Having it their way! Nit-picking the "adaptation approach..."

After almost four years of our existence here at Tannin Aquatics, it's really neat to see that the idea of creating more natural aquariums in both form and function has been discussed more widely than ever. Not just blackwater aquariums, mind you- but all sorts of more natural aquarium systems.

And, of course, I'm stoked to see this evolution! Not just for what you'd think would be the obvious reasons- Oh, you know, I sell botanicals to accomplish this stuff...

No, no.

Rather, I'm stoked for the reason that we as a hobby are studying and learning and perfecting methodologies and practices for creating more functional environments in our aquariums, which is helping to unlock the secrets about caring for and breeding all sorts of fishes. We're questioning the "prevailing mindsets" that we've held regarding the way we approach things in our aquariums. We're questioning the "status quo", and sometimes just thinking why we do things the way we do?

It's an interesting mindset shift that has been constantly evolving. Again, no one person "invented" the idea of more natural-functioning aquariums, or blackwater, brackish, or any of the other ideas we go on an on about here. This is merely an evolution and a desire on the part of many hobbyists to push out a bit from where we';ve been for so long- much in the way aquatic plant enthusiasts or reef aquarium hobbyists have done this.

One of the topics that has come up more and more frequently in discussion of late is how we approach pH management and other environmental parameters in blackwater aquariums. Or, more specifically, how we adapt our animals to the parameters that we have created for them in our aquariums, and if there is a better approach to this.

I recall a conversation with our friend, the well-known hobbyist Ted Judy, some time ago. Ted had travelled to  Colombia, where he visited both wild habitats of characins, dwarf cichlids, and other fishes, and the facilities of local wholesalers who traded in them. He took some extensive environmental measurements at both the wild sites and facilities, and was able to garner some very interesting information.

His results seemed to indicate to me that we as a hobby seem to be approaching the care of some species incorrectly. Some species, particularly Angelfish and others, seem to categorically do better when kept under conditions more closely resembling those from which they have come from.

We've talked about this stuff before here in "The Tint", but it's a conversation that I find fascinating: 

The idea that just because your fishes from soft, acidic habitats are looking pretty good and have "adapted" to your hard, alkaline tapwater, and maybe even breed-doesn't mean that they can do well over time, or over generations, while kept under these conditions...

Or, quite simply, It doesn't mean that these are perhaps the best conditions for them. This is not to say that fishes can't adapt to our local water conditions, or that thee is only one way to keep them...No. My point is that this may, indeed not be the BEST way to keep fishes...even though it might be the easiest way for us.

It may indeed make more sense in the "big picture" to more realistically replicate the environmental parameters (I'm specifically emphasizing pH, alkalinity/conductivity here) of the environments where our fishes come from. And that may involve venturing into heretofore "forbidden" waters- pun intended.

We're perplexed, because in the past, we were told that more natural, soft, low pH "blackwater" parameters are somehow "dangerous"...difficult to recreate, and even more difficult to manage. I think that this is a generalization of sorts, really. As a long-time reef aquarist of several decades, I can confidently tell you that a high percentage of the time we spend as reefers is to replicate, as closely as possible, the natural reef conditions from which our corals and invertebrates come.

You can't "adapt" corals to radically different environmental parameters than those which they have evolved under. It's a case of accommodating their needs, not ours!

This is really no different.

With ammonia less toxic at lower pH levels, I've gotta think there is an advantage there somewhere to keeping blackwater fishes under more appropriate conditions...Yet, these conditions are often classified as "dangerous" or "unmanageable."  Are they really? Honestly, as we've discussed before, I don't think that this is the case...They are simply not immediately obvious or easy to figure out. We haven't fully studied it yet. We haven't really developed the most reliable and easily replicable techniques just yet to fully re-create these conditions.

We're just getting started, really. Again, drawing an analogy to my reef keeping and coral propagation work- it was really just a matter of translating some of the field research and aquarium work into procedure. Like in many other endeavors, "difficult", tedious, and "time-consuming" often weeds out a lot of people who want to keep those tough fishes in their tanks. We tend to want "simple" whenever possible! 

And the process of adapting wild specimens to aquariums, who have dealt with many physical "insults" on their way from river to aquarium, could only benefit from more natural environmental conditions.

I'll say it one more time.

This is not impossible stuff. It's simply going to require some continued work on our part to figure it out. Oh, and some courage, as you'll be challenged, scrutinized, and criticized- because it's sort of "taboo" in the mainstream to challenge some long-held assertions...

Conceptually, even in the freshwater hobby, it's not "new" to do this.

African Rift Lake cichlid fanciers have been providing more natural habitat-specific water parameters for their animals for decades with much success.

Providing them with more environmentally correct conditions to help them thrive and reproduce in captivity for extended periods of time has made the successful maintenance and propagation of Rift Lake Cichlids just that much more accessible to more and more hobbyists. 

In a broad sense, however, much of the hobby has relied on what I like to call the "adaptation approach" of getting the fishes to "comply" with the environmental parameters we can most easily supply for them. It's worked for a lot of fishes and aquatic life forms, at least in the short run. Yet, wouldn't there be some more lasting benefit to more accurately accommodating their needs versus adapting them to ours?

I can't help but question wether or not our fishes would be able to live longer lifespans, enjoy greater health, and reproduce more easily (not to mention, display better colors) if provided with conditions in the aquarium that more accurately replicate the wild habitats from which they evolved?

 My hunch is yes, but I'm not a biologist...Again, I have to ask if we have truly "bred out" their evolutionary adaptations to these environments- to which they have evolved over eons- after only a few decades in captivity, or if the fishes simply "adapted" to what we've provided them to some extent.

Again, I'm no scientist, and I have a limited understanding of genetics...but I have that nagging "thing" in the back of my mind that tells me to question this. Perhaps we have changed the genetic pool over time, but have we really circumvented millions of years of evolution? I just don't know.

And of course, I'm NOT trying to diminish the skill of any breeder or hobbyist has bred say, Discus or whatever under "tapwater" conditions...I'm just curious what the best long term approach is. I can't help but wonder how this plays out over the next few decades, as wild populations of many fishes come under increasing pressure from the environment and other factors.

We are doing great. 

We can do better.

And over and over, if you question the current prevailing mindset on this, many  hobbyists are going to tell you that it's a "slippery slope" and that you'll be unable to accomplish this. I wish I were more qualified to make such a determination, but I somehow feel that this isn't so; again, drawing from my experience with corals.

Yet, again and again, we're seeing fishes that are considered "challenging" to keep in aquariums because they favor these specialized parameters- thrive and reproduce when provided with them in our tanks. We have to reconstruct, or "back-engineer" what works for the fishes we're trying to keep. I think I'm kind of over the attitude I used to have that you need to "acclimate the fishes to your conditions" instead of providing them with the conditions that they have evolved to live, thrive, and reproduce in for eons.

I think the latter is a better way.


It goes back to studying the natural habitats they come from, and figuring out what the best way to replicate them is.

Simple as that.

There are no shortcuts. Honestly, it's not easy to do stuff that is a bit unorthodox or requires experimentation. Figuring out how to do this isn't just as simple as reaching for a "magic potion", or arriving at the perfect combination of three different leaves and pods or whatever to "condition the water" under any and all circumstances. And that intimidates a lot of people. Every situation, every tank, every nuance is unique, and this requires "customized" solutions for every aquarium. Sure, the methodology/strategy might be something which we can more or less "standardize"- but not the "formula."

As an example, the Rio Negro and its many tributaries provide us many different fishes that we love to keep in aquariums. The Rio Negro’s water is extremely poor in mineral content, with conductivity as low as 8 micro semions, and is extremely acidic, with pH’s ranging from 2.9 to 5.2. That's pretty damn acidic by aquarium standards, isn't it? How can you replicate water like that in your aquarium?

DO you want to?

Well, you'd start by utilizing RO/DI water and "conditioning it" with botanicals and such, which might only get you so far. There would likely be additional steps required, like the addition of acid solutions, different pH-reducing natural materials in your filter. And more detailed monitoring. And slightly different water-quality maintenance approaches. This stuff touches on the fringes of what a lot of us are comfortable doing.

And wouldn't it be easier to create and maintain these conditions with some compromising, like finding out the "average" of the pH and other parameters of the habitat you're trying to replicate and either going for it or perhaps, for the higher, easier-to-achieve higher limits of pH in the habitat, for example?

Even with a sort of "compromised accommodation" approach, you'd be providing your fishes with environmental conditions that are far more "realistic" than those typically provided in aquariums, right? Is there even a significant benefit to doing so? I believe so, but that's going to require some experimentation over time to prove.

That's what we need to do.

Yeah, easy for me to sit here and talk about, but it will require some work to back up this hypothesis! And again, we've accomplished many amazing things without going to crazy into trying to more accurately replicate these natural conditions. yet, I just can't help but wonder what we'd accomplish if we go just that much farther.

We are getting better at this as a hobby/industry. Think about it. We can create more habitat-specific water parameters right now, because we have the means and way more accurate and "applicable" information about the natural habitat from which our fishes come from than ever before, and ways to monitor it that simply weren't available to the hobby years ago.

Couple this with better management of lighting, thanks to LED's, more controllable current, thanks to high-tech, electronically controlled pumps, and very accurate temperature control thanks to better heater/controller tech- and we're assured a continued progression towards more nature-specific captive environments for our animals. Oh, and of course, there's the foods. Food is getting better than ever, and we're starting to see foods that contain a higher percentage of natural foods of many fishes- like aquatic insects, crustaceans, flies, etc. 

And you can state it enough- today's hobbyist is talented, intuitive, creative, smart, compassionate, and communicative in a way never before possible. The work being done is amazing!

It's a really exciting time to be a hobbyist.

The "next-level" breakthroughs will require just as much courage, effort, and creativity as they did in decades past, but the means to accomplish them are now at our fingertips. And the potential payoffs- in terms of fish health, greater reproduction, and a more sustainable industry- not to mention, greater awareness of, and appreciation for the precarious nature of the wild habitats- will assure us a brighter hobby future for ourselves, our fishes, and our children.

Don't shy from the challenge. Hit it head on! Accommodate, don't adapt.

Stay brave. Stay experimental. Stay focused. Stay creative. Stay relentless!

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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