As a lifelong hobbyist, I've kept thousands of fishes in many dozens of aquariums over the years. Many of them were dedicated to single species, yet many more were evolved as so called "community aquariums", filled with a variety of fishes and plants.
What strikes me most about many community aquariums is their refreshing diversity. They feature a complete range of life forms, such as fishes, plants, and even invertebrates. These aquariums are rich with life, and make no apologies for the wide-ranging selection of fishes and the complex growth of plants.
Just like in Nature, these systems incorporate life forms that provide beneficial "collateral benefits" for their inhabitants, such as food, shelter, and nutrient export. Well-stocked community aquariums are beautiful systems that are a visual delight, affording many opportunities to see examples of the endless variety of aquatic life forms.
We can learn a lot from diverse community aquariums. Yet, we can take it a little further.
Typical aquairums- community or otherwise- generally don't focus on the "small stuff"- the life forms like microorganisms, small crustaceans, worms, etc. A large community of small creatures- all which contribute to the health and stability of the closed aquatic ecosystem.
There is a lesson there...something that we all know, but something that we likely don't consciously think about. That is, the idea of closed aquatic systems as microcosms. A microcosm is defined as "A community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger."
Like, ya' know- a miniature version of a natural habitat.
Something that we often aspire to in aquariums. However, something that I feel we often create on the most superficial of levels. I mean, we add fishes, and we add plants...but we kind of stop it there, right?
What about facilitating the existence of life forms at a variety of levels? Like, starting with the bacteria and other microorganisms which make up the miniature ecosystem we're trying to create? Why not create an environment which is supportive of life on many levels?
That's the whole idea...
And of course, these organisms and their processes create not only the basis of a food web, but the development of an entire community of co-dependant organisms which work together to process nutrients and support life forms all along the chain. When we encourage, rather than remove these organisms when they appear, we're helping perpetuate these processes.
I can't stress how important it is to let these various organisms multiply.
And we need to think about our relationship with detritus, decomposing botanical materials, and sediments in our tanks.
Yes, I'm asking you to not only "leave them be" -but to encourage their accumulation, to foster the development and prosperity of the organisms which "work" them.
Now, again, I have to at least ask the rather long question, "Are these things (detritus; decomposing materials) really problematic for a well-managed aquarium? Or, do they constitute an essential component of a closed aquatic ecosystem...One which can actually provide some benefits (ie; supplemental nutrition) for the resident fishes and the community of life forms which support them?"
Many of us have already made a mental shift which accepts the transient, subtle beauty of decomposing botanical materials, tinted water, biofilms, and the like, so it goes without saying that taking it a little further and allowing these materials to completely breakdown to serve as the substrate for our aquatic ecodivesity is simply the next iteration in the management of blackwater/brackish botanical-style aquariums.
So, yeah- there IS a lot to consider when utilizing botanical materials in your aquarium. It's far, far beyond the idea of just "dumping and praying" that has been an unfortunate "model" for how to utilize them in our aquariums for many years. It's more than just aesthetics alone...the "functional aesthetic" mindset- accepting the look and the biological processes which occur when terrestrial materials break down in our tanks is a fundamental shift in thinking.
By studying and encouraging the growth of this diversity of organisms, and creating a multi-faceted microcosm of life in our tanks, I believe that we are contributing to an exciting progression of the art and science of aquarium keeping!
It's all about life...on many different levels.
Think about that.
Stay curious. Stay engaged Stay excited. Stay patient. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.