Ever thought of this: What is your aquarium "idea" based upon/inspired by? A big body of water? Some sort of meandering, flowing habitat, or just a more "static" body of water?
When you think about it, we tend to "model" our aquariums off of only a few types of aquatic features found in Nature...I'm willing to bet that they're typically lakes, rivers, and streams.
We as a group should give a bit more mental energy to thinking about these habitats...there's more there than meets the eye!
It's only been recently that I really gave more than a passing thought to what goes on "down there" in Nature, especially in streams. It's a lot more interesting, when you examine the subject more closely- especially from the perspective of how these structures came to be, and what implications they have for fish populations...cool stuff like that!
Now, sure, you know of my obsession with varying substrate compositions and enhancement of the substrate...You've likely seen my recent work with with different materials, like leaves, botanicals, clays, and sediments that I've shared with you here and elsewhere. It's an idea that I just can't get away from!
The physical composition of the substrate materials is but one fascinating aspect of these diverse aquatic systems. There is a lot more going on "down there" than meets the eye. When you take into account just how these habitats came into existence, and what processes create and sustain them, the dynamic gets really interesting!
Stream and river bottom composition is affected by things like regional weather, current, geology, the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, and a host of other factors- all of which could make planning your next aquarium even more interesting if you take them into consideration!
And there is the whole dynamic of water movement. Like, what role does the flow of water determine the ecology of a given stream, and how it will "recruit" life forms to reside in it?
Well, for one thing, it's helpful to go back the substrate again, and to consider it's relationship to water movement. It's important to note that the volume of water entering the stream, and the depth of the channels it carves out, helps in part determine the amount and size of sediment particles that can be carried along, and thus comprise the substrate.
And of course, the composition of bottom materials and the depth of the channel are always changing in response to the flow in a given stream, affecting the composition and ecology in many ways.
For example, some leaf litter beds form in what stream ecologists call "meanders", which are stream structures that form when moving water in a stream erodes the outer banks and widens its "valley", and the inner part of the river has less energy and deposits silt- or in our instance, leaves.
Materials which fall from the surrounding trees and other vegetation accumulate in these "meanders", creating interesting ecological features which are compelling themes for your next biotope aquarium!
There is a whole, fascinating science to river and stream structure, and with so many implications for understanding how these structures and mechanisms affect fish population, occurrence, behavior, and ecology, it's well worth studying for aquarium interpretation! Did you get that part where I mentioned that the lower-energy parts of the water courses tend to accumulate leaves and sediments and stuff?
Likely you did!
I mean, that's the really fascinating part, to me.
Permanent streams will often have different volume and material composition (usually finely-packed sands and gravels, with lots of smooth stones) than more intermittent streams, which are the result of inundation caused by rain, etc.
So-called "ephemeral" streams, typically occur only immediately after rain events (which means they usually don't have fish in them unless they are washed into them from more permanent watercourses). The latter two stream types are typically more affected by leaves, botanical debris, branches, and other materials.
In the Amazon region (you knew I was sort of headed back that way, right?), it sort of works both ways, with the streams influencing the surrounding land...and then the land "giving" some of the materials back to the streams...the extensive lowland areas bordering the river and its tributaries, known as varzeas (“floodplains”), are subject to annual flooding, which helps foster enrichment of the aquatic environment.
You might even say that rivers and streams act like Nature's "sediment sorting machines", as they move debris, geologic materials, and botanicals along their courses. And along the way, varying ecological communities are assembled, with all sorts of different fishes being attracted to different niches.
Although many streams derive their food base from leaves and organic matter, there is a lot of other material present that contributes to its structure. Think along those lines when scheming your next aquarium!
It is known by science that the leaf litter and the community of aquatic animals that it hosts is, according to one study, "... of great importance in assimilating energy from forest primary production into the blackwater aquatic system."
It also functions as a means to preserve the nutrients that would be lost to the forests which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was simply washed downstream. The fishes, crustaceans, and insects that live in the leaf litter and feed on the fungi, detritus, and decomposing leaves themselves are very important to the overall habitat.
As we've talked about before briefly, another interesting thing about leaf litter beds is that they actually have "structure" and even longevity. In several studies I read on the subject, the accumulations of leaves in various streams are documented to have existed in the same locations for years- to the point where scientists actually have studied the same ones for extended periods of time.
Of course, I think we need to look beyond just the cool looks of the natural habitats from where our fishes hail, and focus on the attributes which comprise their function. We need to understand why fishes are attracted to certain habitats, and apply these lessons into our aquariums.
The streams of the world are just a starting point for us to explore in our quest to create more realistic, functionally aesthetic aquairums that will provide enjoyment, education, and inspiration for others.
Who's down with the idea of focusing on this habitat?
Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
Okay, the title of this piece is kind of ridiculous, but the point of it is really simple: We love the idea of using leaf liter in aquariums. Pretty much everything that we work with in the botanical-style aquarium world is based on leaf litter!
So, like, what's the big deal?
What are the implications for leaf litter in our aquariums? They're as functional as they are "aesthetic" in our world. Decomposing leaves recruit biofilms, serve as "fuel" for the growth of fungi and microorganisms...which, in turn, provide supplemental food for our fishes.
And of course, we have to consider the impact of these materials on water quality
Dead, dried leaves such as those we favor don’t have nearly the impact on water quality, in terms of nitrate, as fresh leaves would. I’ve routinely seen undetectable nitrate levels in aquariums loaded with botanicals. This is largely because dead, dried leaves have depleted the vast majority of stored sugars and other compounds which lead to the production of nitrogenous substances in the confines of the aquarium.
To understand this more fully, let’s look at what happens when a leaf dies and falls into the water in the first place.
At some point, the leaves of deciduous trees (trees which shed leaves annually) stop photosynthesizing in their structures, and other metabolic processes within the leaves themselves begin to shut down, which triggers a process in which the leaves essentially “pass off” valuable nitrogen and other compounds to storage tissues throughout the tree for utilization. Ultimately, the dying leaves “seal” themselves off from the tree with a layer of spongy tissue at the base of the stalk, and the dry skeleton falls off the tree.
As we know by now, when these leaves fall into the water, or are immersed following the seasonal rains, they form a valuable substrate for fungi to break down the remaining intact leaf structures. And the fungi population helps contribute to the bacterial population which creates the now-famous biofilms, which consist of sugars, vitamins, and various proteins which many fishes in both their juvenile and adult phases utilize for supplemental nutrition.
And of course, as the fishes eliminate their waste in metabolic products, this contributes further to the aquatic food chain. And yeah, it all starts with a dried up leaf!
Hence, leaving leaves in to fully decay in your aquarium likely reaches a point when the detritus is essentially inert, consisting of the skeletonize sections of leaf tissue which can decay no further. Dead leaves contain largely inert forms of polysaccharides, and are reach in structures like lignin and cellulose, all of which are utilized by various microorganisms and fungi within the "food chain."
Utilizing leaf litter in our aquariums opens up all sorts of possibilities for interesting experiments. You can go with just a few leaves- or really go crazy with a deep bed of leaf litter in your tank!
