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.
Time to hit on another of my fave topics regarding botanical method aquariums; one that we've talked about before- yet one that is still new and exciting to many of us, and perhaps clouded at times with a lot of misinformation, too.
We're talking about botanically-supplemented substrates!
For far too long in the aquarium hobby, I think that we've treated aquairum substrates as simply an afterthought. I mean, there are all sorts of sands and gravels on the market today, but I think that we sort of take them for granted- or at the very least, we treat them as a "requirement" when setting up a tank, and move on to other, more "exciting stuff": "Sand added, check. Time to select the wood!"
That sort of thing.
One of the most "liberating" things we've seen in the botanical-method aquarium niche is our practice of utilizing the bottom itself to become a feature aesthetic point in our aquariums, as well as a functional mechanism for the inhabitants.
"Oh, shit, he's talking about that 'functional aesthetic' thing again!"
Yeah. Yes I am. 😎
Because I think that there are a lot of "missed opportunities" to do something cool with substrates in our tanks. Opportunities to make it a much more important part of the aquarium.
When you look at it from our rather biased perspective, and from a strictly aesthetic sense, the bottom itself becomes a big part of the aesthetic appeal of the aquarium. You may not focus on it, observationally, but it's hugely important. And of course, I see the bottom of the aquarium as more than just sand or whatever. Rather, it's a important component of the aquarium habitat, with the botanical materials placed upon or mixed into the substrate- or, in some cases, becoming the substrate!
These materials form an attractive, texturally varied "microscape" of their own, creating color and interest. In addition to be being comprised of the usual sands and gravels, we can be adding bits of botanicals, root pieces, twigs, leaves, etc. into the mix.
Again, the focus isn't just on aesthetics.
It's about creating a habitat for the fauna which help "run" our tanks!
Much like in Nature, the materials that we place on the bottom of the aquarium will become an active, integral part of the ecosystem. From a "functional" standpoint, bottoms comprised of supplemented with a variety of botanical materials form a sort of "in-tank refugium", which allows small aquatic crustaceans, fungi, and other microorganisms to multiply and provide supplemental food for the aquarium, as we've touched on before.
So, the idea of creating rich, diverse botanical-influenced substrates for the purpose of infusing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds- as well as creating a "matrix" for the growth and propagation of beneficial micro and microfauna is pretty appealing to me.
Using a botanically-infused substrate to create a unique, ecologically diverse, functional, and aesthetically interesting affect on the aquarium- even one that doesn't have aquatic plants in it- is a sort of different approach.
Functionality. Interest. Aesthetics. Stability. They're all there!
Nature provides no shortage of features which can provide inspiration for unique aquariums.
Think about the materials which accumulate on and in the substrates of natural aquatic habitats, and why they accumulate in the first place. Well, typically, in addition to soils and leaves, you'll see sediments, pieces of plant roots, bits of twigs and bark, and the occasional seed pod. Almost all of this material arrives in these bodies of water from the surrounding terrestrial environment.
Some of it is present on forest floors, and when nearby streams overflow, inundating the once dry floor, these materials become part of the aquatic environment, influencing both the structure and the ecology of the habitat. Other materials, like sediments, are the product of hydrology and erosion- rocks ground down over eons by water; or soils- which find their way into streams during periods of intense rain, with the resulting material distributed over vast distances by current.
The beauty of Nature is that She uses pretty much everything that is thrown at Her. Fishes and other organisms feed directly upon some of this material, or on the other life forms (small crustaceans, insects, fungal growths) which live among it. The bottom of streams and other becomes a vibrant, ecologically diverse habitat, which supports a tremendous amount of life at many levels.
And we just throw bag of aquarium sand or gravel on the bottom of our tanks...and move on!
Like, WTF is a matter with us fish geeks? There is HUGE opportunity here! We need to give a lot more thought to what goes on the bottom of our aquariums! Instead of becoming a literal "placeholder" in our tanks, substrate should become the ecological "backbone"- and a (functionally aesthetic) foundation of our miniature aquatic ecosystems- just like it is in Nature!
Now, the first "pushback" we hear from critics of this type of approach in aquariums is that it will result in all sorts of problems- ranging from suppressed pH to high levels of nitrates, or even pockets of hydrogen sulfide and other nasty stuff accumulating.
I think that this is an incredible over-reaction and grounded in not fully thinking through why we are creating substrates like this in the first place.
In Nature, the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to the overall tropical environment, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system (and, by doing this, acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream...)
The key point: These materials foster the development of life forms which process it. Stuff is being used by life forms.
It's the same in our aquariums.
And bits of botanical materials and such not only provide a physical substrate upon which these organisms can grow and multiply as they process it- they provide a sort of "on board nutrient processing center" within the aquarium.
If you approach this "substrate enrichment" idea holistically, rather than just from some warped aesthetic mindset, creating and managing such a system is not at all difficult or dangerous. In fact, you don't really need to give it all that much thought in a well-managed aquarium, once it's set up.
I realize that experimenting with these unusual substrates requires not only a sense of adventure, a direction, and some discipline- but a willingness to accept and deal with an entirely different aesthetic than what we know and love. And this also includes pushing into areas and ideas which might make us uncomfortable, not just for the way they look, but for what we are told might be possible risks.
One of the things that many hobbyists ponder when we contemplate creating deep, botanical-heavy substrates, consisting of leaves, sediment, bark, and other botanical materials is the "buildup of hydrogen sulfide", CO2, and other undesirable compounds within the substrate.
Well, sure, I can't entirely "diss" fellow hobbyists for having this fear. It does make sense that if you have a large amount of decomposing material in an aquarium, then some of these compounds are likely to accumulate in heavily-"active" substrates. The big "bogeyman" that we all seem to zero in on in our "sum of all fears" scenarios - the one which keyboard warriors on the forums will pounce on- is an accumulation of deadly hydrogen sulfide, which results from bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the total absence of oxygen.
Let's think about this for just a second.
In a botanical bed with materials placed on the substrate, or loosely mixed into the top layers, will it all really "pack down" enough to the point where there is a complete lack of oxygen and we develop a significant amount of this reviled compound in our tanks? Are we managing tanks in such a way as to encourage no circulation whatsoever?
I think that we're more likely to see some oxygen in this layer of materials, and in fact, I can't help but speculate- and it IS just speculation- that actual de-nitirifcation (nitrate reduction), which lowers nitrates while producing free nitrogen, might actually be able to occur in a "deep botanical" bed.
And it's certainly possible to have denitrification without dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels. As long as even very small amounts of oxygen and nitrates can penetrate into the substrate this will not become an issue for most systems. I have yet to see a botanical-method aquarium where the material has become so "compacted" as to appear to have no circulation whatsoever within the botanical layer.
Now, sure, I'm not a scientist, and I base this on close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, and the basic aquarium-standard chemical tests I've run on my systems under a variety of circumstances. As one who has made it a point to keep my botanical method aquariums in operations for very extended time frames, I think this is significant. The "bad" side effects we're talking about should manifest over these longer time frames...and they just haven't.
Yeah- in my experience, based on literally a lifetime of playing with all sorts of combinations of materials in dozens and dozens of my aquariums' substrates ('cause I've always been into that stuff!), I cannot attribute a single environmental lapse, let alone, a "tank crash", as a result of such additions.
A well-managed substrate, in which uneaten food and fish feces are not allowed to accumulate to excess, and in which regular nutrient export processes are embraced, rather than decimated by constant interference (ie; siphoning) it's not an issue, IMHO. When other good practices of aquarium husbandry (ie; not overcrowding, overfeeding, etc.) are empIoyed, a botanically-"enriched" substrate can enhance- not inhibit- the nutrient processing within your aquarium and help maintain high water quality for extended periods of time.
Like many of you, I have always been a firm believer in some forms of nutrient export being employed in every single tank I maintain. Typically, it's regular water exchanges. Not "when I think about it', or "periodically", mind you.
Nope, it's weekly.
Now look, I'm not saying that you can essentially disobey all the common sense husbandry practices we've come to know and love in the hobby (like not overcrowding/overfeeding, etc.) and just change the water weekly and everything's good. And I'm not suggesting that the only way to succeed with adding botanical materials to the substrate is to employ massive effort at nutrient export; the system otherwise teetering on a knife's edge, with disaster on one side and success on the other.
It's not that binary.
Our aquariums are more resilient than that. If we set them up to be. Common sense aquarium management, with an eye towards how natural aquatic systems work, is key, IMHO.
Of course, an aquarium is NOT a stream, river, etc. However, the same processes and "rules" imposed by Nature that govern the function of these wild ecosystems apply to our little glass and acrylic boxes. It's simply a matter of nuance in management and understanding how these wild habitats work on a basic level.
I'd love to keep us in the mindset of thinking about our aquariums as little "microcosms", not just "aquatic dioramas."
Think about this: The idea of a substrate "enriched" with botanical materials is completely in line with the practices of a "dirted" planted aquarium. In our case, not only will there be an abundance of material for microorganisms and crustaceans to forage and multiply among, trace elements and essential plant nutrients will also be present in such a substrate. And, of course there will be the constant addition of tannins and humic substances into the water, which provide many known benefits for fishes as well.
The best of both worlds, I think.
Again, it's not about creating a cool Instagram-ready "look."
It's about trying to create an entire aquatic ecosystem.
Embracing and fostering not just the look, but the very processes and functions which take place in natural aquatic systems. Is it as simple as crushing some leaves, adding some coconut-based material, covering it up with sand and you have an "instant tropical stream?" No, of course not. There is no such "magic bullet!" You need to look at things sort of "holistically"- with an eye towards nutrient export and long-term maintenance.
For those of you who are adventurous, experimental, diligent, and otherwise engaged with managing and observing your aquariums, I think this process offers amazing possibilities. Not only will you gain some fascinating insights and the benefits of "on-board" nutrient export/environmental "enrichment"- you will also get the aesthetics of a more natural-looking substrate as well. (Let's face it, no matter how "function first" we feel that we are, everyone likes a nice-looking aquarium, right?)
So, the best way to "enrich" (for want of a better term) your substrate is to add the botanical materials and sediments before you fill the tank up with water. In the case of leaves, bits of botanicals, etc., you'd want to have boiled/steeped them previously, so that they are rid of any surface contaminants, and to assure that their tissues are saturated enough to get them to sink immediately upon submersion.
There is no set "process" for this, other than to mix these materials into the upper layers of substrate as you add them. You will just sort of know when you've achieved the look and texture that pleases you (that's the "aesthetic" part!), and take comfort in knowing that just about any amount of these materials that you're adding to your system will help accomplish the "functional" aspect.
Once your substrate is in place, Nature takes over and the materials develop that lovely "patina" of fugal growth, biofilms and microbial colonization, and start breaking down. Some may be moved about by the grazing activities of resident fishes, or otherwise slowly redistributed around the aquarium.
A literal "active substrate", indeed! Yet, something that is fascinating and beautiful for those who give the idea a shot!
At this point, I have to admit that there are many hobbyists who will never find any sort of appeal whatsoever in a botanically-enriched substrate, dark and complex, filled with all sorts of "stuff" besides just sand. The so-called "Nature Aquarium" cult crowd, or the truly "artistic" aquascaping people, for example, will likely never approve of this idea, because it looks "dirty" to them, and because some of the aesthetic and management "work" is being "ceded" to Nature. They need to be in control.
I admit, the simple practice of adding "botanical stuff" into our aquariums is not some "high concept thing." However, the impacts on the water chemistry and overall aquatic environment- not to mention, on our fishes- are profound, fascinating, and real!
Being careful and taking the time to clean, prepare, and add botanicals to your aquarium in a measured manner always yields a better outcome. Going slowly also gives you the opportunity to address any issues that you might have before they become critical, especially when you're experimenting with some of these ideas.
It just makes sense to be patient. The rewards are so great.
From a maintenance standpoint, it's pretty straightforward. You monitor your environmental parameters regularly, and conduct routine water exchanges, taking care not to siphon aggressively from the substrate. You simply don't want to disrupt the very processes within the substrate that you're trying to foster. And trust me, your fishes will spend a lot of time foraging among it.
Much like what occurs spontaneously in Nature, the materials that we deliberately place on the bottom of the aquarium will become an active, integral part of the ecosystem.
Like so many things we discuss here, I admit that simply don't have all the answers about every aspect of botanically-supplemented substrates. There is a ton to learn! That's part of the joy of this process- sort of figuring out why and how it works as you're enjoying the success!
Playing with ideas like botanically supplemented substrates truly pushes the boundaries between what we do al the time in the hobby, and those outer regions where few have tread before. There will be challenges, discoveries..and rewards for taking this road less travelled.
And that's part of the fun, isn't it?
Stay creative. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
Our approach to aquarium keeping is as much a "mindset" as it is a practice. And, although the practical techniques are relatively easy to grasp and execute, the philosophical components can be confusing and seem a bit contradictory at times.
We preach radical patience, yet completely embrace the idea of dramatically changing things within the greater "mindset."
Yeah, you should just do what feels right to you.
And sometimes, that means creating an aquarium which doesn't look anything like you'd want it to until long after it's been established. Other times, it means tearing stuff apart immediately and "re-directing" your tank based on a different vision.
