Before I ever started Tannin, I grew corals commercially.
As a coral farmer, you're completely attuned to the needs of the organisms you're growing, from both an environmental and ecological standpoint. Before that, I was simply a reefer- a hobbyist who was obsessed with keeping a reef aquariums.
For the first 25 years or so of the reef aquarium hobby, it was all about literally creating a miniature reef- with life at many levels, ranging from invertebrates to corals, and of course, fishes. Techniques, approaches, and gear were developed to foster the development of the overall captive reef environment.
We incorporated "live rock" (calcareous reef rock which has been colonized by all sorts of organisms, from bacteria to macroalage, sponges) into the literal "foundation" of our reef tanks. The rock was a biodiversity catalyst, physical structure, and "filter."
Denitrification was thought to occur in deep layers of aragonite sand, so 3"-5" sand beds were found in almost every aquairum at the time. Procedures and practices all revolved around developing appropriate fauna to help maintain such sand beds. The typical reef aquarium of the early 2000's was a diverse assemblage of all sorts of life.
And reefs became a lot easier to maintain.
As the hobby evolved, greater attention was paid to the corals themselves- acquiring, studying, and propagating them.
Suddenly, the "ecology" part of a "reef aquarium" fell to a supporting role, with aquarists spending their time, attention, and money on equipment to provide for the needs of the corals above almost everything else. Sand beds and lots of live rock were seen as less important than mineral supplementation and technical filtration. The high diversity reef tanks of the early 2000's gave way to coral focused aquariums.
It was about bare bottoms, minimal rock, and lots of mineral supplementation. We discovered that flow was as important , if not more so- to corals than light- so sand was removed, as it blew all over the place under the power of the new pumps we used. Incredible technological advances occurred in pump, lighting, and other life support equipment, resulting in some amazing gear. Corals flourished.
Because of environmental restrictions imposed by many countries, the importation of live rock was extremely limited, if at all. We began to utilize alternative materials, such as manmade or mined rock, to create our reef structures. It was a necessary, responsible response to the limitations that we had.
There was a certain obsession with limiting nutrients to the aquairum, save those the corals needed.
Corals became almost "easy" to keep and grow. It was the start of a fantastic new era in reef aquariums...
Yet, something was amiss.
You started hearing more and more about "the uglies"- a colloquialism for the phase that a reef tank goes through as it establishes itself ecologically. A phase where algae, biofilms, and dinoflagellates flourished in the absence of competition. A time when cloudy water and bacterial "blooms" were a regular occurrence.
We didn't have these issues- at least, not to such an extent- during the early 2000's, when ecodiveristy and creation of a microbiome were at the forefront of what we did.
It's been that way for a while now. Bare bottom aquariums and inert, artificial rock, as environmentally responsible as they are, create a big challenge in creating a stable reef aquarium.
Fortunately, we're kind of figuring it out, and approaches are being modified to incorporate the development of eco diversity in our tanks using artificial rock. Aquacultured rock is becoming more prevalent, and sand is making a comeback.
Okay, so I'm not including this long-winded description of the last 2 decades of reef keeping just to show you how much I know. I'm talking about this stuff to illustrate the challenges that can arise when we eschew ecology in the establishment of our aquariums.
It's no coincidence that the botanical-method aquarium is a microcosm which depends upon botanical materials to foster the ecology and impact the environment.
This microcosm consists of a myriad of life forms at all levels and all sizes, ranging from our fishes, to small crustaceans, worms, and countless microorganisms. These little guys, the bacteria and Paramecium and the like, comprise what is known as the "microbiome" of our aquariums.
A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)
Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent:
We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-method aquarium is no different; in fact, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.
Yet, it's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist. In this little blog, we can't possibly cover every aspect of this- but we can touch on a few broad points that are really fascinating and impactful.
So much of this proces-and our understanding starts with...botanicals.
With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle.
Yeah, you understand the nitrogen cycle, right?
How do botanicals impact this process? Or, more specifically, the microorganisms that they serve?
In other words, does having a bunch of leaves and other botanical materials in the aquarium foster a largerpopulation of these valuable organisms, capable of processing organics- thus creating a more stable, robust biological filtration capacity in the aquarium?
I believe that they do.
With a matrix of materials present, do the bacteria (and their biofilms- as we've discussed a number of times here) have not only a "substrate" upon which to attach and colonize, but an "on board" food source which they can utilize as needed?
Facultative bacteria, adaptable organisms which can use either dissolved oxygen or oxygen obtained from food materials such as sulfate or nitrate ions, would also be capable of switching to fermentationor anaerobic respiration if oxygen is absent.
Well, that's likely another topic for another time. Let's focus on some of the other more "practical" aspects of this "biome" thing.
Like...food production for our fishes.
In the case of our fave aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes, like biofilms and fungal mats are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the "biocover" on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials.
The biocover consists of stuff like algae, biofilms, and fungi. It provides sustenance for a large number of fishes all types.
And of course, what happens in Nature also happens the in aquarium- if we allow it to, right? And it can function in much the same way?
I firmly believe that a botanical-method aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve 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 microorganisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!
It's a very interesting concept- a fascinating field for research for aquarists, and we all have the opportunity to participate in this on a most intimate level by simply observing what's happening in our aquariums every day!
And facilitating this process is remarkably easy:
*Approach building an aquarium as if you are creating a biome.
*Foster the growth and development of a community of organisms at all levels.
*Allow these organisms to grow and multiply.
*Don't "edit" the growth of biofilms, fungal growths, and detritus.
We need to make some mental shifts, always.
These mental shifts require us to embrace these steps, and the occurrences which happen as a result. Understanding that the botanicals and leaves which we add to our aquariums are not "aquascaping set pieces"; but rather that they are "biological facilitators"for the closed ecosystems we are creating is fundamental. These materials are being utilized and assimilated by the organisms which comprise the biome of our aquarium.
Therefore, they are transient. Ephemeral, actually-not permanent.
By accepting and embracing these changes and little "evolutions", we're helping to create really great functional representations of the compelling wild systems we love so much!
Leaf litter beds, in particular, tend to evolve the most, as leaves are among the most "ephemeral" or transient of botanical materials we use in our aquariums. This is true in Nature, as well, as materials break down or are moved by currents, the structural dynamics of the features change.
If you haven't surmised by now, I'm a huge fan of creating a microcosm within our aquariums- at least to the greatest extent possible. I favor utilizing natural botanical materials and compositionally rich substrates to foster the ecology within our tanks. That ecology is everything from Paramecium to fungal growths, small crustaceans, and just about anything in between.
My aquariums are ecologically rich, highly diverse miniature ecosystems. They're intended from the start to be this way. As we've discussed so many times.
And of course, the sequence or process which we employ is pretty important...And really simple.
When I set up a brand new botanical-method aquarium, my process is really nothing crazy:
1) Add substrate material
2) Add wood (if used)
3) Add botanicals (all of them, at once after preparation)
4) Innoculate with cultured of bacteria or other organisms
5) Add a bit of material (decomposing leaves or botanicals) from a healthy established tank
6) Wait, and let it "bloom."
Seriously complex stuff 😆
Woah, that fucking blew you away, right?
Likely not, but hey. It's just not really all that exotic a procedure.
That's really about all there is to the actual physical setup process.The real part- where the "rubber hits the road"- is the period after the setup.
When you let it be.
A "jumping-off" stage, where our initial work is done, and Nature takes over, breaking down the botanicals, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling. This is where Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.
And of course, once stuff starts "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an observer from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a cool phase of "actively managing" (and by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervening!") the aquarium.
Sure, when you embrace this mindset, you're making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to. Yet, at some point early in the process- you'll likely find yourself just letting go and allowing the tank to do what Nature intends it to do on it's evolutionary path...
The key here is that the process takes time. It cannot be rushed. We can, of course, "assist" a little bit, by adding some bacterial cultures or cultures of other microorganisms, like Paramecium, etc., or small organisms like Daphnia.
It's a classic way to go in many different types of aquariums, and it's every bit as effective in botanical-method tanks as it is in any other. It won't help you evade the process by which Nature recruits organisms to develop a microbiome, but it will certainly start the process a little more quickly.
The bottom line is that you need to take time, and go slowly. Your aquarium will evolve over time- regardless of the steps you take (or don't take) to expedite the process. Going slowly- or at least, not doing stuff with the expectation that you'll get to some perceived "destination" quickly- is a great approach.
I'm not in the habit of quoting myself; however, on occasion, something like this little gem from way back in 2016 rings as true today as it did then:
"...regardless of how you employ the botanicals, I cannot stress enough the need to go SLOWLY. There is no need to rush and dump everything in at one time, or in huge quantities. Particularly in an established aquarium, where your animals are used to a certain stable range of parameters...
It goes without saying that if your introducing materials which can influence water chemistry and quality, you will need to go slow and exercise common sense. And, since botanicals are actively "breaking down" in your aquarium over their "service lifetimes", it's important to employ good husbandry techniques (i.e.; monitoring of water quality, water changes, regular filter media changes, etc.)..."
Just some words to the wise, right?
I believe that the idea of embracing some of the things that we’ve feared- like having all of that fungal growth on new wood and leaves and stuff, understanding the turbidity and cloudy water, and accepting the fact that things will evolve past the early, perhaps unsettling aesthetics.
“Pushing through” the earliest phases.
When you think through the idea of how these early impacts are mostly aesthetic, and not harmful to your aquarium, you start to realize that the looks of this stuff ( to many hobbyists, at least) is actually more awful than any possible detriments that they bring. And most important, you'll discover that "editing" it out by removing it from your tank is actually doing damage to a burgeoning ecosystem before it ever really gets off the ground!
If you don't panic.
Do some research, and learn about how natural aquatic ecosystems function, something just "clicks." And you'll understand.
It'll make sense when you get out of your head the notion that you're just trying to go after some sort of aesthetic, rather than trying to nurture the development of a miniature ecosystem within your aquarium.
I think we're starting to see a new emergence of a more "holistic" approach to aquarium keeping...a realization that we've done amazing things so far, keeping fishes and plants in a glass or acrylic box with applied technique and superior husbandry...but that there is room to experiment and push the boundaries even further, by understanding and applying our knowledge of what happens in the real natural environment.
You're making mental shifts...replicating Nature in our aquariums by achieving a greater understanding of Nature...
And it all starts by placing ecology first.
Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay focused. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.