If you've been in this game long enough, you've likely seen some stuff which leaves you frustrated/baffled/confused, or some combination of the above! And I'm here to tell you that you're not alone in your frustrations. Today, lets look at one of the more common "issues" reported by hobbyists with botanical method aquariums and how to address it...
One of the things I alternately love and loathe about the aquarium hobby is that, no matter what you do; no matter how carefully you plan- no matter how carefully you execute- stuff canc out differently than you might expect.
Well, the same "variable" which we have come to extoll, emulate, and adore- Nature, of course!
She'll entice, challenge, reward, and punish you- sometimes in the same day! Nature can be wildly unpredictable, yet often thoroughly logical at the same time. You can do everything "right"- and Nature will think of some way to throw a proverbial "wrench" into your plans.
She operates at Her own pace, with Her own rules, indifferent to you or your ideas, practices, and motivations.
Things can even "go sideways" sometimes.
Yet, with all of Her wild and unpredictable actions, it's never a bad idea to show some deference to Her, is it?
With our heavy emphasis on utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquairums, I can't help but think about the long-term of their function and health. Specifically, the changes that they go through as they evolve into little microcosms.
As we've discussed before, a botanical-method aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can facilitate when we set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing. We can enjoy the process- even control some aspects of it...Yet underneath it all, She's in charge from the beginning. She creates the path...
And along this path, you'll encounter some stuff. I get questions...
"Scott, the water in my tank is kind of cloudy..."
Okay, this is one of those topics which can go in a lot of different directions. And we will...
For a lot of reasons, the aquarium hobby has celebrated crystal clear, colorless water as the standard of excellence for generations.
Our colored, often turbid-looking water is a stark contrast to what most hobbyists consider "acceptable" and "healthy."
We just see colored, slightly turbid water and think, "That shit's dirty!"
And of course, this is where we need to attempt to separate the two factors:
Cloudiness and "color" are generally separate issues for most hobbyists, but they both seem to cause concern. Cloudiness, in particular, may be a "tip off" to some other issues in the aquarium.
And, as we all know, cloudiness can usually be caused by a few factors:
1) Improperly cleaned substrate or decorative materials, such as driftwood, etc. (creating a "haze" of micro-sized dust particles, which float in the water column).
2) Bacterial blooms (typically caused by a heavy bioload in a system not capable of handling it. Ie; a new tank with a filter that is not fully established and a full compliment of livestock).
3) Algae blooms which can both cloud AND color the water (usually caused by excessive nutrients and too much light for a given system).
4) Poor husbandry, which results in heavy decomposition, and more bacterial blooms and biological waste affecting water clarity. This is, of course, a rather urgent matter to be attended to, as there are possible serious consequences to the life in your system.
Those are the typical "players" in most "cloudy water" scenarios, right? Yet, in the botanical method aquarium, the very nature of its existence includes stuff like sedimented substrates, decomposing leaf litter, botanicals, and twigs.
If you place a large quantity of just about anything that can decompose in water, the potential for cloudy water caused by a bloom of bacteria, or even simple "dirt" exists. The reality is, if you don't add 3 pounds of botanicals to your 20 gallon tank, you're not likely to see such a bloom. It's about logic, common sense, and going slowly.
A bit of cloudiness from time to time is actually normal in the botanical-method aquarium.
And, of course, what we label as "normal" in our botanical-method aquarium world has always been a bit different from the hobby at large.
In my home aquariums, and in many of the really great natural-looking blackwater aquariums I see from other hobbyists, the water is dark, almost turbid or "soupy" as one of my fellow blackwater/botanical-style aquarium geeks refers to it. You might see the faintest hint of "stuff" in the water...perhaps a bit of fines from leaves breaking down, some dislodged biofilms, pieces of leaves, etc. Just like in Nature. Chemically, it has undetectable nitrate and phosphate..."clean" by aquarium standards.
Sure, by municipal drinking water standards, color and clarity are important, and can indicate a number of potential issues...But we're not talking about drinking water here, are we?
"Turbidity." Sounds like something we want to avoid, right? Sounds dangerous...
On the other hand, "turbidity", as it's typically defined, leaves open the possibility that it's not a negative thing:
"...the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air..."
What am I getting at?
Well, think about a body of water like an igapo off of the Rio Negro. This water is of course, "tinted" because of the dissolved tannins and humic substances that are present due to decaying botanical materials.
That's different from "cloudy" or "turbid", however.
It's a distinction that neophytes to our world should make note of. The "rap" on blackwater aquariums for some time was that they look "dirty"- and this was largely based on our bias towards what we are familiar with. And, of course, in the wild, there might be some turbidity because of the runoff of soils from the surrounding forests, incompletely decomposed leaves, current, rain, etc. etc.
None of the possible causes of turbidity mentioned above in these natural watercourses represent a threat to the "quality", per se. Rather, they are the visual sign of an influx of dissolved materials that contribute to the "richness" of the environment. It's what's "normal" for this habitat. It's the arena in which we play in our botanical-method aquariums, as well.
You've got a lot of "stuff" dissolving in the water.
Mental shift required.
Obviously, in the closed environment that is an aquarium, "stuff" dissolving into the water may have significant impact on the overall quality. Even though it may be "normal" in a wild blackwater environment to have all of those dissolved leaves and botanicals, this could be problematic in the closed confines of the aquarium if nitrate, phosphate, and other DOC's contribute to a higher bioload, bacteria count, etc.
Again, though, I think we need to contemplate the difference between water "quality" as expressed by the measure of compounds like nitrate and phosphate, and visual clarity.
And, curiously enough, the "remedy" for "cloudy water" in virtually every situation is similar: Water changes, use of chemical filtration media (activated carbon, etc.), reduced light (in the case of algal blooms), improved husbandry techniques (i.e.; better feeding practices and more frequent maintenance), and, perhaps most important- the passage of time.
So, yeah, clarity of the water in our case is usually directly related to the physical dissolution of "stuff" in the water, and is influenced-and mitigated by- a wide-range of factors. And, don't forget that the botanical materials will impact the clarity of the water as they begin to decompose and impart the lignin, tannins, and other compounds from their physical structure into the water in our aquariums.
This happens indefinitely.
A lot of botanical-method aquariums start out with a little cloudiness. It's often caused by the aforementioned lignin, as well as by a burstsof microbial life which feeds upon these and other constituents of botanicals.
Once this initial "microbial haze phase" passes, there are other aspects to the water clarity which will continue to emerge. And I think that these aspects are similar to what we observe in Nature.
And in many cases, the water will never be "crystal clear" in botanical-influenced aquariums. It will have some "turbidity"-or as one of my friends likes to call it, "flavor."
Remember, just because the water in a botanical-influenced aquarium system is brownish, and even slightly hazy, it doesn't mean that it's of low quality, or "dirty", as we're inclined to say. It simply means that tannins, humic acids, and other substances are leaching into the water, creating a characteristic color that some of us geeks find rather attractive. And the "cloudiness" comes with the territory.
If you're still concerned, monitor the water quality...perform a nitrate or phosphate test; look at the health of your animals. These factors will tell the true story.
You need to ask yourself, "What's happening in there?"
I won't disagree that "clear" water is nice. I like it, too...However, I make the case that "crystal clear" water is: a) not always solely indicative of "healthy" or "optimum" , and b) not always what fishes encounter in Nature.
I believe that a lot of what we perceive to be "normal" in aquarium keeping is based upon artificial "standards" that we've imposed on ourselves over a century of modern aquarium keeping. Everyone expects water to be as clear and colorless as air, so any deviation from this "norm" is cause for concern among many hobbyists.
Natural aquatic ecosystems typically look nothing like what we'd call a "healthy" aquarium.
Yet, many of us don't think about that, or even look objectively about what wild aquatic ecosystems actually look like.
And so we panic and do massive water exchanges, add carbon , or reach for a bottle of...something...to "fix" the "problem...often creating a bigger (and more problematic) PROBLEM than what we were trying to remedy in the first place!
Even if your cloudiness is caused by a bloom of bacteria, perhaps from too much botanical materials being added to rapidly to the tank, or simply by overfeeding, it's not a disaster- if you understand it. Knowing what caused it is half of the battle, right? The "fixes" become obvious.
If you're overfeeding, just chill out on the food, right? If you added too much botanical material at one time, stop fucking adding botanicals for a while! You could do some stepped-up water exchanges...or you could just "wait it out", and let Nature catch up.
Often times, it simply takes time for these things to clear up.
Just like in nature.
Chemically, my water typically has virtually undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels...A solid "clean" by aquarium standards.
But, yeah- it's "soupy"-looking...
Other times, it can be crystal clear.
Both are just fine, as long as you're paying attention to the fundamentals of water quality.
Again, in Nature, we see these types of water characteristics in a variety of habitats. While they may not conform to everyone's idea of "beauty", there really IS an elegance, a compelling vibe, and a function to this.
Fish don't care that their water is tinted, a bit turbid, and sometimes downright cloudy.
As we've discussed a lot lately, we're absolutely obsessed with the natural processes and aesthetics of decomposing materials and sediments in our aquariums. And of course, this comes with the requirement of us to accept some unique aesthetic characteristics, of course!
We have, as a community, taken our first tentative footsteps beyond what has long been accepted and understood in the hobby, and are starting to ask new questions, make new observations, and yeah- even a few discoveries- which will evolve the aquarium hobby in the future.
And that means understanding why aquatic habitats look and function the way they do, and embracing things in our aquariums which simply might frighten others...
It's definitely a contrarian thought process, at least. Is it rebellious, even?
I've occasionally had to re-examine my own relationship with my love of unedited Nature, as it relates to the "business" side of things.
Our original mission at Tannin was to share our passion for the reality and function of "unedited" Nature, in all of its murky, brown, fungal-patina-enhanced glory. And I started to realize that a while back, we were starting to fall dangerously into that noisy, (IMHO) absurd, mainstream aquascaping world. Pressing our dirty faces against the pristine glass, we were sort of outsiders looking in...the awkward, different new kid on the block, wanting to play with the others.
Then, the realization hit that we never really wanted to play like that. It's not who we are.
We are not going to play there.
We're going to keep doing what we're doing. To "double down" in our dirty, tinted, turbid, decomposing, inspired-by Nature world.
We all have to have some understanding about what's "normal" when we try to replicate Nature in our tanks in a more literal manner...
And the "fixes" for stuff like..."cloudiness"... are often two things: Acceptance, and the passage of time. Core tenants of our botanical method aquarium game.
Patience. Observation. Objectivity. Mental Shifts.
Thanks for being a part of this exciting, ever-evolving, tinted world!
Stay level-headed. Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay studious. Stay rebellious!
And Stay Wet.
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.
And, when we observe natural aquatic ecosystems, I think we as a whole tend to pay scant little attention to the composition of the materials which form the substrate; how they aggregate, and what occurs when they do.
I'm obsessed with the idea of "functionally aesthetic" substrates in our botanical-style aquariums.
It's because I imagine the substrate as this magical place which fuels all sorts of processes within our aquariums, and that Nature tends to it in the most effective and judicious manner.
Yeah, I'm a bit of a "substrate romantic", I suppose.😆
I think a lot of this comes from my long experience with reef aquariums, and the so-called "deep sand beds" that were quite popular in the early 2000's.
A deep sand bed is (just like it sounds) a layer of fine sand on the bottom of the aquarium, intended to grow bacteria in the deepest layers, which convert nitrate or nitrite to nitrogen gas. This process is generically called "denitrification", and it's one of the benefits of having an undisturbed layer of substrate on the bottom of the aquarium.
Fine sand and sediment is a perfect "media" upon which to culture these bacteria, with its abundant surface area. Now, the deep sand bed also serves as a location within the aquarium to process and export dissolved nutrients, sequester detritus (our old friend), and convert fish poop and uneaten food into a "format" that is usable by many different life forms.
In short, a healthy, undisturbed sandbed is a nutrient processing center, a supplemental food production locale, and a microhabitat for aquatic organisms.
You probably already know most of this stuff, especially if you've kept a reef tank before. And of course, there are reefers who absolutely vilify sandbeds, because they feel that they "compete" with corals, and ultimately can "leach" out the unwanted organics that they sequester, back into the aquarium. I personally disagree with that whole thing, but that's another battle for another time and place!
Okay, saltwater diversion aside, the concept of a deep substrate layer in a botanical-style aquarium continues to fascinate me. I think that the benefits for our systems are analogous to those occurring in reef tanks- and of course, in Nature. In my opinion, an undisturbed deep substrate layer in the botanical-style aquarium, consisting of all sorts of materials, from sand/sediments to leaves to twigs and broken-up pieces of botanicals,can foster all sorts of support functions.
I've always been a fan of in my aquarium keeping work of allowing Nature to take its course in some things, as you know. And this is a philosophy which plays right into my love of dynamic aquarium substrates. If left to their own devices, they function in an efficient, almost predictable manner.
Nature has this "thing" about finding a way to work in all sorts of situations.
And, I have this "thing" about not wanting to mess with stuff once it's up and running smoothly... Like, I will engage in regular maintenance (ie; water exchanges, etc.), but I avoid any heavy "tweaks" as a matter of practice. In particular, I tend not to disturb the substrate in my aquariums. A lot of stuff is going on down there...
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 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 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.
There is that curious, nagging "thing" I have in my head about the ability of botanical-influenced substrates to foster denitrification. With the diverse assemblage of microorganisms and a continuous food source of decomposing botanicals "in house", I can't help but think that such "living substrates" create a surprisingly diverse and utilitarian biological support system for our aquariums.
