It's cool enough.

I'm trying to break though to some of you who have been really beaten down by the insanity that is social media in the aquarium hobby. A bunch of you have reached out to me lately and were concerned about the reception some of your work is getting from self proclaimed "experts."

Enough is enough. 

Most of these "experts" don;'t have enough experience with botanical-method aquariums to levy any sort of criticism at all with any degree of credibility or meaning. Yet, they DO know that these types of aquairums differ substantially from what THEY know to be "the way" to do stuff in the hobby, so it's really easy for them to criticize. After all, what you're doing is not the same as everyone else, so it MUST be wrong, no?

Why do we as a hobby seem to find such comfort in doing what everyone else does?

Why do we have to copy everyone else's tank in order to be considered "serious." And who is it that has the right to judge or make bold proclamations about your work, anyways? Who the hell said that what you do isn't "good enough"; or somehow isn't "cool", or whatever? 

In the aquarium world, we spend far, far too much time working about being accepted for our work, or hoping that it stands up to the scrutiny of others. I'm not the first person to tell you this, I know- but you need to just forget that bulkshit right now and do what YOU do best- execute the type of aquarium or aquascape or habitat that makes YOUR heart sing...NOT the one that's gonna garner the most likes on The 'Gram.

"That won't work! Your aquarium will  be filled with decomposing leaves and detritus...and...!"


I mean, really. Surely, these self-proclaimed critics MUST have something better to do than shit on your work, right? So, really, you should pity them, not even stress out about them or their comments.

One of the criticisms that our hobby speciality has received a lot over the years is that we appear ( to the uninformed or uninitiated) to be embracing neglect of basic husbandry in our tanks. On it's face, this is an absurdity, but it just shows how incredibly superficial many people can be, failing to go beyond a pic of a tank filled with decomposing leaves, etc., and reconciling it with what they've been indoctrinated in the hobby to believe is a "proper" or "well maintained" tank.

I've heard lots of criticisms over  the years from hobbyists who assert that our tanks are filled with "nuisances", like biofilms, fungal growths, etc., and that our acceptance of them is based on laziness and a disregard for the "rules" of aquarium keeping.

Wrong on so many fronts...

First off, it kind of begs the question...what's a "nuisance", anyways? I mean, sure, to a lot of hobbyists, algae growth or fungal growth is unsightly, and detracts from their desired aesthetics. However, in and of itself, it's not really harmful, right? Now, sure, you could make the argument that it can "smother" plants, which is most definitely problematic. However, when it grows over substrate or "undefended" surfaces, like the glass or filter intakes, etc., is it a "problem", other than simply aesthetically incompatible with your vision for how you want your tank to look?

Algae, as we all know, is actually a valuable and integral part of the aquatic ecosystem, and is essential for aquatic life as we know it. In fact, I remember reading lots of articles about marine aquariums from the late 1970's and early eighties which actually celebrated the idea of a "luxurious" growth of green algae over your dried coral skeletons, etc.!

It was seen as a key indicator that your aquarium was well-suited for higher life forms (ie; fishes!). In addition to "cycling" your tank, you wanted to see that algae growth! Hobbyists literally added cultures of live marine algae to their tanks during the initial start up phase to "seed" them.

My, how times have changed!

Despite the indisputable scientific fact that algae is an essential component of the aquatic ecosystem, and the hobby's semi-embrace of "natural", hobbyists still freak the fuck out when algae show up in their tanks. Show me a so-called "Nature Aquarium" where there is even a visible speck of the stuff! Hobbyists scrub and siphon and pick at every centimeter of visible algae growth in these tanks, and consider it a shameful thing to have any of it in their tanks!

And in our world of function-forward nature-embracing botanical method aquairums, we celebrate the appearance of biofilms. fungal growths, decomposing leaves, and botanical detritus much the way the Marine aquarists of the 1970's and early eighties celebrated the appearance of green algae in their tanks!

These life forms are viewed as foundational components of the closed aquatic ecosystems which we are attempting to assemble in our tanks. We embrace them not as a submission to lax maintenance habits or blissful ignorance, but rather, as an indication that life is functioning as it should in our tanks.

