Have you ever looked at the bottom of a stream bed, creek, river, or lake?
Depending upon factors like the time of year, locale, water depth, current, etc., you're likely to see a lot more than just mud or sand on the bottom. The bottom of a body of water is a fascinating, surprisingly dynamic place within the natural ecosystem. The bottom (substrate) composition not only influences the types of fishes, plants, and animals that reside there- it influences the environment itself.
When I began my obsession with aquatic botanicals and wood in aquaecapes, I was influence heavily by my observations of these natural ecosystems. It seemed that, although the aquarium world embraces lots of different substrate materials (different types of sands and gravels), rocks, wood, and plants, little attention has been paid to the other materials often present in this biotope.
In the Amazon, for example, you'll find seed pods, leaves, fruits, nuts, twigs, branches- all sorts of botanical materials- which accumulate on the bottom as they fall from surrounding trees, and are swept by currents into pockets and bends with the water courses.
These accumulations in the substrate create surprisingly dynamic, ecologically rich biotopes. Many, many fishes reside in these "benthic" areas for part or all of their lives, deriving food, shelter, and spawning refuges within the matrix of materials that accumulate on the bottom.
So I always wondered why, as hobbyists, we simply were content to do a "rough representation" of the bottom of a natural aquatic environment with just plants, wood, and rocks. I mean, don't get me wrong-you can create many gorgeous underwater scenes with these materials only, but to truly attempt to replicate the aquatic environment in the most natural way possible, it seemed only proper that you'd want to include the aforementioned botanical materials.
So, I set about studying the natural environments and sourcing materials that provided a reasonable facsimile of those you'd find in the wild. I began playing with the aesthetic of placing prepared botanicals on and in the more traditional substrate materials, such as gravel and sand. The result was aquarium substrates that not only looked more like the ones encountered in the natural environment- they behaved much like them, as well.
I realized that there is a dynamic interplay between the water, substrate, and materials which accumulate in and on it. As these materials soften and break down, the enrich the surrounding aquatic environment with organic materials, tannins, and other substances which contribute to the biodiversity and functionality of the aquascape. l loosely refer to this as "substrate enrichment."
I noticed that many of my fishes which came from these types of biotopes, such as characins, dwarf cichlids, Cyprinids, etc., began looking better, behaving more calmly, and even reproducing more readily.
It was not uncommon to find clouds of fish fry of various species swimming about in the matrix of materials on the bottom of aquarium 'scaped in this manner.
Plus, I found the aesthetic quite attractive! Now, I realize it's not for everyone: Decomposing leaves, biofilms. crumbling botanicals, even a matrix of algae- is not every aquarist's idea of a cool-looking substrate. However, for those adventurous aquarists who embrace this new aesthetic, an entirely new experience and possibilities await!
I know many are skeptical. I know many more are downright frightened of the idea of stuff slowly breaking down on the bottom of the aquarium. It's sort of contrary to what we've been "acculturated" to in more "conventional" aquatic husbandry: You need to keep aquarium neat and tidy, with not accumulation of materials on the bottom. In my opinion, fear of what they think might be degrading water quality caused by such activity frightens a lot of aquarists off from trying this.
The facts are, I've not seen degrading water quality as a result of using botanicals in otherwise well-managed systems. Ever.
Yeah, if you're not dumping a ton of food into a tank, over-stocking it, and allowing dead fish to accumulate in the tank, you're likely to see no real difference in water quality in a "New Botanical" style aquarium that you are in a more "conventional" system. The main difference is the aesthetic - Tinted water, lots of materials on the bottom, and even the occasional clumps of algae- just like in nature.
One you make that "mental leap" to this aesthetic, you might just find that it's one of the most dynamic, easy-to-manage aquarium systems you've ever worked with.
Give it a shot. Try "substrate enrichment" on a small scale in a small, specialized aquarium. See if you can handle the look, feel, and results...I'll bet that not only can you "handle" it- I'm willing to bet you'll fall in love with the idea!
More on this stuff to follow. In the mean time:
Stay open minded. Stay creative.