One of the more remarkable things about the botanical-method aquarium approach is that it offers us a unique insight into the operation of many wild aquatic habitats. These habitats are tremendously influenced by their surrounding terrestrial environment. The very soils which make up the substrate, and the fallen tree trunks, leaves, and seed pods present in the water cement the relationship between land and water.
The "operating system" of a botanical method aquairum, as we've discussed many times before, is literally driven by the presence of these materials.
A few days ago, I was doing a small water exchange in one of my personal botanical method aquariums, and I reached in to move a seed pod away from the siphon hose (so that it wouldn't block it), and it promptly disintegrated in my fingers! Another botanical did its job, gradually releasing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds into the water over the months, until finally decomposing back into its (likely) near-inert constituent parts.
This is the essence of what we call have called "habitat enrichment" over the years-the imparting of beneficial substances and materials into the overall aquatic environment via botanical materials. Of course, as we've reiterated before here, we can't say exactly what they are imparting, and how much.
We can conclude via observation, that they are contributing...something...to the aquatic environment.
This submerged botanical, like many others in the tank, contributed greatly to the microbiome of the system. Fishes foraged upon its surfaces, shrimp consumed its lignin-rich tissues, and fungal growths, biofilms, and microorganisms flourished on its matrix of interstitial surfaces.
The "end" of this botanical's "service life" was symbolic, in a way, of what takes place in our aquariums: Fungi, bacteria, algae...indeed, the water itself all conspire to erode, degrade, and ultimately, decompose these materials...a real "cycle of life." As I continued with my weekly maintenance, I siphoned out a few stray pieces of broken-down leaves and added some new ones.
Adding new botanicals serves the multifold purpose of resupplying the organisms at the base of the microbiome with a new food source, keeping the water visually "tinted", the physical environment consistent, and the look and vibe of the tank "fresh"- so similar to what goes on in Nature, when old leaves break down, and new ones fall into bodies of water to take their place.
New leaves and botanical materials are a sort of a biological/chemical "shot in the arm" for our aquariums.
Some of the most amazing comments we receive after sharing underwater pics of the wild habitats of Amazonia and elsewhere are from hobbyists who, at first, thought that some of these pics were from someones' aquarium! In a few instances, some of the close ups of botanical-themed aquaria are virtually indistinguishable from wild scenes!
This is a real turning point in the history of natural aquarium keeping, IMHO. One in which the function of the aquariums we are creating trumps the aesthetics...or, perhaps better put- the function and natural processes drive the aesthetics..and it's an incredible replication of what you'd encounter in Nature!
By facilitating these natural processes within the aquairum- not resisting them, we've fostered in an entirely new approach to creating truly "natural" aquairums in the hobby!
Blurring the lines between Nature and the aquarium, at the very least, from an aesthetic sense- and in many aspects, from a "functional" sense, proves just how far today's hobbyists have come...how damn good you are at what you do. And how much more you can do when you turn to Nature as an inspiration, and embrace it for what it is.
Many of our most incredible natural aquariums are replications of what I like to call "opportunistic habitats"- or habitats which arise in Nature because of some specific events or occurrences, like seasonal inundation, sediment accumulation, and fallen trees.
It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall in the rain forest, with punishing rain and saturated ground conspiring to easily knock over anything that's not firmly rooted. When these trees fall over, they often fall into small streams, or in the case of the varzea or igapo environments in The Amazon that I'm totally obsessed with, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.
And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions: Providing a physical barrier or separation from currents, offering territories for fishes to spawn in, providing a substrate for fungi and biofilms to multiply on, a space for leaves to accumulate, and places for fishes forage among, and hide in.
An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks and parts will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.
What an incredible dynamic!
Let's focus on this "ecological component" for just a bit. Let's review what happens when a tree falls...literally!
Shortly after falling into the water, fungi and other microorganisms act to colonize the surfaces, and biofilms populate the bark and exposed surfaces of the tree. Over time, the tree will impart many chemical substances, (lignin, humic acids, tannins, sugars, etc.) into the water as the bark breaks down and the tree itself softens.
In aquatic ecosystems, much of the initial breakdown of botanical materials is conducted by detritivores- specifically, fishes, aquatic insects and invertebrates, which serve to begin the process by feeding upon the tissues of the seed pod or leaf, while other species utilize the "waste products" which are produced during this process for their nutrition.
In these habitats, such as streams and flooded forests, a variety of species work in tandem with each other, with various organisms carrying out different stages of the decomposition process.
The fallen tree literally brings new life to the waters.
I can't stress enough how interesting and important this transformation of the terrestrial environment to the aquatic one is. It helps explain so much of why the aquatic habitats look and function the way they do, and how they impact the life forms which make use of them.
The materials that comprise the tree are known in ecology as "allochthonous material"- something imported into an ecosystem from outside of it. (extra points if you can pronounce the word on the first try!) We've talked about that stuff for a while now, right?
And of course, in the case of fallen trees, this includes includes leaves, fruits and seed pods that fall, or are washed into the water along with the branches and trunks that topple into the stream.
All of this can be replicated, to a certain extent, in the confines of an aquarium. You just need to use some larger pieces of wood or branches.
Now, there are many aquarists who would make the case that you can't make big, gnarly pieces of wood "work" in an aquarium because of their impact on "ratio" and "proportion", etc... You know, the "artistic" part.
And to these types, I gently admonish you to check out the works of some talented 'scapers, like our friend, Mitch Mazur, who have made that now-famous "mental shift" to work with Nature in an artistic interpretation...
These pleas and "look what HE did!" sort of arguments are almost a "prerequisite" of late when I talk about any idea that has an "aesthetic" component to it, because the self-appointed "guardians of aquascaping style" seem to come out of the woodwork (lol) after these discussions, reciting dozens of well-rehearsed reasons why the concept won't work, rather than even trying to do something similar.
To that, of course, I call, "Bullshit!"
Yeah, a big piece of wood or dense aggregation of smaller pieces in an aquarium does create some challenges, but most of them are in our head. Hell, Takashi Amano himself did a few amazing tanks with huge pieces of wood years ago. Remember?
And of course, when we utilize a large piece of wood (relative to the aquarium's water volume), it has a chemical and physical impact on the aquatic environment that is...hey- sort of similar to that which occurs in Nature, right?
Function and aesthetics are linked. In Nature, and in the aquarium!
And, look- I'm not telling you to turn your back on the modern popular aquascaping scene; to disregard or dismiss the brilliant work being done by aquascapers around the world, to completely eschew aesthetics, or to develop a sense of superiority and snobbery, and conclude that everyone who loves that kind of stuff is a sheep...
Not at all.
I'm simply the guy who's passing along the gentle reminder from Nature that we have this great source of inspiration that literally "works!" Rejoice in the fact that Nature offers an endless variety of beauty, abundance, and challenge- and that it's all there, free for us to interpret it as we like. It's not all perfect "rule of thirds" or flawless layouts and such.
Lots of places in Nature, beautiful though they may be, are a bit "rougher around the edges" than some aquarists seem to want to accept. Not all, but some.
And the rest of us?
We see the beauty in the apparent chaos and randomness.
We just happen to like things bit more, well- "natural" than others...
Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay intrigued. Stay studious. Stay open-minded.
Blur the lines.
And Stay Wet.
Assumptions about various things in the aquarium hobby are quite pervasive. Especially assumptions based on aesthetics or appearances. For example, our hobby seems to place a heavy emphasis on the color of the water in botanical method aquariums.
The deeply tinted water in many of the fantastic aquariums we see shared on social media seems to imply to many that these "tinted" aquariums feature "soft, acidic" water conditions as a matter of course- something that we erroneously assume.
And a fair number of hobbyists, upon embarking on their first adventure with botanical materials, express frustration, confusion, and dismay that their hard, alkaline tap water is still, hard and alkaline! This type of confusion in likely cause by a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of aquarium water chemistry, and what exactly "blackwater" is.
Understand that, as we've said many times here, botanicals (AKA "expensive botanicals" as one armchair expert referred to them recently) will not create soft, acidic "blackwater conditions" without other measures being taken by the hobbyist.
Yes, the water color is a cool “collateral benefit” and worthy of celebration - but it doesn’t really mean all THAT much, in actuality, does it? Sure- it means that leaves, seed pods, etc. have imparted their color-producing tannins into the water…but, which ones (there are hundreds!), and in what concentration? And what does it mean to your fishes?
Color alone is not an indication of the pH, dKH, or TDS of your water.. It's not an indicator of water quality. In actuality, it’s little more than an indicator that some of these materials are dissolving into the water.
Yet, we in the hobby make claims.
And we make recommendations based off of them...
And at best, they’re subjective guesses. How much tannin or other compounds are in a given botanical is, without very specific bioassays and highly specialized equipment- simply a guess on our part.
I think about it a lot..
For us to make "dosing" recommendations based on theoretical concentrations of various compounds thought to be present in a given botanical is simply irresponsible and not grounded in fact. Sure, we tell you that, based upon our experience, a given wood or seed pod, or leaf will color the water a darker color than another...but, again, what does that mean, really?
Not that much.
Again, the color of the water is absolutely not an indication of anything- other than the fact that tint producing types of tannins are present. It's an "aesthetic factor"- that's it. It doesn’t tell you what the pH, dKH, or TDS of the water are.. let alone, how much of what types and forms of tannins are present…
Yet, we in the hobby are continuously making this "crossover assumption," if not in our minds, on our social media feeds and ads as vendors. It's another example of us dumbing shit down to make things more "accessible" to hobbyists. How does dumbing stuff down make things more "accessible?" Is that what the hobby needs: Marginally educated, yet highly "entertained" hobbyists, with their eager minds filled with drivel and supposition instead of some of the "boring" stuff, then continuing to dutifully pass it along to fellow hobbyists as if it means something...
Ya know, ignoring facts?
Final thoughts on the "water color" thing:
What does the color of the water mean, from an environmental standpoint?
Quite honestly, we don’t really know! We need more information. That’s where the power of our observations and experiences can help fill in some of the mystery. Advanced water testing and monitoring will also help.. however, the reality is that we have more questions than answers, and likely will for some time!
There is nothing wrong with speculation, and researching stuff to attempt to validate or disprove our theories...as long as we're open-minded and follow the facts, whenever possible.
Sleuthing as a hobbyist is cool.
I went through this phase myself...And, being the geek that I am, I went to extraordinary lengths to try to correlate specific environmental conditions, or the presence of specific compounds in the water with the use of botanical materials in our tanks. A few years back, I was really "hair-on-fire" about this. It was a real area of "speculative science"...not exactly scholarly, but fun for a hobbyist, sure.
Here's a story that might interest you:
I was visiting a killifish forum on Facebook one night, and one of the participants was discussing some new fishes he obtained. One was from a rare genus called Episemion. Weird, because it is a fish that falls genetically halfway between Epiplatys and Aphyosemion.
Even more interesting to me was the discussion that it's notoriously difficult to spawn, and that it is only found in a couple of places in The Congo.
And even more interesting was that it is in a region known for high levels of selenium in the soil...And that's VERY interesting. Selenium is known to be nutritionally beneficial to higher animals and humans at a concentration of 0.05-0.10ppm. It's an essential component of many enzymes and proteins, and deficiencies are known to cause diseases.
One of its known health benefits for animal is that it plays a key role in immune and reproductive functions!
Okay, that perhaps helps explain the "difficult to breed" part? Sounds like the fishes need higher levels of selenium than we generally provide in aquarium water, right?
Selenium occurs in soil associated with sulfide minerals. It's found in plants at varying concentrations which are dictated by the pH, moisture content, and other factors of the soil they reside in. Soils which contain high concentration of selenium are found in greater concentration certain tropical regions.
But, how much do we need to provide our Episemion in order for them to reproduce more easily...or DO we, even need them? And how do we provide elevated selenium levels in the aquarium?
