from allochthonous sources (Foods from the surrounding habitats, like fruits, flying insects and ants, etc.- Remember those?)
This is intriguing, and not what I would expect. I'd tend to think that, with greater current, you'd see less "in situ" generation of food. Yet, these streams seem to be full of surprises, don't they?
So much to consider...More than we could even hope to cover in a teaser blog like this...My initial research yielded so many angles to explore! Hopefully, maybe- discussion of this habitat will inspire a few of you to do some further research and perhaps develop your own aquarium based on one of these "fast water" habitats?
Stay inspired. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.
When it comes to botanical-style aquariums, the most valuable "asset" you can have is most definitely patience. The patience to understand that developing one of these systems is a process, and realizing that, like any aquarium, there are sort of "stages" or "iterations" that, if you take time to enjoy along the way, create a very satisfying and even engrossing aspect!
It's so important to look at things a bit differently than you would if you were a bit more pragmatic about the process...Just hell-bent on "getting it done" as quickly as possible...
One of my favorite stages of setting up an aquarium is when the "stage is set" for the tank to mature. You know: The essential "anchor" hardscape is done. The wood and botanicals that will be the largest pieces are set. The tank is emerging from that that "sterile-looking", stark appearance (You know, that look which leaves no doubt about this being "artificial").
It would be tempting, at this point- to just rush through and get more stuff I there; get the fishes in; plants, etc...
Nope, not me. Like most of you- I have vision.
And I have patience to let it unfold gradually, steadily.
I think you do, too. Isn't this a cool time in the life of your tank? It's about contemplation, reflection, patience.
It's setting the stage for the long term.
It's about looking at your hardscape, for example, and asking yourself if this aggregation is representative of the way a tangle of branches might slowly assemble itself, given a unidirectional flow of water...like an inundation caused by an overflowing stream?
Thinking about the beauty that nature creates with her utter "randomness"; or more precisely- through the action of water, wind, current...and the passage of time.
The pic below by David Sobry gives me some interesting ideas...and context to this idea.
I've found that some of the most compelling aquascapes that I've ever seen or done- botanical-style, hardscape, planted, reef, etc.- seem to have a special "something" about them. Of course, a large part of it is the overall "look"; however, one of the things which, in my opinion, seperates good tanks from great ones is the little details...stuff that completes the underwater scene.
Not necessarily "structural" details, like anchor hardscape pieces, mind you. No, we're talking about little, subtle details which make a system more natural-looking and "shade in the corners" where needed.
I think that's where our obsession with little twigs, which motivated us to create the "Twenty Twigs" product ( a big hit!) comes from.
Those little things which make a big difference over time.
In our botanical-style world, it's little things, like bits and pieces of broken up botanical materials, like bark, the occasional larger seed pod or what not, which make your scene look much more complete and "organic."
If you take your cues from natural underwater habitats, like I do, you'll notice that they are filled with all sorts of materials- not just the more obvious leaves and branches. If you think contextually, particularly when we're talking about habitats like igapo inundated forests and igarapes ("canoeways" in the Amazonian forests), take into account that they literally are flooded forest floors.
As such, they have seemingly random aggregations of botanical materials scattered about everywhere, punctuated- or, rather defined- by larger features like fallen logs, branches, a few random rocks.
The look of sort of awkwardly-placed hardscape pieces in an aquarium might certainly not be seen as being "artistic", in the way fabulous work by my friends like Johnny Ciotti are- but, in my opinion, it's nonetheless compelling- once the details arrive to soften and fill in the scene.
Oh, I said the "D" word again.
I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a sort of chaotic scene like the ones we're talking about starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept of "mise en scene", where pieces literally set the stage and help tell a story by providing context.
Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in nature.
(One of Mike Tucc's underwater igarape pics to the rescue..again!)
I suppose this little rant could be viewed as a "defense" our "style", which on occasion has been criticized as "sloppy", "lazy", "undisciplined", etc...😆
Perhaps it is to some. However, I think it serves to re-examine what I feel is one of the foundational philosophies of the botanical-style aquarium aesthetic.
I must confess, it's an aesthetic which certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, many in the mainstream aquascaping world tended to levy all sorts of "constructive criticisms" and "Yeah, but..." comments about our practices and ideas for a while...Less these days, BTW!
And that is part of the attraction of this the of aquarium for me. Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for very basic initial design, and lets Mother Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.
This is a slightly different approach to aquascaping than we usually think about. It requires some vision. It requires belief in one's ideas. It requires understanding...And it requires patience above all else.
And the passage of time.
Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for eons.
And nature works with just about everything you throw at her. She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or rock or bunch of dried leaves, and, given the passage of time, the action of gravity and water movement, and the work of bacteria, fungi, and algae- will mold, shape, evolve them into unique and compelling pieces, as amazing as anything we could ever hope to do...
If we give her the chance.
If we allow ourselves to look at her work in context.
Always let nature add the details... She pretty much never messes them up!
Stay patient. Stay diligent. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
I have this expression that I use when describing the use of a lot of botanicals for aquascaping: "Generic tropical."
I admit that it's actually a pretty lame descriptor, but if you think about it for just a bit, there is a certain logic to it. I mean, some materials- leaves, seed pods, etc. do have that sort of "generic" look to them which would make them represent almost any type of tropical plant once submerged in the aquarium.
Well, one of my favorites is the Texas Live Oak leaf. These diminutive leaves could pretty much pass for a wide assortment of leaves from the trees of anything you'd find in the tropical jungle or rainforest pretty much anywhere in the world where water and foliage might meet.
Now, unlike some of the more "obviously Northern Hemisphere-looking" (LOL) Oak leaves, Beech, etc. these leaves can look decidedly "tropical." For that matter, other leaves, like Magnolia, have that same sort of je ne sais quoi about them which can sort of make them pass for the fallen leaves of a typical jungle tree once submerged.
And then, there are seed pods...
For the most part, almost of the botanicals which we collectively refer to as "seed pods" (often, the "follicle" or fruit of a tree, to be technically accurate) in our collection are from various tropical locales; the ones that come from North America or other more temperate climes are either super "representative" of materials that you might find in the tropics, or are utilized for strictly more utilitarian purposes.
Case in point: The Alder Cone.
I mean, no one is going to look at an Alder Cone and think to themselves, "Borneo, man!" Nope. On the other hand, some people really don't care, because they like the looks and aren't bothered by their decidedly non-tropical look. Others use them strictly for functional purposes- like fish breeders and shrimp hobbyists, who value these little "tint grenades" (Alder, Birch, and Casuarina) for what they are- compact "tannin delivery vehicles" and "biofilm propagation substrates!"
And of course, there are materials which sort of fill multiple categories, earning our other engineered descriptor of "functional aesthetics." What we mean here are materials which look good and happen to provide something else, like a place for fishes to hide or spawn, or a supplemental food source- or even a significant substrate upon which biofilms can propagate, like the Latifolia Pod.
Botanicals like our most popular one, the the Carinana Pod, fall into this category, as they not only are a very authentic-looking and decidedly tropical botanical that you might find in the flooded forests of South America (or, they effectively represent something else that you might find there), they provide a function (a hiding spot or breeding cave) for fishes like Apistogramma.
Yeah, I can't tell you how many pics we've received from our community members over the past three years showing an Apistogramma cutely hunkered down in one of these pods!
And then there are materials which I just call "whimsically functional"- stuff which absolutely has no chance of being found in the habitats from which our fishes come and don't really provide anything that accurately represents a particular item you'd likely find in these habitats. For example, Cholla Wood. It's the skeleton of a cactus found in the deserts of the Southwestern United States- not exactly a "Mecca" for tropical fish habitats!
Now, Cholla has become a sort of "industry standard" for shrimp keepers and lovers of aquatic mosses. Aquatic mosses are easy to affix to the many-faceted branches, and shrimp like grazing on the biofilms which Cholla recruits.
Now, there is really nothing inherently "wrong" about using materials which aren't found in the natural habitats of our fishes. If we are honest with ourselves, that category applies to the majority of materials which we regularly utilize in aquascaping, right?
And that's not a problem, IMHO.
I mean, sure, if you are a hardcore biotope aquarium enthusiast, and are entering a tank into one of those contests where extreme authenticity is valued, you need to take that into account. We provide- and will continue to do "deep dives" and give more origin and species information about our botanicals than you're likely to find almost anywhere else, as far as we know- so you can make informed decisions relative to your biotope aquarium.
That being said, I think we as hobbyists need to chill just a bit about the level of authenticity demanded by many of the biotope contests out there. We get really worked up; really pissy about this shit. It's kind of fun to watch from afar, actually.
Now, it does show the level of passion and commitment to the "art and science" that our hobby community has- which his great.
I have no issue with many of those standards for a biotope aquarium. They are all logical and well thought out. Where I take issue- like so many things in this hobby- is with attitudes. I mean, I've had people "call out" others because one of the leaves or whatever in a "Rio____ biotope aquarium" is "not endemic to the region", or whatever. Okay, I get your thinking, but really...
Can these armchair critics really discern the decomposing leaf of Hevea brasiliensis, Swietenia macrophylla, or Euterpe precatoria from Catappa, Guava, Jackfruit, Apple, Oak, etc? Especially after they've been submerged for a few weeks. I mean, seriously? Oh, and just because a botanical or leave or twig comes from ________, that doesn't necessarily mean that you'd find it in the water in those regions...
And, if someone cannot source these specific Amazonian leaves (news flash- you CAN'T at the moment because of restrictions on their export...thankfully), for example- does that invalidate the aquarium from consideration as a "biotope aquarium?"
It really shouldn't, IMHO. Am I missing the point here? I don't think so...
At the end of the day, I think that everyone can and should put aside their interpretive differences and come to an agreement that just about any aquarium intended to replicate on some level, a specific wild habitat, ecological niche, or area where a certain fish or fishes are found- is hugely important.
Because it calls attention to the habitats and environments themselves. It creates a starting point for discussion, research, debate...It raises awareness of the challenges that many habitats face with the encroachment of man's activities. It most certainly makes us appreciate the fragility of life- the genius of nature, and the incredible diversity and beauty of our home planet.
We all want to represent- as accurately and faithfully as possible- the biotopic niches that we're into. And that is incredibly cool! However, when we get caught up in semantics and petty arguments for the sake of...well, for the sake of "being right"- who does this help?
Who does it hurt?
Well, doesn't this kind of criticism hurt those who are in a unique position to use their aquarium hobby talents to maybe, MAYBE reach a few non-hobbyists with their beautiful tank...perhaps raising awareness of the plight of that Borneo peat swamp or African flood plain, for example? Does it discourage them from trying again in the future and sharing their work with the world?
Yeah. I think it does. And that sucks.
We need to lose the attitude on this topic.
I think many aquariums can be accurately labeled "biotope-inspired" or "biotope-style" aquarium and be a very reasonable representation of a specific aquatic habitat. I think a lot of the cool work our community does is at that level. There is nothing wrong with that at all.
We want to inspire and facilitate good work in this hobby area and others.
Our goal of becoming one of the world's leading providers of natural aquascaping materials and inspiration for aquarists of all types requires us to empower you with the information you need and the capability of curating your own selections of materials. It's why we've ditched most of the cute names of our botanicals. It's why we are giving you species and location information about them. It's why we no longer offer pre-configured "variety packs" of botanicals in favor of "a la carte" selections.
Yeah, it's all about YOU!
Enjoy the hobby the way you want...but please check those attitudes. Question things that bother you. Take a stand- even if it's not popular or "cool" to do so. This is supposed to be fun! In fact, it IS fun.
And pretty darned educational, too.
Let's keep it that way.
Stay engaged. Stay passionate. Stay educated. Stay collegial. Stay friendly. Stay helpful...
And Stay Wet.
One of the many geeky things I occasionally do is to sit back and reflect upon the types of aquariums that we create and consider the whole idea that we add natural botanical materials to our aquariums. I mean, it's a perfectly normal sort of thing...it happens in nature all the time. Stuff falls from trees and surrounding shrubs into streams, or onto the forest floor, only to be submerged when the rains flood the forest seasonally.
We get that.
And we're kind of borderline "obsessed" with these habitats, right?
The funny part is that we just sort of add different botanicals to our tanks, often with little consideration to what these seed pods and such that we're tossing in actually are; where they come from, and what they "bring to the table." We never gave a ton of detail on them other than their good looks.
I think this should change.
So, I thought that it might be nice to take a "deep dive" from time to time at some of the cool botanicals we offer here at Tannin, and offer you a bit more information about them that you might be able to contemplate when selecting them for use in your next aquarium project! We call it "Behind the Botanical!" (probably more than you care to know about each one, but hey, this is what geeks do...)
Today, let's focus on one of our "core" botanicals...
A seed pod which we've worked with for years, and one which has become one of our most popular: The (newly re-named) "Mokha Pod." Yeah, those of you Tannin "regulars" will remember that we used to call this pod the "Lampada Pod", which is the Portuguese word for "light bulb"- because its general shape reminded us of a classic light bulb!
After undertaking our concerted effort to ditch the fictitious names, we've re-christened it "Mokha Pod", which reflects the Hindi language term (used in the region of India where it comes from) for the tree on which the seed pod is found.
Botanists know this species as Shrebera swietenioides. It's a member of the family Oleaceae...olives! Now, this isn't the kind you'd eat...Let's just get that out of the way. The number of species in the Oleaceae is over 700 species (including Ash, Jasmine, and a few other well-known trees and shrubs), with members found in regions as far-ranging as Africa, India, Australia, and South America. Our supplier of Shrebera swietenioides is located in India, and it's a pretty common in that region.
The Shrebera swieteniodes tree is a deciduous tree with a large, dense crown; it can grow up to 60 feet/20 meters tall! The wood of this tree is very "close-grained", heavy, hard and quite durable. It's less prone to cracking or warping than many other woods in the region, and has become a favorite of weavers to use in the construction of many parts of their looms, particularly for the beam, and has earned the title, "Weaver's Beam Tree" in its native region!
(The "Weaver's Beam Tree" in all its glory- Image by Raffi Kojian ( Image used under CC BY-SA 4.0)
"Mokha Pods" are actually the fruit capsule of the tree, and are woody, protective shells for the delicate fruit. It's thought by locals that the fruit has some medicinal benefits.
Of course, what we love is the fact that the fruit capsules are "woody"- as this means that they're durable, "structurally functional", and aesthetically interesting for our purposes!
And, like seed capsules of many tropical trees, they do contain compounds like polyphenols, flavonoids and, of course- tannins. We can make that very anecdotal "jump" and perhaps infer that these compounds are released into the water when they are submerged, much like has been done with Catappa or other botanicals!
Now, the Mokha Pods we receive from our supplier come in two "versions", if you will: The "sections", which are just that- halves of the fruit capsule, and "Split Mokha Pods", which are the more intact, slightly opened capsule (formerly called the amusing title of "Snapping Lampada Pod").
Of the two "varieties," the "split" version are a bit more scarce, and arguably more iinteresting for those who intend to use them for shelter for small fishes or shrimp. They are useful for that purpose in much the same way an inverted clam shell would be in a reef aquarium, only more suited for the types of aquatic systems we work with, of course.
At this point, I am stepping back to clap myself up for writing what has arguably been the longest- and ONLY - dissertation on Shrebera swietenioides ever written in an aquarium-related blog. Yeah, so those of you who find some other vendor somewhere selling these pods (likely under what I can now confidently call a "stupid, made-up name!") for a dollar less or whatever- ask yourself...Is the savings really worth it? Don't you get more value from us? Where else can learn this much about a seed pod for aquarium use?
Wait, don't answer that! LOL.
We find that boiling these pods for at least 45 minutes to an hour is needed to break down the lignin in their tissue and get them saturated enough to sink. Place them in a pot of water and bring it to a steady boil. Continue to "cook" these pods for a minimum of one hour, prodding them periodically with a wooden spoon to push them under water for greater saturation.
Like most botanicals with woody tissues, they'll leach out a small amount of tannins initially, but not to the same extent as most leaves or bark, etc. These pods are a really great aesthetic component for your 'scape, offering that "generic tropical" look that will no doubt work in all sorts of aquascapes! Of course, for a Southeast Asian or Indian-Inspired biotope aquarium or vivarium, these would be truly great to use.
They last a very long time submerged- especially if you don't have fishes like Plecos rasping at them. In fact, I've found them completely intact (covered in biofilm, but none the worse for wear) after more than a year underwater!
We hope you've enjoyed this "deeper dive" into this popular botanical; if nothing else, we hope it's inspired you to look beyond just the pretty looks and to contemplate where your botanicals come from, how they grow, and what sort of possibilities await you when you use them in your aquatic display!
Stay intrigued. Stay curious. Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay unique...
And Stay Wet.
In our aquariums, we model so many aspects of the natural habitats that we are intrigued with, yet one of the most "in our face", yet seldom-considered is the impact that seasonal changes have on the biotopes we are interested in.
Yeah...you know, the "wet season" and the "dry season." Both create profoundly different circumstances which affect the habitat, the colony, and the fishes themselves. What an interesting element to consider when creating or managing an aquarium, right?
In the Amazon, the wettest part of the wet season occurs between December and May. During the wet season, the Amazon rainforest receives as much as 6 to 12 feet of rain (1.98- 3.6m), which can cause rivers like the Amazon to rise as much as 40 feet (12m), flooding the surrounding forest areas! The fishes adapt by moving into these areas that were previously barren and dry, foraging among the now-submerged trees, grasses, and plants.
We know this, and we spend a great deal of time in our community attempting to replicate this dynamic season in our aquariums. It's one of the types of habitats I think we love duplicating the most around here, for sure.
What about the "dry season?" When the water level is lower, the nutrient levels might be a bit higher. What happens in nature that we might be able to duplicate?
For one thing, recent studies have shown that rainforest trees and plants actually "flush" (grow new leaves) shortly before the arrival of the dry season. It's postulated that there is something in their "genetic programming" that allows them to prepare for the onset of the relatively "light-rich" dry season, to get them ready for enhanced photosynthetic activity.
So the takeaway here for aquarists who want to replicate the "dry season?" I'm thinking more leaves and botanicals in the water...brighter lighting. Yeah, even the dry season could be replicated in an interesting manner in our aquariums...Perhaps ( I can hear the alternating moans and cheers from different corners now!) less frequent water exchanges, higher light intensities (yes, ANOTHER reason to utilize LEDs in your tank!), and maybe even less frequent feedings...
These are just a few small "edits" we can make to the configuration and management of our natural, biotope-inspired aquariums. "Edits" which aim to recreate a very different part of the ecosystem than we typically will tackle as aquarists.
Simple "edits" which can create potentially profound and significant breakthroughs as we learn more and more about our fishes and the environments from which they come.
And these "seasonal changes" are just a few of the many, many different ways to replicate natural process in our aquariums!
Stay fascinated. Stay intrigued. Stay creative. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet.
Our "practice" of botanical-style aquariums is becoming more and more "mainstream" all the time, with hobbyists from all sorts of aquatic disciplines dabbling with incorporating botanical materials into their work. Some are doing it purely for the aesthetics; some for fish breeding, others for the adventure- and some simply want to do some cool experimentation!
Regardless of your rationale for adding "stuff" to your tanks, it's important to follow some basic "best practices" that those of us in the game for a while have learned- sometimes, painfully, I might add! One of those is to go SLOWLY when adding materials to an established aquarium.
It seems logical, but in practice, it's not always that easy to restrain ourselves, right? I mean, it's just a bunch of leaves and stuff...What could go wrong?
Well, a lot, if we're less than careful!
Think about what happens when leaves and botanical materials fall into streams and other bodies of water in nature.
When leaves fall into streams, field studies have shown that their nitrogen content typically will increase. Why is this important? Well, for one thing, scientists see this as evidence of microbial colonization, which is correlated by a measured increase in oxygen consumption.
This is interesting to me, because the rare "disasters" that we see in our tanks (when we do see them, of course, which fortunately isn't very often at all)- are usually caused by the hobbyist adding a really large quantity of leaves and botanicals at once to an established, stable aquarium, resulting in the fishes gasping at the surface- a sign of...oxygen depletion?
That makes sense, right?
These are interesting clues about the process of decomposition of leaves when they enter into our aquatic ecosystems. They have implications for our use of botanicals and the way we manage our aquariums. I think that the simple fact that pH and oxygen tend to go down quickly when leaves are initially submerged in pure water during lab tests gives us an idea as to what to expect in aquariums..
And to an aquarist, rapid changes in the environment = bad news.
A lot of the initial environmental changes will happen rather rapidly, and then stabilize over time. Which of course, leads me to conclude that the development of sufficient populations of organisms to process the incoming botanical load is a critical part of the establishment of our botanical-style aquariums.
Fungal populations are as important in the process of breaking down leaves and botanical materials in water as are higher organisms, like insects and crustaceans, which function as "shredders." So the “shredders” – the animals which feed upon the materials that fall into the streams, process this stuff into what scientists call “fine particulate organic matter."
You know, "detritus" and "stuff in the water."
In studies conducted in tropical rainforests in Venezuela, decomposition rates were really fast, with 50% of leaf mass lost in less than 10 days! Interesting, but is it tremendously surprising to us as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts? I mean, we see leaves begin to soften and break down in a matter of a couple of weeks- with complete breakdown happening typically in a month or so for many leaves.
And biofilms, fungi, and algae are still found in our aquariums in significant quantities throughout the process- just like in nature.
The wild habitats that we are fascinated by are highly dynamic environments, and change continuously. They're constantly evolving, accumulating new materials, and creating new physical habitats for fishes to forage among. These new food sources and chemical/energy inputs are important to the biological diversity and continuity of the flooded forests and streams of the tropics.
We replicate this process in the aquarium by adding new botanicals, conducting water exchanges, etc. The basics of aquarium husbandry and management haven't really changed in a century. And they are just as applicable to the botanical-style/blackwater aquarium as any other. The only real "difference" here is in the context- and how we understand what is actually going on and why.
We are not managing aquariums to be sterile glass boxes, "dioramas", or "zen gardens." We are understanding that a real "nature/natural-style aquarium" embraces the processes of nutrient import/export, decomposition, bacteria/fungal growth, and long-term nutrient utilization by the organisms which we keep. The aesthetics are far different than a system strictly set up for aesthetics. Rather, our systems offer a unique combination of form AND function...what we call "functional aesthetics."
Patience. A long term view. Observation. Understanding.
Deep breath. Deep thoughts.
Stay patient. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay adventurous...
And Stay Wet.
If you're into botanicals, it's not much of a stretch to think about how the materials that we use can influence the aquatic environment that they're immersed in. And, with greater emphasis on the origins of our botanical materials, you'll start noticing that quite a few of our most popular botanicals come from a single source- the Palm.
Nothing really screams "tropical!" quite like a palm, right?
Yep. We think so!
With over 2600 species of palm identified, it's a diverse and wide-ranging group of perennial plants. Hailing from the botanical family Arecaceae, palms may be climbers, shrubs, creepers, stemless plants..and the most widely known form- trees. And yes, as botanical-style aquarium fans, we're most interested in the "tree" forms of palm.
Most palms hail from tropical climates, with only like 120-odd species coming from non-tropical environments! So, yeah, they're pretty much the "Official Plant of the Tropics" by almost anyone's definition! And crazy adaptable; the main requirements for their growth being essentially warm temperature, decent amounts of water, and unfiltered sunlight.
There are a few families that we are particularly interested in: The Nypoideae, which contains just one species- Nypa- which offers a lot of interesting materials in our selection; among them are the Nypa Palm Pod, the Nypa Palm Flower, and the Mangrove Palm Pod (a specialized variant of Nypa fruticans, which can grow in partially submerged brackish conditions- Hello!).
The other subfamily, Arecoideae, includes some of our other fave "tribes", Areceae, Caryoteae, and some well-known genera we find in our botanical selection, such as Phoenix, Cocos, and Borassus, to name a few.
The genus Cocos, where the species Cocos nucifera (the "Coco" or "Coconut Palm") hails from, contains a bunch of our favorite botanicals, such as Coco Palm Bracts and Mini Coco Palm Bracts (the modified leaves of the palm tree), Coco Curls, "Fundo Tropical", and the humorously-named "Coco Pedaco" (essentially chunks from the exocarp, the outermost layer of the fruit).
This genus has so many commercial uses that it's not even funny...They're very commonly commercially cultivated for their utility. Almost every part of the tree is usable, ranging from food to building material to...aquarium use! You've probably heard of coconut carbon, which is derived from the coconut shell, which excels at removing organic impurities from water.
And then there is the genus Borassus; specifically, Borassus flabellifer, which is known as the "Tala" or "Palmyra" Palm, is an extremely versatile and useful tree as well. We derive the very cool Tala Palm Husks from this species, and they are a really interesting and long-lasting botanical material, which provides not only an interesting look, but a good substrate for biofilms to grow upon- and a "direct food" for species like Plecos and shrimp.
From the species Caryota mitus, the "Fishtail Palm", comes one of our all-time favorite botanicals, the "Fishtail Palm Stem." It's a very cool-looking botanical, which looks great scattered among leaves and other materials on the substrate of the aquarium.
In general, palm materials are long-lasting, aesthetically interesting, and provide great environmental and biological support for our aquatic ecosystems. Interesting fact: Palms have living cells that may be sustained throughout an individual palm's lifetime, and thus, it's argued by some scientists that palms may have some of the longest living cells of any organism!
And of course, the fruit of the palms contain tannin, as well as flavonoids, catechins, carotenoids, and organic acids, making them potentially very "biologically available" for the health of our fishes. Palms produce chemical compounds via "primary" and "secondary" metabolism. The secondary metabolites are compounds that play an important role in plant survival, providing a defense mechanism against predation by insects, herbivores, and microorganisms.
Does this "translate" into value as a fish "prophylactic" of sorts when used in our aquaria? Hmmm...
Now, it's that same kind of theoretical "stretch" that we make about Catappa leaves, for example. However, it's always thought-provoking to contemplate that these are scientifically verified properties that might, might-have some of the same "health benefits" for fishes as often ascribed to Catappa! Interesting at least.
The antimicrobial activity of the chemical compound found in the fronds of many palm species also raises a few eyebrows in our world. Again, it might be a stretch to think that a palm frond in your tank could prevent diseases; however, it's interesting to contemplate the possible benefits that could be derived from their use when submerged.
