We talk a lot about starting up and managing botanical-style aquariums. We have had numerous discussions about set up and the accompanying expectations of the early days in the life of the little ecosystems we've created. However, what about the long term..The really long term?
Like, how long can you maintain one of these aquariums?
Do they have an "expiration date? A point when the system no longer "grows" or thrives?
There is a term, sometimes used to describe the state of very old aquariums- "senescence." The definition is: "...the condition or process of deterioration with age." Well, that doesn't sound all that unusual, right? I mean, stuff ages, gets old, stops functioning well, and eventually expires...aquariums are no different, right?
Well, I don't think so.
Sometimes, this deterioration is referred to in the hobby by the charming name of "Old Tank Syndrome"
Now, on the surface, this makes some sense, right? I mean, if your tank has been set up for several years, environmental conditions will change over time. Among the many phenomenon brought up by proponents of this theory is the increase in nitrate levels. People who buy into "OTS" will tell you that nitrate levels will increase over time.
They'll tell you that phosphate, which typically comes into our tanks with food, will accumulate, resulting in excessive, perhaps rampant, algal growths. You know, the kind from which aquarium horror stories are made.
They will tell you that the pH of the aquarium will decline as a result of accumulating nitrate, with hydrogen ions utilizing all available buffers, resulting in a reduction of the pH below 6 (like, IS that a problem?), which supposedly results in the beneficial bacteria ceasing to convert ammonia into nitrite and nitrate and creating a buildup of toxic ammonia...
I mean, it's absolutely possible. We've talked about the potential cessation of the nitrogen cycle as we know it at low pH levels, and about the archaens which take over at these low pH levels. (That's a different "thing", though, and off topic ATM)
Of course, all of the bad things espoused by the OTS theorists can and will happen...If you never do any tank maintenance. If you simply abandon the idea of water exchanges, continue stocking and feeding your aquarium recklessly, and essentially abandon the basic tenants of aquarium husbandry.
The problem with this theory is that it assumes all aquarists are knuckleheads, refusing to perform water exchanges, while merrily going about their business of watching the pretty fishes swim. It seems to forecast some sort of inevitability that this will happen to every tank.
No way. Uh-uh. I call B.S. on this.
As someone who has kept all sorts of tanks (reef tanks, freshwater fish-only tanks, etc.) in operation for many years (my longest was 13 years, and botanical-style tanks going on 5 plus years), I can't buy into this idea. I mean, sure, if you don't set up a system properly in the first place, and then simply become lackadaisical about husbandry, of course your tank can decline.
But, here's the thing: It's not inevitable.
RULE OF THUMB: Do fucking maintenance, feed carefully, and don't overstock. This is not "rocket science!"
Rather than "Old Tank Syndrome"- a name which seems to imply that it's not our fault, and that it's like some unfortunate, random occurrence which befalls the unsuspecting-we should call it LAAP- "Lazy Ass Aquarists' Payback."
'Cause that's what it IS. It's entirely the fault of a lazy-ass aquarist. Preventable and avoidable.
Need more convincing that it's not some random "malady" that can strike any tank? That it's some "universal constant" which commonly occurs in all aquariums?
Think about the wild habitats which we attempt to model our aquariums after. Do these habitats decline over time for no reason? Generally, no. They will respond to environmental changes, like drought, pollution, sedimentation, etc. They will react to these environmental pressures or insults. They will evolve over time.
Now, sure, seasonal desiccation and such result in radical environmental shifts in the the aquatic environment and a definite "expiration date"- but you seldom hear of aquatic habitats declining and disappearing or becoming otherwise uninhabitable to fishes without some significant (often human-imposed) external pressures- like pollution, ash from fires or volcanoes, deliberate diversion or draining of the water source (think "Rio Xingu"), logging operations, climate change, etc.
Of course, our aquariums are closed ecosystems. However, the same natural laws which govern the nitrogen cycle or other aspects of the system's ecology in Nature apply to our aquariums. The big difference is that our tanks are almost completely dependent upon us as aquarists applying techniques which replicate some of the factors and processes which apply in Nature. Stuff like water exchanges, etc.
So if we keep up the nutrient export processes, don't radically overstock our systems, feed appropriately, maintain filters, and observe them over time, there is no reason why we couldn't maintain our aquariums indefinitely.
There is no "expiration date."
And the cool thing about botanical-style aquariums is that part of our very "technique" from day one is to facilitate the growth and reproduction of beneficial microfauna, like bacteria, fungal growths, etc., and to allow decomposition to occur to provide them feeding opportunities.What this does is help create a microbiome of organisms which, as we've said repeatedly, form the basis of the "operating system" of our tanks.
Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.
So, yeah- botanical-style aquariums are "built" for the long run. Provided that we do our fair share of the work to support their ecology. Just because we add a lot of botanical material, allow decomposition, and tend to look on the resulting detritus favorably doesn't mean that these are "set-and-forget" systems, any more than it means they're particularly susceptible to all of the problems we discussed previously.
Common sense husbandry and observation are huge components of the botanical-style aquarium "equation."
As part of our regular husbandry routine, we keep the ecosystem "stocked" with fresh botanicals and leaves on a continuous basis, to replenish those which break down via decomposition. This is perfectly analogous to the processes of leaf drop and the influx of allochthonous materials from the surrounding terrestrial habitat which occur constantly in the wild aquatic habitats which we attempt to replicate.
We favor a "biology/ecology first" mindset.
Replenishing the botanical materials provides surface area and food for the numerous small organisms which support our systems. It also provides supplemental food for our fishes, as we've discussed previously. It helps recreate, on a very real level, the "food webs" which support the ecology of all aquatic ecosystems.
And it sets up botanical-style aquariums to be sustainable indefinitely.
Radical moves and "Spring Cleanings" are not only unnecessary, IMHO- they are potentially disruptive and counter-productive. Rather, it's about deliberate moves early on, to facilitate the emergence of this biome, and then steady, regular replenishment of botanical materials to nourish and sustain the ecosystem.
My belief is steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and that, if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it's a theory...But I think I might be on to something, maybe? So, like here is my theory in more detail:
Simply look at the botanical-style aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is significantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.
No expiration date.
Personally, I don't think that botanical-style aquariums are ever "finished", BTW. They simply continue to evolve over extended periods of time, just like the wild habitats that we attempt to replicate in our tanks do.
The continuous change, development, and evolution of aquatic habitats is a fascinating, compelling area to study- and to replicate in our aquaria. I'm convinced more than ever that the secrets that we learn by fostering and accepting Nature's processes and dynamics are the absolute key to everything that we do in the aquarium.
The idea that your aquarium environment simply deteriorates as a result of its very existence is, in my humble opinion, wrong, narrow-minded, and outdated thinking. (Other than that, it's completely correct!😆).
"Old Tank Syndrome" is a crock of shit, IMHO.
Aquariums only have an "expiration date" if we don't take care of them. Period. No more sugar coating this.
If we look at them assume sort of "static diorama" thing, requiring no real care, they definitely have an "expiration date"; a point where they are no longer sustainable. When we consider our aquariums to be tiny, closed ecosystems, subject to the same "rules" which govern the natural environments which we seek to replicate, the parallels are obvious. The possibilities open up. And the potential to unlock new techniques, ideas, and benefits for our fishes is very real and truly exciting!
I'm not entirely certain how this approach to aquariums, and this idea of fostering a microbiome within our tank and caring for it has become a sort of "revolutionary" or "counter-culture" sort of thing in the hobby, as many fellow hobbyists have told me that they feel it is.
Label it what you want, I think that, if we make the effort to understand the function of our tanks as much as we do the appearance, then it all starts making sense. If you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- one which requires a bit of care on our part in order to thrive-then the idea of an "expiration date" or inevitable decline of the system becomes much less logical.
Rather, it's a continuous and indefinite process.
No "end point."
Much like a "road trip", the "destination" becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system. Every stage holds fascination.
An aquatic display is not a static entity, and will continue to encompass life, death, and everything in between for as long as it's in existence. There is no expiration date for our aquariums, unless we select one.
Take great comfort in that simple truth.
Stay grateful. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay dedicated...
And Stay Wet.