(Oh, before we begin today's piece, let me preface it by warning you that it contains the usual compliment of profanity. obnoxious sentiments, occasional backhanded comments, and a lot of "opinion" which some may find utterly offensive. I feel you...but you have been warned and you can go back to lower stakes media like Tik Tok or whatever and get your" rah-rah drivel quotient" there, okay? Scott)
Like every hobbyist, I spend a lot of time dreaming and scheming about new aquarium setups. And one of the beautiful things about this kind of "imagineering" ( to coin a Disney term) is that I can venture into all sorts of areas in the hobby- including ones which I might have relatively little- or even no- experience with. You know, stuff you wouldn't expect from "Mr. Tinted Water Guy", like Mbuna tanks, Stiphodon goby habitats, livebearer tanks ,etc.
The beauty of doing these mental "feasibility studies" is that I can imagine, design, "shop" and scheme without spending a dime, spilling a drop of water, or sourcing the equipment I need to use!
Yet, I get really distracted easily, when it comes to aquarium stuff!
The goal is not to get into a loop of "analysis paralysis" and never make a move simply because I'm "still planning..." Yeah. I've seen guys do that and the tank sits empty and collects dust and cobwebs while they are "contemplating."
You see, like many of you, my imagination, appetite, and enthusiasm are often larger than my ability, time, or means to get the job done. I've concluded that to do all of my crazy concept tanks, I'd probably need like 17 aquariums of all shapes and sizes, many with technologies and components that would carry a breathtaking price tag- if they exist at all...
And, this is AFTER I've eliminated some of the early front runners, like the intertidal Pipefish Mangrove tank, the Amazonian waterfall tank, the monospecific Acropora microcaldos tank, the "Nothobranchius Temporal Pool" concept tank (ask me about the "mud hole" idea I've been playing with sometime), and others that are earmarked for some "indefinite future date...."
So, I kind of have this personal thought about "ideas."
Okay, that sounded a bit harsh. Let me clarify a bt.
I mean, if you're not going to do anything with them, they're sort of just "nice things" to have- maybe inspiring-but you need to act on them or they are just...theoretical, right?
I don't want to keep "theoretical" tanks.
And, I realize that there are limitations that we all have- Space, time, money, etc.- and that these temper many of ideas from being executed. I suppose that is part of the reason why I've changed my thinking about so-called "nano"-sized tanks over the past few years. Because their smaller size and ease of use helps you rapidly iterate from idea to completed system quickly and easily! I've had a lot of fun with them lately.
One of the best things about my business is getting to help fuel the dreams of other hobbyists. It gives me great pleasure to see you guys enjoying the hobby, and motivates me to do more.
And of course, when it comes time to do my own tank, I have to weed through all of these crazy ideas- some of which challenge me in ways I hadn't even considered. Some are just fun to play with.
Others launch me and Tannin into entirely new directions- those are the best ideas!
Okay, so maybe not ALL ideas are worthless.
What are some of my personal tank ideas that are going through my mind lately?
Well, here are a few:
An "old fashioned" Guppy Aquairum
Yeah, seriously. Lately, I am having this flashback to my childhood, when I spent hours and hours looking at my dad's guppy tanks (he was really into 'em). I'm sort of obsessed with the whole idea of clear water, "number 3 grade" aquairum gravel, and water sprite. Oh, and some cool guppies...Likely a mix of strains and color varieties that would cause any serious guppy breeder to run screaming into the night!
I have no idea why I'm longing for this. No "wild Guppy biotope" bullshit...No "high concept Guppy Tank" crap...Just a simple tank filled with a jungle of Water Sprite, a couple of pieces of petrified wood, gravel, and guppies. Total throwback tank! Maybe a modern twist would be to include some planted aquarium substrate underneath the essentially sterile gravel, but that's it.
Yeah, clear water, crisp white 7000k LED light, and all! I love the idea. Although I admittedly pause and wonder how long I could enjoy this tank before I'd become bored with it?
Wild Livebearer Aquairum
Okay, this is sort of sounding closer to the type of thing you might expect from me. Perhaps a tank set up to replicate some of the South American habitats in which you'd find wild livebearers...Maybe a mixed bed substrate, with sand, silt, and some gravel-sized materials, a few small stones, and perhaps some plants like Sagittariusaor whatever. Not an exact biotope (F that!)- but more of my "biotope inspired" approach.
What livebearers? Well, Maybe Swordtails or perhaps Endless (although I've done an Endler's tank recently and it got boring after a while...). What about OG black Mollies, a little bit of salt ( I am a reefer, for goodness sakes), and a few tolerant plants? I dunno. That could be cool for a while, I suppose.
Maybe even something more unusual, like Poecilia picta, or some sort of other less common ones, like the "Tiger Teddy" (Neoheterandria elegant) ; yeah, WTF kind of common name is THAT? Though it's tiny and can tolerate soft water better than most livebearers! Or maybe, the "Porthole Livebearer" (Pocilopsus gracious)- about as dull-looking a fish as you can imagine (part of its appeal to me!)?
Mbuna..Just because they're colorful and live around rocks
Yeah, okay. This idea has been floating around in my head for a long time. We're not talking about "Shellies" (shell dwelling cichlids from the rift lake down the road, so to speak)- even though I'm obsessed with their habitat and all, the fish themselves are pretty boring looking, if you ask me. Faint grey stripes on a silver fish in a tank with white sand, grey rocks, and tan shells is too monochromatic even for me.
So yeah, smaller Malawi species like Pseudotropheus saulosi, Pseudotropheus sp. "acei", and the much-loved Labidochromis caeruleus would be nice. I'm thinking a group of a few males of each, to get maximum color and minimal aggression. Maybe like 4 or 5 male specimens of those three species in a 50 gallon tank.
Crowded but not "overly crowded?"
I'd just water change the shit out of it every week, and employ some reef gear (like AI Nero or EcoMarine Vortech electronic pumps) for water movement? We have naturally hard, alkaline water here in Los Angeles, so keeping a high pH would be a snap! I've had friends do this type of tank, and it was gorgeous. Really colorful fishes over a background of aragonite sand and grayish rocks.
Yeah, I can get behind THIS idea!
Marine Macroalgae tank with Mandarin Dragonets and Pipefishes?
Oh, I've loved that idea for decades...Did it in 2005 and loved it. Played with it again in 2021. Spoke about Macroalage and Seagrasses at MACNA way back in 2009... Was probably a bit too early. Unfortunately, the idea of sterile-looking, "high concept macrolagae tanks" (a la Nature Aquairum "style" b.s.) is becoming "trendy" in that vomit-inducing way that I hate...so Fuck this idea for a while, lol. I think I'll wait to play with this idea again until after people start ignoring these kinds of tanks again.
I know, my attitude sucks. It's just that I hate doing stuff and sharing it and then having people tell me, "Oh, did you see ________ tanks on Instagram? They're so incredible!" (You know, the drivel-esque, polar opposite interpretation of what I'd do) "You should try one like HIM!" (at which time I most definitely want to vomit. What, my rather eco diverse, natural-looking version isn't any good? LOL
Regardless, I still have a long-running healthy obsession with seagrasses and macroalage. I love the calcareous macroalage, Halimeda; perhaps the least "trendy" of the macroalage in this new dumbed-down "high concept artistic macroalage tank renaissance" which we find ourselves in.
Maybe it's time to do another off-trend tank to piss off everyone? Yeah, maybe. I know that a few fellow old crusty, treacherous reefers like me might appreciate me dropping a tank like that to shit on this "scene" before it gets to be too awful. to tolerate
God, I've become a complete asshole in recent years!
Oh, and since I'm at it: If you ever put your nano tank on a little turntable, please don't ever talk to me again. That's the freaking stupidest thing I've EVER seen in aquaruum keeping, hands down.
Oh, there IS a guy doing it right in the macrolagae space . A guy in Japan who goes by the handle "-ichistarium". His work is amazing. Oh, and our friends inland_reef and afishionado are positively crushing it with their own natural interpretations of macroalage/mangrove habitats. Check them out and give them the love they deserve!
Okay, deep breath....
Not sure what it is...maybe it's the reefer in me again... I have a big desire to do a tank with just rocks. No plants, wood, leaves. Nada. Just rock. What's the reason for this newfound fascination for rocks? Like, perhaps it's the angst built up in me after 18 years of playing with just leaves and twigs and botanicals and sediments that makes the idea of a tank with just rocks fascinating to me again.
And what kinds of fishes would I put in a "rock tank?"
Well, sure, Mbuna for one. But there are other fishes, like gobies, Danios, perhaps some loaches and barbs? For that matter, Swordtails or some kind of Geophagus or Central American cichlids? A tank meant to replicate some version of a rocky pool, stream, or even river could be super cool, and just different for me. Maybe I could toss a few token branches in there? Maybe not.
Yeah, Ditched selling rocks here back in 2020, citing the (fact) that rocks are generally not associated with the types of habitats that we play with here. Their reality, however, is that when I started Tannin. in 2015, I wanted to embrace "natural aquariums", and that concept can embrace multiple genres and multiple materials...including rocks, right?
I've been talking about this idea for years. A tank created to replicate the wild habitat of the Zebra Danio. Yes, the humble fish of my childhood. Yet, one which I feel gets no respect. Now, I'll be the first to admit that dedicating an entire aquarium to this little fish is a bit "different", right? Yet, there is something about the idea that find super compelling nonetheless. a conventional square or rectangle-shaped tank is not what would really work here. Rather, I feel that a long, low aquarium would be best. To really help facilitate their swimming and their activities, such a tank would really work well.
Yet, could I devote and entire 50 gallon tank just to them? I'll be honest, I'm not sure. it might be a bit of a challenge mentally, lol. Part of the charm of this fish is its fast swimming and schooling behavior, and to facilitate that, a long, shallow tank would be best, IMHO. Can you imagine a 4 or 5 foot long, 16" (40 cm) high tank for these fishes? Maybe nice and wide. Yeah! A bottom of mixed sediments and gravels, some smooth stones, perhaps some Rice plants or Acorus..perhaps a scattering of random leaves and twigs..That would be a simple and cool display.
A substrate-only display?
Imagine a tank which has absolutely no rock, no plants, or no driftwood. Just a bunch of sand or other substrate. Perhaps an interesting, mixed-grade substrate...but only substrate nonetheless! I've done leaf litter only, botanicals-only, and twigs-only substrates before...but only sand or other substrate materials? Not yet.
Talk about "negative space!" This would require a very focused, mentally-shifted (or "twisted"), highly dedicated aquarist to pull it off. I mean, we're talking about the only "relief" in the tank would come from the fishes themselves. The key would be coming up with an interesting mix of materials and grades and colors to really make it work. Oh, and a more shallow, longer tank again, IMHO.
What kinds of fishes would you keep?
Well, I would imagine that you could keep bottom-dwelling fishes like Corydoras, or gobies and bennies...perhaps even Eels and loaches. I suppose some schooling fishes would work, too> Would you go with relatively dull, monochromatic ones, or super colorful ones? I wonder how the fishes would react to being "out in the open" all the time. Would this be "cruel?" Would it result in a more "protective" swimming behavior like tight shoaling?
Or, would this facilitate natural behaviors among fishes which swim in open waters. I wonder, though, are there fishes which preferentially inhabit open water areas over vast stretches sand? There must be, right? If so, they're likely fishes that are either really fast swimmers, or predators, I would suppose.
Or, am I simply overthinking this? I mean, it's essentially like a bare bottom breeding tank; an idea that's been used in the trade for decades. It's just that this is a permanent, allegedly decorative setup, right?
The fishes would absolutely be the focus here.
And there are those geographic replications, too.
When I contemplate "turning east" to Africa, I get pretty damn excited at the possibilities. Of course, The blackwater habitats and fishes of Southeast Asia beckon. However, with the setups I've done with brackish, I'm already "riffing" on those locales.
And so part of my mindset tells me, "Well, dude, you're sort of already there...just stick to your South American thing...You love it. It's you..."
...And then my mind flashes to Kribs. The first cichlid I ever bred..when I was like 13! In a 2.5 gallon tank, no less!
Never forgot that...
And of course, the African characins...
...and the idea of killies in a community-type setting dances through my mind.
And those Ctenopoma. Always the Ctenopoma...
And yet, the lure of the Amazon is almost too great to resist. Like, it's just the freshwater region I identify with the most. Everything about it.
It just "works" for me, I guess..
We need to act on our crazy (and not-so crazy) ideas whenever we can. Because it's hard to allow one of your ideas to shrivel up and die without ever being executed because you were afraid of criticism.
For those of you taking on your new ideas, and pushing out into new territories- new frontiers:
Move forward. Bravely.
Take comfort in the fact that you are trying. Take comfort in the fact that your work may inspire others...and in it's own little way, perhaps change the aquarium hobby.
You're not foolish.
And your ideas aren't, either.
Everything we do helps advance the state of the art in the aquarium hobby. Each new tank- no matter how awesome we or the world think it is-gives us experience, ideas, and inspiration to do other tanks that perhaps bring us closer to the idea that we had in mind. And it can influence other hobbyists to do the same.
I can't tell you how many times I've done a "thing" or "things" which were based on some idea, some inspiration, or some thought that I had about how to execute an aquarium, which may not have gotten me "there" right from the start, but taught me all sorts of things along the way too ultimately arriving where I wanted to be.
It often starts with a concept..an idea.
...Until it gradually emerges into a more "polished" configuration.
Now, often an idea will start based on something we see in Nature. Perhaps an element of a habitat that we like. Perhaps, it will dovetail with some sort of hypothesis we have, and lead to other executions to prove out the concept.
Often, it's simply a way to see if we can work out a concept. A way to push things forward.
One of the things I enjoy most about Tannin- is to look at things the way they are in the hobby-the way they've been practiced for generations- and to question WHY.
Not for the sake of being an arrogant jerk- but in the spirit of questioning why we do stuff the way we do. Is it because it's the BEST way? Or is it because that's what worked well with the prevailing skill set/knowledge/equipment available at the time the idea was presented to the hobby, and we've just accepted it as "the way" ever since, even though all of the "back story" which lead to this unwavering acceptance of the practice has long since changed?
A practice or idea that may have been appropriate and optimum 30 years ago may be woefully outdated now. I mean, it still "works", but there are better ways now...
Accepting ideas, practices, and techniques in the hobby "...just because we've done it that way forever" is, in my opinion, a way to stagnate.
And in all fairness, an admonition to change things "just because" is equally as detrimental. Rather, it's better to simply look honestly and boldly at how/why we do something, and ask ourselves, "Is this really the best way? Is it really necessary?"
Is it a practice we should keep embracing?
Or is it time to "rewrite the code?"
I think so.
Simple thought. Powerful implications.
Every observation we make on all sorts of these aspects of the botanical-method aquarium s helps us move the needle a bit. With a growing number of hobbyists experimenting with botanical materials in all sorts of aquariums and enjoying improving fish health, spawning, etc., it's getting more and more difficult to call it a "novelty" or "fad."
I mean, Nature isn't exactly a "fad" or trend-follower, right? She's been doing this stuff for eons. We're just sort of "catching up"- and beginning to study, contemplate, and appreciate what happens when form meets function in the aquarium.
And that's pretty exciting, isn't it?
Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay dedicated. Stay observant. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
Okay, that title sounds a lot like some spy thriller or sci-fi action movie. The reality is that it's simply a part of my tank identification "nomenclature." Each year since Tannin began, I committed myself to do at least one major aquairum project, one that really puts down a "marker"- or tests some idea that Ive had in my head. Something that pushes the boundaries of what we do in the botanical-method aquarium.
Despite the "major" descriptor- the tank doesn't have to be a big one. I've had some of my most epic tanks and greatest influential developments arise out of nano tanks. The "Urban Igapo" concept (Project 19), The "Tucano Tangle" (Project 20), the botanical brackish system (Project 17), and our "Java Jungle" (Project 21) all came from tanks of 25 US gallons or less. Each one had outsized impact on my philosophies moving forward.
Each one represented a "turning point" in my personal botanical method aquarium journey.
Of all of the tanks I've played with in the past 5 years, none has had greater impact on me and my future work than the 50-gallon botanical method tank which we called "Project 18". This tank helped move the mark...pushed me into a new era of more thorough, more natural ecosystem creation.
It was the first larger tank in which I really let Nature take control. Let her dictate the pace, the diversity, and the aesthetic.
It started quite simply, really.
An almost stupid-looking stack of wood.
Not just any wood, though- Red Mangrove branches. A wood variety that imparts large amounts of tannins into the water. A very "dirty" kind of wood, with lots of textured surface area- perfect for biofilm and fungal colonization.
The idea behind "Project 18" was to accept what Nature does to the materials we use- without any intervention on my part, nor a bent towards placing aesthetics first.
Well, for one thing, it was to put down my personal "marker" for "Natural" in the aquairum hobby. This word is used too often, and in weird ways, IMHO. Some hobbyists emphasize how "natural" their aquairum is without really looking at the absurdity of how hard they're trying to fight off Nature- by forcing decidedly unnatural combinations of plants and other materials to exist in a highly staged, very precisely manicured world of aesthetic-first philosophy. The result is a beautiful aquairum- one which has natural components, sure- but which could hardly be considered anything but an artistic view of Nature when placed into this context.
I sometimes fear that this burgeoning interest in aquariums intended to replicate some aspects of Nature at a "contest level" will result in a renewed interest in the same sort of "diorama effect" we've seen in planted aquarium contests. In other words, just focusing on the "look" -or "a look" (which is cool, don't get me wrong) yet summarily overlooking the function- the reason why the damn habitat looks the way it does and how fishes have adapted to it...and considering how we can utilize this for their husbandry, spawning, etc.- is only a marginal improvement over where we've been "stuck" with for a while now as the "gold standard" in freshwater aquariums..
Some people are simply too close minded to apply their skills to doing things in a TRULY more natural way.
Some of these people need to just stare at a few underwater scenes for a while and just open their minds up to the possibilities...
We all need to go further.
I'm sure I'm being just a bit over-the-top (oaky, maybe QUITE a bit!), but the so-called "nature aquarium" movement seems to have, IMHO, largely overlooked the real function of Nature, so there is some precedent, unfortunately. A sanitized, highly stylized interpretation of a natural habitat is a start...I'll give 'em that-but it's just that- a start.
The real exciting part- the truly "progressive" part- comes when you let Nature "do her thing" and allow her to transform the aquarium as she's done in the wild for eons.
So, yes- It should go beyond merely creating the "look" of these systems to win a contest, IMHO. Rather, we should also focus on the structural/functional aspects of these environments to create long-term benefits for the fishes we keep in them. We should aim to incorporate things like biofilms, detritus, decomposition into our systems, just as Nature does.
That's a real "biotope aquarium" or 'Nature" aquarium in my book.
That was the philosophy behind "Project 18."
Perhaos the most important things that botanical method aquariums can do is to facilitate the assembly of a "food web" within the system.
To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.
So, what exactly is a food web?
A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community.
All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.
So, a trophic level in our case would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...
In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.
In many of the blackwater aquatic habitats that we're so obsessed with around here, like the Rio Negro, for example, studies by ecologists have determined that the main sources of autotrophic sources are the igapo, along with aquatic vegetation and various types of algae. (For reference, autotrophs are defined as organisms that produce complex organic compounds using carbon from simple substances, such as CO2, and using energy from light (photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.)
Hmm. examples would be phytoplankton!
Now, I was under the impression that phytoplankton was rather scarce in blackwater habitats. However, this indicates to scientists is that phytoplankton in blackwater trophic food webs might be more important than originally thought!
Now, lets get back to algae and macrophytes for a minute. Most of these life forms enter into food webs in the region in the form of...wait for it...detritus! Yup, both fine and course particular organic matter are a main source of these materials. I suppose this explains why heavy accumulations of detritus and algal growth in aquaria go hand in hand, right? Detritus is "fuel" for life forms of many kinds.
In Amazonian blackwater rivers, studies have determined that the aquatic insect abundance is rather low, with most species concentrated in leaf litter and wood debris, which are important habitats. Yet, here's how a food web looks in some blackwater habitats : Studies of blackwater fish assemblages indicated that many fishes feed primarily on burrowing midge larvae (chironomids, aka "Bloodworms" ) which feed mainly with organic matter derived from terrestrial plants!
And of course, allochtonous inputs (food items from outside of the ecosystem), like fruits, seeds, insects, and plant parts, are important food sources to many fishes. Many midwater characins consume fruits and seeds of terrestrial plants, as well as terrestrial insects.
Insects in general are really important to fishes in blackwater ecosystems. In fact, it's been concluded that the the first link in the food web during the flooding of forests is terrestrial arthropods, which provide a highly important primary food for many fishes.
These systems are so intimately tied to the surrounding terrestrial environment. Even the permanent rivers have a strong, very predictable "seasonality", which provides fruits, seeds, and other terrestrial-originated food resources for the fishes which reside in them. It's long been known by ecologists that rivers with predictable annual floods have a higher richness of fish species tied to this elevated rate of food produced by the surrounding forests.
And of course, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes. The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter!
Sounds familiar, huh?
So, how does a leaf break down? It's a multi-stage process which helps liberate its constituent compounds for use in the overall ecosystem. And one that is vital to the construction of a food web.
The first step in the process is known as leaching, in which nutrients and organic compounds, such as sugars, potassium, and amino acids dissolve into the water and move into the soil.The next phase is a form of fragmentation, in which various organisms, from termites (in the terrestrial forests) to aquatic insects and shrimps (in the flooded forests) physically break down the leaves into smaller pieces.
As the leaves become more fragmented, they provide more and more surfaces for bacteria and fungi to attach and grow upon, and more feeding opportunities for fishes!
Okay, okay, this is all very cool and hopefully, a bit interesting- but what are the implications for our aquariums? How can we apply lessons from wild aquatic habitats vis a vis food production to our tanks?
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides nutrient processing, and to some degree, a self-generating population of creatures with nutritional value for our fishes, on a more-or-less continuous basis.
Incorporating botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of creating the foundation for biological activity is the starting point. Leaves, seed pods, twigs and the like are not only "attachment points" for bacterial biofilms and fungal growths to colonize, they are physical location for the sequestration of the resulting detritus, which serves as a food source for many organisms, including our fishes.
Think about it this way: Every botanical, every leaf, every piece of wood, every substrate material that we utilize in our aquariums is a potential component of food production!
The initial setup of your botanical-style aquarium will rather easily accomplish the task of facilitating the growth of said biofilms and fungal growths. There isn't all that much we have to do as aquarists to facilitate this but to simply add these materials to our tanks, and allow the appearance of these organisms to happen.
You could add pure cultures of organisms such as Paramecium, Daphnia, species of copepods (like Cyclops), etc. to help "jump start" the process, and to add that "next trophic level" to your burgeoning food web.
In a perfect world, you'd allow the tank to "run in" for a few weeks, or even months if you could handle it, before adding your fishes- to really let these organisms establish themselves. And regardless of how you allow the "biome" of your tank to establish itself, don't go crazy "editing" the process by fanatically removing every trace of detritus or fragmented botanicals.
"Project 18" was a tank which really pushed this idea to the forefront of my daily practice. Everything from the selection of materials to the way the tank was set up, to the "aquascape" was imagined as a sort of "whole."
Yeah, I said the "A" word...Let's think about the "aquascape" part bit more deeply for just a second...
What IS the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right?
So when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come? The information that you can garner from such observations and research is amazing!
One of the key takeaways that you can make is that many freshwater fishes like "structure" in their habitats. Unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like certain types of structure- be it rocks, wood, roots, etc.
Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.
And of course, the structure that we are talking about in our aquairums is not just rocks and wood...it's all sorts of botanical materials and leaves that create "microhabitats" in all sorts of places within the aquarium.
We can utilize all of these things to facilitate more natural behaviors from our fishes.
So, yeah-think about how fishes act in Nature.
They tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...
I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", right?
And with the ability to provide live foods such as small insects (I'm thinking wingless fruit flies and ants)- and to potentially "cultivate" some worms (Bloodworms, for sure) "in situ"- there are lots of compelling possibilities for creating really comfortable, natural-appearing (and functioning) biotope/biotype aquariums for fishes.
Ever the philosopher/ muser of the art of aquaristics, I sometimes fear that the burgeoning interest in biotope aquariums at a contest level will result in the same sort of "diorama effect" we've seen in planted aquarium contests. In other words, just focusing on the "look" (which is cool, don't get me wrong) yet summarily overlooking the reason why the habitat looks the way it does and how fishes have adapted to it...and considering how we can utilize this for their husbandry, spawning, etc.
I'm sure it's unfounded, but the so-called "nature aquarium" movement seems to have, IMHO, completely overlooked the real function of nature, so there is some precedent, unfortunately. I hope that "biotopers", who have a lot of awareness about the habitats they are inspired by, will at least consider this "functional/aesthetic" dynamic that we obsess over when they conceive and execute their work.
It should go beyond merely creating the "look" of these systems to win a contest, IMHO. Rather, we should also focus on the structural/functional aspects of these environments to create long-term benefits for the fishes we keep in them. That's a real "biotope aquarium" in my book.
Leaves, detritus, submerged terrestrial plants- all have their place in an aquarium designed to mimic these unique aquatic habitats. You can and should be able to manage nutrients and the bioload input released into our closed systems by these materials, as we've discussed (and executed/demostrated) here for years. The fear about "detritus" and such "crashing tanks" is largely overstated, IMHO- especially with competent aquarium husbandry and proper outfitting of a tank with good filtration and nutrient control/export systems in place.
If you're up to the challenge of attempting to replicate the look of some natural habitat- you should be a competent enough aquarist to be able to responsibly manage the system over the long term, as well.
Ouch, right? Hey, that's reality. Sorry to be so frank. Enough of the "shallow mimicry" B.S. that has dominated the aquascaping/contest world for too long, IMHO. You want to influence/educate people and inspire them? Want to really advance the hobby and art/science of aquarium keeping? Then execute a tank which can be managed over the long haul. Crack the code. Figure out the technique. Look to Nature and "back engineer" it.
These things can be done.
There are many aspects of wild habitats that we choose to replicate, which we can turn into "functionally aesthetic" aquarium systems. Let's not forget the trees themselves- in their submerged and even fallen state! These are more than just "hardscape" to those of us who are into the functional aesthetic aspects of our aquariums.
I hope that you have your own "Project 18"- an aquarium which served as an "unlock" for the future of your botanical method work. I hope that you find your unique way in the hobby, and enjoy every second of it!
Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
Recently, I've been fielding a lot of questions from new hobbyists.
Not just new to the botanical method aquarium world- new to the aquarium hobby altogether!
On first thought, my answer is, "Fuck, no! You have to understand the basics of the hobby first."
Ouch. A bit quick and decisive, right? And perhaps a bit contrary to the realities of what we do and experience with botanical method aquariums.
I mean, I've often touted how I feel that, once these systems are established, they are remarkably stable, relatively easy-to-maintain aquariums., right?
Of course, there are some real qualifiers here.
The first being, "After the system is established."
Establishing a botanical-method aquarium, blackwater, brackish, or otherwise- certainly requires some basic understanding of the principles of aquarium management. Specifically, the nitrogen cycle, an understanding of water quality assessment and management, and stocking.
You need to understand a little about the ecology of natural aquatic systems; how they function, evolve, and why the look the way that they do.
Yet, you CAN learn all of these things. You can google and study and even listen to our podcast and read our blog.
Facts. Processes. Techniques.
And then, there are some things you can't really "teach"- like patience. You need, well- a shitload of it...in the aquarium hobby in general, yet especially in the natural, botanical-method aquarium sector. And the "patience" part? I feel that it's seminal. Foundational.
I don't think you can "teach" that.
I mean, perhaps you can be taught about why patience is so important.
We can provide some expectations and explanations of how these systems establish, appear, and operate over time. We can offer guidelines about "best practices" and procedures.
However, the best teacher, as with so many things- is experience. You have to dive in and do it. Beginner, intermediate, advanced- you have to DO.
Perhaps some things might be easier to an outright beginner; someone who has no preconceived notions about how an aquarium is "supposed to look", or what is considered "natural", "beautiful", etc. There is a beautiful, almost innocent objectivity that we bring to the game when we are flat-out beginners, right? We have little basis for comparison, other than our own observations and personal tastes.
And that's actually an advantage, in some respects, IMHO.
In my opinion, the hobby has been- for better or worse- influenced by schools of thought which seem to dogmatically dictate what is "good", "bad", and "correct." And, in a strange sort of way, hobbyists who stray off of the generally accepted, well-trodden paths established by our hobby forefathers are often greeted with skepticism, cynicism, and sometimes, outright disdain!
That blows, IMHO.
And then there is the other end of the spectrum: The splashy, often vapid, sometimes downright bizarre presentation of the aquarium hobby found on social media.
One trend I've noticed that's fueled by social media is an almost fetishization of showing only the "finished product" of gorgeous, pristine aquascaped tanks, with maybe just a little sampling of "construction" pics (usually just staged shots of products or "unboxing" stuff- read that, "shilling" for manufacturers, btw), but little mention of the actual process; the challenges, the "ugly" parts- the work- of establishing one of these aquariums.
The result of this superficial ("dumbed down") presentation of aquariums conveys the message that it's just all about buying stuff, artfully arranging some materials, and POW! Finished awesome tank. Shit, it's so easy- why isn't YOUR tank this cool and sexy?
It often results in frustration for the everyday hobbyist, who can't seem to figure out why his or her tank isn't exactly like the one on the 'gram.
Sure, the fundamentals of aquarium keeping and the mindset behind establishing successful systems isn't as "sexy" or 'gram-ready as pics of the finished product, but to operate from the position that everyone who sees these tanks has that underlying knowledge already is at best "glossing over" the realities, and at worst, downright irresponsible.
We've gotta talk more anbout process. About how these tanks work, the philosophy and methodology behind them, and about how to establish and maintain them. The beginner needs to see this stuff.
To jump into any aquarium- botanical-filled or otherwise- without having basic knowledge about stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish stocking protocols, and husbandry techniques- is flat-out stupid, IMHO.
Now, I realize not everyone wants to- and can- produce content about aquarium keeping fundamentals, but maybe just touching on a few basics now and then would be cool.
I challenge all of my fellow hobbyists who are influential in this social-media-powered world to commit to touching on some of these underlying themes, challenges, and expectations on occasion when featuring your amazing work. Just taking a few seconds to explain this stuff; even posting just one pic in your feed showing a tank cycling, or with the plants not looking perfect, or the water not crystal clear- can go a long, long way to gently give a dose of reality and expectation management in the splashy world of aquascaped aquariums.
Now, I realize that there is plenty of material out there on "how to start an aquarium" or whatever- but I think it needs refreshing, updating, FEATURING- for a new generation of hobbyists who are getting the bulk of their information from Facebook forums, Instagram feeds, and YouTube shorts. It's important for the future of the hobby. It will assure more people get in- and STAY in the hobby. We need to evolve how we present the concepts as much as we need to evolve the concepts themselves.
Sadly, it has to be reinforced constantly.
I can't tell you how many times a week I answer questions like, "I just received my Enigma Pack! Can I just add this stuff to my 5-gallon tank? What do I need to do..?" And I have a freakin' website with gigabytes of stuff on this very topic and other related topics, accumulated over years! And we're evolving this too. I had to check my ego a bit, and accept that not everyone likes to read a daily blog. So I started this podcast in 2019.
Getting some of the fundamental messages across required us to adapt.
We all need to evolve. More succinctly, we need to preach the underlying fundamental stuff...but in an evolved way.
Part of the reason we've spent so much time over the past few years in this blog/podcast chatting about the processes, the pitfalls, and the expectations you should have when establishing the systems we advocate is to give everyone a very clear picture of what's actually involved.
Makes sense. We are literally asking you to dump dead plant materials into your aquarium and let them decompose. To NOT touch on all of this fundamental stuff and discuss the potential issues would have been irresponsible at every level.
So, yeah- getting back to the initial point of this whole thing- I believe that you certainly CAN start with a botanical-style natural aquarium for your first project, but you absolutely need to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of aquarium practice. And you CAN be successful.
Of course, you just can't delude yourself into thinking that it's a simple matter of tossing leaves and twigs into a tank, filling it up, and BAM! "Instant Borneo" or whatever. Like, the nitrogen cycle, formation of biofilms, environmental stability, etc. don't apply to you... Yeah, there are a LOT of neophyte hobbyists- end experienced ones, for that matter-who harbor such beliefs! I've talked to quite a few over the years. And, based on 'gram reality, apparently, there IS no "nitrogen cycle"- just cool finished tanks, so...
As those of us in this game already know, it's a process.
A journey. A learning curve.
One that acknowledges that success is entirely achievable for those who make the effort to study, familiarize themselves with the basics; one that is almost guaranteed to kick the shit out of you if you leap without learning.
It doesn't matter if you're an innocent neophyte, unfamiliar with this stuff - or even a seasoned hobbyist with decades of experience. You CAN be a "beginner"- and one who's quite successful. We, as a community just need to continue to do some of the "heavy lifting" to help everyone along!
Expectations need to be set.
As we all know, leaves and botanicals simply don't last indefinitely; they begin to soften and decompose shortly after they're added to the aquarium. Depending upon the particular botanical in question, they can last from a few weeks (as in the case of Catappa leaves, for example) to many months (the "harder" pods, like Carinaina or Sterculia pods.).
And of course, that means that we need to accept the idea that most botanicals are "consumables" for all intents and purposes, much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- and need periodic replacement.
Leaves, for example, should be "topped off" regularly to continue to contribute to the ecological function of the aquarium. Just like in a real tropical stream or other body of water, as materials decompose or wash downstream, the physical appearance" and other characteristics, like water movement, etc. will change over time. And the fishes will adapt, too- finding new "territories", spawning sites, and feeding locations. These are very natural behaviors which you just won't see in a more traditional "static" aquascape.
Expectations. Evolutions. Changes.
Part of the game that beginners and advanced hobbyists alone need to accept.
By regularly replacing the botanical materials in your aquarium, you're constantly "evolving" or "editing" the habitat, creating a truly dynamic display for your fishes. And if you look at your botanical method aquarium over several months or longer, for example, you'll see this clearly. Now, Nature does a certain percentage of this for us, because, as mentioned above- stuff decomposes, softens, breaks down, etc. And this results in subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes over time, wether we intervene or not.
Sure, the basic "structure" of the aquascape will likely be the same- but the smaller-scale "niches" within the tank, as well as the colors, textures and "negative space" within the habitat will vary and "evolve." Similar, in some respects to a planted aquarium, a botanical system can be "pruned" to keep a rough "form", yet it will evolve in subtle ways on it's own, despite our interventions.
This fascinates me.
And there is that concept of when the aquarium is "finished."
Over the years, I've found that the thrill of starting up a new aquarium never faces. However, one of the things that I'm realizing is that I've never been in any particular hurry to get my tank "finished."
I mean, I don't think a tank is ever really "finished"- it's more like the system reaches some level of function and appearance that you may have envisioned before your started the project, and you tell yourself, "yeah- this is what I wanted..."
My aquarium hobby "philosophy" is predicated on one simple idea:
What's "radical" about patience?
Is there some special meaning to this? Well, not really. It's as much about common sense as anything, actually. Yeah, common sense. However, in today's "insta"- world, the concept of taking the time to establish an aquarium is sort of...radical- as is the patience required to go slowly and steadily.
That is- not jumping right into something...taking a bit of time- or even a long time- to allow your aquariums to "run in" and develop before pushing them along.
I mean, why are we always in such a hurry to get fishes in?
Having set up more than a few systems in my time, I never seem to be surprised at my own true hobbyist-style impatience!
Let’s face it—once we get the plumbing done, the lighting tweaked, leaks sealed, and aquascaping set, we’re all seemingly hell-bent on getting some fishes in there! I mean—we’ve waited so long for “first water” in the tank that it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
It's like we need to get the fishes in there right away…even just a few, right?
Can’t really blame us, huh?
However, there may be some compelling reasons to wait just a bit longer…
Would you like to move into a house which didn’t have a refrigerator full of food? I wouldn’t, for sure. Unlike humans, fishes seem to have not lost their "genetic programming" for grazing and hunting for food. Let’s face it—most of the waking hours of aquatic animals are devoted to acquiring food and reproducing. They need to have some food sources available to "hunt and graze" for.
So, unleashing a group of fishes into an almost "sterile" aquarium seems decidedly at odds with this evolutionary adaptation which our fishes have. Yet, from a strictly human perspective, most of us would rather have parts of our vital organs snipped off before we'd wait several weeks or more to add fishes to our new aquariums...
As a reefer, my patience has really evolved over the years. My friends have finally learned to stop asking me "How's the tank looking?" after it has been set up for a few weeks, because they know damn well by now that my tank looks essentially the same as it did the day I set it up..at least, from an animal stocking perspective! I simply don't start adding tons of animals until the system has evolved to the point where it's "ready" IMHO.
This approach actually has its origin in my youth.
Like now, I was really into fish. However, with limited funds, I often had to do things in stages...It could literally take months to get a tank set up as I accumulated the funds. SO, sometimes, the then would be filled, "scared", and just...sit. And this was after taking a few months to get to that stage! it actually was such a regular process to me that it kind of became a habit. I mean, I was (and still am) pretty adverse to getting a tank up and running and populated in just a few days.
I feel like I'm rushing things too much.
Interestingly, Nature sort of supports this approach! With reef tanks, or the natural, botanical method aquariums we play with here, this "latency period" when the tank is "running in" gives the ecology of the tank a chance to establish itself. The microfauna which make up the foundation of our closed ecosystems will colonize and multiply, umolested and unhurried, during this time.
I believe that it gives an aquarium a greater degree of long term success.
And there is a lot to be said for simply doing nothing when you're experiencing something like cloudy water, for example. Yes, your aquarist instinct is screaming at you to do something, but the reality is that it's SOOOO much better to simply "wait it out" and let Nature sort things.
Remember: THERE IS NO RUSH!! THERE IS NO "FINISH LINE!"
It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in Nature; a trust in allowing the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons to develop to the extent that they can in our aquariums.
Rituals we engage in, and stages that we go through with our aquariums are remarkably analogous to the processes which occur in Nature...
Yeah, think about it for a second:
A tree falls in the (dry) forest.
Wind and gravity determine it's initial resting place (you play around with positioning your wood pieces until you get 'em where you want, and in a position that holds!). Next, other materials, such as leaves and perhaps a few rocks become entrapped around the fallen tree or its branches (we set a few "anchor" pieces of hardscaping material into the tank).
Then, the rain come; streams overflow, and the once-dry forest floor becomes inundated (we fill the aquarium with water).
It starts to evolve. To come alive in a new way.
The action of water and rain help set the final position of the tree/branches, and wash more materials into the area influenced by the tree (we place more pieces of botanicals, rocks, leaves, etc. into place). The area settles a bit, with occasional influxes of new water from the initial rainfall (we make water chemistry tweaks as needed).
Fungi, bacteria, and insects begin to act upon the wood and botanicals which have collected in the water (kind of like what happens in our tanks, huh? Biofilms are beautiful...).
Gradually, the first fishes begin to "follow the food" and populate the area (we add our first fish selections based on our stocking plan...).
The aquatic habitat is enriched by the decomposition of leaves, wood, and botanical materials, creating new food supplies, spawning locales, and biological stability.
It continues from there. Get the picture? Sure, I could go on and on drawing parallels to every little nuance of tank startup, but I think you know where I'm going with this stuff...
Yet, when we think about our aquariums this way, the parallels are striking, aren't they?
And the thing we must deploy at all times in this process is patience. And an appreciation for each and every step in the process, and how it will influence the overall "tempo" and ultimate success of the aquarium we are creating.
When we take the view that we are not just creating an aquatic display, but a habitat for a variety of aquatic life forms, we tend to look at it as much more of an evolving process than a step-by-step "procedure" for getting somewhere.
Taking the time to consider, study, and savor each phase is such an amazing thing, and I'd like to think- that as students of this most compelling aquarium hobby niche, that we can appreciate the evolution as much as the "finished product" (if there ever is such a thing in the aquarium world).
It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in nature; a trust in the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons.
Fools rush in. Smart hobbyists enjoy the process.
The appreciation of this process is a victory, in and of itself, isn't it? The journey- the process- is every bit as enjoyable as the destination, I should think.
Stay excited. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay appreciative...Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
Last year, I shared the first two installments of what I hope to be an evolving, semi-periodic look at the techniques I employ personally with my botanical method aquariums. I mean, we share all of that stuff now in our social media and blogs, but until this little "series" I've never been done it in a really concise manner. Many of you have asked for this type of piece in "The Tint", and, since Ive been creating some new tanks lately, it's time to get back at it!
Today, let's get back to a pretty fundamental look at what I do, and how I start my botanical method aquariums.The processes and practices, in particular. Remember, this is not the "ultimate guide" about how do to all of this stuff...It's a review of what I do with my tanks. It's not just a strict "how to", of course. It's more than that. A look at what goes through my mind. My philosophy, and the principles which guide my work with my aquariums. I hope you find it helpful.
First off, one of the main things that I do- what I believe most aquarists do- is to have a "theme"- an idea- in mind when I start my tanks. A "North Star", if you will. This is an essential thing; having a "track to run on" guides the entire project. It influences your material and equipment selections, your establishment timetables, and of course, your fish population.
Let's look at my most recent botanical method aquarium as an example of my approach.
First off, I had a pretty good idea of the "theme" to begin with: A "wet season" flooded Amazonian forest. Now, I freely admit that I put a lot of thought into getting the characteristics of the environment and ecology down as functionally realistic as possible, but that the fish selection was far more "cosmopolitan"- consisting of characins- my fave fishes- some of which are found in such habitats, and some which are not. It was not intended to be some competition-minded, highly accurate biotope display.
Just a fun way to feature some of my fave fishes!
Since I was kid, I'd always dreamed of a medium-to-large-sized tank, filled with a large number of different Tetras. This tank would essentially be my "grown-up", more evolved version of my childhood "Tetra fantasy tank!"
The most basic of all "how I do it" lessons is to have some idea about what you're trying to accomplish before you start. In our game, since recreating the environment and ecology are paramount, this will impact every other decision you make.
In this aquarium, the main "structure" of the ecosystem is comprised of a literal "hodgepodge" of "scrap" pieces of wood of different types and sizes that I had laying around. Very little thought was given to specific types or shapes. The idea was to create a representation of an inverted root section and tangle of broken branches from a fallen tree on the forest floor, which becomes an underwater feature during the "wet season."
It was simply a matter of assembling a bunch of smaller pieces to create the look of the inverted root that I had in my head. And once they are down and covered in that "patina" of biocover, it's hard to distinguish one from the other. It looks like one piece, really. Sure, it would have been easier to carefully select just one piece to do it all (would it, though?🤔), but it was more practical to "use what I had" and make it work!
So, another "how I do it" lesson is that you don't always have to incorporate a single specific wood type to have an incredible-looking, interesting physical aquascape. No chasing after the latest and creates trendy wood for me.
I use what I have, or what I like.
You should, too.
Since we're more about function than we are about aesthetics exclusively, which type of wood isn't as important as simply having any wood to complete the job. (and by extension, other "aquascaping materials"...)
After I get my wood pieces the way I like them, it's the usual stuff: Make sure that they stay down before you fill the tank all the way, etc. Nothing exotic here.
The next step is to fill the tank up. Again, there is no real magic here, except to note that, since we're often using sedimented substrate and bits of botanicals on the substrate, it's best to do this very slowly. I mean, your water is likely to be turbid for some time; it's what goes with the territory. However, no need to exacerbate it by rushing!
And, after the tank is about 1/3 full, I'll usually add all of my prepared leaves and botanicals. Why? Because I've found over the years, similar to planted tank enthusiasts, that it's much easier to get the leave and botanicals where you want them by working in a partially filled tank.
Another, hardly revolutionary approach, but one which I think makes perfect sense for what we do.
After the tank is fully filled...that's is where the real fun begins, of course...In our world, the "fun" includes a whole lot of watching and waiting...Waiting for the water to clear up (if you use sedimented substrates). Waiting for Nature to start Her work; to act upon the terrestrial materials that we have added to our tank.
And of course, this is the time when you're busy making sure that you did all of the right things to get the tank ready for "first water."
And of course, it's also the part where every hobbyist, experienced or otherwise, has those lingering doubts; asks questions- goes through the "mental gymnastics" to try to cope: "Do I have enough flow?" "Was my source water quality any good?" "Is it my light?"
And then- when the first fungal filaments or biofilms appear, some new to our specialty still doubt: "When does this shit go away?" "It DOES go away. I know it's just a phase." Right? "Yeah, it goes away..." "When?" "It WILL go away. Right?"
And then there is the realization that this is a BOTANICAL METHOD aquairum, and that you expect and WANT that stuff in your tank. And it will likely never fully "go away..."
But you know this. And yet, you still count a bit.
I mean, it's common with every new tank, really. The doubts. The worries....
The waiting. The not-being-able-to-visualize-a-fully-stocked tank "thing"...Patience-testing stuff. Stuff which I- "Mr. Tinted-water-biofilms-and-decomposing-leaves-and-botanicals-guy"- am pretty much hardened to by now. You will be, too. It's about graciously accepting a totally different "look." Not worrying about "phases" or the ephemeral nature of some things in my aquarium.
Yet, like anyone who sets up an aquarium, I admit that I still occasionally get those little doubts in the dim (tinted?) recesses of my mind now and then- the product of decades of doing fish stuff, yet wondering if THIS is the one time when things WON'T work out as expected...
I mean, it's one of those rights of passage that we all go through when we set up aquariums right? The early doubts. The questioning of ourselves. The reviewing of fundamental procedure and practice. Maybe, the need to reach out to the community to gain reassurance.
It's normal. It's often inevitable.
Do I worry about stuff?
Well, yeah. Of course.
However, it's not at the point in my tank's existence when you'd think that I'd worry. It's a bit later. And it's not about the stuff you might think. It's all about the least "natural" part of my aquariums: The equipment.
Usually, for me, this worry manifests itself right around the first water exchange. By that time, you'll likely have learned a lot of the quirks and eccentricities of your new aquarium as it runs. You'll have seen how it functions in daily operation.
And then you do your first deliberate "intervention" in its function. You shut down the pumps for a water exchange.
That's when I clutch. I worry.
I always get a lump in my throat the first time I shut off the main system pump for maintenance. "Will it start right back up? Did I miscalculate the 'drain-down' capacity of the sump? Will this pump lose siphon?"
And so what the fuck if it DOES? You simply...fix the problem. That's what fish geeks do. Chill.
Yet, I worry.
That's literally my biggest personal worry with a new tank, crazy though it might sound. The reality, is that in decades of aquarium-keeping, I've NEVER had a pump not start right back up, or overflowed a sump after shutting down the pump...but I still watch, and worry...and don't feel good until that fateful moment after the first water change when I fire up the pump again, to the reassuring whir of the motor and the lovely gurgle of water once again circulating through my tank.
Okay, perhaps I'm a bit weird, but I'm being totally honest here- and I'm not entirely convinced that I'm the only one who has some of these hangups when dealing with a new tank! I've seen a lot of crazy hobbyists who go into a near depression when something goes wrong with their tanks, so this sort of behavior is really not that unusual, right?
However, our typical "worries" are less "worries" than they are little realizations about how stuff works in these tanks.
In a botanical method aquarium, you need to think more "holistically." You need to realize that these extremely early days are the beginning of an evolution- the start of a living microcosm, which will embrace a variety of natural processes.
But yeah, we know what to expect...We observe.
So, what exactly happens in the earliest days of a botanical method aquarium?
Well, for one thing, the water will gradually start to tint up...
Now, I admit that this is perhaps one of the most variable and unpredictable aesthetic aspects of these types of aquariums- yet one which draws in a lot of new hobbyists to our "tribe." The allure of the tinted water. Many factors, ranging from what kind (and how much) chemical filtration media you use, what types (and how much again!) of botanical materials you're using, and others, impact this. Recently, I've heard a lot of pretty good observation-based information from experienced plant enthusiasts that some plants take up tannins as they grow. Interesting, huh?
Stuff changes. The botanicals themselves begin to physically break down; the speed and the degree to which this happens depends almost entirely on processes and factors largely beyond your control, such as the ability of your microbial population to "process" the materials within your aquarium.
I personally feel that botanical-method aquariums always look better after a few weeks, or even months of operation. When they're new, and the leaves and botanicals are crisp, intact, and fresh-looking, it may have a nice "artistic" appearance- but not necessarily "natural" in the sense that it doesn't look established and alive.
The real magic takes place weeks later.
Things change a bit...
The pristine seed pods and leaves start "softening" a bit. And biofilms and fungal growths make their first appearances.
Mental shifts are required on your part.
Yup, the first mental shift that we have to make as lovers of truly natural style aquariums is an understanding that these tanks will not maintain the crisp, pristine look without significant intervention on our part. And, by "intervention", I mean scrubbing, rinsing, and replacing the leaves and botanicals as needed. I mean, sure- you can do that. I know a bunch of people who do.
They absolutely love super pristine-looking tanks.
Well, to each his own, I suppose. Yet, the whole point of a true botanical method aquarium is to accept the "less than pristine" look and the changes that occur within the system because of natural processes and functions.
I admit, I feel a bit sorry for people who can't make the mental shift to accept the fact that Nature does Her own thing, and that She'll lay down a "patina" on our botanicals, gradually transforming them into something a bit different than when we started.
When we don't accept this process, we sadly get to miss out on Nature guiding our tank towards its ultimate beauty- perhaps better than we even envisioned.
For some, it's really hard to accept this process. To let go of everything they've known before in the hobby. To wait while Nature goes through her growing pains, decomposing, transforming and yeah- evolving our aquascapes from carefully-planned art installations to living, breathing, functioning microcosms.
But, what about all of that decay? That "patina" of biofilm?
If you're struggling with accepting this, just remind yourself regularly that it's okay.
The whole environment of a more established botanical-method aquarium looks substantially different after a few weeks. While the water gradually darkens, those biofilms appear...it just looks more "earthy", mysterious, and alive.
It's a reminder of "Wabi-Sabi" again.
Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.
In it's most simplistic and literal form,the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things.
This is a very interesting philosophy, one which was brought to our attention in the aquarium world by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who proferred that a (planted) aquarium is in constant flux; constant transistion- and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the changes, and to relate them to the sweet sadness of the transience of life.
Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.
Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, break-down-the-tank-after-the-show world, this philosophy of appreciating change by Nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next one.
Sure, this may fit our human lifestyle and interest, but it denies Nature her chance to shine, IMHO. There is something amazing about this process of change; about the way our tanks evolve, and we should enjoy them at every stage.
And then, there is the human desire to "edit" stuff. People ask me all the time if I take stuff out of the system; if I make "edits" and changes to the tank as it breaks in, or as the botanicals start to decompose.
Well, I don't, for reasons we've discussed a lot around here:
Remember, one thing that's unique about the botanical-method approach is that we accept the idea of a microbiome of organisms "working" our botanical materials. We're used to 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...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it's a theory...
But I think it's a good one.
You need to look at the botanical-method 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 signficantly influenced by the amounts 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 summary- I think the presence of botanicals in our aquariums is multi-faceted, highly influential, and of extreme import for the stability, ecological balance, and efficiency of the tank. As a new system establishes itself, the biological processes adapt to the quantity and types of materials present- the nitrogen cycle and other nutrient-processing capabilities evolve over time as well.
Yes, establishing a botanical method aquarium is as much about making mental shifts and acquiring patience and humility as it is about applying any particular aquarium keeping skills. It's about growing as a hobbyist.
Having faith in yourself, your judgment, and, most important- in the role that Nature Herself plays in our tanks.
In seemingly no time at all, you're looking at a more "broken-in" system that doesn't seem so "clean", and has that wonderful pleasant, earthy smell- and you realize right then that your system is healthy, biologically stable, and functioning as Nature would intend it to. If you don't intervene, or interfere- your system will continue to evolve on a beautiful, natural path.
It's that moment- and the many similar moments that will come later, which makes you remember exactly why you got into the aquarium hobby in the first place: That awesome sense of wonder, awe, excitement, frustration, exasperation, realization, and ultimately, triumph, which are all part of the journey- the personal, deeply emotional journey- towards a successful aquarium- that only a real aquarist understands.
This is how I do it.
Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
One of the more remarkable things about the botanical-method aquarium approach is that it offers us a unique insight into the operation of many wild aquatic habitats. These habitats are tremendously influenced by their surrounding terrestrial environment. The very soils which make up the substrate, and the fallen tree trunks, leaves, and seed pods present in the water cement the relationship between land and water.
The "operating system" of a botanical method aquairum, as we've discussed many times before, is literally driven by the presence of these materials.
A few days ago, I was doing a small water exchange in one of my personal botanical method aquariums, and I reached in to move a seed pod away from the siphon hose (so that it wouldn't block it), and it promptly disintegrated in my fingers! Another botanical did its job, gradually releasing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds into the water over the months, until finally decomposing back into its (likely) near-inert constituent parts.
This is the essence of what we call have called "habitat enrichment" over the years-the imparting of beneficial substances and materials into the overall aquatic environment via botanical materials. Of course, as we've reiterated before here, we can't say exactly what they are imparting, and how much.
We can conclude via observation, that they are contributing...something...to the aquatic environment.
This submerged botanical, like many others in the tank, contributed greatly to the microbiome of the system. Fishes foraged upon its surfaces, shrimp consumed its lignin-rich tissues, and fungal growths, biofilms, and microorganisms flourished on its matrix of interstitial surfaces.
The "end" of this botanical's "service life" was symbolic, in a way, of what takes place in our aquariums: Fungi, bacteria, algae...indeed, the water itself all conspire to erode, degrade, and ultimately, decompose these materials...a real "cycle of life." As I continued with my weekly maintenance, I siphoned out a few stray pieces of broken-down leaves and added some new ones.
Adding new botanicals serves the multifold purpose of resupplying the organisms at the base of the microbiome with a new food source, keeping the water visually "tinted", the physical environment consistent, and the look and vibe of the tank "fresh"- so similar to what goes on in Nature, when old leaves break down, and new ones fall into bodies of water to take their place.
New leaves and botanical materials are a sort of a biological/chemical "shot in the arm" for our aquariums.
Some of the most amazing comments we receive after sharing underwater pics of the wild habitats of Amazonia and elsewhere are from hobbyists who, at first, thought that some of these pics were from someones' aquarium! In a few instances, some of the close ups of botanical-themed aquaria are virtually indistinguishable from wild scenes!
This is a real turning point in the history of natural aquarium keeping, IMHO. One in which the function of the aquariums we are creating trumps the aesthetics...or, perhaps better put- the function and natural processes drive the aesthetics..and it's an incredible replication of what you'd encounter in Nature!
By facilitating these natural processes within the aquairum- not resisting them, we've fostered in an entirely new approach to creating truly "natural" aquairums in the hobby!
Blurring the lines between Nature and the aquarium, at the very least, from an aesthetic sense- and in many aspects, from a "functional" sense, proves just how far today's hobbyists have come...how damn good you are at what you do. And how much more you can do when you turn to Nature as an inspiration, and embrace it for what it is.
Many of our most incredible natural aquariums are replications of what I like to call "opportunistic habitats"- or habitats which arise in Nature because of some specific events or occurrences, like seasonal inundation, sediment accumulation, and fallen trees.
It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall in the rain forest, with punishing rain and saturated ground conspiring to easily knock over anything that's not firmly rooted. When these trees fall over, they often fall into small streams, or in the case of the varzea or igapo environments in The Amazon that I'm totally obsessed with, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.
And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions: Providing a physical barrier or separation from currents, offering territories for fishes to spawn in, providing a substrate for fungi and biofilms to multiply on, a space for leaves to accumulate, and places for fishes forage among, and hide in.
An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks and parts will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.
What an incredible dynamic!
Let's focus on this "ecological component" for just a bit. Let's review what happens when a tree falls...literally!
Shortly after falling into the water, fungi and other microorganisms act to colonize the surfaces, and biofilms populate the bark and exposed surfaces of the tree. Over time, the tree will impart many chemical substances, (lignin, humic acids, tannins, sugars, etc.) into the water as the bark breaks down and the tree itself softens.
In aquatic ecosystems, much of the initial breakdown of botanical materials is conducted by detritivores- specifically, fishes, aquatic insects and invertebrates, which serve to begin the process by feeding upon the tissues of the seed pod or leaf, while other species utilize the "waste products" which are produced during this process for their nutrition.
In these habitats, such as streams and flooded forests, a variety of species work in tandem with each other, with various organisms carrying out different stages of the decomposition process.
The fallen tree literally brings new life to the waters.
I can't stress enough how interesting and important this transformation of the terrestrial environment to the aquatic one is. It helps explain so much of why the aquatic habitats look and function the way they do, and how they impact the life forms which make use of them.
The materials that comprise the tree are known in ecology as "allochthonous material"- something imported into an ecosystem from outside of it. (extra points if you can pronounce the word on the first try!) We've talked about that stuff for a while now, right?
And of course, in the case of fallen trees, this includes includes leaves, fruits and seed pods that fall, or are washed into the water along with the branches and trunks that topple into the stream.
All of this can be replicated, to a certain extent, in the confines of an aquarium. You just need to use some larger pieces of wood or branches.
Now, there are many aquarists who would make the case that you can't make big, gnarly pieces of wood "work" in an aquarium because of their impact on "ratio" and "proportion", etc... You know, the "artistic" part.
And to these types, I gently admonish you to check out the works of some talented 'scapers, like our friend, Mitch Mazur, who have made that now-famous "mental shift" to work with Nature in an artistic interpretation...
These pleas and "look what HE did!" sort of arguments are almost a "prerequisite" of late when I talk about any idea that has an "aesthetic" component to it, because the self-appointed "guardians of aquascaping style" seem to come out of the woodwork (lol) after these discussions, reciting dozens of well-rehearsed reasons why the concept won't work, rather than even trying to do something similar.
To that, of course, I call, "Bullshit!"
Yeah, a big piece of wood or dense aggregation of smaller pieces in an aquarium does create some challenges, but most of them are in our head. Hell, Takashi Amano himself did a few amazing tanks with huge pieces of wood years ago. Remember?
And of course, when we utilize a large piece of wood (relative to the aquarium's water volume), it has a chemical and physical impact on the aquatic environment that is...hey- sort of similar to that which occurs in Nature, right?
Function and aesthetics are linked. In Nature, and in the aquarium!
And, look- I'm not telling you to turn your back on the modern popular aquascaping scene; to disregard or dismiss the brilliant work being done by aquascapers around the world, to completely eschew aesthetics, or to develop a sense of superiority and snobbery, and conclude that everyone who loves that kind of stuff is a sheep...
Not at all.
I'm simply the guy who's passing along the gentle reminder from Nature that we have this great source of inspiration that literally "works!" Rejoice in the fact that Nature offers an endless variety of beauty, abundance, and challenge- and that it's all there, free for us to interpret it as we like. It's not all perfect "rule of thirds" or flawless layouts and such.
Lots of places in Nature, beautiful though they may be, are a bit "rougher around the edges" than some aquarists seem to want to accept. Not all, but some.
And the rest of us?
We see the beauty in the apparent chaos and randomness.
We just happen to like things bit more, well- "natural" than others...
Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay intrigued. Stay studious. Stay open-minded.
Blur the lines.
And Stay Wet.
As I ease back into the world of Tannin and botanical method aquariums, I think it's important to hit on some of the foundational philosophies, ideas, and "truths" that form the basis of our approach once again.
As I've reiterated time and again lately, upon my return from my self-imposed "sabbatical", I noticed a creeping, slowly-evolving "dumbing down" of what we do, placing higher emphasis on aesthetics than function in the popular social media.
Too many hobbyists have worked too hard for too long to research, understand, and develop this approach to allow it to become a "style of aquascaping", or to simply lose sight of what really drives these types of tanks...Nature.
Not goofy-sounding botanicals, "influencers", or entertaining YouTube videos. Not even our brand or the brands of my industry "besties" ( BWUK and Betta Botanicals).
We get that.
You need to, as well.
Although I'm the first person to tell you to enjoy the hobby how you want to, I'm also going to be the first guy to (metaphorically) "whack the hobby upside its head" when the situation dicates. As long as I'm cognitively functional and breathing, I'll continue to push out "the boring stuff" as required to keep this a methodology, not a Tok Tok trend, meme, or otherwise bubbly social media splash.
Yeah, I sort of pledged to myself a while back that, for every one of these dumbed down exercises in vapidity which I encounter on social media, I'm going to counter with something deeper, more informative, and more instructive... So, based on the current state of things, I'll be really f--king busy for the foreseeable future!
Honestly, the hobby doesn't have to be childish, vapid, and trendy to be fascinating and fun. It never did, and it doesn't have to be now. Nor does it need to be boring, snobby, or exclusive to be fun and cool. There IS a middle ground between some of the garbage that prevails in the hobby, and the boring stereotype of a bunch of old timers sitting around chugging beers, lamenting about how the hobby used to be cool when everyone had to build their own tanks and collect their own Daphnia and Tubifex worms
I think the recent audience numbers of "The Tint" podcast bare this out...They're really growing! There seems to be a "hunger" for more fundamental, deeper information on botanical-method aquariums.
That's super encouraging!
At it's core, what we do is about ecology. Or, rather, the development of an ecological system within our aquariums.
The development of an ecology based on botanical materials is foundational to the successful function of our aquariums- even if it looks a bit "unusual" to many! If we embark on a botanical-method aquarium journey with the mindset that we're helping to encourage the development of an ecological system in our tank, not just a "cool aquascape", the whole thing is that much better.
And guess what?
When you work with Nature to foster such an ecosystem, the cool aesthetics almost always follow...
There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating the process of an ecological system "sorting itself out" in our tanks is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-functioning - and natural-looking- aquarium.
The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your established aquarium when they see it for the first time.
We ask everyone who plays in the botanical-method aquairum world to be open-minded about accepting all sorts of unusual things. Things which, in our previous hobby experience freaked us out to no end!
It's a lot to ask, I'm sure. I mean, the idea of embracing an aquarium which looks and functions in a manner which is essentially contrary to virtually everything you've been brought up to believe in the hobby requires a certain leap of faith, doesn't it?
Yes, it's about aesthetics...but it's more about the beautiful function of botanical materials and soils which influence the chemical environment of the aquarium- just like they do in Nature.
There are aesthetic factors that you need to embrace to really appreciate what we do. They require fundamental shifts in our thinking about what is "cool" and "acceptable" in the aquarium hobby.
Of all the mental shifts asked of those who play in this arena, accepting the formation of biofilms is likely the biggest "ask" of all! Their very appearance- although indicative of a properly functioning ecosystem, simply looks like something that we as hobbyists should loathe.
This is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in Nature.
Biofilms on decomposing leaves are pretty much the foundation for the food webs in rivers and streams throughout the world. They are of fundamental importance to aquatic life.
Fungi tend to colonize wood and botanical materials, because they offer them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin- the major components of wood and botanical materials- are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials!
Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
In aquarium work, we see fungal colonization on wood and leaves all the time. Most hobbyists will look on in sheer horror if they saw this extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces! Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in Nature!
When we start one of these aquariums, I think that it's important that we go in with the understanding that Nature gets to do a lot of the "work"- if we let Her.
Let me finish by clarifying a few things.
I suppose my "attack on vapidity" sounds judgmental, hard, egotistical, and perhaps envious to some. Lest you think that it is, I beg to differ. Rather, I think it's just really important to have a greater understanding than our current state of culture deems necessary. You're NOT to damn "busy" to learn more about the hobby you love. You're NOT intellectually incapable. You're NOT supposed to be a pHd, or held to dogmatic thinking- even mine.
However, you, me- everyone- we ALL have a responsibility- to the hobby, the fishes we love, and to Nature Herself. A responsibility to take care of each other, the hobby, and the natural world.
And that starts with understanding what we do on a deeper level than a few dozen characters, a meme, or a cute, flashy video short can ever hope to convey.
From a "hobby culture" standpoint, we need to have a good understanding of what we talk about. And we need to ditch the pretentiousness. No one owns the damn title of "botanical method aquarium characteristics" or whatever.
Sure, some people might understand more about specific topics than others do, but their obligation at that point is to share, encourage, and mentor others- not to be a pretentious loudmouth bully. And not to keep dumbing stuff down in the belief that doing so will "reach a wider audience."
Reach people by teaching people everything...not just by sugar coating a few select topics that make a good video short.
So, if I'm a bit wound up at times about this stuff, it's really because I care about it so much..and I do care about you and your enjoyment of this amazing hobby.
Stay curious. Stay educated. Stay inspired. Stay gracious. Stay creative. Stay smart...
And Stay Wet.
Hey, it's me! Scott...remember? The dorky Tannin guy?
Yeah, I know, I've been sort of M.I.A. for the last few weeks...And that generated a lot of concerned dm/s and emails, which has been very touching, thanks! Everything is cool. Tannin is doing fine. I haven't sold to the highest bidder (although there have been a couple of offers, lol), and I'm healthy and happy...No worries. As you know, I have a lot of aquarium industry contacts, and am occasionally called upon to help other companies with special projects as a sort of geeky aquarium industry consultant.
I recently received an offer for one such gig for a major aquarium brand that was simply too cool, too good, and too lucrative to say "no" to. So, I've been sort of deeply involved in this project, that's literally going to make a huge splash when it launches next year. Of course, these sexy huge projects are accompanied by lots of NDA's and confidentiality agreements, so I'm kind of bound to keep my mouth shut, other than to tell you that it's a cool project and that it's aquarium-related, lol. My involvement is winding down over the next 1-1/2 weeks, so I'll be back in more active circulation real soon!
So, what's up with Tannin?
Well, we're finally- FINALLY about to launch the new web site and 2023 marketing! It'll happen in stages, with a few tweaks along the way. We will be doing lot more content and informational stuff; this is something I've really loved doing via "The Tint" blog and podcast, and we'll be doing more and more in 2023. And I promise more videos and more YouTube stuff coming soon!
So, how will the web site differ from its current iteration?
The experience will be much more engaging, easier for you to navigate, and graphically more attractive. Again, it will sort of roll out in stages. The first iteration that you'll see in the next few weeks will be an aesthetic refresh and functionality change. We put a lot of work on the back end of the site to sort of prepare it fro the future changes we'll be rolling out throughout 2023 and beyond.
Fro ma consumer stand point, you'll notice almost immediately that our selection of materials will be changing. Prices will fall on a number of items, too! In some respects, we'll have less items available on a regular basis, and more unique "seasonal/limited quantity" stuff appearing on the site. And we'll be more responsive to your requests for specialized stuff, since we won't be chasing down suppliers for the 70 some-odd different materials we've been offering as stock items. If one of these "limited" materials becomes a big hit, and you want it more often, we'll try to do just that!
Supply chain issues were absolutely killing us this summer, with formerly rock-solid reliable international partners unable to meet their commitments due to regulations and shipping issues from their respective countries. We had long delays in shipping some orders to you, and it was driving me crazy, too! This played a big part of my rethinking our future approach with Tannin, too. So, we've been testing and tweaking materials from a few different suppliers, and we should have our major supply chain issues resolved in the coming month or so.
We are moving towards a more balanced "a la carte" selection of materials and a curated selection (the "Enigma Pack"), along with our speciality items like the substrates (which will begin to come down in price significantly over the next few months, thanks to your strong demand for them and our ability to source raw materials for them at a better "bulk" pricing. They're never gonna be super cheap, because they are literally hand mixed from carefully sourced materials, but they will always be...cool! LOL
So, with regards to the "Enigma Packs"- we'll be able to include a lot of cool materials that are not available "a la carte" on our site in them! The goal is to make them even more unique and special than they are now! And, a better value and real "surprise". By not filling them almost exclusively with our regular "stock botanicals", you're almost guaranteed to get something even more unique and tightly curated than they are now!
With my good friends, James Sheen of Blackwater UK, and Benjamin Peterson of Betta Botanicals hitting their strides and making their respective businesses do their things well, it almost "frees me up" to branch out in other, complimentary creative directions to continue to forge Tannin's unique approach that you've come to know over the past 7 years. I won't have to be the "clearing house" for every single botanical item that the world has to offer! Just the stuff which I (and by extension, most of you) love!
The end result is that you, the botanical method aquarium hobbyist, will have three terrific sources for pretty much all of the botanical stuff you want!
Look for more fun collaborations with these guys in 2023!
So yeah, we're gonna be leaner, more specialized, and way more in line with my original vision for Tannin that we had back in 2015!
And then, there is wood...Ahh, yeah. So, here's the deal:
Wood is definitely part of the Tannin "DNA".
However, we never intended to be your "go to" for stuff like Manzanita or "Spider Wood" or whatever, in every conceivable size. Rather, we intend to only offer the unusual varieties of wood and roots that you've come to expect from us. Stuff that you can't typically find at 39,000 other aquatic vendors. Stuff which suits our geeky, special, experimental systems. I've been sourcing and testing some really cool, unusual varieties that you're sure to love!
Oh, and there's the whole "Estuary" thing...You know the brackish water stuff we've been playing with since around 2016. Mangroves and mud and all that? We'll be doing a lot more of that in 2023. More specialized products for brackish tanks, and more inspiration for you to check out. And yeah, at some point, "Polyp by Tannin Aquatics", a reef/coral-focused aquarium products product line, will debut (likely in very late 2023 or early 2024.)
So, I could go on and on telling you every single thing we plan on doing with Tannin in 2023, but where would the fun be in that? Suffice it to say, we think that you'll enjoy all of the changes and enhancements that we begin rolling out.
The botanical method aquarium world is literally exploding within the hobby, and we're awfully proud to have played a small role in helping to shed more light ion the darkness (literally) since 2015! As you've evolved, we're evolving. No longer a freak show, the botanical method is a legitimate approach, with technique and methodology which requires a specialized mindset and suite of materials.
That's what we're here for!
Thanks for coming this far with us, and thanks for hanging with us as we roll out the all-new Tannin experience!
And of course, why not throw down a little gauntlet in the process? Really more of a salute to those of you who do the unusual. To those who have joined our movement- and to those of you out there, plying the fringes of the hobby on your own.
If so, you're downright heroic to me. Really. People don't do this enough.
I'll come out and say what I'm thinking at the moment. It won't endear me to some people. And that's okay.
And please...it's not a knock against anyone or any organization. It's an opinion that I've developed as an observer, a fan, a student of the aquarium world. It's MY opinion, and it probably will not resonate with many:
I think that the current state of creating unique aquairums is..kind of boring. Maybe it's that some of the "trendy" aquascaping is...stagnant. Homogenous. Common.
It just is, in my opinion. Sorry.
The aquascaping world has some amazingly talented people. Yet, the works being produced and elevated in contests and media are, in my opinion- afloat in a "sea of sameness." You see this on Instagram or in aquascaping contests. Many stick to the "tried and true formula" of the moment, or some derivation thereof. Seemingly afraid to deviate at all. Think I'm full of it? Look at the typical aquascaping contest website.
Entries from all over the world feature amazingly beautiful aquascapes; magnificent work from passionate aquarists. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that they are "no good", "stupid", or whatever. I'm merely saying that they hardly seem differentiated from each other these days. And, if you're being really honest with yourselves, I'll bet that a few of you might agree with me!
Oh, there are some different tanks out there being entered into these contests. Don't get me wrong. There is a huge pool of very talented aquascapers producing magnificent work.
Yet, in my opinion, the thing is-much of the work seems to fall into a few categories:
1) "Fantasy" scapes, which are essentially "dioramas" with aquatic plants, created to look like underwater mountain ranges, waterfalls, beaches, etc. These DO require enormous talent and discipline...not to mention, really good photography. And of course, a wierd "title." I mean, that's the least annoying part of it to me, but still...It's an aquairum, not a collectible art piece. Most of the damn things are broken down in months, anyways. Maybe people could purchase them as NFT's or something, lol
2) Over-the-top moss-and-plant-covered wood, looking for all the world like a terrestrial old-growth forest. These are compelling, achingly beautiful, often meticulously crafted aquariums, taking many, many weeks to create, manage, and photograph. I love these. We see fewer of them than the "fantasy" types, and I wish we'd see more. Oh, and they need a "title" as well...Could we just say that the "title" thing should be ditched?
3) Everything else. You know, "biotope" aquariums, palludariums, vivariums, river tanks, etc. Some are executed brilliantly; others are a "work in progress", still growing in, etc. All are unique. Created by "unknown", passionate hobbyists who simply want to share their work. Most have no "titles." These are amazing tanks that undeservingly serve to create a rather vivid "supporting cast" for the beloved categories above.
4) The "fringes." Pure hardscapes and concept aquariums that don't follow a "garden-type" formula. Semi-palludariums, minimalist sand and rubble scapes. Monospecific planted tanks. Blackwater, botanical method tanks. Biotope-inspired displays. Brackish tanks. Species tanks. Cave aquariums. Conceptual tanks. These are the true "outliers." This is the realm of the "discomfort zone." The hobbyists who work this magical place don't generally give a damn about "winning" the contests.
