November 23, 2022

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Oak: The "one-stop-shop!"

I'm often asked what my fave all-time botanical is for our aquariums.

Now, you'd think that I'd likely reference some exotic seed pod, leaf, or root, right? The reality is that my all-time favorite botanical to use in our botanical-method tanks is oak twigs, branches and leaves.

Yeah, the humble, decidedly "non-exotic" Oak tree is sort of a "one-stop-shop" for the botanical method aquarium enthusiast.

Why Oak?

These are some of the best materials to use because, IMHO, they not only contribute to the physical structure of your tank- they also impact the ecology and water chemistry in significant ways as well. They are all surprisingly durable, long-lasting, and aesthetically pleasing, too!

Oak twigs and branches absorb water and begin to impart tannins, lignins, and other compounds into the water. Not only will you notice a visible "tint" to the water when you utilize oak branches and twigs, you'll have a perfect "substrate" upon which biofilms and fungal growths can colonize.

The other beauty of oak is that you can collect these materials yourself, if you have a source of them nearby!

Oak belongs to the genus Quercus, of the beech family (Fagaceae), with almost 500 species. A large and diverse genus, which, according to Wikipedia "is native to the Northern Hemisphere, and includes deciduous and evergreen species extending from cool temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa. North America has the largest number of oak species, with approximately 160 species in Mexico of which 109 are endemic and about 90 in the United States. The second greatest area of oak diversity is China, with approximately 100 species."

So, in plain English, Oak is found across a broad swath of the planet, making it one of the most readily available and accessible botanical resources for hobbyists worldwide. The fact that you can collect them yourself if you can source them is a huge plus! 

(Image by Jurgen Eissink -CC-by S.A. 4.0 )

Now, like any botanical, sourcing and preparation are important considerations with oak-derived materials. If you collect them yourself, or purchase them from a well-regarded vendor like, I dunno- say...Tannin Aquatics- you're going to be working with materials that are essentially clean and non-polluted. Which means that preparation is going to consist of steeping or boiling leaves, and steeping or (if you have a big enough pot or vat) boiling of twigs/branches.

Yeah, let's digress a bit...The old question about why we prepare stuff comes back yet again:

You see it on our packaging, hear it discussed on "The Tint" podcast, and read about it in articles we publish here and elsewhere. Yet, there appears to be some confusion about what exactly we mean by "preparation."

Yeah, it's not a secret that, before you throw those seed pods and leaves into your aquarium, you need to do some preparation.

Why?

And why are we talking about this again?

Well, seriously, I still receive about 3-4 emails every single week from customers of ours (and from others, apparently!) asking what to do with botanicals after  they receive them...So, it's obvious to me that some people just aren't seeing this stuff, hearing it, reading our instructional cards, social media posts, etc., or not getting advice from the people they purchased their leaves, or whatever from. (Isn't EBay great! What a resource for serious hobbyists!)

Really?

Yup.

 

I know, it's starting to sound a bit repetitive...

However, with the world botanical-style aquariums growing at an exponential rate, and more and more hobbyists entering into the fray- many of whom are enamored by the beautiful aesthetics of these tanks, it's important-well, actually essential- to revisit this stuff again and again.

And really, because most of the new vendors into our market space simply appropriate much of the information we put out to help the community, and use it to push their products, let's at least give those lazy-ass motherf---ers something useful to share (and since they're not bothering to provide this information, themselves...)!

Okay, mini-hate-rant over. For now.

"So, you're really into boiling and steeping botanical, huh?

Yes. I am. That's my thing.

"Why do you do that?"

Consider that boiling water is used as a method of making water potable by killing microbes that may be present. Most nasty microbes essentially "check out" at temperatures greater than 60 °C (140 °F). For a high percentage of microbes, if water is maintained at 70 °C (158 °F) for ten minutes, many organisms are killed, but some are more resistant to heat and require one minute at the boiling point of water. (FYI the boiling point of water is 100 °C, or 212 °F)...But for the most part, most of the nasty bacteria that we don't want in either our tanks or our stomachs are eliminated by this simple process.

So, wouldn't it make sense to boil, or at least steep, our botanicals before we dump them into our aquariums?

Yeah, it would.

Ten minutes of boiling is "golden" to assure a "good kill", IMHO. Of course, we boil for other reasons, too-as we'll touch on in a bit.

The most important reason that we boil botanicals is to kill any possible microorganisms which might be present on them. Leaves, seed pods, etc. have been exposed to rain and dust and all sorts of things in the natural environment which, in the confines of an aquarium, could  introduce unwanted organisms and contribute to the degradation of the water quality.

And, the surfaces and textures of many botanical items, such as leaves and seed pods lend themselves to retaining dirt, soot, dust, and other atmospheric pollutants that, although quite likely harmless in the grand scheme of things, are not stuff you want to start our with in your tank!

So, we give all of our botanicals a good rinse with fresh water.

Then we boil them.

Boiling also serves to soften botanicals. This is important to do for a number of reasons...

Well, the most obvious to us is thats it helps saturate the tissues of the botanicals and make them sink. I mean, who wants a bunch of floating seed pods and leaves in their aquairum? Wait, don't tempt me here...

If you remember your high school Botany (I actually do!), leaves, for example, are surprisingly complex structures, with multiple layers designed to reject pollutants, facilitate gas exchange, drive photosynthesis, and store sugars for the benefit of the plant on which they're found. As such, it's important to get them to release some of the materials which might be bund up in the epidermis (outer layers) of the leaf.  As we get deeper into the structure of a leaf, we find the mesophyll, a layer of tissue in which much of photosynthesis takes place.

 

 

We use only dried leaves in our botanical style aquariums, because these leaves from deciduous trees, which naturally fall off the trees in seasons of inclement weather, have lost most of their chlorophyll and sugars contained within the leaf structures. This is important, because having these compounds present, as in living leaves, contributes excessively to the bioload of the aquarium when submerged...

Personally, I feel that we have enough bioload going into our tanks, so why add to it by using freshly-fallen leaves with their sugars and such still largely present, right? I mean, it's definitely something worth experimenting with in controlled circumstances, but for most of us botanical method aquarium geeks, naturally fallen, dried leaves are the way to go.

I'm still going to recommend that, like I do- that you embrace a preparation process for every botanical item that you add to your aquariums.

Now, with twigs and branches, the idea of practicality comes in. Most of us simply don't have freaking cauldron or big-ass kettle- let alone, a "stove" large enough upon which to boil a bunch of branches, right?

So, compromise is in order.

Soaking is not a bad thing.

I've touched on the idea of "in situ" preparation of wood,  and it really does make sense with oak branches (largely because of the size issue)- and consider this:

It's pretty obvious that at least part of the reason we see a burst of new algae growth and biofilm in wood recently added to an aquarium is that there is so much "stuff" bound up in it. "Organics", like sugars, lignins, and compounds found in soils, etc.  Algal and fungal spores can literally "bloom" during the initial period after submersion. It's exactly what happens in the wild aquatic habitats of the world when tree trunks and branches are covered by water.

I get it- a lot of hobbyists simply don't want to see this stuff in their display tank.

On the other hand, the adventurous aquarist in me can't help but wonder if we should just give the wood a thorough washing, and let this whole process play out in the aquarium, to foster this amazing biodiversity within the aquarium itself.

Again, this is an example of setting up an aquarium from the start to replicate both the form and function of Nature.

Why NOT do this? Especially with "self-collected" stuff like oak branches.

What would the "downsides" be? I've done this many times with no issues. However, the experience IS a bit different.

It's starts with what you see.

Yeah, you'll see a lot more biofilm, fungal growth, detritus, and perhaps even slightly hazy water. You'll have to carefully monitor the nitrogen cycle, and manage nutrient accumulations with good husbandry...

You'll have to employ a lot of patience, and yeah, I'd recommend testing during the "break-in"process. Testing for what? Well, I'd likely do ammonia and nitrite, for starters. "Have you done all of this testing when you tried this, Scott?"

Not always, I admit. Why? For one thing , it's because I'm in no rush to add fishes to brand-new tanks. Because I let my tanks develop biologically for a long time before I add them. I did out of sheer curiosity, of course! And the "cycle"time was really nothing extraordinary at all.

Really, the biggest difference between this "in-tank-curing" and using an external container was that any of the stuff that emerged from the wood itself would leach into, and "accumulate" in the display tank, and impact the water appearance, and chemistry. Although I admit, I didn't notice a significant difference in nitrate or even phosphate in new tanks where the "curing" process was undertaken internally.

Remember, I'm a water exchange fanatic; I perform 10% water exchanges in every tank I maintain- every week, without fail.  So there was some dilution of whatever organics were found in the water.

The biggest difference determined by testing was often TDS. And of course, because TDS represents the "total concentration of dissolved substances" in water it can include both inorganic salts, as well as a small amount of organic matter. To me, "TDS" is always a bit of a vague thing; I mean, it can be so many different things. Regardless, when I cured "in situ", TDS readings were higher than in tanks where this process wasn't employed.

Do some of the other materials leached out of wood have implications for the healthy break-in and operation of your aquarium?  Can you even test for everything that leaches out of newly submerged wood, other than simply labeling these compounds as "organics?"

Likely NOT, in the hobby world.

Well, lignin is one substance that you might find leaching out of wood. And there are actually lignin test kits out there for scientific work; I suppose it would be interesting and informative to test for them to see what the concentration was, although I'm not really sure what function it would perform, other than just kind of "knowing."

Just like with testing for tannins, Interpreting what is "baseline" or even "okay" for lignin is something we have never really done in the hobby, right?  Another supposition would be that lignin concentration might be different in a filtered aquarium than it would be in some big container of water without a filter that you might cure wood in.

The point is, there are some things that we just don't know. We assume. I Mean, whenever we "cure" wood externally, we almost always see lots of that yucky biofilm and fungal growth on the surface tissues. That's "par for the course" when terrestrial materials are submerged. The real issue that makes "in situ" curing a bit unusual is the possible "gross pollutants" that may leach out of the wood. I suppose that would be stuff like dust, dirt, maybe some small amounts of sap, etc., bound up in or on the surface tissues of the wood.

I did a lot of research on this in the online forums, articles, etc, and the reasons why it's recommended that wood be "cured" outside of the display tank are always listed as (in no particular order):"to leach out impurities","to leach out tannins", to "let the fungal growth subside", and "to waterlog and sink."

Now, other than "waterlog and sink" process, which you can accomplish in the display tank by simply placing a few rocks on the wood, IMHO none of the other reasons given for external curing of wood are really "non-starters" here.

It's occasionally stated that boiling wood or extended soaking helps eliminate potential parasites that might be present in/on the wood. I'd hazard a guess that most wood used in aquariums doesn't have significant populations of parasites that could harm fishes, either. And again, even if there are such parasites present, if you're taking your time to add fishes (essentially keeping your tank "fallow" for a period of time) you're essentially denying any parasites that are present their "hosts", right? 

 

Am I missing something here? 

I don't really think so. It's just that I don't see the "stuff" that happens during the curing process as a problem.

"In situ" curing isn't a perfect, guaranteed route to accomplishing everything you want to easily, but it works. And the process and its impacts on the ecology of your aquarium is not all that different than what occurs in Nature, when you think about it.

In Nature, it is not uncommon at all for small (and large) trees 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 ( the ones that I'm totally obsessed with), they fall and are ultimately submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.

And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions.

Fallen trees provide a physical barrier or separation from currents, perhaps creating a little "dam", which accumulates leaves, sediments, and detritus- all important as food sources to a huge number of aquatic organisms. 

They also provide a "substrate" for algae and biofilms to multiply on, and providing places for fishes forage among, and hide in. Many fishes, like small cichlids, will reproduce and raise their fry among these fallen tree trunks.

An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks, branches, and other parts of the tree will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.

So, all of this talk of prep is important...but the idea of "prep" can encompass many things. It's one of those things that we as hobbysits know to do, but we always sort of second guess  ourselves about HOW to do it.

The fact is, we need to embrace SOME sort of preparation protocol for any natural materials that we add to our aquariums. 

Okay, that was a huge detour, but a necessary one.

I love creating tanks in which the "hardscape" consists mainly of twigs and small branches.  Oak is the perfect "provider" of these materials, BTW. It keeps things simple and easy.

The beautiful thing about this idea is that you don't necessarily have to use 12 different varieties of branches and such to create a remarkably complex and interesting scape. Just oak!

Oak twigs and branches, and oak leaves are pretty much all you need for a sweet botanical-method aquarium, IMHO.

 

It's not just about then aesthetic, of course.

The idea is that you're creating a matrix of these materials to impart a very natural and interesting look to the aquarium. These aggregations provide fishes with hiding places, foraging areas, and spawning sites, just like they do in Nature.

We're talking mainly about twigs and roots...nto big branches here. 

Now, such root/branch tangles DO take up some physical space in the confines of the aquarium, and you need to take this into account when stocking, equipping, and maintaining such systems. Access, water capacity, and filter intakes/outputs need to be considered when you move in a project like this...but that's half the fun, anyways- right?

At the end of the day, the use of twigs, roots, and branches, the organisms which take advantage of them is one of the most stunning aspects of Nature that we can  see in our own aquariums, provided we don't "edit" them out of our tanks.

Like any dynamic habitat, the "twig and root" microhabitat relies on a variety of organisms to do the job of processing nutrients. A diverse assemblage of organisms dwelling in this layer, ranging from bacteria to fungi, to worms and small crustaceans- comprise what we call the "infauna." Essentially, the infauna is a collective of organisms which do most of the work in keeping a botanical-method aquarium functional and healthy.

Be kind to these organisms, and they'll no doubt be kind to you, too.

And of course, this habitat is perfectly analogous to what you see in Nature, isn't it?

In Nature, we see leaves and other materials accumulate in these root tangles and aggregations of fallen branches, so recreating this in nature is kind of a "no brainer!" 

When assembled in conjunction with a nice aggregation of leaves, this configuration  provides a remarkably interesting aquarium with a different sort of aesthetic. 

Looks, function, versatility...That's what makes Oak literally a "one-stop" shop for your botanical-method aquarium needs!

Stay creative. Stay inspired. Stay engaged. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

November 02, 2022

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The "detritus dilemma"- again.

"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)

Woah! 

That doesn't sound so good, does it?

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 blackwater systems, 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 washed downstream!

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

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 takennanoseconds 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, not because we are thinking, "Wow, 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.

Sure, it's a very different aesthetic than what we have been indoctrinated to appreciate over the years: Brown water, leaves, stringy algae films, and bits of botanical debris. We may not want to have an entire bottom filled with this stuff...or, maybe we might!

Think about it. Much of this material is not only already broken-down or rendered "inert" by beneficial bacteria and microorganisms which live within the "matrix"- it's processed into a more easily-assimilated form for other aquatic animals. 

Check your water parameters. Are you seeing surging nitrate levels? Do you have any detectible ammonia or nitrite? Are the fishes healthy, relaxed, and active? If the answer to the first two questions is "no", and the last is "yes"- and I suspect that it will be in well-managed systems- then perhaps it's time to enjoy whats happening in your aquarium!

If you are having issues with ammonia/nitrite, you have more problems than just some detritus, IMHO. If you have some significant accumulations of nitrate, it's important to review the husbandry processes you employ. I know from personal experience in both freshwater and reef/coral propagation systems that you can have significant quantities of detritus "in play" without deteriorated water quality.

It's a balance- like everything else in our aquariums. I know that sounds a bit like a "cop out"- but it's a reality. 

To accept and understand that the aesthetic of a heavily botanical-influenced system is simply different than what we've come to perceive as "acceptable" in the general aquarium sense.

It's not for everyone.

It's not something that we are used to seeing. However, the feedback we've been getting from you- our customers- regarding the systems you've set up in this fashion is that they have created an entirely new perception and understanding of a freshwater aquarium. They've enabled us all to try a completely different aesthetic experience, to understand processes that occur naturally, which are of great benefit to the fishes we keep.

Attempting to keep our tanks essentially "sterile" is an almost futile, and ultimately detrimental practice, IMHO.  The idea of creating "unnaturally clean" conditions likely results in some microorganisms struggling to find food. Now our aquariums are not absolutely "natural", open systems. However, embracing some natural processes and emulating functions of wild ecosystems might be a key "unlock" in order for certain organisms to survive and thrive long term.

Detritus/mulm- whatever you call it- serves as a food source- and a food "processing/producing" source for fishes and the other aquatic organisms which live in our tanks. 

And yeah- detritus is found in gut content analysis of many fishes. Here is a charming passage, with a rather comprehensive description of gut contents from one of our fave fishes, the Cardinal Tetra: 

"The stomach content was categorized as “detritus”... when it was found in sufficient quantities within the proper stomach, so that the conclusion of “detritus-feeding” appeared as a realistic proposition...the hind gut, filled with the digested material, practically always contained particles that could be listed as detritus. In addition, small quantities of detritus particles remain from prey guts, and/or enter the stomach when the fish are browsing for small prey over the surface of plants, litter and woods." 

So, yeah- use common sense in stocking, feeding, and maintaining your aquarium  However, I think stressing a bit less about keeping our aquariums completely spotless is a really good step to take.

I think so. Really.

And consider this: The "detritus" that we're convincing you to embrace in your aquarium is NOT uneaten food or excesses of fish feces. It's broken-down botanical materials and their associated components. Stuff like that. The result of biological processes of decomposition and bacterial colonization/assimilation. Not the result of poor fundamental aquarium husbandry.

We should all know that uneaten food and fish poop, accumulating in a closed system can be problematic if overall husbandry issues are not attended to. We should all know that it can decompose, overwhelm the biological filtration capacity of the tank if left unchecked. And that can lead to a smelly, dirty-looking system with diminished water quality. I know that. You know that. In fact, pretty much everyone in the hobby knows that.

Yet, as a hobby, we've really sort of heaped detritus into this "catch-all" descriptor which has an overall "bad" connotation to it. Like, anything which is allowed to break down in the tank and accumulate is bad. Anything that looks like "dirt" is...well, "dirty", dangerous, and should be treated accordingly.

Now, "dirty-looking" and "dangerous" are two very different things, right? Do natural habitats look "dangerous" to the life forms which reside in them?

Now, if it's uneaten food that you're seeing accumulate in excess, then you need to figure out a more accurate feeding approach. Same with fish waste. At the very least, you likely need better circulation and mechanical filtration within your system. And of course, you need to address why it is you have so much uneaten food accumulating in your system!

In botanical-method aquariums, however, if most of what is accumulating in your mechanical filter media and on the substrate, etc. is just broken-up, decomposing bits of botanicals, I'd have little concern. That's what happens to terrestrial materials in an aquatic environment. It's normal for these types of aquariums. As we've discussed ad infinitum here, various organisms, like fungi, etc., work to break down these materials and begin the decomposition process. It's part of the natural "operating system" of the botanical-method aquarium.

Nature, however, can be a rough place. The natural aquatic world doesn't take lightly to those who seek to edit it, parse it, or circumvent it. 

It's true.

We know this, because when we try to "beat the system" by skipping a step, wishing things away, or ignoring Nature's "rules", bad outcomes usually follow.

But, here's the thing...

Even when we DO "cheat"; even when we take a "shortcut"; even when we fly in Her face- after the "ass kicking" - She's got our back...

For example, when you aggressively siphon your sand, interrupting Her process by removing the bulk of the detritus, biofilms, or other organics, not to mention the organisms which utilize them, there might be consequences like a temporary ammonia or nitrite spike.

Bad, right?

Well, yes...

However, after the spike, if you are patient, keep feeding your tank, and don't do anything stupid, like adding more fishes- your tank will recover. Beneficial bacteria and microorganisms populations will re-establish themselves.

Our aquariums are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.

The passage of time and a "hands-off" approach to this recovery is crucial. Nature  is oddly forgiving in this regard. We simply have to give Her the opportunity to continue on, as She has for eons, without our continued interference.

As we've mentioned repeatedly, Nature "does Her thing" regardless of what we think. Algal blooms appear because the conditions favoring their growth- light and nutrient loads, favor their establishment and growth. And they'll continue to do so as long as these factors remain in play. If we back off the light and continue regular nutrient export processes, at some point, the algae bloom will fade to a more "tolerable" level. 

Now, sure- some of Nature's processes require us to make "mental shifts" to accommodate.

Detritus, like biofilms, and fungal growths- as objectionable in appearance though they may be to us as aquarists- perform vital functions in Nature and in the aquarium. They are not only normal- they're beneficial. They are something that we have been indoctrinated to loathe; to fear.

Why? Largely because they look "yucky." Because they tear at our aesthetic sensibilities. They go against everything that we've been told is "healthy"- when the reality is that the appearance of these life forms is your confirmation from Nature that everything is functioning as it should.

We can benefit enormously as aquarists by embracing Nature in its most unedited, literal form.

And that is something that we understand is not appealing to everyone. And sort of "sticking it in everyone's face" and suggesting that a truly "natural" aquarium requires the acceptance of a very polarizing aesthetic certainly can turn off some people.

I do get it. 

However, I see little downside to studying Nature as it is.

It's very important, IMHO, to at least have a cursory understanding of how these habitats have come to be; what function they perform for the piscine inhabitants who reside there, and why they look the way they do. Even if you simply despise the types of aquariums we love here!

And detritus?

Learn to understand it, appreciate it, and yeah- embrace it as a "partner" in your quest to create and maintain a healthy, natural aquatic ecosystem.

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay bold. Stay grounded...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

October 26, 2022

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Waiting for the quiet storm...

There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.

To a certain extent, every aquarium we work with relies on certain natural processes to occur within it. However, in many "conventional" approaches, hobbyists will make every effort to limit some of the parts of natural processes which they find to be unattractive or "excessive" (a word I hear bandied about on YouTube about "stuff" which offends some people's aesthetic sensibilities, like detritus, fungal growth, tinted water, etc.)- stuff we embrace in our world. 

 

Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom"  (that explosion of fungal growths, biofilms, and the process of decomposition) is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium. The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your completed aquarium when they see it for the first time.

It's like a quiet little "storm" of life.

Starting a new botanical method aquarium is an exciting, fun, and interesting time.  And the process of creating your aquarium is shockingly easy, decidedly un-stressful, and extremely engaging.

The main ingredients that you need are vision, a bit of knowledge, and... patience.

Oh, and a bit of a philosophical adjustment- a "mental shift."

Bringing your tank from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life is an amazing process. This, to me is really the most exciting part of keeping botanical method aquariums. 

And how do we usually do it?

I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to clean the sand, age water, add wood, arrange plants, and add fishes. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" we've used for over a century.

Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.

When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.

We don't "lose our shit" if our water gets a little bit turbid or there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate. Just wait it out. What's the big rush?

And guess what? We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate when starting or "remodeling" our tank.

Of course not.

We can utilize some or all of the old substrate from the existing aquarium, or another, well-established tank (we have done this as a hobby for generations for the purpose of "jump starting' bacterial growth) for the purpose of providing a different aesthetic as well.

And, you can/should take it further: Use that slightly biofilm/algae-covered piece of driftwood or rock in your brand new tank, or some fungal-colonized, partially decomposed leaves from the established tank that you have...This helps rapidly foster a habitat more favorable to the continued proliferation of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.

"The Bloom."

In fact, in a botanical-method aquarium, facilitating the rapid growth of such biotia is foundational.

Don't confuse "healthy" with "dirty-looking."

It's okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start.

In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.

But don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours.

The aquarium still has to clear a few metaphorical "hurdles" in order to be a stable environment for life to thrive.

It's the same when "remodeling" an existing aquarium. I've been in a sort of unusual, restless mindset for much of the second half of the year, and I admit, I've been a bit bored with some of the ideas I've been playing with. It seemed right to start shaking things up to move forward.

And, there was no sense in simply trashing all of my well-established tanks while I iterate new ideas. Yeah- there is no sense in completely tearing a tank apart and starting from a pristine, zero biology point. Just utilize elements of the tank (ie; substrate, leaf litter, wood, etc.) which are appropriate for your new idea, and continue on.

There is, of course, a natural analog to this process!

The idea of keeping your aquarium more-or-less "intact" while moving on to a new iteration is just something most of us do- or should do...

In other words, you're kind of over your Southeast Asian Cryptocoryne biotope, and ready to head West to South America. So, rather than tearing up the entire tank, removing all of the plants, the hardscape, the leaves and botanicals, and the substrate, you opt to remove say, only the plants and the driftwood/rocks from the tank; exchange a good quantity of the water.

Woooah! Crazy! You're a real rebel...

I know. I know. Not really. I mean, this isn't exactly earth-shattering. 

On the other hand, in the world of the botanical-method aquarium, the idea of leaving the substrate and leaf litter/botanical "bed" intact as you "remodel" isn't exactly a crazy one. And conceptually, it's sort of replicates what occurs in Nature, doesn't it?

Yeah, think about this for just a second.

As we almost constantly discuss, habitats like flooded forests, meadows, vernal pools, igarape, and swollen streams tend to encompass terrestrial habitats, or go through phases where they are terrestrial habitats for a good part of the year.

In these wild habitats, the leaves, branches, soils, and other botanical materials remain in place, or are added to by dynamic, seasonal processes. For the most part, the soil, branches, and a fair amount of the more "durable" seed pods and such remain present during both phases.

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-method approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium. The idea of leaving this material in place over the long-term is a crucial component of this approach, IMHO.

As we've discussed repeatedly, just like in Nature, they'll also form the basis of a  complex "food chain", which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.

I have long believed that if you decide to let the botanicals remain in your aquarium to break down and decompose completely, you shouldn't change course by suddenly removing the material all at once...Particularly if you're going to a new version of an existing aquarium.

Why? 

Well, I think my theory is 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's a theory...But I think I might be 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...

The botanical materials are a real "base" for the little microcosm we create.

And of course, by virtue of the fact that they contain other compounds, like tannins, humic substances, lignin, etc., they also serve to influence the water chemistry of the aquarium, the extent to which is dictated by a number of other things, including the "starting point" of the source water used to fill the tank.

 

So, in short- I think the presence of botanicals in our aquariums is multi-faceted, highly influential, and of extreme importance for the stability, ecological balance, and efficiency of the tank.

Okay, I might just be torturing this simple idea to death- I admit this point that I'm probably not adding much more to the "recipe" here; likely simply being redundant and even a bit vague...However, I think we need to think about how interesting this simple practice is.

Understand and facilitate these natural processes into your aquariums. Keep that in mind when you "iterate" an aquarium.

If you're months into a tank, and simple don't like the look or performance or whatever- you can easily change it. It's a lot like catching a continuously-running commuter train or subway line, right?

Part of the beauty of the botanical-method aquarium is that you can sort of "pick it up where you are" and "ride it" out for a while, or change the "routing" as you desire! Started your tank as an Amazonian habitat but you're suddenly enamored with a more "Asian" look?

Keep the "operating system" intact, but change out some elements.

Super easy, right?

It is. If you let it be that way.

Evolution is not only fun to watch, it's a lot of fun to manage as well. And it's even more fun to have the option to do both!

Stay patient. Stay curious. Stay motivated. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

October 11, 2022

0 comments


Life is too short to compromise!

As a lot of you who follow "The Tint" know, I'm pretty opinionated and passionate on a variety of aquarium hobby topics.

One of the concepts that has always governed what I do in the hobby is a disdain for shortcuts and doing things the "cheap and easy" way. Not because I'm a jerk with a lot of money and a "greater than thou" attitude; rather, it's because because I have been in this hobby long enough to know when a short-term decision to do something a certain way, or to forgo a pricy piece of gear, will have long-term negative consequences in the long run.

there are ways to save some money, and not all of them involve waiting for the LFS to have a big sale. There are ways to do "DIY" things- and those are great. Over the years, hobbyists have been very good at being resourceful about how to make their hobby more affordable.

Love that.

Yet, I still go back and forth with this stuff- I sometimes have mixed feelings about the idea of "saving money and doing stuff quickly." However, I continue to see a lot of articles, forum discussions, Reddit posts, and hear podcasts which spend a ton of time and bandwidth helping hobbyists find cheap alternatives to some typical hobby industry products and DIY-type, or "Amazon-generic-substitution-type" versions of things you'd purchase from hobby-related companies.

Before you accuse me of being some butt-hurt vendor calling out everyone that wants to make their hobby more affordable as "cheap", let me clarify: I think it's pretty cool that we are so resourceful as hobbyists, and I'm absolutely, 100% for keeping your hobby as affordable as possible. And sometimes, that does mean utilizing substitutes and alternative stuff for more expensive hobby equipment and such. 

Who the hell am I to judge this?

I mean, for goodness sake, I sell twigs and leaves and some stuff that you can collect yourself from the empty lot down the street! In fact, on several occasions, I've recommended that you do so right here in this blog! So, even though the tone of this article might be bit slanted towards a slightly less sympathetic position, rest assured that I'm approaching this from a hobbyist position, not a vendor's point of view.

Looking for ways to save money on your hobby, particularly in financially challenging times, is never a bad thing. However, I think it's in the "how and why" part of this approach where I sometimes get wrankled. There is like a whole "subculture" in the hobby of people who will go out of their way to develop "hacks" to save money above almost all else.

How is that fun?

I'll come out and say it...Some-but not all, so-called "money-saving" ideas and approaches are just...stupid and cheap. And not sustainable. Examples?  I've literally heard recommendations to utilize table salt instead of marine salt mix for brackish water tanks. Like, why in the hell would you do this?

To literally save a few dollars, you'll skip over a carefully formulated, batch-tested, aquarium-specific salt, designed to precisely replicate the composition of seawater, with its compliment of trace elements and minerals, in favor of something that you'd use in...cooking? Sorry, I think that is just short-sighted and well...stupid. 

It is.

Like, how much money will you save using table salt over the long run, when you're essentially short-changing your fishes by not providing them with the levels of trace elements and buffers and such which are found in the marine salt mixes. Exchanging their health to take some half-witted "shortcut" goes against so much of what we in the hobby claim to value.

I hear the angry rebuttal:

"But yeah, Scott- that's all well and good, but not everyone can afford to pay $15 for a bag of marine salt mix when the table salt is more affordable, and makes the hobby more accessible to a wider range of hobbyists."

Again, I kind of call bullshit on that. 

Really.

I dare say that the hobby IS kind of pricy. And quite frankly, if you can't afford to do it right- to create a system that provides for the basic health of your animals correctly- just don't do it.

Ouch.

Yeah, I mean it. Some stuff just doesn't make sense to compromise on.

Would you want your surgeon to use "okay quality" tools or stitches on you? Would you want the airline you fly on to use "good enough" parts on the airplane that you're flying on?

Didn't think so.

I've began setting up a new reef tank in my home- my first in quite a few years. And I've applied my philosophy to on virtually everything I have done, used, or added to this tank thus far. I made good decisions on setup and gear based on how I want manage the tank long term. About what it will be like to "live" with this tank.

NOT about getting the latest trendy gear...just because.

 

People in the hobby do that all the time.

Except, I made one notably bad decision.

I purchased a piece of gear which I kind of had a hunch wasn't the best brand on the block...A piece which fell into what is often called "a good value" item.  Which to me, is shorthand for...cheap. A piece of equipment that, although not absolutely vital to the function of the tank, is something that is important and should be high quality and reliable in both the short and long term.

And..it wasn't. I had a feeling, and sure enough it didn't quite perform up to spec, and within about 3 days of compromised operation, it completely failed. And, rather than doing what a lot of hobbyists would do- and what I would encourage YOU to do...I literally took it out of the tank and tossed it into the trash. Mind you, this was a piece of gear that cost me a couple hundred dollars, so it wasn't what I'd call "disposable."

I've been around in the hobby and biz for a while, and I know when I've made a bad decision. I thought that this piece of gear would work, though.

I was wrong. Although, based on past experience, I know that sometimes, you can "work with" a piece of less-than-optimum gear for a while.

However, the piece of gear in question represented what I consider to be a "toxic" element to my otherwise well-thought-out, carefully-equipped tank. It simply didn't work, was, in reality, poorly made, highly overrated, and likely wouldn't have worked reliably long term. So yeah, I took the rather extraordinary move of eating the cash, literally "cutting my losses"- and just eliminating it from my system before it became a long-term liability.

That's extreme. Perhaps what some would call impulsive, wasteful, rash, and irresponsible.

However, I don't see it that way.

Yeah, I'm not made of money. It didn't feel good to eat a chunk of cash by tossing it. However, the decision was, IMHO, absolutely correct in the longer term. It would have been a continuous source of frustration, time-wasting, and a hit on the long term reliability of my system. The time and effort I would have spent trying to "fix" it and limp it along simply wouldn't have been worth it.

And lest you think I would have been better advised to work it out with the manufacturer- I squashed the idea right away. What would have been the point of trying to get a replacement or spare parts to limp along a piece of gear that was unreliable right out of the box? To get another one that would be essentially identical?

Nope. Not for me. The life forms I keep are too precious.

And sure, I could have given the piece of gear to another hobbyist, rather than toss the thing-with all of the caveats ("Hey,be careful with this thing, the pump and adjustments are unreliable and cheap...")- but NOPE! Why foist a subpar piece of gear onto another person? Why justify the continuing manufacture and sales of a crappy product? 

That's literally how I see stuff.

Life is too short. 

Taking shortcuts on good practices, or compromises on gear is never a great idea, IMHO.

Stay the course with "best practices." Ditch lousy gear.

Yeah, economics is not always favorable for doing that. However, compromising the long-term health of your animals, and the reliability and safety of your tank is far less favorable.

Sure, we have to make compromises sometimes. However, it's not a compromise to continue to work with a piece of junky gear. It's simply living with a proverbial "ticking time bomb"- trouble waiting to happen at a very inconvenient time. 

Don't do it.

Life is too short to compromise long-term reliability and enjoyment for short-term convenience or comfort. This is a hobby- and it's supposed to be fun.

Keep it that way by NOT compromising this position!

Taking this attitude send a message to manufacturers that we won't accept sub-par gear. Sure, but all means, if you really like the product, work with the manufacturer to resolve your issue. However, if you objectively can see the thing not working out- cut your losses and move on. 

Perhaps the piece of gear works for 80% of the people who buy it- just not for you. Or maybe you bought the one defective item. However, if you objectively evaluate it and determine it to be unsuitable for you needs...

Let it go.

Life is too short to compromise. 

Stay resolute. Stay confident. Stay decisive. Stay patient. Stay disciplined...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

As the seasons pass...

 

Every Corydoras breeder knows something that we all should know:

Environmental manipulations create unique opportunities to facilitate behavioral changes in our fishes.

It's hardly an earth-shattering idea in the aquarium hobby, but I think that the concept of "seasonal" environmental manipulation deserves some additional consideration.

It's been known for decades that environmental changes to the aquatic environment caused by weather (particularly "wet" or "dry" seasons/events) can stimulate fishes into spawning. 

As a fish geek keen on not only replicating the look of our fishes' wild habitats, but as much of the "function" as possible, I can't help myself but to ponder the possibilities for greater success by manipulating the aquarium environment to simulate what happens in the wild.

Probably the group of aquarists who has had the most experience and success at incorporating such environmental manipulations into their breeding procedures is Corydoras catfish enthusiasts! 

Many hobbyists who have bred Corydoras utilize the old trick of a 20%-30% water exchange with water that is up to 10° F cooler (6.5° C) than the aquarium water is normally maintained at. It seems almost like one of those, "Are you &^%$#@ crazy- a sudden lowering of temperature?"

However, it works, and you almost never hear of any fishes being lost as a result of such manipulations.

I often wondered what the rationale behind such a change was. My understanding is that it essentially is meant to mimic a rainstorm, in which an influx of cooler water is a feature. Makes sense. Weather conditions are such an important part of the life cycle of our fishes.

Still others attempt to simulate a "dry spell" by allowing the water quality to "degrade" somewhat (what exactly that means is open to interpretation!), while simultaneously increasing the aquarium temperature a degree or two. This is followed by a water exchange with softer water (ie; pure RO/DI), and resetting the tank temp to the tank's normal range of parameters.

The "variation" I have heard is to do the above procedure, accompanied by an increase in current via a filter return or powerhead, which simulates the increased water volume/flow brought on by the influx of "rain."

Clever.

Many breeders will fast their fishes a few days, followed by a big binge of food after the temperature drop, apparently simulating the increased amount of food in the native waters when rains come.

Still other hobbyists will reduce the pH of their aquarium water to stimulate breeding. And I suppose the rationale behind this is once again to simulate an influx of water from rain or other external sources...

Weather, once again.

And another trick I hear from my Cory breeder friends from time to time is the idea of tossing in a few alder cones into the tank/vessel where their breeders' eggs are incubating.

This decades-old practice is justified by the assertion that the alder cones possess some type of anti-fungal properties...not entirely off base with some of the scientific research we've found about the allegedly anti-microbial/antifungal properties of catappa leaves and such...

And of course, I hear/read of recommendations to use the aforementioned catappa leaves, oak leaves, and Magnolia leaves for just this purpose...

Interesting. 

Okay, cool.

Not really earth-shattering; however, it got me thinking about the whole idea of environmental manipulations as part of the routine "operation" of our botanical-mehtod aquariums.....Should we create true seasonal variations for our aquariums as part of our regular practice- not just when trying to spawn fishes? I mean, changing up lighting duration, intensity, angles, colors, increasing/decreasing water levels or flow?

With all of the high tech LED lighting systems, electronically controlled pumps; even advanced heaters- we can vary environmental conditions to mimic what occurs in our fishes' natural habitats during seasonal changes as never before. I think it would be very interesting to see what kinds of results we could get with our fishes if we went further into seasonal environmental manipulations than we have been able to before.

And of course, if we look at the natural habitats where many of our fishes originate, we see these seasonal changes having huge impact on the aquatic ecosystems. In The Amazon, for example, the high water season runs December through April.

And during the flooding season, the average temperature is 86 degrees F, around 12 degrees cooler than the dry season. And during the wet season, the streams and rivers can be between 6-7 meters higher on the average than they are during the dry season! 

And of course, there are more fruits, flowers, and insects during this time of year- important food items for many species of fishes.

And the dry season? Well, that obviously means lower water levels, higher temperatures, and abundance of fishes, most engaging in spawning activity. 

Mud and algal growth on plants, rocks, submerged trees, etc. is quite abundant in these waters at various times of the year. Mud and detritus are transported via the overflowing rivers into flooded areas, and contribute to the forest leaf litter and other botanical materials, coming nutrient sources which contribute to the growth of this epiphytic algae. 

During the lower water periods, this "organic layer" helps compensate for the shortage of other food sources. When the water is at a high period and the forests are inundated, many terrestrial insects fall into the water and are consumed by fishes. In general, insects- both terrestrial and aquatic, support a large community of fishes.

So, it goes without saying that the importance of insects and fruits- which are essentially derived from the flooded forests, are reduced during the dry season when fishes are confined to open water and feed on different materials. 

So I wonder...is part of the key to successfully conditioning and breeding some of the fishes found in these habitats altering their diets to mimic the seasonal importance/scarcity of various food items? In other words, feeding more insects at one time of the year, and perhaps allowing fishes to graze on detritus and biocover at other times?

And then, there are those fishes whose life cycle is intimately tied into the seasonal changes.

The killifishes.

Any annual or semi-annual killifish species enthusiast will tell you a dozen ways to dry-incubate eggs; again, a beautiful simulation of what happens in Nature...So much of the idea can be applicable to other areas of aquarium practice, right? 

Yeah... I think so.

It's pretty clear that factors such as the air, water and even soil temperatures, atmospheric humidity, the water level, the local winds as well as climatic variables have profound influence on the life cycle and reproductive behavior on the fishes that reside in these dynamic tropical environments! 

In my "Urban Igapo" experiments, we get to see a little microcosm of this whole seasonal process and the influences of "weather."

And of course, all of this ties into the intimate relationship between land and water, doesn't it?

There's been a fair amount of research and speculation by both scientists and hobbyists about the processes which occur when terrestrial materials like leaves and botanical items enter aquatic environments, and most of it is based upon field observations.

As hobbyists, we have a unique opportunity to observe firsthand the impact and affects of this material in our own aquariums! I love this aspect of our "practice", as it creates really interesting possibilities to embrace and create more naturally-functioning systems, while possibly even "validating" the field work done by scientists!

And of course, there are a lot of interesting bits of information that we can interpret from Nature when planning, creating, and operating our aquariums.

It goes without saying that there are implications for both the biology and chemistry of the aquatic habitats when leaves and other botanical materials enter them. Many of these are things that we as hobbyists observe every day in our aquariums!

Example?

A lab study I came upon found out that, when leaves are saturated in water, biofilm is at it's peak when other nutrients (i.e.; nitrate, phosphate, etc.) tested at their lowest limits. This is interesting to me, because it seems that, in our botanical method aquariums, biofilms tend to occur early on, when one would assume that these compounds are at their highest concentrations, right? And biofilms are essentially the byproduct of bacterial colonization, meaning that there must be a lot of "food" for the bacteria at some point if there is a lot of biofilm, right?

More questions...

Does this imply that the biofilms arrive on the scene and peak out really quickly; an indication that there is actually less nutrient in the water? Is the nutrient bound up in the biofilms? And when our fishes and other animals consume them, does this provide a significant source of sustenance for them?

Hmm...?

Oh, and here is another interesting observation:

When leaves fall into streams, field studies have shown that their nitrogen content typically will increase. Why is this important? Scientists see this as evidence of microbial colonization, which is correlated by a measured increase in oxygen consumption. This is interesting to me, because the rare "disasters" that we see in our tanks (when we do see them, of course, which fortunately isn't very often at all)- are usually caused by the hobbyist adding a really large quantity of leaves at once, resulting in the fishes gasping at the surface- a sign of...oxygen depletion?

Makes sense, right? 

These are interesting clues about the process of decomposition of leaves when they enter into our aquatic ecosystems. They have implications for our use of botanicals and the way we manage our aquariums. I think that the simple fact that pH and oxygen tend to go down quickly when leaves are  initially submerged in pure water during lab tests gives us an idea as to what to expect.

A lot of the initial environmental changes will happen rather rapidly, and then stabilize over time. Which of course, leads me to conclude that the development of sufficient populations of organisms to process the incoming botanical load is a critical part of the establishment of our botanical-method aquariums.

Fungal populations are as important in the process of breaking down leaves and botanical materials in water as are higher organisms, like insects and crustaceans, which function as "shredders." The “shredders” – the animals which feed upon the materials that fall into the streams, process this stuff into what scientists call “fine particulate organic matter.”

And that's where fungi and other microorganisms  make use of the leaves and materials, processing them into fine sediments. Allochthonous material can also include dissolved organic matter (DOM) carried into streams and re-distributed by water movement.

And the process happens surprisingly quickly.

In studies carried out in tropical  rainforests in Venezuela, decomposition rates were really fast, with 50% of leaf mass lost in less than 10 days! Interesting, but is it tremendously surprising to us as botanical-method aquarium enthusiasts? I mean, we see leaves begin to soften and break down in a matter of a couple of weeks- with complete breakdown happening typically in a month or so for many leaves.

And biofilms, fungi, and algae are still found in our aquariums in significant quantities throughout the process.

So, what's this all mean? What are the implications for aquariums? 

I think it means that we need to continue to foster the biological diversity of animals in our aquariums- embracing life at all levels- from bacteria to fungi to crustaceans to worms, and ultimately, our fishes...All forming 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!

We've talked about this very topic many times right here over the years, haven't we? I can't let it go.

Bioversity is interesting enough, but when you factor in seasonal changes and cycles, it becomes an almost "foundational" component for a new way of running our botanical-style aquariums.

Consider this:

The wet season in The Amazon runs from November to June. And it rains almost every day.

And what's really interesting is that the surrounding Amazon rain forest is estimated by some scientists to create as much as 50% of its own precipitation! It does this via the humidity present in the forest itself, from the water vapor present on plant leaves- which contributes to the formation of rain clouds.

Yeah, trees in the Amazon release enough moisture through photosynthesis to create low-level clouds and literally generate rain, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)!

That's crazy.

But it makes a lot of sense, right?

Okay, that's a cool "cocktail party sound bite" and all, but what happens to the (aquatic) environment in which our fishes live in when it rains?

Well, for one thing, rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia - and likewise, in many tropical locales worldwide-is the evolution of some of our most compelling environmental niches...

We've literally scratched the surface, and the opportunity to apply what we know about the climates and seasonal changes which occur where our fishes originate, and to incorporate, on a broader scale, the practices which our Corydoras-enthusiast friends employ on all sorts of fishes!

So much to learn, experiment with, and execute on.

Stay fascinated. Stay intrigued. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay astute...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

September 26, 2022

0 comments


"Geographic transgressions" and other forgivable sins...

I'm not immune to any "temptations" I might encounter along the way to my ultimate goals, who it comes to aquairums, believe me...

There is always that part of me which falls headlong into that "shiny object syndrome"- you know something cool catches my eye along the way, and there I am, off on a tangent, researching and considering ways to "modify" my plan...complete with justification when something cool becomes available ("Well, you know, just because I SAID it's going to be an Asian blackwater stream with Rasbora espie doesn't mean that I can't have a few of those Copella arnoldi in there. I mean, "SPLASHING-FREAKING TETRA- HELLO!" )

(Image by Zikamoi, used under CC-BY S.A. 3.0)

Now, the reality is that I almost never actually DO it...For some reason, I consider such things "geographic transgressions", and have for years denied myself the opportunity to grab some cool fishes because of my pathetic, rigid adherence to some unwritten rule that I created for myself!

The reality is, these types of diverse stocking plans have been a staple of the hobby for generations.

Yeah, that's how the classic "community tank", which we've loved for decades, is created, right? The best combination of cool fishes, regardless of origin, which happen to catch our fancy? As long as they are physically compatible, does it really matter? I mean, nothing is wrong with that, right? I mean, does every salad we make have ingredients from the same farm?

Weak or not, it is that kind of "argument" that would make ME feel better, lol.

Right? 

 

But I'd have such guilt if I actually did something about it.

As I stare at my "Southeast Asian-inspired" blackwater aquarium(which I'm getting really bored of, BTW), with fishes that are "regionally" accurate, but likely would never be found together in Nature, I can't help but reflect on my philosophies on "theme" and such, and the occasional "tangents" I'd take.

In past years, I would often further justify these tangents which lead to a "broader", geographically absurd array of fishes with almost-logical thoughts like, "Well, that little tetra from Colombia looks an awful lot like some of those random Rasbora you see in Asian streams...I mean..."

Yes, I would justify these decisions to myself just like that. 

Again, however, these were all theoretical...I almost never actually executed on them!

Over the years, I became even more focused, of course... I'd go to the other extreme at times. I'd tell myself that, unless every fish in the tank, regardless of the fact that it's from the same region, is wild caught, then one could make an argument that this is "off plan."

Stupid shit like that.

Well, somehow, anyways! I mean, a South American Tetra bred on an Asian fish farm, from stock that's been there like 28 generations...hmm...how do you quantify that?

Yeah, like that is a good argument/"guilt diminisher."  Absurd. LOL

And the sad truth is that, unless you're one of those people who is absolutely obsessed with complete authenticity, or is entering into one of those ultra-regulated, carefully-scrutinized biotope aquarium contests, it likely doesn't matter all that much, right? Having generally "geographically proximate" fishes in the same tank, has always been a "standard" for me personally. Like, somehow, I'm totally comfortable with THAT!

I've always felt that the fishes that are from the same general region- even if not from the exact locale or ecological niche-will probably not interact all that much differently than they would if they were some other random species from their habitat...right?  I mean, a Dachshund and a Golden Retriever are both dogs, and...

Um, yeah. You can argue this one as much as you want, I suppose.

Probably?

Sure, if you're like me, you'll carry with you that personal "mark of shame" and yeah- some feelings of guilt- for as long as you own the tank, or perhaps until your overwhelming horror at having made this "geographic transgression" finally takes you down and forces you to remove the "offending"  fishes into a tank of their own (hopefully with more "geographically-appropriate" tankmates , of course).

It's kind of...ridiculous...

Or is it? 

It likely is.

I'm sure that it is.

I mean, It's one thing to keep fishes from various blackwater habitats in say, Brazil. It's quite another to keep fishes from Brazil with fishes from, let's say- Borneo- together in the same tank!

On the other hand, are fishes from different parts of the world that physiologically dissimilar?

I mean, sure, fishes evolved over eons to take on specific characteristics that were likely adaptations to specific environmental conditions they'd encounter. Although I've often wondered wether or not the chemical and ecological characteristics of a blackwater stream with a pH of 4.8 in Borneo is THAT much different, at least generally speaking, than an Amazonian igarape with the same pH.

I mean, sure there are probably some subtle flora/fauna/geology differences which impact the chemical composition on a level we as hobbyists are not able to distinguish, but are they THAT much different?

I wonder...Not that you ever would (for obvious reasons), but if you transplanted, say, a Rasbora from a stream in Southeast Asia to a jungle stream in the rainforests of Brazil, or a Nanostomus to a Sarawak jungle stream- could the fish adapt?

I mean, they may have slightly different food sources or ways of finding them, but could the fish adapt? Is this any different than the "coping" that wild-caught fishes have to do when captured and placed in most home aquariums? You know, strange food, different environmental parameters from their wild homes, and unknown, unnatural companions?

I recently had a discussion with one of my best aquairum friends, Jake Adams of Reefbuilders. Jake and I were talking about my new Reef aquairum, and I was sharing with him my intense guilt about wanting to keep a bunch of Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto), one of my fave all-time fishes, in my Indo-Pacific Reef tank. The "problem" in my mind was that the Royal Gramma, gorgeous though it may be, is native to the Tropical Weast Atlantic and Caribbean.

"And Jake, in his infinite wisdom borne of a lifetime of high-level reef keeping, was like, "Dude- just keep them. They're gorgeous..."

And it dawned on me- that was the 100% correct answer (I've found over the years that Jake is right like, ohh- 100% of the time on reef stuff, BTW). There would be absolutely no harm in keeping this gorgeous fish with all of my Pacific corals. It meets every criteria for a perfect reef tank inhabited itant, with the tiny exception that it comes from the Atlantic, and 95% of all corals we keep in reef tanks come from the Indo Pacific.

Like, why the hell do I stress over this? Who cares? The absurdity of my geographic "prejudices" and arguments melts away when I subject my selection to simple questions:

Can the fish live among Pacific corals? Is there some physio-chmeical difference between water in the Indo Pacific and the Tropical West Atlantic? Um, no...Seawater is seawater. Other than perhaps minor density variations, there are few major chemical differences between seawater in various parts of the world.

Of course, with freshwater fishes, environmental conditions are super varied, and one could ask tougher questions when considering placing, say, African fishes in a South American-inspired environment:

Is there a sort of "stress" that would arise under all of these conditions? Could these "subtle" stresses be the reason why so many fishes are elusive for long periods of time in the hobby, when it comes to spawning them?

I ponder this in the context of our botanical-method aquariums; our focus on more natural looking- and functioning systems...

Yet, I think again that blackwater conditions, for example, are fairly similar (gulp) in different parts of the world, and I have a hunch that fishes which come from Southeast Asian blackwater habitats can do just fine in South American-inspired blackwater habitats...

It's about the water's chemical characteristics and physical environment, more than anything else, right? 

Could it be why we are seeing more and more success with blackwater fishes being kept in more realistic habitats and environmental conditions? Could the humic substances, tannins, and other compounds exuded by botanical materials be the "something in the water" which bridges at least part of that gap between wild habitat and aquarium?

The idea of using materials like leaves, seed pods, stems, etc.- which to a great extent mimics both the form and function of the wild habitats from which our fishes hail at least gives us the ability to fully explore the concept.

I mean, one could even take the argument about geographic suitability to our game. We could ponder if a Cariniana legalis seed pod from Brazil in our Asian-themed tank would somehow be detrimental to our fishes- or perhaps not as physiologically beneficial- as a more geographically appropriate Sterculia pod from Thailand.

We could.

Yet, wouldn't that literally be like "splitting hairs?"

I mean, where does it end? And what benefit or detriment would we be experiencing as a result of our decision to include/exclude a specific botanical, wood, substrate, or other material in our 100% authentic "geographic-focused aquarium?"

A lot of you ask about what botanical materials to use for specific types of fishes or their habitats. It's a good question, and one which has a bunch of different answers, actually. Now, many of you ask about botanicals from specific geographic regions, because you're looking to create a "Southeast Asian" or "Amazonian", or "West African"- themed tank.

These are cool inquiries, because it demonstrates that we've reached a phase in the botanical method world of trying to recreate aspects of specific geographic/ecological niches in our tanks. I love that we are all applying our love of botanical materials for specific reasons in our aquariums. Of course, I think that most of us-present company, specifically- need to relax a little bit when it comes to our selections, and not get too uptight about it!

Now, if you're really hardcore about every botanical being strictly from the region in which your fishes are found, make use of the (okay, admittedly long-winded) descriptions on our website product pages. For each botanical, we'll list the geographic origin. Some botanicals are very specific to one country (ie; Brazil), whereas some will simply be listed from "South America", because they are not necessarily limited to one country in the region.

Now, the important thing to know is that many of the botanicals we offer are found in various parts of the world, and can sort of "represent" materials found in specific geographic environments. Some are "circumtropical", or come from plants which have been transplanted by man throughout the world. Most of our items, however, fall into that category we've often referred to (rather unprofessionally, I must confess) as "generic tropical"- stuff that represents the materials you might find in tropical aquatic ecosystems around the world.

 

We've kind of made that argument that, once leaves are submerged and starting to break down and such, one would be hard-pressed to make the call and state firmly that a given item somehow looks out of place from a geographic standpoint (unless, of course, one happens to be a botanist!). Now, again, it's always been my personal opinion that you can utilize whatever items you want in virtually any situation, because even an Asian botanical perfectly represents a botanical item from say, Africa or South America...especially once it's "down and wet..."

In other words, the cool-looking Cariniana pod from the previously-discussed Cariniana legalis tree of South America would be perfectly at home in an Amazonian-themed aquarium. It would also be perfectly acceptable in a Southeast Asian or African-themed tank, as it resembles some of the botanical materials that are found in the aquatic habitats of these regions. It likely performs some of the same "functions" as analogous materials actually found within the Southeast Asian region.

"Generic Tropical."

Yet, some self-appointed "guardians" of biotope aquarium keeping have a complete shit fit if something isn't exactly from the region or niche the aquarium being presented in their contest purports to represent.

Yet, I've seen dozens of biotope aquariums in big competitions representing very specific Asian or South American habitats, with substrates covered in Beech or Oak leaf litter from Europe or North America, and no one- judges included- batted an eyelash, so...

I'm just sayin'.

IMHO, we shouldn't get too bent out of shape about this stuff. 

Really.

And, to make things even more interesting, let's ponder for just a moment exactly "how" botanical materials which are found in tropical waters actually get there in the first place!

The reality is that most of the materials which accumulate on the substrate or elsewhere in the aquatic habitats we try to recreate either were there to begin with before the water arrived (as in the case of the flooded igapo forest floors of South America), or fell into the water from overhanging vegetation, or were swept up by flooding, wind, or other natural events.

There is really not some set model for how these materials arrive into aquatic habitats. And, to be objective, I have to proffer that many of the materials that we offer for this purpose are from trees and shrubs often not found directly in the path of water.

Maybe they're from areas nearby.

Some are from mountainous regions or plains which don't have bodies of water in the vicinity that they're found. Again, they are selected for inclusion in our offerings because they have an appearance or characteristics which represent those of materials that we've seen floating around in, or at the bottom of,  various aquatic habitats.

"Generic tropical."

Don't stress over it. Enjoy it. Incorporate the function and aesthetics from materials which represent those found in our favorite tropical aquatic habitats, wherever they might be. Learn about the habitat, and how materials accumulate in the waters- and how they influence the fishes that live in them.

And add whatever fishes you love, regardless of what part of the world they come from. These "geographic transgressions" are entirely forgivable, lol.

Oh, and your aquarium will look cool, too. Trust me.

And finally, circling back- don't be like me, creating self-imposed "embargos" on keeping various groups of fishes together in  your tank, despite the fact that these otherwise perfectly compatible fishes come from different parts of the world.

 

Life is too short- and the hobby too much fun- to retract yourself like I have. Just enjoy your fishes- regardless of what continent they're found in, and what kind of tank you choose to enjoy them in!

These "sins" are perfectly forgivable, trust me.

Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay dedicated...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Inception.

in·cep·tion
/inˈsepSH(ə)n/
noun- The establishment or starting point of an institution or activity.

 

We've had a lot of requests lately to discuss how we start up our botanical method aquariums. Now sure, we've covered this topic before over the years; yet, as our practices have evolved, so has our understanding about why we do things the way that we do- and why it works.

Establishing a new botanical method aquarium is an exciting, fun, and interesting time.  And the process of creating your aquarium is shockingly easy, decidedly un-stressful, and extremely engaging.

The main ingredients that you need are vision, a bit of knowledge, and... patience.

Bringing your tank from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life is an amazing process. This, to me is really the most exciting part of keeping botanical method aquariums. 

And how do we usually do it? I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to clean the sand, age water, add wood, arrange plants, and add fishes. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" we've used for over a century.

Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.

When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.

I mean, sure, you want to rinse sand as clean as possible. You want make sure that you have a piece of wood that's been soaked for a while, and..

Wait, DO you?

I mean, sure, if you don't rinse your sand carefully, you'll get some cloudy water for weeks...no argument there.

And if you don't clean your driftwood carefully, you're liable to have some soil or other "dirt" get into your system, and more tannins being released, which leads to...well, what does it lead to?

I mean, an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat. Let's not fool ourselves.

The natural aquatic habits which we attempt to emulate, although comprised of many millions of times the volumes of water volume and throughput that we have in our tanks- are typically not "pristine"- right? I mean, soils from the surrounding terrestrial environment carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.

And that's kind of what our whole botanical-method aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect" nature of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions between the terrestrial and aquatic realms which occur.

Of course, much like Nature, our botanical-method aquariums make use of the "ingredients" found in the abundant materials which comprise the environment. And the "infusion" of these materials into the water, and the resulting biological processes which occur, are what literally make our tanks come alive.

And yeah, it all starts with the nitrogen cycle...

We can embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity, function, and yes- a new view of aesthetics in our aquariums.

I'm not saying that we should NOT rinse sand, or soak wood before adding it to our tanks. What I AM suggesting is that we don't "lose our shit" if our water gets a little bit turbid or there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate. And guess what? We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate.

Of course not.

We can utilize some old substrate from another tank (we have done this as a hobby for decades for the purpose of "jump starting" bacterial growth) which also has the side benefit of providing a different aesthetic as well!

And, you can/should take it further: Use that slightly algal-covered piece of driftwood or rock in our brand new tank...This gives a more "broken-in look", and helps foster a habitat more favorable to the growth of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.

In fact, in a botanical-method  aquarium, facilitating the rapid growth of such biotia is foundational.

It's perfectly okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start. Functional aesthetics once again! the look results from the function.

In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.

So don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours.

The aquarium still has to clear a few metaphorical "hurdles" in order to be a stable environment for life to thrive.

I am operating on the assumption (gulp) that most of us have a  basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle and how it impacts our aquariums. However, maybe we don’t all have that understanding. My ramblings have been labeled as “moronic” by at least one “critic” before, however, so it’s no biggie for me as said “moron” to give a very over-simplified review of the “cycling” process in an aquarium, so let’s touch on that for just a moment! 


During the "cycling" process, ammonia levels will build and then suddenly decline as the nitrite-forming bacteria multiply in the system. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't appear until nitrite is available in sufficient quantities to sustain them, nitrite levels climb dramatically as the ammonia is converted, and keep rising as the constantly-available ammonia is converted to nitrite.

Once the nitrate-forming bacteria multiply in sufficient numbers, nitrite levels decrease dramatically, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is considered “fully cycled.”

And of course, the process of creating and establishing your aquariums ecology doesn't end there.

With a stabilized nitrogen cycle in place, the real "evolution" of the aquarium begins. This process is constant, and the actions of Nature in our aquariums facilitate changes. 

And our botanical-method systems change constantly.

They change over time in very noticeable ways, as the leaves and botanicals break down and change shape and form. The water will darken. Often, there may be an almost "patina" or haziness to the water along with the tint- the result of dissolving botanical material and perhaps a "bloom" of microorganisms which consume them. 

This is perfectly analogous to what you see in the natural habitats of the fishes that we love so much. As the materials present in the flooded forests, ponds, and streams break down, they alter it biologically, chemically, and even physically. 

It's something that we as aquarists have to accept in our tanks, which is not always easy for us, right? Decomposition, detritus, biofilms- all that stuff looks, well- different than what we've been told over the years is "proper" for an aquarium. And, it's as much a perception issue as it is a husbandry one.  I mean, we're talking about materials from decomposing botanicals and wood, as opposed to uneaten food, fish waste, and such.

What's really cool about this is that, in our community, we aren't seeing hobbyists freak out over some of the aesthetics previously associated with "dirty!" 

It's seen as a fundamental part of the evolution of the tank.

