I've been spending an awful lot more time lately, looking at videos and images of the wild aquatic habitats that inspire me so much, and I think we're at a real "inflection point" in our sector of the hobby.
We're past the point of simply seeing "if this botanical stuff works" and are now into the "next level" of botanical-style aquarium practice. Now, to me, it's about really working on aspects of replicating the wild systems from which our fishes come. Personally, I'm ready for this! My next set of aquariums will even more fully embrace the concept of "functional aesthetics" which we talk about so much here.
I feel like I (and you, as an extension!) have made a number of moves over the past couple of years into different directions that have given me the skills and experience necessary to "put it all together" and move further out into a more unique direction.
For example, I am very, very deep into studying the substrate materials which accumulate in these habitats. They're substantially different than those that we have used in the aquarium hobby for generations. The gravels and sands that we use are fantastic, and facilitate function and ease of maintenance for the widest variety of aquarists. However, many of them bare little resemblance to the substrate materials found in the wild habitats we attempt to replicate.
In the flooded forests of South America- the varzea (flooded "whitewater" forests) and igapo (flooded "blackwater" forests), the substrates are unique. The varzea soils are lighter, more "soil-like", nutrient-dense substrate.Higher soil to sand ratio (ie; minor amounts of sand). Minerals, such as Montmorillonite are present. They have high water retention capacity. The igapo, on he other hand, is a much lower-nutrient, claylike, and more acidic substrate material, mixed with fine, white sand (pure quartz). It has a much higher sand/soil ratio than varzea, and tends to desiccate more quickly in the dry season.
And the other interesting thing about these natural substrates is that they accumulate leaf litter differently. The varzea, which is based largely on the vegetation which is dominant in these habitats tends to have greater leaf drop which is processed and decomposed quickly. The leaves are typically larger and more deciduous.
Nutrient poor, low-productivity savanna vegetation, like palms, sedges, and submersed aquatic macrophytes form the basis of the botanical influence in the igapo, and the leaves which accumulate tend to be small, scleromorphic, and are decomposed much more slowly, often remaining less decomposed for extended periods of time, potentially years.
So, without me giving you every single detail on these habitats (we'll discuss more in future installments!), suffice it to say that, if you do your homework and read up on these distinct environments, you could utilize specific materials to replicate both the form and function of them in the aquarium.
What does all this mean?
Well, to me, it means that my next aquariums are going to be much more authentic representations of these habitats, in terms of both form and function. They will bare little resemblance to the biotopic replications I've done previously. Well, they'll have some aspects- the darker, not-quite-crystal-clear water, and the heavy influence of botanicals. However, they'll also have much more "dirty-looking", siltier substrates, and more "habitat-specific" leaves and botanical accumulations.