At the very least, the much-loved Pygmy Date Palm Frond (from Phoenix roebellenii), is a really beautiful "functional aesthetic" accent to the botanical-style aquarium. We've used these attractive, interesting fronds in our own aquariums for years, and they've become one of our most popular botanical-items for a lot of reasons! You'll typically receive them as gently dried specimens, still retaining much of their living green color. They last a decent length of time when submerged, and provide a very unique look!
Yes, there is "power" from the palms- be it the power to provide a unique type of aesthetic, a useful "substrate" upon which other life forms can grow, find shelter, and reproduce, or to provide supplemental food sources...and there is that "possibility" that they might offer some of the same potential health benefits as are often attributed to other botanical materials.
In the end, the ultimate "power" of palms might just be their ability to inspire, excite, and motivate us to push the boundaries in aquarium keeping; to search for potential new breakthroughs, discoveries, and challenges. Time will tell what new things we learn from them!
In the mean time, we'll keep studying them. Admiring them. Treasuring them.
Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful. Stay skeptical. Stay educated. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet.
Things are changing fast.
The world of blackwater/botanical-style aquariums is exploding, with new techniques, applications, and ideas...
And along with the new ideas, comes new interests. New excitement. New breakthroughs. And new responsibilities that we, as "thought leaders" (hey, YOU called us that!) in this tinted world, need to accept.
We've been making changes...We're going be making tons of changes this year.
You might have noticed that, in addition to the evolving new look of our site, we've changed most of the names of our botanicals.
Now, why would we do this? Everything has been going amazing. We have a growing global following, all the "cool kids" are dabbling with our stuff- the brand is exploding...Why would we do something radical like that?
Well, it's simple. I mean, I think it's pretty simple.
When we first started Tannin, it was fun to sort of create a "flavor" for our site and come up with exotic names for the materials we sourced. We made up a lot of fun Portueguese names for the botanicals. Why Portueguese? Because that's the language spoken in Brazil, where there happens to be that cool region called "Amazonia" that we're kind of intrigued by, and...
Well, yeah- it made sense at the time. Helped define us. Distinguished this stuff. Helped popularize botanicals. Romanticized it a bit.
But here's the thing.
It was kind of...stupid.
What? You heard me.
Let me digress.
I came from the world of reef aquarims and coral propagation...You know, the expensive, hyped $100-per-square-centimeter coral frags that have, well- silly names and equally silly prices. I used to laugh at that stuff. The names...the over-romanticizing of them...
Yet, in an odd way, it sort of made sense to do this with botanicals to create more interest in them initially- to make 'em more relatable; to give context and identity...
And it did. For a while.
In fact, I think- I think- we were actually the first to even utilize the term "botanicals" to describe this stuff...I don't think that, prior to 2015, you even heard about botanicals described as..."botanicals!"
So I think it's kind of cool that it perhaps helped get things more popular...
Yet, at times, I kind of wish that I "kept it real" from the start, because not only are the actual names and scientific ones intriguing, they're more helpful when you're the real hardcore type, trying to figure out what belongs in a specific aquarium...That sort of thing! However, it did serve to create a "vibe" and a buzz around Tannin and what we do initially...Fostering new excitement in a hobby sector that was obscure at best, and virtually non-existent at worst.
Fast forward to late 2018, and we have a full-blown hobby movement with botanicals! People all over the world are into this! We're at a new "maturity" level in the practice of utilizing botanicals and creating more natural, "functionally aesthetic" aquariums...And with this "maturity" comes more responsibility for us as a "thought leader" in this area. A responsibility to educate, inspire, and inform. A responsibility to be more accurate and authoritative.
Yeah, time to ditch the cutesy names.
It was getting a bit too much, even for me. Although it might be a bit easier to pronounce and remember the cute names, it is better in the long run to embrace the more accurate nomenclature. This botanical movement is bigger than any one company. More important than any one brand or person.
We offer botanicals. Nature "makes" them. And we are a brand which stands for something. And the brand supersedes the individual "product names." And the botanical-style/blackwater aquarium movement supersedes any one brand...
And a few other vendors doing this botanical thing now, too- which is great. Where it is a bit funny, however, is that a few of 'em are using the very names that we coined to describe similar materials that they are offering-even though they're essentially "meaningless"...And in at least one instance, someone "translated back" our silly botanical names into English to name his offerings...A 360 degree cycle of absurdity. We're not going to continue to perpetuate this silliness.
It was inevitable, I suppose.
