A detour on the way to "benign neglect?" Or just a validation...?

Like most of you, I'm a borderline obsessive aquarist...Like, I constantly observe, test, tweak each and every tank, every day. That being said, I have learned over the years that a well thought-out aquarium doesn't need endless doting attention on a non-stop basis. In fact, because of a busy travel schedule, "company building", and just life in general over the last few years, I even might have missed a water exchange or feeding or two..or three...or...

Yeah, I'm not proud of it- but I won't deny it, either. In my world, missing water exchanges and feedings and such were, for many years, a sort of "scarlet letter" that you ended up wearing for all to see (well, even if no one else knew...you just felt, I dunno...guilty!).

Now, I always hung around reefing friends who were obsessed with- even proud of- their "ability" to run a "successful" system without water exchanges and such. They'd actually use a sort of "reverse mentality", in which you'd hear them proudly brag about stuff like, "I never run a protein skimmer on my reef." Or, "I haven't done a water change in like a year!"  I mean, that was stuff that would make my head spin... I was like, "If you're gonna be a loser aquarist- don't brag about it!"

I take a dim view of some stuff (shocker, I know...)!

Yeah, I was/am all about continuous, regular maintenance and dedicated husbandry practices-particularly water exchanges, for which there is simply no substitute for, or no valid reason NOT to execute, IMHO. However, there is one "basic" aspect of aquarium keeping that I have always employed a bit of an "intentional avoidance" of:


"WTF, Fellman. Skip a goddam water change...But feeding? Really?"

Yes. Really.

But before you flame me for being hypocritical or lazy, or even guilty of "benign neglect"- hear me out. It's not really about being lazy. It's an intentional thing. I plan for it. In fact, you do too, even though you may not think about it.

Of all of the things we do in our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums, one of the few "basic practices" that I think we can actually allow nature to do some of the work on is to provide some sustenance for our fishes.

Think about it: We load up our systems with large quantities of leaves and botanicals, which serve as direct food for some species, such as shrimp and perhaps Barbs and Loaches.

These materials famously recruit biofilm and fungal growths, which we have discussed ad nasueum here over the years. These are nutritious, natural food sources for most fishes and invertebrates. And of course, there are the associated microorganisms which feed on the decomposing botanicals and leaves and their resulting detritus.

Now, we have briefly talked about how decomposing leaf litter does support population of infusoria- a collective term used to describe minute aquatic creatures such as ciliates, euglenoids, protozoa, unicellular algae and small invertebrates that exist in freshwater ecosystems. Yet, there is much to explore on this topic. It's no secret, or surprise- to most aquarists who've played with botanicals, that a tank with a healthy leaf litter component is a pretty good place for the rearing of fry of species associated with blackwater environments!

It's been observed by many aquarists, particularly those who breed loricariids, that the fry have significantly higher survival rates when reared in systems with leaves present. I'm sure some success of this could be attributed to the population of infusoria, etc. present within the system as the leaves break down. Biofilms, as we've discussed many times before, contain a complex mix of sugars, bacteria, and other materials, all of which are relatively nutritious for animals which feed on them.

It therefore would make a lot of sense that a botanical-influenced aquarium with a respectable growth of biofilm would be a great place to rear fry! Maybe not the most attractive place, from an aesthetic standpoint- but a system where the little guys are essentially "knee deep" in supplemental natural food at any given time is a beautiful thing to the busy fish breeder!

And yeah, my experience indicates it performs a similar role for adults.

In the wild, creatures like hydracarines (mites), insects, like chironomids (hello, blood worms!), and copepods, like Daphnia, are the dominant fauna that fishes tend to feed on in these waters.  This is interesting to contemplate when we consider what to feed our fishes in aquariums, isn't it?

Anyways, these life forms, both planktonic and insect, tend to feed off of the leaf litter itself, as well as fungi and bacteria present in them as they decompose. The leaf litter bed is a surprisingly dynamic, and one might even say "rich" little benthic biotope, contained within the otherwise "impoverished" waters.

And, as we've discussed before on these pages, it should come as no surprise that a large and surprisingly diverse assemblage of fishes make their homes within and closely adjacent to, these litter beds. These are little "food oases" in areas otherwise relatively devoid of food. The fishes are not there just to look at the pretty leaves!

And of course, it goes without saying that nature works in the aquarium (if allowed to do so) in a similar manner in the aquarium. The leaves and botanicals we add to our tanks do what they've done in nature for eons: They support the basis for a surprisingly rich and diverse "food web", which enables many of the resident life forms- from bacteria, to insects...right up to our fishes- to derive some, if not all of their sustenance from this milieu.

Confession time?


I've created botanical tanks for years with part of the intention being to see if I can support the resident fishes with minimal external food inputs. My rationale was that, not only will the leaves and botanicals foster such food webs as they do in nature, but that the lower amount of external food inputs by the aquarist helps foster a cleaner system, which is especially important when one takes into account the large amount of bioload decomposing leaves and botanicals account for in the aquarium!

And guess what? It works. Just fine.

A beautiful case in point is my latest little office aquarium; that little "nano" tank which is 'scaped only with Texas Live Oak Leaves, Yellow Mangrove Leaves, and Oak Twigs.

Now I know this tank isn't everyone's idea of aesthetic perfection..I mean, it's essentially a pile of leaves...However, to the fishes and other life forms which reside in the tank, it's their world; their food source.

I maintain a shoal of 25 "Green Neon Tetras", Parachierdon simulans, in this tank. This tank has been up and running about three months without a single external food input since the fish have been in the tank. They are subsisting entirely on the epiphytic matter and microorganisms found in the leaves...Nothing else.

And they are as active, fat, and happy as any Green Neons I've veer seen.

In fact, they've almost doubled in size since I obtained them. Some of the fishes were shockingly emaciated and weak upon arrival, were rehabilitated somewhat in quarantine, but weren't 100% when released into the display (yeah, I know- NOT a "best practice", but intentional for this experiment). At this point, I can't tell them apart from the rest of their tankmates!

Now sure, this is a relatively small population of little fishes in a small tank. The environment itself is carefully monitored. Regular water exchanges and testing are employed. All of the "usual stuff" we do in an aquarium...except feeding.

Of course, I don't think that such a success could be replicated with fishes like cichlids or other larger, more predatory type fishes, unless you utilized a large aquarium with a significant "pre-stocked" population of crustaceans, insects, and maybe even (gulp) "feeder-type" fishes. I mean, you could do this...

However, it is really a more successful approach with fishes like characins, Rasbora, Danios, some catfishes, Loaches, etc.

So yeah, this practice is entirely replicable, and can be successful with many fishes. It's a bit "contrarian" to standard aquarium practice, I suppose, to some extent. However, it's not all that "radical" a concept, right? I mean, it's essentially allowing Nature to do what she does best- cultivate an ecosystem...which she will do, if given the "impetus" and left to her own devices. 

It's not really "benign neglect." It's the facilitating of a process which has been going on for eons...a validation of what we experiment with on a daily basis in our "tinted" world.

We invite you to experiment for yourself with this fascinating and compelling topic!

Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay skeptical. Stay proud...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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