After years of playing with all sorts of aspects of botanical method aquariums, you start noticing patterns and "trends" in our little speciality world. And, observing your own niche closely makes you a more keen observer of other hobby specialities, too!
I've noticed a little "trend", if you will, in some specialized areas of the hobby, such as the cichlid world, for example, which is really interesting. It seems that there has been a sort of "mental shift" from keeping cichlids in more-or-less "utilitarian", almost "sterile" setups for breeding, to aquariums that more accurately reflect the habitats from which these fishes hail from in the wild, and just sort of letting them "do their thing" naturally.
I really like this, because it means that we're paying greater attention to the "big picture" of their husbandry- not just feeding, water chemistry, and providing spawning locations. Instead, we're providing all of these things within the context of a more natural display...and hobbyists are getting great results...and they're enjoying their tanks even more!
I think it's probably the hobby's worst kept "secret" that, even if it wasn't your ambition to do so- your fishes will often spawn in your tanks by simply providing them optimum environmental conditions.
I'm not saying that the bare breeding tank with a sponge filter and a flower pot is no longer the way to approach maintenance and breeding of fishes like cichlids. I am saying that I think there is a distinct advantage to the fish-and their owners- to keeping them in a setup that is more "permanent"- and more reflective of their natural environment from a physical/aesthetic standpoint.
I recall, many years ago, keeping killifish, such as Epiplatys, Pseudoepiplatys and some Fundulopanchax, in permanent setups with lots of plants, Spanish Moss., and leaves (yeah, even back in my teens I was into 'em..). And you know what? I Would get some good spawns, and it seems like I always had some fry coming along at various stages. I am sure that some might have been consumed by the older fishes or parents along the way, but many made it through to adulthood.
I had stable breeding populations of a variety of Epiplatys species in these kinds of tanks for years. Sure, if you are raising fishes for competition, trade, etc., you'd want to remove the juveniles to a operate tank for controlled grow out, or perhaps search for, and harvest eggs so that you could get a more even grow out of fry, but for the casual (or more than causal) hobbyist, these "permanent" setups can work pretty nicely!
This is not a new concept; however, I think the idea of setting up fishes permanently and caring for them, having them spawn, and rearing the fry in the same tanks is a lot more popular than it used to be. I realize that not all fishes can be dealt with like this, for a variety of reasons. Discus, fancy guppies, etc. require more "controlled" conditions...However, do their setups have to be so starkly...utilitarian all the time?
I was talking not too long ago with a fellow hobbyist who's been trying all sorts of things to get a certain Loricarid to spawn. He's a very experienced aquarist, and has bred many varieties of fishes...but for some reason, this one is just vexing to him! I suppose that's what makes this hobby so damn engaging, huh?
And of course, I was impressed by all of the efforts he's made to get these fish to spawn thus far...But I kept thinking that there must be something fundamental-something incredibly simple, yet important- that he was overlooking...
What exactly could it be? Hard to say, but it must be something- some environmental, chemical, or physical factor, which the fish are getting in the wild, but not getting in our aquariums.
It's all the more intriguing, I suppose...
Fish breeding requires us as hobbyists to really flex some skills and patience!
When I travel around the country on speaking engagements or whatever and have occasion to visit the fish rooms of some talented hobbyists, I never cease to be amazed at what we can do! We do an amazing job. And of course, being the thoughtful type, I always wonder if there is some key thing we're missing that can help us do even better.
Now, I realize that most fish breeders like to keep things controlled to a great extent- to be able to monitor the progress, see where exactly the fishes deposit their eggs, and to be able to remove the eggs and fry if/when needed.
I mean, we strive to create the water conditions (i.e.; temperature, pH, current, lighting, etc.) for our fishes to affect spawning, but we tend to utilize more "temporary" type, artificial-looking setups with equipment to actually facilitate egg-laying, fry rearing, etc.
I often wonder what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, the proper environmental conditions, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..."
Now, I realize that a lot of hardcore, very experienced breeders will scoff at this- and probably rightly so. Giving up control when the goal is the reproduction of your fishes is not a good thing. Practicality becomes important- hence the employment of clay flowerpots, spawning cones, breeding traps, bare tanks to raise fry, etc.
What do the fishes think about this?
Sure, to a fish, a cave is a cave, be it constructed of ceramic or if it's the inside of a hollowed-out seed pod. To the fish, it's a necessary place to spawn quietly and provide a defensible territory to protect the resulting fry. In all likelihood, they couldn't care less what it is made of, right? And to the serious or professional breeder, viable spawns are the game.
I get that.
I guess my personal approach to fish breeding has always been, "If it happens, great...If not, I want the fishes to have an environment that mimics the one they're found in naturally." And that works to a certain extent, but I can see how many hobbyists feel that it's certainly not the practical way to do systematic, controlled breeding.
I can't help but ruminate about this "non-approach approach" (LOL)
Not a "better spawning cone", "breeding trap", or more heartily-enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a holistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and...a physical-chemical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
Yeah, I think that they will. Just a hunch I have.
And my point here is not to minimize the work of talented fish breeders worldwide, or to over-simplify things ("Just add this and your fish will make babies by the thousands!").
It's to continue to make my case that we should, at every opportunity, continue to aspire to provide our fishes with conditions that are reminiscent of those what the evolved under for eons. I think we should make it easier for the fishes- not easier for us.
Sure, Discus can spawn and live in hard, alkaline tap water. And I know that many successful, serious breeders and commercial ventures will make a strong and compelling case for why this is so, and why it's practical in most cases.
Yet, I'm still intrigued by the possibilities of maintaining (and hopefully) spawning species like this in aquariums approximating their natural conditions on a full time basis.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't help but wonder if it's really possible that a couple of dozen generations of captive breeding in "unnatural conditions" could undo millions of years of evolution, which has conditioned these fish to live, grow, and reproduce in soft, alkaline, tannin-stained waters, and that our tap water conditions are "just fine" for them?
I mean, maybe it's possible...Hey, I am no scientist, but I can't help but ask if there is a reason why these fishes have evolved under such conditions so successfully? And if embracing these conditions will yield even betterlong-term results for the fishes?
I just think that there's a good possibility that I'm kind of right about that.
So, again, I think it is important for those of us who are really into creating natural aquariums for our fishes to not lose sight of the fact that there are reasons why- and benefits to- fishes having evolved under these conditions. I think that rather than adapt them to conditions easier for us to provide, that we should endeavor to provide them with conditions that are more conducive to their needs- regardless of the challenges involved.
Something to think about, right?
And , isn't their something wonderful (for those of us who are not hell-bent on controlling the time and place of our fish's spawnings) to check out your tank one night and see a small clutch of Apisto fry under the watchful eye of the mother in a Sterculia pod or whatever? Perhaps not as predictable or controllable as a more sterile breeding tank, but nonetheless, exciting!
And of course, to the serious breeder, it's just as exciting to see a bunch of wriggling fry in a PVC pipe section as it is to see them lurking about the litter bed in the display tank. I suppose it's all how you look at it.
No right or wrong answer.
The one thing that I think we can all agree with is the necessity and importance of providing optimum conditions for our potential spawning pairs. There seems to be no substitute for good food, clean water, and proper environment. Sure, there are a lot of factors beyond our control, but one thing we can truly impact is the environment in which our fishes are kept and conditioned.
On the other hand, we DO control the environment in which our fishes are kept- regardless of if the tank looks like the bottom of an Asian stream or a marble-filled 10-gallon, bare aquarium, right?
And what about the "spontaneous" spawning events that so many of you tell us have occurred in your botanical method aquariums?
Over the decades, I've had a surprisingly large number of those "spontaneous" spawning events in botanical method tanks, myself. You know, you wake up one morning and your Pencilfishes are acting weird...Next thing you know, there are clouds of eggs flying all over the tank...
That sort of stuff.
And after the initial surprise and excitement, during my "postgame analysis", I'd always try to figure out what led to the spawning event...I concluded often that was usually pure luck, coupled with providing the fishes a good environment, rather than some intentionally-spawning-focused efforts I made.
Well, maybe luck was a much smaller contributor...
After a few years of experiencing this sort of thing, I began to draw the conclusion that it was more the result of going out of my way to focus on recreating the correct environmental conditions for my fishes on a full-time basis- not just for spawning- which led to these events occurring repeatedly over the years.
With all sorts of fishes, too.
When it happened again, a couple of years ago, in my experimental leaf-litter only tank, hosting about 20 Paracheirodon simulans ("Green Neon Tetras"), I came the conclusion, in a rather circuitous sort of way, that I AM a "fish breeder" of sorts.
Well, that's not fair to legit fish breeders. More precisely, I'm a "fish natural habitat replication specialist."
A nice way of saying that by focusing on the overall environmental conditions of the aquarium on a full time basis, I could encourage more natural behaviors- including spawning- among the fishes under my care. A sort of "by product" of my practices, as opposed to the strict, stated goal.
Additionally, I've postulated that rearing young fishes in the type of environmental conditions under which they will spend the rest of their lives just makes a lot of sense to me. Having to acclimate young fishes into unfamiliar/different conditions, however beneficial they might be, still can be stressful to them.
So, why not be consistent with the environment from day one?
Wouldn't a "botanical-,method fry-rearing system", with it's abundant decomposing leaves, biofilms, and microbial population, be of benefit?
I think so.
This is an interesting, in fact, fundamental aspect of botanical-style aquariums; we've discussed it many, many times here: The idea of "on board" food cultivation for fishes.
The breakdown and decomposition of various botanical materials provides a very natural supplemental source of food for young fishes, both directly (as in the case of fishes such as wood-eating catfishes, etc.), and indirectly, as they graze on algal growth, biofilms, fungi, and small crustaceans which inhabit the botanical "bed" in the aquarium.
And of course, decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with infusoria, forms of bacteria, and small crustaceans, becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster.
However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
It's essentially an "evolved" version of the "jungle tanks" I reared killies in when I was a teen. A different sort of look- and function! The so-called "permanent setup"- in which the adults and fry typically co-exist, with the fry finding food amongst the natural substrate and other materials present I the tank. Or, of course, you could remove the parents after breeding- the choice is yours.
While I believe that we can be "lucky" about having fishes spawn in our tanks when that wasn't the intent, I don't believe that fishes reproduce in our tanks solely because of "luck." I mean, sure you will occasionally happen to have stumbled n the right combination of water temp, pH, current, light, or whatever- and BLAM! Spawning.
However, I think it's more of a cumulative result of doing stuff right. For a while.
So, what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..?"
There really is nothing "wrong" with that.
It's about wonder. Awe. The happenstance of giving your fishes exactly what they need to react in the most natural way possible.
And that's pretty cool, isn't it?
Of course, there is more to being a "successful" breeder than just having the fishes spawn. You have to rear the resulting fry, right? Sure, half the battle is just getting the fishes to lay eggs in the first place- a conformation that you're doing something right to make them comfortable enough to want to reproduce! And there is a skill set needed to rear the fry, too.
Yet, I think that with a more intensive and creative approach, our botanical-style aquariums can help with the "rearing aspect", too. Sure, it's more "hands-off" than the traditional "keep-the-fry-knee-deep-in-food-at-all-times" approach that serious breeders employ...but my less deliberate, more "hands-off" approach can work. I've seen it happen many times in my "non-breeding" tanks.
We're seeing more and more reports of "spontaneous" spawnings of all sorts of different fishes associated with blackwater conditions.
Often, it's a group of fishes that the aquarist had for a while, perhaps with little effort put into spawning them, and then it just sort of "happened." For others, it is perhaps expected- maybe the ultimate goal as it relates to a specific species...but was just taking a long time to come to fruition.
I just wonder...being a lover of the more natural-looking AND functioning aquarium, if this is a key approach to unlocking the spawning secrets of more "difficult-to-spawn" fishes. Not a "better spawning cone" or breeding trap, or more enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a wholistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and a physical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
And, I wonder if fry-rearing tanks can- and should- be natural setups, too- even for serious breeders. You know, lots of plants, botanical cover, whatever...I mean, I KNOW that they can...I guess it's more of a question of if we want make the associated trade-offs? Sure, you'll give up some control, but I wonder if the result is fewer, yet healthier, more vigorous young fish?
It's not a new idea...or even a new theme here in our blog.
Now, this is pretty interesting stuff to me. Everyone has their own style of fry rearing, of course. Some hobbyists like bare bottom tanks, some prefer densely planted tanks, etc. I'm proposing the idea of rearing young fishes in a botanical-method (blackwater?) aquarium with leaves, some seed pods, and rich soil; maybe some plants as well. The physically and "functionally" mimic, at least to some extent, the habitats in which many young fishes grow up in.
My thinking is that decomposing leaves will not only provide material for the fishes to feed on and among, they will provide a natural "shelter" for them as well, potentially eliminating or reducing stresses. In Nature, many fry which do not receive parental care tend to hide in the leaves or other "biocover" in their environment, and providing such natural conditions will certainly accommodate this behavior.
Decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with "infusoria" and even forms of bacteria becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster. However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
I occasionally think that, in our intense effort to achieve the results we want, we sometimes will overlook something as seemingly basic as this. I certainly know that I have. And I think that our fishes will let us know, too...I mean, those "accidental" spawnings aren't really "accidental", right? They're an example of our fishes letting us know that what we've been providing them has been exactly what they needed. It's worth considering, huh?
Nature has a way. It's up to us to figure out what it is. Be it with a ceramic flower pot or pile of botanicals...
Let's keep thinking about this. And let's keep enjoying our fishes by creating more naturalistic conditions for them in our aquariums.
Stay curious. Stay enthralled. Stay diligent. Stay methodical. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.