And soon, you'll see the emergence of elegant, yet simple life forms, such as bacterial biofilms and fungal growths. We've long maintained that the appearance of biofilms and fungi on your botanicals and wood are to be celebrated- not feared. They represent a burgeoning emergence of life -albeit in one of its lowest and (to some) most unpleasant-looking forms- and that's a really big deal. 

Biofilms, as we've discussed ad nauseam here, form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals. It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer.

The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together. Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.

Tannin's creative Director, Johnny Ciotti, calls this period of time when the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive "The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!

The real positive takeaway here:

Biofilms and fungal growths are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.

About a year ago, had a discussion with our friend, Alex Franqui. His beautiful Igarape-themed aquarium pictured above, "bloomed" beautifully, with the biofilms, fungal growths, and sediments working together to create a stunning, very natural functioning- and appearing-ecosystem. He was not repulsed at all. Rather, he was awed and fascinated...He celebrated what was occurring in his tan. He has an innate understanding of the ecological process, and replaced "fear and loathing" with excitement.

Alex is a hardcore aquascaper, and to see him marveling and rejoicing in the "bloom" of biofilms in his tank is remarkable.

He gets it.

And it turns out that our love of biofilms is truly shared by some people who really appreciate them as food...Shrimp hobbyists! Yup, these people (you know who you are!) go out of their way to cultivate and embrace biofilms and fungi as a food source for their shrimp. 

 

They get it.

And this makes perfect sense, because they are abundant in Nature, particularly in habitats where shrimp naturally occur, which are typically filled with botanical materials, fallen tree trunks, and decomposing leaves...a perfect haunt for biofilm and fungal growth! 

Nature celebrates "The Bloom", too.

There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.

Time for a little thought experiment...

You're a fish.

Seriously. Make yourself a fish...for a second. (I think I'd be a Black Ghost Knife, FYI. What, you thought I'd be a Cardinal Tetra or something? Really? Sheesh!)

Your main goals in life are avoiding predators, finding food, and reproducing. The "finding food" part is what we're focusing on in this experiment.

Now, back to being you for a second.

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 why not help accommodate our your animals’ needs by supplementing their prepared diet with some “pre-stocked” natural foods in their new home? You know, slow down, get things "going" a bit, and then add the fishes?

I’m not talking about tossing in a few frozen brine shrimp hours before the first fishes go in the tank—I’m talking about a deliberate, systematic attempt to cultivate some living food sources within the system before a fish ever hits the water! Imagine a “new” system offering numerous foraging opportunities for its new inhabitants!

in our world, that might mean allowing some breakdown of the botanicals, or time for wood or other botanicals to recruit some biofilms, fungi- even turf algae on their surfaces before adding the fishes to the aquarium. 

“Scott. You’re being impractical here! It could take months to accomplish this. I’ve just spent tons of money and time setting up this tank and you want me to deliberately keep this tank devoid of fishes while the biofilms form and Daphnia reproduce?”

Yes. Seriously.

 I am a bit crazy. I’ll give you that. 

Yet, with my last few systems, this is exactly what I did. 

Why?

Well, for one thing, it creates a habitat for sighs which is uniquely suited to their needs in a different way.

Think abut the way most fishes live. They spend a large part of their existence foraging for food. Even in the cozy, comfortable confines of the aquarium.

So, why not create conditions for them which help accommodate this instinctive behavior, and provide opportunities for supplemental (or primary!) nutrition to be available to them by foraging.

Now, I have no illusions about this idea of "pre-stocking" being a bit challenging to execute.

I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.” 

Any "secret" to this?

None at all.  I'm simply really fucking patient.

Success in this arena  is simply a result of deploying..."radical patience."  The practice of just moving really slowly and carefully when adding fishes to new tanks. 

A really simple concept.

I mean, to some extent, we already deploy this practice with our botanical-method tanks, right? The very process of creating a botanical-method aquarium lends itself to this "on board supplemental food production" concept. A concept that's pretty analogous to what occurs in Nature, right?

 

And one of the most important functions of many botanically-influenced wild habitats is the 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.

You can do this. You can foster such a "food web"- or the basis for one- in your aquarium!

Wait a minimum of three weeks—and even up to a month or two if you can stand it, and you will have a surprisingly large population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings.

Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for wild fishes, or fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders.

And think about it for a second.

This is really a natural analog of sorts. Fishes that live in inundated forest floors (yeah, the igapo again!) return to these areas to "follow the food" once they flood. In fact, other than the physical flooding itself, this pursuit of food sources is the key factor in the migration of fishes into these habitats.

So, what would some candidate organisms be for "pre-stocking" a botanical-style aquarium?

How about starting with (okay, sounding a bit commercial, I know, but...) the versatile Purple Non Sulphur Bacteria (PNSB), Rhodopseudomonas palustris- the species which forms our product, "Culture." PNSB are useful for their ability to carry out a particularly unusual mode of metabolism: "anaerobic photoheterotrophy."

In this process, they consume organic wastes while inhabiting moderately illuminated and poorly oxygenated microhabitats (patches of detritus, leaf litter beds, shallow depths of substrate, deeper pores of expanded clay media, etc.). In addition to helping to maintain an ecologically stable microhabitat, "Culture" provides a nutritious live food source for zooplankton as well as soil mesofauna.

Yeah, these guys form the "foundation" of your food chain! (And yeah, we'll have "Culture" back in stock soon...we're re-thinking the packaging to make the product more affordable!)

Next, perhaps some "starter cultures" of organisms like Paramecium, Euglena, etc. You know, "infusoria" from the old school aquarium literature. And then, small crustaceans like Daphnia, and copepods of various types.

 

 

Pure cultures of all of these organisms are available online from various biological supply houses. They're a fantastic source of biodiversity for your aquarium! 

Of course, the more daring among you may want to introduce various worms, like "Black Worms" or Tubifex worms, if you can find clean cultures of them. For that matter, even "blood worms", which are actually the larval phase of the midge.

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.

These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.

Food Web.

And the resulting detritus (here we go again!) produced by the "processed" and decomposing plant 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.

It performs the same function in an aquarium- if we allow it to.

And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricariids, 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. 

When you start seeing your fishes "graze" casually on the materials that pop up on your driftwood and botanicals, you start realizing that, although it might not look like the aesthetics we have had in mind in years past, it is a beautiful thing to our fishes!

 You can do this.

Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom" is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium.

The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your completed aquarium when they see it for the first time.

Stay studious. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Back from nowhere...

Hey, it's me! Scott...remember? The dorky Tannin guy?

Yeah, I know, I've been sort of M.I.A. for the last few weeks...And that generated a lot of concerned dm/s and emails, which has been very touching, thanks! Everything is cool. Tannin is doing fine. I haven't sold to the highest bidder (although there have been a couple of offers, lol), and I'm healthy and happy...No worries. As you know, I have a lot of aquarium industry contacts, and am occasionally called upon to help other companies with special projects as a sort of geeky aquarium industry consultant. 

I recently received an offer for one such gig for a major aquarium brand that was simply too cool, too good, and too lucrative to say "no" to. So, I've been sort of deeply involved in this project, that's literally going to make a huge splash when it launches next year. Of course, these sexy huge projects are accompanied by lots of NDA's and confidentiality agreements, so I'm kind of bound to keep my mouth shut, other than to tell you that it's a cool project and that it's aquarium-related, lol. My involvement is winding down over the next 1-1/2 weeks, so I'll be back in more active circulation real soon! 

So, what's up with Tannin?

Well, we're finally- FINALLY about to launch the new web site and 2023 marketing!  It'll happen in stages, with a few tweaks along the way. We will be doing lot more content and informational stuff; this is something I've really loved doing via "The Tint" blog and podcast, and we'll be doing more and more in 2023. And I promise more videos and more YouTube stuff coming soon!

So, how will the web site differ from its current iteration?

The experience will be much more engaging, easier for you to navigate, and graphically more attractive. Again, it will sort of roll out in stages. The first iteration that you'll see in the next few weeks will be an aesthetic refresh and functionality change. We put a lot of work on the back end of the site to sort of prepare it fro the future changes we'll be rolling out throughout 2023 and beyond.

Fro ma consumer stand point, you'll notice almost immediately that our selection of materials will be changing. Prices will fall on a number of items, too! In some respects, we'll have less items available on a regular basis, and more unique "seasonal/limited quantity" stuff appearing on the site. And we'll be more responsive to your requests for specialized stuff, since we won't be chasing down suppliers for the 70 some-odd different materials we've been offering as stock items. If one of these "limited" materials becomes a big hit, and you want it more often, we'll try to do just that!

Supply chain issues were absolutely killing us this summer, with formerly rock-solid reliable international partners unable to meet their commitments due to regulations and shipping issues from their respective countries. We had long delays in shipping some orders to you, and it was driving me crazy, too! This played a big part of my rethinking our future approach with Tannin, too. So, we've been testing and tweaking materials from a few different suppliers, and we should have our major supply chain issues resolved in the coming month or so.

We are moving towards a more balanced "a la carte" selection of materials and a curated selection (the "Enigma Pack"), along with our speciality items like the substrates (which will begin to come down in price significantly over the next few months, thanks to your strong demand for them and our ability to source raw materials for them at a better "bulk" pricing. They're never gonna be super cheap, because they are literally hand mixed from carefully sourced materials, but they will always be...cool! LOL

So, with regards to the "Enigma Packs"- we'll be able to include a lot of cool materials that are not available "a la carte" on our site in them! The goal is to make them even more unique and special than they are now! And, a better value and real "surprise". By not filling them almost exclusively with our regular "stock botanicals", you're almost guaranteed to get something even more unique and tightly curated than they are now!

With my good friends, James Sheen of Blackwater UK, and Benjamin Peterson of Betta Botanicals hitting their strides and making their respective businesses do their things well, it almost "frees me up" to branch out in other, complimentary creative directions to continue to forge Tannin's unique approach that you've come to know over the past 7 years. I won't have to be the "clearing house" for every single botanical item that the world has to offer! Just the stuff which I (and by extension, most of you) love! 

The end result is that you, the botanical method aquarium hobbyist, will have three terrific sources for pretty much all of the botanical stuff you want!

Look for more fun collaborations with these guys in 2023!

So yeah, we're gonna be leaner, more specialized, and way more in line with my original vision for Tannin that we had back in 2015!

And then, there is wood...Ahh, yeah. So, here's the deal: 

Wood is definitely part of the Tannin "DNA".

However, we never intended to be your "go to" for stuff like Manzanita or "Spider Wood" or whatever, in every conceivable size. Rather, we intend to only offer the unusual varieties of wood and roots that you've come to expect from us. Stuff that you can't typically find at 39,000 other aquatic vendors. Stuff which suits our geeky, special, experimental systems. I've been sourcing and testing some really cool, unusual varieties that you're sure to love!

Oh, and there's the whole "Estuary" thing...You know the brackish water stuff we've been playing with since around 2016. Mangroves and mud and all that? We'll be doing a lot more of that in 2023. More specialized products for brackish tanks, and more inspiration for you to check out. And yeah, at some point, "Polyp by Tannin Aquatics", a reef/coral-focused aquarium products product line, will debut (likely in very late 2023 or early 2024.)

So, I could go on and on telling you every single thing we plan on doing with Tannin in 2023, but where would the fun be in that? Suffice it to say, we think that you'll enjoy all of the changes and enhancements that we begin rolling out. 

The botanical method aquarium world is literally exploding within the hobby, and we're awfully proud to have played a small role in helping to shed more light ion the darkness (literally) since 2015! As you've evolved, we're evolving. No longer a freak show, the botanical method is a legitimate approach, with technique and methodology which requires a specialized mindset and suite of materials.

That's what we're here for! 

Thanks for coming this far with us, and thanks for hanging with us as we roll out the all-new Tannin experience!

And of course, why not throw down a little gauntlet in the process? Really more of a salute to those of you who do the unusual. To those who have joined our movement- and to those of you out there, plying the fringes of the hobby on your own. 

You "outliers..."

out·li·er (outˌlīər) - noun- A person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system. A person or thing differing from all other members of a particular group or set.
Have you ever had an opinion about something which sounded like a pretty fair assessment, yet you knew would simply piss off a lot of people? Something that, although seemingly innocuous and relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of life...would irritate, agitate, and maybe turn some people against you in the field of endeavor in which you engage if you said something?

 

If so, you're downright heroic to me. Really. People don't do this enough.

I'll come out and say what I'm thinking at the moment. It won't endear me to some people. And that's okay.

And please...it's not a knock against anyone or any organization. It's an opinion that I've developed as an observer, a fan, a student of the aquarium world. It's MY opinion, and it probably will not resonate with many: 

I think that the current state of creating unique aquairums is..kind of boring. Maybe it's that some of the "trendy" aquascaping is...stagnant. Homogenous. Common.

It just is, in my opinion. Sorry.

The aquascaping world has some amazingly talented people. Yet, the works being produced and elevated in contests and media are, in my opinion- afloat in a "sea of sameness." You see this on Instagram or in aquascaping contests. Many stick to the "tried and true formula" of the moment, or some derivation thereof. Seemingly afraid to deviate at all. Think I'm full of it? Look at the typical aquascaping contest website. 

Entries from all over the world feature amazingly beautiful aquascapes; magnificent work from passionate aquarists. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that they are "no good", "stupid", or whatever. I'm merely saying that they hardly seem differentiated from each other these days. And, if you're being really honest with yourselves, I'll bet that a few of you might agree with me!

Oh, there are some different tanks out there being entered into these contests. Don't get me wrong. There is a huge pool of very talented aquascapers producing magnificent work.

Yet, in my opinion, the thing is-much of the work seems to fall into a few categories:

1) "Fantasy" scapes, which are essentially "dioramas" with aquatic plants, created to look like underwater mountain ranges, waterfalls, beaches, etc. These DO require enormous talent and discipline...not to mention, really good photography. And of course, a wierd "title." I mean, that's the least annoying part of it to me, but still...It's an aquairum, not a collectible art piece. Most of the damn things are broken down in months, anyways. Maybe people could purchase them as NFT's or something, lol

2) Over-the-top moss-and-plant-covered wood, looking for all the world like a terrestrial old-growth forest. These are compelling, achingly beautiful, often meticulously crafted aquariums, taking many, many weeks to create, manage, and photograph. I love these. We see fewer of them than the "fantasy" types, and I wish we'd see more. Oh, and they need a "title" as well...Could we just say that the "title" thing should be ditched?

3) Everything else. You know, "biotope" aquariums, palludariums, vivariums, river tanks, etc. Some are executed brilliantly; others are a "work in progress", still growing in, etc. All are unique. Created by "unknown", passionate hobbyists who simply want to share their work. Most have no "titles." These are amazing tanks that undeservingly serve to create a rather vivid "supporting cast" for the beloved categories above.

4) The "fringes."  Pure hardscapes and concept aquariums that don't follow a "garden-type" formula. Semi-palludariums, minimalist sand and rubble scapes. Monospecific planted tanks. Blackwater, botanical method tanks. Biotope-inspired displays. Brackish tanks. Species tanks. Cave aquariums. Conceptual tanks. These are the true "outliers." This is the realm of the "discomfort zone." The hobbyists who work this magical place don't generally give a damn about "winning" the contests.

They know that they won't, because they're doing stuff that not everyone gets or thinks is "cool." Stuff that goes decidedly against the grain of what's "acceptable." Just showing up and creating a "disruption"- although it's typically unintentional. And maybe, just maybe inspiring someone else is their goal.

I'm fascinated by outliers.  And what's weird is that there are a fair amount of them out there. Quietly doing what they do; occasionally popping up on the radar, sharing something on social media..perhaps garnering a curious peek by the "establishment", before retiring back into the shadows.

I had this idea in my head not long ago of "sponsoring" a hobbyist like this. You know, kind of like companies do with Football teams, race teams, etc., etc.

Hardly a novel concept, even in the aquarium world, I suppose. But to work with someone who's really doing wierd stuff, and just not giving a rat's ass about winning some contest. Just sharing their work.

I just thought it would be cool to hook the person up with their choice of our products, with the expressed purpose of creating and sharing unusual aquariums with the world and sharing pics and videos. And, not necessarily in contests, mind you...just "out there" in the aquarium world. Inspiring some hobbyists; frightening others. Making everyone a bit "uncomfortable", from an aesthetic standpoint. Replicating Nature in a more literal sense.
 

I sort of tabled the idea for a while. I admit it.

I figured it to be a bit self-serving...or somehow being perceived as being a bit arrogant. I still sort of fantasize about the idea often. Why? I don't know. Perhaps it's the "rebel" in me? Maybe I'm just throwing a tantrum?

Could be.

Maybe it's because no one else is writing about this shit these days. Perhaps it's the desire to give someone with talent the exposure they deserve...or that the world deserves..

Yet, I wasn't contemplating just any talented 'scaper. There are a lot of supremely talented people in the aquascaping world. 

Rather, I was thinking about someone really different. Although, I wondered, would bringing such a person's work to light "corrupt" the real "soul" of what we're talking about? Create a giant, obnoxious hypocrisy of sorts?

I don't know. I don't claim to have the answers. But I think that the aquascaping world needs an injection of the unusual right now, in my opinion. And it needs special type of person to do it.

An outlier. Someone who gets it. Someone who's not only not afraid of going against the prevailing trends...a person who simply does their own thing because it gets them excited. Fearless. Not afraid to face criticism from those who don't get it, like it, or appreciate it. The kid who wore only black all through high school; maybe seemed a bit "weird" to others who didn't understand him/her.

I had this vision of supporting an aquascaper who felt something deeper...Finding a person who has a unique dynamic. An artist? Sure. A poet. Sure.  A surfer? Possibly. A writer? Maybe. A "sage?" I don't know. An "old soul." A musician. Perhaps even a philosopher, of sorts.

Someone who brings something different to the homogenized, prepackaged, formulaic aquascaping world. Someone who can talk emotionally to you for a very long time about the 10-gallon, brackish water "rootscape" that they just created...and leaves you wanting to hear more.

Someone with a deep passion. A spark. A very different orientation. Someone who asks "Why?" Someone who wants to create a "ruckus", because they care about pushing the boundaries of "conventional" thinking and expression in the aquatic world. Someone who looks at things from a totally different angle.  Not to "be cool", mind you. Simply because that's how they look at stuff. A person who feels that his/her work is not just a creative expression, but an instrument of change. 

Just because it's time for one.

The hobby, in my opinion, needs such a person. Someone who can carry the flag for our movement.

Yeah.

Who is that person? Where is that person? Is he/she/they already here? Are there more? Who are these children of which I speak....?

I'll keep asking. I'll keep looking.

However, to all of you- our "tribe"- our loyal fans...those of you who do it for the sheer "love of the game", my simple message to you:

Thank you.

I'm back from being never really gone. And it feels pretty exciting!

Stay involved. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay unique...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

August 16, 2022

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The ones which take you back...

There is something about being in the aquarium hobby a long time which makes you a bit sentimental, I suppose. It often doesn't take much to trigger memories of past hobby experiences (good and bad, of course.). Sometimes, it's seeing that fish which you kept years ago, which tuned out to be the first one that you bred. Maybe it's one that you had an amazing experience with...

Or maybe it was the coral that was your "gateway drug" into keeping more challenging species. Maybe it was seeing a product, remembering a now-defunct brand, or a pic of a tank you once created.

The hobby thrives on history. We collectively love to recall things which take us back to pleasant times and awesome experiences that we've had in the past.

We can look forward, while still having nostalgia for hobby adventures of the past.
Old favorites - fish, plants, etc.- can activate something in our minds; re-igniting longtime passions. 


Last weekend, I attended a reef aquarium show, Reefapalooza, here in So Cal. It was the first reef show I've been to since I started Tannin. I admit, it was kind of wierd at first, re-emersing myself in that very different world from which I came. It felt a bit alien for a bit...Had I lost touch? Had I forgotten that which was so all-consuming for so many years of my life and career?

Nah. 

It only took a little while for me to regain my orientation. Within minutes, I was bumping in to old friends and industry people, many whom I hadn't seen in years. Fist bumps, hugs, and old stories flowed freely.
The sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the reef world washed over me, and it all came back. Like riding a bike, switching back to "reef aquarium vernacular" in my conversations came right back: "SPS", GFO", "frag", "'fuge", "kalk", "skimmer",  "dynos"- words I hadn't uttered in almost a decade- began to roll off my tongue with ease. Old jokes became funny again. The corals, gear, and people that used to get me all excited did just that once more.

 

They say that "you can't go home again"- but I don't buy in to that.

 

I had come home. I mean, I never really left, but it felt comfy and fun again. Everyone remembered me- it was cool! And everyone asked about Tannin; they'd heard the buzz, and had lots of questions about botanical method tanks. It was cool.

 

 

Now sure, there's a ton of new tech new gear, and the usual fandom and buzz which accompanies them. I found it hard to believe that Euphyllia- particularly "Gold Torch Corals", which we used to propagate and sell at Unique Corals for $35-$40 for a small frag, now go for hundreds. I laughed, because they never really did much for me, and I felt kind of guilty for seeing multi-polyp small "colonies" for $100 or more back then!

I didn't' feel "old"- just a bit "out of touch."

Zoanthids, Goniopora, and Blastomussa- corals and corallimorphs which have been captive propagated for decades now, still commanded crazy high prices. THAT was a bit wierd to me. I mean, what exactly made them soem pricy? Supply and demand, I suppose.

I was on the hunt for a couple of corals, too. For the first time in years, I have a small coral tank set up, and a major reef aquarium under construction as well, ready to go in the next couple of months. I figured I'd stock my small tank (the mangrove/macroalgae one I've been sharing here), with a few appropriate corals, which happened to be among my old faves.

One of them was unabashedly my all-time fave coral- Pocillopora damicornus- one of the most common stony corals in the hobby- is a throwback to my first stony coral reef tank decades ago. 


Sure, Pocillopora is not much of a challenge to keep. Many reefers consider it a “weed.” It’s been long since cast aside as reefers jump on more “trendy” corals- yet it holds a very special place in my heart. It’s fuzzy polyps, branching structure, and bright pink color give me the same joy now as they did all those years ago! Yet, every experienced reefer and coral propagator has kept it. In my career, I handled as many crazy rare corals as anyone at the time, but I never stopped loving that one.

Many have similarly nostalgic vibes for it.

I figured that I'd probably find a bunch of them at vendors' tables, passed over in the mad rush for the latest hot Acropora or Torch.  I'd clean up on my old fave!

I had to search the entire show- literally dozens of coral vendors- to find ONE frag. Everyone I asked was like, "Oh, yeah, we've had that." Or, "We have a bunch, but didn't' bring it."  Yet, when pressed, they all professed their love for it too.

No one really could figure out why it wasn't more popular than it is these days. Maybe it's that perception of being " a weed." A coral that reproduces readily, spreading all over the tank- if you let it. Is this a "problem?" I mean, it's a fuzzy, bright pink stony coral! Shit! What could be cooler? Yet, that "weed" designation probably makes it undesirable for many, along with the fact that it's easy to keep. 



I think that my beloved Pocillopora is just another part of that old aquairum hobby story: Once something becomes "common", or familiar, it tends to fall by the wayside as more unusual stuff makes its way into the market. Sure, if you're an idiot and don't bother to control your corals or maintain your tank, it can pop up all over the place (again, why exactly is this a problem?)

Yet, to those like me- who still hold on fondly to the memories of the corals they love so much- it never ceased being awesome. 

Isn’t that kind of what the aquarium hobby is all about? Keep what you love; what brings YOU joy. You can never go wrong that way.

I purchased the one and only frag that I could find of it in a heartbeat!

I can't stop staring at it in my tank. At this one ridiculous little frag. It takes me back to a lot of great memories. And I'm looking forward to watching this little frag growth into an incredible colony- and sharing it with fellow reefers who still remember- or even those who've never kept it, and just think that it's cool, like I do.

This sort of nostalgia isn't limited to corals and reef tanks, of course. The freshwater side of the hobby abounds with numerous examples.

One of the neatest things about the freshwater side of the aquarium hobby is that the fishes which we play with are often the same species and varieties which have been around for generations. Our parents- and their parents before them- kept these same fishes!

When we visit the local fish store, we can see a whole host of fishes, many of which we may have kept at one point or another during our lives. They not only take us back to our hobby beginnings, but draw a direct line back to generations of hobbyists who came before us.

When I was a kid, and received my first aquarium (a metal framed, 5-gallon aquarium), I can remember the incredible excitement it caused. I could barely sleep the night before, and I think I was up at 4:30 AM for a week straight (much to my parent's chagrin, no doubt) after setting it up in my bedroom! I just couldn't wait to check out the fishes each morning!

