Ecology first...

Before I ever started Tannin, I grew corals commercially.

As a coral farmer, you're completely attuned to the needs of the organisms you're growing, from both an environmental and ecological standpoint. Before that, I was simply a reefer- a hobbyist who was obsessed with keeping a reef aquariums.

For the first 25 years or so of the reef aquarium hobby, it was all about literally creating a miniature reef- with life at many levels, ranging from invertebrates to corals, and of course, fishes. Techniques, approaches, and gear were developed to foster the development of the overall captive reef environment.

We incorporated "live rock" (calcareous reef rock which has been colonized by all sorts of organisms, from bacteria to macroalage, sponges) into the literal "foundation" of our reef tanks. The rock was a biodiversity catalyst, physical structure, and "filter."

Denitrification was thought to occur in deep layers of aragonite sand, so 3"-5" sand beds were found in almost every aquairum at the time. Procedures and practices all revolved around developing appropriate fauna to help maintain such sand beds. The typical reef aquarium of the early 2000's was a diverse assemblage of all sorts of life. 

And reefs became a lot easier to maintain.

As the hobby evolved, greater attention was paid to the corals themselves- acquiring, studying, and propagating them. 

Suddenly, the "ecology" part of a "reef aquarium" fell to a supporting role, with aquarists spending their time, attention, and money on equipment to provide for the needs of the corals above almost everything else. Sand beds and lots of live rock were seen as less important than mineral supplementation and technical filtration. The high diversity reef tanks of the early 2000's gave way to coral focused aquariums. 

It was about bare bottoms, minimal rock, and lots of mineral supplementation. We discovered that flow was as important , if not more so- to corals than light- so sand was removed, as it blew all over the place under the power of the new pumps we used. Incredible technological advances occurred in pump, lighting,  and other life support equipment, resulting in some amazing gear. Corals flourished.

Because of environmental restrictions imposed by many countries, the importation of live rock was extremely limited, if at all. We began to utilize alternative materials, such as manmade or mined rock, to create our reef structures. It was a necessary, responsible response to the limitations that we had.

There was a certain obsession with limiting nutrients to the aquairum, save those the corals needed.

Corals became almost "easy" to keep and grow. It was the start of a fantastic new era in reef aquariums...

Yet, something was amiss.

You started hearing more and more about "the uglies"- a colloquialism for the phase that a reef tank goes through as it establishes itself ecologically. A phase where algae, biofilms, and dinoflagellates flourished in the absence of competition. A time when cloudy water and bacterial "blooms" were a regular occurrence.

We didn't have these issues- at least, not to such an extent- during the early 2000's, when ecodiveristy and creation of a microbiome were at the forefront of what we did.

It's been that way for a while now. Bare bottom aquariums and inert, artificial rock, as environmentally responsible as they are, create a big challenge in creating a stable reef aquarium.

Fortunately, we're kind of figuring it out, and approaches are being modified to incorporate the development of eco diversity in our tanks using artificial rock. Aquacultured rock is becoming more prevalent, and sand is making a comeback.

Okay, so I'm not including this long-winded description of the last 2 decades of reef keeping just to show you how much I know. I'm talking about this stuff to illustrate the challenges that can arise when we eschew ecology in the establishment of our aquariums.

It's no coincidence that the botanical-method aquarium is a microcosm which depends upon botanical materials to foster the ecology and impact the environment.

This microcosm consists of a myriad of life forms at all levels and all sizes, ranging from our fishes, to small crustaceans, worms, and countless microorganisms. These little guys, the bacteria and Paramecium and the like, comprise what is known as the "microbiome" of our aquariums.

A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)

Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent:

We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-method aquarium is no different; in fact, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.

Yet, it's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist. In this little blog, we can't possibly cover every aspect of this- but we can touch on a few broad points that are really fascinating and impactful.

So much of this proces-and our understanding starts with...botanicals. 

With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle.

Yeah, you understand the nitrogen cycle, right?

How do botanicals impact this process? Or, more specifically, the microorganisms that they serve?

In other words, does having a bunch of leaves and other botanical materials in the aquarium foster a largerpopulation of these valuable organisms, capable of processing organics- thus creating a more stable, robust biological filtration capacity in the aquarium? 

I believe that they do.

With a matrix of materials present, do the bacteria (and their biofilms- as we've discussed a number of times here) have not only a "substrate" upon which to attach and colonize, but an "on board" food source which they can utilize as needed?

Facultative bacteria, adaptable organisms which can use either dissolved oxygen or oxygen obtained from food materials such as sulfate or nitrate ions, would also be capable of switching to fermentationor anaerobic respiration if oxygen is absent.

Hmm...fermentation.

Well, that's likely another topic for another time. Let's focus on some of the other more "practical" aspects of this "biome" thing.

Like...food production for our fishes.

In the case of our fave aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes, like biofilms and fungal mats are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the "biocover" on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials.

The biocover consists of stuff like algae, biofilms, and fungi. It provides sustenance for a large number of fishes all types.

And of course, what happens in Nature also happens the in aquarium- if we allow it to, right? And it can function in much the same way?

Yeah.

I firmly believe that a botanical-method aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the microorganisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!

It's a very interesting  concept- a fascinating field for research for aquarists, and we all have the opportunity to participate in this on a most intimate level by simply observing what's happening in our aquariums every day!

And facilitating this process is remarkably easy:

*Approach building an aquarium as if you are creating a biome.

*Foster the growth and development of a community of organisms at all levels.

*Allow these organisms to grow and multiply.

*Don't "edit" the growth of biofilms, fungal growths, and detritus.

We need to make some mental shifts, always.

These mental shifts require us to embrace these steps, and the occurrences which happen as a result. Understanding that the botanicals and leaves which we add to our aquariums are not "aquascaping set pieces"; but rather that they are "biological facilitators"for the closed ecosystems we are creating is fundamental. These materials are being utilized and assimilated by the organisms which comprise the biome of our aquarium.

Therefore, they are transient. Ephemeral, actually-not permanent.

By accepting and embracing these changes and little "evolutions", we're helping to create really great functional representations of the compelling wild systems we love so much!

Leaf litter beds, in particular, tend to evolve the most, as leaves are among the most "ephemeral" or transient of botanical materials we use in our aquariums.  This is true in Nature, as well, as materials break down or are moved by currents, the structural dynamics of the features change.

 If you haven't surmised by now, I'm a huge fan of creating a microcosm within our aquariums- at least to the greatest extent possible. I favor utilizing natural botanical materials and compositionally rich substrates to foster the ecology within our tanks. That ecology is everything from Paramecium to fungal growths, small crustaceans, and just about anything in between.

My aquariums are ecologically rich, highly diverse miniature ecosystems. They're intended from the start to be this way. As we've discussed so many times.

And of course, the sequence or process which we employ is pretty important...And really simple.

When I set up a brand new botanical-method aquarium, my process is really nothing crazy:

1) Add substrate material

2) Add wood (if used)

3) Add botanicals (all of them, at once after preparation)

4) Innoculate with cultured of bacteria or other organisms

OR...

5) Add a bit of material (decomposing leaves or botanicals) from a healthy established tank

6) Wait, and let it "bloom."

Seriously complex stuff 😆

Woah, that fucking blew you away, right?

Likely not, but hey. It's just not really all that exotic a procedure.

That's really about all there is to the actual physical setup process.The real part- where the "rubber hits the road"- is the period after the setup.

When you let it be.

A "jumping-off" stage, where our initial work is done, and Nature takes over, breaking down the botanicals, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling.  This is where Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time. 

And of course, once stuff starts "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an observer from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a cool phase of "actively managing" (and by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervening!") the aquarium.

Sure, when you embrace this mindset, you're making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to. Yet, at some point early in the process- you'll likely find yourself just letting go and allowing the tank to do what Nature intends it to do on it's evolutionary path...

The key here is that the process takes time. It cannot be rushed. We can, of course, "assist" a little bit, by adding  some bacterial cultures or cultures of other microorganisms, like Paramecium, etc., or small organisms like Daphnia. 

It's a classic way to go in many different types of aquariums, and it's every bit as effective in botanical-method tanks as it is in any other.  It won't help you evade the process by which Nature recruits organisms to develop a microbiome, but it will certainly start the process a little more quickly.

The bottom line is that you need to take time, and go slowly. Your aquarium will evolve over time- regardless of the steps you take (or don't take) to expedite the process. Going slowly- or at least, not doing stuff with the expectation that you'll get to some perceived "destination" quickly- is a great approach.

I'm not in the habit of quoting myself; however, on occasion, something like this little gem from way back in 2016 rings as true today as it did then:

"...regardless of how you employ the botanicals, I cannot stress enough the need to go SLOWLY. There is no need to rush and dump everything in at one time, or in huge quantities. Particularly in an established aquarium, where your animals are used to a certain stable range of parameters...

It goes without saying that if your introducing materials which can influence water chemistry and quality, you will need to go slow and exercise common sense. And, since botanicals are actively "breaking down" in your aquarium over their "service lifetimes", it's important to employ good husbandry techniques (i.e.; monitoring of water quality, water changes, regular filter media changes, etc.)..."

Just some words to the wise, right?

I believe that the idea of embracing some of the things that we’ve feared- like having all of that fungal growth on new wood and leaves and stuff, understanding the turbidity and cloudy water, and accepting the fact that things will evolve past the early, perhaps unsettling aesthetics.

“Pushing through” the earliest phases.

When you think through the idea of how these early impacts are mostly aesthetic, and not harmful to your aquarium, you start to realize that the looks of this stuff ( to many hobbyists, at least) is actually more awful than any possible detriments that they bring. And most important, you'll discover that "editing" it out by removing it from your tank is actually doing damage to a burgeoning ecosystem before it ever really gets off the ground!

If you don't panic.

Do some research, and learn about how natural aquatic ecosystems function, something just "clicks." And you'll understand.

It'll make sense when you get out of your head the notion that you're just trying to go after some sort of aesthetic, rather than trying to nurture the development of a miniature ecosystem within your aquarium.

I think we're starting to see a new emergence of a more "holistic" approach to aquarium keeping...a realization that we've done amazing things so far, keeping fishes and plants in a glass or acrylic box with applied technique and superior husbandry...but that there is room to experiment and push the boundaries even further, by understanding and applying our knowledge of what happens in the real natural environment. 

You're making mental shifts...replicating Nature in our aquariums by achieving a greater understanding of Nature...

And it all starts by placing ecology first.

Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay focused. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  

 

 

The risk of the new...

There is an undeniable fact which applies to every aquarium:

Every aquarium that we set up is an ecosystem.

Ecosystems are fascinating dynamics which embrace life and death, reproduction and predation, and growth and decomposition. The tiniest, least sophisticated of organisms, and larger, more complex ones. Aquariums are the epitome of this. The definition of an ecosystem is "a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment."

An aquarium ecosystem is set of interdependencies; in other words, it has different organisms living in it that interact and depend on each other. They can’t survive without the ecosystem. If any part of the system fails, the whole thing fails. The mythical, yet sort of half-grounded-in-truth hobby nightmare of the "tank crash" is typically caused by a failure at some level, within the ecosystem.

Of course, as aquarium industry vendors, manufacturers, and thought leaders, us humans love to apply descriptors to the type of aquarium approach we favor: You know, "botanical-style aquarium", "biotope aquarium", "Nature Aquarium", "reef aquarium"... all somewhat different in their orientation, yet all essentially the same:

A collection of interdependent organisms existing together in a closed system.

Every aquarium that we set up is an ecosystem.

In fact, it's almost unavoidable. 

And yeah, some approaches do facilitate the development and maintenance of an ecosystem better than others. 

Like ours.

NEVER lose site of that simple truth, and you've made like 80% of the "mental shifts" required to be successful with botanical method aquariums.

And within our approach, there are many experiments which can be done.

I receive emails almost every day from hobbyists, asking of they could use ______ in their aquarium. And the answer I almost always give:

Go for it.

Yeah, just try it. 

And I don't feel the least bit irresponsible in telling hobbyists that.

Look, just a decade ago, as I was formulating the launch of Tannin as a business, I was still knee-deep sourcing and experimenting with all sorts of botanical materials, to see what would work in aquariums and what wouldn't. 

Most of it did. Yet, there is still plenty of room for experiments and innovations in this area.

The reality is, you may simply have to experiment to know for sure what is practical for use in our aquariums. Experiment involves research, practical application, and...risk.

Yeah, you could kill fishes in the process. You could introduce toxins, pollutants, or other compounds into your tank. 

You could.

Not up for it? 

Don't experiment.

To be perfectly honest, I have had very few animal losses over my many years of experimenting with botanical materials that could be attributed to the materials themselves. Usually, it was because of some pollutants introduced from the botanicals (ie; lots of dirt or other organics which likely could have been mitigated through more extensive preparation), or because I used something which I found at an arts and crafts store, which may have been preserved with lacers or resins, unbeknownst to me at the time. Still other losses occurred when I deliberately added ridiculously large quantities of botanicals to an established, stable system.

In my opinion, unless you are utilizing large quantities of (unprepared or otherwise) materials known to be toxic to animals or fishes, or if they're from an area contaminated with pesticides or industrial waste, almost anything you can collect from a safe natural habitat is useable.

Yep:

YOU DON'T HAVE TO PURCHASE MATERIALS FROM TANNIN AQUATICS OR ANY ONLINE VENDOR IN ORDER TO HAVE A SUCCESSFUL BOTANICAL METHOD AQUARIUM!

You just don't.

For me or anyone else to assert this is flat-out bullshit.

You can literally use leaves and twigs that you collect yourself from your own local area. There is nothing inherently "magical" about the materials that Tannin or anyone else offers...except that (I can speak only for Tannin) the stuff that we offer has been "vetted"- tested for safety with aquariums.

When we first started Tannin Aquatics, I pretty much KNEW that we'd be on the receiving end of "incoming fire" from some people. You know, we sell "twigs, leaves, and nuts" and that's outrageous...It is super easy to criticize this business model! From day one, we had "critics" who "assessed" our business, its practices and products, and made the determination that everything we could offer can be collected from the empty lot next door to their home, and that we're essentially "selling ice to Eskimos" as the expression goes.

A "gotcha!" thing.

And of course, as a business owner, your natural inclination is to ignore, protect, engage, or whatever. Seeing misinterpretation, myth, and misinformation about your area of expertise- and your business- proliferate, is something you almost have to engage on. Yet, you have to temper it with a bit of self-awareness and logic, too! In my instance, I saw- and still see- little value in trying to tell fellow hobbyists that the Magnolia leaves or Oak twigs that I offer are somehow "different" than what someone with the dual blessings of time and geographic fortune can collect.

It's not honest or helpful to do that.

As someone who has tried to be as open and honest about the stuff we've offered as possible, I never really felt "exposed" by these assertions. Yeah, I mean, this stuff exists in Nature and you can grab it if you want. Of course, that never stopped the self-appointed "consumer advocate" types from claiming that we're simply trying to rip off or exploit unsuspecting hobbyists.

REPEAT NEWS FLASH: As we must have mentioned 100 times or more in this column and elsewhere over the years- OF COURSE you can collect your own botanicals- we encourage you to do so if you can! However, if you can't don't have access to them, or the inclination- that's what we're here for.

Despite how delicious it might be for conspiracy-loving "keyboard warrior-hobbyists" to claim, there is no "secret" or "mystery" that we're trying to perpetuate to keep you from "discovering" this. We're pretty confident that our business can survive just fine if hobbyists collect some of their own stuff. And, judging by our market share and growth trajectory, I'd say that this mindset is correct.

Proper identification is an important part of utilizing botanical materials in your aquarium. We've tried a lot over the years, believe me. And we've seen a fair number of them being given goofy names. In fact, almost every one of our "product names" are not "fictitious" names at all- we utilize the actual species name-tongue-twisting or linguistically ugly though it may be (I mean, Dregea Pods, are you fucking kidding me?) of the plant/tree/shrub from which the botanical comes from, and identify the geographic sourcing as well. 

And, as a hobbyist, I certainly understand that this hobby can be pricy, and that anything we can do to save a few bucks is not a bad thing. Not everyone sees the value in paying $5.00 or more for something like Oak twigs, Alder Cones, Loquat leaves, etc., if they have a clean, reliable, easily accessible source for these things in their own neighborhood. We totally get that!

What's "different" about the materials that we offer?

In a nutshell..No too much, from a "capability" standpoint.

Again, our stuff is not "magical." It's not "manufactured" in some factory or something. There is no "special powers" that our botanicals create. 

So, IS there anything "different?"

Well, yeah, I suppose:

I mean, you don't have to go to the time and effort to search, identify collect them, and sort them yourself. Sure, this is not necessarily a tedious process- but it can be an inconvenience for many of us; especially those hobbyists who live in urban areas where access to clean and reliable collection sites is limited or otherwise problematic. Or, for those who simply don't want to spend their free time rooting through that nearby vacant lot or urban forest area in an attempt to save a few dollars.

And of course, with our stuff, or stuff you purchase from other vendors, you get them delivered to you in a tidy package. Most responsible vendors study, test, aggregate, and curate stuff from all over the world, and go to great lengths to obtain this stuff, so you don't have to. With many vendors, you get the confidence that comes from knowing that these were ethically/sustainably sourced by vetted suppliers, and that the materials were not collected from areas which are polluted or insecticide-laden- all super-important considerations when utilizing botanical materials in your closed-system aquarium!

Oh, and in our case, you get the support of a company which lives, breathes, and sleeps botanical-method aquariums! You get the instructions, community, and the information provided by (now) around 1,000 blogs/podcasts on every aspect of this stuff. We think that this defines "value added" in this context for sure! It's got to be worth something, right?

Well, maybe it is worth something to you. Maybe not. Maybe you simply want to collect your own, period. Maybe you have great access to something that we don't. Judging by the number of "Have you tried_________?"or, "I have a_________ tree in my yard and was wondering if they are useable in the aquarium?" emails we receive weeklyit's obvious that there is enough interest in this "DIY" sort of thing!

And again, we say go for it, if you can!.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously- to determine the suitability of the leaves you're considering, you will simply have to experiment with live fishes- not something everyone wants to do, but in reality the only real way to determine wether or not the leaves you're playing with are problematic.

You can certainly make use of Google, Wikipedia, and other online botany sites- or even the local college library- to determine if there are known chemical toxins in the leaves you're considering. Tip: Oak, Beech, and other deciduous leaves have been used by hobbyists for some time, and would be good ones to use in a DIY-type situation.

You may need to consult someone with a botany and/or chemistry background as well. I spent a lot of time reaching out to various individuals with this information, and it was time well spent. In the end, it was up to me to experiment and put fishes "in harms way" to determine if various leaves were suitable. 

A "generic tip" about collecting leaves with consideration for aquarium use (once you've determined if they are safe for fishes) is to use leaves that have naturally fallen and dried up. These leaves are dead, dry, and have been depleted of much of their natural sugars and other living matter than can essentially become "pollutants" or "bioload" as the leaves die in the aquarium water. You don't want to overwhelm your aquarium with lots of organics caused by using non-dried leaves. A hugely important step. Autumn is, of course, a perfect time to collect leaves for your aquarium!

A lot of people overlook that “dry” part when collecting leaves…Many leaves have so much in the way of sugars and other compounds bound up in their tissues that all of this stuff simply leaches into the water if they’re not naturally fallen and depleted.

Although I will use Magnolia and even Loquat when they are still a bit “fresher”, they’re always naturally fallen leaves, which means a good percentage of those sugars and such are depleted. With Magnolia, there is that “cuticle” which keeps them a bit “fresher” longer, but I also feel that it controls the “output” of the less desirable stuff into the water, too. Just my two cents worth, but I’ve not experienced nitrate or phosphate issues when using them.

On the other hand, I think there's room for experimentation with fresh, green leaves as well! 

Sometimes, you'll be the first hobbyist to take the plunge trying something new. It's scary to some, I'm sure.

Ever felt a bit nervous when contemplating some new idea for your aquarium; you know, the idea that no one ever tried before? The idea everyone says can't be done, or "won't work", or "is destined to fail"...or the one that simply flies in the face of what's been considered  "The Way" for so long?

I mean, there's a chance that you could be the first hobbyist to pull it off. Or, more likely, the first hobbyist simply to try it. And I suppose, it can be a bit scary.

“First”.

It’s a powerful word, huh? 

Throughout our lives, we’re taught that it’s good to be “first”: Winning the race, being the first in line, the first one to finish our homework, etc. In the aquarium hobby, however, “first” sometimes carries a little more "baggage" with it.

A little extra challenge, right? A lot of scrutiny. Skepticism.



When you’re the first hobbyist to keep a challenging fish, or proffer a different way of doing things, you have some serious responsibility- to the animals, the natural environment, and even tougher still- the hobby “establishment”. It’s a heavy weight to shoulder!



Visionaries in our hobby have always suffered the criticisms of those who came before them.

I guess it’s human nature to question the views of newcomers to our little utopia. If you are pioneering a new technique, keeping an animal previously thought un-keepable, or, worse yet- challenging a long-held hobby “truism”, the fact is, you’re likely to take a beating. Or, at the very least, hear a lot of hushed whispers when you walk into the room.

Sad, huh?

The fact is, though- somebody has to be the first. Somebody has to dip their toes in the water, trying that new technique, or trying to keep the fish once thought impossible.

Look at a guy like Jack Wattley. He was breeding multiple strains of Discus on a regular basis, when most hobbyists were just happy to keep one alive! He single-handedly unlocked so many mysteries of this fish-and shared his findings-that it made it possible for aquarists worldwide to successfully keep and breed them. 

I remember not too many years ago, when my friend Matt Pederson succeeded at spawning and rearing the Ornate Filefish? This was a marine fish that would pretty much expose your neck to the chopping block for fellow hobbyists if you dared even try to keep one. You still take flack for keeping them. It was considered nearly impossible to keep- an obligate corallivore, supposedly only feeding on live coral polyps. Matt not only believed that he could keep and breed the fish- he defied the naysayers and actually did it!

It was a major achievement in the marine fish breeding world at the time.

Still is impressive.

Courage, my friends. And conviction. And the strength to endure scrutiny, criticism, and those naysayers who call you "foolish" or "brash" for even trying. If you have those traits- and a good idea, go for it!

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a bit of healthy skepticism or peer review. Preaching something that is contrary to conventional wisdom is one thing ( "An aquairum functions beautifully even when filled with decomposing leaves, biofilms and fungal growth") - it challenges us to re-think our previously long-held beliefs. However, advocating an idea that, in most cases, will cause harm to our animals (“There is no problem letting different species of Mbuna hybridize and releasing them at random to the LFS for sale.”) is another thing entirely. And proffering advice that’s downright foolhardy {“I think we should teach our toddlers how to hand-feed Piranha! ) will justifiably qualify you for an online assault from the fish-keeping community!

However, those are extremes of absurdity.

Trying something that hasn't been done before is an entirely different game. And one you should consider playing if you're ready.

If you're ready. If you think it can work. 

If...

 

I’m NOT discouraging you from testing a theory or radical new idea.

What I AM encouraging is responsible experimentation. Share your data. Force progress. Where would we be if hobbyists continued to believe that the undergravel filter was THE ONLY way to maintain a healthy aquarium, or if we never tried fragging a stony coral? Or if we were afraid of tinted water? Yikes! 

Radical steps are often necessary for change. Besides, who cares if people laugh at you once in a while. Not giving a flying f--k is great for the soul, trust me.



I leave you with a favorite, rather cliched, yet perfectly appropriate inspirational quote from Apple co-founder and visionary, the late Steve Jobs:

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”  

It's okay to be the first. It's okay to look at the hobby a bit differently. 

It's okay to push the outside of the envelope.

 

Flying in the face of “conventional aquarium wisdom” is a tough, but entirely passable road, if you've got what it takes. Perhaps a rather lonely, sometimes bumpy road, filled with the occasional obstacle or two. But totally worth the journey.

Take it.

The "risk of the new"  just doesn't really seem all that risky, when you consider the potential gains that may be had...

Stay brave. Stay determined. Stay curious. Stay unique. Stay undaunted. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Like what Nature Does.

I think that there is something inherently wonderful about doing the aquairum hobby on a "basic" level. You know, real simple approaches.  One of these is the idea that excessively intervening in your tank's function, or even looking at every deviation from what you'd consider to be "acceptable" is somehow a "problem" that we need to jump on and solve immediately. 

We worry about the danger of letting things "spin out of control..."

The reality is, Nature is in control- even when things seem contrary to what we want. It's not always a "problem" just because your tank doesn't appear the way you want it to. We look for all sorts of "solutions" and "fixes" to our "problems"...And the reality is, in many cases, we don't have to do all that much.

Nature's got this...

Nature eventually sorts it out.

We need to be patient and rational, not impulsive and upset.

Again, this mindset of "zen-like patience" and confidence in Nature "figuring shit out" is but one way of looking at and managing things- and admittingly, it's not for everyone. 

Control freaks and obsessive "tinkerers" need not apply.

Intervention, in this case, is more mental than actual. We need to change our thinking! Not every process has- or needs- a "workaround."

The "workaround" is to understand what you're doing, what could happen, WHY it happens, and what the upside/downside of rapidly "correcting it" can be. The key, typically, as with most things in the aquarium world, is to simply be patient. 

Despite our best efforts to "fix" stuff- Nature almost always "sorts it out"- and does it way better than we can.

Think about the bane of most hobbyists' existence- So-called "nuisance algae."

It's a "nuisance" to us because it looks like shit.

To us.

It derails our dreams of a pristine aquarium filled with spotless plants, rocks, coral, etc. Despite all of the knowledge we have about algae being fundamental for life on earth, it bothers the shit out of us because we think that it looks "bad."

And collectively as hobbyists, we freak the fuck out about it when it appears.

We panic; do stupid things to get rid of it as quickly as possible. We address its appearance in our tanks. Seldom do we make the effort to understand why it appeared in the first place and to address the circumstances which caused it to proliferate so rapidly. And of course, in our haste to rid our tanks of it, we often fail to take into account how it actually grows, and what benefits it provides for aquatic ecosystems.

Big blooms of algae are simply indicative of a life form taking advantage of an abundance of resources available to it in our tanks.

Algae will ultimately exhaust the available excess nutrients which caused it to appear in the first place, if you take steps to eliminate "re-supplying" them, and if you wait for it to literally "run its course" after these issues have been addressed.It will never fully go away- you don't WANT it to. It will, however, simply reach more "aesthetically tolerable" levels over time.

We've seen this in the reef aquarium world for a generation now. It happens typically in new tanks- a "phase" popularly called "the uglies"- before your tank's ecology sorts itself out. And the reality is, these big algal blooms almost always pass-once we address the root cause and allow it to play out on Nature's time frame.

Of course, as fish geeks, we want stuff to happen fast, so hundreds of products, ranging from additives to filter media, and exotic techniques, such as dosing chemicals, etc. have been developed to "destroy" algae. We throw lots of money and product at this "problem", when the real key would have been to address what causes it in the first place, and to work with that.

Yeah, the irony is that algae is the basis of all life. You don't ever want to really "destroy" the stuff...to do so is folly- and can result in the demise of your entire aquarium ecosystem.

In a reef tank (or freshwater tank, really) it's a necessary component of the ecosystem. And hobbyists will often choose the quick fix, to eradicate it instead of looking at the typical root causes- low quality source water (which would require investing in an RO/DI unit or carbon block to solve), excess nutrients caused by overfeeding/overcrowding, or poor husbandry (all of which need to be addressed to be successful in the hobby,always...), or simply the influx of a large quantity of life forms (like fresh "live rock", substrate, botanicals, corals, fishes, etc...) into a brand new tank with insufficient biological nutrient export mechanisms evolve to handle it.

And often, a "quick kill" upsets the biological balance of the tank, throwing it into a further round of chaos which takes...even longer to sort itself out!

And it will sort itself out.

It could take a very long time. It could result in a very "unnattractive" tank for a while. It could even kill some fishes or plants. I mean, Nature "mounts a comeback" at nuclear test sites and oil spill zones! You don't think that She could bring back your tank from an overdose of freaking algicide?

She can. And She will. 

In due time.

If you let Her.

Once these things are understood, and the root causes addressed, the best and most successful way to resolve the algae issue long-term is often to simply be patient and wait it out.

Wait for Nature to adjust on her terms. On her time frame.

She seeks a balance.

Waiting it out is one of the single best "approaches" that you can take for aquariums.

So, it's really about making the effort to understand stuff.

To "buy in" to a process.

Nature's process...

To have reasonable expectations of how things work, based on the way Nature handles stuff- not on our desire to have a quick "#instafamous" aquascape filled with natural-looking, broken-in botanicals two weeks after the tank is first set up, or whatever. It's about realizing that the key ingredients in a successful hobby experience are usually NOT lots of money and flashy, expensive gear- they're education, understanding, and technique, coupled with a healthy dose of patience and observation.

Doing things differently requires a different mental approach.

 

We work with Nature by attempting to understand her.

By accommodating HER needs, not forcing Her to conform to OURS. Which she won't do in a manner that we'd want, anyways.

Nature will typically "sort stuff out" if we make the effort to understand the processes behind her "work", and if we allow her to do it on HER time frame, not ours. Again, intervention is sometimes required on our part to address urgent matters, like disease, poisoning, etc. in closed systems.

However, for many aquarium issues, simply educating ourselves well in advance, having proper expectations about what will happen, and (above all) being patient while Nature "works the issues" is the real "cure.

So yeah, in our world, it's never a bad idea to let Nature "sort it out."

She's done a pretty good job for billions of years. No sense in bailing out on her now, right?

As we've all started to figure out by now, our botanical-influenced aquariums are a lot more of a little slice of Nature that you're recreating in your home then they are just a "pet-holding container."

The botanical-method aquarium is a microcosm which depends upon botanical materials to impact the environment.

This microcosm consists of a myriad of life forms all levels and all sizes, ranging from our fishes, to small crustaceans, worms, and countless microorganisms. These little guys, the bacteria and Paramecium and the like, comprise what is known as the "microbiome" of our aquariums.

A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)

Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent:

We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-method aquarium is no different; in fact, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.

Yet, it's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist. In this little blog, we can't possibly cover every aspect of this- but we can touch on a few broad points that are really fascinating and impactful.

So much of this proces-and our understanding starts with...botanicals. 

With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle.

Yeah, you understand the nitrogen cycle, right?

How do botanicals impact this process? Or, more specifically, the microorganisms that they serve?

In other words, does having a bunch of leaves and other botanical materials in the aquarium foster a larger population of these valuable organisms, capable of processing organics- thus creating a more stable, robust biological filtration capacity in the aquarium? 

I believe that they do.

With a matrix of natural materials present, do the bacteria (and their biofilms- as we've discussed a number of times here) have not only a "substrate" and surface area upon which to attach and colonize, but an "on board" food source which they can utilize as needed?

Facultative bacteria, adaptable organisms which can use either dissolved oxygen or oxygen obtained from food materials such as sulfate or nitrate ions, would also be capable of switching to fermentation-or anaerobic respiration- if oxygen is absent.

Hmm...fermentation.

Well, that's likely another topic for another time. Let's focus on some of the other more "practical" aspects of this "biome" thing.

Like...food production for our fishes.

In the case of our fave aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes, like biofilms and fungal mats are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the "biocover" on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials.

The biocover consists of stuff like algae, biofilms, and fungi. It provides sustenance for a large number of fishes all types.

And of course, what happens in Nature also happens the aquarium- if we allow it to, right? And it can function in much the same way?

Yeah. I think that it can.

I think this means that we need to continue to foster the biological diversity of animals in our aquariums- embracing life at all levels- from bacteria to algae to fungi to crustaceans to worms, and ultimately, our fishes...All of which form the basis of a closed ecosystem, and perhaps a "food web" of sorts for our little aquatic microcosms.

It's a very interesting  concept- a fascinating field for research for aquarists, and we all have the opportunity to participate in this on a most intimate level by simply observing what's happening in our aquariums every day!

And facilitating this process is remarkably easy. It can be summarized easily in a few points. :

*Approach building an aquarium as if you are creating a biome.

*Foster the growth and development of a community of organisms at all levels.

*Allow these organisms to grow and multiply.

*Don't "edit" the growth of biofilms, fungal growths, and detritus.

Make mental shifts.

These mental shifts require us to embrace these steps, and the occurrences which happen as a result. Understanding that the botanicals and leaves which we add to our aquariums are not "aquascaping set pieces"; but rather that they are "biological facilitators"for the closed ecosystems we are creating is fundamental. These materials are being utilized and assimilated by the organisms which comprise the biome of our aquarium.

Therefore, they are transient. Ephemeral, actually-not permanent.

By accepting and embracing these changes and little "evolutions", we're helping to create really great functional representations of the compelling wild systems we love so much!

Leaf litter beds, in particular, tend to evolve the most, as leaves are among the most "ephemeral" or transient of botanical materials we use in our aquariums.  This is true in Nature, as well, as materials break down or are moved by currents, the structural dynamics of the features change.

New materials arrive constantly.

We have to adapt a new mindset when "aquascaping" with leaves- that being, the 'scape will "evolve" on its own and change constantly...Other than our most basic hardscape aspects- rocks and driftwood- the leaves and such will not remain exactly where we place them.

To the "artistic perfectionist"-type of aquarist, this will be maddening.

To the aquarist who makes the mental shift and accepts this "wabi-sabi" idea (yeah, I'm sort of channeling Amano here...) the experience will be fascinating and enjoyable, with an ever-changing aquarium that will be far, far more "natural" than anything we could ever hope to conceive completely by ourselves.

Change. Evolution. Ecological diversity. 

Accepting how various organisms look and function in our tanks. Letting Nature take the lead in your aquarium is vital. 

It's not something to freak out about.

Rather, it's something to celebrate! Life, in all of it's diversity and beauty, still needs a stage upon which to perform...and you're helping provide it, even with this "remodeling" of your aquascape taking place daily. Stuff gets moved. Stuff gets covered in biofilm.

Stuff breaks down. In our aquariums, and in Nature.

With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle.

Yeah, you understand the nitrogen cycle, right?

Okay, I know that you do.

If you really understand how it works, you won't try to beat it; circumvent it.

You won't want to.

Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I have a theory that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-method aquarium keeping!

It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep.

They're a key part of the functionality.

Now, I've had a sort of approach to creating and managing botanical method aquariums that has drawn from a lifetime of experience in my other aquarium hobby  "disciplines", such as reef keeping, breeding killifish and other more "conventional" hobby  areas of interest. And my approach has always been a bit of an extension of the stuff I've learned in those areas.

I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-method aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome- a little closed ecosystem, which requires us to support the organisms which comprise it at every level.

Just like what Nature does.

Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay bold. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

 

It's not "dirty"- it's perfect.

We receive a lot of questions about the maintenance of botanical-method aquariums. And it makes a lot of sense, because the very nature of these aquariums is that they are stocked, chock-full of seed pods and leaves, all of which contribute to the bio load of the aquarium- all of which are in the process of breaking down and decomposing to some degree at any given moment.

It's not so much if you have to pay attention to maintenance with these tanks- it's more of a function of how you maintain them, and how often. Well, here's the "big reveal" on this: 

Keep the environment stable.

Environmental stability is one of the most important- if not THE most important- things we can provide for our fishes! To me, it's more about doing something consistently than it is about some unusual practice done once in a while.

Like, ya' know- water exchanges.

Obviously, water exchanges are an important part of any aquarium husbandry regimen, and I favor a 10% weekly exchange. Iit's the regimen I've stuck with for decades, and it's never done me wrong. I think that with a botanical influenced aquarium, you've got a lot of biological material in there in addition to the fishes (you know, like decomposing leaves and softening seed puds- stuff like that), and even in well-managed, biologically-balanced aquarium, you still want to minimize the effects of any organics accumulating in a detrimental manner. 

 

 

This piece is not really about water changes, and frankly, you can utilize whatever schedule/precentage works for you. The 10% weekly has worked for me; you may have some other schedule/percentage. My advice: Just do what works and adjust as needed.

Enough said.

Of course, the other question I receive all the time about botanical method aquairums is, "Do you let the leaves decompose completely in your tank, or do you remove them?"

I have always allowed leaves and botanicals to remain in my system until they completely decompose.

This is generally not a water-quality-affecting issue, in my experience, and  the decision to remove them is more a matter of aesthetic preferences than function. There are likely times when you'll enjoy seeing the leaves decompose down to nothing, and there are other times when you might like a "fresher" look and replace them with new ones relatively soon.

It's your call.

However, I believe that the benefits of allowing leaves and botanicals  to remain in your aquariums until they fully decompose outweigh any aesthetic reservations you might have. A truly natural functioning-and looking- botanical method aquarium has leaves decomposing at all times. There are, in my opinion, no downsides to keeping your botanical materials "in play" indefinitely. 

I have never had any negative side effects that we could attribute to leaving botanicals to completely break down in an otherwise healthy, well-managed aquarium.

And from a water chemistry perspective?

Many, many hobbyists (present company included) see no detectable increases in nitrate or phosphate as a result of this practice.

Of course, this has prompted me to postulate that perhaps they form a sort of natural "biological filtration media" and actually foster some dentritifcation, etc. I have no scientific evidence to back up this theory, of course (like most of my theories, lol), other than my results, but I think there might be a grain of truth here!

Remember: A truly "Natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course.

The love of pristine, sterile-looking tanks is one of the biggest obstacles we need to overcome to really advance in the aquarium hobby, IMHO. Stare at a healthy, natural aquatic habitat for a bit and tell me that it's always "pristine-looking..."

Lose the "clean is the ultimate aesthetic" mindset. Please.

"Aesthetics first" has created this weird dichotomy in the hobby.

Like, people on social media will ooh and awe when pics of beautiful wild aquatic habitats- many of which absolutely looked nothing like what we do in aquariums- are shared. They'll comment on how amazing Nature is, and admire the leaf litter and tinted water and stuff.

Yet, when it comes time to create an aquarium, they'll almost always "opt out" of attempting to create such a tank in their own home, and instead create a surgically-sterile aquatic art piece instead.

Like, WTF?

Why is this?

I think it's because we've been convinced by...well, almost everybody in the hobby- that it's not advisable or practical- or even possible- to create a truly functional natural aquarium system. It's easier to look for the sexiest named rock and designer wood and mimic some "award winning" 'scape instead.

Ouch.

I think that many hobbyists have lost sight of the fact that there are enormous populations of organisms which reside in their aquariums which process, utilize, and assimilate the waste materials that everyone is so concerned about. We eschew natural methods in place of technology, because it's in our minds that "natural methods" = "aesthetically challenged."

So we go for expensive filters...We've become convinced that technology is our salvation.

The reality is that a convergence of simple technology and embracing of fundamental ecology is what make successful aquariums- well-successful. In many cases (notice the caveat "many"...) you don't need a huge-capacity, ultra-powerful high-priced filter to keep your tank healthy. You don't need massive water exchanges and ultra meticulous water exchange/siphoning sessions to sustain your aquarium for indefinite periods of time.

What you need is a combination of a decent filter system, a regular schedule of small simple water exchanges, and a healthy and unmolested microbiome of beneficial organisms within your aquarium. 

Let Nature do Her thing.

Biofilms, fungi, algae...detritus...all have their place in the aquarium. Not as an excuse for lousy or lazy husbandry- but as supplemental food sources which also happen to "power" the ecology in our tanks.

Let's just focus on our BFFs, the fungi, for a few more minutes. We've given them love for years here...long before hashtags like "#fungal Friday "or whatever became a "thing" on The 'Gram.

And of course, as we've discussed many times here, fungi are actually an important food item for other life forms in the aquatic environments tha we love so much!  In one study I stumbled across, gut content of over 100 different aquatic insects collected from submerged wood and leaves showed that fungi comprised part of the diet of more than 60% of them, and, in turn, aquatic fungi were found in gut content analysis of many species of fishes!

One consideration: Bacteria and fungi that decompose decaying plant material in turn consume dissolved oxygen for respiration during the process.

This is one reason why we have warned you for years that adding a huge amount of botanical material at one time to an established, stable aquarium is a recipe for disaster. There is simply not enough fungal growth or bacteria to handle it. They reproduce extremely rapidly, consuming significant oxygen in the process.

Bad news for the impatient.

So just be patient. Learn. Embrace this stuff.

Support. Co-dependency. Symbiosis. Whatever you want to call it- the presence of fungi in aquatic ecosystems is extremely important to other organisms.

You can call it free biological filtration for your aquarium!

In the botanical-method aquarium, ecology is 9/10's of the game. Think about this simple fact:

The botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.

GREAT news for the patient, the studious, and the accepting.

Think about this: These life forms arrive on the scene in Nature, and in our tanks, to colonize appropriate materials, to process organics in situ on the things that they're residing upon (leaves, twigs, branches, seed pods, wood, etc.). 

 

So removing it is, at best, counterproductive.

Yeah, if you intervene by removing stuff, bad things can happen. Like, worse things than just a bunch of gooey-looking fungal and biofilm threads on your wood. Your aquarium suddenly loses its capability of processing the leaves and associated organics, and- who's there to take over? 

Okay, I'm repeating myself here- but there is so much unfounded fear and loathing over aquatic fungi that someone has to defend their merits, right? Might as well be me!

My advice; my plea to you regarding fungal growth in your aquarium? Just leave it alone. It will eventually peak, and ultimately diminish over time as the materials/nutrients which it uses for growth become used up. It's not an endless "outbreak" of unsightly (to some) fungal growth all over your botanicals and leaves.

It goes away significantly over time, but it's always gonna be there in a botanical method aquarium.

"Over time", by the way is "Fellman Speak" for "Please be more fucking patient!"

Seriously, though, hobbyists tend to overly freak out about this kind of stuff. Of course, as new materials are added, they will be colonized by fungi, as Nature deems appropriate, to "work" them. It keeps going on and on...

It's one of those realities of the botanical-method aquarium that we humans need to wrap our heads around. We need to understand, lose our fears, and think about the many positives these organisms provide for our tanks. These small, seemingly "annoying" life forms are actually the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium. When they arrive on the scene in our tanks, we should celebrate their appearance.

Why?

Because their appearance is yet another example of the wonders of Nature playing out in our aquariums, without us having to do anything of consequence to facilitate their presence, other than setting up a tank embracing the botanical method in the first place. We get to watch the processes of colonization and decomposition occur in the comfort of our own home. The SAME stuff you'll see in any wild aquatic habitat worldwide.

Amazing.

And the end result of the work of fungal growths, bacteria, and grazing organisms?

Detritus.

"Detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)

Well, shit- that sounds bad! 

It's one of our most commonly used aquarium terms...and one which, well, quite frankly, sends shivers down the spine of many aquarium hobbyists. And judging from that definition, it sounds like something you absolutely want to avoid having in your system at all costs. I mean, "dead organisms" and "fecal material" is not everyone's idea of a good time, ya know?

Literally, shit in your tank, accumulating. Like, why would anyone want this to linger- or worse- accumulate- in your aquarium?

Yet, when you really think about it and brush off the initial "shock value", the fact is that detritus is an important part of the aquatic ecosystem, providing "fuel" for microorganisms and fungi at the base of the food chain in aquatic environments. In fact, in natural aquatic ecosystems, the food inputs into the water are channeled by decomposers, like fungi, which act upon leaves and other organic materials in the water to break them down. 

And the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to these systems, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system, and acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was simply washed downstream!

That sounds all well and good; even grandiose, but what are the implications of these processes- and the resultant detritus- for the closed aquarium system?

Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?

I think so. Like, almost always.

In years past, aquarists who favored "sterile-looking" aquaria would have been horrified to see this stuff accumulating on the bottom, or among the hardscape. Upon discovering it in our tanks, it would have taken nanoseconds to lunge for the siphon hose to get this stuff out ASAP!

In our world, the reality is that we embrace this stuff for what it is: A rich, diverse, and beneficial part of our microcosm. It provides foraging, "Aquatic plant "mulch", supplemental food production, a place for fry to shelter, and is a vital, fascinating part of the natural environment. 

It is certainly a new way of thinking when we espouse not only accepting the presence of this stuff in our aquaria, but actually encouraging it and rejoicing in its presence! 

Why?

Well, it's not because we are thinking, "Hey, this is an excuse for maintaining a dirty-looking aquarium!"

No.

We rejoice because our little closed microcosms are mimicking exactly what happens in the natural environments that we strive so hard to replicate. Granted, in a closed system, you must pay greater attention to water quality, but accepting decomposing leaves and botanicals as a dynamic part of a living closed system is embracing the very processes that we have tried to nurture for many years.

And it all starts with the 'fuel" for this process- leaves and botanicals. As they break down, they help enrich the aquatic habitat in which they reside. Now, in my opinion, it's important to add new leaves as the old ones decompose, especially if you like a certain "tint" to your water and want to keep it consistent.

However, there's a more important reason to continuously add new botanical materials to the aquarium as older ones break down:

The aquarium-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-method aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."

In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.

Think about that concept for a second. 

It's changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems. 

It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.

It takes a significant mental shift to look at some of this stuff as aesthetically desirable; I get it. However, for those of you who make that mental shift- it's a quantum leap forward in your aquarium experience.

It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the asshole on Instagram with the flashy, gadget-driven tank. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.

It's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons. Mental "unlocks" are everywhere...the products of our experience, acquired skills, and grand experiments. Stuff that, although initially seemingly trivial, serves to "move the needle" on aquarium practice and shift minds over time.

A successful botanical method aquarium need not be a complicated, technical endeavor; rather, it should rely on a balanced combination of knowledge, skill, technology, and good judgement. Oh- and a bunch of "mental shifts!"

Take away any one of those pieces, and the whole thing teeters on failure.

Utilize all of these things to your advantage and enjoy your hobby more than ever!

Remember, your botanical method aquarium isn't "dirty."

It's perfect. 

Just like Nature intended it to be. 

Stay bold. Stay grateful. Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

September 05, 2023

0 comments


It's cool enough.

I'm trying to break though to some of you who have been really beaten down by the insanity that is social media in the aquarium hobby. A bunch of you have reached out to me lately and were concerned about the reception some of your work is getting from self proclaimed "experts."

Enough is enough. 

Most of these "experts" don;'t have enough experience with botanical-method aquariums to levy any sort of criticism at all with any degree of credibility or meaning. Yet, they DO know that these types of aquairums differ substantially from what THEY know to be "the way" to do stuff in the hobby, so it's really easy for them to criticize. After all, what you're doing is not the same as everyone else, so it MUST be wrong, no?

Why do we as a hobby seem to find such comfort in doing what everyone else does?

Why do we have to copy everyone else's tank in order to be considered "serious." And who is it that has the right to judge or make bold proclamations about your work, anyways? Who the hell said that what you do isn't "good enough"; or somehow isn't "cool", or whatever? 

In the aquarium world, we spend far, far too much time working about being accepted for our work, or hoping that it stands up to the scrutiny of others. I'm not the first person to tell you this, I know- but you need to just forget that bulkshit right now and do what YOU do best- execute the type of aquarium or aquascape or habitat that makes YOUR heart sing...NOT the one that's gonna garner the most likes on The 'Gram.

"That won't work! Your aquarium will  be filled with decomposing leaves and detritus...and...!"

WHO THE FUCK CARES! 

I mean, really. Surely, these self-proclaimed critics MUST have something better to do than shit on your work, right? So, really, you should pity them, not even stress out about them or their comments.

One of the criticisms that our hobby speciality has received a lot over the years is that we appear ( to the uninformed or uninitiated) to be embracing neglect of basic husbandry in our tanks. On it's face, this is an absurdity, but it just shows how incredibly superficial many people can be, failing to go beyond a pic of a tank filled with decomposing leaves, etc., and reconciling it with what they've been indoctrinated in the hobby to believe is a "proper" or "well maintained" tank.

I've heard lots of criticisms over  the years from hobbyists who assert that our tanks are filled with "nuisances", like biofilms, fungal growths, etc., and that our acceptance of them is based on laziness and a disregard for the "rules" of aquarium keeping.

Wrong on so many fronts...

First off, it kind of begs the question...what's a "nuisance", anyways? I mean, sure, to a lot of hobbyists, algae growth or fungal growth is unsightly, and detracts from their desired aesthetics. However, in and of itself, it's not really harmful, right? Now, sure, you could make the argument that it can "smother" plants, which is most definitely problematic. However, when it grows over substrate or "undefended" surfaces, like the glass or filter intakes, etc., is it a "problem", other than simply aesthetically incompatible with your vision for how you want your tank to look?

Algae, as we all know, is actually a valuable and integral part of the aquatic ecosystem, and is essential for aquatic life as we know it. In fact, I remember reading lots of articles about marine aquariums from the late 1970's and early eighties which actually celebrated the idea of a "luxurious" growth of green algae over your dried coral skeletons, etc.!

It was seen as a key indicator that your aquarium was well-suited for higher life forms (ie; fishes!). In addition to "cycling" your tank, you wanted to see that algae growth! Hobbyists literally added cultures of live marine algae to their tanks during the initial start up phase to "seed" them.

My, how times have changed!

Despite the indisputable scientific fact that algae is an essential component of the aquatic ecosystem, and the hobby's semi-embrace of "natural", hobbyists still freak the fuck out when algae show up in their tanks. Show me a so-called "Nature Aquarium" where there is even a visible speck of the stuff! Hobbyists scrub and siphon and pick at every centimeter of visible algae growth in these tanks, and consider it a shameful thing to have any of it in their tanks!

And in our world of function-forward nature-embracing botanical method aquairums, we celebrate the appearance of biofilms. fungal growths, decomposing leaves, and botanical detritus much the way the Marine aquarists of the 1970's and early eighties celebrated the appearance of green algae in their tanks!

These life forms are viewed as foundational components of the closed aquatic ecosystems which we are attempting to assemble in our tanks. We embrace them not as a submission to lax maintenance habits or blissful ignorance, but rather, as an indication that life is functioning as it should in our tanks.

As a hobby, I think we unnecessarily make lot of stuff "problems." 

When you think about it, many concepts in aquarium keeping started out as "problems", or were considered “impossible” until someone made them work.

Now, sure, I get the fact that Nature imposes "rules" on what we can do. There are consequences- often dire- to trying to break or circumvent natural processes. For example, trying to avoid the nitrogen cycle, or attempting to keep incompatible fishes together. Much of this stuff is common sense. However, it doesn't keep a lot of people from trying to "beat the system."

Now look- I'm all for trying new ideas-pushing the limits of what's possible, and questioning the "status quo" in the hobby. However, trying to "game"eons of natural processes in order to create some sort of a "hack" doesn't only not work- it's stupid.

THAT is a problem that we create.

You can, however, push the limits and break new ground by working within the boundaries of natural processes. That's advancement. That's progress. Innovation. 

Many of us are working every day to progress in the hobby.

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 botanical method aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but an approach 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, of an evolution which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still very much a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making botanical method aquariums far more common in the hobby. 

And definitely not a "problem."

Funny thing is that, in reality, it IS a sort of an evolution, isn't it? A little advancement from where we are in the hobby before. 

I mean, sure, on the surface, this doesn't seem like much: "Toss botanical materials in aquariums. See what happens." It's not like no one ever did this before. And to make it seem more complicated than it is- to develop or quantify "technique" for it (a true act of human nature, I suppose) is probably a bit humorous. 

Yeah, I guess I can see that...

On the other hand, the idea behind this practice is not just to create a cool-looking tank...And, we DO have some "technique" behind this stuff...

And it's not about making excuses for abandoning aquarium "best practices" as some justification for allowing our tanks to look like they do.

We don't embrace the aesthetic of dark water,  a bottom covered in decomposing leaves, and the appearance of biofilms and algae on driftwood because it allows us to be more "relaxed" in the care of our tanks, or because we think we're so much smarter than the underwater-diorama-loving, hype-mongering competition aquascaping crowd.

Well, maybe we are? 😆 (I promise to keep dissing these people until they put their vast skills to better use in the hobby...Sorry, lovers of underwater beach seems and "Hobbit forests.." You can do a lot better.)

I mean, we're doing this stuff for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, natural-functioning aquatic displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes- and their very existence- is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved. 

We've mentioned ad nauseum here that wild aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography and flora of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, as well as their life cycle.

The simple fact of the matter is, when we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a "result"-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more- we are to a very real extent replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.

The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is foundational to their existence, as it is in our aquarium approach.

And the fact that they recruit biofilms and fungal growths, and break down over time in our tanks is simply part of the natural process. We can consider this a "problem" which needs to be 'mitigated" somehow, or we can make the effort to understand how these processes and occurrences can benefit the little microcosms which we have created in our aquariums. 

Anyone who's kept tropical fishes for any appreciable length of time does stuff that, while maybe not intentional, doesn't exactly fit the commonly accepted "best practices" of aquarium keeping. Stuff that perhaps doesn't provide the fishes under your care with stable, comfortable environmental conditions. 

Maybe you slacked off on water exchanges for a protracted period of time. Perhaps you forgot to replace your filter media...Maybe you added a few too many fishes to that 20 gallon aquarium...What about the time you went on vacation and forgot to set up a means to feed them while you were away for 10 days? Or the time the heater failed and the water temp never got above 67 degrees F (19 C ) for like a week before you realized it?

These "lapses" are not exactly something that you want to have happen.

And yet, somehow- the fishes survived, right?

Yeah. They did.

Why?

Well, perhaps they're a lot more adaptable than we give them credit for, right?

Sure, fishes will likely always do best when provided with consistent, stable environmental conditions; conditions consistent with the environmental parameters under which they've evolved for eons.

Another example? I was talking with a friend a few days back about how disruptive, yet necessary "deep cleanings" that we give our tanks now and again . I was arguing that, in reality, they're not so disruptive, and likely mimic things that happen in Nature.

My hypothesis was that these were sort of analogous to seasonal and/or weather-related events, such as monsoonal rains, influxes of water into streams, etc. etc., and that they are probably more "traumatic" to the aquarist than they are to the fishes, which have evolved to handle them over eons.

What sparked this was a little epiphany I had a number of years ago, caused by just such a "disruptive" event. I was looking at my office tank one day,  as it was "recovering", if you will, from the thorough cleaning it received days before, and sort of marveled at the progression of things that happened. I kind of think I was spot-on in my thinking here for a change.

After the first 24 hours, I was a little down on myself, because I stirred up surprisingly large amount of detritus, which sort of started to settle on the wood, leaves, etc. The water was a little bit turbid. The formerly crystal-clear, sparkling clean (yet very brown) tank had a bit of "dirtiness" to it. It wasn't a huge amount, mind you- but sufficient enough for me to take notice and think to myself, "Damn, that looks kind of...different!"

"Different" = "shitty" to a fish geek....

Notice I didn't' freak out and think, "Oh my God! This tank is a mess...I need to do another massive water change...Need to..." Yeah. I stayed calm...I sort of believe in that theory we talked about. The theory that, in most cases, a healthy closed ecosystem like an aquarium will rebound from a seemingly significant event like the "Great Detritus Storm of 2016", and return to its glory really quickly with minimal intervention on the part of the aquarist. The theory that, in nature, disruptive events like storms and rains typically have more value than problems associated with them for the fishes.

Well, fast forward another couple of days, and I thought that my time-honed hypothesis was proven right. All of that detritus more or less cleared up..Settled...or captured by the filter? Probably to some extent...But the most remarkable "cleansing" of the detritus influx was conducted by the fishes themselves. I mean, especially my characins -which really went to town on this stuff, spending pretty much all day picking at the wood, substrate, leaves, botanicals.

Were they consuming the detritus itself?

Um, probably not as much as I'd like to think; however, some of the materials bound up in the detritus were probably quite good to them. And this is borne out by my research into the natural stomach contents of many fishes. Detritus, organic materials, and insects, fungal growths  and other materials bound up in a matrix of this stuff is a huge component of the diet of many fishes in Nature. 

And of course, in some instances, the botanical materials themselves are feed...as are the biofilms, fungi, sugars  and matrix of materials bound up in detritus and small particles of "stuff" in our leaf litter and such.

I remember marveling at how the fish were so "busy" at this foraging on the newly-uncovered "bounty", that I refrained from supplemental feeding for the nextt several days, and they were thicker and fatter than before the "event" occurred! 

And the tank? It was sparkling...crystal clear, with the beautiful brown tint we love so much around here, in full glory. In retrospect, I'm thrilled that I held off from the "primal aquarist urge" to panic, reach for the siphon, and do another disruptive maintenance. This was a mindset-shaping even for me! I would have completely missed the interesting behavior of my fishes, and the gorgeous "rebound" of the aquarium during what would have been my frantic intervention. Rather, I made the rather "mature" decision to just pick up where I left off and conduct my regular weekly water exchange later that week..

So the simple takeaway from this little epiphany was:  Not everything that seems like a "problem" is indeed a "problem." Not everything requires our rapid intervention. Or any intervention, for that matter. Nature's got this act honed to a fine sheen...We can coax it along, or even jump right in the mix...however, the reality is that these processes are certainties if left to themselves. There are reasons why stuff like this happens in nature, and reasons why our animals have adaptive mechanisms to deal with them. We just have to be patient, observant, and engaged.

All qualities which virtually every successful aquarist has anyways, right?

Yeah.

I'm obsessed with this, as are many of you- and it's  part of what interested me in the idea of using botanical materials in aquariums in the first place- an attempt to replicate some of the physical, environmental, and chemical characteristics of the environments from which they come from in the wild.

 

However, it's no secret that fishes will adapt to more easily-provided "captive conditions", even reproducing under them. You only need to think about all of the captive-bred tetras which, despite evolving in soft, acidic conditions, often thrive and breed in hard, alkaline water. 

There's not really a mysterious reason why this is.

The reality is that most fishes can adjust and adapt to changing or challenging conditions if you give them a little help….The "help" is providing aquarium conditions which are chemically stable, and in the case of those measures which reflect the levels of metabolic waste in the water (nitrite, ammonia, nitrite and phosphate)- low and stable. Keep 'em well fed and stable.

It really boils down to common sense husbandry.

Stability- or, more specifically, stability within a given range of measure- is what always seems to keep fishes alive and thriving. Continuously, quickly changing, and wildly varying environmental parameters are simply stressful for fishes, and, while often not killing them quickly outright, will result in continuous stress, which can lead to disease and other medical problems over time. 

That being said, it's not imperative that every single parameter in your aquarium needs to be perfectly stable and "spot on" to hobby-grade "standards". And out concern over any variation from perfection is really unfounded, IMHO.

We get too stressed-out over minutiae, IMHO.

To get a perspective, just have a chat with some non-fish-keeping acquaintances about stuff that happens in your aquariums.

Don't you think that sometimes, as hobbyists, we tend to get a bit- well, "overly concerned" about stuff that non-hobbyists don't understand? Or, perhaps they do-more than we can even comprehend- and will occasionally come up with some "pearls of wisdom" about fishkeeping that blow us away!

Case in point:

Not too many years ago, I recall walking into my office early one morning, and I immediately was taken aback. Apparently, one of my light timers had failed, and the one of my tank lights remained on all night.

No biggie, right? Well except for the fact that it was my South American-igarape-inspired leaf litter tank, and I recently added some cool wild characins to the tank, acclimated and carefully quarantined...and then- THIS had to happen, and....you know where I'm going with this?

This was going through my mind:

"Omigod, the fishes didn't get any dark period...they've been seriously stressed..."

You will say that this wouldn't bother you- but you're totally lying! It would bother the shit out of you, too! I know that it would, 'cause you're a fish geek. It's part of what we all do.

Of course, I relayed this concern to my wife later in the day, when we touched base and asked each other how are days were progressing.

To which my wife, not at all a fish geek, yet ever the pragmatist, noted, "You know, Scott, sometimes,  unexpected things happen in the Amazon."

Woah.

She was on to something there.

And it's not just lilt old me who freaks out about stuff like this. I know for a fact...

It's a fish-geek thing.

I think, that as hobbyists, we tend to get caught up in every little minute detail of the little worlds we've created for our fishes- so much so that we often forget the one underlying truth about them:

They're living creatures, which have evolved over eons to adapt to and deal with changes in their environment-big and small...or even insignificant, like an excessive amount of light one evening. 

I mean, there must have been some natural precedent for this, right? Some atmospheric phenomenon- or combination of phenomenon-which rendered the night sky inordinately bright one evening at some point in the long history of the world?

Yeah. Exactly.

Think about it for a second. 

I think this high level of concern-this "overkill", if you will, on the part of all hobbyists is based on the fact that we take great pains to assure that we've created perfect little captive environments for our fishes, and do everything we can to keep them stable and consistent.

When something out of the ordinary happens- a pump fails, a heater sticks in the "on" position, we forget to feed, etc.- we tend to get a little bit, oh...crazy, maybe?

Look, I get it: When a critical piece of environmental control equipment fails (like a heater), especially during a cold spell or heatwave, it could be life or death for your fishes. If you're about to spawn a particularly picky fish or rear some fry, it could be a serious problem. You can't really downplay those concerns. However, some of the less dramatic, non-life-threatening issues, such as a light staying on or off longer than usual one evening, a circulation pump stopping unexpectedly for a couple of hours, or forgetting to change the carbon in the filter one week, don't really create that much of a problem for your fishes when you really think about it objectively, do they?

Nah.

At some time during the exisience of our fishes in the wild, there was a temporary blockage in the Igarape in which they resided, slowing down the normal flow. At some point, there might have been a once-in-a-century cold morning in the tropics, right? At some point, the swarm of Daphnia or Cadis Fly larvae that were so abundant for months at a time, weren't... 

In most instances, the animals that we keep are not so delicate, and the closed environments we provide aren't running so "close to the edge" that we should panic when some random factor changes things up one day. And consider this: When we purchase our fishes, they are unceremoniously netted out of the tank (or stream, lake, river, etc.) environment in which they reside, placed in a plastic bag, transported for who knows how long, and possibly making a few stops on the way before ultimately landing in our aquarium. 

That's a LOT of changes to cope with. Stress.

But guess what? Fishes manage to deal with it. Somehow. 

Sure, our first choice is to have rock-solid parameters and environmental conditions for our fishes 24/7/365, but sometimes stuff happens that throws a proverbial "wrench" into our plans. We have to be adaptable, flexible...just like our fishes apparently are.

So next time your light doesn't come on, or you forget to feed your fishes as you rush off to work some morning, don't stress out over it. They'll be fine. Keep calm. Always keep your concern high, but don't let obsessing over your fishes keep you from focusing on the even more important things in life (yeah, there are a few, right?).

And remember, sometimes unexpected things DO happen in the Amazon. 

There is one fundamental truth, really:

The aquarium hobby isn’t difficult.

However, it CAN be when we make it that way by imposing our own barriers and obstacles to success.  And that includes stressing out over what, in reality, are really not devastating issues for our fishes. Of course, you also have to realize that common sense is so important.

One of the unusual  inconsistencies that I’ve noticed is that, sometimes, you’ll see information about a specific fish on a  website, describing in detail it’s natural habitat.

And many natural aquatic habitats are influenced by their terrestrial surroundings.

There are all sorts of interesting influences on these natural habitats created by the surrounding terrestrial environment and the microbial associations which occur in the substrates, leaves, wood, and other materials which comprise them.

The relationship between terrestrial habitats and the aquatic environment is becoming increasingly apparent- particularly in areas in which blackwater is found. And, the lack of suspended sediments, which create a "nutrient poor" condition in these habitats, doesn't do much to facilitate "in situ" production of aquatic food sources; rather, it places the emphasis on external factors.

Many blackwater systems are simply too poor in nutrients to offer alternative food sources to fishes.The importance of the relationship between the fishes and their surrounding terrestrial habitat (i.e.; the forests which are inundated seasonally) is therefore obvious. That likely explains the significant amount of insects and other terrestrial food sources that ichthyologists find during gut content analysis of many fishes found in these habitats.

And, as we've hinted on previously- the availability of food at different times of the year in these waters also contribute to the composition of the fish community, which varies from season to season based on the relative abundance of these resources.

 

Another example of these unique interdependencies between land and water are when trees fall.

It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall in the rain forest, with punishing rain and saturated ground conspiring to easily knock over anything that's not firmly rooted. When these trees fall over, they often fall into small streams, or in the case of the varzea or igapo environments in The Amazon that I'm totally obsessed with, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.

And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions: Providing a physical barrier or separation from currents, offering territories for fishes to spawn in, providing a substrate for algae and biofilms to multiply on, and providing places for fishes forage among, and hide in. An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks and parts will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.

In nature, as we've discussed many times-leaf litter zones comprise one of the richest and most diverse biotopes in the tropical aquatic ecosystem, yet until recently, they have seldom been replicated in the aquarium. I think this has been due, in large part- to the lack of continuous availability of products for the hobbyist to work with, and a lack of real understanding about what this biotope is all about- not to mention, the understanding of the practicality of creating one in the aquarium.

Long-held fears and concerns, such as overwhelming our systems with biological materials, and the overall "look" of decomposing leaves and botanicals in our tanks, have understandably led to this idea being relegated to "sideshow status" for many years. It's only been recently that we've started looking at them more objectively as ecological niches worth replicating in aquariums.

 

The aquairum world involves a lot of compromises. 

It involves a tremendous number of concessions and decisions. And it often comes down to what WE want as hobbyists, versus what the animals under our care NEED.

