One of the more interesting aspects of what we do is the very premise behind why we do it!
A lot of people see all of the cool botanical materials that we offer and wonder what the point of it all is..
It's a pretty good question, right?
I mean- think about what it is that we do here:
You take a perfectly good aquarium, fill it with water, and then proceed to toss a bunch of leaves, seed pods, bark, and twigs in it and...then what?
You let them accrue biofilms, fungal growths, and begin to decompose. Like, why?
For one thing, there are numerous life forms which are found on these materials as well, which we never really consider, yet are found in abundance in nature and perform vital roles in the function of the aquatic habitat.
Our aquariums, much like the wild habitats we strive to replicate, are constantly evolving, accumulating new materials, and creating new physical habitats for fishes to forage among. New food sources and chemical/energy inputs are important to the biological diversity and continuity of the flooded forests and streams of the tropics, and they play a similar role in our aquariums.
They are important in the nutrient cycling and uptake in both Nature and the aquarium, adding to the biodiversity, and serving as an important food source for many species of fishes.
I think that lately, there has been a very visible surge of interest in the botanical method aquarium approach, and a sort of resurgence in general in aquariums based more on Nature and less on other aquariums or fantasy-inspired aquascapes- a hugely refreshing change.
However, there is an equally annoying, and tenacious "aesthetics first" mindset which continues to hang on with many hobbyists, and yeah, with a few aquarium industry brands, even when touting "natural." It is head-scratching to me why it's so important to push the natural "look" without bothering to talk about the function.
Yes, I've been really railing on this in my last few episodes of "The Tint", because I'm just a bit disgusted by how lazy so many hobbyists are about even attempting to learn anything beyond how two glue wood pieces together, or the latest techniques on creating "forced perspective" in their competition scapes. My little "sabbatical" has given me renewed vigor in my quest to beat the vapidity out of our hobby, one step at a time!
The concepts we talk about here constantly are just not that difficult to grasp..and quite honest, as we've done here over the years- not all that difficult to explain, really. It's just that it takes more of an investment in your time, and the deferral of immediate results to learn and talk about a concept than it does to talk about something superficial like aesthetics, or how (if you're a vendor) your product can help your tank look like a natural habitat.
Don't even get me started discussing about many aquarium hobby YouTube channels...it makes me want to vomit (or take another "sabbatical", lol)
We as hobbyists really need to wean ourselves off of this superficially-driven, perceived "immediate gratification" mindset in favor of a longer-term, more holistic view of the aquarium as a closed ecosystem, with the aesthetics as a "collateral" of the function we foster.
It's a huge missed opportunity, IMHO. One which, if industry vendors, manufacturers, and "influencers" would take a bit more time to discuss, could result in sustainable, evolutionary changes to the hobby for extended periods of time. And yeah- likely more sales of their products!
I have long been of the opinion that a botanical-method aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, serves as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the organisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!
Think about Nature again:
It's well known that in many habitats, like inundated forests, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc. And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...
So, I less-than-humbly suggest one again that a botanical-method aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish and shrimp species!
You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in aquatic ecology, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." Periphyton is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces. Again, fishes will graze on this stuff...constantly.
In the wild habitats, 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.
And the resulting detritus 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.
And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, loricarids, and others, you'll see that, in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at the aforementioned "stuff" on the leaves, stems, and pods within the tank. In a botanical-method aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe it's an extremely important "side benefit" of this type of system!
As I've discussed previously, I've maintained several botanical-based aquariums for extended periods of time without supplementary feeding. The fishes were as fat and happy as their brethren in "well fed" aquariums.
In the wild habitats of the world, it's interesting to note that, where materials fall from the trees and surrounding dry areas, the greater the abundance of fishes and other aquatic animals which utilize them is found.
That makes sense.
Yet, the idea of embracing and even relying upon stuff like detritus, biofilms, etc.as positive influences on our tanks is at odds with what we've been taught as a hobby, isn't it?
For generations, we've been told in the aquarium hobby that we need to be concerned about the appearance of all kinds of stuff in our tanks, like algae, detritus, and "biocover".
For some strange reason, we as a hobby group seems emphasize stuff like understanding some biological processes, like the nitrogen cycle, yet we've also been told to devote a lot of resources to siphoning, polishing, and scrubbing our tanks to near sterility.
It's a strange dichotomy.
I remember when the first few botanical-method tanks I created (well over two decades ago now) hit that phase early on when biofilms and fungal growths began to appear, and I'd hear my friends telling me, "Yeah, your tank is going to turn into a big pile of shit. Told you that you can't put that stuff in there."
Because that's what they've been told. The prevailing mindset in the hobby was that the appearance of these organisms was an indication of an "unsuitable aquarium environment"-just because it looked so different than what we've been told to be comfortable with in our tanks?
I think so.
Anyone who's studied basic ecology and biology understands that the complete opposite is true. The appearance of these valuable life forms is an indicator that your aquatic environment is ideal to foster a healthy, diverse community of aquatic organisms, including fishes!
Exactly like in Nature.
I recall reading about the guppy great, Paul Hahnel, in some of my dad's battered 1960's vintage fish books when I was growing up. He, like many of the amazing enthusiasts of the aquarium hobby's "greatest generation", adapted simple mantras about stuff like their aquariums' environments: A common refrain with guppy breeders back in the day was something to the effect that, if your Water Sprite grows well, your tank is well-suited for fish!
They were on to something there...
And in my tanks, I felt that the processes I was witnessing occurring in my tanks were beneficial, and not at all unexpected.
I remember telling myself that this is what I knew was going to happen. I studied this stuff in school. I knew how biofilms and fungal growths appear on "undefended" surfaces, and that they are essentially harmless life forms, exploiting a favorable environment. I knew that fungi appear as they help break down leaves and terrestrial botanical materials. I knew that these are perfectly natural occurrences, and that they typically are transitory and self-limiting to some extent.
Normal for this type of aquarium approach, of course.
I knew that they would go away, but I also knew that there would be a period of time when the tank might look like a big pool of slimy shit. Or, rather, it'd look like a pile of slimy shit to those who weren't familiar with these life forms, how they grow, and how the natural aquatic habitats we love so much actually function and appear!
To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were.
I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. It always was. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...
I never saw them.
Of course, I never reached for the siphon hose to remove all of this material. Never freaked out and started scrubbing the shit out of my tanks, lest any "issues" arise.
I was patient. Ever faithful in Nature. Indeed, I partnered intimately with Nature. I trusted that the processes which have played out for eons in the wild aquatic habitats of the world would unfold in my tanks, too- and that everything would be okay.
I knew that there wouldn't be any issues, because I created my aquariums with a solid embrace and appreciation of of basic aquatic biology; an understanding that an aquarium is not some sort of "underwater art installation", isolated from natural porocesses- but rather, a living, breathing microcosm of organisms which work together to create a biome..and that the appearance of the aquarium only tells a small part of the story.
I was keenly aware about how different most wild aquatic habitats are from the way we perceive them to be in our tanks.
I knew that this type of aquatic habitat could be replicated in the aquarium successfully. I realized that it would take understanding, trial and error, and acceptance that the aquariums I created would look fundamentally different than anything I had experienced before.
A mental shift.
I also knew I might face criticism, scrutiny, and even downright condemnation from some hobby quarters for daring to do something different, and then for labeling what most found totally distasteful, or have been conditioned by "the hobby" for generations to fear, as simply "a routine part of the process."
It's what happens when you venture out into areas of the hobby which are a bit untested. Areas which embrace ideas, aesthetics, practices, and occurrences which have existed far out of the mainstream consciousness of the hobby for so long. Fears develop, naysayers emerge, and warnings are given.
Yet, all of this stuff- ALL of it- is completely normal, well understood and documented by science, and in reality, comprises the aquatic habitats which are so successful and beneficial for fishes in both Nature (and the aquarium, when we allow it).
We as a hobby have made scant little effort over the years to understand it. And once you commit yourself to studying, understanding, and embracing life on all levels, the world of natural, botanical-method aquariums and its untapped potential opens up to you.
Mental shifts are required.
Along with study, patience, time, and a willingness to look beyond hobby forums, YouTube/TikTok/Instagram, most aquarium literature, and aquascaping contests for information. A desire to roll up your sleeves, get in there, ignore the naysayers, and just DO.
No other hobby speciality is poised to study, appreciate, and embrace the vast diversity and process of Nature like we are in the aquarium world.
It's incredibly exciting- and humbling- to realize that the mental shifts that our community has taken- going beyond just the aesthetics- and really working with-indeed. "partnering" with- Nature, as opposed to fighting Her- will likely yield some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of the aquarium hobby.
An easy, beneficial partnership- wouldn't you agree?
Stay thoughtful. Stay studious. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.