Free your mind and the detritus will follow...

As we ease in to 2020, the one thing I'm going to keep hammering into everyone's head is the desire to see us let go of some of our old fears and concerns about "stuff" that we've labeled as "bad" without due consideration for any possible benefits..

Now, as those of you who read my little rants and listen to my podcasts know, one thing I truly can't stand is over-generalizations about stuff in the hobby.

And one of the most maligned, over-generalized topics in the world of aquarium husbandry is...detritus. We've talked about this before, but it deserves repeating...

My never-ending war on behalf of detritus continues.

Yeah, you heard me...On BEHALF of detritus!


I know that uneaten food and fish poop, accumulating in a closed system can be problematic if overall husbandry issues are not attended to. I know that it can decompose, overwhelm the biological filtration capacity of the tank if left unchecked. And that can lead to a smelly, dirty-looking system with diminished water quality. I know that. You know that. In fact, pretty much everyone in the hobby knows that.

Yet, we've really sort of heaped detritus into this "catch-all" descriptor which has an overall "bad" connotation to it. Like, anything which is allowed to break down in the tank and accumulate is bad. Anything that looks like "dirt" is...well, "dirty", dangerous, and should be treated accordingly.

Now, "dirty-looking" and "dangerous" are two very different things, right?


The definition as accepted in the aquarium hobby is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:

"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)

Everyone thinks that it is so bad.

I'm not buying it.

Why is this necessarily a "bad" thing?

I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."

It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.

This is really important. It's part of the biological "operating system" of our aquariums.

It's not all bad, right?

I think we should embrace this. Especially in a botanical-style aquarium, which essentially "runs" on the decomposition of materials.

In the flooded forest floors we find in Nature, the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to the overall tropical environment, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system, and acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream!

Stuff is being used by a myriad of life forms.

Is there a lesson from Nature here that we can incorporate into our aquarium work?

I think so!

Okay, detritus as we see it may not be the most attractive thing to look at in our tanks. I'll give you that. It literally looks like a pile of shit! However, what we're talking about allowing to accumulate isn't fish poop and uneaten food. It's broken-down botanical-materials. 

As we talk about so much around here- just because something looks a certain way doesn't mean that it always a bad thing, right? What does it mean? Take into consideration why we add botanicals to our tanks in the first place. Now, you don't have to have huge piles of the stuff littering your sandy substrate. However, you could have some accumulating here and there among the botanicals and leaves, where it may not offend your aesthetic senses, and still contribute to the overall aquatic ecosystem you've created.

If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what happens? Do you see a decline in water quality? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they" say in the books and hobby forums?

Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?

I think so.

Now, I'm just one guy, but I personally haven't had issues with the complete decomposition of botanicals and leaves being left to accumulate in my aquariums. In almost three decades of playing with this stuff, and being a hardcore, water-quality-testing reef keeper during much of that time, I can't ever, EVER recall I time where the decline of a system I maintained could be pinned specifically on the detritus from decomposing botanical materials as a causative factor in reducing water quality.

In fact, I have never had a situation where water quality has been an issue in a tank not performing well. And I suspect- neither have many of you.

Okay, put me in for a medal, right? 

That's not the point.

What I'm getting at is that I have always been a firm believer in some forms of nutrient export being employed in every single tank I maintain. Typically, it's regular water exchanges. Not "when I think about it', or "periodically", mind you.

Nope, it's weekly. 

Now, I'm not saying that you can essentially disobey all the common sense husbandry practices we've come to know and love in the hobby (like not overcrowding/overfeeding, etc.) and just change the water weekly and everything's good.

Water exchanges are helpful. However, they're not a panacea for all of the potential "ills" of a poorly managed tank.

What I am saying is that incorporating regular water exchanges into your system gives you the ability to dilute any potential accumulating organics/pollutants before they become a significant negative ve impact on water quality.

They simply give you a bit of a "buffer", essentially.