Sometimes, this can be challenging, putting us at odds with what we know and desire and like. Often, the compromises we make involve doing things for the greater good- sacrificing our preferences for what's best for the life forms we keep. 

This is not a bad thing, right?

It's important to understand that we require compromise in order to progress in the hobby. It's also important that we understand what is "normal" for the types of aquariums that we're working with- and why.

We're well on our way to changing the hobby in a positive way. As a community, we're pushing forward in many new directions, challenging established ideas, and breaking new ground.

Stay on it. Stay inspired. Stay bold. Stay diligent. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

August 31, 2023

0 comments


Fast forward to the beginning...

Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for uncounted 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- She'll 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.

If we don't worry when things go "sideways."

If we don't give up.

Always have faith in Nature.

She'll challenge you. She'll tempt you. She'll school you. But She'll also educate you, indoctrinate you into her ways, and take you under her wing...if you let Her.

Let Nature handle some of the details... She pretty much never messes them up! Don't fight Her. Understand her. Don't be afraid to cede some of the work to Her.

Botanical-method aquariums are not not "just a look." Not just an aesthetic. Not just a "trend." Not even just a mindset...

Rather, they're  a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much. And they incorporate many of the same "best practices" that we've come to know and love over the past century of modern aquarium keeping. Our success or failure is completely dependent upon how we apply many of these time tested approaches.

If there is a commonality among successful hobbyists in any aquarium speciality, it's that they follow fundamentals- common core principles of aquairum keeping. It's not additives, or fancy gear- it's patience and consistency. Routine and following a philosophy of aquarium husbandry.

First and foremost is patience.

I feel that we don't celebrate patience quite enough. 

Are you one of those people who loves to have stuff right now? The kind of person who just wants your aquarium "finished"- or do you relish the journey of establishing and evolving your little microcosm? 

I'm just gonna go out on a limb here and postulate that you're part of the latter group.

Have you ever completed an aquascape and stepped back and looked at it in its most "embryonic" phases, and thought to yourself, "This looks good?" The pristine glass, perfect deal wood, sparkling gravel...The scent of a brand new aquarium...

Well, of course you have! It's part of the game.

It's a total sensory experience, isn't it?

To me, however, the real "magic" in an aquarium happens not when it's new and pristine, but after a few weeks or months, when it develops that "patina" of micro algae, fungal growths, and a bit of detritus...the "matte" sheen of biofilm on the substrate...And when your tank develops that earthy, clean, alive smell.

That, to me, is when an aquarium really feels "alive" and evolving.

When it comes to maintenance of aquariums, I'm a big believer in removing algae from the front glass and "excessive" films from the driftwood or other materials...But I don't go crazy about it like I used to. Like many of you, I let some of those natural processes evolve, just like the tank itself...

I think I tend to spend less time and energy removing "offensive" algae growth manually, and spend far more time and energy controlling and eliminating the root causes of its appearance: Excess nutrients, too much light, lax maintenance practices, etc. It's not that I don't think I should be scraping algae- it's just that it seems to make more sense to "nip it in the bud" and attack the underlying causes of it's growth.

Understanding the dynamic in a closed aquarium system is really important.

There is another aspect to appreciating it: Letting a system "evolve" and find its way, with a little bit of guidance (or botanicals, as the case may be) from time to time, is beautiful to me...Watching the "bigger picture" and realizing that all of these "components" are part of a bigger "whole."

When I first approached botanical method tanks a couple of decades ago, this was a definite of mental shift for me, right along with accepting the biofilms, blackwater, and decomposing leaves. Like most of you, I've spent much of my fishy "career" doing "reaction" style aquarium maintenance, breaking out the algae scraper at the first sign of the "dreaded" stuff.

And I've come to realize that taking a more proactive, understanding, and yeah- relaxed approach to  so-called "nuisance algae management" has created a much more enjoyable hobby experience for me. And being a bit more accepting about seeing "some" algae growth and such has created far more aesthetically pleasing, naturally-appearing aquariums.

There is nothing wrong with creating a more "clinically sterile-looking" aquarium. Perfectly manicured, impeccably groomed task are beautiful. It's just that there is something about the way nature tends to do things that seems a bit more satisfying to me. 

And apparently, for many of you, too!

The beauty is that, like so many things in this hobby- there is no "right" or "wrong" way to approach something as mundane as algae growth and tank "grooming." It's about what works for YOU..what makes you feel comfortable, and what keeps your aquarium healthy.

Regardless of what approach we take, natural processes that have evolved over the eons will continue to occur in your aquarium. You can fight them, attempt to stave them off with elaborate "countermeasures" and labor...or you can embrace them and learn how to moderate and live with them via understanding the processes.

And the algae?

It'll always be there. It's just a matter of how "prominent" we allow it to be.

Simple. And, actually- sort of under our control, isn't it?

And when new think of expanded time frames under which our tanks evolve and operate, what's the big rush to "eradicate" things?

I'm not sure exactly what it is, but when it comes to the aquarium hobby...I find myself playing what is called in many endeavors (like business, sports, etc.) a "long game."

I'm not looking for instant gratification.

I know-we all know- that good stuff often takes time to happen. I'm certainly not afraid to wait for results. Well, I'm not just sitting around in the "lotus position", either- waiting, anyways. However, I'm not expecting immediate results from stuff. Rather, I am okay with doing the necessary groundwork, nurturing the project along, and seeing the results happen over time.

Yeah, that's a "long game."

If you're into tropical fish keeping, it's almost a necessity to have this sort of patience, isn't it? I mean, sure, some of us are anxious to get that aquascape done, get the fishes in there, fire up the plumbing in the fish room, etc. However, we all seem to understand that to get good results- truly satisfying, legitimate results- things just take time. Yeah, I'd love it if some "annual" killifish eggs hatched in one month instead of 7-9 months, for example, but...

I wouldn't complain, but I do understand that there is the world the way it is; and the world the way we'd like it to be.

I'll just say it: Your aquarium likely won't look anything like what you've envisioned for at least 3 months.

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

What's the rush? From day one, your botanical method aquarium will simply look different than any other tank that you've ever kept. It will by virtue of the fact that it's set up differently than any other tank you've ever kept! 

So, why not simply enjoy THAT?

I also think that we as a hobby tend to glorify the "finished product", with very little discussed- or shared on social media- about the journey itself. I believe that, if presented with the same gusto as finished tanks by hobbyists active on social media, stories about the journey of a botanical method aquarium can be incredibly compelling- even as compelling as the "finished" product.

I think that, by sharing such journeys, we can create an atmosphere of excitement around process- a huge thing for our hobby.

What it takes to get there is consistency and patience...

I have to implore you to deploy absurd amounts of patience and to employ "radical cal consistency" in your maintenance efforts. "Radical" in the sense that you simply have to become fanatical. Consistency meaning you do it regularly. Not sometimes, or when it feels right- but regularlary. Always.

Consistent habits create consistent environmental parameters, without a doubt. 

As you've heard me mention ad nauseum here, natural rivers, lakes, and streams, although subject to seasonal variations and such, are typically remarkably stable physical environments, and fishes and plants, although capable of adapting to surprisingly rapid environmental changes, have really evolved over eons to grow in consistent, stable conditions.

 

Consistency.

In the botanical-influenced, low alkalinity/low pH blackwater environment, consistency is really important. Although these tanks are surprisingly easy to manage and run over the long haul, consistency is a huge part of what keeps these speciality systems running healthily and happily for extended periods of time. It wouldn't take too much beginning neglect or even a little sloppiness in husbandry to start a march towards increasing nitrate,  phosphate, and their associated problems, like nuisance algae growth, etc. 

Consistency. Regular maintenance. Scheduled water changes. The usual stuff. Nothing magic here. Nothing that a sexy $24.00 bottle of bacterial culture is going to replace.

Nothing that you, as an experienced hobby don't already know. Right?

Just looking at your tank and its inhabitants will be enough to tell you if something is amiss. More than one advanced aquarist has only half-jokingly told me that he or she can tell if something is amiss with his/her tank simply by the "smelI!" get it- excesses of biological activities do often create conditions that are detectible by scent! 

It's as much about consistency-consistency in practices and procedures- as it is about hitting those "target numbers" of pH, nitrate, etc. If you ask a lot of successful aquarists how they accomplish this-or-that, they'll usually point towards a few things, like regular water changes, good food, and adhering to the same practices over and over again.

Consistency = Stability.

Sure, there might be times you deliberately manipulate the environment fairly rapidly, like a temperature change to stimulate spawning, etc., but for the most part, the successful aquarist plays a consistent game. Most fishes come from environments that vary only slightly during he course of a day, and many only seasonally, so stability is at the heart of  "best practice" for aquarists.

So, without further beating the shit out of this, I think we can successfully make the argument that consistency in all manner of aquarium-keeping endeavors can only help your animals. Keeping a stable environment is not only humane- it's playing into the very strength of our animals, by minimizing the stress of constantly having to adapt to a fluctuating environment. As one of our local reef hobbyists likes to say, "Stability promotes success."

Who could argue with that?

I'm sure that you can think of tons of ways that consistency in our fish-keeping habits can help promote more healthy, stable aquariums.  Don't obsess over this stuff, but do give some thought to the discussion here; think about consistency, and how it applies to your animals, and what you do each day to keep a consistent environment in your systems.

And don't be fucking lazy.

Don't look for magic potions, shortcuts, or hacks.

Good stuff takes time to achieve.

Stay observant. Stay methodical. Stay diligent. Stay grounded. Stay consistent...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

"Project 18": The turning point.

Okay, that title sounds a lot like some spy thriller or sci-fi action movie. The reality is that it's simply a part of my tank identification "nomenclature." Each year since Tannin began, I committed myself to do at least one major aquairum project, one that really puts down a "marker"- or tests some idea that Ive had in my head. Something that pushes the boundaries of what we do in the botanical-method aquarium.

 

Despite the "major" descriptor- the tank doesn't have to be a big one. I've had some of my most epic tanks and greatest influential developments arise out of nano tanks. The "Urban Igapo" concept (Project 19), The "Tucano Tangle" (Project 20), the botanical brackish system (Project 17), and our "Java Jungle" (Project 21) all came from tanks of 25 US gallons or less. Each one had outsized impact on my philosophies moving forward.

Each one represented a "turning point" in my personal botanical method aquarium journey.

Of all of the tanks I've played with in the past 5 years, none has had greater impact on me and my future work than the 50-gallon botanical method tank which we called "Project 18". This tank helped move the mark...pushed me into a new era of more thorough, more natural ecosystem creation.

It was the first larger tank in which I really let Nature take control. Let her dictate the pace, the diversity, and the aesthetic.

It started quite simply, really.

An almost stupid-looking stack of wood.

Not just any wood, though- Red Mangrove branches. A wood variety that imparts large amounts of tannins into the water. A very "dirty" kind of wood, with lots of textured surface area- perfect for biofilm and fungal colonization. 

The idea behind "Project 18" was to accept what Nature does to the materials we use- without any intervention on my part, nor a bent towards placing aesthetics first. 

Why?

Well, for one thing, it was to put down my personal "marker" for "Natural" in the aquairum hobby. This word is used too often, and in weird ways, IMHO. Some hobbyists  emphasize how "natural" their aquairum is without really looking at the absurdity of how hard they're trying to fight off Nature- by forcing decidedly unnatural combinations of plants and other materials to exist in a highly staged, very precisely manicured world of aesthetic-first philosophy. The result is a beautiful aquairum- one which has natural components, sure- but which could hardly be considered anything but an artistic view of Nature when placed into this context.

I sometimes fear that this burgeoning interest in aquariums intended to replicate some aspects of Nature at a "contest level" will result in a renewed interest in the same sort of "diorama effect" we've seen in planted aquarium contests. In other words, just focusing on the "look" -or "a look" (which is cool, don't get me wrong) yet summarily overlooking the function- the reason why the damn habitat looks the way it does and how fishes have adapted to it...and considering how we can utilize this for their husbandry, spawning, etc.- is only a marginal improvement over where we've been "stuck" with for a while now as the "gold standard" in freshwater aquariums..

Some people are simply too close minded to apply their skills to doing things in a TRULY more natural way.

Some of these people need to just stare at a few underwater scenes for a while and just open their minds up to the possibilities...

We all need to go further.

I'm sure I'm being just a bit over-the-top (oaky, maybe QUITE a bit!), but the so-called "nature aquarium" movement seems to have, IMHO, largely overlooked the real function of Nature, so there is some precedent, unfortunately. A sanitized, highly stylized interpretation of a natural habitat is a start...I'll give 'em that-but it's just that- a start.

The real exciting part- the truly "progressive" part- comes when you let Nature "do her thing" and allow her to transform the aquarium as she's done in the wild for eons.

So, yes- It should go beyond merely creating the "look" of these systems to win a contest, IMHO. Rather, we should also focus on the structural/functional aspects of these environments to create long-term benefits for the fishes we keep in them. We should aim to incorporate things like biofilms, detritus, decomposition into our systems, just as Nature does.

That's a real "biotope aquarium" or 'Nature" aquarium in my book.

That was the philosophy behind "Project 18."

 

Perhaos the most important things that botanical method aquariums can do is to facilitate the assembly of a "food web" within the system.

To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.

So, what exactly is a food web?

 

A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community. 

All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.

So, a trophic level in our case would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...

In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.

In many of the blackwater aquatic habitats that we're so obsessed with around here, like the Rio Negro, for example, studies by ecologists have determined that the main sources of autotrophic sources are the igapo, along with aquatic vegetation and various types of algae. (For reference, autotrophs are defined as organisms that produce complex organic compounds using carbon from simple substances, such as CO2, and using energy from light (photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.)

Hmm. examples would be phytoplankton!

Now, I was under the impression that phytoplankton was rather scarce in blackwater habitats. However, this indicates to scientists is that phytoplankton in blackwater trophic food webs might be more important than originally thought! 

Now, lets get back to algae and macrophytes for a minute. Most of these life forms enter into food webs in the region in the form of...wait for it...detritus! Yup, both fine and course particular organic matter are a main source of these materials. I suppose this explains why heavy accumulations of detritus and algal growth in aquaria go hand in hand, right? Detritus is "fuel" for life forms of many kinds.

In Amazonian blackwater rivers, studies have determined that the aquatic insect abundance is rather low, with most species concentrated in leaf litter and wood debris, which are important habitats.  Yet, here's how a food web looks in some blackwater habitats : Studies of blackwater fish assemblages indicated that many fishes feed primarily on burrowing midge larvae (chironomids, aka "Bloodworms" ) which feed mainly with organic matter derived from terrestrial plants!

And of course, allochtonous inputs (food items from outside of the ecosystem), like fruits, seeds, insects, and plant parts, are important food sources to many fishes.  Many midwater characins consume fruits and seeds of terrestrial plants, as well as terrestrial insects.

Insects in general are really important to fishes in blackwater ecosystems. In fact, it's been concluded that the the first link in the food web during the flooding of forests is terrestrial arthropods, which provide a highly important primary food for many fishes.

These systems are so intimately tied to the surrounding terrestrial environment. Even the permanent rivers have a strong, very predictable "seasonality", which  provides fruits, seeds, and other terrestrial-originated food resources for the fishes which reside in them. It's long been known by ecologists that rivers with predictable annual floods have a higher richness of fish species tied to this elevated rate of food produced by the surrounding forests.

And of course, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes. The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter! 

Sounds familiar, huh?

So, how does a leaf break down? It's a multi-stage process which helps liberate its constituent compounds for use in the overall ecosystem. And one that is vital to the construction of a food web.

The first step in the process is known as leaching, in which nutrients and organic compounds, such as sugars, potassium, and amino acids dissolve into the water and move into the soil.The next phase is a form of fragmentation, in which various organisms, from termites (in the terrestrial forests) to aquatic insects and shrimps (in the flooded forests) physically break down the leaves into smaller pieces. 

As the leaves become more fragmented, they provide more and more surfaces for bacteria and fungi to attach and grow upon, and more feeding opportunities for fishes!

Okay, okay, this is all very cool and hopefully, a bit interesting- but what are the implications for our aquariums? How can we apply lessons from wild aquatic habitats vis a vis food production to our tanks? 

This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides nutrient processing, and to some degree, a self-generating population of creatures with nutritional value for our fishes, on a more-or-less continuous basis.

Incorporating botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of creating the foundation for biological activity is the starting point. Leaves, seed pods, twigs and the like are not only "attachment points" for bacterial biofilms and fungal growths to colonize, they are physical location for the sequestration of the resulting detritus, which serves as a food source for many organisms, including our fishes.

