Here we go...the "kick off to the Holiday Season" is just about here, and maybe this is the year you'll receive the aquarium-related gift that you always wanted!
Or, maybe not.
Huh? "What do you mean, Scott?"
Well, for the popular fish geek, the Holiday Season is actually a virtual "minefield" fought with danger! I mean, the possibilities for "bad outcomes" are kind of high, lol.
Maybe, just maybe, someone you know decided to get you a fish for the Holiday. On the surface, this is a really nice gesture- a thoughtful idea for the fish geek in the household. Only problem is, usually the person buying the gift is NOT a fish geek, and typically has no clue about what's involved in stocking and maintaining a fish tank.
It's probably the ultimate nightmare scenario for the fish geek!
(Image by Citron. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Usually, it's accompanied by what is a very thoughtful, well-intended sentiment, like, "Your Uncle and I know you love the fishes, and this one reminded us of the ones you see when you swim in the ocean!"
What this means to you is that, despite the fact that your collection consists entirely of tiny rare Apistos, you're now the proud owner of a juvenile Arapaima or a young Asian Arowanna! Or, your docile Pencilfish species tank now has to host a baby Tiger Datnoid ("The guy at the store said he was super chill...")!
It could be worse, right?
Yeah, I suppose..
Even more nightmarish would be the super-inexperienced fish keeper who thinks he/she knows what he/she is doing, and what you'd want, cause, you know- you're both "fish people!": "He's so friendly, and he's eating pellets! Bob caught him down in Florida two years ago, and he's outgrowing his tank. Don't you have a 55 gallon tank? That's a big upgrade for him!"
Those crazy socks and iTunes gift cards look way more attractive now, huh?
And then there are those misguided, but well-intentioned friends who know you keep fishes...but perhaps they don't understand that there's a difference between fresh water and marine systems, and...
"That plant would look so nice in your African Cichlid tank, so we just had to get it for you!"
I suppose not all holiday gifts from non-aquarists are all this crazy- this bad, but...
Much like the fruitcake of holiday legend, there must have been that one fish-related gift you received- a fish, plant, coral, or piece of equipment- that totally rocked your world, and, despite the best intentions of the giver, turned into a pretty serious headache for you.
Right? Like, perhaps the right piece of gear, but maybe the wrong size- or the wrong version, or...
"I got it on e-Bay for you...They say it's so easy to use! It's gonna really help you do that stuff you do with your tank- and it works in European electrical outlets, too!"
Or, the off-brand, sketchy combination lighted electric siphon hose/algae scrubber device will now forever be a part of your equipment collection...Or maybe you received a pair of Albino Oscars for a "gift" (yeah, it happened to me once)! ou get the picture.
Now sure, these are highly "nuanced" examples of what could happen...Stuff that would put you in a weird situation at best, and a real bind at worst. How did you handle the real situations that might have arisen out of a well-intended, but entirely inappropriate "gift?"
I mean, we're all grateful for gifts- we all should be blessed to have people who care enough about us to even give such gifts, but...
What did you do with your "gift?"
Did you end up keeping the "fishy fruitcake"; make it work in some way- or did you somehow manage to trade it back for some Rasbora and 4 packs of frozen food at the LFS?
And, if you did- how did you manage that feat?
Or, did this gift somehow work out and turn into something that you actually kept and enjoyed?
I mean, it happens, right?
Let's hear your fave "gift that keeps on giving" stories!
Yeah, the Holiday Season is coming...
Stay Merry. Stay open-minded. Stay gracious. Stay prepared...And Stay Wet.
As we move further along on the path towards enlightenment in the world of botanical-style aquariums, I am constantly thinking about the "how's and why's" of what we do.
Now, we have evolved a lot in our "technique"- you know, stuff like how to prepare botanical materials, the pace at which we add them, how to gauge the impact of these additions, etc.
And, of course, we are also getting pretty good at accepting and understanding the progression of what happens in these aquariums- you know, the formation of biofilms, the tinting of the water, and their ultimate decomposition. We are going beyond just looking at these things and freaking out, and attempting to understand what causes these things, how they form, and- most important- what benefits they can bring to our aquariums.
One of the questions which I am often asked by the uninitiated is, "Why do you add this stuff to your aquariums?" A truly foundational question, of course- one which literally makes us think through the entire process.
Obviously, we could go into the answer in great detail, but I think that we've more or less covered the "why?" part of the equation since day one in this column, so I won't go on and on about that. Suffice it to say, we play with botanicals in our aquariums because they help us to replicate- in some manner, the processes and conditions which occur in natural aquatic systems.
It's as simple- and complex- as that.
It's all about replicating the look and function of Nature, and most important- helping to understand why.
And the most important thing is not to get too far out in front of this stuff and make assumptions. Although we can replicate some aspects of Nature, we don't have the technical means, at least at a hobby level, to verify all of the impacts of utilizing botanical materials in our aquariums. To that end, you'll notice that, in this column and elsewhere, you won't see us making wild, broad assertions about what botanicals can and cannot do in aquariums.
We can report upon the impacts that we can see and quantify in our aquariums, and research the potential impacts that these materials have. We can also study the botanical materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and attempt to understand their influences on them. We can ask questions, entertain hypothesis, and experiment.
However, we don't make assertions about them, and we discourage our community not to, either. We can't- we shouldn't.
I hate exaggerations, the perpetuation of myths, and the attribution of capabilities to techniques, products, etc. in the hobby which are only marginally based in fact. Especially when these ideas are pushed out by people who may not have all of the facts, the personal experience, and/or the background to back it up.
These things become very detrimental to the hobby.
Now look, I realize that many of these things are offered up with very good intentions; not with some "nefarious purpose" in mind. I mean, sure, sometimes you'll see someone who has a vested interest in selling something proffer these kinds of things, which flat-out sucks. I think it's far more beneficial in the long run, to simply acknowledge that they don't have 100% certainty about the benefits of their product, but that there are interesting results and potential benefits, and to encourage responsible experimentation.
That's the lane we've operated in, and it's led to a tremendous amount of participation and good information being created for the hobby. We as a brand and us as a community share our success, challenges, and outright failures openly. We all learn together. We don't simply "parrot each other"-regurgitating secondhand information- and that's great!
Unfortunately, in the aquarium hobby, it's not uncommon to see straight-up "regurgitations" by otherwise well-intended hobbyists, making strong assertions or statements about this stuff- good or bad- who simply didn't bother to do their "due diligence" and research the facts for themselves before pushing it out on the web with personal commentary. Often, these people have no firsthand knowledge or experience with the stuff they are pushing out! You know, the aquarium equivalent of "re-tweeting" something just because.
Well, that sucks, too. Right?
It sucks because it doesn't really add to the body of knowledge we are trying so hard to accumulate. It sucks because it can perpetuate second-hand knowledge that may or may not be accurate.
As a guy who sells leaves and botanicals for a living, I've had to be careful to not regurgitate the observations of others without personal verification, or ascribe miraculous attributes to the stuff I sell- because it's not only not helpful- it can be downright misleading- and certainly counterproductive for the hobby and industry by doing so!
And I see a lot of counterproductive garbage being put out there about leaves and botanicals at scale. It's important to address some of this stuff from time to time, especially when it's about our use of botanicals in natural-style aquariums. We have an obligation, of sorts, to elevate our practice of utilizing natural materials in aquariums, and that often means diving just a bit deeper when seemingly "too good to be true" assertions are made.
Here is one of the most common misunderstood "botanical claims":
Catappa leaves can "cure fish diseases."
This is one which has been perpetuated for years (often by people who sell leaves online and elsewhere).
It bothers me.
Although, it actually has some validity to it. I said "some" validity- because we in the hobby and industry tend to selectively "cherry pick" stuff we like from science and run with that, often overlooking some of the more sobering realities in favor of the "sizzle."
Clarification is required.
It has been known for many years by science that botanicals like catappa leaves (and others) do have compounds in their tissues which do have some potential "medicinal" functions; compounds like saponins, phytosterols, punicalagins, etc. Fancy names that sound really cool- these compounds found in Catappa leaves are often bounced around on hobby sites as the "magic elixir" for a variety of fish ailments and maladies.
That's where the danger of regurgitation sneaks in.
Now, I can't entirely beat the crap out of this idea that Catappa leaves have some health benefits for fishes, as these compounds are known to provide certain health benefits...in humans. Homo spaiens... And for a long time, it was anecdotally assumed that they did the same for fishes. Now, sure, humans aren't fishes, as we all know...Yet, believe it or not, there have been some studies that show benefits to fishes imparted by substances in Catappa and other leaves.
I stumbled across a university study conducted in Thailand with Tilapia which concluded that a Catappa extract was "useful" for eradicating the nasty exoparasite, Trichodina, and found that the growth of a couple of strains of Aeromonas hydrophila was also inhibited by dosing Catappa leaf extract at a concentration of 0.5 mg/ml and up. In addition, this solution was shown to reduce the fungal infection in Tilapia eggs!
And it is now widely accepted by science that humic substances (such as those present in Catappa leaves and other botanical materials) are thought to have a wide range of health benefits for fishes in all types of habitats. We've covered this before in a great guest blog by Vince Dollar, and the implications for the hobby and industry are profound. Although they are not the "cure all" that many vendors have touted them as, leaves and other botanicals do possess a wide range of substances which can have significantly beneficial impact on fish health.
So, these claims are not entirely erroneous; however, it's important NOT to make over-inflated assumptions about Catappa, and to assume that they are "miraculous things" that we can add to our tanks to do achieve smashing success at curing sick fishes. Just because we add leaves and such to our tanks, doesn't mean that they are imparting therapeutic benefits to our fishes.
The studies involved an extract of catappa leaves at a specific dosage- a lot more "precise" than simply tossing some leaves into a tank, right?
Rather, I would imagine that, as Catappa leaves and other botanical materials break down in our aquariums, they impart some of these beneficial compounds into the water, perhaps fostering a more healthy environment for fishes which are accustomed to blackwater conditions. Perhaps they perform an almost "prophylactic" role at preventing disease and supporting overall fish health, as opposed to functioning as some sort of "cure all."
And that leads to questions, of course:
What "dosage" do we apply? How many leaves steeped in how much water yields a concentrated solution of 0.5 mg/ml or more? How long do these materials need to be in the aquarium to accomplish this? And is there truly some measure of effectiveness?
We're learning the answers to some of these questions as a community, aren't we? I think so, but we still cannot say with 100% certainty that it's the botanicals in our aquariums which can cause all of the positive benefits which our community has reported with botanical-style aquariums.
Breaking through the barrier of assumptions, market hyperbole, and fluff that has often clouded this tinted world before we all came together and made a real effort to understand the function as well as the aesthetics of this dynamic, engrossing hobby niche will only benefit the hobby as a whole.
Let's keep working together to push the state of the hobby farther than ever, backed up with facts and personal experiences! When we aren't sure about something, there is absolutely no shame in saying, "We're just not sure..."
Everybody wins that way.
And there is something really interesting about our "work."
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 by scientists and ecologists.
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! 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! This is where it gets pretty interesting.
Here's an interesting example of making "home aquarium field observations" based upon work done by scientists:
It's about our old nemesis, biofilm.
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-style, blackwater 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?
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 column? 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?
What are the implications of biofilms as a sort of "nutrient export mechanism?"
Oh, and here is another interesting tangential observation which scientists made in a study I stumbled upon:
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-style aquariums.
Obviously, this is a hypothesis which directly impacts our practices and techniques. One could say that I'm "cherry picking" this stuff from scientific literature. True, but I'm "cherry picking" it not because it supports some narrative of mine. Rather, it opens up the opportunity to correlate things which happen in the wild habitats with those which happen in our aquariums.
Exploration and consideration- two important endeavors.
The topics mentioned here are just a few of the many interesting ones that we can explore as hobbyists- helping to advance the state of the art of botanical-style aquariums, and dispel some of the regurgitated "myths" that seem to abound.
By moving forward in a measured manner, and sharing our firsthand experiences freely, we create a vibrant, exciting area of the hobby, where everyone who participates can add to the amazing body of knowledge.
Stay involved. Stay curious. Stay open-minded. Stay honest. Stay diligent. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.
The aquarium hobby gives a lot to us, and demands a lot from us.
It'll challenge your skills, demand your knowledge, and tantalize your senses. And of course, it will test your patience. And the botanical-style aquarium that we favor- it's a real test of all of our discipline.
It's not an "instant gratification" sort of thing, right? It requires us to apply enormous patience.
This is, of course, something that we've discussed many times before, but it deserves yet another look.
Are you one of those people who loves to have stuff right now? The kind of person who just wants your aquarium "finished"- or do you relish the journey of establishing and evolving your little microcosm?
I'm just gonna go out on a limb here and postulate that you're part of the latter group.
I'm not sure exactly what it is, but when it comes to the aquarium hobby...I find myself playing what is called in many endeavors (like business, sports, etc.) a "long game."
I'm not looking for instant gratification.
I know-we all know- that good stuff often takes time to happen. I'm certainly not afraid to wait for results. Well, I'm not just sitting around in the "lotus position", either- waiting, anyways. However, I'm not expecting immediate results from stuff. Rather, I am okay with doing the necessary groundwork, nurturing the project along, and seeing the results happen over time.
Yeah, that's a "long game."
If you're into tropical fish keeping, it's almost a necessity to have this sort of patience, isn't it? I mean, sure, some of us are anxious to get that aquascape done, get the fishes in there, fire up the plumbing in the fish room, etc. However, we all seem to understand that to get good results- truly satisfying, legitimate results- things just take time. Yeah, I'd love it if some "annual" killifish eggs hatched in one month instead of 7-9 months, for example, but...
I wouldn't complain, but I do understand that there is the world the way it is; and the world the way we'd like it to be!
I've learned in the many years that I've been playing with blackwater tanks that the tank just doesn't get where you want it overnight. Or even after a week or two... Initially, you'll see that burst of tint in the water, an "earthy vibe", and see some of the materials you place in the tank breaking down, but for a while, your carefully conceived aquascape just looks like a stack of wood with some leaves and seed pods thrown on the bottom, doesn't it?
Perhaps almost "clinical" in appearance; not quite "there" just yet, huh?
We wait for Nature to do some of the work...
We can scape well. We can manage the tank effectively; engage in best practices to keep it functioning and progressing in a healthy manner...But we cannot rush Nature, right?
It simply takes time.
Time for the bacterial and fungal populations to grow and soften the botanicals in your aquarium. Time for the water chemistry to stabilize. Time for the aquascape to take on a more "mature", established look.
It's not really 100% in our control.
Which is kind of cool, actually.
There is that certain "randomness" about a botanical-style aquarium- or ANY aquarium, for that matter- which makes the whole process just that more engrossing, if you ask me.
We, as hobbyists, just need to supply the patience.
Some of us are impatient, however..which begs the question:
Are you an “impatient fish geek?”
I ask that not to get some "secret marketing data" that we can use to exploit your psychological weaknesses for my own nefarious purposes (hmm..but that does sound like an interesting idea..). Rather, I’m curious because, as I asserted above, I think that most hobbyists are not.
Usually. Okay, maybe- sometimes…
As aquarists, we’re taught that nothing good ever happens quickly in a fish tank, and I’d tend to agree with that. Most of us don't make really rash decisions, and go crazily into some tangent at the first sign of an anomaly...
That encapsulates many of us as hobbyists.
However, as consumers, I think us fish geeks do sometimes make things happen quickly with last-minute purchasing decisions! We tend to deviate just a bit from our normal patient attitude and "long game", and often go "off plan."
We get a bit...impulsive!
When I co-owned a coral propagation facility, I dealt with lots of hobbyists every day who were buying corals and fishes, and I was often surprised at the rather odd additional purchases that people make to “fill out” their orders- you know, to hit our free shipping level, get an extra piece of coral to share with a friend, or just to “scratch that itch” to try a new species…It happened just often enough to make me think that fish geeks are not necessarily impulsive, but that we are "strategic."
In other words, the purchase may not be something we would start our order with, but it "justifies" purchasing at the end in order to hit that free shipping number, etc.
Logical, on the surface, right?
However, being a lifelong fish geek and student of the "culture" of aquarium keeping, I think many of the reefers I dealt with really wanted that extra piece in the first place.
A lot of times, they’d ask, in passing, at the end of an order or other conversation, a seemingly innocuous question, like, “So, are those Montipora really that hard to keep in good color?” I would a sneaking feeling that they intended buy the coral anyways, and maybe just needed some "assurance" that it was a cool piece, or within their skill set to maintain, or something like that. The so-called "impulse buy" was almost always something totally unrelated to their primary order (for example, 5 zoanthids, and then an Acropora added at the last second)!
So very like us fish geeks, isn’t it?
You see this at fish club raffles and auctions all the time- when the hobbyist who's bred like 300 species of fishes and swears that she's done trying new ones- ends up feverishly bidding for some obscure cichlid or wild livebearer in the heat of the moment- always done under the pretext of "helping the club out"-seemingly casting aside her "mandate" NOT to get any more fish!