I don't need to go into the well-trodden reasons about what water exchanges are a good thing in the aquarium. However, I do need to give us a collective whack upside the head and encourage each and every one of us to think about this stuff from the perspective of an overall closed ecosystem. Think about what the nitrogen cycle is and does, and think about the impact of inputs and exports into and out of our closed systems. 

Think about the potential benefits of allowing some of this stuff to remain.

Think about the organisms which feed upon it, their impact on the water quality, and on the organisms which fed on them. Then, think about the fishes and how they utilize not only the material itself, but the organisms which consume it.

Consider its role in the overall ecosystem...

Is detritus a nutrient trap?

Or is it a place for fishes to forage among?

A place for larval fishes to seek refuge and sustenance in? Kind of like they do in Nature, and have done so for eons?

Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).

I think we really need to think about our systems- particularly in the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium world- as little microcosms which replicate- at least on some level, some of the process which occur in nature to create a specialized but highly productive and successful- not to mention, dynamic- ecology. 

And not all of these processes have appealing visuals. I believe that we as hobbyists need to separate aesthetics from the overall functional benefits of the various life forms and processes which appear in and guide our aquairums' ecological systems.

There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."

Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage. And know that the pile of decomposing goo that you're looking at now is just a metaphorical "stepping stone" on the journey to an aquarium which embrace Nature in every conceivable way.

Maybe, as the years go by, we as a hobby will overcome generations of fear over stuff like detritus and fungi and biofilms- the very life-forms which power the aquatic ecosystems we strive to duplicate in our aquariums. Maybe, rather than attempting to "erase" these things, which go against our "Instagram-influenced aesthetics" of how we think that Nature SHOULD look, we might want to meet Nature where she is and work with her. 

And we just might see the real beauty- and benefits- of unedited Nature.

And of course, the literal "basis"- the "fuel- for all of this stuff is the botanical materials themselves, breaking down in our tanks, as they've done in Nature for eons. The ultimate in "ephemeral", and perhaps the ultimate execution of the natural, botanical-style aquarium. 

It's not for everyone. I get that.

It asks us to reconsider everything that's been ingrained in us over generations of aquarium-keeping. It's hard to let some stuff go. I get it.

Yet, we've seen a change in our community over the past few years. It's exciting and encouraging.

Many of us have already made a "mental shift" which accepts the transient, subtle beauty of decomposing botanical materials, tinted water, biofilms, fungi, and the like. It goes without saying that taking it a little further and allowing these materials to completely break down to serve as the literal biological "substrate" for our aquatic ecodiversity-to be utilized by plants and animals which reside in our tanks- is simply the next "iteration" in the management of blackwater/brackish botanical-style aquariums.

Ahh..this "stuff."

These small, seemingly "annoying" end products of decomposition, and the life forms that accompany/produce them are actually the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium...

We just need to embrace them. Understand what role they play in Nature- and in our tanks.

It's a mental shift.

A perspective of open-minded curiosity...and a willingness to look at things a bit differently and go beyond the usual and generally accepted ideas on stuff. It's not always pretty. It's not always right.

I'll give you that much. However, it's always, always worth considering and exploring. Because just accepting "status quo", keeping a closed mind to alternative ideas, and not pushing the edges from time to time is not just a little bit boring- it's denying fellow hobbyists the opportunity to learn about- and potentially benefit from- stuff we might have long been afraid of.

Keep exploring. Always.

Oh, and what about our friend, detritus?

Think about it as more than just a "nutrient trap" or "destroyer of water quality", or something equally sinister...Think of it as the foundation-literally- of a dynamic and prosperous closed ecosystem.

Free your mind.

See where this takes you. What do you have to lose? Yeah, you can always siphon the stuff out, like you've done your whole life- right?

Yeah. No prob.

Stay adventurous. Stay open-minded. Stay unbounded by convention. Stay relentless in pursuit of answers. Stay observant. Stay brave...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment