As the seasons pass...

 

Every Corydoras breeder knows something that we all should know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clever.

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

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

Weather, once again.

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

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

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

Interesting. 

Okay, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The killifishes.

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

Yeah... I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example?

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

More questions...

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

Hmm...?

Oh, and here is another interesting observation:

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

Makes sense, right? 

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

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

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

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

And the process happens surprisingly quickly.

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

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

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

I think it means that we need to continue to foster the biological diversity of animals in our aquariums- embracing life at all levels- from bacteria to fungi to crustaceans to worms, and ultimately, our fishes...All forming the basis of a closed ecosystem, and perhaps a "food web" of sorts for our little aquatic microcosms. It's a very interesting  concept- a fascinating field for research for aquarists, and we all have the opportunity to participate in this on a most intimate level by simply observing what's happening in our aquariums every day!

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

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

Consider this:

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

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

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

That's crazy.

But it makes a lot of sense, right?

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

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

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

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

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

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

September 26, 2022

0 comments


"Geographic transgressions" and other forgivable sins...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid shit like that.

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

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

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

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

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

Probably?

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

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

Or is it? 

It likely is.

I'm sure that it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

"Generic Tropical."

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

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

I'm just sayin'.

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

Really.

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

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

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

Maybe they're from areas nearby.

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

"Generic tropical."

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

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

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

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

 

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

These "sins" are perfectly forgivable, trust me.

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

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Inception.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, DO you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And our botanical-method systems change constantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real positive takeaway here:

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

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

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

He gets it.

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

 

They get it.

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

Nature celebrates "The Bloom", too.

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

Time for a little thought experiment...

You're a fish.

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

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

Now, back to being you for a second.

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

That’s reality.

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

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

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

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

Yes. Seriously.

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

Any "secret" to this?

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

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

A really simple concept.

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

 

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

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

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

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

And think about it for a second.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Food Web.

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

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

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

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

 You can do this.

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

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

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

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Back from nowhere...

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

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

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

So, what's up with Tannin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for more fun collaborations with these guys in 2023!

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

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

Wood is definitely part of the Tannin "DNA".

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

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

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

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

That's what we're here for! 

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

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

You "outliers..."

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

 

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

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

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

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

It just is, in my opinion. Sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just because it's time for one.

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

August 16, 2022

0 comments


The ones which take you back...

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

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

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

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


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

Nah. 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

Many have similarly nostalgic vibes for it.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

First and foremost is the Neon Tetra.

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

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

So "old school", yet so alluring.

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

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

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

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

And then there is the Pristella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love it.

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

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

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

August 05, 2022

0 comments


The game. Revisted.

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

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

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

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

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

It's the "game."

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

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

Beyond aesthetics

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

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

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

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

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

We call the idea "functional aesthetics."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that they do bring...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fungus is nothing to fear here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long game...

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a good water-exchanging regimen?

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

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

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

This is a super-important point to remember!

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

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

It's all part of the game...

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

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

 

The "through line"

through line (N): "A common or consistent element or theme shared by items in a series or by parts of a whole."

I recently returned from another speaking gig.

This time, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, in the midwest of the U.S. I visited a club with some very advanced, super-talented hobbyists, some who are icons in various hobby specialities. It was a lot of fun, as they almost always are. However, this one- THIS trip- left me with some really profound revelations about the hobby which I'm still processing.

An added bonus is that I was able to visit the amazing botanical method aquariums of our friend, Melanie Holmes. It was beyond satisfying to see a truly talented hobbyist find Her way in the hobby, evolving from "traditional" planted aquascaped tanks into the botanical method. 

Observing her work, it was easy to see how Her skill from one "genre" translated into our little speciality. The "through line" was a great understanding of the ecology of aquariums. Here tanks were a celebration of life, aesthetic, and ecology. Any one of them was among the best botanical-method aquariums ever created, IMHO.

I was also able to visit a fish room of a very advanced killifish breeder, and it was not only educational for me, it was enlightening...I took particular note of the techniques and approaches that he was utilizing to manage a large number of aquariums, and to keep a "work flow" of fishes going at all times.

Perhaps what was most memorable to me was how he made adjustments to his techniques, like inducing spawning, egg collection, incubation, and production of live foods. 

His function-first approaches to light and temperature manipulation, egg collection, incubation approaches, and even how fry were reared- all demonstrated a keen understanding of the needs of his fishes, and an understanding of the environments- and environmental cues- which the fishes needed to trigger spawning events.

Although the process was more "methodical" than "natural", in that it involved sort of "deconstructing" how Nature works in the wild- all of the techniques he employed were simply practical and simple recreations of natural processes to accomplish what Nature does-just in a more "controlled" manner.

Killifish, IMHO, are the ultimate example of how fishes are intimately tied to their habitats. The techniques which modern killie keepers utilize to spawn their fish, incubate the eggs, and rear the resulting fry are a direct distillation of an understanding of this relationship.

Indeed, there was a "through line" of sorts, running from the wild savannah pools and forest streams of East Africa, to the tightly-controlled environment of this suburban St. Louis basement.

It was profound. It was inspiring. It was amazing.

Now, sure, I wasn't seeing fishes being kept in tanks with accumulations of leaf litter over a shallow sedimented substrate, with overhanging terrestrial vegetation. Literal recreations of their natural habitats. Rather, I was seeing the pragmatic application of "biotope replication!" Yeah, it doesn't always have to look like it to function like it!

A huge "unlock" for me, really.

What we've longed called "natural" in the aquairum hobby can take on more than one meaning. I mean, I have consistently railed on the use of the term "natural" when those "high concept", artistically-styled "Nature Aquariums" are proferred to us as "natural" for some very specific reasons; in particular, the fact that they are often touted as "looking just like Nature", an assertion which makes me want to vomit. They generally don't look like wild aquatic habitats. 

They're simply beautiful aquariums, skillfully executed.

However, I really can't deny that, on a purely ecological level, they DO function like natural aquatic systems to a certain extent, relying on energy/nutritoinal inputs, and yielding growth of aquatic plants. It's just again, a sort of "deconstructed" approach.

I think that it's the "cultural arrogance" and embrace of the most superficial aspects of aquarium keeping, coupled with the constant assertion that these tanks "look like natural aquatic habitats" by the proponents who surround the "Nature Aquarium" movement, which has always turned me off about them.

Not the work itself.

The reality is that these systems do require the aquarist to reproduce natural processes to some extent in order to be successful. An understanding of the ecology of aquatic plants and their environment is necessary.

Another "through line" from Nature to aquarium...

And of course, there is what we call the "botanical method"- an approach that seeks to more literally recreate the ecology of wild aquatic ecosystems in the aquarium.

To a certain extent, it's the "oldest game in town" in the aquarium world- the approach which lovers of aquatic life centuries before us took to keeping fishes: Toss in some soil, leaves, twigs, and plants and attempt to recreate the wild aquatic habitat as accurately as possible. We incorporate  these materials in our tanks because they're what's found in the environments from which our fishes come, right?

Yeah. An homage to Nature by attempting to replicate the function of Nature. And making the effort to understand the relationship between fishes and their habitats.

It's not some arcane idea, is it? 

A "through line", for sure!

All we are doing with any aquarium, wether we are conscious of it or not- is attempting to reproduce the functions of natural aquatic ecosystems in our tanks.

The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation- is something that has been discussed, but rarely executed in the modern aquarium hobby until quite recently...

Why? 

Not because it's difficult to execute.

Not because it's hard to grasp the underlying concepts.

It's because it's difficult to try something which seems so "contrary" to what we are constantly exposed to in social media and elsewhere. It means doing something which we may find uncomfortable, because we're told it's "dangerous" or "reckless" or "dirty" or whatever, by pundits who neither understand nor appreciate what it means to embrace a truly natural, ecological  approach to aquarium keeping.

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

Yet, executing this type of tank is about as basic as aquarium-keeping gets.

The difficult part is understanding that this is an extremely natural, ecologically beneficial process, and accepting that it does facilitate the appearance of some things that you might not be comfortable with initially (like, cloudy water, fungal threads, biofilms, decomposition...all that stuff!). Making those mental shifts to accept something different than what the aquarium hobby establishment has proffered as the way to go for generations...

Yet it's not that different than what our distant ancestors did when they set up what we now refer to as an "aquarium."

A through line...one which requires mental shifts and adoption of a long-term mindset.

You have to give things time to establish and settle.

It's about patience.

It's about faith.

Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons. Faith that you're doing something which embraces Nature's processes so fully.

The truest, straightest "through line" there is in the aquarium hobby.

Stay diligent. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

July 19, 2022

0 comments


The big picture. Again.

Is it time for another "Introduction to the botanical method" piece again?

I think so...

Share it with a friend...

The way I see it, we have two choices as hobbyists.

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

Or, we can allow Her seemingly random, relentless march to continue. We can make a conscious decision to embrace the biofilms, fungal growth, decomposing leaves, and tinted water. We start this by accepting the "look", and continue from there.

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

That may sound dramatic, but those of us who play with this stuff have come to realize that botanical-style aquariums have contrasted operating parameters to pretty much any other type of system you’d keep. As with any aquarium approach, you need to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the characteristics, phases, and nuances of this type of set-up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specifically, how botanical materials behave when submerged in the aquarium.

I'm fascinated by the "mental adjustments" that we need to make to accept the aesthetic and the processes of natural decay, fungal growth, the appearance of biofilms, and how these affect what's occurring in the aquarium. It's all a complex synergy of life and aesthetic.

And,  in order to make the mental shifts which make this all work, we we have to accept Nature's input here.

Understand that, when we create a botanical-filled aquarium, not only do we have the opportunity to create an aquarium which differs significantly from those in years past- we have a unique window into the natural world and the role of these materials in the wild.

Let's clarify one thing, though, before we continue...

Botanicals as "acidifiers"

Many hobbyists ask about utilizing leaves and other botanicals to lower the pH in their aquariums, and this opens up the proverbial "can of worms!" There seems to be a fair amount of misconception about what botanicals can and cannot do to the pH of the water in your aquarium. 

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

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

In general, it’s fairly safe to state that soft water is usually acidic, and hard water is usually alkaline.

Note that the color of water — even the "stain" imparted by botanicals and leaves — is  no real indication of pH or hardness. This is a misconception that we need to dispense with once and for all.

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

All that they bring..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Fear The Fungi

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

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

Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams. Fishes and invertebrates that live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves, and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well. Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy locked up inside it available to feeding animals in these habitats.

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

The start of the long game.

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

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

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

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

During water changes, I typically siphon out any debris that has moved where I don’t want it, but for the most part, I’m merely siphoning water from down low in the water column. 

Regular water testing is particularly important, and not just for the information you’ll gain about your aquarium and its trends. 

It’s important because we as proponents of the botanical-style aquarium need to log and share information about our systems, so we can develop a model for ‘baseline performance’, and perhaps look to develop standards for techniques, practices, and expectations about these tanks. 

We’re seeing more and more common trends, issues, and ways to manage them — a necessary evolution, and one which we can all contribute to. 

Any testing regimen should include pH, TDS, and alkalinity, and if you’re so inclined, nitrate and phosphate. Logging this information over time will give us good data upon which to develop our expectations and "best practices" for water management.

In the end, living with your botanical-style backwater aquarium isn’t just about a new aesthetic approach. It’s about understanding and processing what’s happening in the little aquatic ecosystem you’ve created. It’s about asking questions, modifying technique, and playing hunches; skills that we as hobbyists have practiced for many generations. 

When you distill it all, we’re still just keeping an aquarium — just one that I feel is a far more natural, dynamic, and potentially game-changing methodology for the hobby.

One that we need not be afraid of.

Stay the course. Don’t be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. 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 embraces Nature in every conceivable way. 

And of course, the literal basis for all of this stuff is the botanical materials themselves, breaking down in our tanks, just like they’ve done in Nature for millions of years.

I hope that, as the years go by, we as a hobby will overcome generations of fear over stuff like detritus and fungi and biofilms. Maybe, rather than attempting to ‘erase’ these things, which go against our "‘gram-influenced aesthetics" of how we think that Nature should look, we might want to meet Nature where She is and work with Her. 

If we’re lucky, we just might see the real beauty — and benefits — of Nature in Her most compelling and unedited form.

Stay curious. Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

July 14, 2022

0 comments


"The evolution will be managed..."

One of the things that's so fun about the hobby is the ability to "tweak" and even "evolve" tanks intentionally as the years go by. Of course, it's not a "given" that you have to. Yet, I think that if you poll a random sample of hobbyists, almost every single one would want another aquarium!

Now, not everyone can have another aquarium, right?

Yeah. 

For many hobbyists, their one aquarium is the only one they can have- at least for now, but possibly forever. Space, economics, time, etc, all come into play, and there really isn't much you can do except work with the one you've got. I mean, it's a blessing to have even one...but to the serious fish geek, that desire to move on to a greener pasture (or should we say, "browner river?")-to just taste some new stuff- seldom retreats.

It builds. Inspiration is everywhere. 

 

Yeah, we want to shake things up. Try something different...I occasionally go through such moments. Entertain such thoughts. I can't escape it!

You know- like, "Scott, it's been a while since you've changed up the 'theme' of your tank...Maybe you need to do something different!"

Can you relate?  

It's a bit weird for me, because I have generally had an obsession with NOT changing my tanks up constantly. 

Of course, there is a bit of a contradiction: After starting Tannin Aquatics in 2015, I realized that, in order to "spread the gospel" about this emerging botanical method thing, I needed to show a lot of tanks. And of course, that means one of three things: Either I needed to set up a lot of new aquariums myself, recruit a lot of fellow hobbyists to create and share botanical method aquariums, or...I could "iterate" my existing tanks more frequently.

Yet, I still need to project patience; it's a fundamental part of what we do.

I think- think- that it's often challenged by my desire as the Tannin "mothership" and a need to showcase new ideas and botanicals. Well, maybe that's an excuse.

But hey, we all love to try new stuff, right?

I know that I do.

And it's funny, because I think that even though I fancy myself as this restless "conceptual guy" who is constantly evolving his ideas, the reality is that my "makeovers" are seldom that radical; rather, their little iterations that represent incremental changes or improvements over previous designs.

I tend to "stay in my lane", and not stray all that far from it.

I almost envy those of you who can make completely radical changes at the spur of the moment without regret, or a whole lot of consideration. Like, how do you do that?

I often wonder why I play with such a tight set of characteristics- you know, certain wood types and arrangements, use of botanicals of specific textures, colors, etc. Maybe it's just that I've found what works for me?

Although I'm definitely prone to "over-analyzing" stuff at times, it's fun now and then to step out of my own mind and look at stuff as if I'm a "third party" of sorts. Shake things up.

It's led to some pretty cool tanks over the years.

 

Maybe I have that sort of "comfort zone" that I tend not to push myself out too far from. I mean, I operate in a pretty radical "sector" already- the blackwater/ botanical-method. It's not everyone's cup of tea, being pretty different from the conventional, "clear water", highly stylized aquariums we all know so well. I realized a long term ago that, when I make changes to my tanks, they are always more like "iterations" of the existing design.

Radical changes aren't my thing, I suppose.

I have learned over the years to give stuff time and space to evolve on its own a bit, without my intervention.

I know enough to understand a fundamental truth about botanical-method aquariums:  

The way the tank is looking right now is NOT how it will look in a few weeks, or months. 

I play a really long game.

One which acknowledges that the fact that our botanical-method aquariums evolve over very long periods of time, not reaching the state that we perhaps envisioned for many months. My actions reflect this mindset. Unless there is some major emergency (which I have yet to encounter, btw), about the only thing that I might do is to add a few more botanicals.

Just sort of "evolving" the aquarium a bit; making up for stuff that might break down.

Minor, small moves, if any.

That being said, the biggest hurdle to me in making changes to aquariums has always been the psychological one. The "shame" that I assigned in my own mind if I simply broke down tanks and "recycled" them time and time again. That being said, I slowly (yeah, emphasis on slowly) came around to the idea that this is an effective way to demonstrate new ideas to our growing community.

All the while, I'm keeping in mind that the system will change on its own without any intervention on my part. It will "get where it's going" on its own time. Adding a few botanicals or leaves along the way is simply what you do to keep the process going. And it's extremely analogous to what happens in Nature, as new materials fall into waterways throughout the year, while existing materials are carried off by currents or decompose completely.

Yeah, just like Nature.

We're going to revisit the topic of "getting started" far more often here, following what are turning into "best practices" and tips to get your botanical-method/blackwater aquarium off to a good start as Nature evolves it. It's so important.

I mean, this philosophy makes a lot of sense, because botanical-method tanks, in my opinion, don't even really hit their "stride" for at least 3-6 months. Yet, in the content-driven, Instagram-fueled, postmodern aquarium world, I know that we tend to show new looks fairly often, to give you lots of ideas and inspiration to embark on your own journeys.

And I suppose, that's a very cool thing. Yet, it's likely a "double-edged sword." It might give you the wrong impression. 

Like so many things in the social media universe, the representation of today's aquarium world likely gives the (incorrect) impression that these tanks are sort of "pop-ups", set up for a photography session and broken down quickly. We are, regrettably, likely contributors to some of this misconception. 

Because we play a long game. A really long game. And the tanks we present to you in our images and videos are typically many months along.

So, what am I usually doing with my botanical method tanks?

I'm holding.

I'm just going to do the "scheduled" tweaks that were in my plan. Add some elements as I intended as the tank breaks in further. But nothing more. No big switches. No radical maneuvers. Why hold? I mean, after a tank has been up for a few weeks, now would be the time, if a tank isn't when're you want it, right?

It's because I have faith in Nature. I know that She'll push things along correctly- because that's what She does.

And I know that to intervene now- to "edit" Her moves-at the time when the tank isn't looking it's "best" to me, yet it's progressing ecologically and biologically- would be a shame. It would be akin to selling off a stock just before it "breaks out", or to unload a property just before the market takes off...

It'd be a shame.

Because "as sure as day follows night', if you've laid the correct groundwork to be successful, and if the tank is "checking off" all of the proverbial basic "boxes", the tank WILL get to where you want it.

Really.

Sure, as I say all the time, there are no guarantees when working with Nature. She can (and will at times) kick your ass, even when you did everything right! However, there is something else. Something more visceral that you can take comfort in:

Patience. 

And a certain objective realization that things ARE going well with your tank. And that they just need more time in order to fully attain the vision you had...or even exceed it.

Of course, we can manage the evolution of our tanks- by letting them do their thing.

The "mental stretches" that we talk about incessantly here are still occurring for me, years into this game. With each pic I see of the natural habitats we want to emulate, and every beautiful aquarium that I see come to life from our community, it's inspiring, interesting, and engaging.

I'm seeing and experiencing new things, coming up with new ideas, and trying to understand and embrace the processes and aesthetics in a whole new light.

I am happy to see many of you doing the same.

Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

July 11, 2022

0 comments


Compensating Factors.

For years, I've played with all sorts of rather unconventional aquarium ideas. Pretty much all  of them were attempts to simulate, on some level, aspects of wild aquatic habitats which caught my fancy. 

Stuff like functional representations of a varzea grassland, an igapo flooded forest, a muddy brackish mangrove estuary, a rice paddy, etc.

NOT set up to just "look like" the habitat- not a "biotope aquairum" in that I was trying to create a primarily aesthetic recreation of the habitat in question. Rather, a functional, sustainable aquatic display which captured the essence of these habitats, intended to operate for extended periods of time.

Over the long term, how do you create and manage a stagnant poool habitat? An African savanna mud hole for killies?

You use what I call “creative compensation.”

"Huh? What's that Fellman- another one of your goofy expressions?"

Well, likely. But it sums up my approach pretty well, actually!

Here's essentially what it means:

If you're going to create an aquarium which attempts to mimic the function of an environment which is challenging ing to manage, you need to compensate with techniques or equipment to do so. 

See- not exactly earth-shattering, I know. But something a lot of hobbyists don't do when pondering their "bucket list" aquarium ideas. Sadly, many give up on them too easily, IMHO.

Yet, in many cases, you simply need to come up with a different mind set- to make a "mental shift" to create and manage a system like this. You CAN execute it...you just need to re-think what's important.

For example, when I developed my "Urban Igapo" idea, I knew that, in order to run the tank for an indefinite period of time, it would become necessary to step up water exchanges or other nutrient export mechanisms in lieu of filtration in the small tanks I was working with.  I mean, sure, I could have run a power filter, small internal filter, or even a canister, but the risk of disturbing the substrate indefinitely was too great.

When you play along the fringes of what's considered "normal" or even "acceptable" in the hobby, you need to compensate in some other ways...like devising alternative nutrient export mechanisms, stepped-up water exchanges, etc. 

Compensating factors.

Now, most of the "compensating factors" which we need to embrace are mental. 

We've talked about them so much over the years that I almost sound like a cheap cliche of myself sometimes! Yet, it's true...we have to compensate by mentally shifting to understand what's going on in our tanks. This is really not that difficult to understand, right? 

And then there are those other factors- attributes that we acquire in our aquairum work, such as patience.

Patience was something that I've accumulated over a lifetime of Fishkeeping. It wasn't just something that I had, mind you. Rather, I think that the attribute of patience really arose when I was a young fish geek, with only one tank, limited funds, and a lot of "wants!" I had to move slowly, plan, save, and simply be patient.

When you can only afford a few fishes at a time, you learn to be patient!

A compensating factor, for sure!

When we compare our aquariums and their function to what happens in natural aquatic habitats, the "compensations" that we need to make are very obvious. 

Seems like just about everything we do in aquarium keeping invloves some sort of  understanding. And 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 method aquariums we espouse so much here: 

A week or two after completing your setup 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 the ecology of a closed aquatic ecosystem. And then, you accept and indeed, celebrate- the progression and the many unique characteristics of botanical method systems.

Your viewpoint has changed.

You've "compensated" by understanding.

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 mental barrier" and came out on the other side.

It's an achievement worth celebrating, isn't it?

Breaking through barriers 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. Not always "pretty" to many of you. 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.

Our botanical method aquarium world asks much from the hobbyist.

I totally get it.

It requires an understanding. Compensating.

An understanding that what we celebrate as beautiful here is dramatically different than ANYTHING that the rest of the aquarium world even sees as remotely tolerable: Tinted, turbid water, stringy biofilm growths, sediment and detritus...stuff that makes most hobbyists cringe even at the thought of it in their tanks.

We're not afraid, because we look beyond the simple appearance...and we understand the function and benefits of such characteristics in our aquariums- and how they are so prevalent in Nature, too.

I hit on this theme over and over and OVER again because it's absolutely fundamental to the botanical-method aquarium. We're simply dealing with aesthetics and functions that have been shunned, vilified, and reviled by hobbyists for decades. 

And look, it's okay.

My goal isn't to convince the entire hobby that a tinted, turbid, biofilm-and-detritus filled tank is the ultimate in beauty. I get it...Most aquarists simply can't wrap their minds around that and accept it as gorgeous in any way. It makes sense.

Of course, it's also possible to embrace many of the elements of our types of aquariums while still accepting a more traditional look. It's not all about the  earthy, over-the-top, in-your-face natural look you see me rant about so often here.

It simply involves compensating...

Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay enthusiastic. Stay excited. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  

 

 

 

 

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