A Paradigm shift? The "Postmodern Era" of aquarium keeping.

An old expression goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In my humble opinion, that expression does NOT apply to our hobby anymore. Sure the fine art of aquarium keeping has stayed basically the same as it has for a generation- water changes are important, careful observation of our systems is always beneficial, blah, blah, blah….These are more or less “Universal Constants” or “Best Practices” for our hobby and remain as valid now as they ever were. What has changed are the philosophies and applications of technique behind some of the most vigorously held beliefs in aquarium keeping. In our “Postmodern Era” of aquarium keeping, there has been a paradigm shift of sorts. Conventions have been challenged, truths have been questioned, and some former “rules” have been re-written.

For example, I just love that we are once again looking at creating biotope aquariums- systems that attempt to replicate a specific ecological niche. Sure, these have been done for decades, but now we are able to apply technology- like cutting edge technology- like LED lighting, supremely accurate heaters, and amazing water pumps- to compliment our aesthetic and biological choices for our systems. The marriage of art and science!

Now, in our “enlightened era”, we realize the many benefits of fertilizing our planted systems with CO2 and targeted additives.  Anemic, pallid-looking plants are no longer a common sight in the hobby- replaced by robust, colorful, and vigorously growing plants.  Common sense in fertilizing has once again returned, and proper foods are available for almost all the aquatic plants we regularly keep in our systems. If you’ve been in the hobby for the last decade, you have definitely noticed this shift in our thinking.

The days of blasting our planted aquariums with megawatts of metal halide lighting seem to be drawing slowly to a close. T5, LED, and even plasma arc lighting systems promise "nutritious" lighting at a fraction of the power consumption and inefficiency of the dinosaur lighting regimes of the last millennium. It’s really refreshing to me that we are collectively looking at “efficiency” and “targeted lighting” with the same zeal that we once had for “bigger/better” multi-bulb halide systems like we did in the reef hobby world for so many years.  You no longer need massive amounts of energy-wasting, heat-producing lighting to keep most plants healthy and growing-just a few dozen  watts of properly configured, effectively placed, energy-efficient lighting in most cases.

Hobbyists and DIY'ers the world over have turned a creative eye towards new lighting applications, and the development of new technologies- particularly LED- has promised to literally change the way we look at our systems. Dramatic increases in energy efficiency from these new technologies will literally pave the way for the hobby to become more affordable for everyone in the not-to-distant future. Sure, the initial expenses can be high, but the long-term  (and for that matter- the short term, too!)operating costs have fallen dramatically. The ongoing operating costs of a planted aquarium- the “dream killer” for many, will once again fall to more sustainable levels with the continued evolution of these more efficient technologies.

Even the definition of a “community aquarium” has changed. The era of defining a “community” as a system dominated solely by a mishmash of Zebra Danios, Neon Tetras, Rasboras, an Angelfish, and a few Platys has been replaced with more creative, open-minded thought. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see entire systems devoted to colonies of Corydoras or shell-dwelling Lake Tanganyikan cichlids, for example. They are, indeed "community tanks"- but comprised of a community of fishes found together in nature. The paradigm has shifted such that all of these systems are essentially acknowledged to be “community tanks” by the hobby at large. The skills required to maintain any of these types of systems are almost interchangeable. It’s perfectly common to hear a hobbyist say, “That’s a cool tank” when staring enviously into an all-Apistogramma-dominated system or a Plecostomus biotope system. 


The so-called “nano” tank has evolved. Not just evolved- but ARRIVED! Man, I sound like a broken record sometimes about nano systems, but the “postmodern” nano has grown up from its nutrient-laden, overstocked, under-equipped, tacky, oxygen- poor deathtrap status of years past. Thanks to pioneering hobbyists and manufacturers, the nano system is no longer being marketed exclusively as the entre into the hobby for hapless, misinformed beginners. Nanos are now being used as “testbeds” for groundbreaking new concepts by all sorts of hobbyists, and have become an engrossing, addictive subculture within the hobby.

With a new generation of hobby manufacturers turning out high quality, high-tech equipment specifically for nano applications, today’s nano tank has become not just a novelty or diversion, but a full-on alternative to the megareefs that many hobbyists feel defines you as an “advanced” aquarist. Discoveries and breakthroughs are being made daily by enthusiastic hobbyists operating fantastically maintained, properly equipped nano systems. Indeed, it’s entirely fair to say that many of today’s nano systems rival some of their much larger brethren from decades past.

Intelligent water flow has arrived! Sure, we had powerheads in the hobby as far back as the late 1970’s, but today’s internal  (and external) pumps are little marvels, cranking out massive amounts of highly controllable flow with efficiencies that previous generations of hobbyists could not even dream of. Sophisticated microprocessor-based controllers are pretty much de rigueur with many of these pumps, helping even the most novice hobbyist to simulate natural flow patterns, tides, and even seasonal intensities.

And, they’re doing it with ridiculously small amounts of electrical consumption and heat generation-not to mention, the reliability borne from lessons learned out of  generations of corroded, overheated powerheads that were once so common. Even more impressive is the hobby community's thinking about flow: No longer do you hear of the need for “chaotic, random flow” so commonly espoused in the 1990s for reef aquariums.  Hobbyists are questioning why it was once believed that you needed several unsightly powerheads placed in the tank to create “flow patterns" consistent with those found in natural streams, lakes, and rivers.

Nowadays, the mantra of efficiency and “gyre  configuration” is embraced as the flow technique of choice in our hobby. Instead of just taking some random “expert’s” recommendation to blast our reefs with alternating , inefficient flow patterns, we’re thinking about what actually takes place in the oceans, and why the animal we keep need-and benefit- from flow.  Fewer pumps, operating more efficiently-and intelligently– can create results once unattainable without a battery of less efficient pumps. Understanding of “boundry layers”, gas exchange, fish feeding patterns, and physiological responses to water motion have driven today’s hobbyists to question why things are the way they are in nature, and how we can configure flow to efficiently do exactly what it has to do to convey benefits to the animals we keep.

Yup- truly intelligent flow!

There are literally hundred more examples of the paradigm shift in our “Postmodern Era”, but you get the picture. With the global community created by the internet, the most important thing in the hobby has not changed, but merely evolved- the exchange of ideas, support, and inspiration among hobbyists. The very best part of this hobby/lifestyle is the people in it, and the relationships we form as a result of our shared obsession. Sure, we may talk about different things than we did even 5 years ago, but we are still talking!

We all love to see each other’s tanks, give the occasional constructive criticism or pat on the back when it’s deserved. As fish geeks, we  are typically social by nature, sharing stories, ideas, and more than occasionally, a fish or two (or in the case of many hobbyists- several dozen fishes, if they know you need them!).

The big difference is that we are now able to do it on a worldwide scale, and information and breakthroughs are shared at amazing speed. But in the end, it’s still all about the people and the common love we have for this crazy hobby. May that never change!

Until next time…

Stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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