With a few years of experience under our collective belts as a community of blackwater, botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts, we are definitely starting to see some opinions, techniques, and yeas- tangible benefits that might be more than coincidence!
For example, not too long after we started offering our botanicals, hobbyists would report stuff like increased vigor, color, and most interesting of all...increased frequency of spawning. At first, I attributed this to a lot of things: Sheer coincidence of timing, ongoing expert care from the hobbyist, extra attention paid to the fishes because the aquarist just did a "tank makeover", or other random factors...
And then we noticed a pattern to these reports of "good stuff." Specifically, with fishes like Apistos, certain catfishes, Gouramis, wild Bettas, and some Characins, you'd see them display much more intense colors soon after they acclimated to the new blackwater conditions. And it's happened so frequently now that I no longer think it's sheer coincidence. Rather, I think it is the tangible result of providing our fishes which evolved in softer, acidic, blackwater habitats conditions more conducive to their health and natural behaviors.
This is not exactly earth-shattering, in terms of botanical materials creating positive impact for fishes. As we all know, better hobbyists and cichlid guys, killie breeders, and Characin enthusiasts have used materials like peat moss and Catappa leaves for many years to induce breeding. What I think is different nowadays is that we are incorporating the botanical materials as a permanent part of the environment for these fishes. We're building the aquarium system around the needs of the fishes, and the botanicals are a key part of the equation.
And I think that the manifold benefits of tannins and humic substances for our fishes, as confirmed by much scientific research over the past decade or so, are playing out more regularly as we continue to utilize materials containing these substances in our aquariums. Now, sure, you could keep things ridiculously simple and use a "tea" made from these things, or a commercially available "blackwater extract" and derive many of the same potential benefits for your fishes.
However, I think that the one thing that you will get by using the actual botanicals in your aquariums versus a simple additive is the behavioral benefits of having a "structural" aquascape that provides function as well as aesthetics. Our friend Mike Tuccinardi wrote an excellent guest blog on this very subject right here in "The Tint!" The observation is pretty straightforward, and the implications are important: Fishes adapted to living in habitats replete with botanical materials on the substrate and into the water column will simple respond in a more natural way to the presence of these materials. In this way, the botanical items provide shelter, territory, feeding and spawning surfaces for a variety of fishes.
I think we're seeing a gradual, but very tangible evolution in how we keep our fishes, and the benefits are becoming increasingly more apparent. And I think we will see more benefits when we breed- and rear- our fishes in water conditions provided by the botanical materials as well. That's an area yet to be thoroughly studied, and I'd love to see more of you breeders work on this. In fact, if you're contemplating rearing your fry in the same blackwater, botanical-influenced environment that the spawning took place in, we'd love to work with you. Let us know what you're up to, and we can arrange to send you some botanicals to work with in your rearing system. The only "charge" is that we'll ask you to provide some feedback, in the form of pics and information, about what happened! We really want to share these types of things with our ever-expanding community, and your feedback is super-important to help advance the "state of the art" in blackwater aquaristics!
The other area that you will soon see some interesting and tangible benefits from will be in the handling of wild-imported fishes along short custody chains from source to hobbyist, with the fishes acclimated and maintained in hobbyist-replicable botanical-influenced blackwater conditions while being held for sale. The long term benefits of this practice, we feel, will be well worth the slightly higher expense and effort involved. Like everything we do in the hobby/industry, time, patience, and commitment are the variables to success.
Now, no discussion of botanical "benefits" would be complete without the usual caveats to be responsible, prepare thoroughly, move slowly, and observe and test your water. Fishes like Apistos can be notoriously finicky and even delicate if they're subjected to rapid environmental changes. Blackwater is not a "miracle tonic" that will make every fish thrive, but it can provide some very interesting benefits if applied with common sense. When switching over your existing, inhabited aquarium to a botanical-style blackwater aquarium with a lower ph and alkalinity, you are making significant environmental changes that can impact the health of your fishes, and the need to move slowly and carefully is mandatory.
That admonition aside, the opportunity and potential to create a real tangible and beneficial change to the way we keep and breed our fishes from specialized environmental niches is too great to pass up! The extra dedication and care required to initiate these changes and to maintain them on an ongoing basis is well worth it, IMHO!
Let's continue to work together, observing, experimenting, and most important- sharing- the interesting and perhaps evolutionary changes that applying our knowledge of blackwater, botanical-style systems can bring to the hobby and industry.
Stay excited. Stay dedicated. Stay brave. Stay creative.
And Stay Wet.