For a long time, we looked at an aquarium like a vase with cut flowers. Merely a vessel holding water, plants, fishes, and other stuff...key word was "holding."
Then, of course, hobbyists got into the idea of breeding stuff. And propagating plants.We were no longer content to merely keep aquatic creatures alive in our aquariums. Pretty soon, we were thinking of an aquarium as a place to grow stuff.
I saw a compressed version of this century-long evolution of freshwater aquaristics during the rise of the reef aquarium hobby, which really started to take off in the mid 1980's. For the longest time, we were happy to just keep a box full of fishes and maybe a few tough invertebrates alive. Then, we evolved up to trying to house them long term. Experiments with new technology and technique resulted in the birth of the modern reef system, with robust filtration, lighting, and studious analysis of water chemistry. The emphasis was on providing a great environment for the animals, so that they can thrive and reproduce.
Within the past 10 years in the reef hobby, we've went from a doctrine of "You should have undectable nitrates and phosphates in your reef aquarium because natural reefs are virtual nutrient deserts!" to "You need to have a balance between too much and too little." We've come to understand that reef aquariums- like any type of aquarium- are biological "microcosms", which encompass a vast array of life forms, including not just fishes, corals, and invertebrates, but macro algae, benthic animals (like worms, copepods, and amphipods), planktonic life, and more.
Reefers came to understand- as freshwater pioneers did generations before- that just because a reef has undetectable phosphates and nitrates in the waters surrounding it, our aquariums don't have to run that way. Corals need nutrients and food, and an aquarium is not a natural reef; an open system with uncounted millions of gallons of water passing through it hourly.
We've begun to understand that it's not all about creating the most scrupulously clean environment possible for the animals under our care- it's about maintaining the best possible dynamic for their overall health, growth, longevity, and hopefully- reproduction. Creating and fostering processes and conditions that create a biological balance within our little (or not so little) glass and acrylic boxes we call "aquariums."
With biotope and theme aquariums all the rage, we've come to really appreciate the acceptance of this mind set...that an aquarium is a microcosm- a functioning little biological community, with a full compliment of life forms. Planted aquarium enthusiasts have really embraced this, understanding the need to provide a full compliment of nutrients, trace elements, and overall environmental stability to get pants to grow and reproduce.
When I talk to aquarists who are putting together specialized aquarium for say, wild Bettas or Apistos, I am reminded that we are in a wonderful time in the hobby. We have access not only to amazing fishes from all over the world- we have access to technology, materials, and techniques to create realistic and functional simulations of the diverse and fascinating environments they come from like never before.
Today's aquarist can appreciate the elegance in the complete aquatic ecosystem, from the most beautiful fish to the lowest bacterial life form, and everything in between. When we strive to understand, embrace, and replicate natural systems in our aquaria, we are truly embarking on a more enlightened way of aquarium keeping.
Just something to reflect upon.
Stay fascinated. Stay excited.