As a hobby, I think we unnecessarily make lot of stuff "problems." 

When you think about it, many concepts in aquarium keeping started out as "problems", or were considered “impossible” until someone made them work.

Now, sure, I get the fact that Nature imposes "rules" on what we can do. There are consequences- often dire- to trying to break or circumvent natural processes. For example, trying to avoid the nitrogen cycle, or attempting to keep incompatible fishes together. Much of this stuff is common sense. However, it doesn't keep a lot of people from trying to "beat the system."

Now look- I'm all for trying new ideas-pushing the limits of what's possible, and questioning the "status quo" in the hobby. However, trying to "game"eons of natural processes in order to create some sort of a "hack" doesn't only not work- it's stupid.

THAT is a problem that we create.

You can, however, push the limits and break new ground by working within the boundaries of natural processes. That's advancement. That's progress. Innovation. 

Many of us are working every day to progress in the hobby.

It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to make "blackwater"- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.

But we did.

And now, we approach keeping botanical method aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but an approach which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.

Look, it wasn't like  we were creating warp drive or nuclear fusion. But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, of an evolution which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still very much a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making botanical method aquariums far more common in the hobby. 

And definitely not a "problem."

Funny thing is that, in reality, it IS a sort of an evolution, isn't it? A little advancement from where we are in the hobby before. 

I mean, sure, on the surface, this doesn't seem like much: "Toss botanical materials in aquariums. See what happens." It's not like no one ever did this before. And to make it seem more complicated than it is- to develop or quantify "technique" for it (a true act of human nature, I suppose) is probably a bit humorous. 

Yeah, I guess I can see that...

On the other hand, the idea behind this practice is not just to create a cool-looking tank...And, we DO have some "technique" behind this stuff...

And it's not about making excuses for abandoning aquarium "best practices" as some justification for allowing our tanks to look like they do.

We don't embrace the aesthetic of dark water,  a bottom covered in decomposing leaves, and the appearance of biofilms and algae on driftwood because it allows us to be more "relaxed" in the care of our tanks, or because we think we're so much smarter than the underwater-diorama-loving, hype-mongering competition aquascaping crowd.

Well, maybe we are? 😆 (I promise to keep dissing these people until they put their vast skills to better use in the hobby...Sorry, lovers of underwater beach seems and "Hobbit forests.." You can do a lot better.)

I mean, we're doing this stuff for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, natural-functioning aquatic displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes- and their very existence- is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved. 

We've mentioned ad nauseum here that wild aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography and flora of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, as well as their life cycle.

The simple fact of the matter is, when we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a "result"-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more- we are to a very real extent replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.

The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is foundational to their existence, as it is in our aquarium approach.

And the fact that they recruit biofilms and fungal growths, and break down over time in our tanks is simply part of the natural process. We can consider this a "problem" which needs to be 'mitigated" somehow, or we can make the effort to understand how these processes and occurrences can benefit the little microcosms which we have created in our aquariums. 

Anyone who's kept tropical fishes for any appreciable length of time does stuff that, while maybe not intentional, doesn't exactly fit the commonly accepted "best practices" of aquarium keeping. Stuff that perhaps doesn't provide the fishes under your care with stable, comfortable environmental conditions. 

Maybe you slacked off on water exchanges for a protracted period of time. Perhaps you forgot to replace your filter media...Maybe you added a few too many fishes to that 20 gallon aquarium...What about the time you went on vacation and forgot to set up a means to feed them while you were away for 10 days? Or the time the heater failed and the water temp never got above 67 degrees F (19 C ) for like a week before you realized it?

These "lapses" are not exactly something that you want to have happen.

And yet, somehow- the fishes survived, right?

Yeah. They did.


Well, perhaps they're a lot more adaptable than we give them credit for, right?

Sure, fishes will likely always do best when provided with consistent, stable environmental conditions; conditions consistent with the environmental parameters under which they've evolved for eons.

Another example? I was talking with a friend a few days back about how disruptive, yet necessary "deep cleanings" that we give our tanks now and again . I was arguing that, in reality, they're not so disruptive, and likely mimic things that happen in Nature.