Like every kid who kept tropical fishes, my tank had plastic plants, a goofy underwater castle ornament, some rainbow gravel, and an assortment of fishes that was probably inappropriate, slightly excessive, and no doubt, incompatible. My one secret weapon is that my dad was a seasoned fancy guppy breeder, so I had a ready source of in-house advice, assistance, and freshly-hatched brine shrimp!

The thing I remember the most about this tank were some of the fishes, and the joy and excitement they brought me. To this day, I still look at these fishes with a sense of nostalgia, and they evoke a sense of enchantment which other fishes just can't quite bring.

I only half-jokingly refer to them as "comfort fishes", as they evoke the same emotions in me as "comfort foods", like Mac and Cheese, freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies, or hamburgers do in others. 

What were these fishes? Well, let's look at 'em:

 

First and foremost is the Neon Tetra.

No other fish evoked the whole tropical fish "experience" to me as much as this one. Its exotic colors, small size, shoaling behavior, and hardiness made it- still make it- one of the aquarium hobby's best overall fishes.  I remember how I felt like I had "arrived" when I obtained my first group of 6.

Another fish that I kept form the beginning, which simply makes me smile every time I see it- one that I think I want to keep again soon, btw- is the Zebra Danio. Yeah, they swim obscenely fast, display little in the way of individual personality, and shit like mad, yet they absolutely take me back to that first aquarium, and never fail to make me smile!

So "old school", yet so alluring.

The Glass Catfish (now Kryptopterus vitreolusis a bit more of a "serious" fish, but to a kid, the "X- Ray" thing it has going on is simply irresistible!  Of course, I kept the fish completely incorrectly- singly, as opposed to in a small group. Yeah, my specimen, "Reggie", was a bit boisterous, and occasionally harassed my little Tetras (lucky he didn't eat them!), but it was one of my favorite fishes of all time! And this is another fish which I'd like to keep in a proper biotope-inspired aquarium soon. 

I had a real thing for Barbs back in the day.

The Gold Barb was to me one of the best. Sure, it looks to most people to be little more than a common goldfish, and indeed, is often called that by non-fish types, but the "barbels" are the dead giveaway, and to a 7-year-old kid, they were a legit "tropical fish" that deserved a place in my tank! They still are, and they still do!

Peaceful, active, and "cute", they were a true favorite!

And then there is the Pristella.

This fish is probably one of the more under-appreciated Tetras out there, but it has the distinction of being the first egg-layer that ever spawned for me! That makes it awesome! And a school of them, swimming in and out of a bunch of Cabomba I had in this tank (my first live plant, after Sagittaria) used to captivate me all the time!

I kept some recently, in fact, and loved them just as much as I did when I was a kid. THAT says something about this fish, huh?

Of course, my list of "comfort fishes" would simply be incomplete if I failed to include the Guppy! My very first fish was a guppy. My dad used to give me some baby guppies in a bowl to have as fishy "boarders" for a while (he'd rotate them into his rearing tank as they grew)...I learned the art and perfected the skills of feeding and raising fry because of those little guys, an seeing them mature into beauties was something that I will never forget!

No doubt, everyone who's ever kept an aquarium as a kid has the same type of feelings for various fishes. They are part of who we are as both as a person and as an aquarist, and they will forever influence our hobby. No matter how far we advance in the hobby, the fishes of our childhood take us immediately back to those wonderous days of our hobby beginnings, which ignited a lifelong flame of passion for keeping and breeding tropical fishes.

I still keep fishes like "Flame Tetras" and Pristella.

However, they are in aquariums which bare far more resemblance to their natural environment than I ever maintained them in before- and they are far nicer, healthier, and happier than the ones I've maintained in the past. Not a week goes by when hobbyists, seeing pics of my tank on social media, ask me what fishes they are...ann each time, they're like, "Really? Pristella? I used to have those when I was a kid..."

Even the most "bread and butter" fishes seem to do better, look better, breed more readily- when we keep them in conditions similar to their natural environment. This is not a secret, nor is it some mystery concept. We all know this. And that's what's kind of cool. We can still play with the same fishes-and corals- that we had when we were a kid, yet in a more sophisticated manner, and still derive endless enjoyment from them.

Love it.

Let those fishes, corals, and tanks take you back- and propel you forward, in the process.

Stay devoted. Stay tenacious. Stay excited. Stay diligent. Stay enthralled...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

August 05, 2022

0 comments


The game. Revisted.

When it cones to our hobby work, I believe that we have two choices:

We can resist Nature’s advances, and attempt to circumvent or thwart Her processes of decomposition, growth, and evolution. We can scrape away unsightly biofilms, we can remove detritus and algae. We can trim our plants to look neat and orderly. 

Or, we can accept Her seemingly random, relentless march.

We can make a conscious decision to embrace the biofilms, fungal growth, decomposing leaves, and tinted water. We start this by accepting the look, and continue from there.

It should come as no surprise that botanical method aquariums simply appear unusual. We fans celebrate aquariums modeled after Nature as it really is, in form and function; filled  with randomness, intricacy and yeah, even a bit of mystery. 

It's the "game."

That may sound dramatic, but those of us who play with this stuff have come to realize that botanical method aquariums simply have different "operating parameters" compared to pretty much any other type of system you’ve ever kept. Like any aquarium, you need to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the characteristics, phases, and nuances of this type of approach.

The sheer variety and the appearance of botanical materials is astounding.

Beyond aesthetics

One of the most important things you need to do when contemplating the creation of a botanical method aquarium is to adopt some different ways of looking at things...we call them mental shifts.

The biggest mental shift required is the understanding that botanical materials break down as they impart tannins and other substances into the water. A well-manicured botanical method aquarium will be reshaped by Nature as the leaves, seed pods, and other botanical materials are subject to biological degradation.

This is strange for us as hobbyists, who live to control everything- yet it’s something that our fishes are completely familiar with. They’ve adapted over eons to co-exist with and utilize these naturally-occurring materials as hiding places, areas to forage, and sites to spawn, as a part of their daily existence. 

Thought about from such a standpoint, you can contemplate a more basic question about our hobby: “What is the purpose of an 'aquascape' in the aquarium, besides just aesthetics?” 

Well, it’s to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel at home, right? The botanical-method aquarium embraces this idea thoroughly on several fronts. 

We call the idea "functional aesthetics."

Botanicals as "acidifiers"- The great misconception...

Many hobbyists ask us about utilizing leaves and other botanicals to lower the pH in their aquariums, and this opens up the proverbial "can of worms!"

There seems to be a fair amount of misconception about what botanicals can and cannot do to the pH of the water in your aquarium. 

I field a lot of questions like, “How many leaves do I need to lower the pH and hardness in my Betta tank?” If only it were so simple! In reality, Nature offers few ‘plug and play’ solutions.

Many botanicals do release acids that can lower the pH, but only if the water already has a low enough carbonate hardness (KH). Most botanicals won’t do much to significantly reduce the pH if you start with hard, alkaline water, as the KH will act as a buffer, preventing the acids from reducing the pH.

So, the reality is that the impact of botanical materials on the pH of the aquarium in most circumstances is surprisingly minimal. 

In general, it’s fairly safe to state that soft water is usually acidic, and hard water is usually alkaline. However, that's about the only generalization I'd care to make about water, lol.

And then there's an assumption many hobbyists make about the color of the water in botanical method aquariums: "If it's brown, the pH must be acidic!"

Note that the color of water — even the tint from leaves — is  no real indication of pH or hardness. This is a misconception that we need to dispense with once and for all. Color is NOT AN INDICATION of the pH or hardness of water. Period. End of story!

If you really want to create soft, acidic water with botanicals, use RO or deionized water — your botanicals will have a lot more ‘play’ in terms of how they can affect the pH. Also note that, in general, botanicals alone will NOT affect KH. 

All that they do bring...

One of the things you’ll experience when first adding botanicals is an initial burst of tannins, which provide a visible tint to the water. If you’re not using activated carbon or some other filtration media, this tint will be considerably more pronounced. 

You might also experience some initial cloudiness. This could be dust, or lignin and other compounds released from the tissues botanicals. It may even be a bloom of bacteria and microorganisms. It usually passes quickly with minimal, if any intervention, and not everyone experiences this.

But one thing that unites owners of botanical-style aquaria is the appearance of that gooey, slimy, stringy stuff known as ‘biofilm.’

Biofilm. Even the word conjures up an image of something that you really don’t want in your tank. Something dirty, nasty, and potentially detrimental. 

To be candid, the dictionary definition is not going to win over many ‘haters’: bi·o·film  (noun) — a thin, slimy and usually resistant film of bacteria that adheres to a surface.

Commonly-encountered examples of biofilm include the plaque that forms on teeth, and the slime that forms on surfaces in water. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

Biofilm is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like they would in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a mother lode of organic material and surface area
for these biofilms to propagate, and that’s what happens — just like in Nature. Many fishes and shrimp will feed directly on these biofilms.

The surge of biofilm growth is typically a passing phase, and can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks before it subsides on its own. It will never fully ‘go away’ in a botanical-style tank, but then you don’t want it to. Its benefits are numerous, and to be welcomed!

Understand that biofilms are present in every aquarium, to some degree. Furthermore, they often go hand-in-hand with the appearance of fungi. Not the ones that we vilify for attacking our fish or their eggs, though. It’s easy to just heap them in with the ‘bad guys’ and the nasty implications they have. 

Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate on new and hospitable surfaces. 

These aquatic fungi are intimately involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. 

Fungus is nothing to fear here.

And, of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise. Anyone who has ever soaked a new piece of aquatic wood for an aquarium can attest to this.

Fungi colonize wood because it offers them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin — the major components of wood and botanical materials — are degraded by fungi, which possess enzymes that can digest these materials. 

Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams. Fishes and invertebrates that live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves, and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well. In fact, if you research gut content analysis of many species of fishes, fungi is a significant component of it!

And, for the environment in general, aquatic fungi (aka "aquatic hyphomycytes") can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy locked up inside it available to feeding animals in these habitats.

While not attractive looking to many, fungi are incredibly useful, and they play along with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs. Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff.

Botanicals can be beautiful or ugly, pending your own views.

The long game...

Typically, botanicals will begin to soften and break down over a period of several weeks or months. As an aquarist, you have the option to leave them in as they degrade, or remove them — whatever your aesthetic sensibilities tell you to do! 

Many of us leave our botanicals in our tanks until they have completely decomposed, utilizing them as almost some sort of botanical mulch, which serves as a sort of supplemental food resource, especially for fry. 

So, what are the implications for managing this type of system?

Remember, you’re dealing with a tank filled with decomposing botanical materials. Good overall husbandry is necessary to keep your tank stable and healthy, and that includes regular water changes.

During water changes, I typically siphon out any debris that has moved where I don’t want it, but for the most part, I’m merely siphoning water from down low in the water column. Removing too much of the decomposing material and the resulting detritus can damage the microbiome of organisms which you're trying to foster.

What’s a good water-exchanging regimen?

I’d love to see you employ 10% per week...It’s what I’ve done for decades, and it’s served me- and my animals- very well! Regardless of how frequently you exchange your water, or how much of it you exchange- just do them consistently. And of course, as previously discussed, don't go crazy siphoning every bit of detritus out during the process.

Remember, that in an aquarium which encourages the growth of bacteria, fungi, copepods, etc., the organic material contained in detritus becomes part of the "food web." And everybody up the food chain can benefit from the stuff.

So, by going "full ham" and siphoning every last speck of detritus in your tank, you're essentially breaking this chain, and denying organisms at multiple levels the chance to benefit from it! Yeah, over-zealously siphoning this material from your tank effectively destroys an established community of microorganisms which serve to maintain high water quality in the closed environment of an aquarium!

This is a super-important point to remember!

In an ironic twist, I believe that it's far more common for those "anomalous" ammonia spikes and such that aquarists report periodically, to  have their origin in over-zealous cleaning of aquariums and filter media, as opposed to the accumulation of detritus itself. So, yeah-taking out all of the "fish shit" is actually removing a complex microbiome that's keeping your tank healthy!

Even something as seemingly "mundane" as the way we maintain our botanical-method aquariums requires us to make some "mental shifts" to appreciate our methodology more thoroughly, doesn't it?

It's all part of the game...

Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay observant. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

 

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