And it's certainly possible to have denitrification without dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels. As long as even very small amounts of oxygen and nitrates can penetrate into the substrate, this will not become an issue for most systems. I have yet to see a botanical-style aquarium where the material has become so "compacted" as to appear to have no circulation whatsoever within the botanical layer.
Now, sure, I'm not a scientist, and I base this on close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, and the basic 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 is much less so. However, 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've always been of the "...keep it as close to zero as possible." mindset (that's evolved in recent years, btw), but that is not always the most realistic or achievable target in a heavily-botanical-laden aquarium. You have a bit more "wiggle room", IMHO. 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 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 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. 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 changes, 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.
And I think that a healthy, ecologically varied substrate is one of the keys to a successful botanical method aquarium.
I'm really into creating substrates that are a reasonable representation of the bottom of streams, tributaries, and igapo, as found in the Amazon basin. Each one of these has some unique characteristics, and each one presents an interesting creative challenge for the intrepid hobbyist. Until quite recently, the most common materials we had to work with when attempting to replicate these substrates were sand, natural and colored gravels, and clay-comprised planted aquarium substrates.
I reiterate a "manifesto" of sorts that I played out in "The Tint" back in 2015:
"If I have something to say about the matter, you'll soon be incorporating a wide variety of other materials into your biotope aquarium substrate!"
Damn, did I just quote myself?
If you've seen pictures and videos taken underwater in tropical streams (again, I'm pulling heavily from the Amazonian region), you'll note that there is a lot of loose, soil-like material over a harder mud/sand substrate. Obviously, using an entirely soil-based substrate in an aquarium, although technically possible and definitely cool- could result in a yucky mess whenever you disturb the material during routine maintenance and other tasks. You can, however, mix in some of these materials with the more commonly found sand.
So, exactly what "materials" am I referring to here?
Well, let's look at Nature for a second.
Natural streams, lakes, and rivers typically have substrates comprised of materials of multiple "grades", including fine, medium, and coarse materials, such as pebbles, gravels, silty clays and sands. In the aquarium, we seem to have embraced the idea of a homogenous particle size for our substrates for many years. Now, don't get me wrong- it's aesthetically just fine, and works great. However, it's not always the most interesting to look at, nor is it necessarily the most biologically diverse are of the aquarium.
A lot of natural stream bottoms are complimented with aggregations of other materials like leaf litter, branches, roots, and other decomposing plant matter, creating a dynamic, loose-appearing substrate, with lots of potential for biological benefits. Of course, we need to understand the implications of creating such "dynamic" substrates in our closed aquariums.
When we started Tannin, my fascination with the varied substrate materials of tropical ecosystems got me thinking about ways to more accurately replicate those found in flooded forests, streams, and diverse habitats like peat swamps, estuaries, creeks, even puddles- and others which tend to be influenced as much by the surrounding flora (mainly forests and jungles) as it is by geology.
And of course, my obsession with botanical materials to influence and accent the aquarium habitat caused me to look at the use of certain materials for what I generically call "substrate enrichment" - adding materials reminiscent of those found in the wild to augment the more "traditional" sands and other substrates used in aquariums to foster biodiversity and nutrient processing functions.
Again, look to Nature...
If you've seen pictures and videos taken underwater in tropical streams (again, I'm pulling heavily from the Amazonian region), you'll note that there is a lot of loose, soil-like material over a harder mud/sand substrate. Obviously, using an entirely mud-based substrate in an aquarium, although technically possible- will result in a yucky mess whenever you disturb the material during routine maintenance and other tasks. You can, however, mix in some other materials with the more commonly found sand.
That was the whole thinking behind "Substrato Fino" and "Fundo Tropical", two of our most popular substrate "enrichment" materials. They are perfect for helping to more realistically replicate both the look and function of the substrates found in some of these natural habitats. They provide surface area for fungal and microbial growth, and interstitial spaces for smalll crustaceans and other organisms to forage upon.
Substrates aren't just "the bottom of the tank..."
Rather, they are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches compose the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes were so fascinated by flourish. And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
I encourage you to study the natural environment, particularly niche habitats or areas of the streams, rivers, and lakes- and draw inspiration from the functionality of these zones. The aesthetic component will come together virtually by itself. And accepting the varied, diverse, not-quite-so-pritinh look of the "real thing" will give you a greater appreciation for the wonders of nature, and unlock new creative possibilities.
In regards to the substrate materials themselves, I'm fascinated by the different types of soils or substrate materials which occur in blackwater systems and their clearwater counterparts, and how they influence the aquatic environment.
For example, as we've discussed numerous times over the years, "blackwater" is not cased by leaves and such- it's created via geological processes.
In general, blackwaters originate from sandy soils. High concentrations of humic acids in the water are thought to occur in drainages with what scientists call "podzol" sandy soils. "Podzol" is a soil classification which describes an infertile acidic soil having an "ashlike" subsurface layer from which minerals have been leached.
That last part is interesting, and helps explain in part the absence of minerals in blackwater. And more than one hobbyist I know has played with the concept of "dirted" planted tanks, using terrestrial soils...hmmm.
Also interesting to note is that fact that soluble humic acids are adsorbed by clay minerals in what are known as"oxisol" soils, resulting in clear waters."Oxisol" soils are often classified as "laterite" soils, which some who grow plants are familiar with, known for their richness in iron and aluminum oxides. I'm no chemist, or even a planted tank geek..but aren't those important elements for aquatic plants?
Let's state it one more time:
We have the terrestrial environment influencing the aquatic environment, and fishes that live in the aquatic environment influencing the terrestrial environment! T
his is really complicated stuff- and interesting! And the idea that terrestrial environments and materials influence aquatic ones- and vice-versa- is compelling and could be an interesting area to contemplate for us hobbyists!
When ecologists study the substrate composition of aquatic habitats like those in The Amazon, they tend to break them down into several categories, broad though they may be: Rock, sand, coarse leaf litter, fine leaf litter, and branches, trunks and roots.
Studies indicate that terrestrial inputs from rainforest streams provide numerous benefits for fishes, providing a wide range of substrate materials that supported a wider range of fishes than can be found in non-forested streams. One study concluded that, "Inputs from forests such as woody debris and leaf litter were found to support a diversity of habitat niches that can provide nursing grounds and refuges against predators (Juen et al. 2016). Substrate size was also larger in forest stream habitats, adding to the complexity and variety of microhabitats that can accommodate a greater and more diverse range of fish species (Zeni et al. 2019)."
But wait- there's more! Rainforests create uniquely diverse aquatic habitats.
"Forests can further diversify and stabilize the types of food available for fish by supplying both allochthonous inputs from leaf litter and increased availability of terrestrial insects that fall directly into the water (Zeni and Casatti). Forest habitats can support a diverse range of trophic guilds including terrestrial insectivores and herbivores (Zeni and Casatti).
Riparian forests deliver leaf litter in streams attracting insects, algae, and biofilm, each of which may be vital for particular fish species (Giam et al., Juen et al. ). In contrast, nonforested streams may lack the allochthonous food inputs that support terrestrial feeding fish species..."
Leaf litter- yet again.
And then there are soils...terrestrial soils- which, to me, are to me the most interesting possible substrates in wild aquatic habitats.
So, the idea of a rich soil substrate that not only accommodates the needs of the plants, but provides a "media" in which beneficial bacteria can grow and multiply is a huge "plus" for our closed aquatic ecosystems. And the concepts of embracing Nature and her processes work really well with the stuff we are playing with.
As you've seen over the past few years, I've been focusing a lot on my long-running "Urban Igapo" idea and experiments, sharing with you my adventures with rich soils, decomposing leaf litter, tinted water, immersion-tolerant terrestrial plants, and silty, muddy, rich substrates. This is, I think, an analogous or derivative concept to the "Walstad Method", as it embraces a more holistic approach to fostering an ecosystem; a "functionally aesthetic" aquarium, rather than a pure aesthetic one.
The importance of incorporating rich soils and silted substrates is, I think, an entirely new (and potentially dynamic) direction for blackwater/botanical-style tanks, because it not only embraces the substrate not just as a place to throw seed pods, wood, rocks, and plants- but as the literal foundation of a stable, diverse ecosystem, which facilitates the growth of beneficial organisms which become an important and integral part of the aquarium.
And that has inspired me to spend a lot of time over the past couple of years developing more "biotope-specific" substrates to compliment the type of aquariums we play with.
When we couple this use of non-conventional (for now, anyways...) substrate materials with the idea of "seeding" our aquariums with beneficial organisms (like small crustaceans, worms, etc.) to serve not only as nutrient processing "assistants", but to create a supplementary food source for our fishes, it becomes a very cool field of work.
As creatures like copepods and worms "work" the substrate and aerate and mix it, they serve to stabilize the aquarium and support the overall environment.
That's a huge takeaway here. I'm sure that's perhaps the biggest point of it all. By allying with the benthic life forms which inhabit it, the substrate can foster decomposition and "processing"of a wide range of materials- to provide nutrition for plants- or in our case- for the microbiome of the overall system.
There is so much work to do in this area...it's really just beginning in our little niche. And, how funny is it that what seems to be an approach that peaked and fell into a bit of disfavor or perhaps (unintended) "reclassification"- is actually being "resurrected" in some areas of the planted aquarium world ( it never "died" in others...).
And a variation/application of it is gradually starting to work it's way into the natural, botanical-method aquarium approach that we favor.
Substrates are not just "the bottom."
They are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches compose the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes we're so fascinated by to flourish.
And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
Stay curious. Stay ob servant. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.
After years of playing with all sorts of aspects of botanical method aquariums, you start noticing patterns and "trends" in our little speciality world. And, observing your own niche closely makes you a more keen observer of other hobby specialities, too!
I've noticed a little "trend", if you will, in some specialized areas of the hobby, such as the cichlid world, for example, which is really interesting. It seems that there has been a sort of "mental shift" from keeping cichlids in more-or-less "utilitarian", almost "sterile" setups for breeding, to aquariums that more accurately reflect the habitats from which these fishes hail from in the wild, and just sort of letting them "do their thing" naturally.
I really like this, because it means that we're paying greater attention to the "big picture" of their husbandry- not just feeding, water chemistry, and providing spawning locations. Instead, we're providing all of these things within the context of a more natural display...and hobbyists are getting great results...and they're enjoying their tanks even more!
I think it's probably the hobby's worst kept "secret" that, even if it wasn't your ambition to do so- your fishes will often spawn in your tanks by simply providing them optimum environmental conditions.
I'm not saying that the bare breeding tank with a sponge filter and a flower pot is no longer the way to approach maintenance and breeding of fishes like cichlids. I am saying that I think there is a distinct advantage to the fish-and their owners- to keeping them in a setup that is more "permanent"- and more reflective of their natural environment from a physical/aesthetic standpoint.
I recall, many years ago, keeping killifish, such as Epiplatys, Pseudoepiplatys and some Fundulopanchax, in permanent setups with lots of plants, Spanish Moss., and leaves (yeah, even back in my teens I was into 'em..). And you know what? I Would get some good spawns, and it seems like I always had some fry coming along at various stages. I am sure that some might have been consumed by the older fishes or parents along the way, but many made it through to adulthood.
I had stable breeding populations of a variety of Epiplatys species in these kinds of tanks for years. Sure, if you are raising fishes for competition, trade, etc., you'd want to remove the juveniles to a operate tank for controlled grow out, or perhaps search for, and harvest eggs so that you could get a more even grow out of fry, but for the casual (or more than causal) hobbyist, these "permanent" setups can work pretty nicely!
This is not a new concept; however, I think the idea of setting up fishes permanently and caring for them, having them spawn, and rearing the fry in the same tanks is a lot more popular than it used to be. I realize that not all fishes can be dealt with like this, for a variety of reasons. Discus, fancy guppies, etc. require more "controlled" conditions...However, do their setups have to be so starkly...utilitarian all the time?
I was talking not too long ago with a fellow hobbyist who's been trying all sorts of things to get a certain Loricarid to spawn. He's a very experienced aquarist, and has bred many varieties of fishes...but for some reason, this one is just vexing to him! I suppose that's what makes this hobby so damn engaging, huh?
And of course, I was impressed by all of the efforts he's made to get these fish to spawn thus far...But I kept thinking that there must be something fundamental-something incredibly simple, yet important- that he was overlooking...
What exactly could it be? Hard to say, but it must be something- some environmental, chemical, or physical factor, which the fish are getting in the wild, but not getting in our aquariums.
It's all the more intriguing, I suppose...
Fish breeding requires us as hobbyists to really flex some skills and patience!
When I travel around the country on speaking engagements or whatever and have occasion to visit the fish rooms of some talented hobbyists, I never cease to be amazed at what we can do! We do an amazing job. And of course, being the thoughtful type, I always wonder if there is some key thing we're missing that can help us do even better.
Now, I realize that most fish breeders like to keep things controlled to a great extent- to be able to monitor the progress, see where exactly the fishes deposit their eggs, and to be able to remove the eggs and fry if/when needed.
I mean, we strive to create the water conditions (i.e.; temperature, pH, current, lighting, etc.) for our fishes to affect spawning, but we tend to utilize more "temporary" type, artificial-looking setups with equipment to actually facilitate egg-laying, fry rearing, etc.
I often wonder what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, the proper environmental conditions, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..."
Now, I realize that a lot of hardcore, very experienced breeders will scoff at this- and probably rightly so. Giving up control when the goal is the reproduction of your fishes is not a good thing. Practicality becomes important- hence the employment of clay flowerpots, spawning cones, breeding traps, bare tanks to raise fry, etc.
What do the fishes think about this?
Sure, to a fish, a cave is a cave, be it constructed of ceramic or if it's the inside of a hollowed-out seed pod. To the fish, it's a necessary place to spawn quietly and provide a defensible territory to protect the resulting fry. In all likelihood, they couldn't care less what it is made of, right? And to the serious or professional breeder, viable spawns are the game.