And I realized that if I didn't step up and show some real leadership and confidence now, this could turn into the world's goofiest "coral frag swap" all over again, with out of control names, absurd claims, "limited edition" botanicals and such. And this wouldn't be helpful... I mean, here we are at Tannin, with over 700 blogs all about the most arcane aspects of the botanical/blackwater aquarium hobby- pushing and poking around the hobby in lots of crazy ways- hopefully educating and inspiring...
And then, there we were, calling a Dregea volubillsis pod a "Concha Pod."
Cute. Entertaining. But not helpful.
As I've said a million times, no one invented this stuff.
We curated it. Studied it. Loved it. Sourced it. Shared it. But we didn't invent it. NO ONE DID.
Now I admit, I am rather fond of a lot of the names we came up with...some of these materials simply never had a "common name", so we invented ones that fit our vibe. When I embarked on this road to transitioning to more appropriate names, it took a lot of research and talking to my suppliers in the countries of origin to find out if there is a common or popular name for some of these materials..
And when applicable, we'll use them. Or, we'll go by the genus/species name and call them "_______ Pods."
It will be a bit confusing at first, I admit.
And I could have gradually phased into it. But in the end, if you want to continue to be the leader, you need to act like one. We cut a path into this area before there was one...Now it's time to push out a little farther. As you've likely already noticed, we've started to change our look- and now we're upping our game all around.
Time to grow up.
And we're doing this "cold turkey"- for better or worse. Just a few more to change...
Now, I admit- some of you may not like it at all. Some of you will cheer..and some of you couldn't give a ----.
Ahh, the risks you take when you want to lead.
What's in it for YOU?
Well, after the initial confusion and realization that "That is now THIS", you get to have a better knowledge of the botanicals you use in your tanks. You can research places of origin, the growing habits of the plants they come from, etc. And when you learn about these materials, you can help unlock more ideas about how best to utilize them in our aquariums.
Or, you can just enjoy them, look at the pic for ID when you purchase them, and learn along with us to use their more correct names.
Simple as that.
So, if there IS a common name- ie; "Monkey Pot", "Coco Curl", etc.- or a logical common descriptor- like "Jacaranda Pod", Alder Cone, etc.- we'll use that. Some old faves, like "Jungle Pod" might hang on for a bit. However, some really popular ones, like "Savu Pod", have simply mutated into "Cariniana Pod" (the genus name).
Maybe not quite as sexy...or even as memorable.
I mean "Clown Killie" is probably easier to remember and more "fun" than Epiplatys annulatus, but in the long run, the hobby- and the hobbyist, benefit more from the accurate description, IMHO. I mean, you could probably call a number of species "Clown Killie", creating far more confusion than education and progress.
However, we'll all be better off for it in the long run. And the picture will always help, just like it did when we first marketed Aegle marmelos as "Sino Xicara."
And what about our competitors who "appropriated" our absurd botanical names? I get a lot of questions about this from you guys. My answer? Maybe they'll keep 'em for a while...or simply do what some of them been doing all along, and just copy the new naming convention...I suppose it's inevitable; likely better for the hobby in the long run, too. As one of my friends told me, they can copy names, but they can't copy our brand; what it stands for; what we've done.
That's pretty satisfying!
Here's a list of some of the most noticeable changes we've made:
"Savu Pod"= Cariniana Pod
"Capsula Pod"= Dysoxylum Pod
"Casulo Pod"= Kurrajong Pod
"Lampada Pod"= Mokha Pod
"Sino Xicara"= Kuruchi Pod
"Encontro Pod"= Kielemeyera Pod
"Concha Pod"= Dregea Pod
"Estalo Pod"= Parviflora Pod
"Manta Pod"= Cuspa Pod
"Flor Rio Pod"= Latifolia Pod
"Teardrop Pod"= Pyrifolium Pod
"Tartaruga Pod"= Jacaranda Pod
"Ceu Fruta"= "Skyfruit" Pod
"Rio Fruta"= Nypa Palm Pod
"Ra Cama Pod"= Afzelia Pod
"Pequeno Pod"= Schima Pod
"Rio Passaro Pod"= Nypa Palm Flower
"Milho Pod"= Pandanus Pod
"Descasca Pod"= Swietenia Pod
Yeah, WAAAY less romantic. Way less sexy. Way more accurate. Way more useful.
Other than that, not much has changed, lol.
Song remains the same.
So, keep pushing the limits. Keep learning new things. Keep playing with botanicals and all of the fun ideas that go with them.
Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay innovative...
And Stay Wet.