There is something very satisfying about the way a botanical-influenced aquarium evolves and takes on a life of its own over time, isn't there?
I think almost more than any other type of freshwater aquarium I've worked with over the years, the botanical-style aquarium (blackwater or otherwise) rather quickly goes from "inert" to biologically rich. It's likely because of the input of a large number of natural botanical materials from pretty much "day one" of its existence, and the "base" of nutrients and organics which botanicals and other natural materials bring. They not only act as physical "attachment points" for microorganisms and other life forms (ie; fungi, epiphytic algae, etc.), they impart all of those much-loved (around here, anyways) tannins, humic substances, etc. to the water, essentially "modifying" the aquatic environment with their mere presence.
With decomposing materials to help "fuel" this biological "engine", the botanical-style aquarium creates a very dynamic habitat. As we all know by now, it functions and looks very different from almost any other type of aquarium we work with. By replicating the complex look and physical attributes of these features, including rich substrate, roots of various thickness, and leaves, we offer our fishes all sorts of potential microhabitats. In the aquarium, we tend to focus on the "macro" level- creating a nice wood stack, perhaps incorporating some rock- but we've seldom seen the whole picture allowed to come together in a more natural way.
Creating an aquascape utilizing a matrix of leaves, roots, and other botanical materials, is one of my favorite aesthetic interpretations of the complex flooded forest habitat...and it happens to be supremely functional as an aquarium, as well! I think it's a "prototype" for many of us to follow, merging looks and function together adeptly and beautifully.
I think that when we think about our aquariums as evolving habitats, instead of just simple glass boxes filled with water, our mindset changes, and the way living organisms adapt helps pave the way towards more realistic aquatic habitats.
Not too long ago, I was scrolling though our Instagram feed, and, as I often do, I was inspired by the wonderful work being done by our friend Paul Dema of Vivariums in The Mist in New York ( Instagram: vivariums_in_the_mist). As his company name implies, they specialize in creating pretty amazing habitats and enclosures for frogs/herps. These are incredibly beautiful, complex, and well-thought-out scapes, which, in my opinion, are the very essence of "functional (aqua)scaping!"
In the case of frog enclosures, there are many considerations that the hobbyists must think about when building them. First, you need to provide a hardscape of wood, soil, and other materials (they use some foam along with the natural materials, like wood and stone) to hold together the "superstructure" of the jungle simulation they're creating. The concept of "bioactive" scapes is of supreme importance to frog enthusiasts, as the enclosure not only has to look good, it needs to be a functional representation of a jungle/rainforest biotope.
"Bioactive" enclosures attempt to replicate many aspects of the rain forest floor; specifically, the soils and associates biotia. In the case of a vivarium, creatures like Ispods and other detritivores are incorporated to help break down wastes and return nutrients to the "forest floor." This not only allows healthy growth of plants, but allows extremely long-term function for these unique habitats (up to 10 years or even more in some instances).
These hobbyists literally are doing what we do in aquairums- attempting to replicate the "functional aesthetics" of a natural habitat. Now, we may not be able to incorporate some of the organisms (ie; terrestrial isopods like "Springtails" and such) into fully aquatic displays. Of course, we have aquatic analogs, right?
Not only has Paul embraced the bioactive substrate concept- he's doubled down and created an entire line of food sources for the organisms which reside there, to really help foster reproduction and growth of these beneficial creatures! This is fascinating stuff...
So- nurturing the animals which help take care of our systems is a brilliant idea. It makes sense to the point of being almost obvious- except that we in the aquarium world have had a harder time getting our collective minds wrapped around the concept until fairly recently.
And it's obvious that we can integrate many of the other biological aspects/concepts of these systems into our aquariums. It's kind of the "terrestrial analog" to the type of work that we do! After all, we incorporate terrestrial materials into our aquatic displays and have for years...it's all about a point of view, I think.
Playing with new substrate materials, botanicals, and fostering-instead of fighting- many of the processes which fuel them is just one of the many "jumping off points" for our botanical-style aquariums that is becoming more and more interesting to us!
What kinds of exciting developments will we see when we embrace the aquatic version of the "bioactive" concept?
Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay innovative. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.