Editor's note: As you know, from time to time, we love to share guest blogs written by aquarists from around the world. It gives us a different perspective, and often touches on ideas and nuances that we haven't before. Today's guest editorial contribution is from author Jonny Archer, who has contributed to publications such as Practical Fishkeeping, filled with humor, opinion, and some well thought-out points for contemplation and further discussion. The words and ideas are his...As is customary on the guest spots, I'll occasionally drop in with comments in italics. Enjoy and Stay Wet! -Scott Fellman
Scott has been talking about this subject in his blogs for a while now, hidden between the lines. I'm unsure why he hasn’t come out and said it but I’m unbound to say whatever I like as an independent writer and Aquascaper, accountable to no one, but you the reader. I feel like it's my duty to put Scott out of his misery and come right out and say what I feel needs to be said:
"Nature Aquariums" are superficial versions of nature and therefore not natural.
There I have said it, and I’m not taking it back!!
To be honest, it is is a shame that they are superficial, as the definition of the "Nature Aquarium" from the company founded by the late Takashi Amano (may he rest in peace), the creator of the concept of the “Nature Aquarium” clearly states that it recreates an ecosystem that is found in nature:
“Nature Aquarium recreates an ecosystem that is found in nature by growing aquatic plants to make a favourable environment within an aquarium tank and keeping animals such as fish and shrimp together with plants.”
Nature aquariums and all aquascapes, especially dioramas (like mountain scapes) are a lot like supermodels, in that they look amazing, but they don’t represent real people. Yes, supermodels are technically human, and humans are technically animals, so I suppose they are technically a part of nature and therefore natural.
Now, before you devolve into an internet troll, saying, “How dare you besmirch the good name and work of the late Takashi Amano and compare nature aquariums with superficial supermodels!” just hear me out and I’ll explain why I make this comparison.
Co2 injection bugs me...
I was drawn to aquascaping- and nature aquariums specifically, as the notion of recreating an ecosystem found in nature, appeals to the biologist/naturalist in me. "Nature Aquariums" seemed to be the perfect fit for creating the ideal ecosystem for fish/plants/ shrimps to thrive in. However, after setting up my "Nature Aquarium" and setting out to purchase a pressurized CO2 system something always bugged me:
If my plants require CO2 injection to thrive in my "Nature Aquarium", then how is it that plants in the wild thrive?
Mother Nature doesn’t go to her local fire extinguisher shop and stock up on CO2 bottles. And if there is plenty of CO2 in the atmosphere then why is it that there is not enough of it getting into my aquarium water? The CO2 had to be coming from somewhere? It doesn’t just magically appear, unless plants know how to break the laws of physics?
I couldn’t figure out where Mother Nature was getting her CO2 from, I search high and low for definitive answers, but nobody had a clear answer. It was only when I was walking my dogs along my local river after the autumn fall of leaves that I noticed the leaves in the water- and that's when the answer hit me! I shouted, "EUREKA!" Okay, I didn’t shout it, but I wish I did and that someone was there to be amazed at my realization. (I don’t think my dogs would have cared much, to be honest.)
My theory was the CO2 comes from the decomposition of...the dead leaves!!
A quick bit of science to explain.
Decomposition is the effect of living things consuming organic matter(the leaves). All living things respire. The end product of respiration is- you guessed it-CO2!! So following this logic through...The more leaves in the tank, the more decomposition happens, meaning there are more living things respiring- meaning there is more CO2 being produced!
Simple equation, really.
Okay, this isn’t me discovering some new-found scientific principle like Archimedes did in his bath. Scientists have known this for centuries. We all have observed the effect of carbon dioxide produced by decomposition to some extent. When we add botanicals to our tank, the pH drops as carbon dioxide plus water produces carbonic acid which reduces pH (its a little more complicated than that but no time to go into it here).
"Nature Aquariums" are too clean.
If you experience or view any natural habitat whether it's your local river or the Amazon they are never pristine clean. There is always dirt, dead leaves, dead pieces of wood, rotting fruit- maybe the odd "Number 2" (Not a human's! A fish or bird, I mean). The reason for this is that a true ecosystem not only celebrates life- but also death. To quote the great King Mufasa from "The Lion King":
"When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.”
(Now we're quoting a freakin'Disney movie? Seriously? I thought that I was the one with the weird references- sheesh! 🤔 -S.F.)
And the nature aquarium, as it's commonly executed, forgets about the most important part of the circle of life. “When we die”. When living things die, they don’t destroy the ecosystem, they become another part of it. Nature aquariums are all about life, so are generally cleaned to an inch of their life. God forbid that a leaf floats on the surface and rots away, Ewwww! Better get them out before we get algae problems!! When, in theory, that dead leaf can actually help another plant to grow.
It's what happens in nature.
Blackwater isn’t for me
Full disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of blackwater setups, (Really? WTF? -S.F. 😜) I prefer to have living plants in my aquarium. My green fingers cannot sit idle for too long. I need to grow something so I can stroke my ego by watching my work grow into a masterpiece. Having said that, I want to complete the circle of life and incorporate botanicals into my setup, because it would bring my nature aquarium closer to nature. And I love trying new things and testing how they change the environment for better or worse.
The question I want to raise to my fellow aquascapers is: Are we neglecting our scapes by removing the “ugly” in pursuit for perfection instead of leaving the leaf to rot? So, like Mufasa said, “When we die, our bodies becomes the grass..." Or in the case of an aquascape, aquatic plants. So I came to the conclusion that
Botanicals are not exclusively for black water setups or biotope aquariums. They can be used in all aquariums.
So that's what I did.
I bought a range of botanicals from Blackwater UK (Tannin aquatics UK affiliate). I placed them in my aquascape (after preparation) with one hand, and an algae scrubber in the other, waiting to get scrubbing algae. As an experiment, I erred on the side of caution. I started slowly, and added only a small proportion of botanicals and built upon it slowly over time. To my astonishment, there was no algae growth after the day, the week, the month, now three months has past and there has been no increase in algae. My tank is 1 year old and completely balanced between lights/fertilisers and its plants mostly slow to medium growing plants.
So I had to ask myself the question: Was I told a lie? Nature aquariums don’t actually need to be cleaned?
Yes and no.
I may have added "dead" things to my tank, but I didn’t neglect my 50% weekly water change. I also kept on top of filter maintenance. I also cleaned my substrate, but not too much. You see blackwater aquariums and nature aquariums are in constantly in flux, and we still need to intervene from time to time- just like in nature. So we have to act on behalf of mother nature but no more.
My 50% water changes and gravel clean act like a flood, picking up detritus from the sediment and taking it downstream which is an important ecological process. And I maintain my filter to keep my bacteria population at its best. So yes it was a lie a dead leaf of there won't do any harm, but if you don’t act on mother natures behalf and I bet you there will be hell to pay.
There was no noticeable difference in my plants. However, there was in my Otocinclus. They have never been so healthy! I hadn’t fed them specific foods in 3 months, and they have just keep having a good time in my "nature + botanical" aquascape. My Neon Dwarf Rainbows have started exhibiting behaviour I rarely have seen. They actively search the botanicals finding something to peck at. What they peck at, I have no idea (It makes me happy that I don’t know, as it means there's more for me to learn!!)- but they seem to be happy, and that's all I care about.
"Nature Aquariums" are cleaned fastidiously to the point that they neglect the dirty side (and a vital part) of the ecosystem. Real ecosystems, although they may not be as superficially attractive, are clearly full of more substance- and more resilient.
Let me be straight, I love the "Nature Aquarium" and wouldn’t change the style for the world. There's the perfectionist part of me that will never get tired of making iwagumi scapes; there's nothing more pleasing to me than a minimalist scape. Two types of scapes that we owe to Takashi Amano. I'll never reach his mastery of these two styles. I'm not saying we should get rid of these styles but we have to be humble and look at their weakness from an ecological standpoint
Unfortunately, I never met or knew Takashi Amano, I only knew of his work and his principles so I do feel a kindred spirit with him, I too am a nature photographer and I’m also a keen study on the natural world. I feel like we owe it to him not to rest on his laurels but to build upon them to make a more ecological complete aquarium
We should create a new aquascaping concept that Scott has embraced. A concept that builds upon the nature aquarium, and also adds botanicals (death) to complete the ecosystem. I feel that Takashi would love to see this style as much as I would. If your reading this then the chance are you are at least intrigued by botanicals. So let us try to move away from the "superficial supermodel" that is the nature aquarium and move towards the natural aquarium embodied by Mother Nature, who has sand between her toes, dirt underneath her nails, mud on her face that dwarfed by the most genuine smile you could ever imagine.
Tune in next time, when I will explain scientifically why botanicals and plants have a symbiotic relationship, which will help explain why this type of natural aquarium could be the next big thing in aquascaping.
In the meantime go and get your hands dirty and green.