I get that.
I guess my personal approach to fish breeding has always been, "If it happens, great...If not, I want the fishes to have an environment that mimics the one they're found in naturally." And that works to a certain extent, but I can see how many hobbyists feel that it's certainly not the practical way to do systematic, controlled breeding.
I can't help but ruminate about this "non-approach approach" (LOL)
Not a "better spawning cone", "breeding trap", or more heartily-enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a holistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and...a physical-chemical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
Yeah, I think that they will. Just a hunch I have.
And my point here is not to minimize the work of talented fish breeders worldwide, or to over-simplify things ("Just add this and your fish will make babies by the thousands!").
It's to continue to make my case that we should, at every opportunity, continue to aspire to provide our fishes with conditions that are reminiscent of those what the evolved under for eons. I think we should make it easier for the fishes- not easier for us.
Sure, Discus can spawn and live in hard, alkaline tap water. And I know that many successful, serious breeders and commercial ventures will make a strong and compelling case for why this is so, and why it's practical in most cases.
Yet, I'm still intrigued by the possibilities of maintaining (and hopefully) spawning species like this in aquariums approximating their natural conditions on a full time basis.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't help but wonder if it's really possible that a couple of dozen generations of captive breeding in "unnatural conditions" could undo millions of years of evolution, which has conditioned these fish to live, grow, and reproduce in soft, alkaline, tannin-stained waters, and that our tap water conditions are "just fine" for them?
I mean, maybe it's possible...Hey, I am no scientist, but I can't help but ask if there is a reason why these fishes have evolved under such conditions so successfully? And if embracing these conditions will yield even betterlong-term results for the fishes?
I just think that there's a good possibility that I'm kind of right about that.
So, again, I think it is important for those of us who are really into creating natural aquariums for our fishes to not lose sight of the fact that there are reasons why- and benefits to- fishes having evolved under these conditions. I think that rather than adapt them to conditions easier for us to provide, that we should endeavor to provide them with conditions that are more conducive to their needs- regardless of the challenges involved.
Something to think about, right?
And , isn't their something wonderful (for those of us who are not hell-bent on controlling the time and place of our fish's spawnings) to check out your tank one night and see a small clutch of Apisto fry under the watchful eye of the mother in a Sterculia pod or whatever? Perhaps not as predictable or controllable as a more sterile breeding tank, but nonetheless, exciting!
And of course, to the serious breeder, it's just as exciting to see a bunch of wriggling fry in a PVC pipe section as it is to see them lurking about the litter bed in the display tank. I suppose it's all how you look at it.
No right or wrong answer.
The one thing that I think we can all agree with is the necessity and importance of providing optimum conditions for our potential spawning pairs. There seems to be no substitute for good food, clean water, and proper environment. Sure, there are a lot of factors beyond our control, but one thing we can truly impact is the environment in which our fishes are kept and conditioned.
On the other hand, we DO control the environment in which our fishes are kept- regardless of if the tank looks like the bottom of an Asian stream or a marble-filled 10-gallon, bare aquarium, right?
And what about the "spontaneous" spawning events that so many of you tell us have occurred in your botanical method aquariums?
Over the decades, I've had a surprisingly large number of those "spontaneous" spawning events in botanical method tanks, myself. You know, you wake up one morning and your Pencilfishes are acting weird...Next thing you know, there are clouds of eggs flying all over the tank...
That sort of stuff.
And after the initial surprise and excitement, during my "postgame analysis", I'd always try to figure out what led to the spawning event...I concluded often that was usually pure luck, coupled with providing the fishes a good environment, rather than some intentionally-spawning-focused efforts I made.
Well, maybe luck was a much smaller contributor...
After a few years of experiencing this sort of thing, I began to draw the conclusion that it was more the result of going out of my way to focus on recreating the correct environmental conditions for my fishes on a full-time basis- not just for spawning- which led to these events occurring repeatedly over the years.
With all sorts of fishes, too.
When it happened again, a couple of years ago, in my experimental leaf-litter only tank, hosting about 20 Paracheirodon simulans ("Green Neon Tetras"), I came the conclusion, in a rather circuitous sort of way, that I AM a "fish breeder" of sorts.
Well, that's not fair to legit fish breeders. More precisely, I'm a "fish natural habitat replication specialist."
A nice way of saying that by focusing on the overall environmental conditions of the aquarium on a full time basis, I could encourage more natural behaviors- including spawning- among the fishes under my care. A sort of "by product" of my practices, as opposed to the strict, stated goal.
Additionally, I've postulated that rearing young fishes in the type of environmental conditions under which they will spend the rest of their lives just makes a lot of sense to me. Having to acclimate young fishes into unfamiliar/different conditions, however beneficial they might be, still can be stressful to them.
So, why not be consistent with the environment from day one?
Wouldn't a "botanical-,method fry-rearing system", with it's abundant decomposing leaves, biofilms, and microbial population, be of benefit?
I think so.
This is an interesting, in fact, fundamental aspect of botanical-style aquariums; we've discussed it many, many times here: The idea of "on board" food cultivation for fishes.
The breakdown and decomposition of various botanical materials provides a very natural supplemental source of food for young fishes, both directly (as in the case of fishes such as wood-eating catfishes, etc.), and indirectly, as they graze on algal growth, biofilms, fungi, and small crustaceans which inhabit the botanical "bed" in the aquarium.
And of course, decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with infusoria, forms of bacteria, and small crustaceans, becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster.
However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
It's essentially an "evolved" version of the "jungle tanks" I reared killies in when I was a teen. A different sort of look- and function! The so-called "permanent setup"- in which the adults and fry typically co-exist, with the fry finding food amongst the natural substrate and other materials present I the tank. Or, of course, you could remove the parents after breeding- the choice is yours.
While I believe that we can be "lucky" about having fishes spawn in our tanks when that wasn't the intent, I don't believe that fishes reproduce in our tanks solely because of "luck." I mean, sure you will occasionally happen to have stumbled n the right combination of water temp, pH, current, light, or whatever- and BLAM! Spawning.
However, I think it's more of a cumulative result of doing stuff right. For a while.
So, what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..?"
There really is nothing "wrong" with that.
It's about wonder. Awe. The happenstance of giving your fishes exactly what they need to react in the most natural way possible.
And that's pretty cool, isn't it?
Of course, there is more to being a "successful" breeder than just having the fishes spawn. You have to rear the resulting fry, right? Sure, half the battle is just getting the fishes to lay eggs in the first place- a conformation that you're doing something right to make them comfortable enough to want to reproduce! And there is a skill set needed to rear the fry, too.
Yet, I think that with a more intensive and creative approach, our botanical-style aquariums can help with the "rearing aspect", too. Sure, it's more "hands-off" than the traditional "keep-the-fry-knee-deep-in-food-at-all-times" approach that serious breeders employ...but my less deliberate, more "hands-off" approach can work. I've seen it happen many times in my "non-breeding" tanks.