Think about it this way: Every botanical, every leaf, every piece of wood, every substrate material that we utilize in our aquariums is a potential component of food production!

The initial setup of your botanical-style aquarium will rather easily accomplish the task of facilitating the growth of said biofilms and fungal growths. There isn't all that much we have to do as aquarists to facilitate this but to simply add these materials to our tanks, and allow the appearance of these organisms to happen. 

 

You could add pure cultures of organisms such as Paramecium, Daphnia, species of copepods (like Cyclops), etc. to help "jump start" the process, and to add that "next trophic level" to your burgeoning food web. 

In a perfect world, you'd allow the tank to "run in" for a few weeks, or even months if you could handle it, before adding your fishes- to really let these organisms establish themselves. And regardless of how you allow the "biome" of your tank to establish itself, don't go crazy "editing" the process by fanatically removing every trace of detritus or fragmented botanicals.

"Project 18" was a tank which really pushed this idea to the forefront of my daily practice. Everything from the selection of materials to the way the tank was set up, to the "aquascape" was imagined as a sort of "whole."

Yeah, I said the "A" word...Let's think about the "aquascape" part bit more deeply for just a second...

What IS the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right?

Exactly...

So when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come? The information that you can garner from such observations and research is amazing!

One of the key takeaways that you can make is that many freshwater fishes like "structure" in their habitats. Unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like certain types of structure- be it rocks, wood, roots, etc.

Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.

And of course, the structure that we are talking about in our aquairums is not just rocks and wood...it's all sorts of botanical materials and leaves that create "microhabitats" in all sorts of places within the aquarium.

We can utilize all of these things to facilitate more natural behaviors from our fishes.

So, yeah-think about how fishes act in Nature.

They tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...

I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", right?

 

And with the ability to provide live foods such as small insects (I'm thinking wingless fruit flies and ants)- and to potentially "cultivate" some worms (Bloodworms, for sure) "in situ"- there are lots of compelling possibilities for creating really comfortable, natural-appearing (and functioning) biotope/biotype aquariums for fishes.

Ever the philosopher/ muser of the art of aquaristics, I sometimes fear that the burgeoning interest in biotope aquariums at a contest level will result in the same sort of "diorama effect" we've seen in planted aquarium contests. In other words, just focusing on the "look" (which is cool, don't get me wrong) yet summarily overlooking the reason why the habitat looks the way it does and how fishes have adapted to it...and considering how we can utilize this for their husbandry, spawning, etc.

I'm sure it's unfounded, but the so-called "nature aquarium" movement seems to have, IMHO, completely overlooked the real function of nature, so there is some precedent, unfortunately. I hope that "biotopers", who have a lot of awareness about the habitats they are inspired by, will at least consider this "functional/aesthetic" dynamic that we obsess over when they conceive and execute their work. 

It should go beyond merely creating the "look" of these systems to win a contest, IMHO. Rather, we should also focus on the structural/functional aspects of these environments to create long-term benefits for the fishes we keep in them. That's a real "biotope aquarium" in my book.

Leaves, detritus, submerged terrestrial plants- all have their place in an aquarium designed to mimic these unique aquatic habitats.  You can and should be able to manage nutrients and the bioload input released into our closed systems by these materials, as we've discussed (and executed/demostrated) here for years.  The fear about "detritus" and such "crashing tanks" is largely overstated, IMHO- especially with competent aquarium husbandry and proper outfitting of a tank with good filtration and nutrient control/export systems in place.

If you're up to the challenge of attempting to replicate the look of some natural habitat- you should be a competent enough aquarist to be able to responsibly manage the system over the long term, as well.

Ouch, right?  Hey, that's reality. Sorry to be so frank. Enough of the "shallow mimicry" B.S. that has dominated the aquascaping/contest world for too long, IMHO. You want to influence/educate people and inspire them? Want to really advance the hobby and art/science of aquarium keeping? Then execute a tank which can be managed over the long haul. Crack the code. Figure out the technique. Look to Nature and "back engineer" it.

These things can be done. 

There are many aspects of wild habitats that we choose to replicate, which we can turn into "functionally aesthetic" aquarium systems. Let's not forget the trees themselves- in their submerged and even fallen state! These are more than just "hardscape" to those of us who are into the functional aesthetic aspects of our aquariums.

I hope that you have your own "Project 18"- an aquarium which served as an "unlock" for the future of your botanical method work. I hope that you find your unique way in the hobby, and enjoy every second of it!

Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

August 10, 2023

0 comments


A Steady Diet of...

 

I think that one of the most interesting- and perhaps, not widely overlooked aspects of botanical method aquariums is their ability to provide sustenance for the fishes which reside in them. Yeah, we DO talk a lot about how to feed our fishes, and how best to provide nutrition for them in thenmhobby. However, have you ever thought of how it might be possible to create an interesting fish community and display based on the different feeding strategies of fishes?

In other words, constructing your aquarium with the expressed purpose of supporting the various feeding adaptations of different fishes!

 

Hmm...ponder the possibilities here...

 

The idea is absolutely not crazy, nor "revolutionary"- but it is something...an "angle", if you will- that we should be considering when we construct our aquariums.

One of the most important functions of many botanically-influenced wild habitats is the creation and support of food webs. As we've discussed before in this blog, the leaf litter zones in tropical waters are home to a remarkable diversity of life, ranging from microbial to fungal, as well as crustaceans and insects...oh, and fishes, too!  These life forms are the basis of complex and dynamic food webs, which are one key to the productivity of these habitats.

By researching, developing, and managing our own botanically-influenced aquaria, particularly those with leaf litter beds, we may be on the cusp of finding new ways to create "nurseries" for the rearing of many fishes!

At least upon superficial examination, our aquarium leaf litter/botanical beds seem to function much like their wild counterparts, creating an extremely rich "microhabitat" within our aquariums. And reports form those of you who breed and rear fishes in your intentionally "botanically-stocked" aquariums are that you're seeing great color, more regularity in spawns, and higher survival rates from some species.

We're just beginning here, but the future is wild open for huge hobby-level contributions that can lead to some serious breakthroughs! 

Nature has been providing for the organisms which live in Her waters for eons...So I think any discussion about possible food production in a botanical method aquarium starts there...

 

The population and distribution of the fishes is based partially upon what food resources are available in a given locale.

A typical tropical stream or river  has a variety of different feeders, each one specializing in a different method of feeding.

You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in a similar context, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." "Periphyton" to the hobbyist is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces.

Again, fishes will graze on this stuff constantly.

In fact, many of our favorite fishes may be classified as "periphyton" grazers, which have small mouths, fleshy lips, and numerous tiny teeth for rasping. "Periphyton", by the way, is defined by science as "...freshwater organisms attached to or clinging to plants and other objects projecting above the bottom sediments."  Ohh- sounds good to me! This stuff is abundant in all sorts of streams, but can be limited by availability of light and solid substrates.

For this reason, specialized grazing fishes are rather uncommon in streams that contain shifting sand substrates, especially where there is dense shading by overhanging trees and shrubs. However, in streams possessing silty or muddy bottoms, there is typically not enough aquatic plant or woody materials present to support an extensive community of periphyton sufficient to support grazing fishes.
In these types of habitats, many grazing fishes feed on our old fave, detritus- and other sediments that are rich in organic matter, especially during various times of the year when the periphyton is more limited. Stuff like fungi and diatoms provide additional nutrition for fishes that graze, so our decomposing leaf litter and seed pods and such are useful for supporting this growth! One only need scientific literature about the gut content analysis of various fishes to see that these items form the basic diet of a large number of fishes.

It's noteworthy to point out that detritus is a less nutritious resource for grazers than the typical periphyton, especially for fishes like loricariid catfishes and such- and is thought by scientists to only be actively consumed when the periphyton growth is limited. So, interestingly, fishes do shift their feeding patterns to adapt to seasonal and other changes in their habitat..something we can replicate in our aquariums, no doubt!

 

Natural aquatic habitats can range from highly productive to relatively impoverished. 

Major rivers like the Rio Negro are often called "impoverished" by scientists, in terms of plankton production. They also show little seasonal fluctuations in algal and bacterial populations. Other blackwater systems do show seasonal fluctuations, such as lakes and watercourses enriched with overflow in spring months.

At low water levels, the nutrients and population of these life forms are generally more dense. Creatures like hydracarines (mites), insects, like chironomids (hello, blood worms!), and copepods, like Daphnia, are the dominant fauna that fishes tend to feed on in these waters.  This is interesting to contemplate when we consider what to feed our fishes in aquariums, isn't it? Hmm...Why don't more commercial fish foods contain mostly aquatic insects? Hint, hint, hint, hint...

Anyways, these life forms, both planktonic and insect, tend to feed off of the leaf litter itself, as well as fungi and bacteria present in them as they decompose. The leaf litter bed is a surprisingly dynamic, and one might even say "rich" little benthic biotope, contained within the otherwise "impoverished" waters. And, as we've discussed before, it should come as no surprise that a large and surprisingly diverse assemblage of fishes make their homes within and closely adjacent to, these litter beds. These are little "food oasis" in areas otherwise relatively devoid of food. The fishes are not there just to look at the pretty leaves.

 

It's not really that much different in the aquarium, is it? I mean, as the leaves and botanicals break down, they are acted upon by fungi and bacteria, the degree of which is dependent upon the available food sources. Granted, with fishes in a closer proximity and higher density than in many wild habitats, the natural food sources are usually not sufficient to be the primary source of food for our fishes- but they are one hell of a supplement, right? That's why, in a botanical-rich, leaf litter dominated aquarium, you see the fishes spending a lot of time foraging in and among the litter...just like in Nature.

It's been observed by many aquarists, particularly those who breed loricariids, that the fry have significantly higher survival rates when reared in systems with leaves present. I'm sure some success of this could be attributed to the population of infusoria, etc. present within the system as the leaves break down.

Bacterial biofilms, as we've discussed many times before, contain a complex mix of sugars, bacteria, and other materials, all of which are relatively nutritious for animals which feed on them. It therefore would make a lot of sense that a botanical-influenced aquarium with a respectable growth of biofilm would be a great place to rear fry! Maybe not the most attractive place, from an aesthetic standpoint- but a system where the little guys are essentially "knee deep" in supplemental natural food at any given time is a beautiful thing to the busy fish breeder!

And what of the leaves themselves? Do our aquatic animals feed on them? Well, yes- and no. Some fishes, for example, Loricariids, will feed on some of the materials directly, rasping off surface tissues. Others, like certain characins (notably, Headstanders, Metynis, and similar fishes), will feed off of the algae growth, or aufwuchs, as it's collectively referred to, present on the botanicals and leaves.

As we've talked about previously, aquatic invertebrates and crustaceans are one of the primary foods consumed by many fishes which reside in tropical streams, and the amounts and types are dictated by the environment of the stream, which includes factors like the surrounding topography, current, elevation, surrounding plant growth, etc.

Many fishes, like Headstanders and others, simply consume tiny crustaceans as part of their sediment feeding activity. Now, we're not likely to set up aquariums with fine, silty sediments stocked with tons of little copepods and worms and such...but if we were, I wonder how long it would take a few fishes to decimate the population.

Is it possible to create a real "active substrate", filled with these creatures, and to be able to "pre-stock' it with tons of small life forms prior to the introduction of fish? Would there be some way to replenish the population of these creatures (and thus the substrate itself) periodically? Yeah, I KNOW that it is. 

 

 

Detritus, sediment, etc...all of these things are important food sources- all of which can be cultivated in our tanks for the benefit of our fishes...

At the risk of being a bit pretentious, I'll quote myself from an article from 2015:

"Maybe we will finally overcome generations of fear over detritus and fungi and biofilms- the life-forms which power the aquatic ecosystems we strive to replicate in our aquariums. Maybe, rather than attempting to "erase" these things which go against our "Instagram-influenced aesthetics" of how we think that Nature SHOULD look, we might want to meet Nature where she is and work with her."

And then, we might see the real beauty- and benefits- of unedited Nature.

One of the important food resources in natural aquatic systems are what are known as macrophytes- aquatic plants which grow in and around the water, emerged, submerged, floating, etc. Not only do macrophytes contribute to the physical structure and spatial organization of the water bodies they inhabit, they are primary contributors to the overall biological stability of the habitat, conditioning the physical parameters of the water. Of course, anyone who keeps a planted aquarium could attest to that, right? 

One of the interesting things about macrophytes is that, although there are a lot of fishes which feed directlyupon them, in this context, the plants themselves are perhaps most valuable as a microhabitat for algae, zooplankton, and other organisms which fishes feed on. Small aquatic crustaceans seek out the shelter of plants for both the food resources they provide (i.e.; zooplankton, diatoms) and for protection from predators (yeah, the fishes!).

I have personally set up a couple of systems recently to play with this idea- botanical-influenced planted aquariums, and have experimented with going extended periods of time without feeding my fishes who lived in these tanks- and they have remained as fat and happy as when they were added to the tanks...

Something is there- literally!  

Perhaps most interesting to us blackwater/botanical-method aquarium people are epiphytes. These are organisms which grow on the surface of plants or other substrates and derive their nutrients from the surrounding environment. They are important in the nutrient cycling and uptake in both nature and the aquarium, adding to the biodiversity, and serving as an important food source for many species of fishes.

In the case of our aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the biocover on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials. Although most animals use leaves and tree branches for shelter and not directly as a food item, grazing on this epiphytic growth is very important.

Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.

And the resulting detritus produced by the "processed" and decomposing pant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential factor in the food webs of these habitats.

And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricarids, and others, you'll see that in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at "stuff" on the bottom of the tank. In a botanical method aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe an important benefit of this type of system. 

I've said it many times, and it bears saying again:

I am of the opinion that a botanical-method  aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the organisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!

Just like in Nature. 

Another interesting fact:

It's well known that in many habitats, like inundated forest floors, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc. And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...so I suggest once again that a blackwater/botanical-method aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish species! 

You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in a similar context, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." Periphyton is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces. Again, fishes will graze on this stuff constantly.

And then, of course, there's the allochthonous input that we talk about so much here.Foods from the surrounding environment, such as flowers, fruits, terrestrial insects, etc. These are extremely important foods for many fish species that live in these habitats. We mimic this process when we feed our fishes prepared foods, as stuff literally "rains from the sky!" Now, I think that what we feed to our fishes directly in this fashion is equally as important as how it's fed.

I'd like to see much more experimentation with foods like live ants, fruit flies, and other winged insects. Of course, I can hear the protests already: "Not in MY house, Fellman!" I get it. I mean, who wants a plague of winged insects getting loose in their suburban home because of some aquarium feeding experiment gone awry, right?

I think we need to let ourselves embrace this stuff and celebrate it for what it is: Life. Sustenance. Diversity. Foraging. I think that those of us who maintain blackwater. botanical- aqumethod ariums have made the "mental shift" to understand, accept, and even appreciate the appearance of this stuff.

We look at Nature.

Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...in every nook and cranny. It's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...

A true gift from Nature. 

Yet, for a century or so in the hobby, our first instinct is to reach for the algae scraper or siphon hose, and lament our misfortune with our friends.

It need not be this way. Its appearance in our tanks is a blessing. 

Really.

You call it "mess." I call it "food."

Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. Or, I hope you have..or can.

I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! AGAIN:

A truly "natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course. Biofilms, fungi, algae...detritus...all have their place in the aquarium. Not as an excuse for lousy or lazy husbandry- no- but as supplemental food sources to power the life in our tanks.

Real gifts from Nature...that you can benefit from simply by "working the web" of life which arises without our intervention as soon as leaves, wood, and water mix.

Keep making those mental shifts. Meet Nature where it is. She won't let you down. I promise.

And then, there are those insects. You know, terrestrial ones, like ants, flies, spiders, etc. They're especially important to fishes which reside in streams in rain forests and other locales where the land and water interact extensively, like areas of riparium vegetation. Now, not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but could, for example, ants- which make up a surprisingly large part of the diet (based on gut content analysis) of some fishes like characins and even some cichlids in Amazon streams- be a practical supplement food for our fishes?
I can just see a sudden surge in the popularity of "Ant Farms" as hobbyists race to culture their own populations of these insects! 

 

 

In the forests of South America, Asia, and Africa, where streams run throughout the year, there are numerous "allochthonous resources" to be had, such as fruits, flowers, the aforementioned terrestrial insects, and seeds, which fall into the water and help comprise part of the diet of many fishes. Interestingly, it's thought that many of the fruit and seed-eating fishes (like Myleus, Metynnis, and other characins) don't actually destroy the seeds of fallen fruits when consuming them, and thus might actually be significant seed dispersal agent sfor riparian and floodplain trees in these areas!
And, interestingly,  lots of these fishes also consume insects and aquatic invertebrates, depending upon the season- a strategy which makes sense, as it takes advantage of "what's available" at different times of the year.

 

 

Now, there are a fair number of fishes that consume aquatic plants, or more properly- parts of aquatic plants- as part of their diet, such as Doradid catfishes and Anomostids. Often, they're also consuming epiphytic algae and such in the process. Now, I'm not suggesting to utilize plants in your aquascape for feeding purposes; however, it's not entirely out the the realm of reality to do this, right?

A lot of omnivorous fishes in the wild are removing the periphyton from the roots of floating plants in some streams, so it may make some sense to utilize these plants as sort of "for culture stations" in your aquascape to support the feeding habits of many fishes, such as characins, Danios, Barbs, etc.

It's interesting to contemplate designing a biotope or other aquarium around feeding, an important but often overlooked aspect of fish behavior (when it comes to tank design, that is!) With a little research, planning, and a lot of experimentation, what interesting discoveries can be made? What breakthroughs await? Combining our much evolved expertise in fish feeding with our love of aquascaping seems almost a natural combination, doesn't it?

 

 

It might simply be an idea that's always been right in front of our noses, which we just resisted for a generation or two.

Evolution? Perhaps.

Stay persistent. Stay engaged. Stay confident. Stay open-minded. Stay unafraid...

And Stay Wet.

Scot Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

 

 

Fools rush in...

Recently, I've been fielding a lot of questions from new hobbyists.

Not just new to the botanical method aquarium world- new to the aquarium hobby altogether! 

On first thought, my answer is, "Fuck, no! You have to understand the basics of the hobby first."

Ouch. A bit quick and decisive, right? And perhaps a bit contrary to the realities of what we do and experience with botanical method aquariums.

I mean, I've often touted how I feel that, once these systems are established, they are remarkably stable, relatively easy-to-maintain aquariums., right?

Of course, there are some real qualifiers here.

The first being, "After the system is established."

Establishing a botanical-method aquarium, blackwater, brackish, or otherwise- certainly requires some basic understanding of the principles of aquarium management. Specifically, the nitrogen cycle, an understanding of water quality assessment and management, and stocking.

You need to understand a little about the ecology of natural aquatic systems; how they function, evolve, and why the look the way that they do.

Yet, you CAN learn all of these things. You can google and study and even listen to our podcast and read our blog.

Facts. Processes. Techniques.

And then, there are some things you can't really "teach"- like patience. You need, well- a shitload of it...in the aquarium hobby in general, yet especially in the natural, botanical-method aquarium sector. And the "patience" part? I feel that it's seminal. Foundational.

Essential.

I don't think you can "teach" that. 

I mean, perhaps you can be taught about why patience is so important.

We can provide some expectations and explanations of how these systems establish, appear, and operate over time. We can offer guidelines about "best practices" and procedures. 

However, the best teacher, as with so many things- is experience. You have to dive in and do it. Beginner, intermediate, advanced- you have to DO.

Perhaps some things might be easier to an outright beginner; someone who has no preconceived notions about how an aquarium is "supposed to look", or what is considered "natural", "beautiful", etc. There is a beautiful, almost innocent objectivity that we bring to the game when we are flat-out beginners, right? We have little basis for comparison, other than our own observations and personal tastes. 

And that's actually an advantage, in some respects, IMHO.

In my opinion, the hobby has been- for better or worse- influenced by schools of thought which seem to dogmatically dictate what is "good", "bad", and "correct." And, in a strange sort of way, hobbyists who stray off of the generally accepted, well-trodden paths established by our hobby forefathers are often greeted with skepticism, cynicism, and sometimes, outright disdain! 

 

That blows, IMHO.

And then there is the other end of the spectrum: The splashy, often vapid, sometimes downright bizarre presentation of the aquarium hobby found on social media.

One trend I've noticed that's fueled by social media is an almost fetishization of showing only the "finished product" of gorgeous, pristine aquascaped tanks, with maybe just a little sampling of "construction" pics (usually just staged shots of products or "unboxing" stuff- read that, "shilling" for manufacturers, btw), but little mention of the actual process; the challenges, the "ugly" parts- the work- of establishing one of these aquariums.

The result of this superficial ("dumbed down") presentation of aquariums conveys the message that it's just all about buying stuff, artfully arranging some materials, and POW! Finished awesome tank. Shit, it's so easy- why isn't YOUR tank this cool and sexy?

It often results in frustration for the everyday hobbyist, who can't seem to figure out why his or her tank isn't exactly like the one on the 'gram.

Sure, the fundamentals of aquarium keeping and the mindset behind establishing successful systems isn't as "sexy" or 'gram-ready as pics of the finished product, but to operate from the position that everyone who sees these tanks has that underlying knowledge already is at best "glossing over" the realities, and at worst, downright irresponsible.

We've gotta talk more anbout process. About how these tanks work, the philosophy and methodology behind them, and about how to establish and maintain them. The beginner needs to see this stuff.

To jump into any aquarium- botanical-filled or otherwise- without having basic knowledge about stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish stocking protocols, and husbandry techniques- is flat-out stupid, IMHO.

Now, I realize not everyone wants to- and can- produce content about aquarium keeping fundamentals, but maybe just touching on a few basics now and then would be cool.

I challenge all of my fellow hobbyists who are influential in this social-media-powered world to commit to touching on some of these underlying themes, challenges, and expectations on occasion when featuring your amazing work. Just taking a few seconds to explain this stuff; even posting just one pic in your feed showing a tank cycling, or with the plants not looking perfect, or the water not crystal clear- can go a long, long way to gently give a dose of reality and expectation management in the splashy world of aquascaped aquariums.

Now, I realize that there is plenty of material out there on "how to start an aquarium" or whatever- but I think it needs refreshing, updating, FEATURING- for a new generation of hobbyists who are getting the bulk of their information from Facebook forums, Instagram feeds, and YouTube shorts. It's important for the future of the hobby. It will assure more people get in- and STAY in the hobby. We need to evolve how we present the concepts as much as we need to evolve the concepts themselves.

Sadly, it has to be reinforced constantly.

I can't tell you how many times a week I answer questions like, "I just received my Enigma Pack! Can I just add this stuff to my 5-gallon tank? What do I need to do..?" And I have a freakin' website with gigabytes of stuff on this very topic and other related topics, accumulated over years! And we're evolving this too. I had to check my ego a bit, and accept that not everyone likes to read a daily blog. So I started this podcast in 2019.

Getting some of the fundamental messages across required us to adapt.

We all need to evolve. More succinctly, we need to preach the underlying fundamental stuff...but in an evolved way. 

Part of the reason we've spent so much time over the past few years in this blog/podcast chatting about the processes, the pitfalls, and the expectations you should have when establishing the systems we advocate is to give everyone a very clear picture of what's actually involved.

Makes sense. We are literally asking you to dump dead plant materials into your aquarium and let them decompose. To NOT touch on all of this fundamental stuff and discuss the potential issues would have been irresponsible at every level.

So, yeah- getting back to the initial point of this whole thing- I believe that you certainly CAN start with a botanical-style natural aquarium for your first project, but you absolutely need to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of aquarium practice. And you CAN be successful.

Of course, you just can't delude yourself into thinking that it's a simple matter of tossing leaves and twigs into a tank, filling it up, and BAM! "Instant Borneo" or whatever. Like, the nitrogen cycle, formation of biofilms, environmental stability, etc. don't apply to you... Yeah, there are a LOT of neophyte hobbyists- end experienced ones, for that matter-who harbor such beliefs! I've talked to quite a few over the years. And, based on 'gram reality, apparently, there IS no "nitrogen cycle"- just cool finished tanks, so...

As those of us in this game already know, it's a process.

A journey. A learning curve.

One that acknowledges that success is entirely achievable for those who make the effort to study, familiarize themselves with the basics; one that is almost guaranteed to kick the shit out of you if you leap without learning.

It doesn't matter if you're an innocent neophyte, unfamiliar with this stuff - or even a seasoned hobbyist with decades of experience. You CAN be a "beginner"- and one who's quite successful. We, as a community just need to continue to do some of the "heavy lifting" to help everyone along! 

Expectations need to be set.

As we all know, leaves and botanicals simply don't last indefinitely; they begin to soften and decompose shortly after they're added to the aquarium. Depending upon the particular botanical in question, they can last from a few weeks (as in the case of Catappa leaves, for example) to many months (the "harder" pods, like Carinaina or Sterculia pods.).

And of course, that means that we need to accept the idea that most botanicals are "consumables" for all intents and purposes, much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- and need periodic replacement.

Leaves, for example, should be "topped off" regularly to continue to contribute to the ecological function of the aquarium. Just like in a real tropical stream or other body of water, as materials decompose or wash downstream, the physical appearance" and other characteristics, like water movement, etc. will change over time. And the fishes will adapt, too- finding new "territories", spawning sites, and feeding locations. These are very natural behaviors which you just won't see in a more traditional "static" aquascape. 

Expectations. Evolutions. Changes. 

Part of the game that beginners and advanced hobbyists alone need to accept.

By regularly replacing the botanical materials in your aquarium, you're constantly "evolving" or "editing" the habitat, creating a truly dynamic display for your fishes. And if you look at your botanical method aquarium over several months or longer, for example, you'll see this clearly. Now, Nature does a certain percentage of this for us, because, as mentioned above- stuff decomposes, softens, breaks down, etc. And this results in subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes over time, wether we intervene or not.

Sure, the basic "structure" of the aquascape will likely be the same- but the smaller-scale "niches" within the tank, as well as the colors, textures and "negative space" within the habitat will vary and "evolve." Similar, in some respects to a planted aquarium, a botanical system can be "pruned" to keep a rough "form", yet it will evolve in subtle ways on it's own, despite our interventions.

This fascinates me. 

And there is that concept of when the aquarium is "finished."

Over the years, I've found that the thrill of starting up a new aquarium never faces. However, one of the things that I'm realizing is that I've never been in any particular hurry to get my tank "finished."

I mean, I don't think a tank is ever really "finished"- it's more like the system reaches some level of function and appearance that you may have envisioned before your started the project, and you tell yourself, "yeah- this is what I wanted..."

My aquarium hobby "philosophy" is predicated on one simple idea:

"Radical patience!" 

What's "radical" about patience?

Is there some special meaning to this? Well, not really. It's as much about common sense as anything, actually. Yeah, common sense. However, in today's "insta"- world, the concept of taking the time to establish an aquarium is sort of...radical- as is the patience required to go slowly and steadily.

That is- not jumping right into something...taking a bit of time- or even a long time- to allow your aquariums to "run in" and develop before pushing them along.

I mean, why are we always in such a hurry to get fishes in?

Having set up more than a few systems in my time, I never seem to be surprised at my own true hobbyist-style impatience!

Let’s face it—once we get the plumbing done, the lighting tweaked, leaks sealed, and aquascaping set, we’re all seemingly hell-bent on getting some fishes in there! I mean—we’ve waited so long for “first water” in the tank that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

It's like we need to get the fishes in there right away…even just a few, right?

Can’t really blame us, huh?

However, there may be some compelling reasons to wait just a bit longer…

Would you like to move into a house which didn’t have a refrigerator full of food?  I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their "genetic programming" for grazing and hunting for food. Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of aquatic animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing. They need to have some food sources available to "hunt and graze" for.

That’s reality.

So, unleashing a group of fishes into an almost "sterile" aquarium seems decidedly at odds with this evolutionary adaptation which our fishes have. Yet, from a strictly human perspective, most of us would rather have parts of our vital organs snipped off before we'd wait several weeks or more to add fishes to our new aquariums...

As a reefer, my patience has really evolved over the years. My friends have finally learned to stop asking me "How's the tank looking?" after it has been set up for a few weeks, because they know damn well by now that my tank looks essentially the same as it did the day I set it up..at least, from an animal stocking perspective! I simply don't start adding tons of animals until the system has evolved to the point where it's "ready" IMHO. 

This approach actually has its origin in my youth.

Like now, I was really into fish. However, with limited funds, I often had to do things in stages...It could literally take months to get a tank set up as I accumulated the funds. SO, sometimes, the then would be filled, "scared", and just...sit. And this was after taking a few months to get to that stage! it actually was such a regular process to me that it kind of became a habit. I mean, I was (and still am) pretty adverse to getting a tank up and running and populated in just a few days.

I feel like I'm rushing things too much.

Interestingly, Nature sort of supports this approach! With reef tanks, or the natural, botanical method aquariums we play with here, this "latency period" when the tank is "running in" gives the ecology of the tank a chance to establish itself. The microfauna which make up the foundation of our closed ecosystems will colonize and multiply, umolested and unhurried, during this time.

I believe that it gives an aquarium a greater degree of long term success.

And there is a lot to be said for simply doing nothing when you're experiencing something like cloudy water, for example. Yes, your aquarist instinct is screaming at you to do something, but the reality is that it's SOOOO much better to simply "wait it out" and let Nature sort things. 

Remember: THERE IS NO RUSH!! THERE IS NO "FINISH LINE!"

It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in Nature; a trust in allowing the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons to develop to the extent that they can in our aquariums. 

Rituals we engage in, and stages that we go through with our aquariums are remarkably analogous to the processes which occur in Nature...

Yeah, think about it for a second:

A tree falls in the (dry) forest.

Wind and gravity determine it's initial resting place (you play around with positioning your wood pieces until you get 'em where you want, and in a position that holds!). Next, other materials, such as leaves and perhaps a few rocks become entrapped around the fallen tree or its branches (we set a few "anchor" pieces of hardscaping material into the tank).

Then, the rain come; streams overflow, and the once-dry forest floor becomes inundated (we fill the aquarium with water).

It starts to evolve. To come alive in a new way.

The action of water and rain help set the final position of the tree/branches, and wash more materials into the area influenced by the tree (we place more pieces of botanicals, rocks, leaves, etc. into place). The area settles a bit, with occasional influxes of new water from the initial rainfall (we make water chemistry tweaks as needed).

Fungi, bacteria, and insects begin to act upon the wood and botanicals which have collected in the water (kind of like what happens in our tanks, huh? Biofilms are beautiful...).

Gradually, the first fishes begin to "follow the food" and populate the area (we add our first fish selections based on our stocking plan...).

The aquatic habitat is enriched by the decomposition of leaves, wood, and botanical materials, creating new food supplies, spawning locales, and biological stability.

It continues from there. Get the picture? Sure, I could go on and on drawing parallels to every little nuance of tank startup, but I think you know where I'm going with this stuff...

Yet, when we think about our aquariums this way, the parallels are striking, aren't they?

And the thing we must deploy at all times in this process is patience. And an appreciation for each and every step in the process, and how it will influence the overall "tempo" and ultimate success of the aquarium we are creating.

When we take the view that we are not just creating an aquatic display, but a habitat for a variety of aquatic life forms, we tend to look at it as much more of an evolving process than a step-by-step "procedure" for getting somewhere.

Taking the time to consider, study, and savor each phase is such an amazing thing, and I'd like to think- that as students of this most compelling aquarium hobby niche, that we can appreciate the evolution as much as the "finished product" (if there ever is such a thing in the aquarium world).

It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in nature; a trust in the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons. 

Fools rush in. Smart hobbyists enjoy the process.

The appreciation of this process is a victory, in and of itself, isn't it? The journey- the process- is every bit as enjoyable as the destination, I should think.

 

Stay excited. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay appreciative...Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman 

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

Constantly Changing. Persistently Evolving...

I make it no secret that the botanical method aquarium is unlike almost any other approach to aquarium keeping currently practiced. Not better. Not the "coolest" (well, possibly...)- just different. To parse all of the many reasons why this approach is so different could literally take years...Oh, wait, it HAS..like 8 years, to be exact! 

If you take this approach, you simply, literally- need to clear your mind of any preconceived notions that you have about what an aquarium should look like. The aesthetics are unlike anything that you've seen before in the hobby. 

And, over the many years that I've been playing with botanicals, my approaches and processes have changed and evolved, based on my own experiences, and those of our community. The way I approach botanical method aquariums today is definitely a bit different than I have approached them previously.

And that's pretty cool..It's the by-product of years of playing with this stuff; modifying techniques, philosophies, and approaches based upon actual practice.

My practices are constantly changing...Persistently evolving.

Here are a few examples of the evolution of my practices and approaches over the years. 

As a regular consumer of our content, you likely know of my obsession with varying substrate compositions and what I call "enhancement" of the substrate- you know, adding mixes of various materials to create different aesthetics and function.

Over the years, I've developed a healthy interest in replicating the function and form of substrates found in the wild aquatic habitats of the world. What we had to work with in years past in the hobby was simply based upon what the manufacturers had available. I felt that, although these materials are overall great, there was a lot of room for improvement- and some evolution based upon what types of materials are found in actual wild aquatic habitats.

My evolution was based upon really studying the wild habitats and asking myself how I can replicate their function in my tanks. A big chunk of this understanding came from studying how substrate materials in the wild aggregate and accumulate; where they come from, and what they do for the overall aquatic ecosystem.

I'm fascinated with this stuff partly because substrates and the materials which comprise them are so intimately tied to the overall ecology of the aquatic environments in which they are found. Terrestrial materials, like soils, leaves, and bits of decomposing botanical materials become an important component of the substrate, and add to the biological function and diversity.

Now, there is a whole science around aquatic substrates and their morphology, formation, and accumulation- I don't pretend to know an iota about it other than skimming Marine biology/hydrology books and papers from time to time. However, merely exploring the information available on the tropical aquatic habitats we love so much- even just looking long and hard at some good underwater pics of them- can give us some good ideas!

How do these materials find their way into aquatic ecosystems?

In some areas- particularly streams which run through rain forests and such, the substrates are often simply a soil of some sort. A finer, darker-colored sediment or soil is not uncommon. These materials can profoundly influence water chemistry,  based on the ionic, mineral, and physical concentrations of materials that are dissolved into the water. And it varies based on water velocities and such. 

Meandering lowland rivers maintain their sediment loads by continually re-suspending and depositing materials within their channels- a key point when we consider how these materials arrive-and stay- in the aquatic ecosystems.

Forest floors...Fascinating ecosystems in their own right, yet even more compelling when they're  flooded. 

And what accumulates on dry forest floors?

Branches, stems, and other materials from trees and shrubs. When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate who we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches. They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!

There is no real rhyme or reason as to why stuff orients itself the way it does. I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just sort of tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?

I'm not so sure why they wouldn't.  Look at Nature...

I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in Nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that "gobbldeygook" that hardcore 'scaping snobs will hit you over the head with...

But Nature doesn't give a shit about some competition aquascaper's "rules"- and Nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."

 We talk a lot about "microhabitats" in Nature; little areas of tropical habitats where unique physical, environmental and biological characteristics converge based on a set of factors found in the locale. Factors which determine not only how they look, but how they function, as well.

The complexity and additional "microhabitats" they create are compelling and interesting. And they are very useful for shelltering baby fishes, breeding Apistogramma, Poecilocharaxcatfishes, Dicosssus, an other small, shy fishes which are common in these habitats. 

Small root bundles and twigs are not traditionally items you can find at the local fish store or online. I mean, youcan, but there hasn't been a huge amount of demand for them in the aquascaping world lately...although my 'scape scene contacts tell me that twigs are becoming more and more popular with serious aquascapers for "detailed work"...so this bodes well for those of us with less artistic, more functional intentions!

Except we don't glue shit together. 

When I see aquascapers glue wood together, it makes me want to vomit. I know, I'm an asshole for feeling that way, but it's incredibly lame IMHO. Just fit the shit together with leverage and gravity, like your grandparents did, or keep looking for that perfect piece. Seriously! You don't need to glue to make wood look "cool."  

You're not a reefer gluing coral frags to rock. There is no "need" to do this. 

Relax and just put it together as best as Nature will allow.

Okay, micro rant over!

Let's get back to discussing natural materials and how we've come to include them in our tanks just a bit more...

Like, roots.

In flooded forests, roots are generally found in the very top layers of the soil, where the most minerals are. In fact, in some areas, studies indicated that as much as 99% of the root mass in these habitats was in the top 20cm of substrate! Low nutrient availability in the Amazonian forests is partially the reason for this. And since much of that root mass becomes submerged during seasonal inundation, it becomes obvious that this is a unique habitat.

So, ecological reasons aside, what are some things we as hobbyists can take away from this?  

We can embrace the fact that most of these finer materials will function in our aquairums as they do in Nature, sequestering sediments, retaining substrate, and recruiting epiphytic materials which fishes will forage, hide, and spawn among.

Functional aesthetics.

And let's talk about preparation a bit.

I'm at a phase in my aquarium "career" with regards to botanicals in which I feel it is less and less necessary to worry about extensively preparing my botanical materials for use in my tanks. In essence, my main preparation "technique" is to rinse the items briefly in freshwater, followed by a boil until they are saturated and stay submerged.

It's less and less about "cleaning them" and more and more about getting them to  stay down in my aquairums. And to be perfectly honest, if the materials would actually sink immediately and stay down, I think my "preparation" would simply consist of a good rinse!

What's the reason for this "evolution" of my preparation technique? Well, part of it is because I've started to realize that virtually every botanical item which I use in my work is essentially "clean"- that is, not polluted or otherwise contaminated. Generally, most of the items I use may simply have some "dirt" on their surfaces. I typically will not use botanical items which have bird droppings, insect eggs, or other obvious contaminants present. 

The reality is that, in over 20 years of playing with botanicals, I simply cannot attribute a single fish death to the use of improperly prepared botanical materials!

It's really more about the sourcing, to me. 

Naturally collected materials, air or sun-dried over time are just not an issue. However, when you obtain materials from unvetted sources, you cannot be sure what her original intended use was. For years, the "hack" I've seen was hobbyists purchasing dried botanical materials from craft stores...And these are the people I've seen the most issues with. 

The problem is that materials intended to be used in craft projects are typically chemically preserved or treated with varnishes or other materials...and these are simply deadly to aquatic life.

Feel free to experiment with all sorts of carefully collected natural materials, but I would simply avoid purchasing them from sources which you cannot thoroughly vet. The price of such "hacks" may be the deaths of your fishes.

Another reason I'm less "anal" about preparation of my botanicals and wood and such is that these materials contain a lot of organic materials which are likely "catalysts" for ecological processes. I know, that's vague and oddly unscientific, but it makes sense, when you think about it.

"Organics" are simply incorporated into the aqueous environment, and help foster the growth of a variety of organisms, from fungi to bacterial biofilms and more.  IMHO, they are helpful to create an underwater ecology in your aquirium.  It's no longer a concern of mine that botanicals being added to my aquairums need to be essentially "sterile."

Ecology is the primary motivation for me when it comes to adding botanicals to my tanks- specifically, helping to foster an underwater ecology which will provide the inhabitants with supplemental food and nutrient processing. So, trying to keep things impeccably clean when setting up an ecology first, botanical method aquarium is downright counterproductive, IMHO.

And I have a hunch that a lot of our fear of introducing extraneous "stuff" into our tanks via botanicals was as a result of my excessive paranoia back in 2015, in our earliest days- when I was very concerned about some hobbyist simply dumping a bunch  of our fresh botanicals into his/her tank and ending up with...well, what?

A tank with a little bid of turbidity? Darkly tinted water? Some fungal and biofilm-encrusted seed pods and leaves? Detritus from their tissues?

All things that we've come to not only accept, but to expect and to even celebrate as a normal part of our practice. I mean, man, there is literally an explosion of hashtags used on instagram weekly celebrating shit that I used to have to beat you over the head about to convince you that these things were normal: "Detritus Thursday", "Fungal Friday", etc. 

And, isn't this what you see in wild aquatic habitats?

None of these things are "bad." We're beyond these concerns that were partially rooted in fear, and the other part in our desire to fit in with the mainstream hobby crowd's aesthetic preferences. We've finally accepted that our "normal" is very different from almost every other hobby specialty's view of "normal." 

My development, use, and marketing of our NatureBase line of sedimented substrates reflected another big step in my growing confidence about what is "normal: in our world. These substrates are filled with materials which will make your water turbid for a while...and we absolutely DON'T recommend any sort of preparation before using them. 

Your tank WILL get cloudy for a few days...Absolutely part of the process. I remember a lot of sleepless nights, discussions with Johnny Citotti and Jake Adams before launching the product, and just convincing myself that it was okay to convince fellow hobbyists to...relax bit about this stuff and embrace it, in exchange for the manifold benefits of utilizing more truly natural substrate materials.

The entire botanical method aquarium movement has been, and likely will continue to be- an exercise in stepping out of our hobby "comfort zones" on a regular basis. Trying out ideas which have long been contrary to mainstream  aquairum hobby practice and philosophy. Ideas and practices which question and challenge the "status quo", and seem to go against a century of aquarium work, in favor of embracing the way Nature has done things for eons.

It's a big "ask", but you keep accepting it...and we've all grown together as a result. 

Another seismic shift (in my head, anyways...) is my acceptance that... leaves are leaves. Yeah, seriously. Wether they come from the rainforest of Borneo or the mountains of West Virginia, leaves are essentially similar to each other. Sure, soem look different, or perhaps might have different concentrations of compounds within their tissues...yet they're all fundamentally the same. They perform the same function for the tree, and "behave" similarly when submerged in water. 

A Catappa leaf from Malaysia, Jackfruit leaf from India, or a Live Oak leaf from Southern California are more alike than they are dissimilar. Other than having slightly different concentrations of tannins (and even that is possibly minimal), a leaf is a leaf. To convene ourselves otherwise is kind of funny, actually.

I did for a long time. I was 100% convinced that the leaves I was painstakingly sourcing from remote corners of the globe were somehow better than our Native Magnolia or Live Oak or whatever. The reality is that, other than some exotic sounding names, a morphology that might be different, or a good story about where they  come from, the "advantages" of most "exotic" leaves over "domestically sourced" leaves  ( or leaves from wherever you come from) are really minimal at best.

Trust me- no Catappa leaves find their way into tributaries of the Orinoco river. It's Ficus, Havea leaves, various palms, etc. 

But not Catappa, Guava, or Jackfruit. 

And if they did, they likely impact the water chemistry or ecology no differently.

Leaves are leaves. In fact, ecologically, they all essentially do the same thing, just on a different "timetable." Trees in tropical deciduous forests lose their leaves in the dry season and regrow them in the rainy season, whereas, temperate deciduous forests, trees lose their leaves in the fall and regrow them in the spring.

In the moist forests close to the equator, the climate is warm and there is plenty of rainfall all year round. In this environment there is no reason for the trees to drop their leaves at any particular time of year, so the forest stays green year round. 

Trees from temperate climate zones lose leaves regularly during certain times of the year and then regrow them., and must take a fairly precise cue from their environment. In the mid and high latitudes, if trees put the leaves out too early in the year, these may be damaged by frost and valuable nutrients lost, because the tree cannot easily reclaim nutrients from a frost-bitten leaf.

Yeah, leaves...They perform similar functions for their trees, regardless of where they come from.

The morphological differences are often subtle, and sometimes inconsistent:

It has long been recognized by science that tropical forests are dominated by evergreen trees that have leaves with "complete" margins, whereas trees of temperate forests tend to have deciduous leaves with toothed or lobed margins.

Maybe leaves from different habitats and environments  look a bit different, and fall at different times...but that's really about it... 

I'm sure that this is not an "absolute" sure- there ARE trees which have leaves with higher concentrations of tannins, etc than others...However, by and large, there are not all that many compelling arguments to favor "exotic" leaves from faraway places over the ones you can source locally! 

Sure, soem botanist somewhere could school my on over-generalizing this, but in the aquairum world, I'm not certain one could successfully prove that you MUST use "Pango Pango leaves" from Cameroon to be successful with botanical method aquariums. Now, could one argue that there are some subtle chemical ben efiots to fishes from these regions by using "local" botanicals in their tanks? Maybe. But by and large, I just don't think so anymore.

So,as a hobbyist and vendor, I'm not completely engrossed by chasing every exotic sounding leaf out there anymore. 

I may offer limited quantities of the "big three" in the future, but I feel less and less compelled to do so. Trying to be the aquarium world's "catalogue" of tropical leaves for aquariums long ago lost its luster, among the realities of supply chain issues, tariffs, and unreliable producers. Let other vendors chase the dollars. I'm going to chase my ideas...and use whatever materials I see fit for purpose- regardless of their origin.

Constantly changing. Persistently Evolving.

 

We're in an amazing time right now. For the first time in years, I personally feel that the idea of botanical method aquariums has moved out of it's obscure, "fringe-culture-like" parking spot in the fish world, and into the light of the mainstream. 

And it's all because of YOU! Sure, many of you were playing with "blackwater" tanks before, but if your experience was anything like mine, you were sort of viewed as a mildly eccentric hobbyist playing with a little "side thing"- a passing fancy that you'd eventually "get over.." 

Well, I think that is changing a lot now. We're seeing a community of what was once widely scattered hobbyists starting to come together and share ideas, technique, pictures, inspiration with other equally as obsessed hobbyists. This is an amazing thing to me, and to be able to witness it firsthand is incredible! It's been a renaissance of sorts for this once-neglected aspect of the hobby.

Another think that I think is interesting is that we, as a community, are viewing our aquariums as "habitats" more than ever before. We  seem to have broken through the mindset of creating aquariums only based on an aesthetic WE like, and fitting the fishes into it, as opposed to creating aquariums with specialized habitats for specific fishes. 

And we're not afraid to make little detours- small changes. And, not all of them need be intentional. Things happening in unexpected ways are what can propel the hobby forward.

Everything doesn't have to follow a plan.

A detour can be amazing.

However, if your looking for a specific result and go too far in a different direction, it's often a recipe for frustration for those of us not prepared of it. Sure, many of us can simply "go with the flow" and accept the changes we made as part of the process, but the aquarist with a very pure vision and course will work through such self-created deviations until he or she gets to the destination.

Many find this completely frustrating.

Others find this a compelling part of the creative process.

Pretty much every major breakthrough I've encountered in my hobby "practice" has been the result of me "breaking pattern" and trying something fairly radically new...You know, a big remake of an aquarium....Trying a new manipulation of the environment, etc.

And of course, the thing which maintains the "breakthrough?"

Well...

I've always had this thing about repetition and doing the same stuff over and over agin in my aquarium practice. It's one of the real "truisms", to me, about fish keeping: Once you've gotten in a groove, in terms of husbandry routines, it's great to just do the same thing over and over again. 

Consistency.

Yes, I beat the shit out of that idea fairly regularly, right?

Now, notice that I'm not talking about doing the same thing over and over when it comes to ideas...Nope. I'm of the opinion that you should do all sorts of crazy things when it comes to concepts and experiments.

 One thing that was sort of "experimental" for many years in my world was the idea of NOT removing decomposing botanical materials from my tanks. You know, flat-out siphoning stuff out, lest it do "something" to the water quality in my aquariums.

It was a big deal about 20 years ago...People thought I was crazy for talking about leaving leaves and botnaicals in the tank until they fully decomposed. I was told that if I didn't remove this stuff, all sorts of horrifying outcomes would ensue. Yet, in the back of my mind, I thought to myself, "If the whole idea of botanical method aquariums is to facilitate an ecosystem within the tank, wouldn't removing a significant source of the ecology (ie; decomposing leaves and botanical detritus) be MORE negative than leaving iot in the tank to be "worked" by the resident life forms at various levels?

So I left the stuff in...

Never had any "bad" results...

It really wasn't that surprising, in actuality.

I figured that this would actually be beneficial to the aquairum...My theory was steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.

Okay, it was a theory...But I think I am on to something, maybe? So, like here is my "theory" in more detail:

Simply look at the botanical-method aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is more signficantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.

Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...

Detritus...the nemesis of the hobby...not all that bad, really..

It's all about not simply accepting the generally held hobby "truisms" as "gospel" in EVERY situation. Experimenting and considering stuff in context is important. 

Change and variation is inevitable and important in the hobby. Being open minded about things is vital. 

The processes of evolution, change and disruption which occur in natural aquatic habitats- and in our aquariums- are important on many levels. They encourage ecological diversity, create new niches, and revitalize the biome. Changes can be viewed as frightening, damaging events...Or, we can consider them necessary processes which contribute to the very survival of aquatic ecosystems.

Think about that the next time you hesitate to experiment with that new idea, or play a hunch that you might have. Remember that there is always a bit of discomfort, trepidation, and risk when you make changes or conduct bold experiments. 

Goes with the territory, really.

However, once you get out of that comfort zone, you're really living...and the fear will give way to exhilaration and maybe even triumph! Because in the aquarium hobby, the bleeding edge is when you're constantly changing, and patiently evolving.

Stay Brave. Stay persistent. Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

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