Fact, fiction, and the stuff in between...

"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone...."

Ok, that's one of the most famous opening voiceovers in television history, and it sort of resonates even today, when we're talking about fish stuff, doesn't it?

Yeah, it does.

You see, in the aquarium hobby, we have hardcore scientific facts, which are virtually indisputable. You know, stuff like the nitrogen cycle, photosynthesis, and the requirement to keep our fishes in water! Sure, aquarists might question, discuss, or argue about how to manage these things, or how they affect our aquariums, but no one really disputes the fact that they are hard and fast rules; things that cannot be circumvented for our convenience.

Then there are those things that fall into the realm of outright fantasy...we call 'em "myths"-stuff like "Fish grow to the size of their aquarium", or "The inch-per-gallon Rule", "Small tanks are easier to manage", etc. These are doctrines that have been adopted by the hobby over the decades because at one point, they may have made sense based on what was known to science at the time. And they were interpreted and re-worked for our purposes, usually to discourage hobbyists from trying stuff that could be detrimental to the fishes they wanted to keep...I mean, who would argue with what appeared to be facts available at the time?

The problem is, many of these outmoded or otherwise disproven "facts" have lingered for a long time in popular aquarium "culture", and some of them are not so good...like the "inch-per-gallon" rule, which fails to take into account that fishes are different in physiological needs and that this is a dangerous, possibly counterproductive generalization. I mean, 6 one-inch Neon Tetras don't give off the same amount of metabolic waste or consume as much food and other resources as say, a single six inch Texas Cichlid, Oscar, or whatever, right?

And of course, then there is that most modern of concerns with the aquarium hobby, the "regurgitation factor"- in which hobbyists on forums or other internet hangouts will systematically discourage, bash, and otherwise spout forth facts with an air of undisputed authority, despite having little or no experience with a subject. It's a byproduct of the 'Information Age", "Google Culture", or what have you. With all of this information at your fingertips, it's easy to pummel another hobbyist into submission on the internet from the anonymity of your iPad at 4:30 AM by citing all sorts of "facts" and opinions. And, with that anonymity, no one really knows if the guy on the other side of the keyboard has even kept Wild Bettas or Discus before, despite disseminating lots of regurgitated information of indeterminate origin.

Not helpful.

(B. macrostoma by Kenneth Kinchen)

This is the aquatic equivalent of the "Twilght Zone", where a strange mashup of opinions, selected facts, and shaky interpretations of science and disappointing past experiences become the basis for "recommendations" and "rules." It's a dangerous, pothole-ridden place that seems somewhat difficult to detour around these days. "Armchair experts" exist for virtually any specialty within the hobby-even those which haven't been invented yet! And a special note: Just because someone on the other side of the keyboard has a title, says that they possess an advanced degree, or shows a cool avatar doesn't mean they know what the &^$%%#$ they're talking about. 


(Yeah, but can you identify an Aphyosemion primigenium? Didn't think so...)

As a hobbyist and business person treading into the niche world of botanical, blackwater aquariums, I experienced a lot of this stuff first hand. Although plenty of hobbyists had used leaves and such before in aquariums, or dabbled in blackwater, it's been historically seen as a strange novelty, filled with all sorts of potential dangers and pitfalls- far, far too unpredictable and uncontrollable for all but the most serious (read "freaky') hobbyists. I dabbled in it for years with little to go on but the experiences I began to accumulate.

Myths and misunderstandings abound in this particular area of specialization. I heard fellow hobbyists tell me that tanks would "simply crash" if you put botanical stuff into them, that the pH would plummet dangerously out of control, and that the tank would become a mess of "scunge", algae, and murky brown water. Classic examples of the "Twilight Zone" thinking; sensationalized over-generalization based on...what experience?

I mean, when you look at some of the assertions, on the surface, they seemed to make some sense:  Add a bunch of leaves, twigs and nuts to an aquarium without due regard for what you're adding, how much, and the potential impact on the extant life forms, and, well- sure, it's a potential recipe for disaster. Duh. But why would you do that kind of thing, haphazard, and without thought? What if you carefully selected the materials you wanted to add, and prepared them to minimize the introduction of pollutants or other undesirable organics into the tank?

I think that a lot of the "warnings" we received were perhaps well-intentioned, but: a) Not based on personal experience, b) Dramatic over-generalizations based on areas not fully understood, and c) The look of the whole thing.

Yeah, the look. I think the very essence of a botanical, blackwater tank is so radically different than what has been presented as "normal" for the hobby for so long that it simply breeds fear and misunderstanding. The water is brown. And a lot of people don't like the look, regardless of how "natural and beneficial" we think it is for many fishes. And of course, when the inevitable biofilms, decomposing leaves, and brown water come, the naysayers and "regurgitators" can have a "field day" with the "I told you so.." stuff, because they don't understand what is normal and natural- and even beneficial-in this type of system.

Nature seems to provide an example for just about everything that we see in our aquariums, which I think also helps diminish some of our fears, to some extent. What is seen as frightening in an aquarium somehow is less so when we see it in nature.

(What? Biofilm and algae in...the Rio Negro? What? Thanks MIke Tuccinardi!)

Fortunately, we're far enough along now into this "New Botanical" movement that a growing and significant number of hobbyists are giving it a try, helping to dispel myths, develop technique, and elevate the concept from freak sideshow to legitimate speciality within the aquarium hobby. Like so many things in the hobby, there is "safety in numbers" I suppose, and the more hobbyists see great examples of botanical, blackwater aquariums, the more "accepted" it becomes.

More hobbyists give it a try. Fear starts diminishing. And again, the reality is that not everyone likes this aesthetic, which is totally understandable. We all have tastes and opinions on what looks and feels good. However, lack of understanding or fear-mongering is no reason to outright "diss" something, is it?

Yes, that's a personal example which I can bring to the table. And despite it being a bit aggravating to talk about, it's a classic example of how many ideas in the aquarium world come to be- how they are received-and how they are ultimately "accepted" more into the "mainstream" of our hobby "culture."

The big takeaway from all of this? 

Don't simply dismiss an idea or school of thought as "bad" because YOU don't like it, have no experience with it yourself, or "heard from someone who tried it and ended up with a disaster."

That's just silly.

Advancements in the aquarium hobby- like any other field of endeavour- require trial and error, experimentation, development of technique, establishment of "best practices", and a significant enough pool of "doers" to pave the way before they stop inspiring fear and suspicion and begin fostering inspiration and excitement.

We're happy to say that the whole "New Botanical" thing is starting to move out of that scary, rumor-and-myth-dominated area of the hobby, and is now headed into more of a growing, vital "niche speciality", complete with technique, styles, and even "thought leaders."

It's quite a nice place to be, and quite a bit brighter than "The Twilight Zone"- even with the brown water, wouldn't you say?  

Stay focused. Stay unflappable. Stay bold.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics








Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

November 06, 2016

Well said, Bob! I think that the “blackwater” style tank, like so many, benefits from numbers…numbers of aquarists putting out cool work that inspires others and “assures” them that they can do it! Looking forward to an exciting future!

Bob Woth
Bob Woth

November 05, 2016

I like it. If it works for you continue with it. Over the years I have tried may types of biotopes. I have used may types of wood over the years.
I have always had a few amber tanks. I have just started using leaves in with some wild bettas that I have,and they seem to be doing well, eating, great color. I have just put some leaves and wood into another tank and want to put some licorice gouramis in it. Our hobby is an experiment in water chemistry to find what suits or fish and encourages them to live and breed. Thanks

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