Now, soil is perhaps one way, right? Yet, I'm doubtful that we know the specific concentrations of selenium in many of the planted aquarium substrates out on the market, and most hobbyists aren't just throwing in that "readily available" tropical Congo soil that you can pick up at any LFS in their tanks, right? 😜
So, how would we get more selenium into our tanks for our killies?
My thought was that perhaps botanicals could be one way. I rationalized that maybe decomposing botanicals from plants known to contain higher levels of selenium in them could impart this compound into the water! What botanical comes from a plant which is known to have elevated levels of selenium?
The Brazil nut is known to have selenium. It comes from a botanical that we are familiar with in the botanical aquarium world...
The "Monkey Pot!"
Yes- it's technically a fruit capsule, produced from the abundant tree, Lecythis pisonis, native to South America -most notably, the Amazonian region. Astute, particularly geeky readers of "The Tint" will recognize the name as a derivative of the family Lecythidaceae, which just happens to be the family in which the genus Cariniana is located...you know, the "Cariniana Pod." Yeah...this family has a number of botanical-producing trees in it, right?
Ahh...it's also known as the taxonomic family which contains the genus Bertholletia- the genus which contains the tree, Bertholletia excelsa- the bearer of the "Brazil Nut." You know, the one that comes in the can of "mixed nuts" that no one really likes? The one that, if you buy it in the shell, you need a freakin' sledge hammer to crack?
Yeah. That one.
(Craving more useless Brazil Nut trivia?
Check this out: Because of their larger size size, they tend to rise to the top of the can of mixed nuts from vibrations which are encountered during transport...this is a textbook example of the physics concept of granular convection- which for this reason is frequently called...wait for it...the "Brazil Nut effect." (I am totally serious!)
Okay, anyways...I went way too far off course here.)
So, yeah, I thought I was on to something...
I was wondering it would be possible to somehow utilize the "Monkey Pot" in a tank with these fishes to perhaps impart some additional selenium into the water? Okay, this begs additional questions? How much? How rapidly? In what form? Wouldn't it be easier to just grind up some Brazil nuts and toss 'em in? Or would the fruit capsule itself have a greater concentration of selenium? Would it even leach into the water?
Where the ---- am I going with my sharing of my exercise?
I'm just sort of taking you out on the ledge here; demonstrating how the idea of making speculations can potentially yield some practical solutions, if you can actually verify through testing or practical experimentation. However, we can't "default" assume that "Monkey Pots in aquarium= Elevated selenium levels". We can only speculate, in the absence of proper, legit lab tests. Perhaps we can find anecdotal evidence to support our theories, but that's often about all we can do.
But we can't dumb it down by making our speculations "factual"...
We talk a lot here about utilizing botanicals to provide "functional aesthetics" at the every least, a possibility to help solve some potential challenges in the hobby. THAT is a good start. It's kind of a safe "catch all", which leaves open the possibility of proving or disproving more intensive assumptions, though. It doesn't really adamantly assume anything that cannot be proven through observation.
Yet, we in the hobby and industry (present company included) have continuously spouted speculation on the various "other benefits" of botanical materials as if they are a given. Like, this is something that we have done with Catappa leaves forever. You've seen my blogs questioning the carte blanche accessions that we in the industry heap on to vendors' assertions about the alleged health benefits that they are purported to offer fishes. Some is pure marketing bullshit. Some of it IS perhaps, legit, proven in lab experiments.
Yet, I think it's worth continuously investigating this stuff; experimenting on a practical level as hobbyists-"end users"- when possible, to see if there is some merit to these claims...right?
We need to connect observation and investigation with the practical application of patience.
Yeah, our old friend, patience. Patience is simply fundamental in the botanical-method aquarium world, and it can truly make the difference between success and failure.
Observation and attempting to ascertain what's going on in your tank "real time" are key practices that we need to embrace in order to determine what, if any benefits botanicals are bringing to the fight.
Yes, I know, we talk a lot about patience here, especially in the context of working with our botanical-style blackwater aquariums. We've pretty much "force-fed" you the philosophy of not rushing the evolution of your aquarium, of hanging on during the initial breakdown of the botanicals, not freaking out when the biofilms and fungal growths appear...
Embracing the process.
Not giving in to preconceived notions about we're told should happen in our tanks, one way or another.
What goes hand-in-hand with patience is the concept of...well, how do I put it eloquently...leaving "well enough alone"- not messing with stuff. In the context of trying to get fishes to breed, this is always a bit of a challenge, isn't it?
Yeah, just not intervening in your aquarium when no intervention is really necessary is not easy for many aspiring hobbyists. I mean, sure, it's important to take action in your aquarium when something looks like it's about to "go south", as they say- but the reality is that good things in an aquarium happen slowly, and if things seem to be moving on positive arc, you need not "prod" them any further.
I think this is one of the most underrated mindsets we can take as aquarium hobbyists. Now, mind you- I'm not telling you to take a laissez-faire attitude about managing your aquariums. However, what I am suggesting is that pausing to contemplate what will happen if you intervene is sometimes more beneficial than just "jumping in" and taking some action without considering the long-term implications of it. It's one thing to be "decisive"- quite another to be "overreactive!"
However, it's easy to forget when its "your babies", right? Online aquarium forums are filled with frantic questions from members about any number of "problems" happening in their aquariums, a good percentage of which are nothing to worry about. You see many of these hobbyists describe "adding 100 mg of _______ the next day, but nothing changed..." (probably because nothing was wrong in the first place!).
Now, sure, sometimes there ARE significant problems that we freak out about, and should jump on-but we have to "pick our battles", don't we? Otherwise, every time we see something slightly different in our tank we'd be reaching for the medication, the additives, or adding another gadget (a total reefer move, BTW), etc.
Let Nature take Her course on some things.
Understand that our closed systems are still little "microcosms", subject to the rules laid down by the Universe. Realize that sometimes- more often than you might think- it's a good idea to "leave well enough alone!" Make good hypothesis, but don't push out highly speculative over generalizations as "the gospel" on something...
And circling back- we as hobbyists should hesitate to make quick, unverifiable assumptions based only on aesthetics.. We can and should enjoy them, but we need to think about how the aesthetics are kind of a “byproduct” of some sort of biochemical process.. it’s all a grand experiment, and we’re all a part of it!
We can do better. And we should want to... Studying what actually occurs in our tanks is not that hard! And in fact, you'll find that the pretty pics of tanks we all love some much will take on so much more meaning when we understand the function- and some of the science behind them.
Stay educated. Stay informed. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay enthusiastic...
And Stay Wet.
As I ease back into the world of Tannin and botanical method aquariums, I think it's important to hit on some of the foundational philosophies, ideas, and "truths" that form the basis of our approach once again.
As I've reiterated time and again lately, upon my return from my self-imposed "sabbatical", I noticed a creeping, slowly-evolving "dumbing down" of what we do, placing higher emphasis on aesthetics than function in the popular social media.
Too many hobbyists have worked too hard for too long to research, understand, and develop this approach to allow it to become a "style of aquascaping", or to simply lose sight of what really drives these types of tanks...Nature.
Not goofy-sounding botanicals, "influencers", or entertaining YouTube videos. Not even our brand or the brands of my industry "besties" ( BWUK and Betta Botanicals).
We get that.
You need to, as well.
Although I'm the first person to tell you to enjoy the hobby how you want to, I'm also going to be the first guy to (metaphorically) "whack the hobby upside its head" when the situation dicates. As long as I'm cognitively functional and breathing, I'll continue to push out "the boring stuff" as required to keep this a methodology, not a Tok Tok trend, meme, or otherwise bubbly social media splash.
Yeah, I sort of pledged to myself a while back that, for every one of these dumbed down exercises in vapidity which I encounter on social media, I'm going to counter with something deeper, more informative, and more instructive... So, based on the current state of things, I'll be really f--king busy for the foreseeable future!
Honestly, the hobby doesn't have to be childish, vapid, and trendy to be fascinating and fun. It never did, and it doesn't have to be now. Nor does it need to be boring, snobby, or exclusive to be fun and cool. There IS a middle ground between some of the garbage that prevails in the hobby, and the boring stereotype of a bunch of old timers sitting around chugging beers, lamenting about how the hobby used to be cool when everyone had to build their own tanks and collect their own Daphnia and Tubifex worms
I think the recent audience numbers of "The Tint" podcast bare this out...They're really growing! There seems to be a "hunger" for more fundamental, deeper information on botanical-method aquariums.
That's super encouraging!
At it's core, what we do is about ecology. Or, rather, the development of an ecological system within our aquariums.
The development of an ecology based on botanical materials is foundational to the successful function of our aquariums- even if it looks a bit "unusual" to many! If we embark on a botanical-method aquarium journey with the mindset that we're helping to encourage the development of an ecological system in our tank, not just a "cool aquascape", the whole thing is that much better.
And guess what?
When you work with Nature to foster such an ecosystem, the cool aesthetics almost always follow...
There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating the process of an ecological system "sorting itself out" in our tanks is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-functioning - and natural-looking- aquarium.
The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your established aquarium when they see it for the first time.
We ask everyone who plays in the botanical-method aquairum world to be open-minded about accepting all sorts of unusual things. Things which, in our previous hobby experience freaked us out to no end!
It's a lot to ask, I'm sure. I mean, the idea of embracing an aquarium which looks and functions in a manner which is essentially contrary to virtually everything you've been brought up to believe in the hobby requires a certain leap of faith, doesn't it?
Yes, it's about aesthetics...but it's more about the beautiful function of botanical materials and soils which influence the chemical environment of the aquarium- just like they do in Nature.
There are aesthetic factors that you need to embrace to really appreciate what we do. They require fundamental shifts in our thinking about what is "cool" and "acceptable" in the aquarium hobby.
Of all the mental shifts asked of those who play in this arena, accepting the formation of biofilms is likely the biggest "ask" of all! Their very appearance- although indicative of a properly functioning ecosystem, simply looks like something that we as hobbyists should loathe.
This is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in Nature.
Biofilms on decomposing leaves are pretty much the foundation for the food webs in rivers and streams throughout the world. They are of fundamental importance to aquatic life.
Fungi tend to colonize wood and botanical materials, because they offer them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin- the major components of wood and botanical materials- are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials!
Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
In aquarium work, we see fungal colonization on wood and leaves all the time. Most hobbyists will look on in sheer horror if they saw this extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces! Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in Nature!
When we start one of these aquariums, I think that it's important that we go in with the understanding that Nature gets to do a lot of the "work"- if we let Her.
Let me finish by clarifying a few things.
I suppose my "attack on vapidity" sounds judgmental, hard, egotistical, and perhaps envious to some. Lest you think that it is, I beg to differ. Rather, I think it's just really important to have a greater understanding than our current state of culture deems necessary. You're NOT to damn "busy" to learn more about the hobby you love. You're NOT intellectually incapable. You're NOT supposed to be a pHd, or held to dogmatic thinking- even mine.
However, you, me- everyone- we ALL have a responsibility- to the hobby, the fishes we love, and to Nature Herself. A responsibility to take care of each other, the hobby, and the natural world.
And that starts with understanding what we do on a deeper level than a few dozen characters, a meme, or a cute, flashy video short can ever hope to convey.
From a "hobby culture" standpoint, we need to have a good understanding of what we talk about. And we need to ditch the pretentiousness. No one owns the damn title of "botanical method aquarium characteristics" or whatever.
Sure, some people might understand more about specific topics than others do, but their obligation at that point is to share, encourage, and mentor others- not to be a pretentious loudmouth bully. And not to keep dumbing stuff down in the belief that doing so will "reach a wider audience."
Reach people by teaching people everything...not just by sugar coating a few select topics that make a good video short.
So, if I'm a bit wound up at times about this stuff, it's really because I care about it so much..and I do care about you and your enjoyment of this amazing hobby.
Stay curious. Stay educated. Stay inspired. Stay gracious. Stay creative. Stay smart...
And Stay Wet.
Every Corydoras breeder knows something that we all should know:
Environmental manipulations create unique opportunities to facilitate behavioral changes in our fishes.
It's hardly an earth-shattering idea in the aquarium hobby, but I think that the concept of "seasonal" environmental manipulation deserves some additional consideration.
It's been known for decades that environmental changes to the aquatic environment caused by weather (particularly "wet" or "dry" seasons/events) can stimulate fishes into spawning.
As a fish geek keen on not only replicating the look of our fishes' wild habitats, but as much of the "function" as possible, I can't help myself but to ponder the possibilities for greater success by manipulating the aquarium environment to simulate what happens in the wild.
Probably the group of aquarists who has had the most experience and success at incorporating such environmental manipulations into their breeding procedures is Corydoras catfish enthusiasts!
Many hobbyists who have bred Corydoras utilize the old trick of a 20%-30% water exchange with water that is up to 10° F cooler (6.5° C) than the aquarium water is normally maintained at. It seems almost like one of those, "Are you &^%$#@ crazy- a sudden lowering of temperature?"
However, it works, and you almost never hear of any fishes being lost as a result of such manipulations.
I often wondered what the rationale behind such a change was. My understanding is that it essentially is meant to mimic a rainstorm, in which an influx of cooler water is a feature. Makes sense. Weather conditions are such an important part of the life cycle of our fishes.
Still others attempt to simulate a "dry spell" by allowing the water quality to "degrade" somewhat (what exactly that means is open to interpretation!), while simultaneously increasing the aquarium temperature a degree or two. This is followed by a water exchange with softer water (ie; pure RO/DI), and resetting the tank temp to the tank's normal range of parameters.
The "variation" I have heard is to do the above procedure, accompanied by an increase in current via a filter return or powerhead, which simulates the increased water volume/flow brought on by the influx of "rain."
Many breeders will fast their fishes a few days, followed by a big binge of food after the temperature drop, apparently simulating the increased amount of food in the native waters when rains come.
Still other hobbyists will reduce the pH of their aquarium water to stimulate breeding. And I suppose the rationale behind this is once again to simulate an influx of water from rain or other external sources...
Weather, once again.
And another trick I hear from my Cory breeder friends from time to time is the idea of tossing in a few alder cones into the tank/vessel where their breeders' eggs are incubating.
This decades-old practice is justified by the assertion that the alder cones possess some type of anti-fungal properties...not entirely off base with some of the scientific research we've found about the allegedly anti-microbial/antifungal properties of catappa leaves and such...
And of course, I hear/read of recommendations to use the aforementioned catappa leaves, oak leaves, and Magnolia leaves for just this purpose...
Not really earth-shattering; however, it got me thinking about the whole idea of environmental manipulations as part of the routine "operation" of our botanical-mehtod aquariums.....Should we create true seasonal variations for our aquariums as part of our regular practice- not just when trying to spawn fishes? I mean, changing up lighting duration, intensity, angles, colors, increasing/decreasing water levels or flow?
With all of the high tech LED lighting systems, electronically controlled pumps; even advanced heaters- we can vary environmental conditions to mimic what occurs in our fishes' natural habitats during seasonal changes as never before. I think it would be very interesting to see what kinds of results we could get with our fishes if we went further into seasonal environmental manipulations than we have been able to before.
And of course, if we look at the natural habitats where many of our fishes originate, we see these seasonal changes having huge impact on the aquatic ecosystems. In The Amazon, for example, the high water season runs December through April.
And during the flooding season, the average temperature is 86 degrees F, around 12 degrees cooler than the dry season. And during the wet season, the streams and rivers can be between 6-7 meters higher on the average than they are during the dry season!
And of course, there are more fruits, flowers, and insects during this time of year- important food items for many species of fishes.
And the dry season? Well, that obviously means lower water levels, higher temperatures, and abundance of fishes, most engaging in spawning activity.
Mud and algal growth on plants, rocks, submerged trees, etc. is quite abundant in these waters at various times of the year. Mud and detritus are transported via the overflowing rivers into flooded areas, and contribute to the forest leaf litter and other botanical materials, coming nutrient sources which contribute to the growth of this epiphytic algae.
During the lower water periods, this "organic layer" helps compensate for the shortage of other food sources. When the water is at a high period and the forests are inundated, many terrestrial insects fall into the water and are consumed by fishes. In general, insects- both terrestrial and aquatic, support a large community of fishes.
So, it goes without saying that the importance of insects and fruits- which are essentially derived from the flooded forests, are reduced during the dry season when fishes are confined to open water and feed on different materials.
So I wonder...is part of the key to successfully conditioning and breeding some of the fishes found in these habitats altering their diets to mimic the seasonal importance/scarcity of various food items? In other words, feeding more insects at one time of the year, and perhaps allowing fishes to graze on detritus and biocover at other times?
And then, there are those fishes whose life cycle is intimately tied into the seasonal changes.
Any annual or semi-annual killifish species enthusiast will tell you a dozen ways to dry-incubate eggs; again, a beautiful simulation of what happens in Nature...So much of the idea can be applicable to other areas of aquarium practice, right?
Yeah... I think so.
It's pretty clear that factors such as the air, water and even soil temperatures, atmospheric humidity, the water level, the local winds as well as climatic variables have profound influence on the life cycle and reproductive behavior on the fishes that reside in these dynamic tropical environments!
In my "Urban Igapo" experiments, we get to see a little microcosm of this whole seasonal process and the influences of "weather."
And of course, all of this ties into the intimate relationship between land and water, doesn't it?
There's been a fair amount of research and speculation by both scientists and hobbyists about the processes which occur when terrestrial materials like leaves and botanical items enter aquatic environments, and most of it is based upon field observations.
As hobbyists, we have a unique opportunity to observe firsthand the impact and affects of this material in our own aquariums! I love this aspect of our "practice", as it creates really interesting possibilities to embrace and create more naturally-functioning systems, while possibly even "validating" the field work done by scientists!
And of course, there are a lot of interesting bits of information that we can interpret from Nature when planning, creating, and operating our aquariums.
It goes without saying that there are implications for both the biology and chemistry of the aquatic habitats when leaves and other botanical materials enter them. Many of these are things that we as hobbyists observe every day in our aquariums!
A lab study I came upon found out that, when leaves are saturated in water, biofilm is at it's peak when other nutrients (i.e.; nitrate, phosphate, etc.) tested at their lowest limits. This is interesting to me, because it seems that, in our botanical method aquariums, biofilms tend to occur early on, when one would assume that these compounds are at their highest concentrations, right? And biofilms are essentially the byproduct of bacterial colonization, meaning that there must be a lot of "food" for the bacteria at some point if there is a lot of biofilm, right?
Does this imply that the biofilms arrive on the scene and peak out really quickly; an indication that there is actually less nutrient in the water? Is the nutrient bound up in the biofilms? And when our fishes and other animals consume them, does this provide a significant source of sustenance for them?
Oh, and here is another interesting observation:
When leaves fall into streams, field studies have shown that their nitrogen content typically will increase. Why is this important? Scientists see this as evidence of microbial colonization, which is correlated by a measured increase in oxygen consumption. This is interesting to me, because the rare "disasters" that we see in our tanks (when we do see them, of course, which fortunately isn't very often at all)- are usually caused by the hobbyist adding a really large quantity of leaves at once, resulting in the fishes gasping at the surface- a sign of...oxygen depletion?
Makes sense, right?
These are interesting clues about the process of decomposition of leaves when they enter into our aquatic ecosystems. They have implications for our use of botanicals and the way we manage our aquariums. I think that the simple fact that pH and oxygen tend to go down quickly when leaves are initially submerged in pure water during lab tests gives us an idea as to what to expect.
A lot of the initial environmental changes will happen rather rapidly, and then stabilize over time. Which of course, leads me to conclude that the development of sufficient populations of organisms to process the incoming botanical load is a critical part of the establishment of our botanical-method aquariums.
Fungal populations are as important in the process of breaking down leaves and botanical materials in water as are higher organisms, like insects and crustaceans, which function as "shredders." The “shredders” – the animals which feed upon the materials that fall into the streams, process this stuff into what scientists call “fine particulate organic matter.”
And that's where fungi and other microorganisms make use of the leaves and materials, processing them into fine sediments. Allochthonous material can also include dissolved organic matter (DOM) carried into streams and re-distributed by water movement.
And the process happens surprisingly quickly.
In studies carried out in tropical rainforests in Venezuela, decomposition rates were really fast, with 50% of leaf mass lost in less than 10 days! Interesting, but is it tremendously surprising to us as botanical-method aquarium enthusiasts? I mean, we see leaves begin to soften and break down in a matter of a couple of weeks- with complete breakdown happening typically in a month or so for many leaves.
And biofilms, fungi, and algae are still found in our aquariums in significant quantities throughout the process.
So, what's this all mean? What are the implications for aquariums?
I think it means that we need to continue to foster the biological diversity of animals in our aquariums- embracing life at all levels- from bacteria to fungi to crustaceans to worms, and ultimately, our fishes...All forming the basis of a closed ecosystem, and perhaps a "food web" of sorts for our little aquatic microcosms. It's a very interesting concept- a fascinating field for research for aquarists, and we all have the opportunity to participate in this on a most intimate level by simply observing what's happening in our aquariums every day!
We've talked about this very topic many times right here over the years, haven't we? I can't let it go.
Bioversity is interesting enough, but when you factor in seasonal changes and cycles, it becomes an almost "foundational" component for a new way of running our botanical-style aquariums.
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! 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?
Okay, that's a cool "cocktail party sound bite" and all, but what happens to the (aquatic) environment in which our fishes live in when it rains?
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 - and likewise, in many tropical locales worldwide-is the evolution of some of our most compelling environmental niches...
We've literally scratched the surface, and the opportunity to apply what we know about the climates and seasonal changes which occur where our fishes originate, and to incorporate, on a broader scale, the practices which our Corydoras-enthusiast friends employ on all sorts of fishes!
So much to learn, experiment with, and execute on.
Stay fascinated. Stay intrigued. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay astute...
And Stay Wet.
Hey, it's me! Scott...remember? The dorky Tannin guy?
Yeah, I know, I've been sort of M.I.A. for the last few weeks...And that generated a lot of concerned dm/s and emails, which has been very touching, thanks! Everything is cool. Tannin is doing fine. I haven't sold to the highest bidder (although there have been a couple of offers, lol), and I'm healthy and happy...No worries. As you know, I have a lot of aquarium industry contacts, and am occasionally called upon to help other companies with special projects as a sort of geeky aquarium industry consultant.
I recently received an offer for one such gig for a major aquarium brand that was simply too cool, too good, and too lucrative to say "no" to. So, I've been sort of deeply involved in this project, that's literally going to make a huge splash when it launches next year. Of course, these sexy huge projects are accompanied by lots of NDA's and confidentiality agreements, so I'm kind of bound to keep my mouth shut, other than to tell you that it's a cool project and that it's aquarium-related, lol. My involvement is winding down over the next 1-1/2 weeks, so I'll be back in more active circulation real soon!
So, what's up with Tannin?
Well, we're finally- FINALLY about to launch the new web site and 2023 marketing! It'll happen in stages, with a few tweaks along the way. We will be doing lot more content and informational stuff; this is something I've really loved doing via "The Tint" blog and podcast, and we'll be doing more and more in 2023. And I promise more videos and more YouTube stuff coming soon!
So, how will the web site differ from its current iteration?
The experience will be much more engaging, easier for you to navigate, and graphically more attractive. Again, it will sort of roll out in stages. The first iteration that you'll see in the next few weeks will be an aesthetic refresh and functionality change. We put a lot of work on the back end of the site to sort of prepare it fro the future changes we'll be rolling out throughout 2023 and beyond.
Fro ma consumer stand point, you'll notice almost immediately that our selection of materials will be changing. Prices will fall on a number of items, too! In some respects, we'll have less items available on a regular basis, and more unique "seasonal/limited quantity" stuff appearing on the site. And we'll be more responsive to your requests for specialized stuff, since we won't be chasing down suppliers for the 70 some-odd different materials we've been offering as stock items. If one of these "limited" materials becomes a big hit, and you want it more often, we'll try to do just that!
