Muddying the waters?

I wanted to return to the "clarity" issue again today, because there are some aspects of "clarity" that I think are sort of unique to the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. 

Have you noticed before that our botanical-style aquariums display a number of characteristics which make them different from more "conventional" aquariums in function and appearance?

Of course you have! 

One of the things you might notice right from the start is that botanical-laden aquariums seem to have an initial "haze" that is slow to clear. Now, part of this is no doubt due to the breakdown of the leaves, pods, etc. that we use: Surface dirt, lignin, and other compounds, bound up in the tissues of the botanicals, released into the water upon the initial submergence of these materials.

For that matter, plain old dirt and dust bound up in and on the surface tissues of many botanicals will be released, despite our best efforts at preparing them for use. Some stuff simply leaches into the water.

And the fact that many of us tend to not to use a lot of chemical filtration media in our tanks might have some impact on that, too. 

Another reason for this haziness could be a burst of microorganism/bacterial growth, which impacts the visual clarity as populations multiply rapidly in the "fertile" environment of a botanical system, with its wealth of organic materials supplied by the decomposing matter upon which these life forms feed.

And then there is the idea of "infusoria."One only need reflect on the classic "infusoria" cultures which every fish breeder can recall from his/her experiences- they're really cloudy! Remember, infusoria is a collective term for aquatic organisms like euglenoids, unicellular algae, ciliates, protozoa, etc. Depending upon the density of the culture/population, you could expect to see considerable cloudiness...

Now, I have placed a few drops of tank water under a microscope early in the life of several botanical-style tanks over the years, and I did see some microorganisms swimming around in there. Of course, I am not a microbiologist, and for me to make any conclusive statements about "density" or "diversity" of the life forms I saw swimming around in my samples is a bit too amateurish! That being said, in most of these samples, I saw a fair amount of "some sort" of life forms swimming around in the water! 

Generally, I've found that the sort of "cloudiness" will typically clear after a week or two, as the "tug of war" between bacteria and "infusoria" achieves a sort of "equilibrium."

Okay, I know I'm reaching a bit, because the cloudiness could also be caused, at least in part- by the dissolving of the botanicals themselves. When you think about it, most plant parts, such as seed pods and such, are comprised of materials such as lignin, cellulose, etc., and their constituent sugars, starches, etc. And, because of this composition, will release these materials into the water column.

Cloudiness, in general, may be a "tip off" to some other issues in the aquarium. And, as we all know, cloudiness can usually be caused by a few factors:

1) Improperly cleaned substrate or decorative materials, such as driftwood, etc. (creating a "haze" of micro-sized dust particles, which float in the water column).

2) Bacterial blooms (typically caused by a heavy bioload in a system not capable of handling it. Ie; a new tank with a filter that is not fully established and a full compliment of livestock).

3) Algae blooms which can both cloud AND color the water (usually caused by excessive nutrients and too much light for a given system).

4) Poor husbandry, which results in heavy decomposition, and more bacterial blooms and biological waste affecting water clarity. This is, of course, a rather urgent matter to be attended to, as there are possible serious consequences to the life in your system.

And, curiously enough, the "remedy" for cloudy water in virtually every situation is similar: Water changes, use of chemical filtration media (activated carbon, etc.), reduced light (in the case of algal blooms), improved husbandry techniques (i.e.; better feeding practices and more frequent maintenance), and, perhaps most important- the passage of time.

Now, with the "cloudiness" caused by our "technique" or application of botanicals is a slightly different story. These are sort of "natural consequences" of what we do..

Now, you could intervene in this if you wanted to...Performing larger water exchanges, employing chemical/very fine mechanical filtration media, etc. Personally, I have learned over the years NOT to let this stuff phase me. I suppose I'm so deep in my own "mindset" about letting nature do its thing, that I don't do much to combat it...

Once this initial "microbial haze phase" passes, there are other aspects to the water clarity which will continue to emerge. And I think that these aspects are similar to what we observe in Nature.

For example, I've noticed that in many of my aquariums, particularly those with certain types of wood (like mangrove, newer Mopani, etc.), you'll get more of this "patina" to the water. Again, I'm in the realm of speculation here, but I can't help but wonder if certain wood and botanical materials/leaves have a greater content of organic materials (or more readily release these materials into the water because of their structure), lignin, tannins, etc.

One of my friends calls this "flavor", and his moniker makes sense, when you think about it!

And I think that this is a really interesting phenomenon, which is distinctive to our botanical-stye blackwater/brackish aquariums. To accept it is a choice, and it definitely requires the adoption of a mindset shift to appreciate that this is very similar to what we see in many of the natural aquatic systems that we attempt to replicate.

In Nature, the accumulations of decomposing plant materials, leaves, and sediments all contribute to this cloudiness or turbidity of the water. In our aquariums, it's pretty much the same.

Yes, we are always of the opinion that an aquarium is NOT an open, natural system, and that there are fundamental differences between the two.

However, to see some of the processes, aesthetics, and what we call "functional analogies" (i.e.; the way materials break down, re-distribute within the tank, and how the aesthetics and water chemistry are affected by water exchanges, etc.) take place in our aquariums, we can't help but think that we're "on to something" here.

(Image by Aquariumaniak Khizanishvili- a master of the "dirty" aquarium!)

So, yeah, our aquariums may NOT have the "crystal-clear", colorless water which many hobbyists envision when they think of what an aquarium "should" look like. Yet, with the continued, evolving work which our community is doing, we'll continue to discuss/analyze/debate the merits of such clarity profiles in our systems.

As we've discussed a lot lately, we're absolutely obsessed with the natural processes and aesthetics of decomposing materials in our aquariums. And of course, this comes with the requirement of us to accept some unique characteristics, of course!

We have taken our first tentative footsteps beyond what has long been accepted and understood in the hobby, and are starting to ask new question, make new observations, and yeah- even a few discoveries- which will evolve the aquarium hobby in the future.

Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay engaged. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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