Tinted, turbid water. Sediment, biofilm. Decomposing botanical materials. Soil. A random scattering of branches covered in fungal growth.
Stuff that has made aquarists' heads collectively spin for years. Stuff that is, by many hobbyists's standards, "sloppy, undesirable...even, gross!"
To me, it's freaking gorgeous. The idea of these things popping up and growing naturally in our tanks- as they do in Nature, is simply beyond anything I've ever seen intentionally done in any aquarium anywhere on planet Earth.
Unfiltered Nature. Powerful. Compelling. Raw. Real.
Okay, I'm not mentioning this to brag about how our seemingly avant-garde love of dirty, often chaotic-looking aquatic features in our tanks and in the wild makes us somehow cooler than the glassware loving, stupidly-named aquascaping stone crowd, or something like that. 😆 (well, possibly, but..)
However, I want you to understand the degree to which we at Tannin Aquatics love the concept of Nature in it's most compelling forms, and how strongly we feel that we as a global community of hobbyists need to look beyond what's regularly presented to us as a "natural aquarium" and really give this stuff some thought.
We CAN and SHOULD interpret natural aquatic features more literally in our aquarium work. And we're seeing more of this all the time!
Now, sure, not all of Nature requires us to make extreme aesthetic preference shifts in order to love it.
Well, maybe not all. Well, a lot of it, though.
To make our point, let's look at an example of an interesting aquatic feature from Nature which push us out of our collective hobby comfort zone. Let's try to think why we often hesitate to replicate them, and what to expect when we do.
We could all appreciate this, I think.
There are a lot of aquatic habitats in Nature which are filled with tangles of terrestrial plant roots, emergent vegetation, fallen branches, etc., which fill small bodies of water almost completely.
These types of habitats are unique; they attract a large quantities of smaller fishes to the protection of their vast matrix of structures. Submerged fallen tree branches or roots of marginal terrestrial plants provide a large surface area upon which algae, biofilm, and fungal growth occurs. This, in turn, attracts higher life forms, like crustaceans and aquatic insects.
Can't we replicate such aquatic features in the aquarium?
Of course we can!
This idea is a fantastic expression of "functional aesthetics." It's a "package" that is a bit different than the way we would normally present an aquarium. However, we as hobbyists hesitate to densely pack an aquarium like this, don't we?
Why do you think this is?
I think that we hesitate, because- quite frankly- having a large mass of tangled branches or roots and their associated leaves and detritus in the cozy confines of an aquarium tends to limit the number, size, and swimming area of fishes, right?
Sure, it does...
On the other hand, I think that there is something oddly compelling, intricate, and just beautiful about complex, spatially "full" aquatic features. Though seldom seen in aquarium work, there is a reason to replicate these systems. And when you take into account that these are actually very realistic, entirely functional representations of certain natural habitats, it becomes all the more interesting!
What can you expect when you execute something like this in the aquarium?
Well, for on thing, it WILL take up a fair amount of space within the tank. Depending upon the type of materials that you use (driftwood, roots. twigs, or branches), you will, of course, displace varying amounts of water.
Flow patterns within the aquarium will be affected, as will be the areas where leaves, detritus and other botanical materials settle out. You'll need to understand that the aquarium will not only appear different- it'll function differently as well.
Yet, we kind of think that the idea of executing representations of these ecological niches makes a ton of sense. Fishes love to hide. And forage. And spawn. And these tangles provide the perfect habitat in which to do all of these activities.
When you consider that these habitats do accumulate botanical materials and provide colonization points for various life forms, they likely facilitate biological processes like nutrient export and production of natural food resources. The "different aesthetics" simply come along as "part of the package"- both in Nature and in the aquarium.
Such features also serve to keep fishes in close proximity to their food, and each other!
It may seem a bit strange, but it's entirely realistic, comfortable, and simply "normal" for many of the fishes we play with in aquariums to live in close quarters with other species. In one field study of forest streams in the Rio Negro in Brazil (you knew I'd go back there, right?), it was noted that there were up to 20 different species present, all living in close proximity to each other, within distinct niches within the habitat. The population density was an astounding 100 individuals per cubic meter!
That's a lot of fishes!
Of course, the takeaway here isn't that you should pack the hell out of your community tank because some stream in the jungle has a lot of fishes living in a small area of space filled with roots and branches.
The real takeaway is the fact that the study indicated a significant number of species in that relatively small space, living within the same niche within the habitat!
n our aquariums set up in a more natural style (in both form and function) the fishes are "sorting things out for themselves" and inhabiting the little niches that they would in the wild. We have great information about these environments, photos of the physical structures found within them, and detailed studies on populations inhabiting these niches.
What new understanding will we gain by creating these deliberate configurations within our aquariums? What newfound successes will we have with previously temperamental fishes? What reproductive secrets will we unlock- all by providing more faithful representations of the communities and micro niches from which they come?
Perhaps most exciting, when replicating these unique niches, we're developing more modern interpretations of the "community aquarium", intentionally layering, populating, and optimizing several "microhabitats" within the same tank.
Recreating, in a more literal and realistic manner, the environmental niches that these fishes inhabit in the wild is more compelling, fascinating, and proving to be more successful than ever before.
I think that facilitating natural behaviors, like foraging and spawning in these. complex, densely-filled environments in our tanks is another amazing "by-product" of these features.
It even goes beyond planned aesthetics (ie; “That piece of wood would look awesome there!”) and, much like happens in the natural environment, plants will grow and fishes will gather where conditions are appropriate. Fishes take opportunities to live and forage among the debris on newly-inundated forest floors...
Seeing the way my fishes interact with the dense structure and the materials which occur, accumulate, and indeed comprise their habitat is extremely educational for me.
Now, I'm not saying that you need to make every aquarium a tightly-packed, heavily-filled-with-branches setup. I am suggesting, however, that we consider occasionally setting up an aquarium- or features within our aquarium- which create these interesting "behavior zones."
More "literal interpretations"of natural aquatic features are alluring, interesting, and decidedly educational for us. What's most profound about this approach, in my humble opinion, is that it's enabled us to study more closely- and replicate more closely- the unique environments from which our fave fishes hail. And that leads to a greater understanding of both the fishes and their habitats.
Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay excited. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.