Supply chain issues were absolutely killing us this summer, with formerly rock-solid reliable international partners unable to meet their commitments due to regulations and shipping issues from their respective countries. We had long delays in shipping some orders to you, and it was driving me crazy, too! This played a big part of my rethinking our future approach with Tannin, too. So, we've been testing and tweaking materials from a few different suppliers, and we should have our major supply chain issues resolved in the coming month or so.
We are moving towards a more balanced "a la carte" selection of materials and a curated selection (the "Enigma Pack"), along with our speciality items like the substrates (which will begin to come down in price significantly over the next few months, thanks to your strong demand for them and our ability to source raw materials for them at a better "bulk" pricing. They're never gonna be super cheap, because they are literally hand mixed from carefully sourced materials, but they will always be...cool! LOL
So, with regards to the "Enigma Packs"- we'll be able to include a lot of cool materials that are not available "a la carte" on our site in them! The goal is to make them even more unique and special than they are now! And, a better value and real "surprise". By not filling them almost exclusively with our regular "stock botanicals", you're almost guaranteed to get something even more unique and tightly curated than they are now!
With my good friends, James Sheen of Blackwater UK, and Benjamin Peterson of Betta Botanicals hitting their strides and making their respective businesses do their things well, it almost "frees me up" to branch out in other, complimentary creative directions to continue to forge Tannin's unique approach that you've come to know over the past 7 years. I won't have to be the "clearing house" for every single botanical item that the world has to offer! Just the stuff which I (and by extension, most of you) love!
The end result is that you, the botanical method aquarium hobbyist, will have three terrific sources for pretty much all of the botanical stuff you want!
Look for more fun collaborations with these guys in 2023!
So yeah, we're gonna be leaner, more specialized, and way more in line with my original vision for Tannin that we had back in 2015!
And then, there is wood...Ahh, yeah. So, here's the deal:
Wood is definitely part of the Tannin "DNA".
However, we never intended to be your "go to" for stuff like Manzanita or "Spider Wood" or whatever, in every conceivable size. Rather, we intend to only offer the unusual varieties of wood and roots that you've come to expect from us. Stuff that you can't typically find at 39,000 other aquatic vendors. Stuff which suits our geeky, special, experimental systems. I've been sourcing and testing some really cool, unusual varieties that you're sure to love!
Oh, and there's the whole "Estuary" thing...You know the brackish water stuff we've been playing with since around 2016. Mangroves and mud and all that? We'll be doing a lot more of that in 2023. More specialized products for brackish tanks, and more inspiration for you to check out. And yeah, at some point, "Polyp by Tannin Aquatics", a reef/coral-focused aquarium products product line, will debut (likely in very late 2023 or early 2024.)
So, I could go on and on telling you every single thing we plan on doing with Tannin in 2023, but where would the fun be in that? Suffice it to say, we think that you'll enjoy all of the changes and enhancements that we begin rolling out.
The botanical method aquarium world is literally exploding within the hobby, and we're awfully proud to have played a small role in helping to shed more light ion the darkness (literally) since 2015! As you've evolved, we're evolving. No longer a freak show, the botanical method is a legitimate approach, with technique and methodology which requires a specialized mindset and suite of materials.
That's what we're here for!
Thanks for coming this far with us, and thanks for hanging with us as we roll out the all-new Tannin experience!
And of course, why not throw down a little gauntlet in the process? Really more of a salute to those of you who do the unusual. To those who have joined our movement- and to those of you out there, plying the fringes of the hobby on your own.
If so, you're downright heroic to me. Really. People don't do this enough.
I'll come out and say what I'm thinking at the moment. It won't endear me to some people. And that's okay.
And please...it's not a knock against anyone or any organization. It's an opinion that I've developed as an observer, a fan, a student of the aquarium world. It's MY opinion, and it probably will not resonate with many:
I think that the current state of creating unique aquairums is..kind of boring. Maybe it's that some of the "trendy" aquascaping is...stagnant. Homogenous. Common.
It just is, in my opinion. Sorry.
The aquascaping world has some amazingly talented people. Yet, the works being produced and elevated in contests and media are, in my opinion- afloat in a "sea of sameness." You see this on Instagram or in aquascaping contests. Many stick to the "tried and true formula" of the moment, or some derivation thereof. Seemingly afraid to deviate at all. Think I'm full of it? Look at the typical aquascaping contest website.
Entries from all over the world feature amazingly beautiful aquascapes; magnificent work from passionate aquarists. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that they are "no good", "stupid", or whatever. I'm merely saying that they hardly seem differentiated from each other these days. And, if you're being really honest with yourselves, I'll bet that a few of you might agree with me!
Oh, there are some different tanks out there being entered into these contests. Don't get me wrong. There is a huge pool of very talented aquascapers producing magnificent work.
Yet, in my opinion, the thing is-much of the work seems to fall into a few categories:
1) "Fantasy" scapes, which are essentially "dioramas" with aquatic plants, created to look like underwater mountain ranges, waterfalls, beaches, etc. These DO require enormous talent and discipline...not to mention, really good photography. And of course, a wierd "title." I mean, that's the least annoying part of it to me, but still...It's an aquairum, not a collectible art piece. Most of the damn things are broken down in months, anyways. Maybe people could purchase them as NFT's or something, lol
2) Over-the-top moss-and-plant-covered wood, looking for all the world like a terrestrial old-growth forest. These are compelling, achingly beautiful, often meticulously crafted aquariums, taking many, many weeks to create, manage, and photograph. I love these. We see fewer of them than the "fantasy" types, and I wish we'd see more. Oh, and they need a "title" as well...Could we just say that the "title" thing should be ditched?
3) Everything else. You know, "biotope" aquariums, palludariums, vivariums, river tanks, etc. Some are executed brilliantly; others are a "work in progress", still growing in, etc. All are unique. Created by "unknown", passionate hobbyists who simply want to share their work. Most have no "titles." These are amazing tanks that undeservingly serve to create a rather vivid "supporting cast" for the beloved categories above.
4) The "fringes." Pure hardscapes and concept aquariums that don't follow a "garden-type" formula. Semi-palludariums, minimalist sand and rubble scapes. Monospecific planted tanks. Blackwater, botanical method tanks. Biotope-inspired displays. Brackish tanks. Species tanks. Cave aquariums. Conceptual tanks. These are the true "outliers." This is the realm of the "discomfort zone." The hobbyists who work this magical place don't generally give a damn about "winning" the contests.
They know that they won't, because they're doing stuff that not everyone gets or thinks is "cool." Stuff that goes decidedly against the grain of what's "acceptable." Just showing up and creating a "disruption"- although it's typically unintentional. And maybe, just maybe inspiring someone else is their goal.
I'm fascinated by outliers. And what's weird is that there are a fair amount of them out there. Quietly doing what they do; occasionally popping up on the radar, sharing something on social media..perhaps garnering a curious peek by the "establishment", before retiring back into the shadows.
I had this idea in my head not long ago of "sponsoring" a hobbyist like this. You know, kind of like companies do with Football teams, race teams, etc., etc.
Hardly a novel concept, even in the aquarium world, I suppose. But to work with someone who's really doing wierd stuff, and just not giving a rat's ass about winning some contest. Just sharing their work.
I sort of tabled the idea for a while. I admit it.
I figured it to be a bit self-serving...or somehow being perceived as being a bit arrogant. I still sort of fantasize about the idea often. Why? I don't know. Perhaps it's the "rebel" in me? Maybe I'm just throwing a tantrum?
Maybe it's because no one else is writing about this shit these days. Perhaps it's the desire to give someone with talent the exposure they deserve...or that the world deserves..
Yet, I wasn't contemplating just any talented 'scaper. There are a lot of supremely talented people in the aquascaping world.
Rather, I was thinking about someone really different. Although, I wondered, would bringing such a person's work to light "corrupt" the real "soul" of what we're talking about? Create a giant, obnoxious hypocrisy of sorts?
I don't know. I don't claim to have the answers. But I think that the aquascaping world needs an injection of the unusual right now, in my opinion. And it needs special type of person to do it.
An outlier. Someone who gets it. Someone who's not only not afraid of going against the prevailing trends...a person who simply does their own thing because it gets them excited. Fearless. Not afraid to face criticism from those who don't get it, like it, or appreciate it. The kid who wore only black all through high school; maybe seemed a bit "weird" to others who didn't understand him/her.
I had this vision of supporting an aquascaper who felt something deeper...Finding a person who has a unique dynamic. An artist? Sure. A poet. Sure. A surfer? Possibly. A writer? Maybe. A "sage?" I don't know. An "old soul." A musician. Perhaps even a philosopher, of sorts.
Someone who brings something different to the homogenized, prepackaged, formulaic aquascaping world. Someone who can talk emotionally to you for a very long time about the 10-gallon, brackish water "rootscape" that they just created...and leaves you wanting to hear more.
Someone with a deep passion. A spark. A very different orientation. Someone who asks "Why?" Someone who wants to create a "ruckus", because they care about pushing the boundaries of "conventional" thinking and expression in the aquatic world. Someone who looks at things from a totally different angle. Not to "be cool", mind you. Simply because that's how they look at stuff. A person who feels that his/her work is not just a creative expression, but an instrument of change.
Just because it's time for one.
The hobby, in my opinion, needs such a person. Someone who can carry the flag for our movement.
Who is that person? Where is that person? Is he/she/they already here? Are there more? Who are these children of which I speak....?
I'll keep asking. I'll keep looking.
However, to all of you- our "tribe"- our loyal fans...those of you who do it for the sheer "love of the game", my simple message to you:
I'm back from being never really gone. And it feels pretty exciting!
Stay involved. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay unique...
And Stay Wet.
Okay, that was an admittedly "dark"-sounding title, but it's perfectly appropriate for today's topic...How to get- and keep- your water as tinted as possible. Or, at least, what materials would do the best job in terms of "color production."
We as a group are kind of obsessed with this.
And yeah, it's a good question!
Now, first off- let's all remember that the color of the water has absolutely NO relationship to its pH or carbonate hardness. It just doesn't. You can have water that looks super dark brown, yet has a pH of 8.5 or whatever. And conversely, it's just as possible to have crystal clear blue-white water that's soft, and has a pH of 4.5. We have to get beyond the social media-style "blackwater" definition, which seems to be, "If the water is tinted, it's a blackwater aquarium!"
Now, look, if you just want the nice color but could care less about the pH and hardness, that's fine. For the benefit of the hobby as a whole, please don't perpetuate the confusing narrative about blackwater aquariums by telling others that you have "blackwater." You have a "tinted" aquairum.
And that's just fine.
So, yeah-I'm not going to launch into a long drawn out description today about how ecologists define "blackwater" and what specific chemical characteristics make it up- we've covered it enough over the years...you can deep dive here or elsewhere to get that.
Okay, micro-rant over. Let's get back to the topic.
Remember, this piece is not about how to make blackwater...It's a little more superficial than that...it's about creating an aquarium with color and maintaining it.
First off, one of the "keys" to getting your color that lovely brown is to select the right types and quantities of botanical materials to assist. Now, I'll be the very first to raise my hand and call BS on anyone who claims to have a perfect "recipe" for how many Catappa leaves per liter or whatever you must use to achieve a specific color. Sure, you could come up with some generic recommendations, but they're not always applicable to every tank or situation.
Yes...there are simply so many variables in the equation- many which we probably haven't even considered yet-that it would be simply guessing. Just like Nature, to some extent...
What I can do is recommend some materials which we have found over the years to generally impart the most reliable and significant color to water. In no particular order, I'll give you my thought on a few of my personal faves. There are a lot more, but these are some that consistently show up on my "fave" list.
Yep, you heard me. One of the very best sources of tint-producing tannins in our aquariums is wood. I've told you many times, wood imparts tannins, lignin, and all sorts of other "stuff" from the exterior surfaces and all of those nooks and crannies that we love so much into the water.
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm always amused (it's not that hard, actually) by the frantic posts on aquarium forums from hobbyists that their water is turning brown after adding a piece of wood. I mean- what's the big deal?
Oh, yeah, not everyone likes it...I forgot that. 😂
The reality, though, as you probably have surmised, is that wood will continue to leach tannins to a certain extent pretty much for as long as it's submerged. As a "tinter", I see this as a great advantage in helping establish and maintain the blackwater look, and to impart humic substances that are known to have health benefits for fishes.
Some wood types, like Mangrove ( a wood we don't have at the moment), tend to release more tannins than others over long periods of time. Other types, like "Spider Wood", will release their tannins relatively quickly, in a big burst. Some, such as Manzanita wood, seem to be really "dirty", and release a lot of materials over long periods of time. All will recruit fungal growths and bacterial biofilms.
And the biocover on the wood is a unique functional aesthetic, too, as we rant on and on about here!
I'm a huge fan of tree bark to impart not only color, but beneficial tannins into the water. Because of its composition and structure, bark tends to last a very long time when submerged, and tends to impart a lot of color to the water over the long term.
And to be quite honest, almost all of the bark products we've played with over the years seem to work equally as well. The real difference in bark is the "form factor" (appearance) and the color that they impart to the water over time. Some, such as Red Mangrove bark or Cutch bark, will impart a much deeper, reddish-brown tint to the water than say, an equal quantity of catappa bark. And our soon-to-be-released Ichnocarpus bark really packs in this reddish brown color! You're gonna love this stuff!
Ounce for ounce, gram for gram, I've always felt that various types of bark always impart the most color to the water over almost any other materials.
These are very interesting, woody pods, derived from the outer "valve" of the fruit of the Swietenia macrophylla tree, which hails from a wide range of tropical locales (although native to Brazil), and are just the sort of thing you'd find floating or submerged in a tropical jungle stream. Often called "Skyfruit" by locals in the regions in which they're found because they hang from the trees- a name we fell in love with!
These botanicals can leach a terrific amount of tannins, akin to a similar-sized piece of Mopani wood or other driftwood. They are known to be full of flavonoids, saponins, and other humic substances, which have known positive health effects on fishes. Like bark, it lasts a good long time and recruits some biofilms and fungal growths for good measure.
Live Oak Leaves/Magnolia Leaves
Despite their humble North American origins, these leaf types impart more color, ounce per ounce, than just about any of our fave tropical leaves. And they both last very long time...Like, I've had specimens of live oak leaves stay intact for several months!
It's really important to think of leaves as not just a "coloring agent" for your water, but as a sort of biological support mechanism for your burgeoning ecosystem. They actively recruit fungi, bacterial biofilms, and other microorganisms which enrich the overall aquatic environment in your tank.
Alder cones (Aalnus glutinosa and Alnus incana) and Birch cones (Betula occidentalis), have been widely utilized by aquarium hobbyists in Europe for some time. Betta and ornamental shrimp breeders are fond of the tannins released into the water by these cones, and their alleged anti fungal and antibacterial properties. There has also been much study by hobbyists about the pH reduction attributes of these cones, too.
A study done a few years back by a Swedish hobbyist using from one to six cones in a glass containing about 10 ounces of tap water, with a starting ph of around 8.12, was able to affect a drop to 6.74 with one cone after about two weeks, 4.79 with 2 cones after two weeks, and an amazing 3.84 with 6 cones after the same time period! The biggest part of the drop in pH occurred in the first 12 hours after immersion of the cones!
Now, I'm the last guy to tell you that a bunch of cones is the perfect way to lower pH, but this and other hobby-level studies seem to have effectively have demonstrated their ability to drive pH down in "malleable" (soft) water...
Coconut-based products (Coco Curls, "Fundo Tropical", "Substrato Fino")
There's something about coconuts...The materials which are derived from the husks of coconuts seem to produce a significant amount of tannins and impart color to the water. Of course, "Substrate Fino" and "Fundo Tropical" are smaller, or finer-textured materials which work primarily as "substrate enhancers", and not strictly as "color-producing agents", because there is an initial "burst", which subsides over time.
Now, one of the novel applications for these finer botanical materials to take advantage of their color producing ability is to place them in a fine mesh filter bag and allow water to flow around or through them, like filter media. Essentially, a more sustainable alternative to the old peat moss trick...
For an interesting look and some nice color, I'm a big fan of oak twigs. Oak has a nice bark which imparts a deep brownish/yellow color to the water and it's quite distinctive. There is a reason why our "Twenty Twigs" packs are pretty popular, and it's not just because you get a bunch of cool sticks!
When mixed with leaves and/or other botanical materials, not only do you get an incredible "framework" for a cool ecosystem, you get an incredible aesthetic as well!
Now, this is an absolutely cursory list.. I could have easily listed 10 or more items. No doubt, some of you hardcore enthusiasts are screaming at your screens now: "WTF Fellman, you didn't include_______!"
And of course, that's the beauty of natural materials...There are numerous options!
Another note on the colors to expect from various botanical materials. As you might suspect, many of the lighter colored ones will impart a correspondingly lighter tint to the water. And, some leaves, such as Guava or Loquat, also impart a more yellowish or golden color to the water, as opposed to the brownish color which Jackfruit and Catappa are known for.
A lot of you ask about things that impact how long the water retains it's tint.
This kind stuff is a big deal for us- I get it! Many hobbyists who have perhaps added some catappa leaves, "blackwater extracts", or rooibos tea to their water contact me asking stuff like why the water doesn't stay tinted for more than a few days. Now, I'm flattered to be a sort of "clearing house" for this stuff, but I must confess, I don't have all the answers.
So, "Why doesn't my water stay tinted, Scott?"
Well, I admit I don't know. Well, not for certain, anyways!
I do, however, have some information, observations, and a bunch of ideas about this- any of which might be literally shot to pieces by someone with the proper scientific background. However, I can toss some of these seemingly uncoordinated facts out there to give our community some stuff to "chew on" as I offer my ideas up.
Now, perhaps it starts with the way we "administer" the color-producing tannins.
Like, I personally think that utilizing leaves, bark, and seed pods is perhaps the best way to do this. I'm sure that you're hardly surprised, right? Well, it's NOT just because I sell these material for a living...It's because they are releasing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds into the water "full time" during their presence in the aquarium as they break down. A sort of "on-board" producer of these materials, with their own "half life" (for want of a better term!).
And, they also perform an ecological role, providing locations for numerous life forms (like fungal growths) surface area upon which to colonize. They become part of the ecosystem itself. A few squirts of "blackwater extracts" won't do that, right?
The continuous release of tint-producing compounds from botanical materials keeps things more-or-less constant. And, if you're part of the "school" which leaves your botanicals in your aquarium to completely break down, you're certainly getting maximum value out of them! And if you are continuously adding/replacing them with new ones as they completely or partially break down, you're actively replenishing and adding additional "tint-producing" capabilities to your system, right?
There is another way to "keep the tint" going in your tanks, and it's pretty easy. Now, those of you who know me and read my rambling or listen to "The Tint" podcast regularly know that I absolutely hate shortcuts and "hacks" in the aquarium hobby. I preach a long, patient game and letting stuff happen in its own time...
Nonetheless, there ARE some that you can employ that don't make you a complete loser, IMHO.😆
When you prepare your water for water changes, it's typically done a few days to a week in advance, so why not use this time to your advantage and "pre-tint" the water by steeping some leaves in it? Not only will it keep the "aesthetics" of your water ( can you believe we're even talking about "the aesthetics of water?") consistent (i.e.; tinted), it will already have humic substances and tannins dissolved into it, helping you keep a more stable system.
Obviously, you'd still check your pH and other parameters, but the addition of leaves to your replacement water is a great little "hack" that you should take advantage of. (Shit, I just recommended a "hack" to you...)
It's also a really good way to get the "look" and some of the benefits of blackwater for your system from the outset, especially for those of you heathens that like the color of blackwater and despise all of the decomposing leaves and seed pods and stuff!
So, if you're just setting up a brand new aquarium, and have some water set aside for the tank, why not use the time while it's aging to "pre-tint" it a bit, so you can have a nice dark look from day one? It's also great if you're setting up a tank for an aquascaping contest or other same-day club event that would make it advantageous to have a tinted tank immediately.
I must confess that yet another one of the more common questions we receive here from hobbyists is, "How can I get the tint in my tank more quickly?"- and this is definitely one way!
How many botanicals to use to accomplish this?
Well, that's the million dollar question.
It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best.
We did, too, in the early days of Tannin. And it was kind of stupid really. There just is no hard-and-fast answer to this. Every situation is different. You need to kind of go with your instinct. Go slowly. Evaluate the appearance of your water, the behaviors of the fishes...the pH, hardness, TDS, nitrate, phosphate, or other parameters that you like to test for.
It's really a matter of experimentation.
I'm a much bigger fan of "tinting" the water based on the materials in the aquarium. Letting Nature have at it. The botanicals will release their "contents" at a pace dictated by their environment. And, when they're "in situ", you have a sort of "on board" continuous release of tannins and humic substances based upon the decomposition rate of the materials you're using, the water chemistry, etc.
Replacement of botanicals, or addition of new ones, as we've pointed out many times, is largely a subjective thing, and the timing, frequency, and extent to which materials are removed or replaced is dependent upon multiple factors, ranging from base water chemistry to temperature, to the types of aquatic life you keep in the tank (ie; xylophores like certain Plecos, or strongly grazing fishes, like Headstanders, will degrade botanicals more quickly than in a tank full of characins and such).
(The part where Scott bashes the shit out of the idea of using "blackwater extracts" and Rooibos tea. This could get nasty!)
If you haven't heard of it before, there is this stuff called Rooibos tea, which, in addition to bing kind of tasty, has been a favored "tint hack" of many hobbyists for years. Without getting into all of the boring details, Rooibos tea is derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, also known as "Red Bush" in South Africa and other parts of the world.
(Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis. Image by R.Dahlgr- used under CC-BY S.A. 2.5)
It's been used by fish people for a long time as a sort of instant "blackwater extract", and has a lot going for it for this purpose, I suppose. Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine, and and has low levels of tannin compared to black or green tea. And, like catappa leaves and other botnaicals, it contains polyphenols, like flavones, flavanols, aspalathin, etc.
Hobbyists will simply steep it in their aquariums and get the color that they want, and impart some of these substances into their tank water. I mean, it's an easy process. Of course, like any other thing you add to your aquarium, including leaves and botanicals, it's never a bad idea to know the impact of what you're adding.
Like using botanicals, utilizing Rooibos tea bags in your aquarium requires some thinking, that's all.
The things that I personally dislike about using tea or so-called "blackwater extracts" are that you are simply going for an effect, without getting to embrace the functional aesthetics imparted by adding leaves, seed pods, etc. to your aquarium as part of its physical structure and ecology, and that there is no real way to determine how much you need to add to achieve______.
Obviously, the same could be said of botanicals, but we're not utilizing botanicals simply to create brown water or to target specific pH parameters, etc. We're trying to create an ecology that is similar to what you'd see in such habitats in Nature.
Yet, with tea or commercial blackwater extracts, you sort of miss out on replicating a little "slice of Nature" in your aquarium. The building of an ecosystem. Which is why we call this the botanical method. It's not a "style" of aquascaping! And of course, it's fine if your goal is just to color the water, but it's more of an aesthetically-focused aquarium at that point.
I also understand that some people, like fish breeders who need bare bottom tanks or whatever- like to condition water without all of the leaves and twigs and nuts we love. They want the humic substances and tannins, but really don't need/want the actual leaves and other materials in their tanks.
And, when it comes to tea and these commercial extracts, I don't think the stuff lasts all that long. I personally believe that the tint-producing tannins in "tea" are potentially taken up quickly by substrate materials, filter media, etc. And unless you're keeping tea bags in your tank on a continuous basis, you'll always experience some "color loss" after some period of time.
