Romancing the stones...and other aquarium hobby caveats!

Have you notched that the hobby goes through many phases, where some product, methodology, or approach is all the rage? This stuff changes constantly, and it's often hard to keep up with them all! Sometimes they are all-new ideas or developments. Other times, they are a "recycling" of previous ideas, products, or methods. Call it the by-product of progress, research or even good old "marketing hyperbole", this stuff  what keeps things interesting! 

Now, if you've been in the hobby/industry long enough, you've seen a lot of these things play themselves out. Often, materials and such which have diverse applications are marketed to the aquarium industry, often with much fanfare, pomp and circumstance, being touted as the "next big thing" for fish. As a veteran hobbyist, your built in "bullshit meter" will definitely start to go off as soon as you see stuff marketed with wordy, vague claims of its incredible properties. Many are often poorly translated into English from other languages, resulting in even more confusing, verbose, often even authoritative-sounding stuff, yet with shaky grammar and a tone of simplicity that screams "this sounds a bit too good to be true!"

Now, that's a seemingly unfair statement, right? Something used in another industry, applied to aquarium keeping, is not necessarily bad. Think LED lights, protein skimmers, etc., etc. And of course, just because it may have been originally marketed to aquarists in a language not familiar to us doesn't mean it's a bunch of crap! (That's a terrible attitude.)  However, it often means simply that it's a decent product which can be very useful for aquariums, packaged and distributed hastily by minimally competent marketers who couldn't afford a good translation! So, some very useful products often suffer from the stigma of what I call, for want of a better expression, "shitty presentation."

It cheapens the product and creates confusion, fostering both skepticism in some hobbyists (good!) and cult-like devotion (bad!) in others.


It's a double-edged sword, in my opinion, because you get a rather shoddy product description and shaky-sounding marketing claims, yet the product is often quite good..and a lot of hobbyists are utilizing the stuff with great results. For products like this, skepticism is good. You simply need to do a bit of homework, get some background on what it actually is/does, talk to people who actually use the stuff, and formulate your own conclusion and reach a "comfort phase" before using it yourself.

There are a lot of products out there that fall into this unfortunate category, IMHO.

One of those products which finds its way into the market is the calcium product known as Montmorillonite. Often called "mineral stone" or "white mineral stone" in the aquarium trade, it's been standard fare for shrimp hobbyists for a number of years.

(Full disclosure- I think 90% of shrimp fanciers are super cool, super-talented. There are many very serious, extremely capable and highly competent hobbyists and manufacturers in that genre. However, parts of the "culture" surrounding the shrimp segment of the hobby, are in my opinion, also a bit "fluffy", filled with a lot of anecdotal ideas, repurposed products, and arrogant, opinionated subscribers to odd interpretations of more accepted techniques. They can often unwittingly perpetuate some of the shaky hyperbole of some products, giving new or inexperienced shrimp hobbyists the impression that everything they do or say is THE way to go.. Now, that's the minority of hobbyists, no doubt...but, as with any aquarium segment, those types are often the most vocal ones, leaving an outsider like myself with the impression that this is a tricky world that you need to navigate carefully in..Hmm- oddly like my reef keeping world, huh? )

Okay, now that I've managed to piss off everyone in the shrimp keeping world, back to my  discussion...

There are 2 main types of this mineral, Sodium montmorillonite and Calcium montmorillonite. Montmorillonite is a very soft phyllosilicate group of minerals that typically form in microscopic crystals, forming a clay. It is named after Montmorillon in France, and is derived from geologic tectonic plate activity, volcanic action and river hydrolysis. Montmorillonite silicate attracts valuble mineral nutrients from mountain soils and streams.

This stuff usually finds its way into the hobby in the form of little stones, which are placed into the aquarium (you can get powders, too, BTW). These stones contain a "suite" of minerals, such as silicon, calcium, magnesium, and sodium. Silicon is vital for building exoskeletons in crustaceans, while calcium is important for developing their shells. Magnesium is thought to activate some of the enzyme systems within the shrimps digestive system, assisting it in metabolizing food. Sodium is vital to osmoregulation within the shrimp tissues.

It's suggested that these minerals dissolve from the stone over time, and help keep aquarium water quality high via ion exchange. Montmorillonite clays have a reasonably high cation exchange capacity, and are effective as an adsorptive of heavy metals in water. They will attract and bind ammonia, nitrite, methane, and other metabolic waste products in the aquarium water, because they possess a negative charge, while many toxic substances that we don't want in our aquarium water have positive ions. That negative-ion charge within the stone is what attracts positive ions of toxins and binds them. Oh, and it can also keep water visibly clear by the ionic bonding of flocculants.

Sounds impressive. And it is. Once you discern the fact from the fluff. But Im a real cynical type, aren't I? Why do we offer this stuff on our site?

We decided to offer this stuff because we played with it in our own shrimp tanks over the years, and its addition made sense. Media which can remove some potentially harmful substances from aquarium water are never a bad thing to incorporate into our tanks. Now, I never saw any "miraculous" color or health changes to my shrimp as a result of its use, but it certainly didn't hurt anything. It was sort of there as an "additional insurance policy" for the tanks because of the very real ion exchange capabilities that Montmorillonite possesses. As a reef keeper, I've always been of the mindset that you can't have too many types of nutrient control and export in your system, and this was just another "layer" of protection. Granted, it also can positively impact KH and ph as well, and the dissolution of "bioavailable" minerals into the water makes it kind of a "bonus" for shrimp. 

Despite all of these claims and virtues extolled upon the stuff, it absolutely does NOT relieve you of any of the responsibility for diligent overall husbandry in your shrimp tanks.

I think the biggest "danger", if you will, of products like this is the way the "popular culture" within the hobby ascribes all sorts of wonderful attributes to a product, and it is seen by some (often the inexperienced, impressionable hobbyists) as some "Holy Grail" solution to our challenges. It's why I cringe whenever I see a product which claims that it "Eliminates water changes!" or "Makes delicate fishes thrive!" 

No product does that. That's on you. It's about your skills, your observation, your diligence. Sure, a product can assist in your efforts- but it's not the product that makes you successful. It won't make an incompetent hobbyist into a talented one. It might prolong the period of time before the inevitable disaster strikes, but it won't make you some super aquarium hobby demigod!

If you suck as an aquarist...well, your results will, too. No sugar coating here.

It's the same with botanicals.  

It would be really easy for us to ascribe all sorts of amazing properties to these items if that were our style. I'm sure we could easily "spin" them as the ultimate natural "additive" for aquariums. While we love hearing stories of people who added seed pods, leaves, etc. to their tanks, and weeks later saw their Apistos, Rasbora, or Pencilfishes spawn like mad, you can't ascribe these accomplishments entirely to the use of botanicals.

It's as much a testimony to your skill and effort as anything else. Sure, the addition of botanicals and their impartation of some humic substances and tannins to the water might have given the fish (which were already thriving because of your efforts) that final "push" into spawning condition...but that's really about it.

No miracles. Just some benefits that can help you achieve better results if your fundamental aquarium "toolkit" is already in place.

The hobby is filled with challenges and uncertainties. And what will help us navigate through them are the very things which work so well in other endeavors:  Patience, diligence, observation, skepticism, open-mindedness, humility, and effort. 

Oh, and a healthy dose of intuition now and then!

Stay smart. Stay calm. Stay diligent.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 






Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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