Part of the dance...

As I've embark on starting some new aquariums lately, I've taken the time to contemplate the way I wanted to approach my tanks. And of course, when you are starting new aquariums, you have to think about the sequences and processes by which they establish themselves and evolve. 

When we think about our botanical-style aquariums over the long term, they will evolve in many ways, much like a natural river or stream, without much intervention on our part. We've talked about this idea to the point where you're likely sick of hearing about it!

Yet, over the very long term, our aquariums DO change materially from when they first established themselves. For example, as water flow decreases, plants might grow differently. As the substrate begins to take on a "life of its own"- with more life forms growing in its matrix- fishes will forage for supplemental food items in it. 

As wood begins to soften, releasing more tannins into the water, the water darkens. Leaves and botanicals start to decompose, enriching the environment with humic acids, tannins, and other organic materials. Algae, although often dreaded, grow based on the available nutrients, waxing and waning. Biofilms emerge, providing supplemental food for the aquarium's inhabitants, and nutrient processing via bacterial assimilation.

And you'll be involved with this stuff, too!

You'll interact with your aquarium; play some role in its evolution, progress, and growth. Hopefully, you'll strike a balance between doing too much and too little. Or better yet- an understanding as to why they appear, and what it really means to your tank. No two aquariums are alike, and this is a foundational piece of aquarium keeping.

Yeah, a "dance."

Now, this idea of breaking in, cycling, and managing aquariums as they establish has been understood, analyzed, and studied since the dawn of modern aquarium keeping. Sure, there might be a dozen different variations of the sequences, approaches, and details, but essentially it's all the same. 

Not all that much "new" to discuss here.

The phases of our tanks' "evolution" that I am interested in, for the context of this discussion, are the ones which seem to occur long after an aquarium is cycled, "broken-in", and otherwise well-established- specifically in the context of the botanical-style aquariums that we play with.

These more "mature" phases are fascinating to me. These represent the aquarium at a point of ecological "maturity", when the biological processes that are so crucial are stable and well-established.

This aspect of the "environmental dance" is well-rehearsed. We kind of have it down cold.

Without going in to any one of the dozens of aspects of a "mature" aquarium's definition, let's just say it's a system that you're not "on edge" about every day, and leave it at that! 


Of course, an aquarium which utilizes botanicals as a good part of its hardscape follows a set of phases, too. And I've found that once a botanical-style aquarium (blackwater, brackish, etc.) hits that sort of "stable mode", it's just that- stable. You won't typically see wildly fluctuating pH levels, nitrates, phosphates, etc.

To a certain degree, the aquarium has achieved some sort of "biological equilibrium."

We understand this idea in all sorts of aquariums.

Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium. I have long been one the belief that if you decide to let the botanicals remain in your aquarium to break down and decompose completely, that you shouldn't change course by suddenly removing the material all at once...


Well, I think my theory is steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and 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- a "breakdown" in the system-and that 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: It's important to 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 more thoroughly influenced by the quantity, condition, and composition of said material.

Just like in natural aquatic ecosystems...

The botanical materials are a real "base" for the little microcosm we create.

And of course, by virtue of the fact that they contain other compounds, like tannins, humic substances, lignin, etc., they also serve to influence the water chemistry of the aquarium, the extent to which is dictated by a number of other things, including the "starting point" of the source water used to fill the tank.

So, in short- I think the presence of botanicals in our aquariums is multi-faceted, highly influential, and of extreme importance for the stability, ecological balance, and efficiency of the tank.

All part of a little "dance", that, although important to monitor, is not necessarily something that we as hobbyists have to constantly intervene in. We do quite a bit when we simply perform our regular water exchanges, filter media replacements/cleanings, and occasional plant trimmings.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if that is ALL we need to do?

So why not simply enjoy what's happening in your aquarium as it evolves?

I know that, for many years, I perennially overthought stuff, instead of merely enjoying it. "Active monitoring" is a great way to run a tank, IMHO. You do the necessary functions to keep things stable and consistent, and little more.

Just observe; enjoy. Cede some of the work to Nature. She's really good at this stuff.

Watching a display aquarium evolve and sort of "find itself" naturally over time is proving to be one of the most enjoyable discoveries I've made in the hobby in decades.

By simply following established maintenance routines, and monitoring what's occurring in the tank, as opposed to constantly trying to intervene to "pre-empt" what we in the hobby have commonly perceived to be problems, I've personally had more stable systems, more growth...more success than ever before.

It's all a dance, for sure.

A lot going on. A complicated dance.

Yet, it's hardly a difficult one to understand...or to perfect, for that matter. Rather, its rooted in over a hundred years of aquarium "best practices", the laws of Nature, and good old common sense and practical "work":

Conduct regular water exchanges. Stock your aquarium carefully. Feed precisely. Observe. Be habitual about these things. They're hammered into our heads from day one.

We know these things. We're pretty good at them, too.

Yet, I think little energy is spent discussing the merits of why! I mean, it's great that we execute on these practices; however, I think it would be more beneficial to understand WHY it's so good to do these things...

And further, we almost never see discussions about how Nature- if allowed to do some of its own "work"- will help us manage and evolve systems with tremendous success. 

A dance, for sure.

Why have we not looked at it this way for so long? 

Well, I don't think that there is any "mystery" here...

Rather, maybe it's because we haven't really thought much about this stuff, in terms of how it is actually beneficial, as opposed to detrimental. And how, despite  not being the most attractive things in the world, that stuff like biofilms, detritus, and decomposition are beautiful, natural, and incredibly important components and processes in our closed systems- if we give them a chance.

Honestly, over the years, it seems that we spend so much time resisting and fearing the appearance of some of this stuff that it's not ever given a chance to display its "good side" for us.

Biofilms, fungal growth, aufwuchs, and decomposition...Is this stuff that is inevitable, natural- perhaps even beneficial in our aquariums? Is it something that we should learn to embrace and appreciate, instead of revile and resist? Isn't it all part of a natural process, functions, and yes- aesthetic- that we have to understand to appreciate?

Extra points for this one: Have you ever tried rearing fry in a tank filled with decomposing leaves and biofilms?

Try it. Question it. Work with it. But try it.

Ask yourself why it for answers. There is a lot there, beyond what you read in most aquarium hobby literature. Study natural aquatic ecosystems of tropical streams and other bodies of water...You'll likely be fascinated and inspired.

The botanical-style aquarium approach that we play with is perhaps the first of it's kind in the hobby to really say, "Hey, this stuff  IS just like Nature! It's not that bad!" 

And  perhaps, it's the first approach to make us think, "Perhaps there is a benefit to all of this."

I think that there most definitely is.

Accepting that there is most definitely a "dance" in our aquariums, and becoming an "active monitor" instead of an "active intervener" has added a new and rewarding aspect to my love of the hobby.

I think that this approach to the "dance" not only makes you a more engaged hobbyist, it gives you a remarkable appreciation for the long term evolution of an aquarium; an appreciation for the pace by which nature operates, and the direction which your aquarium goes.

"Monitoring" versus "intervening"...An interesting, if not critical- choice on the path towards aquarium success.

Yeah, it's all part of the dance, isn't it?

Don't resist it. 

Embrace it. Study it. Rejoice in it. 

Stay curious. Stay engaged. Stay thoughtful. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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