(Mike Tuccinardi is an author, aquarist, and traveler. His writings are regularly published in Amazonas magazine, as well as other print and online venues, and his photos and videos of wild Amazonian habitats have become extremely popular in social media, and ihere n "The Tint" as well! Mike recently set up an amazing biotope-style aquarium, which replicates a region of the Lower Tapajos River in Brazil, which we've featured in our "Inspiration" section!
I've enjoyed some stimulating exchanges on various aquatic topics with Mike, and was fortunate enough to coerce him into writing a little something for us! We're honored to have Mike as a guest author today, expanding upon the concept of "Functional Aquascaping" that we've talked about in a recent installment of "The Tint." Mike gives an amazing perspective on this subject, as someone who has explored firsthand the wild habitats we seek to replicate in our aquariums. Enjoy!)
In a much earlier post, Scott talked about how aquascaping with botanicals is about more than just aesthetics—that botanicals actually serve an important function in a healthy, thriving (usually blackwater) aquarium. This really spoke to me, both as an aquarist and as someone who has been fortunate enough to visit a number of the habitats our aquarium fish call home. And so, when he graciously offered me a guest spot here at “The Tint”, I thought I’d take a little time to expand on that theme a bit. Because seeing where and how a number of popular aquarium species live in the wild drastically changed the way I do things in my own aquariums, and has caused me to really, really embrace the concept of using leaves, seed pods, and other unique accent items in nearly every tank I set up.
But why, exactly? To sum it up in one word: enrichment. This is a concept that is used almost obsessively in the public aquarium and zoo community but rarely trickles into the hobby side of things. It has many meanings in different contexts, but the best way I would define it as it applies here would be: the addition of certain elements to an animal’s habitat to stimulate, challenge, or otherwise induce behavior in that animal. It’s quite common for zoos to incorporate food into puzzles for the animals in their care, and most dog owners can relate to stuffing peanut butter or other treats inside a "Kong" to keep their four legged friend busy. But how often do we think about stimulating the fish in our aquariums? Unless you’ve worked in the public aquarium sector or kept highly intelligent aquatic life like stingrays or octopus (both known for their propensity to “play”), the answer is probably never. But you may be offering your fish enrichment without realizing it.
In the wild, fish inhabit remarkably complex habitat. In the Rio Negro, for example, the flooded forest extends for thousands of kilometers at its peak, with basically entire forests’ worth of root masses, branches, and leaf litter all in play as habitat. Fruits and nuts fall into the water regularly, providing both food and shelter. The water temperature, pH, clarity and color changes dramatically as rainwater from the highlands fills the many tributaries, pushing sediment-rich, cool, and clear or white water into the normally blackwater river. This is an always-changing environment, one which fish have evolved to thrive in and take full advantage of.
One of the things that is most striking when you spend time below the water’s surface in this sort of environment is that the fish aren’t just passive inhabitants—they’re actively involved with their habitat, interacting in a very particular way. Apistogramma species aren’t just hanging out, they’re fighting turf wars among piles of dense leaf litter, even making their own piles by moving leaves and other bits of detritus to the center of their territories. Suckermouth catfish, whether Farlowella or Ancistrus, are actively exploring recently-submerged branches and roots, looking for a rich patch of biofilm or algae to feast on. Eartheaters and many other species of cichlids—even Severums, Angelfish, and Discus—are patrolling the bottom, taking big mouthfuls of sand and organic material to sift out any tasty morsels. It’s a big, organic mess, literally made up of various botanicals and these fish are having a field day in it.
These are things you never get to see in a typical aquarium, because, quite frankly, the tank is boring (at least from the fish’s perspective). I wrote a bit about this in a recent blog post on Reef to Rainforest, but basically, complex environments engender complex behavior. And to bring this back to the concept of enrichment, many fish are used to having a certain level of “stuff” to interact with in their environment. In a bare-bones tank, or even a carefully manicured aquascape, they’ll usually do just fine—thrive, even.
However, if you offer them an assortment of “stuff” in your aquascape that they can interact with, I think most fishkeepers would be astonished at the behavior that this brings out. Like seeing a juvenile Guianacara carefully picking up magnolia leaves, one by one, from the bottom of the tank only to arrange them in a neat pile around his favorite hiding spot. Or watching your smallest Checkerboard Cichlid peering out from the inside of its "Savu Pod" home, while a Queen Arabesque Pleco enthusiastically grazes on the biofilm growing on its outer husk. The list goes on and on, but the point is that the ever-expanding repertoire of botanicals we have available to us as aquarists can markedly enrich your fish’s lives by giving them an outlet for the naturally occurring behaviors—be it grazing, exploring, territory building, or social interaction—that they have evolved to make use of in their native habitat.
So give the whole “leaves and twigs” thing a try if you haven’t yet—your fish will more likely than not impress you with how they respond to it. Because it’s not just enrichment for the fish—I would venture a guess that the fish keeper comes away from this new approach enriched as well.
I know I have.