If there is one thing that unites us in the botanical-style aquarium segment of the hobby, it's that gooey, slimy, stringy stuff known as "biofilm."
Fairly regularly, we get emails or DM's asking about the "stringy stuff covering my leaves"- so it's always a good idea to discuss it from time to time.
Even the word conjures up an image of something that you really don't want in your tank. Something dirty, yucky...potentially detrimental to your aquarium's health.
And, let's be honest with ourselves here. The damn dictionary definition is not gonna win over many "haters":
Well, apart from the unpleasant-sounding description of the stuff, and it's "snot-like" appearance, the concept of biofilms and how they form is actually kind of interesting.
Not "charming." I didn't say that. But interesting, for sure.
Biofilms form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals.
It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer. The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together.
Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.
Sorta sounds a lot like Facebook, huh?
(The above graphic from a scholarly article illustrates just how these guys roll.)
And we could go on and on all day telling you that this is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in nature.
Yet it does, so we will! :)
Terrestrial materials- famously, leaves- recruit biofilms like mad when submerged.
They are an integral part of flooded forest habitats...and pretty much every aquatic habitat they is. They assist with nutrient processing, sediment stabilization- oh, and they provide food for many fishes, too.
Is there a "darkside" to biofilms? Of course.
Like anything else, too much of a "good thing" can cause problems in rare instances.
Frightening, "aquarium armageddon scenarios" could play out. For example, in an extremely overcrowded aquarium (or a very small one) with marginal husbandry and filtration, with a huge amount of biofilm (relative to tank volume) caused by an equally huge influx of freshly-added botanicals, there is always the possibility that bacteria within the biofilms can multiply extremely rapidly, reducing the level of oxygen in the rest of the aquarium, which could lead to a dramatic reduction of CO2 being released out of the water. This, in turn, could lead to CO2 levels rising quickly and sharply, potentially causing asphyxiation to the animals in the tank- including the lovable nitrifying bacteria that support it.
Now, that's a true "doomsday scenario"- brought about by a non-sustainably-managed/populated aquarium, improper preparation and rapid, excessive additions of botanicals, and complete lack of common sense on the part of the aquarist, in terms of husbandry.
There IS a darkside to biofilms. If you create circumstances to foster one.
The real positive takeaway here: Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work.
Yet, understandably, it may not make some of you feel good. However, it being "natural" and all...perhaps you could take some comfort in hearing more about what to expect?
First off, take comfort in the fact that this is typically sort of a "passing phase", and can take anywhere from a few days to 2-3 weeks before it subsides on it's own to some level that you can live with. It will never fully "go away." You don't WANT it too. Realize that biofilms are present in every aquairium, to some degree. Yeah, even your "Nature Aquariums", guys.
Welcome to Planet Earth.
We get it, though- some of you just don't want this stuff, despite its "charms."
Okay, well, when you've got a lot of this material in your aquarium, and it's causing you considerable worry, stress, and just plain giving you a case of the shivers, there are some actions you can take ( besides cursing the whole idea of throwing aquatic botanicals in your system in the first place).
What to do? Here are a few time-tested options:
Again, the reality here is that in an otherwise well-managed, sustainably-populated aquarium, at best the largest blooms of the stuff will be a temporary nuisance, subsiding to a tolerable level, or even being almost unseen, for as long as you have the aquarium in operation.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a blackwater, botanical-influenced aquarium. A part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium. The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the dues you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your completed aquarium when they see it for the first time.
Now, there are a lot of you who have come to admire, and even love the whole idea of biofilm. Like, those of you who love the aforementioned ornamental shrimp. You understand the value of having a periodic "crop" of this stuff available for your shrimp to "graze" upon. You actually are wanting to foster it.
So, what are the botanicals which seem to give you the best shot at purposely "recruiting" the stuff? Well, pretty much all of them- in fact, almost anything you put underwater- will recruit some biofilms at some point. However, in our experience, there are a few which seem to "recruit" more biofilms initially than others.
Pyrifolium Pods- which also tend to soften more quickly on their interior than many other botanicals, rendering them more attractive to biofilms in the early phases of their "run" in an aquarium.
Magnolia leaves- Yup, these most beloved, tannin-imparting leaves have that waxy "cuticle" that seems to recruit biofilm more quickly than other leaves during their first weeks of submersion. It seldom lasts very long, generally subsiding dramatically on it's own quite fast.
Dregea Pod- Another lightweight botanical with an interior that seems to soften very quickly, recruiting a good amount of biofilm in the process. And, interestingly, the biofilms tend not to linger very long on this pod, so "make hay while the sun shines" and let your shrimp have at 'em quickly!"
Jackfruit Leaves - These cool leaves tend to be attractive to shrimp anyways; however, with the "value added" benefit of rapid biofilm recruitment, your shrimp will feel like you really appreciate them, and you, in turn, will no longer any harbor resentment for the shrimps' ridiculous $400USD per gram price tag. (sorry, couldn't resist!)
Now, you may have other favorites for this purpose, and we could probably devote a whole damned article to it (Why not, I've just written a thousand-plus words on biofilm! Where else in the aquarium world are you going to find that kind of content every day- for free, nonetheless? And yet, some of you still buy generic, "non-romanced" Catappa leaves from some clown on E-Bay. Really? Huh? How DO you sleep at night? Have I guilted you yet?)
Okay, this "periodic review" of biofilms is getting a bit "long-winded", and even a bit nasty- but you get the idea. I could pretty much name every botanical in our category and tell you it will recruit biofilms.
That's a reality.
Biofilms are absurdly common in nature, and a part of pretty much any aquarium, yet a bit more significant (and noticeable) when you play with aquatic botanicals. They are not to be feared- although they should be respected, studied, understood- and ultimately, utilized as food by your animals!
Stay mellow. Stay calm. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay patient. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet.