The world of natural, botanical-style aquariums is, not surprisingly, emerging as not only aesthetically unique, but with a functional aspect that sets them apart from many other aquarium systems you could operate.
In my "infinite" down time (which is only like when I'm about to doze off, or so it seems these days), I often think of how some of the practices that we engage in as hobbyists are really analogous to many of the processes that occur in nature. With my near obsession with trying to replicate as many natural process and functions as possible. It's hard for me not to think of a few which really come to mind.
The most obvious is adding (or removing) leaves and botanicals to our tanks. Simply tossing (actually, literally) in some leaves mimics- very realistically- the process of "leaf drop", which has occurred in natural aquatic habitats as long as there have been trees! Now granted, many of us as hobbyists want to employ a bit of aesthetics and "place" them more carefully, but the analogy is the same.
And of course, when leaves fall into the water in Nature, they begin their gradual decomposition. The nutrients bound up in the leaves helps replenish minerals and nutrients which are often depleted over time. There is a more or less continuous supply of leaves falling into jungle streams, which is why you'll see leaves at varying stages of decomposition in streams, It's also why leaf litter banks may be among the "permanent" structures in many tropical aquatic systems.
For our aquariums, you could conceivably apply some methodical "process" to this by dropping your leaves in greater quantities at certain times of the year, to mimic seasonal abundance. Or, changing the varieties of leaves that you place. And varying quantities. I have this thing where I make it a point to add 1 to 2 leaves every day into a tank...I literally will toss them in, and "let the chips fall where they may."
Now granted, I might move them around later...lol.
(Interesting side observation: When I drop in a leaf, the fishes literally could care less. Like it's a regular occurrence in their world (as it IS) and they are somehow "programmed" not to freak out about "botanical bombs" falling into their midst.)
And lets be honest, if you have any water movement in your tank, stuff blows around and re-distributes...Just like what happens in nature, when currents conspire to do the same thing. In fact, in one large botanical-style tank I did a few years back, the prevailing water flow would act to create a submerged "litter bank" in one particular corner of the tank...which was incredible! I would often find my pair of Apistogramma cf. regani guarding a clutch of fry in that "bank!" Kind of like what they'd do in nature!
Natural leaf litter banks are amazingly interesting structures...ripe for aquarium replication!
And of course, when you remove botanicals and leaves (like, if you're one of those hobbyists who has issues with the appearance of stuff decomposing in your tank...), or if you let it decompose-you're also sort of replicating a process in which material does the same thing in nature. These materials will impart their bound-up humic acids, tannins, and other compounds as long as possible, then ultimately, simply serve as a "substrate" for microorganism and algal growth...Just like in nature.
The time-honored practice of water exchanges is the ultimate "environmental hack"- as well as the most faithful parallel to what happens in nature. Rainfall, and the influx of new water from flooded forest areas, overflowing streams, and runoff.
The wet season in The Amazon, for example, runs from November to June. And it rains almost every day. And what's really interesting is that the surrounding Amazon rain forest is estimated by some scientists to create as much as 50% of its own precipitation! It does this via the humidity present in the forest itself, from the water vapor present on plant leaves- which contributes to the formation of rain clouds.
Yeah, trees in the Amazon release enough moisture through photosynthesis to create low-level clouds and literally generate rain, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)!
But it makes a lot of sense, right?
That's a cool cocktail party sound bite and all, but what happens to the (aquatic) environment in which our fishes live in when it rains?
Well, for one thing, rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia is the evolution of our most compelling environmental niches: The water levels in the rivers rise significantly- often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams.
The Igapos are formed.
All of the botanical material- fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged. And of course, currents re-distribute this material into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape. Leaves begin to accumulate. Tree branches tumble along the substrate. Soils dissolve their chemical constituents, tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to multiply, feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans reproduce rapidly. Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.
The environmental impacts of an influx of fresh water are equally as beneficial in the closed confines of our aquariums via water exchanges. Not only do you dilute and export excess organic wastes, you have the ability to maintain as much as possible the consistent concentration of tannins and humic substances.
Now, sure, we don't really have a reliable means to measure and reference what these concentrations are, but we can employ consistency and at least duplicate what is working for us. In other words, if in your 5-gallon makeup water container, you find that 5 catappa leaves and two pieces of catappa bark give you the right characteristics (visual tint and pH in range), it's at least starting point, right? You do the same thing over and over again and that's your baseline...one way of keeping your environment consistent.
As much an "art" as a "science." Yeah, it's a crude start...But it's a start.
Even the selection of botanicals we use in our aquariums can be a sort of analogy to what happens in nature. As biotope enthusiasts will attest, having the correct materials in your tank not only looks right- it serves to more accurately replicate the habitat that you're obsessed with...
It's at least a valid question to ponder whether we as hobbyists can, at least in theory, if not in practice-impart some of the same botanical substances into the water as the fishes might encounter in their natural habitat when we utilize the actual leaves and botanicals that occur there!
Interesting...like, sort of the way utilizing specific probiotics do certain things...would it not make some sense to hypothesize that using the specific botanical materials that are found in the fish's natural habitats in our tanks will provide many of the same benefits they'd receive in the wild?
Again, a lot of questions; a healthy dose of assumptions...but a really cool "track to run on" for the ambitious and inquisitive natural-style aquarium geek!
These are just the most immediate parallels/analogs which come to mind, but you get the idea. In overall aquarium practice, there are many. In the natural, botanical-style aquarium arena we operate in, the possibilities are endless...and the opportunities for advancement are numerous!
I get stupidly excited just contemplating this stuff!
It's another "mindset shift" we can make as "Tinters"...not just in accepting a different aesthetic or way of doing things...but in understanding that WHAT we do and HOW we do it can have implications beyond the superficial and obvious. And in the process, perhaps gaining a greater understanding of both our fishes and the amazing (blackwater/brackish, etc.) habitats from which they come.
Stay motivated. Stay diligent. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet!