Sifting through the sediment: The thinking behind "NatureBase" substrates...

"Some sediment and sand, meet in a river, and..."

Wow, sometimes, you start realizing that what you've been obsessing about for so long might actually be interesting to other people, too! Last week, I started talking a bit more specifically about the specialized substrates that I've been working on for the past couple of years, around a month out before releasing them- and the response has been nothing short of crazy...And it taught me some things- well, reinforced some things- which I believe in. specifically:

1)There is a hunger for new and unique aquarium substrates . 

2) Aquarists are ready for something new, that is not just about the "look", and are willing to be a bit adventurous...

3)Those of us in the industry have been doing a sort of lackluster job on creating exciting new products for aquarists.

And I'm not trying to sound like an arrogant jerk here. I'm making some observations and sort of confirming my "thesis" about this stuff. Let's look at this a bit more, and maybe give a bit more context on our "NatureBase" range of substrates.

Now, first off, I started playing with substrates a few years back, mainly because I couldn't find exactly what I was looking for on the market. This is not some indictment of the major substrate manufacturers out there...I LOVE most of them and use and happily recommend ones that I like. 

That being said, I realized that the specialized world which we operate in embraces some different ideas, unusual aesthetics, and is fascinated by the function of the environments we strive to replicate. These are important distinctions between what we are doing in substrates at Tannin, and the rest of the aquarium hobby is doing.

Our NatureBase line is not intended to supersede or replace the more commonly available products out there as your "standard" aquarium substrate  because: a) they're more expensive, b) they're not specifically "aesthetic enhancements", c) they are not intended to be planted aquarium substrates d) because of their composition, they'll add some turbidity and tint to the aquarium water, at least initially (not everyone could handle THAT!)

So, right there, those factors have significantly segmented our target market...I mean, we're not trying to be the aquarium world's "standard substrate", we're not marketing them just for the cool looks, and we can't emphasize enough that they will make your water a bit turbid when first submerged. Those factors alone will take us out of contention for large segments of the market.

This is important. I mean, these are intended to be used in more natural, botanical-style/biotope-inspired aquariums. They do exactly what I wanted them to do, and some of them are specifically intended for use in specialized set ups, like the "Urban Igapo" idea we've been talking about for a long time here, brackish water mangrove environments, etc.

Let's touch on the "aesthetic" part for a minute.

Most of our NatureBase substrates have a significant percentage of clays and sediments in their formulations. These materials have typically been something that aquarists have avoided, because they will cloud the water for a while, and often impart a bit of color. We also have some botanical components in a few of our substrates, because they are intended to be "terrestrial" substrates for a while before being flooded...and when this stuff is first wet, some of it will float. And that means that you're going to have to net it out, or let your filter take it out. You simply won't have that "issue" with your typical bag of aquarium sand!

Why sediments and clays? 

Well, for one thing, sediments are an integral part of the natural substrates in the habitats from which our fishes come. So, theyre integral to our line. In fact, I suppose you'd best classify NatureBase products as "sedimented substrates."

Many of our favorite habitats are forest floors which undergo periodic flooding cycles in the Amazon, which results in the creation of aquatic habitats for a remarkable diversity of fish species.

Depending on the type of water that flows from the surrounding rivers, the characteristics of the flooded areas may vary. another important impact is the geology of the substrates over which the rivers pass. This results in differences in the physical-chemical properties of the water. In the Amazon, areas flooded by rivers of black or clear waters, with acid pH and low sediment load in addition to being nutritionally poor, are called “igapó."

The flooding often lasts for several weeks or even several months, and the plants and trees need special biochemical adaptations to be able to survive the lack of oxygen around their roots. During the inundation period, many of the forest trees drop their fruits into the water, where they are eaten by fish. As an interesting side note, ecologists have noted that some of these trees and plants are strongly dependent on the fishes to disperse their seeds through the forest, requiring that the seeds pass through the gut of a fish before it will germinate. 


Forest floor soils in tropical areas are known by soil geologists as "oxisols", and have varying amounts of clay, sediments, minerals like quartz and silica, and various types of organic matter. So it makes sense that when flooded, these "ingredients" will have significant impact on the aquatic environment. This "recipe" is not only compositionally different than typical "off-the-shelf" aquarium sands and substrates- it looks and functions differently, too.

And that's where a lot of people will metaphorically "leave the room."

So, yeah, you'll have to make a mental shift to appreciate a different look and function. And many hobbyists simply can't handle that.

The igapo and varzea substrates are intended to be "terrestrial" for a period of time, to get the grasses and plants going, and then inundated. Same goes for simulations the Pantanal habitat...You CAN fill them with water right off the bat; however, you should be ready for some cloudy water for a week or more!

This is not unlike what occurs in the wild habitats...newly inundated forest floors have a lot of leaf litter, seed pods, etc., and will be quite turbid for some time. If you understand the context for which they are intended, and the habitats which they help to replicate, this is perfectly acceptable and logical...Of course, you need to make that "mental shift, right?"

Although these substrates can grow both terrestrial and aquatic plants well, they were not intended to be generic planted tank substrate. We're not trying to compete with the many fantastic specialized planted aquarium substrates out there. Rather, these are modeled after relatively nutrient-poor soils, which will grow plants, but not as well as the fancy clay pellets and such that are intended to grow plants.

Yeah, our Igapo and Varzea mixes can grow plants like grasses and marginals pretty well. You're just not going to be doing your next "Dutch-style" aquascape or "Iwagumi" with our products.

Our Igapo and Varzea substrates mimic sandy acidic soils that have a low nutrient content. And, as you know, the color and acidity of the floodwater is due to the acidic organic humic substances (tannins) that dissolve into it. The acidity from the water translates into acidic soils, which makes sense, right?

Now, I admit, I am NOT a geologist, and I"m not expert in soil science. I know enough to realize that, in order to replicate the types of habitats I am fascinated with require different materials. If you ask me "Will this fish do well with this materials?". or "Can I grow "Cryptocoryne in this?", or "Does this make a good substrate for shrimp tanks" I'll be the first to tell you that, while I have experimented with many species of plants, averts, and fishes with these substrates, I can't tell you that every single fish will like them. I'd be full of shit at best, and a liar at the worst- neither which I'd want!

Rather, I can tell you that these are some of the most unusual materials I've seen for  specialized aquariums, and that they are wide open for experimentation in various kinds of systems! And that's part of the key: These substrates, even though they've been used by myself, my staff, and some close friends for a while now, are really "experimental" in nature. Because you can do all sorts of cool stuff with them. Hell, you can even mix them with commercial, off-the-shelf substrates to make cool, functionally aesthetic "custom" mixes of your own!

We want you to use leaves, botanicals, and other materials with these unique substrates. They're intended to help foster the growth of beneficial bacteria, biofilms, fungal growth, and micro crustaceans, to help build up a functional, diverse benthic habitat in botanical-style aquariums. They will help form the literal "base" of your botanical-style aquarium system (hence the name of the product line, "NatureBase").

Even though I have a near-obsessive love for the flooded forest substrates, I'm equally as excited to share NatureBase "Mangal" with you- it's our specialized brackish-water mangrove habitat substrate- one that represents the culmination of a 4-year journey of researching, sourcing, mixing, and testing! As far as we know, three has not been a dedicated brackish water substrate offered before in the hobby, and we think it's yet another element for our "Estuary" line that will help revitalize and elevate this unique and oft-neglected hobby sector!


Regardless of how you use these new substrates, we hope that you understand the "why" part as much as the aesthetics that they bring.

And yeah, they are rather pricy, as compared to a typical bag of aquarium sand. I'd compare their pricing to the more "high-end" aquatic plant speciality substrates. These are literally hand-mixed substrates, with the components sourced from suppliers throughout he world. These aren't some mass-produced, re-purposed construction material or something. Rather, they are well-thought-out, carefully compounded natural materials, mixed expressly for the purpose of using in botanical-style aquariums. We went through a lot of iterations before arriving at our final versions!

We use them extensively in our own tanks. We love the results that we're getting...

And we hope that you will, too!

We'll have much, much more to say about these cool substrates as we get closer to launching them, so stay tuned for more!

Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay curious. Stay adventurous...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

June 26, 2020

Hey Erik!

Glad you’re excited…We can’t wait to launch them, too!

I’ve sued them in “all-in-one” systems (which I like a lot) with bulit in surface overflows, systems with glass pipe returns (ie, Lannister’s), and even small power filters. The key, IMHO, is to give the substrates a day or two after filling the tank to allow them to fully saturate and settle out. And to not direct higher flow return right at the substrate. Typically, the cloudiness caused by the sediments settles out in just a few days (usually like 2-4 days at the most). Obviously, if you have filter returns printed at this stuff, it’ll keep a near-perpetual cloud going, lol! I have not noticed any specific issues with filters or their components. I suppose the key is to use some sort of pre-filter materials (like polyester filter pad, micron socks, or floss-depending upon your system) to catch some of this stuff. It’s just sort of like botanicals themselves, which, over time, tend to “gunk up” impellers and such on filters, submersible system pumps, and powerbeads- you just need to do regular simple cleaning on them. In many of my “urban igapo” tanks, there is no filter…they’re often just a gallon or two, and simple water exchanges do the trick. All sorts of possibilities here. Although they are different than typical sands and gravels, many of the same considerations for system maintenance, etc. apply. -Scott


June 25, 2020

I just want to say I can’t wait for these substrates. They sound really awesome. Do you have any particular suggestions for using filters with these substrates? Are there any pros or cons with different filters when there is lots of suspended material in the water? Have you noticed that suspended clay has any rapid deleterious effects on some filters?

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