And then, of course, there are those of us like me, who are the polar opposite of this...
I vividly recall driving my LFS employees crazy when I was younger, because I’d spend literally hours in the store, scrutinizing every aspect of a fish before I’d pull the trigger…or not (that must be why I drove ‘em crazy!). I would look at every fin ray, every gill movement…I’d look at every "twitch" and "scratch" the fish performed and correlate it with known disease symptoms versus regular behaviors for the said species…
I would sometimes even bring my reference material (like Axelreod’s or Baensch's books and maybe the early Albert Thiel stuff (after the dawn of the “reef” age), and notes from Bob Fenner’s books in my hand later on, and would just geek out.
Yeah. Weird. Like, super geeky.
Of course, I would second guess everything the LFS guy said because “the books” said otherwise, even though the employees worked with these animals every day of their lives. My first brush with aquarium-keeping “dogma”, I suppose, and it was an example of a certain type of stubbornness that I've since abandoned.
I was a complete dork!
My, how things change! (well, the "dogma" part...I'm still a dork, I think...)
I knew at an early age that I’d never be an “impulsive fish geek."
I learned patience right away.
I had no choice.
I think that in my case, it likely came about because, when you’re a kid, you have a 10-gallon tank and $5.67 in change that you’ve painstakingly saved for months to spend. You have to make every dime count.
You need to be absolutely sure of your purchases.
I was very thorough! Like, obsessively so.
Even as an adult, with a 225-gallon tank, and much more money to spend, I still found myself doing the same thing (okay, maybe with my iPhone in tow, opened to fishbase.com or what not, instead of some well-worn reference book).
I guess I'm at the other extreme.
It can take me like a year to stock a 50-gallon tank fully...
You should see me when I go to the wholesalers here in L.A….it could take me half a day to pick like 5 fish. At Unique Corals, we worked with a lot of collectors and mariculturists overseas, so we had only so much control over what we received. Guys like me had to relax...
However, the cool thing was that we had built up personal relationships to the point where these guys more or less knew our tastes, and would often throw the fishes in the boxes with corals, so that was actually easier than going to a wholesaler’s facility! (well, better than sending ME there, anyways! it could take half a day to get like 20 fishes...)
This "anti-impulsive" thing isn't just limited to fishes, in my case...
Equipment choices are even more subject to analysis and absurd scrutiny, because hey- how often do you purchase a heater or a lighting system? ( OK, wait- don’t answer that). But seriously, when you’re sending the big money on a critical piece of life-support equipment, you want to get it right! One of the things I love most about the internet is that most sites will analyze the shit out of almost anything, from an algae magnet to a digital refractometer, etc.
It's a source of great information...and even the act of just reading this stuff will help you "slow down" a bit, right?
Useful stuff for many of us- essential for anal-retentive fish geeks like myself.
Of course, impulsiveness can permeate every aspect of being a fish geek, including setup and configuration of your tank. I may not be overly impulsive in terms of additions and purchases, but I CAN be "spur-of-the-moment" on tank decisions.-sometimes to my own detriment!
Now, what exactly do I mean by “tank decisions?”
For example, I’ll be scraping algae or some other mundane maintenance chore in my tank and suddenly, I’ll notice a rock or driftwood branch that seems “not right” somehow…”Hmm, what if I move this guy over here…?” Of course, this almost always leads to a spontaneous “refreshing” of the aquascape, often taking hours to complete. Somehow, I find this relaxing. Weird. So it’s entirely possible to be analytical and calculating on some aspects of aquarium keeping, and spontaneous on others.
I believe that this dichotomy actually applies to many of us.
And of course, there are aquarists who are entirely impulsive, which is why you see entire 200-gallon tanks full of every fish imaginable, with selections from all over the world poking out from every nook and cranny. (Or, as one of my hardcore "freshwater-only" friends asserted, "That's why there are reef tanks..." Ouch! )
Of course, I cannot, in all honesty, say anything truly negative about impulsive hobbyists because some of these types keep many of us in business, lol!
Besides, it's fun to go "off plan" now and again, right?
The "long game" is familiar to many of us...and of course, so is the love of the "impulse buy" or the "quick-reconfigure." And of course, I couldn't resist analyzing the hell out of a seemingly arcane topic like this.
After all, I am told that I'm your "morning coffee" or "afternoon tea", I have a certain duty to bring up this kind of stuff here, right?
This hobby demands a perfect blend of patience and impulsiveness...
My advice is to stay impulsive, while staying patient simultaneously...Stay crazy, motivated, fun-loving, adventurous, and just a bit weird.
And of course,
If there is one aspect of our botanical-style aquariums which fascinates me, it's the way they facilitate the natural processes of life- specifically, decomposition.
We use this term a lot around here...What, precisely does it mean?
de·com·po·si·tion- dēˌkämpəˈziSH(ə)n -the process by which organic substances are broken down into simpler organic matter.
A very apt descriptor, if you ask me!
We add leaves and botanicals to our aquariums, and over time, they start to soften, break up, and ultimately, decompose. This is a fundamental part of what makes our botanical-style aquariums work. Decomposition of leaves and botanicals not only imparts the substances contained within them (lignin, organic acids, and tannins, just to name a few) to the water- it serves to nourish bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms and crustaceans, facilitating basic "food web" within the botanical-style aquarium- if we allow it to!
Decomposition of plant matter-leaves and botanicals- occurs in several stages.
It starts with leaching -soluble carbon compounds are liberated during this process. Another early process is physical breakup or fragmentation of the plant material into smaller pieces, which have greater surface area for colonization by microbes.
And of course, the ultimate "state" to which leaves and other botanical materials "evolve" to is our old friend...detritus.
And of course, that very word- as we've mentioned many times here- has frightened and motivated many hobbyists over the years into removing as much of the stuff as possible from their aquariums whenever and wherever it appears.
Siphoning detritus is a sort of "thing" that we are asked about near constantly. This makes perfect sense, of course, because our aquariums- by virtue of the materials they utilize- produce substantial amounts of this stuff.
Now, the idea of "detritus" takes on different meanings in our botanical-style aquariums...Our "aquarium definition" of "detritus" is typically agreed to be dead particulate matter, including fecal material, dead organisms, mucous, etc.
And bacteria and other microorganisms will colonize this stuff and decompose/remineralize it, essentially "completing" the cycle.
In the reef aquarium world, where I have operated for decades, you'll see a lot of hobbyists freak out about "detritus" and such accumulating in the aquarium, and they blame filter socks and media for all sorts of problems in their aquariums. I understand this concern for water quality, but I think it sort of places emphasis on the wrong part of the equation; that is, what exactly is accumulating, and why? Uneaten food? Bad! Need to be more careful here. Fish waste? Unavoidable to some extent (unless you lower population density/food inputs).
You get the idea...
I think it's all relative, though.
In a botanical-style aquarium, we tend to see a fair amount of fine "bits and pieces" of decomposing leaves and botanicals accumulate in our tanks- on the substrate, in the leaf litter bed, and in mechanical filter media. This stuff, although somewhat unsightly to many if allowed to accumulate in the aquarium, is essentially harmless...Inert.
And, it's just sort of "there", if you know what I mean. And, other than potentially being visually distracting, this material is not really detrimental- I mean, you want it in your system (at least in its "original" form). It's what imparts the tannins, humic substances, and other desirable compounds into our water.
And is it really that "unsightly?"
I'm not completely convinced that it is. The look of the broken-down botanical material isn't beloved by everyone, but it IS a natural thing, right?
Again, if it's uneaten food, you need to figure out a more accurate feeding approach. "Detritus" in general, in my opinion, gets a kind of a "bad rap", as the bulk of it is really broken down already by the time it accumulates. Sure, in systems with large, predatory cichlids and messy eaters, you're likely to see a lot more than you would in a lightly-stocked tank with say, Endler's Livebearers, small Rasbora, or Gouramis, but still...do most of us really overfeed or under-filter THAT much?
I don't think so.
Of course, if you see uneaten food and such accumulating in your tank, it looks crappy. I think it's important to look beyond just the aesthetics. However, do you have phosphate or nitrate issues as a result of accumulating organics from this stuff, or is some of it- enough of it- being utilized by bacteria and other "unseen residents" of your tank that it's not really a "problem" from an environmental standpoint?
As we all know, regular water exchanges are a great way to keep this balance, as you've no doubt have had beaten into your head since your aquarium-keeping "infancy." And sure, you need to test your water to get a "snapshot" of what's happening in your tank.
So...we're back to the beginning, yet again.