I periodically discuss the idea of creating a really deep litter bed in an aquarium, to more accurately replicate some of the litter beds found in South America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. By "deep", I'm talking 6"- 12" (15.24cm-30.48cm). Yes, there are deeper litter beds in these areas (several feet in depth); however, for practical aquarium display purposes, I think the rational "upper limit" is likely more like the 12" (30.48cm) range.
Or, is it?
Now, there is certainly a difference between the "theoretical" and the "practical", but I can't help but think that there is something beneficial about such a deep leaf litter bed...perhaps stuff we haven't imagined, because we're too busy talking about all of the possible "downsides" of the idea.
And it's intriguing for me to contemplate how to make such an idea work. I mean, it isn't really all that much different than what many of us do now...the main difference being that we'd use MORE of the same materials.
In researching the idea of executing such a deep litter bed, I thought about what would be the main considerations when attempting to create one in an aquarium. In no particular order, here are just a few of the main concerns I have:
-The ratio of "leaves to water" in a given aquarium could be quite significant. I mean, what size aquarium do I go with? I'm also curious about the impact on the water quality and oxygen levels with that much decomposing materials "in play."
On the other hand, starting from scratch with a new system and cycling it with "bacteria in a bottle" products and/or "seeded" substrate materials would no doubt at least "kick start" the biological filtration before fishes ever enter the equation.
And, although the mass of leaves would be considered "bioload", I can't help but wonder if it would also function as a "nutrient processing" facility, much in the same way a deep sand bed does in a reef aquarium? I mean, with that much "media" surface area, could this be the case? Like, denitrification by "deep leaf litter bed!"
And what about the impact on pH- something aquarists debate constantly?
There have been researchers of natural leaf-litter banks who contemplate that processes which produce the low pH levels associated with these beds (sometimes down to 2.8-3.5pH!) are not caused entirely by humic acids which are frequently assumed to be the major contributor -and are not strong enough acids to produce such a low pH.
A possibility suggested by researchers is that fermentation deep within the litter banks is releasing strong organic acids such as acetic acid...Could this happen in the confines of a closed aquarium?
I'm honestly not sure, but I suppose anything is possible, right? On the other hand, as we've talked about repeatedly, even in water with little to no carbonate hardness, pH impact is likely not strong enough to drop pH into those crazy low ranges. And, with substrates present in most tanks, there is probably some degree of buffering which occurs as well.
So, what about the "biology part?"
Well, let's contemplate, for a few minutes, the role leaf litter plays in natural aquatic ecosystems.
Suffice it to say, the leaf litter bed is a surprisingly dynamic, and one might even say "rich" little benthic biotope, contained within the otherwise "impoverished" waters. And, as we've discussed before on these pages, it should come as no surprise that a large and surprisingly diverse assemblage of fishes make their homes within and closely adjacent to, these litter beds. These are little "food oasis" in areas otherwise relatively devoid of food.
The fishes are not there just to look at the pretty leaves!
Many blackwater rivers are often called "impoverished" by scientists, in terms of plankton production. They show little seasonal fluctuations in algal and bacterial populations. This is a fact borne out by many years of study by science. However, "impoverished" doesn't mean "devoid" of life. And in many cases, these populations of food organisms do vary from time to time- and the fish along with them.
As we’ve discussed repeatedly over the past couple of years, there are so many benefits to painting leaf litter in the aquarium in some capacity. Wether it’s for water conditioning, supplemental food, a home for speciality fishes, or simply for a cool-looking display. Simply overcoming our ingrained aesthetic preferences and accepting the decomposing leaves as a natural, transitory, and altogether unique habitat to cherish in the aquarium opens up so many incredible possibilities!
Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay open-mined. Stay unique. Stay curious...
And Stay Wet.
As you are no doubt aware, we're obsessed with obscure (well, to the hobby, anyways...) aquatic habitats. And we've spent a lot of time observing, researching and studying these habitats and how to replicate them- functionally and aesthetically- in our tanks.
Among our absolute favorites are the flooded forests of South America- the igapo and the varzea. These unique habitats are fascinating, dynamic, and highly diverse ecosystems, which exist in both terrestrial and aquatic phases- both of which we can replicate in our own aquariums.
We've spent a ton of time talking about them- mostly about the igapo. However, the varzea habitats are equally dynamic and fascinating- well worthy of recreating them in our tanks. So, let's focus on the varzea today.
Varzea, the “whitewater”-inundated forest of South America, is very similar in structure to the terra firme forests (composed of layers of alluvial soil that were deposited as much as 2.5 million years ago). Such alluvial soils are rich in dead organic matter, which quickly decays and is recycled. When the nearby "whitewater" rivers overflow, these areas become aquatic habitats for weeks or months at a time.
The trees of the varzea tend to be significantly buttressed (which is likely an adaptation for the tree to remain anchored in the moist clay-rich soil), and typically have seeds with special water flotation mechanisms that enable them to be widely dispersed when the rivers of this region overflow seasonally- a valuable adaptation to such extreme environmental fluctuations.
And of course- in both igapo and varzea, there is a significant diversity of fishes!
In a comparative study of Amazonian fish diversity and density conducted by Henderson and Crampton in 1994, in nutrient poor blackwater igapó and richer whitewater várzea habitats in Brazil, the whitewater sampling sites were characterized by high turbidity and conductivity, and a pH of 6.6-6.9. By comparison, the blackwater sites had low turbidity, a very low conductivity, and a pH of 5.3-6.0.
The flooding often lasts for weeks and often, months- and the trees possess special biochemical adaptations to be able to survive the lack of oxygen in the substrate where their roots penetrate.
Of course, some trees do topple in torrential currents, or their branches fall into the water, are swept downstream, and accumulate in pockets, creating useful underwater habitats for fishes.
The formerly terrestrial environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and spawning areas.
All of the botanical material-shrubs, grass, seeds, etc. become part of this aquatic milieu, too! Many of the species found in varzea have evolved survival strategies to endure this inundation period.
Trees such as the Rubber Tree (Hevea brazilensis) is a perfect example of a species which is clearly adapted to the varzea habitat, possessing seeds which can float for up to two months, and which form a significant part of the diet of certain larger fish of the region.
The seeds, along with fruit for the trees, after being consumed by fishes, are passed along throughout the forest. In fact, it is postulated by scientists that many of these seeds are required to pass through the gut of a fish before they will germinate!
As in the igapo, there is regular input of nutrient-rich sediment into the varzea, which is beneficial to the many low-lying shrubs found on the forest floors. This “understory layer”, as ecologists call it, is particularly lush, and quite rich in species of such plants as Gingers (Zingiberaceae) and Heliconias (Scitaminae). Hmm…something to think about when populating your varzea in its “dry” phase, huh?
Another interesting thing about Amazonian streams and flooded forest areas in general is that there is no significant "in situ" (in place) primary production, and that the fish populations that reside in them depend on what is known as "allochthonous input" (material that is imported into an ecosystem from outside of it) from materials like seed pods, fruits, blossoms, leaves, and dead wood from the surrounding forest.
So, how would you replicate this dynamic habitat in the aquarium?
Well, this is worthy of an entire podcast/blog post/video (and we are working on all of them as I write this!), but let's touch on the most basic of the details here- just to get you started...
For a várzea-themed aquarium, we'd say to start with a quality substrate, which represents the rich soils common to these forests. Like Nature Base "Varzea" by Tannin Aquatics! Yes, the long, LONG delayed "Nature Base" substrates will be debuting very soon (I know, we've said it before a few hundred times- we're really trying to get production smoothed-out and optimized prior to releasing them).
Just an aside: As we've learned, going "next level" and doing things other than just "slinging seed pods" is not so easy. Sourcing raw materials, formulation, testing, re-testing, and packaging are way more complicated! And we're developing several diverse, exotic new products at once...So we've been pretty busy around here! Thanks for your patience- they'll be well worth the wait, we promise!
Okay, commercial plug finished...
You should omit some of the more heavily "tint-producing" botanicals, and go with stuff like the more "durable" seed pods, like Mokha pods, Monkey Pots, etc. These not only impart less tannins into the water than leaves and such, many of them, such as Dysoxylum pods and the like, represent the fruits and such that accumulate in these waters. Your fishes will forage on and among them as they would with such materials in Nature.
A good chemical filtration media will counteract any tint imparted into the water by these materials, as well as the nutrients released by them. I mean, don't be fooled-you're gonna get some "tint" in the water, but not as much as if you're using lots of leaves and stuff like Catappa bark, etc.
It's about experimentation; studying, observing, and replicating a natural process in the aquarium...to the best of our capabilities. "Artistic liberties" are not only possible- they're welcome! So many iterations, interpretations, and experiments are possible here.
I'd use some nice pieces of wood to represent the buttressed roots of the trees found in these habitats.And of course, you can "plant" some terrestrial grasses and even some aquatic plants, creating the look and function in a more realistic manner.
Of course, you could also use riparian-type plants, like Sedges and such, which can tolerate- or even require immersion and very moist soils for long-term health and growth. Some species of these plants are indeed found in such temporal environments in Nature, so it goes without saying that you should experiment with them in the aquarium, too!
A lot to do here.
We cluster the idea of replicating these varzea habitats into our "umbrella" concept of the "Urban Igapo"- a fun way to play with these niche ecosystems in our aquariums...
The ongoing experimentation, the mental shifts that we've asked you to make, the "norms" of botanical-style aquarium "practice" that we've pushed here for a few years- all will come together to make the "Urban Igapo"experiment unique and enjoyable to a wide variety of hobbyists!
I really hope that today's brief review of the unique varzea habitat has given you a few ideas to help get started. Remember, the diversity of aquatic environments is legion, and there is virtually no limit to what you- the creative hobbyist- can achieve with some time, effort, and imagination!
Stay creative. Stay resourceful. Stay excited. Stay studious...
And Stay Wet.
In the aquarium hobby, it seems like we have all sorts of things which crop up, which challenge our skills, theories, and intentions. And these things either discourage hobbyists from working in a certain area- or they entice and encourage the intrepid hobbyist to move forward, boldly forging new skills, learning new lessons- and if we're lucky, new breakthroughs that will benefit other hobbyists.
Problem (prob*lem): a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
Requirement (re*quire*ment): a thing that is compulsory; a necessary condition.
Few columns that I've written in the last few years have drawn as much interesting response from our readers, and as much thought-provoking discussion a piece we did on killifishes a while back. 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 without providing them with conditions appropriate to their needs? This isn't a "problem"- it's a "requirement." 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, right?
Some fishes are aggressive. Is that a "problem?" Well, only if you decide that they must be kept in community tanks with docile guppies or whatever. Other fishes require brackish water. Is that a "problem?" Only if you don't have a way of mixing and measuring salt concentration.
If we want to sell rare Apistogramma to a wider market, it's not a "problem." It's a challenge to figure out a way to keep them comfortable and healthy in order to accomplish this, and to communicate this to prospective keepers. If we determine that it is not practical for us to meet the requirements of the fishes in order to keep them/breed them/sell them, well- then it's simply a situation where we cannot meet the requirements in order to accomplish this.
Just because I can't keep African Cichlids with my acid-water-loving tetras doesn't make them a "problem", right?
Of course it isn't.
The word "problem", IMHO, gives us a sort of "cushion" to fall back on when something want to we do in the hobby requires that certain steps which we are unaware of, uncertain of, unwilling to take, or cannot undertake- present themselves. The challenge is to determine if the requirements are insurmountable for us, or if there is a way we can meet the requirements in a manner that is practical, given our resources.
A great example was the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium world we are into here.
I think that the "problem" of blackwater tanks for years was that we saw them as "dirty", "dangerous", "non-sustainable", etc. We as a hobby didn't look at the blackwater environment as one that required that we meet a specific set of parameters. We didn't look at keeping blackwater aquariums as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as a hobby saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.
We made it a "problem."
I mean, sure- there were/are challenges in creating these types of aquariums. They require us to follow certain procedures, create "best practices", and to accept parameters and aesthetics which we likely haven't previously considered as a hobby on a larger scale.
It took us to take on a different mindset.
It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to create and successfully maintain botanical-style, blackwater aquariums- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.
But we did. And now, we approach keeping botanical-style, blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but an "approach", which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.
Look, it wasn't like we were creating warp drive or nuclear fusion.
But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was just a bit, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums.
It's still a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making blackwater aquariums far more common in the hobby.
And not quite so scary!
Again, this is not some "revelation" I the hobby. However, I think it can spur thinking which helps us bridge the gap between what we have done before and what we'd liek to try in the future.
Let's not label every set of requirements of our fishes or approaches "problems." Rather, lets find out ways to meet their needs. Let's take a slightly different mindset and see how far it takes us.
It's worked pretty well over here.
I think that we as a hobby 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.
Yeah, what's the ?problem" here, anyways?
Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay diligent. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
One of the most fundamental aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping is the acceptance of natural processes, and the way that they look in our aquariums...Making mental shifts to understand, embrace, and encourage them. In our aquariums, we see many aspects of Nature, and if we are really thoughtful, we won't "edit" them away in our zeal to appeal to some hobby-centric view of what is "appropriate."
One of these is the concept of "cleanliness."
As aquarium hobbyists, I think that we have a most biased viewpoint when it comes to the topic of aesthetics...particularly those related to the concept of what a "clean" aquarium is.
For many decades, the idea has been to maintain a tank in an almost pristine, sterile way, with any decomposing material or extraneous debris of any sort. seen as aa sign of "poor husbandry" and sloppy aesthetics.
There ARE certainly habitats in Nature which would have the sort of pristine look we seem to elevate in the hobby; however, they are definitely not the norm.
So, yeah, you could absolutely keep a perfectly "clean-looking" tank and realistically represent some wild habitats. Of course, that's just one way to ru nan aquarium. Over here, we have a slightly different mindset...
The idea of an aquarium without any "bits and pieces" of "stuff"- and I'm not referring to uneaten food or fish feces here; rather, "stuff" like small bits of leaves, botanicals, java moss strands, roots, etc.- seems almost foreign to my "mindset" of aquarium keeping in the past decade!