My hypothesis was that these were sort of analogous to seasonal and/or weather-related events, such as monsoonal rains, influxes of water into streams, etc. etc., and that they are probably more "traumatic" to the aquarist than they are to the fishes, which have evolved to handle them over eons.

What sparked this was a little epiphany I had a number of years ago, caused by just such a "disruptive" event. I was looking at my office tank one day,  as it was "recovering", if you will, from the thorough cleaning it received days before, and sort of marveled at the progression of things that happened. I kind of think I was spot-on in my thinking here for a change.

After the first 24 hours, I was a little down on myself, because I stirred up surprisingly large amount of detritus, which sort of started to settle on the wood, leaves, etc. The water was a little bit turbid. The formerly crystal-clear, sparkling clean (yet very brown) tank had a bit of "dirtiness" to it. It wasn't a huge amount, mind you- but sufficient enough for me to take notice and think to myself, "Damn, that looks kind of...different!"

"Different" = "shitty" to a fish geek....

Notice I didn't' freak out and think, "Oh my God! This tank is a mess...I need to do another massive water change...Need to..." Yeah. I stayed calm...I sort of believe in that theory we talked about. The theory that, in most cases, a healthy closed ecosystem like an aquarium will rebound from a seemingly significant event like the "Great Detritus Storm of 2016", and return to its glory really quickly with minimal intervention on the part of the aquarist. The theory that, in nature, disruptive events like storms and rains typically have more value than problems associated with them for the fishes.

Well, fast forward another couple of days, and I thought that my time-honed hypothesis was proven right. All of that detritus more or less cleared up..Settled...or captured by the filter? Probably to some extent...But the most remarkable "cleansing" of the detritus influx was conducted by the fishes themselves. I mean, especially my characins -which really went to town on this stuff, spending pretty much all day picking at the wood, substrate, leaves, botanicals.

Were they consuming the detritus itself?

Um, probably not as much as I'd like to think; however, some of the materials bound up in the detritus were probably quite good to them. And this is borne out by my research into the natural stomach contents of many fishes. Detritus, organic materials, and insects, fungal growths  and other materials bound up in a matrix of this stuff is a huge component of the diet of many fishes in Nature. 

And of course, in some instances, the botanical materials themselves are are the biofilms, fungi, sugars  and matrix of materials bound up in detritus and small particles of "stuff" in our leaf litter and such.

I remember marveling at how the fish were so "busy" at this foraging on the newly-uncovered "bounty", that I refrained from supplemental feeding for the nextt several days, and they were thicker and fatter than before the "event" occurred! 

And the tank? It was sparkling...crystal clear, with the beautiful brown tint we love so much around here, in full glory. In retrospect, I'm thrilled that I held off from the "primal aquarist urge" to panic, reach for the siphon, and do another disruptive maintenance. This was a mindset-shaping even for me! I would have completely missed the interesting behavior of my fishes, and the gorgeous "rebound" of the aquarium during what would have been my frantic intervention. Rather, I made the rather "mature" decision to just pick up where I left off and conduct my regular weekly water exchange later that week..

So the simple takeaway from this little epiphany was:  Not everything that seems like a "problem" is indeed a "problem." Not everything requires our rapid intervention. Or any intervention, for that matter. Nature's got this act honed to a fine sheen...We can coax it along, or even jump right in the mix...however, the reality is that these processes are certainties if left to themselves. There are reasons why stuff like this happens in nature, and reasons why our animals have adaptive mechanisms to deal with them. We just have to be patient, observant, and engaged.

All qualities which virtually every successful aquarist has anyways, right?


I'm obsessed with this, as are many of you- and it's  part of what interested me in the idea of using botanical materials in aquariums in the first place- an attempt to replicate some of the physical, environmental, and chemical characteristics of the environments from which they come from in the wild.


However, it's no secret that fishes will adapt to more easily-provided "captive conditions", even reproducing under them. You only need to think about all of the captive-bred tetras which, despite evolving in soft, acidic conditions, often thrive and breed in hard, alkaline water. 

There's not really a mysterious reason why this is.

The reality is that most fishes can adjust and adapt to changing or challenging conditions if you give them a little help….The "help" is providing aquarium conditions which are chemically stable, and in the case of those measures which reflect the levels of metabolic waste in the water (nitrite, ammonia, nitrite and phosphate)- low and stable. Keep 'em well fed and stable.

It really boils down to common sense husbandry.

Stability- or, more specifically, stability within a given range of measure- is what always seems to keep fishes alive and thriving. Continuously, quickly changing, and wildly varying environmental parameters are simply stressful for fishes, and, while often not killing them quickly outright, will result in continuous stress, which can lead to disease and other medical problems over time. 

That being said, it's not imperative that every single parameter in your aquarium needs to be perfectly stable and "spot on" to hobby-grade "standards". And out concern over any variation from perfection is really unfounded, IMHO.

We get too stressed-out over minutiae, IMHO.

To get a perspective, just have a chat with some non-fish-keeping acquaintances about stuff that happens in your aquariums.

Don't you think that sometimes, as hobbyists, we tend to get a bit- well, "overly concerned" about stuff that non-hobbyists don't understand? Or, perhaps they do-more than we can even comprehend- and will occasionally come up with some "pearls of wisdom" about fishkeeping that blow us away!

Case in point:

Not too many years ago, I recall walking into my office early one morning, and I immediately was taken aback. Apparently, one of my light timers had failed, and the one of my tank lights remained on all night.

No biggie, right? Well except for the fact that it was my South American-igarape-inspired leaf litter tank, and I recently added some cool wild characins to the tank, acclimated and carefully quarantined...and then- THIS had to happen, know where I'm going with this?

This was going through my mind:

"Omigod, the fishes didn't get any dark period...they've been seriously stressed..."

You will say that this wouldn't bother you- but you're totally lying! It would bother the shit out of you, too! I know that it would, 'cause you're a fish geek. It's part of what we all do.

Of course, I relayed this concern to my wife later in the day, when we touched base and asked each other how are days were progressing.

To which my wife, not at all a fish geek, yet ever the pragmatist, noted, "You know, Scott, sometimes,  unexpected things happen in the Amazon."


She was on to something there.

And it's not just lilt old me who freaks out about stuff like this. I know for a fact...

It's a fish-geek thing.

I think, that as hobbyists, we tend to get caught up in every little minute detail of the little worlds we've created for our fishes- so much so that we often forget the one underlying truth about them:

They're living creatures, which have evolved over eons to adapt to and deal with changes in their environment-big and small...or even insignificant, like an excessive amount of light one evening. 

I mean, there must have been some natural precedent for this, right? Some atmospheric phenomenon- or combination of phenomenon-which rendered the night sky inordinately bright one evening at some point in the long history of the world?

Yeah. Exactly.

Think about it for a second. 

I think this high level of concern-this "overkill", if you will, on the part of all hobbyists is based on the fact that we take great pains to assure that we've created perfect little captive environments for our fishes, and do everything we can to keep them stable and consistent.

When something out of the ordinary happens- a pump fails, a heater sticks in the "on" position, we forget to feed, etc.- we tend to get a little bit, oh...crazy, maybe?

Look, I get it: When a critical piece of environmental control equipment fails (like a heater), especially during a cold spell or heatwave, it could be life or death for your fishes. If you're about to spawn a particularly picky fish or rear some fry, it could be a serious problem. You can't really downplay those concerns. However, some of the less dramatic, non-life-threatening issues, such as a light staying on or off longer than usual one evening, a circulation pump stopping unexpectedly for a couple of hours, or forgetting to change the carbon in the filter one week, don't really create that much of a problem for your fishes when you really think about it objectively, do they?


At some time during the exisience of our fishes in the wild, there was a temporary blockage in the Igarape in which they resided, slowing down the normal flow. At some point, there might have been a once-in-a-century cold morning in the tropics, right? At some point, the swarm of Daphnia or Cadis Fly larvae that were so abundant for months at a time, weren't... 

In most instances, the animals that we keep are not so delicate, and the closed environments we provide aren't running so "close to the edge" that we should panic when some random factor changes things up one day. And consider this: When we purchase our fishes, they are unceremoniously netted out of the tank (or stream, lake, river, etc.) environment in which they reside, placed in a plastic bag, transported for who knows how long, and possibly making a few stops on the way before ultimately landing in our aquarium. 

That's a LOT of changes to cope with. Stress.

But guess what? Fishes manage to deal with it. Somehow. 

Sure, our first choice is to have rock-solid parameters and environmental conditions for our fishes 24/7/365, but sometimes stuff happens that throws a proverbial "wrench" into our plans. We have to be adaptable, flexible...just like our fishes apparently are.

So next time your light doesn't come on, or you forget to feed your fishes as you rush off to work some morning, don't stress out over it. They'll be fine. Keep calm. Always keep your concern high, but don't let obsessing over your fishes keep you from focusing on the even more important things in life (yeah, there are a few, right?).

And remember, sometimes unexpected things DO happen in the Amazon. 

There is one fundamental truth, really:

The aquarium hobby isn’t difficult.

However, it CAN be when we make it that way by imposing our own barriers and obstacles to success.  And that includes stressing out over what, in reality, are really not devastating issues for our fishes. Of course, you also have to realize that common sense is so important.

One of the unusual  inconsistencies that I’ve noticed is that, sometimes, you’ll see information about a specific fish on a  website, describing in detail it’s natural habitat.

And many natural aquatic habitats are influenced by their terrestrial surroundings.

There are all sorts of interesting influences on these natural habitats created by the surrounding terrestrial environment and the microbial associations which occur in the substrates, leaves, wood, and other materials which comprise them.

The relationship between terrestrial habitats and the aquatic environment is becoming increasingly apparent- particularly in areas in which blackwater is found. And, the lack of suspended sediments, which create a "nutrient poor" condition in these habitats, doesn't do much to facilitate "in situ" production of aquatic food sources; rather, it places the emphasis on external factors.

Many blackwater systems are simply too poor in nutrients to offer alternative food sources to fishes.The importance of the relationship between the fishes and their surrounding terrestrial habitat (i.e.; the forests which are inundated seasonally) is therefore obvious. That likely explains the significant amount of insects and other terrestrial food sources that ichthyologists find during gut content analysis of many fishes found in these habitats.

And, as we've hinted on previously- the availability of food at different times of the year in these waters also contribute to the composition of the fish community, which varies from season to season based on the relative abundance of these resources.


Another example of these unique interdependencies between land and water are when trees fall.

It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall in the rain forest, with punishing rain and saturated ground conspiring to easily knock over anything that's not firmly rooted. When these trees fall over, they often fall into small streams, or in the case of the varzea or igapo environments in The Amazon that I'm totally obsessed with, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.

And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions: Providing a physical barrier or separation from currents, offering territories for fishes to spawn in, providing a substrate for algae and biofilms to multiply on, and providing places for fishes forage among, and hide in. An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks and parts will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.

In nature, as we've discussed many times-leaf litter zones comprise one of the richest and most diverse biotopes in the tropical aquatic ecosystem, yet until recently, they have seldom been replicated in the aquarium. I think this has been due, in large part- to the lack of continuous availability of products for the hobbyist to work with, and a lack of real understanding about what this biotope is all about- not to mention, the understanding of the practicality of creating one in the aquarium.

Long-held fears and concerns, such as overwhelming our systems with biological materials, and the overall "look" of decomposing leaves and botanicals in our tanks, have understandably led to this idea being relegated to "sideshow status" for many years. It's only been recently that we've started looking at them more objectively as ecological niches worth replicating in aquariums.


The aquairum world involves a lot of compromises. 

It involves a tremendous number of concessions and decisions. And it often comes down to what WE want as hobbyists, versus what the animals under our care NEED.

Sometimes, this can be challenging, putting us at odds with what we know and desire and like. Often, the compromises we make involve doing things for the greater good- sacrificing our preferences for what's best for the life forms we keep. 

This is not a bad thing, right?

It's important to understand that we require compromise in order to progress in the hobby. It's also important that we understand what is "normal" for the types of aquariums that we're working with- and why.

We're well on our way to changing the hobby in a positive way. As a community, we're pushing forward in many new directions, challenging established ideas, and breaking new ground.

Stay on it. Stay inspired. Stay bold. Stay diligent. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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