Yet, I always urge you to take a slightly longer view of what''s going on in your tank. Not to rush to completely tear your aquarium apart just because it doesn't seem to be getting to where you want it to go right after you set it up.
Stuff takes time.
Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, it becomes increasingly obvious to me that these systems really didn't completely hit that "look and feel" that I want until long after they'd evolved naturally...however long that took. It seems that , in the botanical-method aquarium, stuff needs to acquire a "patina" of biofilm, a "stain" from the tannins, and decomposition of botanical materials needs to really begin before one of these systems turns "functional" as well.
That's part of why using aesthetics only as an evaluation criteria for a successful botanical-method aquairum falls a bit short, IMHO.
I mean, every new botanical-method tank likely looks cool to a broader swatch of the aquarium world from day one, if you're just using superficial aesthetics as your metric...But the long-established ones stand out for what they really are. After 4-6 months, that's when things get really special. After Nature has done a lot of the real "work" on the tank.
The decomposition of materials in water impacts our aesthetics greatly, as we all know by now. And that is what's so intriguing. The crisp leaves and dry, lifeless twigs that you submerge will evolve into a dynamic, ever-changing microcosm.
Every tank can get there.
Simply by exercisng patience, and letting your aquarium be.
I've long held that perhaps my fave botanical-method aquarium of all was the one I did about 3 years ago..an aquarium utilizing mangrove wood, extensive leaf litter, and catappa bark throughout. This is probably the only tank in recent years that I've truly regretted changing and moving on from! 😂
I knew what it was I wanted from the tank at the start, but it didn't look like much at first...It would have tested a lot of people's faith if they saw it in it's early stages!
It literally looked like shit for the first couple of months of it's existence: Slightly tinted water, a contrived-looking "campfire-like" wood stack, bare sand, and mostly intact botanical materials. I had to do a bunch of "iterations" with the hardscape to get it where I wanted it. It looked quite "contrived" at points, but I knew instinctively that if I waited it out, let Nature do Her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.
Sure enough, a few months in, biofilms started forming. The wood acquired that "patina" we talk about so much. Leaves and botanicals broke down...And the water took on perhaps the most earthy-looking, deeply mysterious color I've seen in a botanical-influenced blackwater aquarium.
By some standards, the water in the tank could be described as almost "turbid"- taking on an appearance as though there were fine materials in the water column. Yet, the tank had a real magical appearance with the lighting; the fishes were as colorful, relaxed and happy as any I've ever seen, and the water parameters were spot-on and consistent for as long as the tank was set up.
The essence of "wabi-sabi", for sure. Transience, the ephemeral aspects of our botanicals...the wonders of Nature, embraced.
It just took a little time.
I could have "intervened" at a number of junctures- trying to "circumvent" these aesthetic "deviations" while the tank was evolving. However, I knew not to. I knew that the long-term gains from letting this system evolve would far exceed any "relief" I'd gain from siphoning out the biofilms, removing decomposing leaves, and clearing the water.
And, as usual- Nature delivered...because I didn't get in Her way.
We've done this numerous times with similar results. Inauspicious starts.
Botanical-method aquariums typically require more time to evolve than more "conventional" aquariums do. They are dependent upon the development of a specialized ecology, which includes fostering organisms like fungal growths and biofilms.This process can be "expedited" or manipulated a bit, but to achieve truly meaningful and beneficial results, you just can't rush stuff!
You can't interrupt it, either.
When you do, as we've learned, results can be, well- "different" than they would be if you allow things to continue on at their own pace. Not necessarily always "bad"- just not as good as what's possible if you relax and let Nature run Her course without interruption. Following a plan is never a bad idea; it can lead to some exciting destinations.
However, the ability to "pivot" and "go with the flow" is really important, too.
It's not always a bad idea to switch things around if you're suddenly inspired to do so. What I hate to see is when hobbyists attempt to "intervene" on the processes which are occurring in the tank- like the recruitment of biofilms and fungal growths, the breakdown of leaves, etc. THAT'S a problem, imho. You can change the "overall theme" without irrevocably interrupting Nature's processes.
Yeah, there IS a certain kind of "intervention" which I occasionally embrace myself. As I've previously discussed here, on occasion, I'll start to execute on an idea I've had, and very early (or sometimes, not so early) in the process, I'll completely lose interest in it for whatever reason (it can be anything from "not feeling it!" to "I hate that I can't hide that heater!"), and the desire to abort and move on to something else on my "to do list" beckons.
In general, however, I play a really long game.
One which acknowledges that the fact that our botanical-method aquariums evolve over very long periods fo time, not reaching the state that we perhaps envisioned for many months. My actions reflect this mindset. Unless there is some major emergency, about the only thing that I might do is to add a few more botanicals, re-arrange some wood, or just wait it out.
Of course, if you really are "not feeling it" (it happens!), does it mean tearing the whole thing apart and starting over?
You can change the "look" or aesthetic direction of an aquairum- fairly significantly- without disrupting its function.
One of the things I've done a lot in recent years when making big changes to aquariums is to keep the substrate layers from my existing tanks and "build on them." It makes a ton of sense, really. Why waste this goodness, just because the "theme" of the "new" tank is different than the existing one?
Your South American-themed tank won't be that much different if you change up the "hardscape" to turn it into s Southeast Asian-themed tank, while leaving the substrate layer intact, right?
In other words, I'm taking advantage of the well-established substrate layers, complete with their sediments, decomposing leaves and bits of botanicals, and simply building upon them with some additional substrate and leaves. I've done this many times over the years- and I'm sure a lot of you have, too-it's hardly a "game-changing" practice, but it's something not everyone talks about.
I believe that preserving and building upon an existing substrate layer provides not only some biological stability (ie; the nitrogen cycle), but it has the added benefit of maintaining some of the ecological diversity and richness created by the beneficial fuana and the materials present within the substrate.
I know many 'hobby old timers" might question the safety- or the merits-of this practice, mentioning things like "disturbing the bacterial activity" or "releasing toxic gasses", etc. A lot of 'em would rather have you simply remove this stuff altogether. It's "all or nothing" for them! I'm not sure how leaving the substrate layer intact is problematic. It doesn't "die." I believe that particular belief is steeped in "aquarium mythology", conflates a lot of different ideas and topics, and has generally been misapplied and misunderstood over the years.
I simply have never experienced any issues of this nature from this practice. Well maintained systems generally are robust and capable of evolving from such disturbances. And we're not really "disturbing" the substrate when we preserve it, are we? Moving around a few pieces of wood or rock might cloud the water a bit, but it's not wholesale disturbance of the substrate.
I see way more benefits to this practice than I do any potential issues.
Since I tend to manage the water quality of my aquariums well, if I say so myself, I have never had any issues, such as ammonia or nitrite spikes, by doing this- in fresh or saltwater systems. It's a logical way of maintaining stability and continuity- even in an arguably disruptive and destabilizing time!
This idea of a "perpetual substrate"- keeping the same substrate layer "going" in successive aquarium iterations- is just one of those things I believe that we can do to replicate Nature in an additional way.
Well, think about it for just a second. In Nature, the substrate layer in rivers, streams, and yeah, flooded forests and pools tends to not completely wash away during wet/dry or seasonal cycles.
Oh sure, some of the material comprising the substrate layer may get carried away by currents or other weather dynamics, but for the most part, a good percentage of the material- and the life forms within it- remains when the water recedes. Wind and weather add additional materials to the now terrestrial environment, which become part of the aquatic habitat when the waters return.
So, by preserving the substrate from the previous iteration of your aquarium, and perhaps "refreshing" it a bit with some new materials (ie; sand, sediment, gravel, leaves, and botanicals), you're essentially mimicking some aspects of the way Nature functions in these wild habitats!
And, from an aquarium management perspective, consider the substrate layer a living organism (or "collective" of living organisms, as it were), and you're sure to look at things a bit differently next time you "re-do" a tank!
I suppose, one could view the process of "perpetuating" the substrate almost like persuing "eternal youth"- it's not entirely possible to achieve, but you can easily embrace the idea of renewal and continuity within your aquarium. It's a very natural process. Perhaps it's even beneficial in some way over the long term?
Things change in Nature, some things are utilized elsewhere, and other things are preserved in situ. Nothing goes to waste.
Rather, stuff gets "folded" into the changing ecosystem. Leaves on the forest floor become a lush ecological niche for fungal growth and bacteria, and a grazing substrate for fishes when submerged. Tree branches become "attachment points" for epiphytic plants, sponges, and other aquatic life forms.
Nature is very efficient. We should take a cue from Her! "Disruption" is often a form of renewal and evolution in Nature.
Patience, as always, is the key ingredient here. Of course, this is a hobby, and it should be fun...and you should feel free to change stuff up if it's not. However, make it a point to consider your actions in the "big picture", and it takes on a greater significance.
You need to have an understanding that you're creating a dynamic environment, not simply an "aquascape." And it's constantly evolving- even when you're not ripping it apart! It's anything but "static"-sort of like a planted aquarium, but in reverse (rather than plants growing, the botanicals are, for want of a better word "diminishing")! At any given time, you'll have materials like leaves in various states of decomposition, seed pods, slowly softening, breaking down, and recruiting biofilms and a "patina" of fungal growth.
It begs the most fundamental of questions about our botanical method practice:
What happens over time in a botanical method aquarium? What changes occur along the way?
Well, typically, at its simplest, as most of you who've played with this stuff know, the botanicals will begin to soften and break down. Botanical materials are the very definition of the word "ephemeral." Nothing lasts forever, and botanicals are no exception! Pretty much everything we utilize- from Guava leaves to oak twigs- starts to soften and break down over time.
Most of these materials should be viewed as"consumables"- meaning that you'll need to replace them over time if you want maintain some environmental consistency. Again, perfectly analogous to what occurs in Nature.
You're not an "aquascaper" in the classic hobby sense when you play with these types of systems. Rather, you're a a sort of "superintendent" to Nature, helping Her do what she has done for eons. You're not simply an idle "passenger," either- you play an active role in conceiving, setting up, and maintaining such a system. You need to take some cues from Nature, and that often means simply standing by and observing as she does Her work and goes through Her process.
You learn. You evolve with your aquarium, on a very real level.
Sometimes, it requires intervention on your part- at least in your own mind, perhaps. Other times, it simply involves sitting back, letting things unfold, and observing patiently.
Watching a display aquarium evolve and sort of "find itself" naturally over time is proving to be one of the most enjoyable discoveries I've made in the hobby in decades. It's a mindset that I actually had in my youth- by necessity, because I had very limited resources except for time- yet lost as I grew into adulthood and "evolved" in the hobby. With more skills and economic resources, I could "do more"- but the reality is that it wasn't always the right thing.
It took me a few decades after hitting so-called "advanced" hobbyist status before it really hit me that, by simply studying the function of natural ecosystems, all of the answers I needed to be successful as an aquarist were right there! I just needed to figure out which questions to ask.
I'm still deep in that process, decades later!
By understanding that my aquariums are governed by the same "laws" which apply to natural aquatic ecosystems, and developing and following simple practices and husbandry routines to embrace this, and monitoring what's occurring in the tank (as opposed to constantly trying to intervene to "pre-empt" what we in the hobby have commonly perceived to be problems), I've personally had more beautiful, healthy and stable aquariums, and...more success than ever before.
Accepting that there is most definitely an elegant, yet complex ecological "dance" in our aquariums, and becoming an "active monitor" instead of an "active intervener" has added an enjoyable and rewarding aspect to my love of the hobby.
I think that this approach to the "dance" not only makes you a more engaged hobbyist, it gives you a remarkable appreciation for the long term evolution of an aquarium; an appreciation for the pace by which Nature operates, and the direction in which your aquarium ultimately goes.
By doing this, you get the enjoyment of seeing the "evolution" every day! Observing and enjoying the subtle nuances of your aquarium at every stage of its existence. With my "go slow" mindset and practice, the differences are subtle in the short term- the "payoffs" really more apparent over the longer term.
Again, it's okay to make changes- even significant ones- to the "theme" of your aquarium. However, it's simply not good practice to interfere with the processes which allow it to become what Nature ( and YOU, too, if you're honest with yourself) wants it to become.
I know, it does feel a bit "yin" and "yang"- like I'm pulling from both sides- telling you, on one hand, that it's okay to make significant changes to a tank, while simultaneously urging you to deploy extreme patience and an almost "sit back and relax" approach...These seemingly diametrically opposite actions actually work really well together when you have the "common denominator" of good intentions, vision, careful actions, and an appreciation for what Nature can do if we let Her.
This philosophy, like so many things I ask you to consider here- doesn't always seem to make any sense.
Until it does.
Be kind to yourself- and to Nature.
Trust that She'll guide your aquarium effectively along the way to its ultimate potential. She won't let you down. Even if you take a slight detour now and again.
Stay confident. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay patient....
And Stay Wet.
The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet Nature halfway."-Michael Pollan
It's long been suggested that an aquarium is sort of like a garden, right? And, to a certain extent it is. Of course, we can also allow our tanks to evolve on a more-or-less "random" path than the word "garden" implies...
Perhaps one of the most liberating things about our botanical-method aquariums is that there is no set "style" that you have to follow to "arrange" botanical materials in your tank.
When you look at those amazing pictures of the natural habitats we love so much, you're literally bombarded with the "imperfection" and apparent randomness that is Nature. Yet, in all of the "clutter" of an igarape flooded forest, for example, there is a quiet elegance to it. There is a sense that everything is there for a reason- and not simply because it looks good. It IS perfect. Can't we bring this sense to our aquariums?
I think we can...simply by meeting Nature halfway.
To a certain extent, it's "anything goes" in terms of adding materials to represent the wild habitats. I mean, when you think about flooded forest floors and rainforest streams, you're talking about an aggregation of material from the forest that has accumulated via wind, rain, and current. The influences on the "design" are things like how something arrives into the water, and how it gets distributed by water movement.
Nature offers no "style guide."
Rather, she offers clues, based on her processes.
I mean, sure, you could and should certainly use some aesthetic thought in the concept, but when you're trying to recreate what in Nature is a more-or-less random thing, you probably don't want to dwell too much on the concept! You don't want to over-think "random" too much, right? Rather, put your effort into selecting suitable materials with which to do the job.
For a bit more context, just think for just a second, about the stems and branches that we love so much in our aquascaping. Those of us who obsessively study images of the wild tropical habitats we love so much can't help but note that many of the bodies of water which we model our aquariums after are filled with tree branches and stems.
Since many of these habitats are rather ephemeral in nature, they are only filled up with water part of the year. The remainder of the time, they're essentially dry forest floors.
And what accumulates on dry forest floors?
Branches, stems, leaves, and other materials from trees and shrubs. When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate how we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches.
They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!
There is no real rhyme or reason as to why stuff orients itself the way it does once submerged. There are numerous random factors involved.
I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just literally tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?
On the other hand, I'm not so sure why they wouldn't!
I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in Nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that shit that hardcore 'scapers will hit you over the head with...
But Nature doesn't give a fuck about some competition's "rules"- and Nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."
Natural looks...well, like what you'd see in Nature.
It's pretty hardcore stuff.
And it's all part of the reason that I spend so damn much time pleading with you- my fellow fish geeks- to study, admire, and ultimately replicate natural aquatic habitats as much as you do the big aquascaping contest winners' works. In fact, if every hobbyist spent just a little time studying some of these unique natural habitats and using them as the basis of their work, I think the hobby would be radically different.
When hobbyists interpret what they see in wild aquatic habitats stats more literally, the results are almost always stunning. And contest judges are starting to take notice...
I think that there would also be hobby success on a different level with a variety of fishes that are perhaps considered elusive and challenging to keep. Success based on providing them with the conditions which they evolved to live in over the millennia, not a "forced fit" its what works for us humans.
More awareness of both the function and the aesthetics of fascinating ecological niches, such as the aforementioned flooded forests, would drive the acceptance and appreciation of Nature as it is- not as we like to "edit" and "sanitize" it.
Taking this approach is actually a "stimulus" for creativity, perhaps in ways that many aquarists have not thought of.
There are a lot of aquatic habitats in Nature which are filled with tangles of terrestrial plant roots, emergent vegetation, fallen branches, etc., which fill small bodies of water almost completely.
These types of habitats are unique; they attract a large populations of smaller fishes to the protection of their vast matrix of structures. Submerged fallen tree branches or roots of marginal terrestrial plants provide a large surface area upon which algae, biofilm, and fungal growth occurs. This, in turn, attracts higher life forms, like crustaceans and aquatic insects. Sort of the freshwater version of a reef, from a "functionality" standpoint, right?
Can't we replicate such aquatic features in the aquarium?
Of course we can!
This idea is a fantastic expression of "functional aesthetics." It's a "package" that is a bit different than the way we would normally present an aquarium. Because we as hobbyists hesitate to densely pack an aquarium like this, don't we?
Why do you think this is?
I think that we hesitate, because- quite frankly- having a large mass of tangled branches or roots and their associated leaves and detritus in the cozy confines of an aquarium tends to limit the number, size, and swimming area of fishes, right? Or, because its felt that, from an artistic design perspective, something doesn't "jibe" about it...
Sure, it does limit the amount of open space in an aquarium, which has some tradeoffs associated with it.
On the other hand, I think that there is something oddly compelling, intricate, and just beautiful about complex, spatially "full" aquatic features. Though seldom seen in aquarium work, there is a reason to replicate these systems. And when you take into account that these are actually very realistic, entirely functional representations of certain natural habitats and ecological niches, it becomes all the more interesting!
What can you expect when you execute something like this in the aquarium?
Well, for on thing, it WILL take up a fair amount of space within the tank. Of course. Depending upon the type of materials that you use (driftwood, roots. twigs, or branches), you will, of course, displace varying amounts of water.
Flow patterns within the aquarium will be affected, as will be the areas where leaves, detritus and other botanical materials settle out. You'll need to understand that the aquarium will not only appear different- it'll function differently as well. Yet, the results that you'll achieve- the more natural behaviors of your fishes, their less stressful existence- will provide benefits that you might not have even realized possible before.
This is something which we simply cannot bring up often enough. It's transformational in our aquarium thinking.
The "recruitment" of organisms (algae, biofilms, epiphytic plants, etc.) in, on, and among the matrix of wood/root structures we create, and the "integration" of the wood into other "soft components" of the aquascape- leaves and botanicals is something which occurs in Nature as well as in the aquairum.
This is an area that has been worked on by hobbyists rather infrequently over the years- mainly by biotope-lovers. However, embracing the "mental shifts" we've talked about so much here- allowing the growth of beneficial biocover, decomposition, tinted water, etc.- is, in our opinion, the "portal" to unlocking the many secrets of Nature in the aquarium.
The extraordinary amount of vibrance associated with the natural growth on wood underwater is an astounding revelation. However, our aesthetic sensibilities in the hobby have typically leaned towards a more "sterile", almost "antispetic" interpretation of Nature, eschewing algae, biofilm, etc.
However, a growing number of hobbyists worldwide have began to recognize the aesthetic and functional beauty of these natural occurances, and the realism and I think that the intricate beauty of Nature is starting to eat away at the old "sterile aquascape" mindset just a bit!
And before you naysayers scoff and assert that the emerging "botanical method" aquarium is simply an "excuse for laziness", as one detractor communicated to me not too long ago, I encourage you once again to look at Nature and see what the world underwater really looks like. There is a reason for the diversity, apparent "randomness", and success of the life forms in these bodies of water.
What is it?
It's that these materials are being utilized- by an enormous community of organisms- for shelter, food, and reproduction. Seeing the "work" of these organisms, transforming pristine" wood and crisp leaves into softening, gradually decomposing material, is evidence of the processes of life.
When you accept that seed pods, leaves, and other botanical materials are somewhat ephemeral in nature, and begin to soften, change shape, accrue biofilms and even a patina of algae- the idea of "meeting Nature halfway" makes perfect sense, doesn't it?
You're not stressing about the imperfections, the random patches of biofilm, the bits of leaves that might be present in the substrate. Sure, there may be a fine line between "sloppy" and "natural" (and for many, the idea of stuff breaking down in any fashion IS "sloppy")- but the idea of accepting this stuff as part of the overall closed ecosystem we've created is liberating.
Sure, we can't get every functional detail down- every component of a food web- every biochemical interaction...the specific materials found in a typical habitat- we interpret- but we can certainly go further, and continue to look at Nature as it is, and employ a sense of "acceptance"- and randomness-in our work.
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, or to develop a sense of superiority or snobbery, and conclude that everyone who loves this 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 really 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. Without aesthetic rules, rigid standards, and ratios. The only "rules" are those which govern the way Nature works with materials in an aquatic environment.
A botanical-method aquarium features, life, death, and everything in between.
It pulses with the cycle of life, beholden only to the rules of Nature, and perhaps, to us- the human caretakers who created it.
But mainly, to Nature.
The processes of life which occur within the microcosm we create are indifferent to our desires, our plans, or our aspirations for it. Sure, as humans, we can influence the processes which occur within the aquarium- but the ultimate outcome- the result of everything that we did and did not do- is based solely upon Nature's response.
In the botanical-style aquarium, we embrace the randomness and unusual aesthetic which submerged terrestrial materials impart to the aquatic environment. We often do our best to establish a sense of order, proportion, and design, but the reality is that Nature, in Her infinite wisdom borne of eons of existence, takes control.
It's a beautiful process. Seemingly random, yet decidedly orderly.
Think about that for a bit.
Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
I'm fascinated by the dietary preferences of fishes. How they've evolved over eons to consume various items found in their environments; how many fishes became "specialists" as an adaptation to the habitats in which they live.
And, as an aquarist who derives great pleasure from seeing his fishes "live off the land" and consume foods from the aquarium environment in which they reside, I really find some of the seunderlying feeding strategies fascinating. One of the more interesting examples is the consumption of wood by various species of fishes.
We read a lot about fishes which eat wood and wood-like materials.
Of course, the ones that come immediately to mind are the Loricariidae, specifically, Panaque species. Now, I admittedly am the last guy who should be authoritatively discussing the care of catfishes, having maintained maybe a couple dozen or so species during a lifetime of aquarium keeping. However, I do understand a little bit about their diets and the idea of utilizing wood- and botanical materials- in the aquarium for the purpose of supplementing our fishes' diets!
And of course, I'm equally fascinated by the world of biofilms, decomposition, microorganism growth and detritus...And this stuff plays right into that!
Now, the idea of xylophagy (the consumption and digestion of wood) is of course, a pretty cool and interesting adaptation to the environment from which these fishes come from. And as you'd suspect, the way that wood is consumed and digested by these fishes is equally cool and fascinating!
It's thought by ichthyologists that the scraping teeth and highly angled jaws of the Loricariidae are a perfect adaptation to this feeding habit of "scraping" wood. And of course, it's even argued among scientists that these fishes may or may not actually digest the wood they consume! While scientists have identified a symbiotic bacteria which is found in the gut of these fishes that helps break down wood components, it's been argued by some the the fishes don't actually digest and metabolize the wood; indeed deriving very little energy from the wood they consume!
In fact, a lab study by Donovan P. German was described in the November, 2009 Journal of Comparative Physiology, in which several species were fed wood and found to actually digest it quite poorly:
"...in laboratory feeding trials, (Pterygoplichthys cf. nigrolineatus and Hypostomus pyrineusi) lost weight when consuming wood, and passed stained wood through their digestive tracts in less than 4 hours. Furthermore, no selective retention of small particles was observed in either species in any region of the gut. Collectively, these results corroborate digestive enzyme activity profiles and gastrointestinal fermentation levels in the fishes’ GI tracts, suggesting that the wood-eating catfishes are not true xylivores such as beavers and termites, but rather, are detritivores like so many other fishes from the family Loricariidae."
Did you see that? Detritioves. Like, they're taking in wood to get other stuff out of the deal... And detritus is comprised of stuff like macrophytes, algae, and particulate organic carbon.
And this little nugget from the same study: "...The fishes consumed 2–5% of their body mass (on a wet weight basis) in wood per day, but were not thriving on it, as Pt. nigrolineatus lost 1.8 ± 0.15% of their body mass over the course of the experiment, and Pt. disjunctivus lost 8.4 ± 0.81% of their body mass."
Oh, that's weird.
Yet, anatomical studies of these fishes showed that the so-called "wood-eating catfishes" had what physiologists refer to as "body size-corrected intestinal lengths" that were 35% shorter than the detritivore species. What does this mean? Could they have perhaps had at one time- and subsequently lost- their ability to digest wood?
And to make it even weirder, check out this passage from a study by Lujan, Winemiller, and Armbruster:
"Loricariids have a dense endoskeleton and are covered with dermal plates composed primarily of calcium phosphate, giving them a high physiological demand for dietary phosphorus. Paradoxically, the rivers and streams inhabited by loricariids as well as the detritus and biofilm that most loricariids consume tend to be highly Phosporus deficient."
The same study noted that, "Loricariids as a whole are largely unable to digest lignocellulose, and instead derive most nutrients and energy from easily digestible breakdown products (e.g., disaccharides and dipeptides) that are produced during microbial degradation of submerged, decomposing wood."
I think it's yet another case of us as hobbyists drawing innocent conclusions based on anecdotal or superficial observations. I mean,"... they're munching on my wood, therefore, they must be 'eating' it!"
Now, to the point of the argument that most loricariids are primarily detritivores, consuming a matrix of biofilm, algal growth, microorganisms, and (for want of a better word) "dirt"- what does this mean to us as hobbyists? Well, for one thing, this has made them remarkably adaptable fishes in the aquarium. They will definitely rasp at wood", but according to the studies I just cited, they are not "eating" it, per se.
Now, my personal experience with Loricariidae is nothing like many of yours, and an observation I've made over the years is at best anecdotal- but interesting:
If you follow "The Tint", you know I've had a years-long love affair with Peckolotia compta aka "L134 Leopard Frog"- a beautiful little fish that is filled with charms. Well, I recall, are years back, that my first specimen seemed to have vanished into the ether following a re-configuration/rescape of my home blackwater/botanical-method aquarium. I thought somehow I either lost the fish during the re-scape, or it died and subsequently decayed without my detecting it... Pretty upsetting either way, but I couldn't find any trace of it!
For almost three months, the fish was M.I.A., just....gone.
And then one, day- there she was, poking out from the "Spider Wood" thicket that formed the basis of my newer hardscape! To say I was overjoyed was a bit of an understatement, of course! And after her re-appearance, she was out every day. She looked just as fat and happy as when I last saw her in the other 'scape...which begs the question (besides my curiosity about how she evaded detection)- What the fuck was she feeding on during this time?
Well, I suppose it's possible that some bits of frozen food (I fed frozen almost exclusively at that time) got away from my population of hungry characins and fell to the bottom...However, I'm pretty fastidious- and the other fishes (characins) were voracious mid-water-column feeders! To think that any appreciable amount got away from the hungry hoard was a bit hopeful. I believed at the time (and now am fully convinced) that it was more likely the biofilms, fungal growth, and perhaps some of the compounds from surface tissues of the "Spider Wood" I used in the hardscape that she was feeding on.
"Spiderwood" (aka Azalea root) stuff does recruit significant biological growth on it's surfaces when submerged , and curiously, in this tank, I noticed that, during the first few months, the wood seemed to never accumulate as much of this stuff as I had seen it do in past tanks which incorporated it!
I attributed this to perhaps some feeding by a population of Nanostomus eques, which have shown repeatedly in the past to feed on the biofilm or "aufwuchs" accumulating on the wood.
I'm sure that was a valid observation, but they were actively taking prepared foods as the bulk of their diet, so I have a hard time that they solely were responsible.
There was also a layer of Live Oak leaves distributed throughout the booth of the wood matrix, which, although they break down very slowly compared to other leaves we use, DO ultimately soften over time and break down over time. Since they are rather "durable", they do accumulate a lot of fungal growth and biofilms on their surfaces.
Interestingly, in this tank, I was finding little tiny amounts of very broken-down leaves, which I attributed to decomposition, but thinking back on it, looks more like the end product of "digestion" by someone!
I don't think I ever saw my L134 consuming prepared food. When I did observe her activities, she was seemingly "grazing" away at the wood surfaces and on botanicals...That's all the proof that I needed to confirm my theory that she's pretty much 100% detritivorous, and that the botanical-method aquariums she's resided in provide a sufficient amount of this material for her to consume.
To this day, I've never seen her eat prepared foods!
I have since acquired three captive-bred specimens from my friend, master breeder Sumer Tiwari, and this group has been seen to take prepared food on occasion. At the very least, adding some pellets or frozen foods seems to initial some kind of response in the fish, wether they appear to eat it or not.
So, back the the whole "xylophore thing"... After reading the studies I mentioned, I think that in the aquarium, as well as in the wild, much of what we think is actually "consumption" of the wood by the fishes is simply incidental- as in, the fishes are trying to eat the biocover and detritus on the surface tissues of the wood, and perhaps obtain some nutrition from the compounds contained in the softer portions of the wood. They apparently do a pretty good job (with their specialized mouthparts) of rasping away the surface tissues of the wood!
So, yeah- apparently, some of the wood may pass through the digestive tract of the catfishes, but it's passed without metabolizing much from it...perhaps like the way chickens consume gravel, or whatever (don't they? City boy here! WTF do I know about chickens!)...or the way some marine Centropyge angelfishes "nibble" on corals in their pursuit of algae, detritus, and biofilms.
Again, my perusal of German's scientific paper seems to support this theory:
"Catfishes supplement their wood diet with protein-rich detritus, or even some animal material to meet their nitrogen requirements. Although I did not observe animal material in the wood-eating catfish guts, Pt. disjunctivus did consume some animal material (including insects parts, molluscs, and worms), and all three species consumed detritus."
And finally, the "clincher", IMHO: "The low wood fiber assimilation efficiencies in the catfishes are highly indicative that they cannot subsist on a wood only diet."
I mean, it's just one paper, but when he's talking about isotopic tracing of materials not consistent with digestion of wood in the guts of Loricariids, I think that pretty much puts the "eats wood" thing to bed, right? His further mention that, although some cellulose and lignin (a component of wood and our beloved botanicals!) was detected in the fish's fecal material, it was likely an artifact of the analysis method as opposed to proof that the fishes derived significant nutrition from it.
So what does all of this stuff mean to us?
Well, for one thing, once again- detritus/biofilm/fungal growths = good. Don't loathe them. Love them.
Your fishes apparently do.
I think it means that, as hobbyists probably knew, theorized, and discussed for a long time- that the Loricariids consume detritus, biofilms, and prepared foods when available. This is not exactly earth-shattering or new.
However, I think understanding that our botanical-method aquariums can- and do- provide a large amount of materials from which which these and other fishes can derive significant nutrition furthers my assertion that this type of system is perfect for rearing and maintain a lot of specialized feeders.
Materials like the harder-"shelled" botanicals (ie; "Skyfruit" pods, Cariniana pods, Mokha pods, bark, etc.) tend to recruit significant fungal growths and biofilms, and accumulate detritus in and on their surfaces. And of course, as they soften, some fishes apparently rasp and "consume" some of them directly, likely passing most of it though their digestive systems as outlined in the cited study, extracting whatever nutrition is available to them as a result. This is likely the case with leaves and softer botanicals as well.
The softer materials might also be directly consumed by many fishes, although the nutrition may or may not be significant. However, the detritus, fungal, and microorganism growth as a result of their decomposition is a significant source of nutrition for many fishes and shrimps.
Detritivores (of which the amount of species in the trade is legion), have always done very well in botanical-method aquariums, and the accumulation of biofilms and microbial growth is something that we've discussed for a long time. By their very nature, the structure and decomposition of botanical materials make the "functional aesthetics" of our aquariums an important way to accommodate the natural feeding behaviors of our fishes.
So, the answer to the question (literally!), "Who has the (literal) guts for this stuff?" is quite possibly, "everyone!"
Now, while while we're on the subject of loricariids, a further scan of scientific literature revealed some interesting things about what these fishes are actually taking in when they "graze" in the wild. It's kind of eye opening, to me. One study revealed that loricariids consumed five principal items: sponges, organic detritus, bryophytes, bryozoans and sediment.
Wood is definitely part of the equation somewhere, but for the species examined in one of the studies I found (Rhinelepis aspera, Hypostomus regani, H. ternetzi, H. maragaritifer, H. microstomus, and Megalancistrus aculeatus) the gut content analysis was quite revealing:
The food spectrum of R. aspera is primarily "organic detritus and small quantities of sediment"; with few periphytic organisms. Although H. regani was found to consume large quantities of organic detritus as well, it also consumed "plant detritus, various sediment, and periphytic organisms" (i.e.; bryozoans, sponges and aquatic insect larvae). Bryozoans and sponges, huh?
Wow! Freshwater sponges...
The study indicated that bryozoans and organic detritus were the main food food of H. ternetzi, which, according to the gut contents of a number of individuals, tended to consume more sediment, rotifers, chironomids (i.e.; "Bloodworms'), gastropods and harpacticoids than the other species.
Harpactoids...you mean, like "copepods?" Stuff we as reefers feed all the time? H. margaritifer was found to ingest plant material. Other periphytic organisms such as insect larvae, and those bryozoans and sponges contributed to the diet of H. margaritifer.
And it gets more interesting still...
Sponges- I can't let that go.
Sponges were the principal food resource of H. microstomus and M. aculeatus, along with a healthy does of chironomids, various gastropods, Trichoptera (insects), and some bryozoans also consumed. Diets of these two fishes were composed of larger-sized items, with the finer organic detritus and such being less important than it was to the other species in the study.
This kind of information is tantalizing. It's compelling.
And what really gets me going is learning that some of our favorite, most beloved fishes are consuming large quantities of materials that I doubt any freshwater aquarist adds to his/her arsenal of foodstuffs. We're really good at feeding our catfishes baby vegetables and stuff, while typically overlooking many species' surprisingly high dietary dependency on items like insects, bryozoans, harpactoid copepods, and interestingly...sponges!
While we kind of always knew that these fishes ingested wood and "stuff", it's interesting to see what they're actually eating in the wild...especially the "stuff"- and configuring our aquariums and the supplemental and primary feeding opportunities available to the fishes accordingly.
We have some interesting, yet perhaps overlooked possibilities to provide some of these items.
In fact, there are a number of marine aquarium-purposed foods (typically targeted at certain marine angelfishes, many of which consume significant quantities of sponge) which contain sponges in their formulation. One of my favorite is Ocean Nutrition's "Angel Formula." Granted, these foods contain stuff like mussels, and other marine foods, and the sponges included are marine sponges, but I can't help but wonder if these are that morphologically or nutritionally different/palatable to the fishes than a freshwater/tree sponge would be?
Could the next great frozen Loricarid food include sponges? And we DO have harpactoid copepods available live, and in a variety of other formats intended for marine fishes and corals...Interestingly, I remember that the big "knock" by us reefers, for a long time, about some of these copepods was that they were "freshwater" varieties, and therefore didn't have the "correct" nutritional profile for marine organisms.
Hmm. We're talking about freshwater fishes here, right? Yeah.
So, like, why the hell haven't we been feeding these foods to our freshwater fishes all of these years?
Try some of these foods with your loricariids..and other fishes as well. What's to lose?
Oh, I can hear the objections:
Is it?. Online ordering is really cool. It might just catch on.
"Too much work!"
Really? C'mon. Ever cultured Grindal Worms or wingless fruit flies? THAT is "too much work" by definition.
"This is ridiculous; No need to experiment with these wacky foods. We're doing just fine now with Zucchini and stuff! Stupid."
Urghhhhh. "If man was meant to fly, he'd have wings..."
To not experiment is stupid, IMHO.
Don't be stupid. And I mean that in the kindest way possible. Don't just accept "what works" as "the way."
Push forward. Experiment. Fail quickly, or move forward rapidly with success. Play a hunch or two. Try something different. This is how advances in the hobby are made. This is how breakthroughs happen.
You gotta try.
Stay studious. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay engaged. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
You saw the title.
What exactly am I talking about here?
Today, I want to double back and talk a bit about our gooey friends, the fungi- for just a few minutes. Despite their off-putting appearance to some, they may be among the most beautiful, elegant, and useful organisms we encounter in the aquatic world.
Why do I have such devotion to organisms which most of us find truly revolting in appearance?
Because they are among the most important and useful organisms which we can have in our botanical method aquariums. Think about how they arrive in aquatic ecosystems, what they consume, how they derive nutrition, and what they do for the overall ecosystem.
As everyone knows, when you put stuff in water, one of four things seems to happen:
2) It gets covered in a gooey slime of fungal growth, and "biofilm."
3) It starts to break down and decompose.
4) Both 2 and 3
Now, it's pretty much a "given" that any botanicals or leaves that you drop into your aquarium will, over time, break down. Wood, too. And typically, before they break down, they'll "recruit" (a fancy word for "acquire') a coating of some rather unsightly-looking growth. Well, "unsightly" to those who have not been initiated into our little world of decomposition, fungal growth, biofilms, tinted water, etc., and maintain that an aquarium by definition is a pristine-looking place without a speck of anything deemed "aesthetically unattractive" by the masses!
So, with that little explanatory passage out of the way, let's take a closer look at fungi-the stuff that you'll see covering the leaves, botanicals, and wood that you place into your aquarium, and why you actually WANT the stuff there in the first place.
The fungi known as aquatic hyphomycetes produce enzymes which break down botanical materials in water. Essentially, they are primary influencers of leaf maceration. They're remarkably efficient at what they do, too. In as little as 3 weeks, as much as 15% of the decomposing leaf biomass in many aquatic habitats is "processed" by fungi, according to one study I found!
Aquatic hyphomycetes play a key role in the decomposition of plant litter of terrestrial origin- an ecological process in rain forest streams that allows for the transfer of energy and nutrients to higher tropic levels.
This is what ecologists call "nutrient cycling", folks.
These fungi colonize leaf litter and twigs and such soon after they're immersed in water. The fungi mineralize organic carbon and nutrients and convert coarse particulate matter into fine particulate organic matter. They also increase leaf litter palatability to shredders, which helps facilitate physical fragmentation.
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 and assimilate these materials and their associated organics!
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 the same extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces as they would in virtually any aquatic habitat in Nature!
Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in natural aquatic habitats!
Of course, fungal colonization of wood and botanicals is but one stage of a long process, which occurs in Nature and our aquariums. And, as hobbyists, once we see those first signs of this stuff, the majority of us tend to reach for the algae scraper or brush and remove as much of it as possible- immediately! And sure, this might provide some "aesthetic relief" for some period of time- but it comes right back...because these materials will provide a continuous source of food and colonization sites for fungal growths for some time!
I know that the idea of "circumventing" this stuff is appealing to many, but the reality is that you're actually interrupting an essential, ecologically beneficial natural process. And, as we know, Nature abhors a vacuum, and new growths will return to fill the void, thus prolonging the process.
Again, think about the role of aquatic hyphomycetes in Nature.
Fungal colonization facilitates the access to the energy trapped in deciduous leaves and other botanical materials found in tropical streams for a variety of other organisms to utilize.
As we know by now, fungi play a huge role in the decomposition of leaves, both in the wild and in the aquarium. By utilizing special enzymes, aquatic fungi can degrade most of the molecular components in leaves, such as cellulose,, hemicelluloses, starch, pectin and even lignin.
Fungi, although not the most attractive-looking organisms, are incredibly useful...and they "play well" with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs, both in the wild and in our aquariums!
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...It's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
Yet, we freak the fuck out about it when it shows up.
Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! AGAIN: A truly "Natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course.
The love of pristine, sterile-looking tanks is one of the biggest obstacles we need to overcome to really advance in the aquarium hobby, IMHO.
Biofilms, fungi, algae...detritus...all have their place in the aquarium. Not as an excuse for lousy or lazy husbandry- but as supplemental food sources to "power" the ecology in our tanks.
And of course, as we've discussed many times here, fungi are actually an important food item for other life forms in the aquatic environments tha we love so much! In one study I stumbled across, gut content of over 100 different aquatic insects collected from submerged wood and leaves showed that fungi comprised part of the diet of more than 60% of them, and, in turn, aquatic fungi were found in gut content analysis of many species of fishes!
One consideration: Bacteria and fungi that decompose decaying plant material in turn consume dissolved oxygen for respiration during the process.
This is one reason why we have told you for years that adding a huge amount of botanical material at one time to an established, stable aquarium is a recipe for disaster. There is simply not enough fungal growth or bacteria to handle it. They reproduce extremely rapidly, consuming significant oxygen in the process.
Bad news for the impatient.
Support. Co-dependency. Symbiosis. Whatever you want to call it- the presence of fungi in aquatic ecosystems is extremely important to other organisms.
You can call it free biological filtration for your aquarium!
GREAT news for the patient, the studious, and the accepting.
Think about this: These life forms arrive on the scene in Nature, and in our tanks, to colonize appropriate materials, to process organics both in situ on the things that they're residing upon (leaves, twigs, branches, seed pods, wood, etc.).
Yeah, if you intervene by removing stuf-f bad things can happen. Like, worse things than just a bunch of gooey-looking fungal and biofilm threads on your wood. Your aquarium suddenly loses its capability of processing the leaves and associated organics, and- who's there to take over?
Okay, I'm repeating myself here- but there is so much unfounded fear and loathing over aquatic fungi that someone has to defend their merits, right? Might as well be me!
My advice; my plea to you regarding fungal growth in your aquarium? Just leave it alone. It will eventually peak, and ultimately diminish over time as the materials/nutrients which it uses for growth become used up. It's not an endless "outbreak" of unsightly (to some) fungal growth all over your botanicals and leaves. It goes away significantly over time.
That's "Fellman Speak" for "Please be more fucking patient!"
Seriously, though, hobbyists tend to overly freak out about this kind of stuff. Of course, as new materials are added, they will be colonized by fungi, as Nature deems appropriate, to "work" them.
It's one of those things in the botanical-method aquarium that we need to wrap our heads around. We need to understand, lose our fears, and think about the many positives these organisms provide for our tanks. These small, seemingly "annoying" life forms are actually the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium. When they arrive on the scene in our tanks, we should celebrate their appearance.
Because their appearance is yet another example of the wonders of Nature playing out in our aquariums, without us having to do anything of consequence to facilitate their presence, other than setting up a tank embracing the botanical method in the first place. We get to watch the processes of colonization and decomposition occur in the comfort of our own home. The SAME stuff you'll see in any wild aquatic habitat worldwide.
For those of you who MUST find some familiar comfort in established philosophy- look no further than the beloved master, Takashi Amano. He laid down this track decades ago...
Yup. I'm channeling Mr. Amano here.
In the botanical method aquairum, Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.
Part of the game, as we've discussed ad naseum here, is to understand, appreciate, and ultimately embrace the way the aquatic environment is influenced by the fungal growths, biofilms, and decomposition which occurs when botanicals are added into our aquariums.
Remember, your aquairum is not a pice of kinetic art. It's a miniature, closed aquatic ecosystem. Processes which occur in Nature play out daily in your tank.
Yeah, I admit, decades ago, I freaked out about seeing fungal growths in my tanks, too. I'd get a bit scared, wondering if something was wrong, and why no one else's aquariums ever seemed to look like mine. I used to think something was really wrong!
To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of wild leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were.
I remember telling myself that what I was seeing in my tanks was remarkably similar to what I saw in images and videos of wild aquatic habitats that I wanted to replicate. They seem to look- and even function- so similarly.
I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. It always was. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...
I never saw them.
Truth be known, I knew that there wouldn't be any issues, because I created my aquariums with a solid embrace of basic aquatic biology; an understanding that an aquarium is not some sort of underwater art installation, but rather, a living, breathing microcosm of organisms which work together to create a biome..and that the appearance of the aquarium only tells a small part of the story.
And another big concept for you to wrap your head around:
Your aquarium- or more specificlally- the colonized botanical materials which comprise the botanical-method aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms, like fungi, utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source, thus creating a "nutrient assimilation process."
Understanding and embracing this has changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems.
It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. 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.
It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the "influencer" on YouTube with the flashy, gadget-driven tank and nothing substantive to back up his vapid narrative. It means educating yourself a bit. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.
But you're not. And Mother Nature won't let you down if you don't lose faith in Her.
And yeah- it's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons. She's got this. She'll hook you up...If you allow Her. If you have faith in Her processes.
Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
I've been asked a lot lately to comment on our philosophical position here at Tannin; a sort of rundown of what makes us tick, and how we arrived at our overriding approach and mindset. And, looking back on our past 7 years of operation, it's interesting for me, too.
If you haven't noticed, we tend to take a different view of the aquarium hobby around. here. Not that we don't respect, value, or love all of the traditions of the hobby as it exists- we do. However, in practice, we look at things from a slightly different point of view; one which puts Nature in charge of a lot of things.
We look at it as if we have a responsibility to step out of the way a bit; to cede a little control to Nature...To set the stage and to let natural processes play out in our tanks with limited, if any intervention on our part.
To create more naturally-functioning aquatic, authentic-looking displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes- and their very existence- is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved.
Although a high percentage of the wild aquatic habitats that we love some much happen to consist of earthy, brown water, with decomposing leaves, twigs, and seed pods, we are inspired by, and play with all sorts of habitats, ranging from crystal clear karmic rivers, to brackish water estuaries, to the Rift Lakes of Africa. It's all about finding inspiration from a variety of natural aquatic habitats, and replicating their function, to the best of our ability, in aquariums.
It's not just "lip service", either. When you look at some of the aquariums we've advocated for, created and managed, that becomes fairly obvious!
We advocate some rather "unconventional" stuff.
But is it really THAT unconventional?
All we're doing is focusing on the more "natural" part of Nature, if that makes sense. We're not overstating our skill in what we do, nor basting our work with vapid rhetoric. We're just doing stuff. A bit differently. Questioning some long-held beliefs. Trying to recreate natural function in the aquarium- perhaps, a bit less "traditionally" than has previously been done in the hobby.
And it all starts with our view of Nature, and our place within it as aquarists. Hobbyists love to expound on ideas about Nature, and how what they do is an "expression of Nature", in a reverent, almost religious way. Cool, I guess, but sometimes, I find it a bit silly. I mean, every aquarium is an expression of Nature to a certain extent.
Those prosaic, often pretentious, haiku-like statements that we see posted by aquarists online about "...standing before Nature" and stuff like that sound really cool, but what the hell do they mean? And, if the aquarium that you're executing when spouting this stuff is as relevant to a wild natural aquatic habitat as a vase full of cut flowers is to a mountain meadow, how do you reconcile that kind of lofty rhetoric?
It just rings hollow when you think about it.
Unfortunately, in our social-media-soundbite iteration of the hobby, that kind of "word salad" makes a great Instagram Reel, or whatever. The headline is rad. But it "dumbs stuff down" and objectively tends to fall flat when you really look for some real meaning behind it.
In a very real way, the creation of an aquarium is a search for meaning.
The relationship between Nature and our aquariums makes a lot more sense when you look at, and study the wild aquatic habitats of the world, and and attempt to replicate their function as accurately as possible. The appearance, which we as humans hold so important, seems to follow the function. We either like it, or we don't.
That's pretty straightforward...
Of course, not everyone likes the appearance of aquariums created and executed in this manner. This makes sense. Nature doesnt create aquatic habitats for our viewing pleasure. Not all of Her creations square with our hobby definition of "beautiful."
Nature doesn't care.
Our approach understands this, and rather than trying to warp Nature into something that looks "right" to us, we advocate making mental shifts to see the beauty in what Nature does, and to embrace this stuff when it happens in our aquariums.
It's not about trying to win some contest, receive accolades from the Instagram crowd, or trying to meet some rigid standards set out for competition "biotope aquariums." You won't garner a million adoring YouTube fans by presenting aquariums filled with decomposing leaves and brown water. You won't have contest judges throwing roses at your feet. And you won't be creating aquariums that look like what you're used to seeing pretty much everywhere.
Rather, our philosophy is about looking at Nature as it is, and accepting all of it. Humbly accepting, of course, that we can't perfectly replicate every aspect of Nature and her function to the "nth degree." Instead, it's about learning what we can from the wild aquatic habitats of the world and trying to bring their function into our home aquariums to the greatest extent possible.
That means embracing stuff like sediment, turbidity, tinted water, fungal threads, biofilms, decay, and detritus...the results of natural processes which occur when terrestrial materials are immersed in water.
Stuff which, quite frankly, freaks most hobbyists out. Full stop.
To you, it also means mentally shifting to not freak out about the appearance of these things in our aquaruims.
To not seek ways to eradicate them; rather, to contemplate what makes them form, and what role they play in the overall aquatic ecosystem that we have created, And indeed, to rejoice in the fact that these same things happen in the wild aquatic habitats we strive so hard to attempt to replicate in our tanks.
These principles, and the mental shifts that we make to accept them, form the "transportive mechanism" of the botanical method aquarium. It challenges you. It tests you. It doesn't give a damn about what you think it should look like. It's about ceding some control to Nature- something not always comfortable to everyone.
It's an aquarium practice neither rooted in tradition nor hobby culture. Rather, it's based upon the whims and functions of Nature Herself.
Well, yeah...for the most part. Because "aquarium tradition" typically eschews stuff like algal films, detritus, fungal growth, turbidity, etc. It's long been part of aquarium "culture" to control, limit, or eradicate these things..to stifle natural processes rather than allow them to play out in our tanks.
However, beautiful things can happen when you meld this understanding with your skills, talents, and a good attitude.
And loving this stuff; embracing it- doesn't mean you're somehow "cool" and are a "rebel" or a visionary or something. It doesn't mean that every single aquarium you do has to be a dark, turbid morass of decomposing leaves and jumbled sediments.
It just means that you have a slightly different philosophy, outlook, and acceptance of some stuff than the majority of aquarists do. Stuff that impacts the way you create aquariums, and which influences the way they operate...and look.
This isn't the best way to run an aquarium.
It's just a way to run an aquarium.
The botanical method is not an excuse for laziness, nor a license to abandon common sense, either. You still have to do some work, and to make the effort to understand why you're doing what you're doing. And yes- Nature will rightfully kick your ass if you try to circumvent her laws. You are entirely to blame if your tank fails...
Perhaps it's not what you would expect to hear, but it's true. When I do something stupid, take a big risk without considering the consequences, I occasionally get my ass handed to me by Mother Nature. And I'm entirely okay with that. I deserve it. I learn from it. And, yeah- there IS a certain amount of risk to taking a slightly different approach. Sometimes, shit happens even when you're doing what you feel is the right thing.
Not everyone wants that. It's 100% understandable. Yet, it's what you expose yourself to when you really "...stand with Nature!"
And, there's also the way we look at things that most hobbyists view as "problems."
When people are going through "stuff" in their tanks, like algae blooms, etc., tradition in the hobby dictates "corrective action" taken by the aquarist. It's seen as a huge problem. It needs to be corrected. Often times, if we look at the "problem" objectively, it's simply Nature responding, as She has for eons, to a set of parameters which favor one life form over another. Our version of "corrective action" is to find out what is causing the "undesired" issue, and simply allowing natural processes to help bring things back into a normal balance.
As we've discussed many times before, often, our "corrective actions" to "solve" some sort of "issue" usually involves...doing nothing. Yeah. Just waiting it out. Letting Nature correct things and bring the aquarium back on course- just like She's done in the wild aquatic habitats for millennia. Asking ourselves if what we are seeing is really a "problem" in the overall scheme of Nature- or just a "problem" to us as hobbyists, because we've labeled it as such.
It can be tough to wrap your head around that. Particularly after generations of hobby wisdom and practice telling you otherwise. Again, it's a mental shift that I couldn't possibly expect everyone to make or embrace.
And you still have to apply some old-fashioned common sense to this approach...It's not, "stand by and watch as your aquarium bites the dust..."
In real problematic cases-extreme situations, like disease outbreaks, ammonia spikes, temperature drops, poisonings, etc.- intervention by the hobbyist is the absolute right call.
Standing by, waiting for an infectious disease to "run its course", is ridiculous. Assuming that the disinfectant that your housekeeper accidentally spilled in the tank will simply "work its way out of the system" is insane. However, for a bloom of biofilms, some cloudy water that can't be attributed to mismanagement on your part, or a little bit of algae, "waiting it out" is the best way to go in many cases, IMHO.
Many of these things we call "problems" are simply life forms reacting to opportunities and resources available to them. Nature seeks to balance things out, and these things are often a sign that Nature is "working on it.." Often, the "solution" we employ creates some other imbalance, and fails to contemplate that the "problem" is simply NOT a problem in the first place.
I've said it a hundred times and I'll say it again: I think that many of the things we label as "problems" in the aquarium problem receive that label because of the way they appear. Things which don't fit some hobby-imposed standard of aesthetics get labeled as "problems." IMHO, that's an absurdly incorrect, downright irrational point of view.
Looking at things we're unfamiliar with, or that we find unattractive because of hobby "norms" as "problems" deters us from evolving and moving ahead, IMHO. It sets up artificial "roadblocks" on our journey that aren't always necessary.
We need to look at these things as opportunities. Yes, opportunities to figure out what role they play in the ecology of natural aquatic ecosystems- and in our aquaruims. We need to look for ways to incorporate, rather than eliminate them from our tanks.
Because when we incorporate natural processes and functions into our tanks, we're doing the very best possible job at advancing the "state of the art" in aquarium keeping. More than we ever could by studying some rock arranging technique or sharing how to glue wood pieces together to achieve a certain "look."
This position will not win me any friends in some corners of the larger aquarium community. It will definitely anger almost everyone who's ever written a "How to solve your _________ problem"-type article for beginners, and it will certainly piss off some manufacturers of "solutions" for all sorts of "problems" with our aquariums.
Well, first, because it's wildly unorthodox.
It is a sort of different take on being proactive in the hobby. Our version of "proactive" is to set up your aquarium to work with Nature from the start- to allow Her the "space" to do her thing. It's not designed to employ numerous technical "props", additives, and complex procedures at every step. One thing we do recommend, however, is to perform regular small water exchanges on your aquariums. They make sense, especially in a closed ecosystem such as an aquarium. That's one "tradition"- and apparently not a popular one with many hobbyists- that we are behind 100%! (It figures, right? We embrace the most unpopular "tradition" in the hobby!)
We espouse studying natural aquatic habitats- their influences and functions- and how they formed, as the "model" for our aquariums. Anyone can tell you to "use this filter", "add this additive", etc. Only Nature can tell you, with authority, to allow THIS or THAT to occur in your aquarium, because that what She wants.
We ceded some of the work to Nature. We accept Her actions. Work with them, instead of resist them.
Yeah, it's a huge mental shift.
Also, it's not popular to advocate for something without some "plug-and-play" solution these days. Telling a hobbyist to study what the cause of the "algae problem" in his or her aquarium could and then to simply "wait it out" or take subtle actions until such time as the system "rebalances" itself is a wildly unpopular approach, I'll admit.
Sure, if you see something obvious- like, you're dumping a whole pack of frozen brine shrimp into your tank at every feeding, you could curtail that ASAP! But embarking on some crazy procedure to exchange 90% of the water in your tank, or scrubbing and siphoning the "detritus" out of every centimeter of sand is, IMHO, a fool's errand, which will only result in a longer "recovery time." (don't get me started on detritus, btw...)
In my opinion, most of what we label as "problems" in the aquarium are the result of environmental lapses or imbalances caused either by something your tank is efficient in- or has too much of. It's that simple. And I believe that there are other ways to tackle these issues than simply reaching for "Product A" or whatever.
That's simply NOT how great botanical-method aquariums are conceived, created, or managed.
They're created to facilitate and take advantage of natural processes- regardless of how they look initially. Function first.
In my (admittedly biased) opinion, a botanical-method aquarium is perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home! To blur the lines between Nature and aquarium. Really. Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-method aquarium challenges us in different ways. It tasks us to understand and accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, detritus, and algal growth. Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..
We just have let go sometimes, and trust in Nature to move stuff along the correct path.
Nature finds a way. Nature knows how to do this.
Again- problems are only "problems" if we interpret them as such. When we see something we didn't expect to happen in our tanks occur, the question to ask ourselves might not be, "What's the problem?" Rather, it might be, "IS there are problem?"
Look, it's not like we are trying to create warp drive or foster nuclear fusion. Nothing about the botanical-method approach is even remotely difficult or hard to execute from a technical standpoint. In fact, the only "hard" part of this whole approach is making those mental shifts. Letting go of old notions or preconceptions; that sort of thing.
Our practice and its underlying philosophy is not really that earth-shattering.
But it is an example of an approach- one of many in our hobby, which simply requires us to look at what exactly we want to accomplish, understand what it is just a bit, and to develop a mind set and practical procedures to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature- in our aquariums. It's still very much a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making truly natural, botanical-method aquariums far more common in the hobby.
Perhaps not traditional...but very exciting!
We can find comfort in forging new paths. What we don't yet know and understand is every bit as compelling as what we do.
Think about that.
Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay driven...
And Stay Wet.
Today. I'm sort of taking a contrary stance to what you might typically see in aquarium blogs. Okay, what else is new, right?
My position is this: The aquarium hobby, while not "difficult", is not super easy, either. And quite honest, it shouldn't be super easy. And we shouldn't be 'dumbing it down' so much.
Uh-ohh. Controversy time.
Well, before you go and label me a jackass and pelt me with "Hakkai Stones", think about it: We are creating and managing the entire environment for specialized living creatures. Unlike a dog or cat, which (at the risk of over simplifying things) just needs food and a place to sleep to survive, fishes require a place to live, the proper aquatic environment, including heat, nutrient export, food, oxygenation, and light. We also are responsible for creating a compatible community of animals, understanding the dynamics of the nitrogen cycle, quarantine, acclimation, disease identification and treatment, and a lot more.
Sure, having to master all of these that I things listed out makes it sound like we're freaking genius-level people to be successful. We don't have to be, of course (I mean, look at some of the clowns who are YouTube “influencers” and the drivel they generate...😂)- but we do have to understand and be able to execute successfully on a number of fronts in order not to kill our fishes immediately, don't we?
Now, a little bit of props to the fishes themselves! I mean, they're subjected to a lot of shit before they get to us, right? Wild fishes, especially, undergo a real trial just to get to us: Collection, sorting by the fishers, a few days at a exporter's facility, a flight from their home country, a stint at a wholesaler, then on to the LFS, and finally to you. All the while, adapting to varying conditions, crowding, and little, if any food. When you think about it, it's hard to believe that they survive at all!
Back to our gig.
As hobbyists, we're morally obligated to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the requirements which our fishes need to survive and thrive. And, unfortunately, in today's "Insta-fast" "Everyone can go from zero to hero in three days" social-media-driven hobby, many hobbyists simply don't have that. In fact, if you asked 10 hobbyists some of the most basic aquarium-related questions, such as how the nitrogen cycle works, or what pH means, I'll wager that you'd likely get 3-4 hobbyists who couldn't articulate anything about these topics.
However, if you ask them about the best aquascaping rock, trendy approach, or stupidly-named wood type, I'll bet they'll be able to tell you everything you'd care to know.
That's indicative of a problem. When we accept this level of mediocrity, we're making ignorance of the art and science of aquarium keeping cool.
We're better than this.
We as hobbyists need to educate ourselves before we leap. Now, at this point, there are likely a few readers/listeners who will be like, "Damn, Captain Buzzkill, you're making it like you have to be a freaking marine biologist to be able to keep tropical fish! WTF?"
No, I'm not. And pointing out reality doesn't make me a complete asshole. Well, sort of an asshole- but not a complete one! 😆
Seriously, though, there is something really wrong when we have hobbyists trying all sorts of crazy expensive and exotic hobby ideas and equipment, when their fundamental understanding of the aquarium hobby is essentially inadequate.
Like, we've created a generation of hobbyists who want to run before they can walk. They're always looking for "hacks" and shortcuts for "making things easier." And when they fail- they have no way to understand why. And they often quit the hobby as a result. I've seen this dozens of times during my hobby "career." And we- the industry, creators, and communicators of the aquariums hobby- are responsible for this.
Now look, I'm all for making things easier, but NOT for dumbing down stuff. It shouldn't be like having to take board examinations in order to keep a fish tank, and setting up and caring for a tank shouldn't always be onerous- but you should at least try to have a working knowledge of a bunch of fundamental topics before you plunk down your cash and put fishes' lives on the line, right? And you should want to. And we as hobbyists should be interested in learning and acquiring the basic skills necessary to assure a good start in the hobby. We don't need to make this a task; we just need to do a little basic research first.
This is where the local fish store can excel.
The "mentoring" you can receive from a quality fish store is one of the best first exposures you can have to the art and science of aquairum keeping. As long as they don't take a purely sales-oriented approach to things (and most don't, despite the popular, persistent hobby mythology of the buffoonish, ignorant, and predatory LFS personnel that have been the stuff of online lore for decades now). Most LFS staff are uber hobbyists, obsessed with aquariums and fishes, and have a vested interest in seeing their customers succeed.
For those who need to get their "education" online, there are a lot of good resources. I don't need to rehash that. However, despite its popularity and search ability, YouTube isn't always the best source. There ARE a lot of great channels out there, but there is also a disproportionately high number of outright garbage, too. Channels in which the "creator" seems to have absolutely no clue about the topic he/she is authoritatively spewing. In our own sector alone, I've seen this several times. It's vomit inducing.
And a lot of the stuff out there- even "sponsored content"- is about drivel...doing a certain scape with this cool rock, or how to arrange wood so that your tank looks like everyone else's', or something equally as vapid. There is proportionately little produced about fundamental hobby stuff.
We can't run from some of the science stuff...I mean, we are ALL at the mercy of the nitrogen cycle, for example, and we need to have at least a basic understanding of how it works and what the implications are for our aquarium work. It's actually really important!
When I co-owned a coral propagation/import business, a scarily high percentage of the questions from customers were frighteningly basic- like stuff you should know before you ever even buy any aquarium, let alone set up a reef tank.
Back in those days, I literally received calls from hobbyists who didn't have the most rudimentary understanding of the needs of corals, let alone, the nitrogen cycle- yet they spent tens of thousands of dollars outfitting their reef tank with the latest gear, and buying the latest "designer frags."
it was head-scratching, to say the least. It was downright discouraging on some days.
It's not just limited to the reef world, of course. It’s all over the hobby.
And, it's our fault as an industry, too.
We seem to sell prepackaged "solutions" for everything. Another piece of gear, another additive..."That'll solve your problems!" We seem to be happier just selling people a product that we hope will solve their problems. Laughably, I've seen soem vendors/manufacturers trot out the pathetic line about their product making things easier so you could "enjoy the hobby more!" Like, WTF? Isn't feeding your fishes, doing water exchanges, and just managing the tank part of what makes it enjoyable, too? Or is the only enjoyable part of the hobby humble-bragging on The 'Gram about our latest aquascape?
How about we educate people on the basics and beyond? The good, the bad, and the shitty? That will make the use of your product a lot more logical. Yet, I know- it takes time. It's more difficult to educate people on the underlying problem...the reason why people would need your product in the first place. It's much easier to just tell them what to buy and that's that. It sells stuff faster. But it doesn't build a long-term hobbyist. That's why we at Tannin have article after article on the most basic, and even arcane aspects of playing with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums on our site.
Because I believe that hobbyists have to be armed with the most fundamental knowledge of our craft in order to succeed. I'm not going to just show pretty pics of cool 'scapes and sell seed pods and leaves that way. That's how I'm going to do my part to address the hobby dropout thing. My friends James of Blackwater UK and Ben of Betta Botanicals, two vendors as geeked out as I am about this stuff, are on the same page as me. We're determined to show hobbyists that the process- the whole thing- is as much fun as just looking at the number of likes your tank pics get on your fave social media channel.
It's a wider hobby "cultural problem", too. We're lazy. A lot of us want instant gratification and simply don't want to take the time to dig through information- even if it's out there in abundance. They want it easier. Faster. More concise.
And yes-I know. Everyone is "busy", etc. Yet, why have a hobby in the first place if you don't want to spend time playing with it and educating yourself about it? People can't be lazy. They have to learn the underlying, fundamental stuff. They need to read, watch, discuss, observe. A personal example again? I get numerous emails asking me how to prepare botanicals- even after we spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on producing a customized infographic card that goes in every order, and years writing dozens of articles on this very topic.
Some people seem so unwilling to do the most basic research! What a shame. I mean, Google is one of the greatest inventions in the history of humanity, making information about virtually any topic imaginable available anywhere, any time, to anyone. Easily.
Yet, many figure the "hack" is just to ask someone and expect them to give concise answers on how to do everything, instead of taking the extra time to educate themselves a bit before just mailing it in and prodding someone else for the answer. Yeah, we've somehow decided that a DM to someone for a “quick answer” is a better way to acquire knowledge than typing in the keywords, like "what is the nitrogen cycle?" and learning it once and for all.
Obviously, as an industry guy and writer- I'm always going to help those with questions when I can...But I also need to encourage self-research, too. I still need to do better at disseminating information. We all do.
There's blame enough to go around. And to newbies and others in the hobby-my plea to you:
Don't be freaking lazy. The resources are there.
We just have to keep directing people towards them. And people need to use them. And we have to emphasize the fundamentals of the hobby. Not just the cool creative stuff. Sure, not everyone is great at conveying technical concepts to people in an easy-to-understand manner. However, we can try, Because, when no one is doing that, we end up with 14,000 channels on how to "scape a blackwater aquairum" and not a single one explaining what the hell blackwater is, and how to manage the ecology of a blackwater system.
That's a problem, IMHO.
Everyone wants to do the "fun" stuff, hype their sponsors' products, and get all of that recognition. Yet, without discussing the less sexy fundamentals, the "fun stuff" just becomes a waste of precious animal lives and lots of money. People get frustrated and quit the hobby. When I see the words "paid partnership" under an Instagram post lately, I almost reflexively (and often correctly, I'm afraid) assume that it's usually drivel. Because most of the creators- and the brands who sponsor them- have accepted a level of superficiality as the norm. And that's really sad. These people are too talented to waste their followers' precious attention- and their sponsor's money- by producing such mindless fluff.
The "creative" and "trendy" is valued over the substance, even by brands. And the irony is that doing a little more substance in a creative manner is what will sell more product and build a stronger brand in the long run. Yet, it's easier to just pay some "creator" do a fun little video with a bit of hip-hop music, the appropriate sponsor hashtags, and consider it a job well done.
I call bullshit on that.
Brands need to stop paying these "creators" for this garbage.
You can still be creative and edgy and cool while conveying complex or arcane topics... Hell, we do it all the time here (so modest, right?).
Yes, even in the social media "Insta-hype" world we're in, there is room for improvement. I've hit this hard before...we all show too much "finished product" with killer aquascapes and such, and not enough of the less sexy, although way more important process...
There is an easy fix for that one. Just share the process.
Discuss the fundamentals of what you do.
When hobbyists realize it's not just "1-2-3 AWESOME!"- and that there is a little work, and occasional setbacks and struggle involved, expectations are set which assure people go in with their eyes wide open...and stay in. Expectation management via education. And there is a certain responsibility that we as hobbyists take on when keeping live fishes; this needs to be emphasized. And guess what, fellow aquarium brands? They'll still buy your product. In fact, they'll probably be more likely to, because they will have a fundamental understanding for why they need it.
No. The aquarium hobby isn't that easy.
But it's not ridiculously hard, either.
We have a responsibility as hobbyists to keep these precious creatures alive and happy. And we as hobby and industry people have an obligation to tell it like it is. To touch on fundamentals. To explain things. To convey that, while not overly complex, some the underlying information that you need to know to be successful in the hobby is vital. Even if it requires a bit of reading and discussion in order to grasp it. And that it's every bit as interesting as selecting the right stones for your next fantasy 'scape.
In our world, there is a reason why we talk so much about ecology and arcane things, like the idea of allochthonous input into wild aquatic habitats. There is a reason why we devote hundreds of thousands of words to subjects like fungi, biofilms, and detritus. It's because an understanding of these topics is foundational to the work we do as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts. When you understand these things, you're better equipped to understand what's happening in your aquairums.
It would have been much easier for me if I spent the last 6 years writing articles and doing podcasts on how to get the sexy look of a botanical-style aquarium. Yet, it would have left us simply another hollow, vapid purveyor of leaves and seed pods, passing the buck to someone else to cover these ideas, develop the operating fundamentals and philosophies which are applicable to the botanical-style aquarium methodology.
Not on my watch.
I'm going to continue discussing some of these seemingly arcane topics. Why? Well, for several reasons. First, because someone has to do it. Might as well be me; I play with this stuff every day of my life. Second, because it's so important to convey these fundamentals. It builds a movement and reinforces the methodology we all embrace. Third, because I feel that I have a responsibility to the hobby, and to the fishes we love. And finally, because it's hard. It's not easy to distill these complex ideas into digestible information. And that very fact makes it a worthwhile endeavour.
We all need to learn, understand, and share these types of topics.
Success in the aquarium hobby isn't that difficult- after you have a grasp of the fundamentals; an understanding of why we do what we do. However, the hobby isn't "easy" in the sense that you just toss your fishes into the water and call it a day. It takes some work. It should take some work. Because taking care of live animals, some of which are threatened in the wild, is a huge responsibility which should not be taken lightly.
So, maybe the tone of this piece is a little bit dark to some. It shouldn't be interpreted that way. Rather, it's a brutally honest call for us to make a better effort to understand and appreciate just how amazing what we as aquarists do every dingle day, and what responsibility goes along with these achievements. It's a call to wake up- look ourselves in the mirror as hobbyists, content creators, and industry types- and do better.
We can. There is enormous talent out there- and there has never been a time in history when its easier to disseminate useful information to a larger number of interested persons.
We just have to DO it. To not shirk this responsibility- and this gift.
It's not as hard as you think, and the benefits of the effort are remarkable.
Stay honest. Stay reflective. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet.
They say that Nature abhors a vacuum...
Nature also seems to like to accumulate stuff, doesn't it?
Natural watercourses are really good at accumulating terrestrial materials, creating inviting habitats for fishes. They serve not only as physical locales for fishes to forage an hide amongst, they provide a huge habitat for a variety of other organisms which support the fishes.
And of course, these are compelling aquatic features for us fish geeks to replicate in our aquariums, aren't they? They are, and perhaps provide the basic "role model" for the botanical-style aquairum.
These aggregations of materials occur all the time in Nature, and they're caused by a variety of things; typically, weather events, which drive materials off of the trees overhead, or from the surrounding terrestrial habitats into the water. Currents caused by rising water levels move the materials along, until they might be caught up among various benthic features, like fallen trees, branches, rocks, etc.
Yeah, as you'd imagine, stream and river bottom composition is completely affected by things like weather, current, geology, the surrounding terrestrial habitat, and a host of other factors- all of which could make planning your next aquarium even more interesting if you take them into consideration!
According to one study I read, eventually, most of the organic debris is deposited on the stream bottom or drifts downstream until it becomes trapped by a variety of natural obstacles.
If we focus on streams, it's important to note that the volume of water entering the stream, and the depth of the channels it carves out, helps in part determine the amount and size of materials which accumulate, as well as the sediment particles that can be carried along, and thus comprise the substrate of this habitat. .
And of course, the composition of bottom materials and the depth of the channel are always changing in response to the flow in a given stream, affecting the composition and ecology in many ways.
Some leaf litter beds form in what stream ecologists call "meanders", which are stream structures that form when moving water in a stream erodes the outer banks and widens its "valley", and the inner part of the river has less energy and deposits silt- or in our instance, leaves.
There is a whole, fascinating science to river and stream structure, and with so many implications for understanding how these structures and mechanisms affect fish population, occurrence, behavior, and ecology, it's well worth studying for aquarium interpretation! Did you get that part where I mentioned that the lower-energy parts of the water courses tend to accumulate leaves and sediments and stuff?
Likely you did!
Permanent streams will often have different volume and material composition (usually finely-packed sands and gravels, with lots of smooth stones) than more intermittent streams, which are the result of inundation caused by rain, etc.
So-called "ephemeral" streams, typically occur only immediately after rain events (which means they usually don't have fish in them unless they are washed into them from more permanent watercourses). The latter two stream types are typically more affected by leaves, botanical debris, branches, and other materials.
In the Amazon region (you knew I was sort of headed back that way, right?), it sort of works both ways, with the rivers influencing the surrounding land...and then the land "giving" some of the materials back to the rivers...the extensive lowland areas bordering the river and its tributaries, known as varzeas (“floodplains”), are subject to annual flooding, which helps foster enrichment of the aquatic environment.
Land and water, working together, provide and amazing resource for the adventurous and interested hobbyist to explore in greater detail.
The important, and overriding Thieme of many aquatic habitats which we try to replicate in the hobby is that they accumulate quantities of terrestrial materials. These materials don't just impact the physical characteristics of these habitats, they influence the ecology as well. As we know by now, terrestrial materials, when submerged in water, leach soluble compounds into the water, impacting the chemistry.
They also tend to recruit fungal growths and biofilms, which in turn serve to not only decompose the terrestrial materials- they tend to attract fishes to graze upon them! Terrestrial materials form the basis of a rich, surprisingly complex aquatic ecology. A food web arises.
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.
Interestingly, in streams, the primary producers of the food webs that attract our fishes are...algae and diatoms, which are typically found on rocks and wood wherever light and nutrients create optimum conditions for their growth. Organic material that enters streams via leaf fall is acted upon by small organisms, which help break it down.
It is probably no surprise, then, that bacteria (especially in biofilms!) and fungi are the initial consumers of the organic materials that accumulate on the bottom. Like, the stuff many of us loathe. These, in turn, are extremely vital to fishes as a food source. Hence, one of the things I love so much about utilizing a leaf litter bed as a big part of your substrate composition in an aquarium!
We are able to establish rudimentary food webs in our aquariums. It's pretty easy, if we don't try to clean the crap out of our tanks and remove every bit of organic matter which we deem offensive to our aesthetic sensibilities! Remember, all of that material which we freak out about is someone's next meal, isn't it? It's consumed. The various organisms which arise when we allow leaves, branches, seed pods and other materials to accumulate and decompose in our tanks help see to that.
Yes, aquariums are different than wild aquatic habitats, but they have many characteristics which are analogous to them. And, sure, we typically don't maintain completely "open" systems, but I wonder just how much of the ecology of these fascinating habitats we can replicate in our tanks-and what potential benefits may be realized?
I'm willing to bet that it's a lot more than we think. However, we have to start somewhere, right?
It all starts with adding and accumulating terrestrial materials in our tanks, and allowing an ecology to grow up around them. It's that simple- and that complex, right? It falls on us- the hobbyists- NOT to go crazy and try to intervene too much. We need to exercise restraint- to let the natural processes which power our aquariums arise, assemble, and thrive.
That's my continuing challenge to our community..
Yeah, we have to let stuff go a bit. It's really hard for a lot of hobbyists to do this. We're essentially trained from the beginnings of our aquarium experience to scrub, polish, and siphon out everything which doesn't meet some definition of "acceptable."
We've been told that algae growth or fungal growths on our wood or substrate are bad, and must be removed. We've been encouraged to siphon out any decomposing materials, and that stuff like detritus is the source of untold disaster if we let it accumulate in our tanks.
It's hard to make this mental shift. I know. I've been trying to convince people to take this path for the better part of the past decade, and it's finally catching on. Skeptics and haters abound- more than ever, now, as these ideas have gained traction in the aquarium hobby.
It's 100% counterintuitive to everything we've been indoctrinated to believe. And worse, we're asking you to have faith that "stuff will work out" in your tank when you see all of this biofilm and fungal growth, turbid water, decomposition, and perhaps even algae. Stuff that the so-called "Nature Aquairum" crowd would absolutely shit their pants over.
Well, this IS Nature, boys and girls.
This is Planet Earth.
And yeah, you're actually not 100% in control. It's not the sanitized, organized, highly stylized "Nature" of your fantasies. It's the "Nature" that's perfectly imperfect, filled with non-ratioed, seemingly disorganized aggregations of materials, and life forms covering everything. You have to cede some of the work in your tank to Nature. You'll "go through some things." Some of the stuff you'll see will be "ugly" to you.
Or, will it be?
Will you perhaps study some of the wild aquatic habitats of the world where our fishes come from, see what makes them function the way that they do- and draw a parallel between what you're seeing in your tank, and what you're seeing in Nature?
Will you hang on?
Will you "wait out" what appears to be an endless explosion of gooey stringy stuff coming out of your leaves, wood, and and botanicals, and allow your tank to achieve it's own form of equilibrium? Or, will you reach for the siphon hose and pull it all out, disrupting some of Natures's most elegant, valuable, and efficient processes in order to "re-set" and achieve some sort of "instant gratification" that you were told that a spotless, sterile-looking tank will provide?
Yeah. Re-setting the whole thing.
Doing things the way we've done them in then hobby for decades because they give you the predictable results in a short amount of time...
Or, will you see the real beauty of unedited Nature in your very own tank? And the amazing way Nature works it out...If you let Her.
That's the adventure- the challenge of the botanical-style aquarium. A methodology filled with inexact, unconventional, yet well-known natural processes. A methodology which asks you to make some leaps of faith, some educated guesses, and to play some hunches. An evolving, not entirely predictable path to a dynamic, truly remarkable aquarium.
You can do this. You might fail, but you'll likely succeed, especially if you put your faith in Nature.
Be strong. Be patient. Be experimental.
Hang on through the weird, uncomfortable, uncertain, unknown stuff. It's worth it.
Stay bold. Stay open minded. Stay curious. Stay the course...
And Stay Wet.
I've always been fascinated by environments which transform from dry, terrestrial ones to lush aquatic ones during the course of the year. I remember as a kid visiting a little depression in a field near my home , which, every spring, with the rains would turn into a little pond, complete with frogs, Fairy Shrimp, and other life forms. I used to love exploring it, and was utterly transfixed by the unique and dynamic seasonal transition.
The thrill and fascination of seeing that little depression in the ground, which I later learned was called a "vernal" or "temporal" pool by ecologists, never quite left me. As a fish geek, I knew that one day I'd be able to incorporate what I had seen into my fish keeping hobby...somehow.
About 5 years ago, I got a real "bug up my ass", as they say, about the flooded forests of South America. There is something alluring to me about the way these habitats transition between terrestrial and aquatic at certain times of the year. The migration of fishes and the emergence of aquatic life forms in a formerly terrestrial environment fascinates me- as does the tenacity of the terrestrial organisms which hang on during these periods of inundation.
So, I began playing with aquariums configured to replicate the function and form of these unique habitats. I spent a lot of time studying the components of the Igapo and Varzea environments- the soils, plants, fauna, etc., and learning the influences which lead to their creation and function.
Once I had a grasp of the way these dynamic ecologies work, the task of attempting to recreate them in the aquarium became more realistic and achievable. I realized that, although hobbyists have created what they call "Igapo" simulations in biotope contests for years, for example, it was always a representation of the "wet" season. Essentially a living "diorama" of sorts. Not really a true simulation of the seasonal dynamics which create these habitats.
They were cool, but something was somehow missing to me. With those representations, you throw in some leaves, twigs, and seed pods, maybe a few plants, and call your tank a "flooded forest." I mean, essentially a botanical-style aquairum, although the emphasis was on appearance, not function. That wasn't really that difficult to do, nor much of a advancement in the current state of the art of aquarium keeping. I could do that already. Rather, I wanted to recreate the process- all of it- or as much as possible- in my aquariums.
Thus, the idea of the "Urban Igapo"- a functional representation of a transitional aquatic habitat was born.
The concept behind the "Urban Igapo" is pretty straightforward:
The idea is to replicate to a certain extent, the seasonal inundation of the forests and grasslands of of Amazonia by starting the tank in a 'terrestrial phase", then slowly inundating it with water over a period of weeks or more; then, running the system in an "aquatic phase" for the duration of the 'wet season", then repeating the process again and again.
Because you can do this in the comfort of your own home, we called the concept the "Urban Igapo." About 2 years ago, we went more in depth with some of the procedures and techniques that you'd want to incorporate into your own executions of the idea.
As with so many things in the modern aquarium hobby, there is occasionally some confusion and even misunderstandings about why the hell we do this in the first place!
Well, that's a good question! I mean, the whole idea of this particular approach is to replicate as faithfully as possible the seasonal wet/dry cycles which occur in these habitats. It starts with a dry or terrestrial environment, managed as such for an extended period of time, which is gradually flooded to simulate inundation which occurs when the rainy season commences and swollen rivers and streams overflow into the forest or grassland.
Sure, you can replicate the "wet season" only- absolutely. I've seen tons of tanks created by hobbyists to do this. However, if you want to replicate the seasonal cycle- the real magic of this approach- you'll find as I did that it's more fun to do the "dry season!"
Think of it in the context of what the aquatic environment is- a forest floor or grassland which has been flooded. If you develop the "hardscape" (gulp) for your tank with that it mind, it starts making more sense. What do you find on a forest floor or grassland habitat? Soil, leaf litter, twigs, seed pods, branches, grasses, and plants.
Just add water, right?
Well, sort of.
Now, recently, one of my friends who was presenting his experiences with this approach was just getting pounded on a forum by some, well- let's nicely call them "skeptics"- you know, the typical internet-brave "armchair expert" types- about why you'd do this and how it can't lead to a stable aquarium and how it's "not a blackwater aquarium" (okay, it wasn't presented as such, but it could be...) and that it's just a "dry start" (Well, sort of, but you have to understand the concept behind it, dude), and that you don't need to do it this way and...well- that kind of stuff.
I mean, the full compliment of negative, ignorant, questions by people clearly frightened about someone trying to do something a little differently. In a typical display of online-warrior hypocrisy, one particularly nasty hack did not even bother to research the idea or think about what it was really trying to do before laying into my friend.
Apparently, for these people, there was a lot to unpack.
I mean, first of all, the idea was not intended to be a "dry start" planted tank. It just wasn't. I mean, it starts out "dry", but that's where the similarity ends. This ignorant comment is a classic example of the way some hobbyists make assumptions based on a superficial understanding of something.
We aren't trying to grow aquatic plants here. It's about creating a habitat of terrestrial plants snd grasses, allowing them to establish, snd then inundating the display. Most of the terrestrial grasses will simply not survive extended periods of time submerged. Now, you COULD add adaptable aquatic plants- there are no "rules"- but the intention was to replicate a seasonal dynamic.
The other point, which is utterly lost on some people, is that establishing a "transitional" environment in an aquarium takes time and patience. One dummy literally called the process "complete nonsense" and a "waste of time." This is exactly the kind of self-righteous, ignorant hobbyist who will never get it. In fact, I'm surprised guys like that actually have any success at anything in the hobby.
Such a dismissive and judgmental attitude.
The wet season in The Amazon runs from November to June. And it rains almost every day. And what's really interesting is that the surrounding Amazon rain forest is estimated by some scientists to create as much as 50% of its own precipitation! Think about THAT for a minute. It does this via the humidity present in the forest itself, from the water vapor present on plant leaves- which contributes to the formation of rain clouds.
Yeah, trees in the Amazon release enough moisture through photosynthesis to create low-level clouds and literally generate rain, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)!
But it makes a lot of sense, right?
Yet another reason why we need to protect these precious habitats. You cut down a tree in the Amazon- you're literally reducing the amount of rain that can be produced.
It's that simple.
That's really important. It's more than just a cool "cocktail party sound bite."
So what happens to the (aquatic) environment in which our fishes live in when it rains? What does the rain actually do?
Well, for one thing, rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia, for example- is the evolution of our most compelling environmental niches. The water levels in the rivers rise significantly. often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams.
The Igapos are formed.
Flooded forest floors.
The formerly terrestrial environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and spawning areas.
All of the botanical material-shrubs, grasses, fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute the leaves and seed pods and branches into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape.
Leaves begin to accumulate.
Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans multiply rapidly. Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.
So, yeah, the rains have a huge impact on tropical aquatic ecosystems. And it's important to think of the relationship between the terrestrial habitat and the aquatic one when visualizing the possibilities of replicating nature in your aquarium in this context.
It's an intimate, interrelated, "codependent" sort of arrangement!
To replicate this process is really not difficult. The challenging part is to separate what we are trying to do here from our preconceptions about how an aquarium should work. To understand that the resulting aquatic display won't initially look or function like anything that we're already familiar with.
While it superficially resembles the "dry start" method that many aquatic plant enthusiasts play with, it's important to remember that our goal isn't to start plants for a traditional aquarium. It's to establish terrestrial growth and to facilitate a microbiome of organisms which help create this habitat. It's to replicate, on some levels, the year-round dynamic of the Amazonian forests. We favor terrestrial plants- and grasses-grown from seed, to start the "cycle."
So, those of you who are ready to downplay the significance of experimenting with this stuff because "people have done 'dry start' planted tanks for years", take comfort in the fact that I recognize that, and acknowledge that we're taking a slightly different approach here, okay?
You'll need to create a technical means or set of procedures to gradually flood your "rainforest floor" in your tank, which could be accomplished manually, by simply pouring water into the vivarium over a series of days; or automatically, with solenoids controlling valves from a reservoir beneath the setup, or perhaps employing the "rain heads" that frog and herp people use in their systems. This is all very achievable, even for hobbyists like me with limited "DIY" skills.
You just have to innovate, and be willing to do a little busy work. You can keep it incredibly simple, and just utilize a small tank.
You must be patient.
And of course, there are questions. Here are some of the major/common ones we receive about this concept:
Does the grass and plants that you've grown in the "dry season" survive the inundation?
A great question. Some do, some don't. (How's that for concise info!). I've played with grasses which are immersion tolerant, such as Paspalum. This stuff will "hang around" for a while while submerged for about a month and a half to two months, in my experience, before ultimately succumbing. Sometimes it comes back when the "dry season" returns. However, when it doesn't survive, it decomposes in the now aquatic substrate, and adds to the biological diversity by cultivating fungi and bacteria.
You can use many plants which are riparian in nature or capable of growing emmersed, such as my fave, Acorus, as well as all sorts of plants, even aquatics, like Hydrocotyle, Cryptocoryne, and others. These can, of course, survive the transition between aquatic and "terrestrial" environments.
How long does the "dry season" have to last?
Well, if you want to mimic one of these habitats in the most realistic manner possible, follow the exact wet and dry seasons as you'd encounter in the locale you're inspired by. Alternatively, I'd at least go 2 months "dry" to encourage a nice growth of grasses and plants prior to inundation.
And of course, you cans do this over and over again! If you're trying to keep fishes like annual killifishes, the "dry season" could be used on the incubation period of their eggs.
When you flood the tank, doesn't it make a cloudy mess? Does the water quality decline rapidly?
Sure, when you add water to what is essentially a terrestrial "planter box", you're going to get cloudiness, from the sediments and other materials present in the substrate. You will have clumps of grasses or other botanical materials likely floating around for a while.
Surprisingly, in my experience, the water quality stays remarkably good for aquatic life. Now, I'm not saying that it's all pristine and crystal clear; however, if you let things settle out a bit before adding fishes, the water clears up and a surprising amount of life (various microorganisms like Paramecium, bacteria, etc.) emerges.
Curiously, I personally have NOT recorded ammonia or nitrite spikes following the inundation. That being said, you can and should test your water before adding fishes. You can also dose bacterial inoculants, like our own "Culture" or others, into the water to help. The Purple Non-Sulphur bacteria in "Culture" are extremophiles, particularly well adapted to the dynamics of the wet/dry environment.
Should I use a filter in the "wet season?"
You certainly can. I've gone both ways, using a small internal filter or sponge filter in some instances. I've also played with simply using an air stone. Most of the time, I don't use any filtration. I just conduct partial water exchanges like I would with any other tank- although I take care not to disturb the substrate too much if I can. When I scaled up my "Urban Igapo" experiments to larger tanks (greater than 10 gallons), Il incorporated a filters with no issues.
A lot of what we do is simply letting Nature "take Her course."
Ceding a lot of the control to Nature is hard for some to quantify as a "technique" or "method", so I get it. At various phases in the process, our "best practice" might be to simply observe...
And with plant growth slowing down, or even going completely dormant while submerged, the utilization of nutrients via their growth diminishes, and aquatic life forms (biofilms, algae, aquatic plants, and various bacteria, microorganisms, and microcrustaceans) take over. There is obviously an initial "lag time" when this transitional phase occurs- a time when there is the greatest opportunity for one life form or another (algae, bacterial biofilms, etc.) to become the dominant "player" in the microcosm.
It's exactly what happens in Nature during this period, right?
And there are parallels in the management of aquariums.
In our aquarium practice, it's the time when you think about the impact of technique-such as water exchanges, addition of aquatic plants, adding fishes, reducing light intensity and photoperiod, etc. and (again) observation to keep things in balance- at least as much as possible. You'll question yourself...and wonder if you should intervene- and how..
It's about a number of measured moves, any of which could have significant impact- even "take over" the system- if allowed to do so. This is part of the reason why we don't currently recommend playing with the Urban Igapo idea on a large-tank scale just yet. (that, and the fact that we're not going to be geared up to produce thousands of pounds of the various substrates just yet! 😆)
Until you make those mental shifts to accept all of this stuff in one of these small tanks, the idea of replicating this in 40-50, or 100 gallons is something that you may want to hold off on for just a bit.
I mean, if you understand and accept the processes, functions, and aesthetics of this stuff, maybe you wouldwant to "go big" on your first attempt. However, I think you need to try it on a "nano scale" first, to really "acclimate" to the idea.
The idea of accepting Nature as it is makes you extremely humble, because there is a realization at some point that you're more of an "interested observer" than an "active participant." It's a dance. One which we may only have so much control- or even understanding of! That's part of the charm, IMHO.
These habitats are a remarkable "mix" of terrestrial and aquatic elements, processes, and cycles. There is a lot going on. It's not just, "Okay, the water is here- now it's a stream!"
Nope. There is a lot of stuff to consider.
In fact, one of the arguments one could make about these "Urban Igapo" systems is that you may not want to aggressively intervene during the transition, because there is so much going on! Rather, you may simply want toobserve and study the processes and results which occur during this phase. Personally, I've noticed that the "wet season" changes in my UI tanks generally happen slowly, but you will definitely notice them as they occur.
After you've run through two or three complete "seasonal transition cycles" in your "Urban Igapo", you'll either hate the shit out of the idea- or you'll fall completely in love with it, and want to do more and more work in this alluring little sub-sector of the botanical-style aquarium world.
The opportunity to learn more about the unique nuances which occur during the transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic habitat is irresistible to me. Of course, I'm willing to accept all of the stuff with a very open mind. Typically, it results in a fascinating, utterly beautiful, and surprisingly realistic representation of what happens in Nature.
It's also entirely possible to have your "Urban Igapo" turn into an "Urban Algae Farm" if things get out of balance. Yet, it can "recover" from this. Again, even the fact that a system is "out of balance" doesn't mean that it's a failure. After all, the algae is thriving, right? That's a success. Life forms have adapted. A cause to celebrate.
It happens in Nature, too!
So, that's a brief rundown on the dynamics and challenges of the "Urban Igapo" concept. It will be exciting to see how each of us evolves the idea further!
Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay curious...
And Stay Wet.