Perhaps it's an example of just being in my own "bubble" of sorts for so long, but when I look at many of the pristine, "high concept" so-called "natural" planted aquascapes that are the darlings of the internet world of late, I definitely find them gorgeous- fantastic works of art...But that's exactly how I see them. Works of art. To me, although they have lots of plants and beautiful, highly stylized wood and rock hardscape, they bear as much of a resemblance to Nature as a flower bed does to a mountain meadow.
I stare at natural underwater habitats and look for stuff that resembles what we have called "natural" for some time now, and few, if any scenes in Nature bear any resemblance...
We touch on it all the time: Nature is anything but spotless, symmetrical, and perfectly organized. The very forces which drive the formation of underwater "landscapes" in the wild- rain, wind, sedimentation, falling trees, and materials from the surrounding terrestrial environment- virtually assure that what Nature does with rocks, wood, and plant materials is completely different than what most of us hobbyists do.
Most of us.
I remember as kid growing up, reading copies of Tropical Fish Hobbyist. They were often filled with articles and photos from the great German hobbyist/photographer/author, Hans-Joachim Richter, who's aquariums were always filled with little bits of "stuff" like bark pieces, fragments of leaves, varying sized substrate materials, botanicals, Java Moss strands, etc.
You could tell a pic was his just by noting these things!
His work inspired me from a young age. It was very different. It felt...I don't know- just sort of "right."
His aquariums opened up my impressionable young mind to go beyond the "#3 aquarium gravel"/Amazon Sword Plant/Petrified wood aquascaping "vibe" of the late seventies and early eighties that I grew up on.
There was an "it factor" to his tanks that was radically different than anything else you'd see out there.
And they looked so much more natural than the typical aquariums of the day, filled with pristine gravel/sand and crisp, green plants. And when you "correlated" them with images you'd see of natural underwater habitats in places like Southeast Asia, Amazon, and elsewhere, it was impossible not to see a connection to how Nature really looks.
Yeah, they really represented what Nature is actually like- in appearance for sure, and also likely in function.
Now, the point of this is not for me to bring up the fact that what we do with botanical-style natural aquariums is more of a representation of Nature as it is than those other styles- we know this from me beating the shit out of the idea over an over. The point is, I think we should not be obsessive about removing bits and peices of botanical debris and such to keep our aquariums looking almost artificially sterile.
A recent case is my office brackish-water mangrove-themed aquarium, which we've discussed several times here. The primary "hardscape" of the tank is mangrove root wood. This is a heavy, rather "dirty', bark-covered wood that seems to be incredibly attractive to many fishes and snails, who seem to love to pick and rasp at it.
In the mangrove tank, this incessant picking and rasping by the resident life forms has resulted in a fair amount of mangrove bark "crumbs" littering the sandy substrate at the bottom of the tank. Combined with bits of mangrove leaf litter, which I encourage to break down over time, and there is a near constant accumulation of this stuff on the bottom.
I do tend to siphon the larger aggregations of it weekly with my water exchanges, but it comes right back as fishes and snails continue to do their thing.
And predictably, despite a significant water movement in the tank provided by an EcoTech Marine Vortech MP10 pump in short-interval "Nutrient Export" mode, these materials tend to accumulate in the same areas of the tank, making removal of excesses really easy. And quite frankly, the random bits of botanical materials that occur throughout the surface of the substrate don't irritate me in the least. I
If you look at images of "mangals" (mangrove habitats)- this is exactly what you see.
Water quality has not budged, with undetectable levels of phosphate and nitrate (two of the biological "yardsticks" for measuring water quality, along with ORP/conductivity) since day one. Again, we're not talking about pieces of eaten food, or fish feces- just botanical materials/debris. The is a difference. It is not only part of the natural "aesthetic" of this habitat- it's part of its functional composition, too- supporting, on some level, a little "food web" that support the other life forms in the aquarium.
Natural. Not sterile. Not "dirty", either.
Just different than the aquarium aesthetic interpretation we've been indoctrinated to follow since our earliest days in the hobby.
Sure, there are some keys to maintaining aquarium filled with materials like decomposing leaves and botanicals. You definitely need to do regular maintenance. You don't want to overstock...I mean, common sense stuff. However, in a tank filled with considerable organic material, "slight overstocking" and poor general husbandry can be problematic.
So be careful and thoughtful.
That being said, in almost 22 years of playing with blackwater, botanicals filled systems and other natural-style aquariums using leaves and botanicals, I've never had any issues. No "crashes." No pH "dropouts. No tanks turning into mucky messes.
An aquarium can still be "clean" in terms of its environmental parameters, yet have a look which supports the appearance of natural materials on the substrate in a less-than-"orderly" manner.
It's about husbandry and perspective...
And accepting the fact that the leaves and other natural materials are part of the ecology of the tank, and that they will behave as terrestrial materials do when submerged: They'll break down and decompose. They'll form the basis of a surpassingly 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 the botanical materials not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense.
"Clean" takes on a different meaning.
"Abundance" and "utilization" are words that come to mind when thinking about these components of our closed aquatic ecosystems in this manner. Thinking about these materials in the context of them being part of the environment as a whole- contributing to it, rather than detracting from it.
Stay observant. Stay thoughtful. Stay enthused. Stay diligent. Stay clean...
And Stay Wet.
Every once in a while, it's important to go back to some of our most fundamental ideas- stuff which permeates what we do, and may stimulate us to explore things a bit further.
With all of the hype that's showing up lately about blackwater aquariums, it's sometimes fun to look back at the most basic of thoughts behind our area of interest...such as:
Where does our coveted blackwater originate?
In general, blackwaters originate from sandy soils.
High concentrations of humic acids in the water are thought to occur in drainages with what scientists call "podzol" sandy soils from which minerals have been leached. That last part is interesting, and helps explain in part the absence of minerals in blackwater.
Blackwater rivers, like the Rio Negro, for example, originate in areas which are characterized by the presence of the aforementioned podzols.
Podzols are soils with whitish-grey color, bleached by organic acids. They typically occur in humid areas like the Rio Negro and in the northern upper Amazon Basin. And the Rio Negro and other blackwater rivers, which drain the pre-Cambrian "Guiana and Brazilian shields" of geology, can in part attribute the dark color of their waters to high concentrations of dissolved humic and fulvic acids!
Although they are the most infertile soils in Amazonia, much of the nutrients are extracted from the abundant plant growth that takes place in the very top soil layers, as virtually no plant roots are observed in the mineral soil itself.
One study concluded that the Rio Negro is a blackwater river in large part because the very low nutrient concentrations of the soils that drain into it have arisen as a result of "several cycles of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation." In other words, there's not a whole lot of minerals and nutrients left in the soils to dissolve into the water to any meaningful extent!
And more than one hobbyist I know has played with the concept of "dirted" planted tanks, using terrestrial soils...hmmm.
On to something here!
Also interesting to note is that fact that soluble humic acids are adsorbed by clay minerals in what are known as "oxisol" soils, resulting in clear waters."Oxisol" soils are often classified as "laterite" soils, which some who grow plants are familiar with, known for their richness in iron and aluminum oxides. I'm no chemist, or even a planted tank geek..but aren't those important elements for aquatic plants?
Yeah...I think they are.
And, in "iagapos "(those seasonally flooded forest areas which lead to blackwater environments), the soils are conducive to good terrestrial plant growth. Fishes which reside in these habitats feed off of the materials, like fruits and seeds, which fall from the trees, or otherwise end up in the water during periods of inundation.
Interestingly, seed dispersal by fish (a process known technically as "ichthyochory") is thought to play an important role in the maintenance of the diversity of trees in these seasonally inundated forests along the main rivers of the Amazon.
An interesting little tidbit of information! The terrestrial environment has significant impact on the aquatic habitat. And, in this area, aquatic life influences the land!
That makes sense, right?
Fishes which consume matter found in the substrate (detritivores) and other materials in the substrate (omnivores) also play a fundamental role in the transportation of organic carbon, which is a source of energy for downstream fish communities. Through their foraging activities, these fishes enhance the "downstream transport" and processing of organic material and ensure the proper functioning of the aquatic system and its biological community.
So, we have the terrestrial environment influencing the aquatic environment, and fishes that live in the aquatic environment influencing the terrestrial environment!
These interdependencies are really complicated- and really interesting!
And it just goes to show you that some of the things we could do in our aquariums (such as utilizing alternative substrate materials, botanicals, and perhaps even submersion-tolerant terrestrial plants) are strongly reminiscent of what happens in the wild. The "Urban Igapo" idea we've been pushing here for well over two years now...
Sure, we typically don't maintain completely "open" systems, but I wonder just how much of the ecology of these fascinating habitats we can replicate in our tanks-and what potential benefits may be realized?
That's my continuing challenge to our community..
Interesting role for fishes, isn't it? What can we learn from them and their impact on the aquatic environment? Is any of their activity relevant to aquariums?
I believe that it is. Absolutely.
The whole picture here is kind of interesting to me. I think there is a lot of potentially useful stuff to absorb here!
I mean, we have the terrestrial environment influencing the aquatic environment, and fishes that live in the aquatic environment influencing the terrestrial environment! This is really complicated stuff- and interesting! And the idea that terrestrial environments and materials influence aquatic ones- and vice-versa- is compelling and could be an interesting area to contemplate for us hobbyists!
It already is, to some extent, as the whole idea of utilizing botanicals (from terrestrial sources) in our aquariums encompasses these processes.
And that whole "blackwater" thing that seems to be all th rage these days in the aquarium hobby? There is a lot we know from sicken- and a lot for hobbyists to learn from it. Like, just a "definition" of what blackwater really is, and what it's characteristics actually are...This becomes a real point of discussion- even contention- in some hobbyists circles...Really quite silly, IMHO.
To ecologists, besides simply the color, of course, one of the defining characteristics of blackwater rivers is pH values in the range of 4-5, and low electrical conductivity. Dissolved minerals, such as Ca, Mg, K, and Na are negligible. That's a good start.
And with these low amounts of dissolved minerals come unique challenges for the animals who reside in these systems.
How do fishes survive and thrive in these rather extreme habitats?
It's long been known that fishes are well adapted to their natural habitats, particularly the more extreme ones. And this was borne out in a recent study of the Cardinal Tetra. Lab results suggest that humic substances protect cardinal tetras in the soft, acidic water in which they resides by preventing excessive sodium loss and stimulating calcium uptake to ensure proper homeostasis.
This is pretty extraordinary, as the humic substances found i the water actually enable the fishes to survive in this highly acidic water which is devoid of much mineral content typically needed for fishes to survive!
Oh, and this juicy finding in a study on humic substances in ornamental fish aquaculture: "Humic substances are not real alternatives to strong traditional therapeutics. However, they show different advantages in repairing secondary, stress induced damages in fish."
So there IS a lot out there on the topic of humic substances and tannin in water, and on the composition of blackwater habitats. It's actually very well studied by science; it simply hasn't "trickled down" to the hobby level to any practical extent (until, oh...maybe...NOW!). And much of it involves understanding the physical environment in which blackwater systems are found in nature.
Something in those leaves and botanicals, right?
And this goes far beyond just the cool aesthetics they impart, too!
Land and water, working together, provide and amazing resource for the adventurous and interested hobbyist to explore in greater detail.
I think the blackwater/botanical sector can create a model for hobby-level contribution to the body of knowledge about these highly fascinating, remarkably diverse, surprisingly pervasive, and incredibly compelling natural aquatic habitats.
YOU are at the center of this evolution in modern aquarium-keeping...and the world is not only noticing- they're benefitting from your efforts.
Keep at it.
Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
One of the things that we love most about botanical-style aquariums is the way that they encourage us to observe little details- things that we might otherwise overlook in the aquarium. And by observing those details, we actually see the 'bigger picture" in a very different way.
As aquatic hobbyists, we do have an eye for details, don't we?
Once of the things that I’ve sort of arrived at over the years in my aquarium “career”- probably from my reef keeping side, is a love of creating “microhabitats” within a given system for a variety of fishes. In other words, creating little features and areas within the aquarium which provide some of those specialized niches that they need for their well-being.
This seems at first to be a “no brainer”, but in real world practice, it’s not as easy as you think, right?
For example, we always knew that you need to provide places to retreat to for fishes like Plecos, knifefishes, and even many dwarf cichlids. However, when we start talking about features like leaf litter/botanical beds, we're introducing another dimension- a physical locale in which fishes can both forage and reside.
We've taken what was normally just sort of "there"- a substrate sand or gravel, and suddenly turned it into a valuable and dynamic niche for both these fishes and others which we might not have considered keeping at first!
With very simple modifications to our existing aquariums (like adding a few well-thought-out places for our fishes to retreat into, or "microhabitats" like botanical or leaf litter beds), we can create and make available an entirely new area of the tank for our fishes to utilize as they would in Nature.
A real no brainer.
Fishes taking advantage of a niches you can create in your system is super important. Not exactly novel, but often overlooked. The kinds of "niches" you offer can have profound positive impact on the lives of your fishes. And the reality is that, even if we don't intentionally create them, we will see these little microhabitats in our botanical-style aquariums.
The concept really got me thinking about how we stock our tanks…
I mean, it’s beyond simply placing a fish into our aquarium…It’s about viewing where your aquarium is in it's evolution at the time that you choose to add a fish to your selection- and then, stocking accordingly.
What I mean is that, as we've discussed before here, it's work considering how "established" a tank is. How diverse the microfauna population is. How stable the water chemistry is. Stuff which we might think about now and then, but which can take a more "front and center" role in our aquairums.
And, even though our systems are artificial in nature, they are little closed microcosms, with distinct “micro-niches” within them-often evolving over time. For example, even a high-light/high flow river tank has SOME areas where the flow is lower, the light less intense…perhaps an area where (gasp!) some detritus or food collects…where sand gets blown into..whatever.
Regardless, these are areas that you can take advantage of by utilizing them fly selecting fishes or plants that would do well under the conditions provided.
At almost any stage in an aquarium’s life, there are little niches and evolving environmental changes within the system that you can use to your advantage by “planting” aquascaping props (seed pods, leaves, wood, etc.) appropriate for the given niche.
It even goes beyond planned aesthetics (ie; “That piece of wood would look awesome there!”) and, much like happens in the natural environment- plants grow and fishes gather where conditions are appropriate. Fishes take opportunities to live among the debris on newly-inundated forest floors...
Reminds me of the little weeds that just seem to pop up out of the cracks in the sidewalk pavement…you can’t help but admire the craftiness and tenacity of life. If you do, you'll find many times that, not only has the weed utilized this little niche- so has a small "ecosystem" of other plants and insects.
It's quite amazing, actually.
It's a process which continuously occurs in natural aquatic habitats…and our aquariums.
Don’t just look for the prime viewing spot for your fish acquisition. Look for the “cracks in the pavement", in your tanks, too. Those little details- those unique places where fishes can hide, forage among, and spawn...
Your fishes certainly will.
Keep looking at things just a bit more closely, okay? There are a lot of unique things to see out there in Nature, and in our own tanks.
Today’s ridiculously simple, yet quite possibly overlooked idea.
Stay excited. Stay innovative. Stay observant. Stay engaged...
And stay wet.
There is that point in every botanical-style aquarium where our initial work is done, and it's time for Nature to take over.
It's the point where breaking down of the botanicals begins, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling. This is where embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi makes a lot of sense. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time. Botanical-style aquariums are literally the epitome of this idea.
And of course, once the botanicals start "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an "observer" from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a very cool phase of "actively managing" the aquarium. (And by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervention!")
Making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to.
And it really starts with decomposition.
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.
Again, decomposition is so fundamental to our "game" that it deserves mentioning again and again here!
Now, a lot of people may disagree, but I personally feel that THIS phase, when stuff starts to break down, is the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole process!
And perhaps- one of the most natural...
A phase when you interact with your aquarium on a very different level; a place where you get to play a role in the direction your 'aquarium is going, without constantly interrupting the natural progression taking place within the little microcosm you created!
And of course, this phase in our aquariums has a natural "analog", too.
It mimics, to some extent, the period of time when those initial rains arrive and inundate formerly dry habitats, flooding forests and grasslands, transforming them into aquatic habitats once again. The sort of "pause" between storms gives life a chance to make those adjustments necessary during the transformation.
As botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall environment. Some botanicals, like leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "tint level" you've started to achieve in your aquarium.
Others last a much longer time.
Knowing when to replace or add to them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially. Once you get used to working with them in your aquariums, you may be able to notice pH increases, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators/phenomena which can clue you in that it's time to replace or add to them.
On the other hand, many types of seed pods and other botanicals will last much longer periods of time than leaves in most aquariums, yet may not impart their tannins and other substances as quickly as say, leaves, simply because their very structure is different than the softer, thinner leaves. Many will hold their physical form for a very long period of time, yet may not be releasing quite as much tannins or humic substances as they were initially.
Again, it's sort of a judgement call.
As much of an instinct, and "art" as it is a "science." As we've discussed many times before, without the ability to measure the levels of the specific substances that botanical items are imparting into your tank (and, quite frankly, knowing just what they are, and what is considered "normal" for the system!),
it's really about "nuancing it", isn't it? Like so many other things in this hobby, you sort of have to take a "best guess", or go with your instincts.
Yeah, I know- this is hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of aqaquairum approach at this point in time. It's not like, our example, a reef tank, where we have detailed chemical baselines for seawater parameters, and 32-component ICP-OES tests to establish baselines and measure deviations from them.
Nope. It's about nuance, observation, "feel"... finesse.
Obviously, you need to obey all of the common "best practices" of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well!
And you need to keep yourself in check, too. Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium.
A foundational, important thing to understand.
As is patience. Like, even on a "re-start", you need to employ so much patience, right? Like, why rush things?
I mean, we tend to do that, right?
I was wondering if it has to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is? I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a home improvement project, meal preparation, or algebra test, I can see how reaching some semblance of "finished" would take on a greater significance!
On the other hand, if you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system.
Every stage holds fascination.
IS there even a "finish line" to an aquarium, other than the ones we impose?
I think not.
No rush required.
Part of the reason why we celebrate the “evolution” of blackwater/brackish, botanical-style aquariums here at Tannin Aquatics is because the very act of working with one of these tanks IS an evolution. A process. A celebration of sensory delights.
An aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing. To intervene in the process to "speed things up" or "circumvent" a phase is really to deny the opportunity for Nature to do what She does best.
We celebrate the process. The evolution. We savor the time it takes to see a tank mature in this fashion. We love new tanks, just starting the journey, because we know how they progress if they are left to do what Nature wants them to do.
We understand as a community that it takes time. It takes patience. And that the "end of the beginning" is the part of the experience that we can savor most of all…
Because it’s continuous.
Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay focused. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
Most of this blog won't be pretty today. It just won’t.
Well, it needs to be a bit aggressive, I think. Beating around the bush is just too subtle sometimes.
I love constructive criticism. I love suggestions, dialogue, and discussions. And even disagreements. It's what makes what we do here so fun. There is no "right or wrong way" to play with aquariums, IMHO. Just ways that might be more successful, sustainable, or replicable by others.
Yet, there are people out there in the hobby who are so mired in their own interpretation of cult-like groupthink that they just can't get out of their own heads.
SO much dogma and even anger...it's weird. It creates strange personas. Fanboys. People who are so in love with the identity that their interpretation gives them that it fuels them to lash out at anyone who does something different.
The other day, I received an email from some guy who claimed that what we are "pushing" at Tannin is an "..irresponsible, un-artistic insult to aquascaping." And further, a "sloppy, undisciplined, and poorly thought-out version of 'Nature Aquarium.'"
Okay, fanboy- game on.
It get's a bit stranger...I mean, he took the time to write...so I'll take the time to share it with you.
He went on to further insult our community as "rubes" ( Look that word up, lol) who are "largely misinformed, incompetent 'Nature Aquarists' (WTF are THOSE? ) who are exposing their fishes to dangerous, unhealthy conditions by following your ideas and so-called 'techniques' to create their aquascapes." ( the "aquascapes" part made me laugh, because, as we've said 1,000 times, it's not just a "look" we're after here...and of course, he didn't get that…). And everything was compared to "Nature Aquarium"- or his scary, cult like adherence to it.
We're selling the aquatic version of "snake oil", I guess, in his mind.
Okay, normally, I don't let this kind of stuff get to me.
In fact, I love it, because it's good to stir people's souls and move them- good or bad. I enjoy being a bit of an agitator when required. I don't care about the criticisms...because someone has to tell shit like it is, right?
And this could be a "teaching moment." A chance to once and for all, get this idea out there. To perhaps start decent discussion, I suppose, that may be therapeutic to some people... It is to me.
But this guy- Wow! He "hit me" on all the points that he felt were important to his cooked up "us versus them" paranoid freak out. His "criticism", in addition to being a window on his insecurities as a person, exposed a deep "cancer" that lives at the heart of some parts of the hobby. Fear. Resentment. Groupthink. "My way is the ONLY way!"