They know that they won't, because they're doing stuff that not everyone gets or thinks is "cool." Stuff that goes decidedly against the grain of what's "acceptable." Just showing up and creating a "disruption"- although it's typically unintentional. And maybe, just maybe inspiring someone else is their goal.
I'm fascinated by outliers. And what's weird is that there are a fair amount of them out there. Quietly doing what they do; occasionally popping up on the radar, sharing something on social media..perhaps garnering a curious peek by the "establishment", before retiring back into the shadows.
I had this idea in my head not long ago of "sponsoring" a hobbyist like this. You know, kind of like companies do with Football teams, race teams, etc., etc.
Hardly a novel concept, even in the aquarium world, I suppose. But to work with someone who's really doing wierd stuff, and just not giving a rat's ass about winning some contest. Just sharing their work.
I sort of tabled the idea for a while. I admit it.
I figured it to be a bit self-serving...or somehow being perceived as being a bit arrogant. I still sort of fantasize about the idea often. Why? I don't know. Perhaps it's the "rebel" in me? Maybe I'm just throwing a tantrum?
Maybe it's because no one else is writing about this shit these days. Perhaps it's the desire to give someone with talent the exposure they deserve...or that the world deserves..
Yet, I wasn't contemplating just any talented 'scaper. There are a lot of supremely talented people in the aquascaping world.
Rather, I was thinking about someone really different. Although, I wondered, would bringing such a person's work to light "corrupt" the real "soul" of what we're talking about? Create a giant, obnoxious hypocrisy of sorts?
I don't know. I don't claim to have the answers. But I think that the aquascaping world needs an injection of the unusual right now, in my opinion. And it needs special type of person to do it.
An outlier. Someone who gets it. Someone who's not only not afraid of going against the prevailing trends...a person who simply does their own thing because it gets them excited. Fearless. Not afraid to face criticism from those who don't get it, like it, or appreciate it. The kid who wore only black all through high school; maybe seemed a bit "weird" to others who didn't understand him/her.
I had this vision of supporting an aquascaper who felt something deeper...Finding a person who has a unique dynamic. An artist? Sure. A poet. Sure. A surfer? Possibly. A writer? Maybe. A "sage?" I don't know. An "old soul." A musician. Perhaps even a philosopher, of sorts.
Someone who brings something different to the homogenized, prepackaged, formulaic aquascaping world. Someone who can talk emotionally to you for a very long time about the 10-gallon, brackish water "rootscape" that they just created...and leaves you wanting to hear more.
Someone with a deep passion. A spark. A very different orientation. Someone who asks "Why?" Someone who wants to create a "ruckus", because they care about pushing the boundaries of "conventional" thinking and expression in the aquatic world. Someone who looks at things from a totally different angle. Not to "be cool", mind you. Simply because that's how they look at stuff. A person who feels that his/her work is not just a creative expression, but an instrument of change.
Just because it's time for one.
The hobby, in my opinion, needs such a person. Someone who can carry the flag for our movement.
Who is that person? Where is that person? Is he/she/they already here? Are there more? Who are these children of which I speak....?
I'll keep asking. I'll keep looking.
However, to all of you- our "tribe"- our loyal fans...those of you who do it for the sheer "love of the game", my simple message to you:
I'm back from being never really gone. And it feels pretty exciting!
Stay involved. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay unique...
And Stay Wet.
through line (N): "A common or consistent element or theme shared by items in a series or by parts of a whole."
I recently returned from another speaking gig.
This time, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, in the midwest of the U.S. I visited a club with some very advanced, super-talented hobbyists, some who are icons in various hobby specialities. It was a lot of fun, as they almost always are. However, this one- THIS trip- left me with some really profound revelations about the hobby which I'm still processing.
An added bonus is that I was able to visit the amazing botanical method aquariums of our friend, Melanie Holmes. It was beyond satisfying to see a truly talented hobbyist find Her way in the hobby, evolving from "traditional" planted aquascaped tanks into the botanical method.
Observing her work, it was easy to see how Her skill from one "genre" translated into our little speciality. The "through line" was a great understanding of the ecology of aquariums. Here tanks were a celebration of life, aesthetic, and ecology. Any one of them was among the best botanical-method aquariums ever created, IMHO.
I was also able to visit a fish room of a very advanced killifish breeder, and it was not only educational for me, it was enlightening...I took particular note of the techniques and approaches that he was utilizing to manage a large number of aquariums, and to keep a "work flow" of fishes going at all times.
Perhaps what was most memorable to me was how he made adjustments to his techniques, like inducing spawning, egg collection, incubation, and production of live foods.
His function-first approaches to light and temperature manipulation, egg collection, incubation approaches, and even how fry were reared- all demonstrated a keen understanding of the needs of his fishes, and an understanding of the environments- and environmental cues- which the fishes needed to trigger spawning events.
Although the process was more "methodical" than "natural", in that it involved sort of "deconstructing" how Nature works in the wild- all of the techniques he employed were simply practical and simple recreations of natural processes to accomplish what Nature does-just in a more "controlled" manner.
Killifish, IMHO, are the ultimate example of how fishes are intimately tied to their habitats. The techniques which modern killie keepers utilize to spawn their fish, incubate the eggs, and rear the resulting fry are a direct distillation of an understanding of this relationship.
Indeed, there was a "through line" of sorts, running from the wild savannah pools and forest streams of East Africa, to the tightly-controlled environment of this suburban St. Louis basement.
It was profound. It was inspiring. It was amazing.
Now, sure, I wasn't seeing fishes being kept in tanks with accumulations of leaf litter over a shallow sedimented substrate, with overhanging terrestrial vegetation. Literal recreations of their natural habitats. Rather, I was seeing the pragmatic application of "biotope replication!" Yeah, it doesn't always have to look like it to function like it!
A huge "unlock" for me, really.
What we've longed called "natural" in the aquairum hobby can take on more than one meaning. I mean, I have consistently railed on the use of the term "natural" when those "high concept", artistically-styled "Nature Aquariums" are proferred to us as "natural" for some very specific reasons; in particular, the fact that they are often touted as "looking just like Nature", an assertion which makes me want to vomit. They generally don't look like wild aquatic habitats.
They're simply beautiful aquariums, skillfully executed.
However, I really can't deny that, on a purely ecological level, they DO function like natural aquatic systems to a certain extent, relying on energy/nutritoinal inputs, and yielding growth of aquatic plants. It's just again, a sort of "deconstructed" approach.
I think that it's the "cultural arrogance" and embrace of the most superficial aspects of aquarium keeping, coupled with the constant assertion that these tanks "look like natural aquatic habitats" by the proponents who surround the "Nature Aquarium" movement, which has always turned me off about them.
Not the work itself.
The reality is that these systems do require the aquarist to reproduce natural processes to some extent in order to be successful. An understanding of the ecology of aquatic plants and their environment is necessary.
Another "through line" from Nature to aquarium...
And of course, there is what we call the "botanical method"- an approach that seeks to more literally recreate the ecology of wild aquatic ecosystems in the aquarium.
To a certain extent, it's the "oldest game in town" in the aquarium world- the approach which lovers of aquatic life centuries before us took to keeping fishes: Toss in some soil, leaves, twigs, and plants and attempt to recreate the wild aquatic habitat as accurately as possible. We incorporate these materials in our tanks because they're what's found in the environments from which our fishes come, right?
Yeah. An homage to Nature by attempting to replicate the function of Nature. And making the effort to understand the relationship between fishes and their habitats.
It's not some arcane idea, is it?
A "through line", for sure!
All we are doing with any aquarium, wether we are conscious of it or not- is attempting to reproduce the functions of natural aquatic ecosystems in our tanks.
The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation- is something that has been discussed, but rarely executed in the modern aquarium hobby until quite recently...
Not because it's difficult to execute.
Not because it's hard to grasp the underlying concepts.
It's because it's difficult to try something which seems so "contrary" to what we are constantly exposed to in social media and elsewhere. It means doing something which we may find uncomfortable, because we're told it's "dangerous" or "reckless" or "dirty" or whatever, by pundits who neither understand nor appreciate what it means to embrace a truly natural, ecological approach to aquarium keeping.
It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the dude on Instagram with the flashy, artistically-presented, gadget-driven tank. It's not always comfortable at first for some to try, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.
Yet, executing this type of tank is about as basic as aquarium-keeping gets.
The difficult part is understanding that this is an extremely natural, ecologically beneficial process, and accepting that it does facilitate the appearance of some things that you might not be comfortable with initially (like, cloudy water, fungal threads, biofilms, decomposition...all that stuff!). Making those mental shifts to accept something different than what the aquarium hobby establishment has proffered as the way to go for generations...
Yet it's not that different than what our distant ancestors did when they set up what we now refer to as an "aquarium."
A through line...one which requires mental shifts and adoption of a long-term mindset.
You have to give things time to establish and settle.
It's about patience.
It's about faith.
Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons. Faith that you're doing something which embraces Nature's processes so fully.
The truest, straightest "through line" there is in the aquarium hobby.
Stay diligent. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.
The other day, in our Instagram feed, we received what I felt was one of the most honest, amazing comments I'd ever seen. The commenter was acknowledging that, while he loved the tinted water which botanical-method aquariums yield, he was having a bit of a mental struggle at the dark water hiding some of the subtle colors in his fishes. He loved the look, but was bummed out that his colorful fishes weren't as discernible in the deeply tinted water. He was sort of torn...He wanted to know if I ever had a similar feeling.
Besides just loving the incredible honesty, the comment did make me think a bit.
Now, I can honestly say that it never actually bothered me. In fact, I DID have to think a lot about it- but it was mainly for the reason that I couldn't think of a time when it did! I guess I always was drawn so much to the habitat, that any perceived loss of color was a non issue. I think that I'm also naturally attracted to fishes which, although can be colorful, generally have more muted patterns intended to help them blend into their environment.
However, I do agree that the tinted waters which result when we add leaves, seed pods, soils, etc, into our aquariums definitely impact the "visuals" of our fishes, don't they? Anyone who's ever tried to take a pic or video of his or her botanical method aquarium can attest to this. It's hard to get a good pic showing all of the accurate colors of some of your fishes.
On the other hand, some fishes seem to take on an entirely new appearance in tinted water, and the function of the coloration makes more sense in this context.
There is a reason as to why this is...
From a paper by researcher Shiro Kohima about the coloration of none other than the blackwater-dwelling Neon Tetra, the conclusion was pretty darned clear:
"To clarify the ecological function of this coloration, we examined the appearance of living neon tetra. They changed color in response to lighting and background conditions, and became less conspicuous under each condition to the human eye. Although they appeared bright in colorless clear water, their stripes appeared darker in blackwater. In addition, the visible area of their stripes was small and their brightness decreased, unless they were observed within a limited viewing angle (approximately 30° above the horizon).
The results show that from the viewpoint of approaching submerged predators, a bright mirror image of the stripes is projected onto the underside of the water’s surface, providing a dramatic visual target while the real fish remains less conspicuous. Based on these results, we hypothesize that the neon tetra’s bright coloration is an effective predator evasion strategy that confuses predators using bright mirror images."
Scientists are aware that dissolved organic materials, such as tannins and lignins, which visually tint the water, also absorb all wavelengths of light, yielding that brownish color that we know so well.
So, yeah, some of the more subtly-colored patterns on fishes will be more difficult to discern in tinted water. What can we do about that? Can we do anything about it?
Well, for one thing, we can adjust the lighting within our aquariums, and simply ramp up color and intensity. This is where modern LED lighting fixtures work so very well. You'll have to do some experimentation, but the versatility of LED's makes it easy!
Remember, all of this revolves around the properties of the water itself. Indeed, in our tanks, the water itself becomes a part of the attraction, doesn't it? And it becomes a consideration if you're trying to keep aquatic plants. You simply need to ramp up intensity to assist with light penetration, as we recently discussed right here on "The Tint."
One of the big discussion points we have in our world is about the color and "clarity" of the water in our botanical method aquariums. We receive a significant amount of correspondence from customers who are curious how much "stuff" it takes to color up their water.
This is so far from "mainstream" aquarium hobby thinking that I just have to laugh sometimes. I mean, those of us in the community of blackwater, botanical-method aquarists seek out tint and "body" in our water...while the rest of the aquatic world- well, they just sort of... freak the fuck out about that, huh?
And beyond just the color, there are other factors to the water which impact the "visuals", right?
Our aesthetic "upbringing" in the hobby seems to push us towards "crystal clear water", regardless of whether or not it's "tinted" or not. And think about it: You can have absolutely horrifically toxic levels of ammonia, dissolved heavy metals, etc. in water that is "invisible", and have perfectly beautiful parameters in water that is heavily tinted and even a bit turbid.
(FYI, WIkipedia defines "turbidity" in part as, "...the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air.")
That's why the long-standing aquarium "mythology" which suggested that blackwater aquariums, or aquariums with tinted water were somehow "dirtier" than "blue water" tanks used to drive me crazy. The term "blackwater" describes a number of things; however, it's not a measure of the "cleanliness" of the water in an aquarium, is it?
Chemical analysis of compounds like ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and phosphate- and measurements of the conductivity/redox potential of the water are the indicators of its "cleanliness."
Color alone is not indicative of water quality for aquarium purposes, nor is "turbidity." Sure, by municipal drinking water standards, color and clarity are important, and can indicate a number of potential issues...But we're not talking about drinking water here, are we?
No, we aren't!
(And yes, aquariums with high quantities of organic materials breaking down in the water column add to the biological load of the tank, requiring diligent management. This is not shocking news. Frankly, I find it rather amusing when someone occasionally tells me that what we do as a community is "reckless", and that our tanks look "dirty."
As if we don't see that or understand why our tanks look the way they do? And we do know the color and visual characteristics of are water are the way they are for certain reasons- just NOT because the water is of "low quality."
There is a difference between "color" and "clarity."
The color is, as you know, a product of tannins and humic acids leaching into the water from wood, soils, and botanicals, and typically is not "cloudy." It's actually one of the most "natural-looking" water conditions around, as water influenced by soils, woods, leaves, etc. is ubiquitous around the world. Other than having that undeniable color, there is little that differentiates this water from so-called "crystal clear" water to the naked eye.
Of course, the water may have a lower pH and general hardness, but these factors have no bearing on the color or visual clarity of the water. And conversely, dark brown water isn't always soft and acidic. You can have very hard, alkaline water that, based on our hobby biases, looks like it should be soft and acid. Color is NO indicator of pH or hardness! Again, it's one of those things where we seem to ascribe some sort of characteristics to the water based solely on its appearance.
As I've mentioned before, a funny by-product of our more recent obsession with blackwater aquariums in the hobby is a concern about the "tint" of the water, and yeah, perhaps even the "flavor" of said water! A by-product of our acceptance of natural influences on the water, and a desire to see a more realistic representation of certain aquatic environments.
And that means that dark water we love so much.
Natural black waters typically arise from highly leached tropical environments where most of the soluble elements are rapidly removed by heavy rainfall. Materials such as soils are the primary influence on the composition of blackwater. Leaves and other materials contribute to the process in Nature, but are NOT the primary “drivers” of its creation and composition.
Okay, so there we had another discussion of the visual characteristics of water. It's a bit funny that we don't have to think much about water, in terms of "aesthetics" in most typical aquariums.
It's definitely a "botanical method thing."
Yet, it all boils down to the fact that, when we utilize botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of influencing the ecology, we also get the "collateral benefit" of tinted water. And in some instances, the tinted water can impact the appearance of the inhabitants.
We as aquarists need to get our heads around the idea, once again, that this type of more natural aquarium brings its own unique aesthetics. And we, as hobbyists can and should learn to embrace them. It's totally okay if we don't, but it's important to understand that what we see in our aquariums is perhaps the truest reflection of Nature.
Something to think about.
And Stay Wet.
If you've followed us for any length of time, you're well aware that we are not just pushing you to play with natural, botanical-method aquariums only for the pretty aesthetics.
I mean, yeah, they look awesome, but there is so much more to it than that. We are unapologetically obsessed with the function of these aquariums and the wild habitats which they attempt to represent!
And one of the most important functions of many botanically-influenced wild habitats is the support of what ecologists call food webs-a system of interlocking and interdependent food chains...in other words, "what eats what" in the aquatic ecosystem!
It's a fascinating field of study that plays beautifully into what we do in our botanical method aquariums.
As we've discussed before, the leaf litter zones in tropical waters are home to a remarkable diversity of life, ranging from microbial to fungal, as well as crustaceans and insects...oh, and fishes, too! These life forms are the basis of complex and dynamic food webs, which are one key to the ecological "productivity" of these habitats.
By researching, developing, and managing our own botanically-influenced aquaria, particularly those with leaf litter beds, we may be on the cusp of finding new ways to create "nurseries" for the rearing of many fishes!
At least upon superficial examination, our aquarium leaf litter/botanical beds seem to function much like their wild counterparts, creating an extremely rich "microhabitat" within our aquariums. And initial reports form those of you who breed and rear fishes in your intentionally "botanically-stocked" aquariums are that you're seeing great color, more regularity in spawns, and higher survival rates from some species.
I don't believe that this is mere coincidence.
We're just beginning here, and the future is wild open for huge hobbyist-level contributions that can lead to some serious breakthroughs in understanding how food webs develop in aquariums!
Maybe we will finally overcome generations of fear over detritus and fungi and biofilms- the life-forms and "by-products" which literally "power" the aquatic ecosystems we strive to duplicate in our aquariums.
There is something tantalizing to me about the idea of our fishes being able to supplement what we feed them by foraging in the aquarium. To some extent, virtually every aquairum has some microorganisms, algae, etc. which fishes can "snack on" in between our feedings. Yet, botanical-method aquariums, with their abundance of decomposing leaves and the ecology which they foster, take this to a whole different level.
I'm particularly fascinated with the idea of the fry of our fishes being able to sustain themselves or supplement their diets substantially, with what is produced inside the little habitat we've created in our tanks! A botanical method aquarium is, I believe, an ideal "nursery" for many species of fishes to begin their lives, and the experience of many of my fish-breeding friends who have played with this idea successfully helps to prove my thesis.
Let's consider some of the types of food sources that our fishes might utilize in the wild habitats that we try so hard to replicate in our aquariums, and perhaps develop a greater appreciation for them when they appear in our tanks. Perhaps we will even attempt to foster and utilize them to our fishes' benefits in unique ways?
One of the important food resources in natural aquatic systems are what are known as macrophytes- aquatic plants- which grow in and around the water, emerged, submerged, floating, etc. Not only do macrophytes contribute to the physical structure and spatial organization of the water bodies they inhabit, they are primary contributors to the overall biological stability of the habitat, conditioning the physical parameters of the water. Of course, anyone who keeps a planted aquarium could attest to that, right?
One of the interesting things about macrophytes is that, although there are a lot of fishes which feed directly upon them, in this context, the plants themselves are perhaps most valuable as a microhabitat for algae, zooplankton, and other organisms which fishes feed on. Small aquatic crustaceans seek out the shelter of plants for both the food resources they provide (i.e.; zooplankton, diatoms) and for protection from predators (yeah, the fishes!).
I have personally set up a couple of systems recently to play with this idea- botanical-influenced planted aquariums, and have experimented with going extended periods of time without feeding my fishes who lived in these tanks- and they have remained as fat and happy as when they were added to the tanks…
Something is there- literally!
Perhaps most interesting to us botanical-method aquarium people are epiphytes. These are organisms which grow on the surface of plants or other substrates and derive their nutrients from the surrounding environment. They are important in the nutrient cycling and uptake in both nature and the aquarium, adding to the biodiversity, and serving as an important food source for many species of fishes.
In the case of our aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the biocover on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials. Although most animals use leaves and tree branches for shelter and not directly as a food item, grazing on this epiphytic growth is very important.
Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.
And the resulting detritus produced by the "processed" and decomposing pant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential component of the food webs in these habitats.
And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricarids, and others, you'll see that in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at "stuff" on the bottom of the tank. In a botanical style aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe an important benefit of this type of system.
I am of the opinion that a botanical-method aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the organisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!
Just like in Nature.
It's well known by scientists that in many habitats, like inundated forest floors, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc. And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...so I suggest once again that a botanical method aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish species!
You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in a similar context, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." Periphyton is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces. Again, fishes will graze on this stuff constantly.
And then, of course, there's the “allochthonous input” that we’ve talked about so much: Foods from the surrounding environment, such as flowers, fruits, terrestrial insects, etc. These are extremely important foods for many fish species that live in these habitats. We mimic this process when we feed our fishes prepared foods, as stuff literally "rains from the sky!" Now, I think that what we feed to our fishes directly in this fashion is equally as important as how it's fed.
I'd like to see much more experimentation with foods like live ants, fruit flies, and other winged insects. Of course, I can hear the protests already: "Not in MY house, Fellman!" I get it. I mean, who wants a plague of winged insects getting loose in their suburban home because of some aquarium feeding experiment gone awry, right?
That likely wouldn't go over well with just about any significant other in the "non-aquarium" world, right?
That being said, I would encourage some experimentation with ants and the already fairly common wingless fruit flies. Sure, you can just catch some ants outside and drop them into your tank...or you could culture them...Remember those "Ant Farms" that some of us had when we were kids?
Can you imagine one day recommending an "Ant Farm" as a piece of essential aquarium food culturing equipment? It's at least as wacky as culturing peanut beetle larvae or microworms, and not nearly as messy!
Why not, right? 😆
And of course, easier yet- we can simply foster the growth of potential food sources that don't fly or crawl around- they just arise when botanicals and wood and stuff meet water...We just need to not wipe them out as soon as they appear! Damn, using the collection and feeding of winged insects as an opposite example sure makes fungal growths and biofilms more palatable, right?
As many of you may know, I've often been sort of amused by the panic that many non-botanical-style-aquarium-loving hobbyists express when a new piece of driftwood is submerged in the aquarium, often resulting in an accumulation of fungi and biofilm.
I realize this stuff can look pretty shitty to many of you, particularly when you're trying to set up a super-cool, "sterile high-concept" aquascaped tank.
That being said, I think we need to let ourselves embrace this stuff and celebrate it for what it is: Life. Sustenance. Diversity. Foraging.
I think that those of us who maintain botanical method aquariums have made the "mental shift" to understand, accept, and even celebrate the appearance of this stuff.
We learn to appreciate it by looking to Nature.
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...in every nook and cranny. On every rock, branch, seed pod, and leaf. It's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
A priceless natural resource.
It's why, a long time ago, I learned to not be put off by the mere appearance of these life forms when they showed up in my early botanical method aquariums. They are literally the drivers of underwater ecology- a priceless resource which Nature happily deposits into our aquariums.
A true gift from Nature.
Yet, for a century or so in the hobby, our first instinct is to reach for the algae scraper or siphon hose, and lament our misfortune with our friends.
It need not be this way. Its appearance in our tanks is a blessing.
You call it "mess." I call it a blessing. Your fishes call it “food."
Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. Or, I hope you have..or can.
The ability to appreciate this stuff- to move beyond the fear, loathing, and disdain which many hobbyists have for it-is to truly grow as a hobbyist. In fact, the oft-quoted, absurdly mis-interpreted and applied (to the point where it's almost a mockery) statement by none other than the late Akashi Amano that, "To know Mother Nature is to love her smallest creations..." sums this up perfectly.
Yeah, he got it.
You can, too.
Now look, I'm not saying that your tank has to be packed with biofilms, fungal growth, decomposing leaves, and detritus in order to provide all of these benefits to your fishes. However, I am suggesting that, as hobbyists, we should to allow some amount of this material to accumulate in our tanks.
Remember, the presence of these materials does not signify some "problem" with your aquarium, as is so easy to conclude.
Rather, their presence indicates that your aquarium is functioning very much like a natural aquatic ecosystem. That it's doing what Nature has done for eons. To disrupt the process by aggressively siphoning out every gram of detritus, scraping off every bit of fungal growth or biofilm actually inhibits or even completely disrupts processes which can benefit your tank in manifold ways.
Not only do fungal growths and biofilms serve as a supplemental food resource for our fishes, they help "filter" the water by processing nutrients. And a large part of their "fuel" is the leaf litter, seed pods, wood, and the detritus which occurs as a result of their decomposition.
Yeah, we talk about this a lot around here, I know.
However, it's such an important part of our philosophy and methodology that it cannot be stated often enough.
And the sooner we embrace this stuff, the sooner we begin to realize the lasting benefits that it can bring to our aquariums!
Stay confident. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay studious...
And Stay Wet.