Is "detritus"- a menace or benefit? Or perhaps, something in between? Like biofilms, fungal growth, aufwuchs, and decomposition- is it something that is inevitable, natural- perhaps even beneficial in our aquariums? Or, is it something that we should learn to embrace and appreciate? All part of a natural process and yes- aesthetic- that we have to understand to appreciate?
My personal thoughts? Keep it clean, but don't get overly concerned about the material breaking down in your tank. Take it out...leave it in...it's your call.
Just get it into your head that it's the "end product" of a natural process- one which occurs everywhere on the planet. One which fuels the proliferation of life.
Embrace the natural processes which occur in your system. We mention this over and over and over, because it's so very important.
Understand that the process of decomposition is a fundamental, necessary function that occurs in our aquariums on a constant basis. Realize that in the botanical-style aquarium, we are, on some levels, attempting to replicate the natural habitats- and botanical materials are just part of the equation.
And of course, these botanical materials not only offer enhanced aesthetics- they offer enrichment of the aquatic habitat through their release of tannins, humic acids, vitamins, etc. as they decompose- just as they do in nature.
Leaves and such are simply not permanent additions to our 'scapes, and if we wish to enjoy them in their more "intact" forms, we will need to replace them as they start to break down.
This is not a bad thing. It just requires us to "do some stuff" if we are expecting a specific aesthetic.
Ahh, aesthetics...Much like flowers in a garden, leaves will have a period of time where they are in all their glory, followed by the gradual, inevitable encroachment of biological decay.
At this phase, you may opt to leave them in the aquarium to enrich the environment further and offer a new aesthetic, or you can remove and replace them with fresh leaves and botanicals. Again, this is very much replicates the process which occur in nature, doesn't it? Stuff either remains "in situ" as part of the local habitat, or is pushed downstream by wind, current, etc.
Pretty much everything we do in a botanical-style blackwater aquarium has a "natural analog" to it!
Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down the scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. Wether they know it or not, they are grasping "Wabi-Sabi"...sort of.
(Again, Fellman?" Yes. This concept is really important!)
One must appreciate the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it. To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.
And, despite their impermanence, these materials function as diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to micro crustaceans and even epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches make up the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes that we're so fascinated by flourish.
And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, these assemblages-and the processes which form them- are beautiful.
Stay fascinated. Stay curious. Stay open-minded. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
The aquarium hobby abounds with rules, best practices, and guidelines. And of course, the world of botanical-style aquariums is not all that different than the mainstream aquarium world in most respects. We have "best practices" and "guidelines" developed over the years regarding the preparation and addition of botanicals, monitoring water parameters, and managing water quality.
And the "rules" part?
Well, there is a slight departure there...
One of the best things about these types of aquariums is that there are no hard and fast "style rules." There are only Nature's "restrictions" and her limitations. That being said, and "best practices" aside, every situation, every tank, every nuance is unique, and this requires "customized" solutions for every aquarium. Sure, the methodology/strategy might be something which we can more or less "standardize"- but not the "formula."
Unless you're trying to replicate the characteristics of a specific natural habitat...and even in that instance, it's sort of "open for interpretation..."
As an example, the Rio Negro and its many tributaries provide us many different fishes that we love to keep in aquariums. The Rio Negro’s water is extremely poor in mineral content, with conductivity as low as 8 micro semions, and is extremely acidic, with pH’s ranging from 2.9 to 5.2. That's pretty damn acidic by aquarium standards, isn't it? How can you replicate water like that in your aquarium?
DO you want to?
Well, you'd start by utilizing RO/DI water and "conditioning it" with botanicals and such, which might only get you so far. There would likely be additional steps required, like the addition of acid solutions, different pH-reducing natural materials in your filter. And more detailed monitoring. And slightly different water-quality maintenance approaches. This stuff touches on the fringes of what a lot of us are comfortable doing.
I know that I'm not all that keen on the idea of playing with acid solutions and stuff. I mean, there are undoubtedly some potential benefits I'm "leaving on the table" by not chasing down super low pH, but it's not on my list of "exciting things I want to do" at the moment, anyways.
And wouldn't it be easier to create and maintain these conditions with some compromising, like finding out the "average" of the pH and other parameters of the habitat you're trying to replicate and either going for it- or perhaps, for the higher, easier-to-achieve higher limits of pH in the habitat, for example?
Even with a sort of "compromised accommodation" approach, you'd be providing your fishes with environmental conditions that are far more "realistic" than those typically provided in aquariums, right? Is there even a significant benefit to doing so? I believe so, but that's going to require some experimentation over time to prove.
That's what we need to do.
Yeah, easy for me to sit here and talk about, but it will require some work to back up this "hypothesis!"
And again, we've accomplished many amazing things without going too crazy into trying to more accurately replicate these natural conditions. However, I just can't help but wonder what we'd accomplish if we go just that much farther. The examples which Nature provides us are many and varied.
Even subtle nuances outside of just achieving a low pH- like the utilization of materials like soils, more concentrated quantities of leaves, water flow, lighting, and temperature manipulations could have some extremely positive effects on our fishes, right?
I sometimes think that we as group tend to be a bit hard on ourselves. Like, I've seen fellow hobbyists act almost "apologetic" for not creating super-exact "natural" conditions in a given aquarium...as if there is some "universal arbitrator" judging our work.
That's toxic, IMHO.
And we tend to make stuff "problems" or "requirements" in the hobby, often to our detriment, too.
Right? I mean, when we look at the hobby this way, it tends to open our eyes up a bit. Just look at the definitions of these two words and consider how they apply to the hobby:
Problem (prob*lem): a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
Requirement (re*quire*ment): a thing that is compulsory; a necessary condition.
Few columns that I've written in the last year have drawn as much interesting response from our readers, and as much thought-provoking discussion- as a piece we featured a few months back on "rethinking" the hobby's perception of killifishes. And that makes me feel good- not only because there is a larger interest and hunger to learn about killies that I even imagined, but there IS a big- BIG "perception problem" among retailers, hobby pundits, and even hobbyists about why they aren't more popular and available.
The discussion online and elsewhere has been surprisingly broad and wide-ranging, with both hobbyist and retailers chiming in. And this is really cool- because everyone seems to want the same thing- a broader availability and appeal for a magnificent group of fishes. And of course, many of the same concerns arise when we broach these kinds of topics: Hobbyists find certain fishes difficult to find. Retailers find the same fishes impractical to sell.
A seemingly difficult conundrum.
Or, is it?
Lots of hobbyists tend to look at killifish as "problematic"- as if keeping them is fraught with issues that would keep them from ever being able to have a greater hobby appeal.
I just don't buy into that thinking. I just can't.
Now, I have a "problem" with classifying stuff as "problems" when it comes to our aquarium endeavors. I think we tend to consider the specialized requirements of keeping/breeding/marketing certain fishes as "problems" instead of simply as "requirements."
What makes them "problems?"
The fact that we can't just place a rare fish from a specialized environment into a glass of tap water and walk away? It's not a "problem" that corals require saltwater, light, and a chemical environment suitable for their long-term care. It's simply a set of requirements that we need to meet if we want to keep them.
Some fishes are aggressive. So, is that a "problem?" Well, only if you decide that they must be kept in community tanks with docile guppies or whatever. Some fishes require brackish water. Is that a "problem?" Only if you don't have a way of mixing and measuring salt concentration, right?
Perception. Perspective. Point of view...
If we want to sell rare Apistogramma to a wider market, for example, it's not a "problem." It's a challenge to figure out a way to keep them comfortable and healthy in order to accomplish this, and to communicate this to prospective keepers. If we determine that it is not practical for us to meet the requirements of the fishes in order to keep them/breed them/sell them, well- then it's simply a situation where we cannot meet the requirements in order to accomplish this.
Just because I can't keep African Cichlids with my acid-water-loving tetras doesn't make them a "problem", right?
The word "problem", IMHO, gives us a cushion to fall back on when things that we want to do in the hobby require that certain steps which we are unaware of, uncertain of, unwilling to take, or cannot undertake- present themselves. The challenge is to determine if the requirements are insurmountable for us, or if there is a way we can meet the requirements in a manner that is practical, given our resources.
A great example is the perception that blackwater aquariums have had for so many years in the hobby was that they were a "problem."
I think that the "problem" of blackwater tanks for years was that we as a hobby saw them as "dirty", dangerous", "non-sustainable" etc. We didn't tend to look at the blackwater environment as one that simply required that we meet a specific set of parameters.
We didn't look at keeping blackwater aquariums simply as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as hobbyists saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.
We made it a "problem."
It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to make "blackwater"- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.
But we did.
And now, we approach keeping blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but a system which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.
Look, it wasn't like we were creating warp drive or trying to solve nuclear fusion. But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was just a bit, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making stable, long-term sustainable blackwater aquariums far more common and achievable in the hobby.
And not quite so scary!
Let's not make every set of requirements of our fishes "problems." Rather, lets find out ways to meet their needs.
Let's think this through when we want to get real...
I think that we can do all sorts of stuff previously though to be unachievable, if we look at it in a more positive way.
We've got this.
The important thing to remember- something we tend to forget now and again- is the fact that we're trying to replicate- on many levels- a specialized aquatic habitat- both functionally and aesthetically. This involves some trial and error, some experiments, and some time.
In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
This is a huge point; something which everyone who works with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums comes to know and usually accept.
We need to have an attitude which doesn't allow us to panic; to make fast, short-term moves in favor of longer-term outcomes. It's a very different philosophy. You need to accept different aesthetics. You need flexibility. You may even have to accept short-term losses for a greater long-term good.
You need to have faith in Nature.
Because you're trying to replicate Nature on so many levels.
It's a dance. An art form. A process, and an evolution. Sometimes seemingly chaotic, other times maddeningly slow. Always alluring. Always deferring to Nature...
Yet, that's what we need to do when we try to "get real", right?
I think that is.
Until next time...
Stay dedicated. Stay engaged. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
I admit it. I tell people not to get aquariums when they ask me about them.
Like, a lot.
I know. I know, I may sound like a straight-up asshole for saying that, but when you look at it objectively, it's a smart move on my part! Well, I think that it is, anyways.
Perhaps you've experienced this kind of scenario:
A group of friends, sitting around your house, enjoying your "fish tank"- when one of them, obviously enamored with the whole concept, asks if you'd "help them out" to "get one going in their home" because it's "so relaxing" or whatever.
Cool, but it starts this instant "thing" in my mind. A weird reaction...
I know what goes on in my head...
An immediate "red alert!" Like, not only am I trying to pour cold water on the idea, I'm actually downplaying the "joys" of having tropical fish in an aquarium. I have to give them a dose of hard reality.
I'm a real f- ing buzzkill.
And, it all happens in like a nano-second.
I'm "evaluating them" (I know, that even sounds totally arrogant) to see if they'd actually be up for the challenges of an aquarium. You know, the equipment, the physical setup, the maintenance, the husbandry issues...dead fishes, algae, etc. Yeah- the realities that you face every day after the initial idea of "getting an aquarium" in your home settles in.
All of the good and bad.
All of it flashes through my head...
Now it sure would be nice if everyone could have an aquarium in their own home...The appreciation for the fishes, for Nature, for the science- the wonder of it all- is something everyone would benefit from. Yet the reality is that not everyone is up for the challenge. Not everyone wants the "hobby" part. Or even the "responsibility for live animals" part.
It's important, IMHO, for us to address this.
Almost always, as soon as I explain the part about an aquarium NOT being like keeping a potted plant in their living room, and make it more of a "dog/cat" kind of commitment, it usually chills a fair percentage of the would be owners right off the bat. When the realization hits that an aquarium is not just a piece of "kinetic art", and that you have to actually invest more than just money into it, that tends to knock about 75% or more (my "guesstimate" from years of experiencing this) of these prospective tank owners out of contention.
A good start, IMHO.
And, it addresses a problem that I believe has been created by the shallowness of popular culture about aquariums.
There seems to be a perception among non-aquarists that aquariums and fishes are sort of a "set up and forget" kind of thing... Like home decor...You buy some stuff, set it up, make a few fish selections, and it takes care of itself, other than you tossing in a few flakes of food now and then. Nothing more to it than that, really.
Thanks a f- king lot, Instagram.
I'm totally guilty of this. Sharing pics of beautiful tanks....Yeah, guilty. However, Like you, I talk a lot about the other stuff. We have to.
Otherwise, we're simply perpetuating the shallow perception that most people have about aquariums and tropical fishes.
Be honest with yourself, and you'll realize that IS the perception of "aquarium keeping" among many. Thery see the beautiful aquariums in full glory on line, and want THAT. A finished "art piece."
However, they don't want the "hobby" part of it.
And, that's okay.
That's what aquarium design and service businesses are for. They allow those who love the beauty of aquariums but don't want to engage in the deep learning and work themselves. This is a great compromise.
I think we, as serious aquarium hobbyists, need to ask questions about the mindset of the prospective aquarium owner who's asking us for input even before we talk about the actual tank or fishes. IMHO, it's the most important thing...
Lots of people want dogs, but really don't want to deal with the feeding, grooming, etc. They just want to put a bow on them and parade them at the local high-end shopping mall to show them off. The dog is more of a social media "prop" to some of these people than anything else. A bit sad...I mean, they love their dogs, but...Okay, I sort of get it. Its a cultural shift...(Welcome to my hometown, Los Angeles, BTW) I don't agree with it, but I understand it.
And the same mindset exists in the context of aquariums. They want the flash but not the hobby part.
People enjoy aquariums the way they want to. I learned this taking part in purely artistic aquarium installation projects that were not targeted at aquarium people...
There really is nothing wrong with that.
It's not their "fault" that they don't understand or don't want to understand the ins-and-outs of the hobby. Maybe they do, but they're too busy to commit to the time. Not a dead end. It just means that they should approach aquarium ownership in a different way than you or I should. And we need to point this out to them.
Having a custom aquarium set up and maintained professionally is a great thing for many who fall into this category. People still get exposed to the wonders of Nature, share it with their friends, and enjoy it without having to worry about the "details" of it all.
Experiencing aquariums their own way.
I'm not saying that certain people aren't "worthy" of having an aquarium. Absolutely not. I am merely saying that we as serious aquarium hobbyists owe these people the benefit of a full "reality check" so that they don't get into something that they're not prepared for; something that can cost a lot of money, and most important, the lives of helpless animals.
I mean, despite our enthusiasm for sharing our love of the hobby with others, we all know this...
Again, not everyone who simply wants to experience an aquarium in their home and doesn't want to "learn" the hobby stuff is some kind of idiot or something. That's absurd. What I am getting at is that when we as hobbyists are asked to "consult" the uninitiated and unfamiliar with the joys of having an aquarium, we need to paint the full picture. We need to explain to them that there is a lot of responsibility that goes along with it.
It's our duty. It's our obligation...
Sure, it will definitely slow down the "impulse buyers" and affect some consumer behavior. It'll result in fewer "aquarium starter kits" being given each Christmas...Sure, it could slow the growth of the hobby. It will likely upset a few people, too. No one likes a "roadblock"- but we need to be honest about it.
If someone doesn't want to learn the most basic aspects of aquarium care, they simply shouldn't do it themselves. Period. Why would you want to encourage this sort of thing?
And if you don't want to be "on call" as their "consultant", "personal aquarium trainer", or whatever the hell you want to call it, you should either recommend a good aquarium design and maintenance service to help them out...or just have your friends over more often to enjoy YOUR aquariums.
Perhaps, you could force feed them some "propaganda" by sharing lots of pics and information about the unfiltered beauty, diversity, challenges, and threats of the wild aquatic habitats from which our fishes hail- and that might inspire them to make the effort to learn more about them...and maybe want to replicate such habitats in their own home...
Yeah, a sort of warped form of "tough love", but it's also a form of honesty, and a way to keep the hobby stronger, healthier, and filled with people who not only appreciate the beauty of aquariums, but who also understand the responsibility that goes along with them.
That's not a bad thing. Likely, it's not a popular thing. However, it's the right thing to do to assure the future of the hobby, the industry, and most important, the priceless natural habitats and the fishes which live in them.
Yeah, so the bulk of those who casually ask me about "getting an aquarium" in their home typically end up deciding on the potted plant, home theater system, or sculpture instead.
And I'm perfectly okay with that.
You should be, too.
Until next time...
Stay honest. Stay realistic. Stay helpful. Stay empathetic. Stay dedicated. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
We toss out a lot of crazy- and not-so-crazy ideas here. I think that may be the most important function of Tannin Aquatics. I mean, sure, we sell "stuff" for aquariums- but the most important thing that we "sell" is the idea of trying something different; something new...ideas which might take you a bit far afield, out of your hobby "comfort zone."
Perhaps these ideas and attempts at new things might open up some entirely new pursuits in the hobby. Maybe it's as simple as looking at a natural aquatic habitat and asking yourself why it looks the way it does, how it evolved...and how you could replicate its form and function in the confines of an aquarium.
Your ideas might inspire others. Perhaps they'll stimulate soem vigorous discussion. Maybe they'll piss some people off. Perhaps, they might simply open YOU up to some criticism from your fellow hobbyists.
As awful as that sounds, I think that worse things could befall you as a hobbyist.
Being original, different, and unique is powerful. It can change the hobby.
Cliche' "graduation-speech" quote time:
“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” -Steven Jobs
There's a lot of good stuff to unpack in that oft-quoted passage.
To this end...
I was speaking with a friend last weekend, who is a very talented marine aquarist. She was relating to me a sound thrashing (there's simply no other way to put it) she was receiving on a hobby forum from some self-procalimed "experts" about an approach that she was taking to breeding a certain fish (with considerable success, mind you) which went against the grain of what "they" said was "the correct approach." She was told she was the recipient of "dumb luck" by one, and that her approach was "reckless and flawed" by another. And some other things not worth repeating here!
The usual shit.
And the bottom line was that she was successful. Her idea was correct. Her approach was very rational. Just not what everyone else was doing, or considered to be THE way to go...And some people just didn't like it.
It went against what they held dear. What they felt as perfect.
Rather than commending her for her success, or even just asking questions- the "attack dogs" came at her, full force.
She was near tears.
Years of work, successful spawns, and she simply was getting trashed.
I mean, there literally was no other reason. She was an "outsider" to this particular forum and specialty, and "they" didn't like it. There was simply no other explanation. She came with humility and open-hearted sharing, and received a beat-down because her ideas challenged the prevailing thought in this self-immolating dystopia she had somehow "infiltrated."
Now, sure, it's easy to simply say, "Shake it off" and just deal, but that's an easy way out. Mental toughness is important, but what about the underlying issue which brought this all up? What about the bigger picture here? This is not entirely uncommon in our hobby.
Fear, elitism, and disdain for outsiders...
I've seen this crap before in the hobby. And it's poisonous.
Time for a gentle ass-kicking, and I might as well do it.
As you know, I tend to get a bit..."worked up" about some stuff- particularly when people are unfairly negative and so cruel to others. And particularly when it's not deserved, and focused on friends of mine! You know, THAT kind of bullshit. I'm sure there will be many who take this wrong- as if I am up on some high horse, spouting my own form of dogma or hate.
If that's how this is interpreted, I suppose I might have failed. If not- read on.
However, I think I have a valuable mesage- based on decades of being in "aquarium cutlure." Yeah, I need to air my opinion here. So, rather than go on that particular hobby forum and make an ass of myself, I figured it might be just as therapeutic to do it here, in the "relative safety" of my own blog! 😜
Seriously, though, this little rant is for those of you who occasionally face grief from the self-proclaimed "gatekeepers" in our hobby. It's for you to take some comfort in knowing that, regardless of if your idea works or not, the fact that you're even doing something different, bold, maybe even contrarian- in the pursuit of knowledge and success- is a HUGE victory.
All of you out there who have those ideas that are perhaps a bit "unorthodox" by hobby standards, maybe a bit "unusual", even...take heed.
And keep f-cking going...
Just because you reject the "status quo", the popular, or the safe, doesn't mean that you're wrong. Just because your idea of an aquascape features soil and decomposing leaves instead of a cliche-ridden "Middle Earth Hobbit-Forest" doesn't mean you're not creating "aspirational" work. Just because you're breeding Danios instead of this month's "Apisto of The Month" doesn't mean you're not talented. Just because you're specializing in Anacharis instead of Bucephalandra doesn't mean that you don't have "plant game."
Maybe you decided to start a company that sells seed pods, leaves and plant parts to recreate specialized habitats... (Yeah, had to throw the personal reference in there...I took some heat, too when I started out!).
Sure, you could "crash and burn" spectacularly- but you're doing...instead of sitting on the sidelines and pelting those who are forging ahead with stones- metaphorical or otherwise...
I've seen this a lot lately. I've had a few friends tell me about similar situations they've encountered "out there", and I say, it's time for the hobby at large to lighten up a bit.
As the second decade of the new millennium unfolds, the “state of the art” in the aquarium hobby is in total flux. New technology has worked its way into what we do daily with our aquariums LED lighting technology is delivering on the promise of energy-efficient, highly focused, “nutritional” illumination. Water movement has become “intelligent”, with microprocessor-based controllers commanding powerful, low wattage electronic pumps to create currents and flow that mimic nature in ways previously unthinkable.
We still have unreliable aquarium heaters (hey, I didn't say that we're living in goddam utopia, did I? We have a few things to work out still...). Foods based on fishes'specialized nutritional requirements have entered the market that promise levels of nutrition for fishes and corals that were simply considered unsustainable in years past.
Crazy cool shit.
This stuff puts incredible results in reach for even aquarists with relatively modest experience. Maybe it levels the playing field a bit. It helps facilitate experimentation and implementation of ideas which were just thoughts on paper a few years back.
It’s not just the technology that has evolved, of course.
Today’s hobbyist, with convenient access to the latest science, Internet connectivity, and the ever-evolving benefit of an expanding global aquatic“culture”, brings new energy, creativity, and imagination to the game. The courage to break free from convention is more apparent than ever. Marry the progressive hobbyist with groundbreaking technology, and you have a formidable combination. It is out of this milieu that the biggest breakthroughs and hobby advancements are arising.
And those of us who have been in this game for decades need not be afraid. We need to celebrate. Don't hate on people who are utilizing some of the new advantages to further the state of the art in the hobby.
It's simply not constructive.
Individuals who feel that the “status quo” of the aquarium hobby is due for a little shakeup are emerging, proffering new ideas, unique methodologies, and new aquariums that are pushing back the "outside of the envelope" of modern aquaristics- your time has come!
We're proud to be supporting this little charge towards hobby evolution. I'm excited to see some of the amazing work that our community is forging ahead with, despite the curious looks or questions they might be receiving from those who feel compelled to criticize.
The takeaway is that we all win as a result of you brave pioneers.
And the best part about this is that we as a whole in this hobby are benefitting from this progression, thanks to our open minds, tireless dedication, and the power of the Internet to spread new ideas rapidly. The hobby is changing. For the better. Evolution is becoming revolution, it’s “open source”, and everyone is invited to come along for the ride.
Everyone can contribute.
And the big winner? Our fishes. Our plants. Our corals. And the natural habitats from which they come. Understanding both helps us treasure, protect, and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.
The fantastic fishes and aquariums we see on forums and such are but a small sampling of the dozens of aquatic breakthroughs achieved each year, which represent fundamental paradigm shifts in the hobby. Some are unique for what they do, others for what they represent, and all for how they make us look at what we know to be “conventional” in the aquarium world.
Criticism is important and welcome.
Flat-out hatred, driven by reluctance and fear of change- or worse yet, a perception of being "left behind"- is not. No one should be afraid to be who they are in this hobby. To try what they feel is correct- and most important- to share what they've learned, good OR bad.
Ever changing, ever evolving, the aquarium has come a long way from the simple glass bowl form centuries past…or has it?
With the benefit of technology, scientific knowledge, and the skill of a “postmodern” aquarist, perhaps we have come full circle. It is now possible to create aquariums as simple as a vessel containing water, or as complicated as a near perfect re-creation of a coral reef ecosystem. In our little world, we're playing with some of the most basic things in nature- leaves and botanicals- and regularly achieving results that may have been eluding us previously with other techniques.
Mind sets are shifting. Old ideas being re-evaluated, reviewed, embraced- or, on occasion, dismissed as unnecessary.
We're not just sitting still, accepting "no" or "not possible", or "it can't be done that way."
The marriage of nature, skill, technology, and creativity has allowed aquarists the freedom to create dreams as never before. Our legacy of centuries of aquatic experience provides us with inspiration for new challenges, new approaches, and new executions for aquariums and husbandry achievements once thought of as impossible, dangerous, or non-sustainable.
Please, don't cower in the face of those who would like to bring you down, quash your enthusiasm, or simply lash out. There is a ridiculous amount of that out there these days. Always consider and accept the constructive criticisms of those who are genuinely helpful, and flat-out ignore those who proffer only hate and nothing else.
If I could give you one "gift" in the hobby, I'd give you that one.
It gets really quiet in your head when you do that. Trust me.
One can only hope that we will continue to push the state of the art in aquaristics, and follow our dreams to destinations once thought...impossible. It’s time to cast off and head forward into uncharted waters, towards destinations unknown.
Now the future starts.
Stay unique. Stay bold. Stay courageous. Stay diligent. Stay humble. Stay innovative...
And Stay Wet.
With the botanical aquariums that we play with, there is a very distinct set of occurrences and expectations that we're now quite aware of. And even with these expectations, we still find ourselves having to make mental shifts to adjust to them.
As your botanical aquarium breaks in, you almost always encounter our friend (or nemesis, depending upon how you look at it), biofilm. Now, we've discussed the ins and outs of biofilms in our botanical-style aquariums, and how they arise and propagate in our tanks many, many times in this blog.
To many, the biofilms are a source of consternation, frustration, and out-and-out horror. They look kind of- well, yucky to many. Although by no means harmful, they're simply not everyone's idea of high-quality aesthetics. Of course, biofilms have one extraordinary characteristic that makes them even more important for some in our community: They're a rich and important food source for many fishes and invertebrates.
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides self-generating nutritional value on a more-or-less continuous basis.
True "functional aesthetics", indeed!
I feel a great affinity for my friends who keep dwarf shrimp, like Caridina, Halocaridina, etc. These hobbyists understand and appreciate the value of botanicals and the biofilms which colonize them as a food source, and put forth a lot of effort to propagate them in their aquariums.
Some fishes, such as gobies of the genus Stiphodon (Sicydiines) are near-exclusive consumers of biofilms in the wild. Most reside in relatively fast-flowing, well-oxygenated streams which are filled with scattered jumbles of boulders and rocks, filled in with leaf litter. The boulders and rocks are covered in biofilms of various densities and composition.
Granted, the bulk of the biofilms in these habitats is on rocks, but the leaf litter which accumulates in pockets in the habitat is also a substrate upon which they propagate. And in many aquatic habitats, submerged branches and logs and such also recruit these biofilms.
And biofilms are interesting, in and of themselves. Understanding the reasons they arise and how they propagate can really help us to appreciate them!
We've discussed this before; however, let's revisit the process one more time:
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.
And we could go on and on all day telling you that this is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in nature.
Of course, we can tell you that a thousand times, and many of you will still be of the opinion that the stuff looks like shit...
And biofilms seem to go hand-in-hand with fungi.
Yeah, those guys.
Not the ones that we vilify for attacking our fish or their eggs, of course. 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 (ie, pretty much anywhere they damn well please!). These aquatic fungi are involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. And of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise.
Anyone who's ever "cured" a piece of aquatic wood for your aquarium can attest to this!
Fungi tend to 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 posses enzymes that can digest these materials! Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats.
And look at this little gem I found in my research:
"There is evidence that detritivores selectively feed on conditioned leaves, i.e. those previously colonized by fungi (Suberkropp, 1992; Graca, 1993). Fungi can alter the food quality and palatability of leaf detritus, aecting shredder growth rates. Animals that feed on a diet rich in fungi have higher growth rates and fecundity than those fed on poorly colonized leaves. Some shredders prefer to feed on leaves that are colonized by fungi, whereas others consume fungal mycelium selectively..."
"Conditioned" leaves, in this context, are those which have been previously colonized by fungi! They make the energy within the leaves and botanicals more available to higher organisms like fishes and invertebrates!
It's easy to get scared by this stuff...and surprisingly, it's even easier to exploit it as a food source for your animals! This is a HUGE point that we can't emphasize enough.
We just have to make that mental shift... As the expression goes, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"
Fungi, although not the most attractive-looking organisms, are incredibly useful...and they "play well" with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs.
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...it's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! AGAIN: A truly "Natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course.
Biofilms, fungi, algae...detritus...all have their place in the aquarium. Not as an excuse for lousy or lazy husbandry- no- but as supplemental food sources to "power" the life in our tanks.
Real gifts from Nature...that you can benefit from simply by "enabling the web" of life which arises without our intervention as soon as leaves, wood, and water mix. Rather than siphoning the stuff out or scraping it off of the seed pods, I think it's so important to actually leave them be- to let them fulfill the role that they are best at.
Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage. And know that the pile of decomposing goo that you're looking at now is just a metaphorical "stepping stone" on the journey to an aquarium which embrace Nature in every conceivable way.
Maybe, as the years go by, we as a hobby will overcome generations of fear over stuff like detritus and fungi and biofilms- the life-forms which power the aquatic ecosystems we strive to duplicate in our aquariums. Maybe, rather than attempting to "erase" these things, which go against our "Instagram-influenced aesthetics" of how we think that Nature SHOULD look, we might want to meet Nature where she is and work with her.
And we just might see the real beauty- and benefits- of unedited Nature.
And of course, the literal "basis" for all of this stuff is the botanical materials themselves, breaking down in our tanks, as they've done in nature for eons.
We've already started to make a "mental shift" which accepts the transient, subtle beauty of decomposing botanical materials, tinted water, biofilms, fungi, and the like. It goes without saying that taking it a little further and allowing these materials to completely break down to serve as the biological "substrate" for our aquatic ecodiversity is simply the next "iteration" in the management of blackwater/brackish botanical-style aquariums.
These small, seemingly "annoying" life forms are actually the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium...
Stay calm. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
Much like life, the aquarium hobby is filled with excitement, gratification, frustration, joy, heartache, and everything in between. It's more than just a hobby for many- rather, lifestyle of sorts- and that brings all sorts of lessons and "takeaways" with it, doesn't it?
Seems like just about everything we do in aquarium keeping invloves some sort of "right of passage", or "barrier to entry" before you achieve exactly what you want to achieve, right?
You know, a challenge or "gauntlet" that you need to get through somehow before ultimately getting to where you want to be. Like, it starts out easy, but after a short period of time- there IT is..Waiting for you. That challenge. And there is only one way to go if you want to progress: Forward.
Time to throw down.
I see this with crystal clarity with the botanical- style aquariums we espouse so much here:
A week or two after completing your 'scape and getting your prepared botanicals into your aquarium, there come the biofilms and fungal growths. Of course, these will grow at a rate which is a bit unpredictable, yet often peak and either pass in a relatively short time, or wane to a more "tolerable" level. Knowing that it will always be present in your botanical-style aquarium is a real "right of passage" for everyone involved in this game- requiring an adjustment to our expectations- a mental shift.
You just have to understand what these growths are, and why they form. And celebrate them instead of simply fear them. You begin to understand and appreciate the biofilms, fungal growths, and decomposition and what they mean to a closed aquatic ecosystem. And you accept and indeed, celebrate- the progression and the many unique characteristics of botanical-style systems.
In our world, it means understanding that the stuff you're seeing in your aquarium- the stuff which might freak you out a bit- is exactly what you see in Nature.
You've made a mental shift that will equip you well to advance in your journey with this type of aquarium.
You've "crossed the gauntlet" and came out on the other side.
It's an achievement worth celebrating, isn't it?
"Running the gauntlet" is part of the game in this hobby.
Yeah, the shit you have to go through before you get exactly what you want. Not always fun. Often times, challenging and perhaps, annoying, to say the least. Only those aquarists who "prove their mettle" by not shirking from the challenges, or calling it quits, reap the ultimate rewards.
In this social-media fueled, finished product-heavy, "Insta-beautiful" world, the reality of the aquarium hobby is that you need to "go through some stuff" to get there. You simply can't expect to circumvent these things and have a "finished product" without putting in the work.
There are a lot of "rights of passage" and "gauntlets" in aquarium keeping, huh?
For example, before you can get a breeding pair of cichlids, you often have to go through a bunch of specimens, with their aggressive courting rituals and violent challenges to members of the same and the opposite sex, often requiring you to intervene to avoid injury. You need to be observant, patient, and diligent...Ultimately, after all the maneuvering, all of the challenges, and all of the time, you end up with a healthy, compatible pair for years.
Another gauntlet crossed.
Need another example? Okay, let's cross the "salinity line" for a second.
Reef aquariums are envied by many. They're beautiful and complex closed ecosystems, brimming with colorful life.
However, to get to the desired "drool-worthy" phase, you generally have to go through a succession of awful algae blooms, a protracted nitrogen cycle establishment phase, and a sort of "settling in" period for your corals and inverts. before they even start to grow. And there is always the challenge of incompatibility, competition for space and resources, water chemistry fluctuations, etc. Monitoring, observing, testing, patience- and the passage of time- are the keys. And if you persevere, and if you make the right moves- THEN, you get to enjoy a thriving, colorful reef aquarium.
Those who tire early, look for "shortcuts", or fold and and quit- don't get the privilege of enjoying these systems. Simple as that...Well, "simple" if you understand the concept, that is.
A "gauntlet" to run.
"High tech" planted aquariums require very careful setup, management, a set of ugly-ass algae blooms, adjustments to dosing, CO2, etc. before they begin to look like the green scenes of our dreams. You can't rush this stuff. To do so is to violate the laws of the natural world. And, as we know, Nature imposes rigid "penalties" for those who attempt to circumvent her challenges. You need to stay focused, observant, diligent, and calm.
Yeah, you need to push through the gauntlet set by Nature to get the reward you seek.
Sensing a theme here?
Even when you're setting up your first community aquarium, there are basic principles of tank management to learn, a nitrogen cycle to establish, algae blooms to deal with...
All of these challenges can be seen as a sort of a "gauntlet" to pass through.
At the very least, they're "rights of passage" that we need to understand, work through, and learn from.
The point of these examples is not to say that the aquarium hobby is incredibly difficult or ridiculously challenging. It's not all "make or break" moments. And challenges, rights of passage, "gauntlets", or whatever we want to label them as are not bad things at all. Not "negatives" or reasons to abort on our goals.
They are simply things that we need to understand and perhaps make some mental or other adjustments in our thinking, changes in practices, or tweaks to our physical setups in order to advance in the hobby. And sometimes, we simply have to be patient. Many times, we have to do nothing more than observe, inquire, study, accept, and learn.
Challenging stuff sometimes, but very important if we're trying to achieve success in the hobby.
The point is to show you that just about everything that we want to accomplish in aquarium keeping requires passing through some "barrier to entry"- some set of challenges that test our patience, require us to adjust, make changes, slow down, make "mental shifts" and adapt a patient attitude- before we can move on to the next steps in our journey.
These rights of passage continue to follow us throughout our aquarium careers...the more advanced the things are that we try, the greater the barriers to entry- and the more important a high degree of patience is required in order to overcome them. They never really "go away"...the challenges, that is. Nor the desire to do different things in the hobby. These are what advance our hobby- push the state of the art, and inspire others to do more.
That kind of stuff never changes.
What changes is our point of view; our attitude.
A mental shift.
It seems that, after a period of time facing the regular challenges in aquaristics, we come to understand, even expect- sometimes even welcome them- as signs that we are progressing. Rather than something to dread, these "barriers" become familiar "signposts"- landmarks, if you will- that tell us that we're progressing on the right path. Much like life, the aquarium hobby demands our best, and will reward us in kind- if we stay at it and somehow "prove our worthiness."
The key ingredient is to be patient.
To never fear the challenges. To never be discouraged by the setbacks. All they represent are simply barriers to entry on the long path towards accomplishing our goals.
Expect that doing great things requires a lot of work, and accepting that Nature throws us some stuff that we are often not expecting. And trying to understand them, rather than being forced out of the hobby by them- is the key.
Learn from these challenges.
Regardless of what the hobby throws at you, stay encouraged.
Stay diligent. Stay steadfast. Stay observant. Stay optimistic. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
As you know, for some strange reason, I tend to loathe the idea of writing adoring blog pieces on specific botanical materials that my company offers, because it feels kind of- well- crassly commercial...
However, the bigger picture here is not just to "push product." It's to further an idea- a concept, and to foster the growth of a movement which we hope has significant, lasting impact on the aquarium hobby in general.
In the botanical aquarium world, the work that we as a community have done, has actually made it easier on ourselves to create more naturally functioning aquariums. And, being able to select materials such as leaves for specific types of applications, habitat simulations or aesthetic/environmental effects is an interesting idea that I'd love to develop more.
So, yeah, sometimes it's important to focus on a specific botanical, and today, we'll focus on one of the key botanicals which can be utilized by aquarists to further the practice of botanical-style aquarium work- the versatile and unique Yellow Mangrove leaf (Ceriops tagal), and its use in a leaf litter bed.
Now, mangrove leaf litter- like litter from other leaves that we utilize in our blackwater aquariums- recruits fungi and bacteria which help facilitate the decomposition of botanical material, including the leaves themselves. Leaf drop in mangrove habitats- just like in their freshwater counterparts- is an important "catalyist" for biological activity, and the formation of food chains.
Interestingly, in scientific surveys, it's been determined that bacterial counts are generally higher on attached mangrove leaves than they are on freshly-fallen leaf litter, and this is kind of interesting, because ecologists feel that attached, undamaged mangroves leaves don't release much tannin, which, as we know might have some "anti-bacterial" properties. However, it's also been found that materials like humic acid, which are abundant in the mangroves, stimulate phytoplankton growth in the mangrove habitat.
Now, in the botanical-style aquarium, mangrove leaves are one of the most useful botanical materials which we can employ, for a variety of reasons. First offf, on a purely aesthetic level- they look really cool! If ever there were a leaf that has the "generic tropical" thing that we talk about so much going for it, this one would be it.
From a functional standpoint, these are surprisingly durable leaves. They seem to last a very long time before completely breaking down; often two to three months or more, in my experience. Along the way, they may recruit some biofilms. However, curiously enough, in my aquariums- both blackwater and brackish- I have seen very little in the way of biofilm "recruitment."
Mangrove leaves possess specialized cell structures, including tannin cells (hello!), and sclerieds, structures within the leaf tissue which are thought to provide mechanical "support" to the leaves and discourage herbivorous predation.
Perhaps this accounts for their durability and it certainly accounts for their ability to impart color to the water via tannins over extended periods of time? Possibly. I have noticed a nice tint to my brackish water aquariums, and it's consistent with the quantity of the mangrove leaves present.
In my experience, mangrove leaves are more than suitable for use in a freshwater (blackwater) systems. I use them in my home aquariums extensively with fantastic results.
As we've discussed many times here, Mangrove leaves also provide a unique ecological environment for diverse bacterial/microbial communities. I think the "productivity" of mangrove leaf litter beds in brackish water systems-in the wild or the aquarium- is every bit as great and important as leaf litter beds are in freshwater ecosystems.
If we examine wild ecosystems from where mangroves are found (and by extension, mangrove leaf litter beds), in addition to bacteria, they are home to a group of fungi called “manglicolous fungi.” These organisms are vitally important to nutrient cycling in these habitats...The benefits for our closed aquatic ecosystems from these organisms are obvious! This plays into one of my "pet theories" that leaf litter beds in our aquaria-fresh or brackish- serve to act as "nutrient export" systems.
If we examine this stuff further, there is also evidence (in both brackish and marine habitats) of higher fish population densities in areas which have accumulations of decomposing leaves and mangrove materials. In several geographic locales worldwide, researchers have found a highly significant relationship between amounts of mangrove detritus and fish densities or biomass in mangrove estuaries and creeks.
This is much like the "fish follow the food" idea that we've discussed many times here in the context of blackwater flooded forest habitats, such as those found in the Amazon and elsewhere. They might look slightly different in the brackish habitat, but the essential function is the same, from an ecological standpoint.
Such productive habitats are naturally of interest to us as botanical-style aquarium fans. And with the ability to at least simulate some aspects of them, the time has never been better to research mangrove habitats and the functions of the leaf litter they contain, from the comfort of our own aquariums! Since 2017, we've been pushing forward our more "functionally aesthetic" concept of a brackish water aquarium- and the basis has been...leaves.
As we gain more an more experience in utilizing mangrove leaves in our aquariums, I believe that we may see more success with brackish water AND freshwater life forms. The unique biology which these leaves support, and the compounds they release as they break down, form a basis for one of Nature's most fascinating ecological habitats.
At the risk of being redundant, let's visit that "big issue" which comes up when we talk about using these leaves in our aquariums: "Can they be used in freshwater aquariums?"
And the answer is an unequivocal, "Yes!"
These leaves are really great for blackwater aquariums, and I have used them for this purpose for years, and they've performed beautifully.
Although our leaves are collected for us on dry land as naturally fallen from a brackish water mangrove habitat, in my experience, there is no detectible salt released into the water from these leaves.
Properly preparing them (ie; boiling/soaking) should completely eliminate any lingering concerns you might have about this. I've even tested them by simply giving the leaves a quick rinse and tossing them in a small container of water, then testing the water with a digital refractometer...and voila!- no detectible salt.
So, yeah. Feel free to use 'em in your blackwater aquarium without worry, as I do.
And let me tell you, these leaves can provide a significant visual "tint" to your water! They appear to be packed with tannins which contribute a very deep, brownish-red color to the water. I've enjoyed some stunning-looking blackwater aquariums which utilized mangrove leaf litter as the basis for this type of aquarium.
When we think about using mangrove leaves in our closed-system aquariums, it's about husbandry and perspective as much as anything else...And accepting the fact that the leaves and other natural materials are part of the ecology of an aquarium, and that they will behave as all terrestrial materials do when submerged:
They'll break down and decompose, imparting their internally bound-up compounds into the water.
And of course, that leads to so much more:
They'll form the basis of a surprisingly 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.
When you think of these unique leaves not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense.
Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay persistent. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.