Yes it works to impart some color and tannins. Creating infusions or extracts is useful, if you understand their purpose and limitations. They have a place in the hobby for sure.
It's why we got into the game with our botanical-based "Shade" products. We're currently sold out and are working with our supplier on a reformulated version. Seems as though we need to make a "darker" mix!
On the other hand, if you're trying to replicate the look and function (and maybe some of the parameters) of THIS:
You won't achieve it by using THIS:
It's simply another shortcut.
Not good or bad. Just a way to get the end "effect" faster, and without the other collateral benefits we discussed.
And look, I understand that we are all looking for the occasional shortcuts and easier ways to do stuff. And I realize that none of what we proffer here at Tannin is an absolute science. It's likely more of an "art" at this point, with a little science behind it.
Think about it: There is no current way available to the hobby to test for "x" types or amounts of tannins (of which there are hundreds of types) in aquariums. I mean, there are tannin test kits, but they're used for wine making and such...Perhaps there is some tangential application for our purposes, but I'm not really sure what practical information. we could extract from the results.
And, I have not found a study thus far which analyzed wild habitats (say, Amazonia) for tannin concentrations and specific types, so we have no real model to go on.
The best we can do is create a reasonable facsimile of Nature.
And, in Naturę, a lot of the tint in blackwater environments comes from dissolved fulvic and humic acids from...soils. Yeah, geology is the key, IMHO, to truly "realistic" blackwater habitats. This is why I've been very picky on sourcing the materials and figuring out recipes for our NatureBase sediment substrates. They are intended to support these types of systems.
Understanding substrates and their role in both the physical environment and the ecology of our aquariums is still a wildly under-appreciated concept in the aquarium hobby, IMHO. We'll keep coming back to this in the future, I'm certain.
And keeping the water tinted is something that many botanical method aquarists are interested in. This wonderful "collateral benefit" of our approach is something that's easy to get addicted to!
Now, all of these ideas are okay to impart some color to your water. Some do more, as we've discussed ad nauseam. And none of them will work to full advantage if your aquarium is removing them as fast as you're imparting them into the water. So, go easy on chemical filtration media like carbon. I didn't say NOT to use them...Just don't use a ton of them! Use less than what the manufacturer recommends.
What about plants?
Well, I have a theory about plants and tannins...
First off, as you know by now, you absolutely can keep plants in blackwater aquariums. We've talked about this a million times over the years. And yet, interestingly, you can't always keep "blackwater conditions" (at least, color-wise) in planted aquariums! There has been much geeky discussion on this topic.
Tannin are interesting things. Think about this:
Tannins are known to bind up heavy metals and minerals. The roots of aquatic plants prefer to take up bound-up minerals and metals...So, another theory of mine is that heavily planted tanks do actually remove some of the visual "tint" (ie; the tannins) from the water via uptake from their roots.
Make sense? Maybe?
Okay, I could go on and on all day throwing out all sorts of theories and unsubstantiated (via lab tests and rigorous studies, anyways) ideas on this topic...But I think I gave you enough here to get the party started. I encourage you to do some homework. We need to ask these questions to people who really understand the chemistry here. I think that there might be some good answers out there.
And, back to the "color thing" to close on here...
I admit, visual "tint" is probably THE single most superficial aspect of what we experience with botanical-method aquariums- but the most obvious, and likely the most impactful to the casual hobbyist or observer.
It's just as important to understand the collateral benefits of utilizing botanical materials- a subject we've discussed dozens of times here. However, in the end, it's the look of your aquarium that is what you have to experience each and every day, and if having an understanding of which materials can bring you the aesthetic experience you're after in a more effective way- well, then this is a worthwhile discussion, right?
I think that it is.
Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay enthusiastic. Stay observant. Stay appreciative. Stay tinted...
And Stay Wet.
One of the "cornerstones" of our botanical-method aquarium practice is the use of substrate. Specifically, substrate materials which can influence- or make it easier to influence- water chemistry in the aquarium, as well as to help foster a "microbiome" of small organisms which will provide ecological diversity for the system.
Substrates, IMHO, are one of the most often-overlooked components of the aquarium. We tend to just add a bag of "_____________" to our tanks and move on to the "more exciting" stuff like rocks and "designer" wood. It's true! Other than planted aquarium enthusiasts, the vast majority of hobbyists seem to have little more than a passing interest in creating and managing a specialized substrate or associated ecology.
A real pity, especially for those of us who are interested in botanical-method aquariums, which replicate natural aquatic habitats where soils and geology play a HUGE role in influencing the environmental parameters of these ecosystems. And in the hobby, we've largely overlooked the benefits and possibilities which specialized substrates can offer.
So I started to experiment with materials to recreate some of the characteristics of wild aquatic habitats which fascinated me. And an obsession was born.
I started playing with substrates mainly because I couldn't find exactly what I was looking for on the market. This is not some indictment of the major substrate manufacturers out there...I LOVE almost all of them and use and happily recommend ones that I like. I'm obsessed with substrates. I think that the companies which produce them are among the coolest of the cool aquatics industry brands. If I wasn't doing this botanical thing with Tannin, I'd probably have started a company that specializes in substrates for aquariums. Seriously.
And the fact is, the major manufacturers need to market products that more than like 8 people are interested in. It's unreasonable to think that they'd devote precious resources to creating a product that would be geared to such a tiny target.
And of course, being one of those 8 people who are geeked-out about weird substrates, I decided that I'd "scratch my own itch" (as we did with the botanical thing..) and formulate and create some of my own. Thus, the NatureBase product line was born!
I realized that the specialized world which we operate in embraces some different ideas, unusual aesthetics, and is fascinated by the function of the environments we strive to replicate. These are important distinctions between what we are doing with substrates at Tannin, and what the rest of the aquarium hobby is doing.
Our NatureBase line is not intended to supersede or completely replace the more commonly available products out there as your "standard" aquarium substrate, because: a) they're more expensive, b) they're not specifically "aesthetic enhancements", c) they are not intended to be planted aquarium substrates, and d) because of their composition, they'll add some turbidity and tint to the aquarium water, at least initially (not everyone could handle THAT!)
So, right there, those factors have significantly segmented our target market...I mean, we're not trying to be the aquarium world's "standard substrate", they weren't formatted to grow aquatic plants, we're not marketing them just for the cool looks, and we can't emphasize enough that they will make your water a bit turbid when first submerged. If you have fishes which dig, or which like to "work" the substrate, you may see a near-continuous turbidity in your aquarium!
Those factors alone will take us out of contention for large segments of the market!
This is important to grasp.
I mean, these substrates are intended to be used in more natural, botanical-style/biotope-inspired aquariums. Our first two releases, "Igapo" and "Varzea", are specific to the creation of a type of "cyclical" terrestrial/aquatic feature. They do exactly what I wanted them to do, and they were specifically intended for use in specialized set ups, like the "Urban Igapo" idea we've been talking about for a long time here, as well as brackish water mangrove environments, etc.
Let's touch on the "aesthetic" part for a minute.
Most of our NatureBase substrates have a significant percentage of clays and sediments in their formulations. These materials have typically been something that aquarists have avoided, because they will cloud the water for a while, and often impart a bit of color. We also have some botanical components in a few of our substrates, because they are intended to be "terrestrial" substrates for a while before being flooded...and when this stuff is first wetted, some of it will float.
And that means that you're going to have to net it out, or let your filter take it out. You simply won't have that "issue" with your typical bag of aquarium sand!
Shit, you're probably just frothing right now, waiting to cloud and dirty up your aquariums with this stuff, huh?
I can't for the life of me figure out why not? ;)
Remember, some of these substrates were formulated for a very specific purpose: To replicate the terrestrial soils which are seasonally inundated in the wild. As such, these products simply won't look or act like your typical aquarium substrate materials!
Scared off completely yet? I hope not.
Why include sediments and clays in our mixes?
Well, for one thing, sediments are an integral part of the natural substrates in the habitats from which our fishes come. So, they're integral to our line. In fact, I suppose you'd best classify NatureBase products as "sedimented substrates."
Think about this: Many of our favorite habitats are forest floors and meadows which undergo periodic flooding cycles in the Amazon, which results in the creation of aquatic habitats for a remarkable diversity of fish species.
Depending on the type of water that flows from the surrounding rivers, the characteristics of the flooded areas may vary. Another important impact is the geology of the substrates over which the rivers and streams pass. This results in differences in the physical-chemical properties of the water.
In the Amazon, areas flooded by rivers of black or clear waters, with acid pH and low sediment load, in addition to being nutritionally poor, are called “igapó."
The flooding often lasts for several weeks or even several months, and the plants and trees need special biochemical adaptations to be able to survive the lack of oxygen around their roots. We've talked about this a lot here over the years.
Forest floor soils in tropical areas are known by soil geologists as "oxisols", and have varying amounts of clay, sediments, minerals like quartz and silica, and various types of organic matter. So it makes sense that when flooded, these "ingredients" will have significant impact on the aquatic environment. This "recipe" is not only compositionally different than typical "off-the-shelf" aquarium sands and substrates- it looks and functions differently, too.
YOU DON'T RINSE THEM BEFORE USE!
You CAN wet them right away; you don't have to do a "wet/dry season" igapo-style tank with them. However, you should be ready for some cloudy water for a week or more! And again, if you have fishes which like to "work" the substrate, it will be a near-constant thing, the degree to which it will be is based on the habits of the fishes you keep.
And that's where a lot of people will metaphorically "leave the room."Turbid, darker water is a guaranteed "freak out" for a super-high high percentage of aquarists.
So, yeah, you'll have to make a mental shift to appreciate a different look and function.
And many hobbyists simply can't handle that. I've been extremely up front with this stuff since the introduction of these substrates, to ward off the, "I added NatureBase to my tank and it looks like a cloudy mess! This stuff is SHIT!" type of emails that inevitably come when people don't read up first before they purchase the stuff. (And trust me- the fact that you're even reading this blog, or listening to this podcast puts you in the tiniest minority of aquarium hobbyists!)
Let's talk a bit about how to "live" with these substrates.
There are a lot of different ways to use these substrates in all sorts of tanks. I mean, if you want some of the benefits and want to geek out and experiment with them, you can use a "sand cap" of whatever conventional substrate you prefer on top, and likely limit the turbidity somewhat, much like the practice of aquarists who employ "dirted" substrates do.
Oh, and the plant thing...
We're asked a LOT if these substrates can grow aquatic plants. Now, although they were intended to facilitate the growth of terrestrial plants, like grasses, the fact is, both our customers and ourselves have seen pretty damn good plant growth in tanks using this stuff!
Our Igapo and Varzea substrates mimic sandy acidic soils that have a low nutrient content. And, as you know, the color and acidity of the floodwater is due to the acidic organic humic substances (tannins) that dissolve into it. The acidity from the water translates into acidic soils, which makes sense, right?
Now, I admit, I am NOT a geologist, and I'm not expert in soil science. I know enough to realize that, in order to replicate the types of habitats I am fascinated with, it required different materials. If you ask me, "Will this fish do well with this materials?" or, "Can I grow "Cryptocoryne in this?", or "Does this make a good substrate for shrimp tanks?" I likely won't have a perfect answer. Sorry.
Periodically, plant enthusiasts will ask me about the "cation exchange capacity" of our substrate. Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) is the ability of a material to absorb positively-charged nutrient ions. This means the substrate will hold nutrients and make them available for the plant roots, and therefore, plant growth. CEC measures the amount of nutrients, more specifically, positivity changed ions, which a substrate can hold onto/store for future use by aquatic plants.
Thus, a "high CEC" is important to many aquatic plant enthusiasts in their work. While it means that the substrate will hold nutrients and make them available for the plant roots. it doesn't indicate the amount of nutrients the substrate contains.
For reference, scientists measure cation exchange capacity (CEC) in milliequivalents per 100 grams ( meq/100g).
To really get "down and dirty" to analyze substrates scientifically, CEC determinations are often done by a process called "Method 9081A of EPA SW- 846." What the....? CEC extractions are often also analyzed on ICP-OES systems. A rather difficult and pretty expensive process, with equipment and methods that are not something casual hobbyists can easily replicate!
As you might suspect, CEC varies widely among different materials. Sand, for instance, has a CEC less than 1 meq/100 g. Clays tend to be over 30 meq/100 g. Stuff like natural zeolites are around 100 meq/100g! Soils and humus may have CEC up to 250 meq/100g- that's pretty serious!
What nutrients are we talking about here? The most common ones which come into play in the context of CEC are iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium. So, if you're into aquatic plants, high CEC is a good thing!
Of course, this is where the questions arise around the substrates we play with.
It makes sense, right?
Our "Nature Base" substrates do contain materials such as clays and silts, which could arguably be considered "higher CEC" materials, because they're really fine- and because higher surface area generally results in a higher CEC. The more surface area there is, the more potential bonding sites there are for the exchange to take place. Alas, nothing is ever exactly what we hope it should be in this hobby, and clays are often not all that high in their CEC "ratings."
Now, the "Nature Base" substrates are what we like to call “sedimented substrates”, because they are not just sand, or pellets of fired clays, etc. They are a mix of materials, and DO also have some terrestrial soils in the mix, too, which are also likely higher in CEC. And no, we haven't done CEC testing with our substrates...It's likely that in the future, some enthusiastic and curious scientist/hobbyist might just do that, of course!
Promising, from a CEC standpoint, I suppose!
However, again, I must emphasize that they were really created to replicate the substrate materials found in the igapo and varzea habitats of South America, and the overall habitat- more "holistically conceived"-not specifically for plant growth. And, in terrestrial environments like the seasonally-inundated igapo and varzea, nutrients are often lost to volatilization, leaching, erosion, and runoff..
So, it's important for me to make it clear again that these substrates are more representative of a terrestrial soil. Interestingly, the decomposition of detritus and leaves and such in our botanical-method aquariums and "Urban Igapo" displays is likely an even larger source of “stored” nutrients than the CEC of the substrate itself, IMHO. Thus, they will provide a home for beneficial bacteria- breaking down organics and helping to make them more available for plant growth.
Perhaps that's why aquatic plants grow so well in botanical-method aquariums?
Yeah, the stuff DOES grow aquatic and riparian plants and grasses quite well, in our experience! Yet, again- I would not refer to them specifically as "aquatic plant substrates." They're not being released to challenge or replace the well-established aquatic plant soils out there. They're not even intended to be compared to them!
Remember, our "Igapo" and "Varzea" substrates are intended to start out life as "terrestrial" materials, gradually being inundated as we bring on the "wet season." And because of the clay and sediment content of these substrates, you'll see some turbidity or cloudiness in the water. It won't immediately be crystal-clear- just like in Nature. That won't excite a typically planted aquarium lover, for sure.
I can't stress it often enough: With our emphasis on the "wholistic" application of our substrate, our focus is on the "big picture" of these closed aquatic ecosystems.
I'll be the first to tell you that, while I have experimented with many species of plants, inverts, and fishes with these substrates, I can't tell you that every single fish or plant will like them. You'll simply have to experiment!
Well, shit- that's not something that you typically hear an aquarium hobby brand tell you to do with their products every day, huh? Like, I'm not going to make all sorts of generalized statements about everything I think that these products can do. It would be very unhelpful. I'd rather focus on how they perform in the types of systems in which they were intended to work in, and what the possible downsides could be!
The whole point here is that these substrates are perfect for a whole range of applications. They're not "the greatest substrates ever made!" or anything like that. However, they are super useful for replicating the soils of some of our favorite aquatic habitats.
And for doing some of those geeky experiments that we love so much. So, that pretty much covers the "sedimented" substrate thing for now. Let's talk about "alternative" substrates for a bit...
PT.2 : "ALTERNATIVE SUBSTRATES" AND THE "DANGERS" FROM WITHIN?
In my experience, and in the reported experiences from hundreds of aquarists who play with botanical materials breaking down in and on their aquariums' substrates, undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels are typical for this kind of system. When combined with good overall husbandry, it makes for incredibly stable systems.
I've been thinking through further refinements of the "deep botanical bed"/sand substrate relationship. I've been spending a lot of time researching natural aquatic systems and contemplating how we can translate some of this stuff into our closed system aquaria.
Now, I realize, when contemplating really deep aggregations of substrate materials in the aquarium, that we're dealing with closed systems, and the dynamics which affect them are way different than those in Nature, for the most part.
And I realize that experimenting with these unusual approaches to 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, sand, and other botanical materials is the possible buildup of hydrogen sulfide, CO2, and other undesirable compounds within the substrate.
Well, it does make sense that if you have a large amount of decomposing material in an aquarium, that some of these compounds are going to accumulate in heavily-"active" substrates. Now, the big "bogeyman" that we all seem to zero in on in our "sum of all fears" scenarios is 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 "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? I just don't think so. I think that we're more likely to see some oxygen in this layer of materials, and I can't help but speculate- and yeah, 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 personally 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 the management of, and close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, as well as the basic 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 operation 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.
And then there's the question of nitrate.
Although not the terror that ammonia and nitrite are known to be, nitrate accumulation is something a lot of hobbyists are concerned with. As nitrate accumulates, fish will eventually suffer some health issues. Ideally, we strive to keep our nitrate levels no higher than 5-10ppm in our aquariums.
As a reef aquarist, I was always of the "...keep it as close to zero as possible." mindset, until I realized that corals just grow better with the presence of some nitrate! This was especially evident in my large scale coral grow-out raceways.
It seems that 'zero" nitrate is not always the most realistic or achievable target in a heavily-botanical-laden aquarium, although I routinely see undetectable nitrate reading in my tanks. You have a bit more "wiggle room", IMHO, however, before concern over fish health is a factor. Now, when you start creeping towards 50ppm, you're getting closer towards a number that should alert you.
It's not a big "stretch" from 50ppm to more potentially detrimental readings of 75ppm and higher...
And then you get towards the range where health issues could manifest themselves in your fishes. Now, many fishes will not show any symptoms of nitrate poisoning until the nitrate level reaches 100 ppm or more. However, studies have shown that long-term exposure to moderate concentrations of nitrate stresses fishes, making them more susceptible to disease, affecting their growth rates, and inhibiting spawning in many species.
At those really high nitrate levels, fishes will become noticeably lethargic, and may have other health issues that are obvious upon visual inspection, such as open sores or reddish patches on their skin. And then, you'd have those "mysterious deaths" and the sudden death (essentially from shock) of newly-added fishes to the aquarium, because they're not acclimated to the higher nitrate concentrations.
Okay, that's scary stuff. However, high nitrate concentrations are not only manageable- they're something that's completely avoidable in our aquairums.
Quite honestly, even in the most heavily-botanical-laden systems I've played with, I have personally never seen a higher nitrate reading than around 5ppm. Often, as I mentioned above, they're undetectibIe on hobby-level test kits. I attribute this to common sense stuff: Good quality source water (RO/DI), careful stocking, feeding, good circulation, not disturbing the substrate, and consistent basic aquarium husbandry practices (water exchanges, filter maintenance, etc.).
Now, that's just me.
I'm no scientist, certainly not a chemist, but I have a basic understanding of maintaining a healthy nitrogen cycle in the aquarium. And I am habitual-perhaps even obsessive- about consistent maintenance. Water exchanges are not a "when I get around to it" thing in my aquarium management "playbook"- they're "baked in" to my practice.
So yeah, although nitrate is something to be aware of in botanical-method aquariums, it's simply not an ominous cloud hanging over our success.
Relatively shallow sand or substrate beds seem to be optimal for denitrification, and many of us employ them for the aesthetics as well. Light "stirring" of the top layers, if you're concerned about any potential "dead spots" is something that is permissible, IMHO. Any debris stirred up can easily be removed mechanically by filtration, as mentioned above.
But that's it.
Of course, as we already discussed, you don't have to go crazy siphoning the shit (literally!) out of your sand every week, essentially decimating populations of beneficial microscopic infauna -or interfering with their function- in the process.
What I am starting to feel more and more confident about is postulating that some form of denitrification occurs in a system with a layer of leaves and botanicals as a major component of the tank.
Now, I know, I have little rigorous scientific information to back up my theory, other than anecdotal observations and even some assumptions. However, there is always an example to look at- Nature.
Of course, Nature and aquariums differ, one being a closed system and the other being "open." However, they both are beholden to the same laws, aren't they? And I believe that the function of the captive leaf litter bed and the wild litter beds are remarkably similar to a great extent.
The thing that fascinates me is that, in Nature, leaf litter beds perform a similar function; that is, fostering biodiversity, nutrient export, and yes- denitrification. Let's take a little look at a some information I gleaned from the study of a natural leaf litter bed for some insights.
In a slow-flowing wild Amazonian stream with a very deep leaf litter bed, observations were made which are of some interest to us. First off, oxygen saturation was 6.7 3 mg/L (about 85% of saturation), conductivity was 13.8 microsemions, and pH was 3.5.
Some of these parameters (specifically the very low pH) are likely difficult to obtain and maintain in the aquarium, but the interesting thing is that these parameters were stable throughout a months-long investigation.
Oxygen saturation was surpassingly low, given the fact that there was some water movement and turbulence when the study was conducted. The researchers postulated that the reduction in oxygen saturation presumably reflects respiratory consumption by the organisms residing in the litter, as well as low photosynthetic generation (which makes sense, because there is no real algae or plant growth in the litter beds).
And of course, such numbers are consistent with the presence of a lot of life in the litter beds.
Microscopic investigation confirmed that the leaf litter was heavily populated with fungi and other microfauna. There was also a significant amount of fish life. Interestingly, the fish population was largely found in the top 12"/30cm of the litter bed, which was estimated to be about 18"/45cm deep. The food web in this type of habitat is comprised largely of fungal and bacterial growth which occurs in the decomposing leaf litter.
Okay, I"m throwing a lot of information here, and doing what I hope is a slightly better-than-mediocre attempt at tying it all together. The principal assertions I'm making are that, in the wild, the leaf litter bed is a very productive place, and has a significant impact on its surroundings, and that it's increasingly obvious to me that many of the same functions occur in an aquarium utilizing leaf litter and botanicals.
"Enriching" a substrate with botanicals, or composing an entire substrate of botanicals and leaves is a very interesting and compelling subject for investigation by hobbyists.
So, three areas of potential investigation for us:
*Use of botanicals and leaves to comprise a "bed" for bacterial growth and denitrification.
*Understanding the chemical/physical impact of the botanical "bed" on an aquarium. (ie, pH, conductivity, etc.)
*Utilization of a botanical bed to create a supplemental food source for the resident fishes.
We've also touched on the idea of a leaf litter/botanical bed as "nursery" for fry, something more and more hobbyists/breeders are confirming is a logical "go-to" thing for them.
Interesting semi-anecdotal observations from my friends in the know suggest that the biofilms for decaying leaves form a valuable secondary food for the fry of fishes such as Discus, Uaru, (after they’re done feeding on their parent’s exuded slime coat) and even Loricariid catfishes. And I've seen juvenile fishes of a variety of species "appear" from my botanical-rich aquariums over the years, fat and happy, apparently deriving some nutrition from the fungi, bacteria, and small crustaceans which live in, on, and among the leaf litter bed.
My own experience with creating leaf-litter-bed-focused aquariums has proven that supplemental food production for the resident fishes is a real "thing" that we need to consider. It's a valid and very exciting approach to creating a functional closed aquatic ecosystem.
We talk about the concept of "substrate enhancement" or "enrichment" a lot in the context of aquatic botanicals (we tend to use the two terms interchangeably).
Again, we're not talking about "enrichment" in the same context as say, planted aquarium guys, with materials put into the substrate specifically for the benefit of plants. However, the addition of botanical and other materials CAN create a sort of organic "mulch" which benefits many aquatic plants!
Rather, "enrichment" in our context refers to the addition of botanical materials for creating a more natural-appearing, natural-functioning substrate- one which provides a haven for microbial life, as well as for small crustaceans, biofilms, and even algae, to serve as a foraging area for our fishes and invertebrates.
We've found over the years of playing with botanical materials that substrates can be really dynamic places, and benefit from the addition of leaves and other materials. For many years, substrates in aquarium were really just sands and gravels. With the popularity of planted aquariums, new materials, like soils and mineral additives, entered into the fray.
With the botanical-method aquarium starting to gain in popularity, now you're seeing all sorts of materials added on and in the substrate...for different reasons of course.
I think the big takeaway is that we should not be afraid to experiment with the idea of mixing various botanical materials into our substrates, particularly if we continue to embrace solid aquarium husbandry practices.
In my opinion, richer, botanically-enhanced substrate provides greater biological diversity and stability for the closed system aquarium.
Is it for everyone?
Not for those not willing to experiment and be diligent about monitoring and maintaining water quality. Not for those who are superficially interested, or just in it for the unique aesthetics it affords.
However, for those of you who are adventurous, experimental, diligent, and otherwise engaged with managing and observing your aquariums, I think it 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.
Like so many things we do in our niche, the "weird" alternative and botanical-enriched substrate approaches are fascinating, dynamic, and potentially ground-breaking for the aquarium hobby. For the adventurous, diligent, and observant aquarist, they present numerous opportunities to learn, explore, and create amazing, function-first aquatic ecosystems.
Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay thoughtful...
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'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.
Welcome to my mind...
Today's little tale is something which many of you may relate to. Perhaps some of you can't relate to it. Others might simply gain value by remaining comfortably at a distance and watching how this unfolds.
It's all good.
I'm now in the final weeks before setting up some new tanks in my home office in my newly remodeled home for the first time in 18 MONTHS! I'm brimming over with new and old ideas, and at least two or three tanks will be going up in a fairly short period of time...
(Yeah, I'm charging my MacBook from the power strip inside that stand...I mean, I'm not running the tank yet, so why waste the outlet? 😆)
It's really exciting for me.
In fact, it's probably the most excited I've been in the hobby in years. Doing without my usual tanks has been agonizing. Like with many of you, aquariums are a huge part of my life and my sanity! I'm stoked to be getting underway again!
Among other things, the intention is to create a new variation of my brackish water mangrove habitat... A long awaited, smaller, shallow version of the highly successful botanical-style brackish tank I created a few years ago.
And of course, whenever there is salt in the equation, my mind begins to wander...
Even though I'm set up to do a full-blown, high-end coral tank early next year, for some reason I simply can't hold back against the idea of just "going all the way" and creating a mangrove-centric marine tank instead of brackish...
I mean, I've been steadily nudging up the specific gravity to 1.010 in my temporary mangrove tank from 1.005.. It IS getting closer all the time to 1.025...full strength marine water...And I never did a "mangrove-first" saltwater tank before...It's something I've been craving to do for years, rather than having them sort of hanging in the background as "supporting players" to the corals...
Of course, the idea was that this time, I'd make them the stars, with perhaps a few sand-dwelling corals like Goniopora, or maybe Catalaphyllia or Cynarina. Or-maybe a small Sarcophyon or some other soft corals... Fishes would likely be some Pajama Cardinal Fish and/or captive-bred Mandarin Dragonets or something small, like gobies...And some seagrasses! Not just a "reef tank with a mangrove in it", which has been done- or at least, contemplated by pretty much every reefer who's ever lived, lol.
Nope, this is a true mangrove-focused marine aquarium.
It's too tempting to not do this. Right?
So, it would be an incredibly biologically rich, diverse, nitrate-loving saltwater tank...a bit different than the way I'll do my coral focused tank, so there is some fun freedom here!
I've got a great little all-in-one tank to play with- an Innovative Marine "Fusion Lagoon 25", with integrated overflow, a wide foot print, and a DC pump ready to go. And I can swap out my Kessil A80 "Tuna Sun" for that cool Kessil A80 "Tuna Blue" with a spectral controller that has just been staring at me from the box for over a year...Yeah, gear... That thing that reefers love...playing with cool gear...I mean, just having a simple, coral-growth-capable little light for this idea is motivation enough for the hardcore reefer in me.
Can't...resist... I just can't stay away...Must execute...
Or, can I?
I mean, I should do another brackish tank.Yeah, I should, right? Or, maybe not... I dunno...
It would be so easy to ease back into my saltwater roots a bit with a significantly different approach to saltwater than I've done in a decade. Bring the whole Tannin philosophy in. Hell, I've been imagining doing a muddy, mangrove and coral estuary-type tank for years, but my coral-focused mindset wouldn't allow it. I never took the time to execute on this idea, being so busy with them as co-owner of a successful coral propagation/import business.
But, that was then.
And now, with this empty tank, what seems like the right situation, and the idea bubbling up once again, it's becoming irresistible. Time to "scratch the itch", right? And yeah, my reefing friends are teasing me a bit with that "peer pressure" sort of thing to do it that only friends can do.
So the idea I had is ridiculously simple:
A deep substrate of NatureBase "Mangal", perhaps topped or mixed with some fine aragonite sand...Modest water flow, perhaps not even supplementing the return flow from the system pump. Modest LED lighting in the 10,000K range for the corals. The aquarium is situated in a locale which receives more than enough ambient natural light to grow the mangroves...in fact, all they've received for almost 3 years is natural room-filtered sunlight and they have grown from small propagules to beautiful seedlings!
I think the biggest challenge in this tank would be restraint...because it's small (only 25 US gallons- squarely in the "nano" category for a "reef" tank), I simply can't keep a whole bunch of coral and fishes in it. And the bioload in a modest sized tank would reflect that. The ecological diversity, however, is where I'm focusing with this one.
Coral-wise, I think I'd be focusing on one two that I really love- Goniopora or Catalaphyllia.
Wow, the familiar alluring glow of "Windex blue" LED light and that "reef smell" are seared into my psyche - it would be so nice to experience them again, right?
Ahh, then there is the thing that gets me. Stops the whole fantasy in it's tracks. Brings me back from my warm, ignorant bliss into the cold light of reality.
I mean, a small aquarium with relatively aggressive corals like the two mentioned above is basically a self-limiting system. OR should I say, it requires the hobbyist to "cool his or her jets", as the expression goes. Unless I want to go "monospecific", the tank runs the risk of turning into a chemical warfare zone, with the super-aggressive Catalaphyllia or Goniopora essentially chemically beating the living shit out of anything else I'd put in there into submission.
That means, little in the way of coral diversity if I want to be responsible. And I do, of course. And really, when you take into account the displacement for substrate, this "25 gallons" really becomes like, I dunno- maybe 18-19 gallons. Squarely in the "nano"marine tank zone- the idea of which has always turned me off. Why?
Not because they're bad. They're not.
It's because I'd be too limited to execute the plan the way I want to. The way it should be executed in an aquarium.
And dealing with a heavy set of ecological factors in a tiny, well-illuminated, not fully-equipped "reef" tank is a recipe for algal blooms and all of the stuff which takes away from the fun of having a unique system, in my mind. I mean, sure, I can handle that stuff- I have many times. Yet, what I can't handle is being soooo limited and size-restricted. Going in knowingly limited in both scope and equipment is a bad handicap for an enjoyable reef experience, IMHO. Yeah, it's against my mindset with reefs to go this route. I suppose that it can be argued that it shouldn't be- tons of successful hobbyists run gorgeous "nano reefs" and derive great pleasure from them.
But they're not me. I'm not them. And I don't feel like outfitting the crap out of a 25-gallon tank to get the system the way I want it.
Ahh, a "champagne problem" for this little aquarium brat, huh? 😂
There is a lesson here:
The enormous power and value which self-awareness brings to us as hobbyists.
I simply couldn't enjoy this tank in that format because it goes against everything that I've previously believed in. I couldn't take this "vanity detour" simply because I didn't want to wait until Spring, as I've planned, to "get my reefing on."
I mean, that's totally against my "patience first" philosophy, isn't' it?
Yeah, seriously. Just super-lame, IMHO. Lowkey STUPID. A surefire recipe for not having fun. And a deviation from patience. Hell, I waited a year and half to have "real" tanks again- what's another few months to have the "crown jewel" of my home aquarium collection properly in place?
I'm going to have my full-blown coral tank soon enough.
And the "Mangrove-centric" marine tank? Maybe some other time. It'd still a really good idea. Every one of my reefing friends wanted me to do it. And me, Scott Fellman- the "Once and Future Reefer"- 7-time MACNA speaker, coral vendor, reef world "A-lister"... What do I want? That's what really matters. And all of that other nonsense..Will I ever get back to that?
Well, at least, the practicing "reefer" part. Who the fuck cares about the "celebrity" bit? It was fun, but never the motivation. "Check the ego part, Fellman."
Just being a "practicing reefer" is a lot of fun...
But this isn't the time for it. I have a different journey to take. Back to the mangal for me.
The brackish execution is something that is super important to me...and, according to feedback I've received from our community- to many of YOU as well. More hobbyists want to learn about this. Brackish is one of those hobby segments that has simply not gotten the attention it has deserved for many years, and to NOT proceed with my "V2.0" brackish tank would be doing the hobby a bit of a...disservice. Yeah, I need to show others how cool and fun this niche segment of the hobby can be when executed a bit differently.
That's how I think!
I mean, it sounds a bit arrogant, I suppose- but the reality is that most brackish tanks I've seen for decades are, well- shitty. And boring. And as you know- we don't do "shitty and boring" around here.
(Not that I haven't ever done "shitty and boring", mind you- but I have no intentions of ever doing that again- if I can avoid it!).
Tannin was founded on the very idea of doing stuff a bit differently than it has been in the past. About pushing boundaries, poking the metaphorical beehive, and just generally approaching things in unique ways. To not do this is a violation of my own ethos, and the founding principles of our company!
Our mission statement in our business plan is, literally, "Do cool shit."
I'm totally serious.
And we WILL do cool shit.
And what about the "mental detour" I took- multiple days of scheming, researching, even talking to my fellow reef geeks...? It was a good exercise. A great exercise, really. One which pushed me to do that "imagineering" as Disney used to call it- to think about ways to execute ideas that formerly were just..ideas. It wasn't a waste of time at all.
I enjoyed all of it.
And I came really, really close to doing it...
I mean, sure, I know that I could have pulled it off.
But in the end, it wasn't right.
It would be abandoning my ideals and principles while engaging in what at best would be a journey into an area that wouldn't have really fulfilled me. Now, there is a lot to be said about the occasional "mental detour"...I mean, always indulge yourself, scheme, think through, research, talk about it with friends...But in the end, you HAVE to listen to yourself; to do what makes your heart really sing.
To do anything less is to deny yourself- and maybe even others- the beauty, joy, and inspiration that can only come when intention, ideas, philosophy, and execution synch up.
Sure, sometimes you actually will have to take the detour. You may and up loving it and creating something brilliant. Or you may be disheartened by it. You never know until you push right to the edge- or further sometimes. Ask anyone who's been there before.
Yet, in this instance, for the reasons we just talked about, and many more that I haven't even begun to articulate here, I'm staying "on plan." I know that this is where I really want to go with this tank at this time. I know that's where I need- and want- to be.
I hope that this little journey into my personal mindset has touched you somehow. I hope that it brought you value. Maybe, perhaps- it gave you the courage to move forward on that little detour, Or, perhaps it made you rethink- and yanked you back from the ledge. Perhaps it simply made you laugh and be thankful that you're not me! 😆
Regardless of how this little discussion touched you today- I hope that it taught you the value of listening to yourself in the hobby. Always.
Yeah, it's time for the cliched Steve Jobs quote- 'cause it's damn applicable in this instance, isn't it?
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."
So, yeah. Stay on task. Stay brave. Stay thoughtful. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.