The need to choose "one side or the other…"
First off, for the 10,000th time, I have no idea why people keep comparing what we do here at Tannin, and in the botanical-style aquarium "movement" to Amano's idea of "Nature Aquarium." I just don't. The only thing our ideas have in common is that we keep aquariums and we use the words "Nature or "natural" a lot to describe the stuff we're into. Or maybe there is more in common, right?
Yet, why the need for them to attack?
How come, every time someone talks about natural interpretations of wild habitats, some people feel an immediate need to bow to the "Nature Aquarium" cult and make sure that they somehow “defend its honor”- as if we had any intent whatsoever to criticize it. I can tell you for myself that when I do my work, I’m sure as hell not thinking of “Nature Aquarium” in any way- good or bad. I just do my thing. And I doubt most "Nature Aquarium" fans are thinking of our stuff, either.
Yeah, when I talk about the stuff I do here, I'm not even thinking about comparing what we work with to Amano's ideas. They inspire me, though- indirectly. Why do people think that anything which doesn't perfectly embrace every idea they talk about in the "Nature Aquarium" universe exactly like they do is somehow an insult or and attack on Amano and his ideas?
The hobby isn't some “zero sum game”, where you either pledge your undying loyalty to "Nature Aquarium" or you're some scumbag trying to attack "the body." And news flash: That “movement” isn’t the center of the aquarium universe. Nor was it intended to be. And dogma wasn’t supposed to be a part of it, I’m sure. Having a different viewpoint on hobby things doesn’t make one person right, or the other wrong.
In fact, I think if Amano and I ever talked we'd agree on most everything. Some of his early photos were of dirty, dark, blackwater habitats in The Amazon and elsewhere, which he loved. And I think he'd be pretty pissed off at the way people have turned his ideas into some sort of "cargo cult" over the years. I really don't think that's what he wanted. I know that I wouldn't want that.
And I’m also pretty sure he’d be like, “Who the HELL is Scott Fellman and what is this 'botanical-style aquarium' thing?" 😆 We’re all into our own craft. We’re pretty busy here, too. Even being mentioned in the same context as the work he did is an honor, but I think it’s pretty absurd. As is thinking that our ideas are the "Anti Nature Aquarium" movement or something.
Okay, I AM anti- dickhead- so if our work pisses off the idiots in any other hobby "movement", out there- so be it. Yet, the point of what we do here isn't to diminish the work of anyone else doing some other thing. Absolutely not.
Yes, Amano was one of the great innovators in the hobby.
What he did was provide a technique and philosophy to embrace aspects of Nature and natural processes in the aquarium, and to express ourselves by using the materials which Nature offers- in this case- aquatic plants, rocks, and wood. It changed the aquarium world forever.
However, I'm willing to bet that Amano didn't want-or even expect- his ideas to be held "in stasis", never being evolved nor questioned, and to be considered by the aquarium hobby as the only way to create a beautiful, functional interpretation of Nature. I just don't. And I sure as hell don't think he wanted strange fan-boy drones attacking everyone who expresses a desire to interpret Nature differently.
I really don't get what this guy meant by his particular attack; however, I"m grateful that it gave me the chance to clear up this unspoken weirdness and speak my piece once and for all. For those of you who are offended by this "rebuttal", I'm really sorry- I'm merely trying to explain our POV, and it may come across a bit harsh...
We have to really think about WHY Nature is so compelling. What we need to use it as a muse.
Even the names of these magical places draw us in:
"From the North to the South, Ebudæ into Khartoum
From the deep sea of Clouds to the island of the moon
Carry me on the waves to the lands I've never been
Carry me on the waves to the lands I've never seen
We can sail, we can sail with the Orinoco Flow..."- From the song, "Orinoco Flow" by Enya
The world is filled with exotic, achingly beautiful aquatic environments.
Stuff we could scarcely imagine, but they're real...and amazing, just waiting for us as aquarists to learn more about them, study their unique characteristics and function- appreciate their beauty-and attempt to replicate aspects of them in the aquarium.
By making the effort to do this, we'll understand things about Nature that we never could by simply replicating some other aquarium that some other guy did. Again.
For heaven's sake, PLEASE try something different. Think outside the box. Look at a puddle, a ditch, water flowing through the gutter- ANYTHING that another hobbyist hasn't done according to some specific "rules"- and breathe a bit. You'd be surprised what amazing stuff you can come up with when you look at Nature without a filter or a bias.
Yet, here we go, year after year, arranging rocks in some specified pattern, or throwing wood in our tanks to create some sort of artistic, geometric harmony, without ever thinking about the reasons why rocks, plants, and wood are in aquatic habitats in the first place, and why they are distributed in ways that defy "Golden Ratio" and other human-created concepts...yet still look amazing.
We don't think about Nature as it really is. Not enough, anyways-right?
And sure- we can create another goddam "Nature Aquarium" and vomit it up all over social media, touting this as the only way to appreciate Nature, and criticizing mightily anything which uses words like "Nature or "Natural" that doesn't fit our own tightly held world view- like that fanboy zombie drone guy would want, right? We could do that. But guess what? That would be a direct affront to Mr. Amano and all he worked so hard to share with the hobby.
Yeah, it would, fanboy.
Or, we could work backwards, and look at Nature, sort of like what Amano did-studiy it- and interpret different parts of it, wonder how they could function in our aquariums- unafraid of what it might look like if we don't edit it to conform with the expectations of the aquarium world.
Yeah. We can be bold and simply do what moves us- not what gets us accolades from the "cool kids."
Fuck the "cool kids!" Who are they to tell YOU how to do stuff?
Nature is the real inspiration and guide to everything. The answers we seek are out there- right in front of us. And those wild aquatic habitats? What do we gain by studying them and attempting to recreate them in a more functional, authentic way?
Well, we won't take them for granted before they disappear from the earth forever.
We'll be able to share their wonder with people who have never even heard of some of these places and environments. People who never saw the precious aquatic organisms which reside in them. We can reach people who had never considered how they will impact our planet when they are destroyed by man's encroachments.
That's a good thing to do.
And we at Tannin- I think we're fucking blowing it big time.
I know I need to do better.
We're pushing the idea hard; just not hard enough, or with enough verve.
We'll go harder. Deeper. More literal.
There is something we can do a bit differently than we've been doing in the hobby. We can push the limits harder. We can push our skills further. We can release ourselves of the bondage of the rules that "they" threw together decades ago. We can rethink stuff. We can share more unique interpretations of habitats which, although teeming with life- and tropical fishes- seem to have been ignored as we rush to replicate more "aquarium friendly" ones. Perhaps, ones which are more relatable?
Yet, there they sit. Waiting for us to unlock their secrets.
I've not been good enough at this. I'll do more. I realize that I want to push way farther outside the boundaries of "conventional aquarium work" than I've done before. Because that might motivate others. Maybe, if I'm lucky- inspire others to push out farther into their own unique interpretations of the natural world's limitless aquatic niches.
SO, yeah...Im a bit more free now...A bit lighter, having spoke to this strange "thing" that's been floating out there for a while.
That's the kind of stuff that unless new ideas. It's the kind of motivation that pushes me to go further. And hopefully, does the same to you...
That's what happens when others question our ideas. Our inspirations. Our motivations.
It's what happens when we let Nature really speak to us.
And it's also what happens...When fanboys attack!
Stay brave. Stay inspired. Stay curious. Stay motivated. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.
From the "...We've been talking about this forever..." Department:
Because I've received at least 4 emails this week alone asking if we're ever going to do an "aquascaping constest" of some sort, I suppose I have to talk about this stuff again!
It's sort of "unfinished business", huh?
Yes, it's time for me to start ruminating about the idea of an "aquascapinge contests! contest" yet again. And, well- there's no easy way to say it...Shit, I hate contests! Okay, well, I hate how they're usually judged...Or maybe I just hate them, period?
I'm not certain yet...
Now, with my complete disdain for the typical aquascaping contests- the absurd rules, the endless arguments over format, attitudes, etc, I feel like I'm likely opening up myself for more trouble... 😂
Yet, people keep asking us about having a "contest!"
I know we talked about this thing I called the "Igapo Challenge" some time back (about 3 years ago)...It's something that I know we'll do later, especially after our "Nature Base" substrates come online...
However, I think our first contest needs to have a broader appeal than just replicating a very specific environmental niche...
It needs to be a bit more inclusive, and do more than just reward the "best-looking tank." I think that's actually too subjective. I think we need to honor tanks which embrace the functional, executional, and philosophical aspects of the botanical-style aquarium hobby movement.
That being said, I think a contest can perform some valuable functions in our world. First, it can help show the current state of the art in truly natural, botanical-style aquariums. Not just blackwater aquariums...As we've seen, the world we've all evolved here at Tannin has grown to encompass botanical-style blackwater, brackish, planted, and other types of unique systems, from vivariums to paludariums.
I'm trying to figure out criteria...And it's not easy, because there are a lot of things in typical contests that drive me crazy. And, if we do this, I know that will personally have to restrain myself from railing on any of our judges who give points for "Golden Ratio", "Iwagumi" rock placement, "proper grouping" of aquatic plants, or other conventional constructs like that.
Also, I wouldn't want to hold entrants to being compelled to enter stuff as specific as "Small meander adjacent to Rio Parauari, high water mark, 30km north of the town of Alto Maues..." It's great for a biotope-centric contest, but for our "biotope inspired" mindset, it's just too much, IMHO. Not only would that degree of outright pretentiousness make me want to vomit- I think it would defeat the purpose of this contest idea.
So, no need to give exact GPS locations, etc.
Rather, I'd like to emphasize our "craft" of natural, botanical-style aquariums, taking inspiration from unusual environmental niches and "translating" them into aquarium s. I'd want to place more emphasis on the idea/inspiration and its execution, and less emphasis on particular ecological niche or "style" of tank.
Does that make sense?
We'd have to get this right. And make it clear to contestants what the "big idea" is here...to inspire, inform, and educate on technique and inspiration.
That's why, I'd vet the judges carefully. It would just be ugly, otherwise! I mean, sure, I'm not saying that we'd want to see entries like, "Liquid Methane River on the Saturnian moon of Titan"- that's too geeky and weird even for me. On the other hand, if you can pull that shit off...Respect.
Oh, and if you give your entry a name; you know, "The wandering trail to Enlightenment" or something like that- immediate disqualification. Seriously. 😍 Not in OUR contest.
Just enter something cool. Describe what it purports to represent.
We'd likely have some set of questions that comes with entry- so that observers and judges alike can learn from your work...
The idea- our "mission statement", if you will- would be to create a contest- an exhibition, really- which celebrates our love of the "natural style" aquarium. And more important, celebrates the uniqueness; the unedited aesthetics of Nature- and the function of the aquarium.
Entrants won't be rewarded for "fantasy-style diorama" tanks, for sure! Wrong contest.
And of course, I know some jackass will try to enter a hair-algae-smothered rocksacape with piles of of uneaten food over fish-poop-saturaed #3 aquarium gravel and claim, "It's unedited Nature, bro- deal with it!" We will, by ignoring it. The idea here is not to give the middle finger to basic aquarium fundamentals..No, you have to understand http. If you've read our blogs and followed our social media, you understand what our philosophy and "modus operandi" is here.
I suppose, the whole thing also requires us to have a definition of what we think a "natural style aquarium" is in our little contest. Well, here are some of my initial thoughts:
First off, the aquarium should incorporate a large percentage of materials such as botanicals, leaves, driftwood, etc., utilized in such a manner as to create a functional representation of a wild aquatic habitat. In other words, an aquarium that operates, not just looks good.
I think that vivariums, paludariums, and aquariums should all be entered into the mix...No separate categories for them. Because we will likely evaluate a given system on both aesthetics and function, and we want to encourage "cross-over" work by aquatic hobbyists- I don't see any reason why we should have all sorts of complicated category distinctions. Same with display size. I see no reason why a 5-gallon aquarium can't be evaluated using the same criteria as you would a 250-gallon aquarium. Maybe I'm wrong; let me know your thoughts on that.
Oh, and I think it would be important to show some "evolution" of each entry. In other words, more than just a "here's the rock work as we set up the tank" bullshit. I'm talking, several shots taken throughout the "pre-entry" life of the tank, from startup to submission- perhaps taken over the course of 4-5 months. Yeah- any talented 'scaper can do an "instascape"- it takes a talented aquarist can evolve and manage it over time.
This would, of course, necessitate a longer time window for entries. Like, there would be an entry period, and then an "evolution period", and finally, the closing date when submissions need to be received by. That would likely turn off a lot of the "BS entries", right?
And stuff like decomposition, detritus, biofilm- even algal growth would not be penalized. In fact, unless it's specific to a given niche you're attempting to replicate, I'd think that we'd actually look suspiciously on any tank that looks super pristine and perfect! Again, of course, I'm not saying to enter a poorly-maintained fish-death factory...What I am suggesting is that we should see entrants which attempt to "meet Nature where it is"- that being the intersection of science, art, and evolution.
Nature is not a perfectly ordered, pristine place. Your entries don't need to be, either.
And then there would be a strong judging component for originality and innovation. Like, if you tackled some problem uniquely to create your functionally aesthetic entry, we'd love to hear about it. No secrets in this game. It's as much about sharing technique as it is about exhibiting the results of it. And no, you don't have to only use materials you've purchased from Tannin in your entries. Sure, we'd love to see some stuff, but to make that a requirement would be- well, just sort of lame.
And of course...prizes.
If we're asking you to do a 6-month commitment to a contest, they have to be good. So, likely, we'll have stuff like aquariums, lights, accessories, gift cards, etc.
Likely, there would be a nominal entry fee (like $10USD or less), which would cover some of the expenses for administering and promoting the contest and entries. We'd really want to share your work with the world.
And I think we'd have a first-third award schedule. And perhaps a couple of other categories? Like, "Most Unique Interpretation of an Ecological Niche" or "Most Innovative"- something like that?
Well, that's what I have for you so far...I'm absolutely open to hearing what you think- to your suggestions, concerns, etc.
My God, what have I unleashed now?
"Out of the frying pan- into the damn fire, right?"
Okay, so, we'll be chatting about this more, I'm sure...
Until next time...
Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay diligent. Stay unique. Stay generous...
And Stay Wet.