We're seeing more and more reports of "spontaneous" spawnings of all sorts of different fishes associated with blackwater conditions.
Often, it's a group of fishes that the aquarist had for a while, perhaps with little effort put into spawning them, and then it just sort of "happened." For others, it is perhaps expected- maybe the ultimate goal as it relates to a specific species...but was just taking a long time to come to fruition.
I just wonder...being a lover of the more natural-looking AND functioning aquarium, if this is a key approach to unlocking the spawning secrets of more "difficult-to-spawn" fishes. Not a "better spawning cone" or breeding trap, or more enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a wholistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and a physical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
And, I wonder if fry-rearing tanks can- and should- be natural setups, too- even for serious breeders. You know, lots of plants, botanical cover, whatever...I mean, I KNOW that they can...I guess it's more of a question of if we want make the associated trade-offs? Sure, you'll give up some control, but I wonder if the result is fewer, yet healthier, more vigorous young fish?
It's not a new idea...or even a new theme here in our blog.
Now, this is pretty interesting stuff to me. Everyone has their own style of fry rearing, of course. Some hobbyists like bare bottom tanks, some prefer densely planted tanks, etc. I'm proposing the idea of rearing young fishes in a botanical-method (blackwater?) aquarium with leaves, some seed pods, and rich soil; maybe some plants as well. The physically and "functionally" mimic, at least to some extent, the habitats in which many young fishes grow up in.
My thinking is that decomposing leaves will not only provide material for the fishes to feed on and among, they will provide a natural "shelter" for them as well, potentially eliminating or reducing stresses. In Nature, many fry which do not receive parental care tend to hide in the leaves or other "biocover" in their environment, and providing such natural conditions will certainly accommodate this behavior.
Decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with "infusoria" and even forms of bacteria becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster. However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
I occasionally think that, in our intense effort to achieve the results we want, we sometimes will overlook something as seemingly basic as this. I certainly know that I have. And I think that our fishes will let us know, too...I mean, those "accidental" spawnings aren't really "accidental", right? They're an example of our fishes letting us know that what we've been providing them has been exactly what they needed. It's worth considering, huh?
Nature has a way. It's up to us to figure out what it is. Be it with a ceramic flower pot or pile of botanicals...
Let's keep thinking about this. And let's keep enjoying our fishes by creating more naturalistic conditions for them in our aquariums.
Stay curious. Stay enthralled. Stay diligent. Stay methodical. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
Over the years, I've revisited a lot of old ideas.
Sometimes, my mindset deviates from long-held beliefs. Sometimes, it's a permanent shift. Other times, it's just long enough to realize that my new-found love for something just isn't me being my "authentic self."
Rather, an infatuation of sorts, based on an idea that doesn't; really represent what I believe in.
One of our recent products which really brings this idea home was sachets of selected, crushed botanicals, intended to create some of the effects of a botanical method aquarium without the "hassle" of using actual botanicals in your tanks. It was different than the usual teabag-type products out there because our formulation was from botanical materials, not simply crushed leaves like everyone else did.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. A lot of hobbyists wanted a "tinted aquairum" without the decomposing botanicals and all that their use entails. We had very sexy packaging and a great name for it, "Shade."
It sold out quickly several times. Our supplier in Southeast Asia who made it for us was thrilled. Stores wanted to stock it. As a marketer, I was pleased...But something about it always sort of bothered me. It somehow felt "dirty" to me. I mean, it was a cool product, I guess- but it kind of went against some of the very principles I have preached for years...And because ours was made form botanicals, not leaves, like everyone else's, the "results" (ie; color effects) were highly variable and rather inconsistent from batch to batch. Too inconsistent for a product designed to be a "quick fix" should be.
And why the hell was I offering a "quick fix" product, anyways?
So, the last time it sold out, I decided to wait on restocking it...and wait even longer.
Then I really thought about it during my "sabbatical."
And I decided to retire it. Kill it.
It was a "hack."
You know that, historically, I have a great disdain for "hacks" in our hobby...
Sometimes, our shared progression and experience even makes me think about my own personal "rules" and directives. Pushing outwards has really helped me grow in the hobby.
Every once in a while, I'll have a friend contact me about something that I'm "missing out on" or some new "thing" that will "change the game" and perhaps be an "existential threat" to Tannin Aquatics. I certainly appreciate that, but it's okay. (As I've learned over the years- particularly in recent months-the biggest threat to Tannin, really, is me, lol.)
Of course, as part of my "due diligence" as a business owner, I DO take note and check out the "thing" which is pointed out to me -whatever it might be-and see what it's all about.
And, to be honest, like 9 times out of 10, it's usually a link to a a new vendor who sells some of the same materials that we do, yet making outrageous claims about what they do, or link to a forum discussion about people collecting their own botanicals (which I've encouraged from day one of our existence and still do...), or a discussion about using some "extract" or "solution" to create "blackwater" easily as an alternative to leaves or what not. A "hack" of some sort.
And the products? Usually, they're nothing that novel. Same stuff. Just perhaps, with a cool name or packaging (ya know...like "Shade" 😂)
Of course, these "products"-often "extracts" and "additives"- almost always tend to be derivations of things we've done for a generation or two in the hobby, and are no better-or worse- than the idea of tossing leaves and botanicals in the aquarium, in terms of what they appear to do on the surface.
And it almost always seems to me that these "solutions" are simply an alternative of sorts; generally one which requires less effort or process to get some desired result. Of course, they also play into one of the great aquarium hobby "truisms" of the 21st century:
We hate waiting for stuff. We love "hacks" and shortcuts. We're impatient.
Me? I'm about the process. My philosophy is that the "aesthetics" always follow the function of what we do in the botanical method.
And I'm really fucking patient.
I've had tanks sit with leaves and substrate for months before adding the fishes I've been looking for. I've also "pre-stocked" botanical method and reef tanks with microorganism cultures and let them stay "fishless" for months while a population assembled itself.
I'm okay with that.
I'm not impatient.
Impatience is, I suppose, part of being human, but in the aquarium hobby, it occasionally drives us to do things that, although are probably no big deal- can become a sort of "barometer" for other things which might be of questionable value or risk. ("Well, nothing bad happened when I did THAT, so, if I do THIS...") Or, they can cumulatively become a "big deal", to the detriment of our tanks. Others are simply alternatives, and are no better or worse than what we're doing with botanicals, at least upon initial investigation.
Yeah, most of these solutions and teas and teabags (like "Shade!")- although I suppose seen by many as an "alternative"- are hacks.
Now, for a lot of reasons, I fucking hate most "hacks" that we use in the hobby.
To many, "hacking" it implies a sort of "inside way" of doing stuff...a "work-around" of sorts. A term brought about by the internet age to justify doing things quickly and to eliminate impatience because we're all "so busy." I think it's a sort of sad commentary on the prevailing mindset of many people.
