Next level.

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. 

The resemblance to the Natural habitats they purport to represent will be much greater, from both an appearance and functionality standpoint.
The use of significantly different natural materials within the aquarium will require some slightly different approaches to maintenance and husbandry. The water will likely always have a sort of "patina" or haziness to it. The substrate will never be perfectly settled and manicured in appearance. Materials may be disturbed by fishes, and the water movement will be carefully applied to a) more faithfully resemble the natural habitats, and b) to avoid having substrate and botanicals in constant movement throughout the tank! 
These "next level" aquariums will not be loved be everyone. They will challenge the aesthetic sensibilities and husbandry concerns of a couple of generations of hardcore aquarists and aquascapers. They will require "mental shifts" beyond those we've asked hobbyists to make previously (you know, dark water, decomposition, and accumulations of botanicals) in our work. To those who "get it", they will make perfect sense. They'll challenge you, make you question your decisions...yet, if you really love the idea- I think you'll be pretty excited.
Yes, these aquariums will be different.
They will more faithfully represent the natural habitats we admire in both form and function.
The benefits, besides just seeing a totally different "look", will be the opportunity to more carefully look at the "whole picture"- water conditions, substrate composition, botanical materials, and appropriate fish selections. And from these observations and challenges will come more insights into how and why fishes live in these unique  habitats, and what behaviors are fostered as a result.
And yes, we'll have some innovative new stuff coming soon that will make it easier for everyone to give it a try!
The real "blurring of the lines" between Nature and aquarium is already underway. We've come pretty far, challenging ourselves as a community, and now we're definitely ready for a move to the "next level" of natural, botanical-style aquariums.
The canvas is blank.
The opportunities are there. The wild habitats are calling. 
I'm rather excited about this- the merging of many of the different aspects of our approach, and the further refining of our practices.
I hope you are, too.
Stay excited. Stay inspired. Stay motivated. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay undaunted...
And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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