We all need stuff quickly...We want a "shortcut to our dream tank. "Personally, I call it "cheating."
With what we do, a "hack" really is trying to cheat Nature. Speed stuff up. Make nature work on OUR schedules. We justify it by saying that it's an alternative, or by reminding ourselves (as we did with "Shade") that it's "made from natural materials..."
Anything to make ourselves feel better about trying to do an "end run" around Nature.
Bad idea, if you ask me.
Of course, there are some hacks, like the one we're discussing here, which aren't necessarily "bad" or harmful- just different. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing them. Yet, they deny us some pleasures and opportunities to learn more about the way Nature works. And we can't fool ourselves into believing that they are some panacea, either.
The idea just doesn't resonate with some of us. Like the use of botanical sachets such as "Shade" or whatever.
The other one that seems to come up at least a few times a year in discussion, and is often proferred to me as rendering the botanical-method aquarium "obsolete" is the use of...tea.
Like, legit, human-consumable tea.
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.
It's kind of tasty, too!
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, it's never a bad idea to know the impact of what you're adding.
Like using botanicals, utilizing 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"or even botanical tea bags like "Shade" or the numerous other "teabag" products out there is that you are mainly 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, as well as the ecological support they offer to the microcosm that is your aquarium. I mean, sure, you're likely imparting some of the beneficial compounds we talk about into your water.
And, despite anyone's recommendation, they're remarkably "improvisational" products. There is no real way to determine how much you need to add to achieve______. Like, what concentration do they impart what compounds into the water at? And at what rate?
Obviously, the same could be said of botanicals, but we're not utilizing botanicals simply to create brown water or specific pH parameters, etc. We're using them to foster an underwater ecology...The "tint" part is a "collateral" aesthetic benefit. Nature Herself determines how much of what compound actually leaches into the water from the botanicals as they break down.
Yes, with tea, teabags, or extracts, you sort of miss out on replicating a little slice of Nature in your aquarium. And of course, it's fine if your goal is just to color the water, or to impart some compounds into the water, I suppose. And I 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 seed pods that we love.
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 a shortcut.
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 an art at this point, with a bit of science and speculation mixed in. There is no current way available to the hobby to test for "x" types or amounts of tannins (of which there are hundreds) or humid substances in aquariums.
I have not yet 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.
We have to understand that there are limitations to the impacts of botanicals, tea, wood, etc. on water chemistry. Adding liter upon liter of "extract", or bag after bag of tea to your aquarium will have minimal pH impact if your water is super hard. When you're serious about trying to create more natural blackwater conditions, you really need an RO/DI unit to achieve "base water" with no carbonate hardness that's more "malleable" to environmental manipulation. Tea, twigs, leaves- none will do much unless you understand that.
There really is no "Instant Amazon" bottled solution that you just add to tap water and your Rio Nanay Angels will just spontaneously spawn!
Again, lest you feel that I'm trashing on the industry or product manufactueres- I'm not. I'm merely getting back to what made me fall in love with this stuff in the first place- the process. I'm sharing with you how I feel about this. And being authentic to myself and my philosophies on botanical method aquariums. You know, the ideas that many of you share...the ones that brought you to our community some 7 plus years ago!
I'm pretty adamant about it when I assure you that I won't stray off course again like I did with "Shade." I won't pander to the mass market, or try to jump on some "trend" And I will no longer offer a product which represents a shortcut; an abandonment of the process. It's not true to me.
I'm not trying to throw a wet blanket on any ideas we might have. Not trashing on anyone else's products. I'm not feeling particularly "defensive" about using tea or other "extracts" because I sell botanical materials for a living. It's sort of apples and oranges, really.
The hobby need not be an excercise in misery or toil or doing things the hard way.
And hey, the whole idea of utilizing concentrated extracts of stuff is something I've looked on with caution for a long time, and we've discussed here before. I'm an "equal opportunity critic"- I'll jump on our community for stuff we do, too! I'll even get on my own case, as I have about "Shade!"🤬
Yes- one of the things that I DO have an issue with in our little hobby sector is the desire by many "tinters" to make use of the water in which the initial preparation of our botanicals takes place in as a form of "blackwater tea" or "blackwater extract."
Now, while on the surface, there is nothing inherently "wrong" with the idea, I think that in our case, we need to consider exactly why we boil/soak our botanicals before using them in the aquarium to begin with.
I discard the "tea" that results from the initial preparation of botanicals- and I recommend that you do, too.
As I have mentioned many times before, the purpose of the initial "boil and soak" is to release some of the pollutants (dust, dirt, etc.) bound up in the outer tissues of the botanicals. It's also to "soften" the leaves/botanicals that you're using to help them absorb water and sink more easily. As a result, a lot of organic materials, in addition tannins and other substances are released.
So, why would you want a concentrated "tea" of dirt, surface pollutants, and other organics in your aquarium as a "blackwater extract?" And how much do you need? I mean, what is the "concentration" of desirable materials in the tea relative to the water? Like with teabags, it's not an easy, quick, clean thing to figure, right?
There is so much we don't know.
A lot of hobbyists tell me they are concerned about "wasting" the concentrated tannins from the prep water. I get it. However, trust me- the leaves and botanicals will continue to release the tannins and humic substances (with much less pollutants!) throughout their "useful lifetimes" when submerged, so you need not worry about discarding the initial water that they were prepared in.
Is it worth polluting your aquarium for this?
I certainly don't think so!
Do a lot of hobbyists do this and get away with this? Sure. Am I being overly conservative? No doubt. In Nature, don't leaves, wood, and seed pods just fall into the water? Of course.
However, in most cases, Nature has the benefit of dissolution from thousands of gallons/litres of water, right? It's an open system, for the most part, with important and export processes far superior and efficient to anything we can hope to do in the confines of our aquariums!
Okay, I think I beat that horse up pretty good!
How much botanical materials to use to get "tint effects?"
Well, that's the million dollar question.
I spent a lot of years right here perpetuating this absurdity, myself. So I'm at least partially to blame. But it's not just me...
There are (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. We used to do it, too...It's kind of stupid, actually.
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.
Personally, if I recommend certain quantities of leaves or whatever, its more based upon my concern of not overloading an existing aquarium with excessive amounts of materials which can decompose and create environmental issues, more than any concern over making your water too dark.
How do you determine how much stuff you should add, then?
This might shock you:
You need to kind of go with your instinct. Go slowly. Evaluate the appearance of your water (if that WAS your main goal, lol), the behaviors of the fishes...the pH, alkalinity, TDS, nitrate, phosphate, or other parameters that you like to test for. It's really a matter of experimentation.
An understanding of aquatic ecology and basic aquarium water chemistry is invaluable if you're into this sort of stuff, trust me. And you likely won't get it from a cute 5 minute YouTube video or a hashtag-ridden Instagram post by me or anyone else. You'll need to do old-fashioned research. Trust me, it's not that difficult- and it's totally worth it!
Am I a fan of intentionally "tinting" the water at ALL? Well, of course! I mean, this blog is called "The Tint", right? And my company is called "Tannin Aquatics!"
I'm a much bigger fan of "tinting" the water based on the materials I incorporate into the aquarium's ecology. 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 other substances based upon the decomposition rate of the materials you're using, the water chemistry, etc.
And most important, they become "fuel" for biological processes and the colonization of fungal and bacterial growths.
Of course, you can still add too many botanicals too fast to an established tank, as we've mentioned numerous times. Learning how much to use is all about developing your own practices based on what works for you...In other words, incorporating them in your tank and evaluating their impact on your specific situation. It's hardly an exact science. Much more of an "art" or "best guess" thing than a science..at least right now.
That being said, I think that our entire botanical-method aquarium approach needs to be viewed as just that- an approach. A way to use a set of materials, techniques, and concepts to achieve desired results consistently over time. An approach that tends to eschew short-term "fixes" in favor of long-term technique.
In my opinion, this type of "short-term, instant-result" mindset has made the reef aquarium hobby of late more about adding that extra piece of gear or specialized chemical additive as means to get some quick, short term result than it is a way of taking an approach that embraces learning about the entire ecosystem we are trying to recreate in our tanks and facilitating long-term success.
Yeah, once again- the "problem" with Rooibos or blackwater extracts and teabags as I see it is that they encourage a "Hey, my water is getting more clear, time to add another tea bag or a teaspoon of extract..." mindset, instead of fostering a mindset that looks at what the best way to achieve and maintain the desired environmental results naturally on a continuous basis is.
A sort of symbolic manifestation of encouraging a short-term fix to a long-term concern.
Again, there is no "right or wrong" in this context- it's just that we need to ask ourselves why we are utilizing these products, and to ask ourselves how they fit into the "big picture" of what we're trying to accomplish. And we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that you simply add a drop of something- or even throw in some Alder Cones or Catappa leaves- and that will solve all of our problems.
Are we fixated on aesthetics, or are we considering the long-term impacts on our closed system environments?
Sure, I can feel cynicism towards my mindset here. I understand that. This is part of my personal journey, and like everything else, I'm sharing it with you. These things just don't feel "good" to me.
I'm not going to take Tannin into directions that don't feel good to me. Our "refresh" is going to be very different- perhaps slightly disorienting to some- yet it will be much, much more devoted to our founding principles and mindset. A lot more about the process and how to achieve our goals than simply a huge array of every seed pod and leaf on the market. Been there, done that.
Rather, it will be as much a celebration of the art and science of botanical method aquariums as it will be an outlet to purchase stuff.
Oh, I'm straying off topic..sort of. Let's get back to the "meat" of this...
Now, if we look at the use of extracts and additives, and additional botanicals- for that matter- as part of a "holistic approach" to achieving continuous and consistent results in our aquariums, that's a different story altogether.
Yes, one of the things I've often talked about over the years here is the need for us as hobbyists to deploy patience, observation, and testing when playing with botanical materials in our aquariums.
I've eschewed, even vilified "hacks" and "shortcuts"...I felt (and continue to feel, really), that trying to circumvent natural processes in order to arrive at some "destination" faster is an invitation to potential problems over the long term, and at the very least, a way to develop poor skills that will work to our detriment.
Obviously, I'm not saying that the botanical-method aquarium approach should be all drudgery and ceaseless devotion to a series of steps and guidelines issued by...someone. I'm not saying that every "teabag" product is a big joke, and a rip off designed for suckers, etc...NO! That's even more frightening to me than the idea of "shortcuts" and "hacks!" Dogma sucks.
And guess what? Ideas and practices DO evolve over time as we learn more about what we're doing and accumulate more experience.
It's why I though that "Shade" might have been a good idea at the time...
It makes a lot more sense to learn a bit more about how natural materials influence the wild blackwater habitats of the world, and to understand that they are being replenished on a more or less continuous basis, then considering how best to replicate this in our aquariums consistently and safely.
So, enjoy your teabags. Prep your botanicals. Replace your leaves. Observe, study, inquire. Read. Share.
Remember, it's a hobby. You're building up an ecosystem. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And to truly understand what goes on in Nature, it's never a bad idea to replicate Nature to the best extent possible- even if it's not a "hack" sometimes.
"Shade" won't be coming back. But the lessons that it taught me will stick around for a long time.
RIP, "Shade." It was good to know you... And you looked pretty sexy while you were here!
Stay studious. Stay devoted. Stay authentic...
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.
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.
The other day, in our Instagram feed, we received what I felt was one of the most honest, amazing comments I'd ever seen. The commenter was acknowledging that, while he loved the tinted water which botanical-method aquariums yield, he was having a bit of a mental struggle at the dark water hiding some of the subtle colors in his fishes. He loved the look, but was bummed out that his colorful fishes weren't as discernible in the deeply tinted water. He was sort of torn...He wanted to know if I ever had a similar feeling.
Besides just loving the incredible honesty, the comment did make me think a bit.
Now, I can honestly say that it never actually bothered me. In fact, I DID have to think a lot about it- but it was mainly for the reason that I couldn't think of a time when it did! I guess I always was drawn so much to the habitat, that any perceived loss of color was a non issue. I think that I'm also naturally attracted to fishes which, although can be colorful, generally have more muted patterns intended to help them blend into their environment.
However, I do agree that the tinted waters which result when we add leaves, seed pods, soils, etc, into our aquariums definitely impact the "visuals" of our fishes, don't they? Anyone who's ever tried to take a pic or video of his or her botanical method aquarium can attest to this. It's hard to get a good pic showing all of the accurate colors of some of your fishes.
On the other hand, some fishes seem to take on an entirely new appearance in tinted water, and the function of the coloration makes more sense in this context.
There is a reason as to why this is...
From a paper by researcher Shiro Kohima about the coloration of none other than the blackwater-dwelling Neon Tetra, the conclusion was pretty darned clear:
"To clarify the ecological function of this coloration, we examined the appearance of living neon tetra. They changed color in response to lighting and background conditions, and became less conspicuous under each condition to the human eye. Although they appeared bright in colorless clear water, their stripes appeared darker in blackwater. In addition, the visible area of their stripes was small and their brightness decreased, unless they were observed within a limited viewing angle (approximately 30° above the horizon).
The results show that from the viewpoint of approaching submerged predators, a bright mirror image of the stripes is projected onto the underside of the water’s surface, providing a dramatic visual target while the real fish remains less conspicuous. Based on these results, we hypothesize that the neon tetra’s bright coloration is an effective predator evasion strategy that confuses predators using bright mirror images."
Scientists are aware that dissolved organic materials, such as tannins and lignins, which visually tint the water, also absorb all wavelengths of light, yielding that brownish color that we know so well.
So, yeah, some of the more subtly-colored patterns on fishes will be more difficult to discern in tinted water. What can we do about that? Can we do anything about it?
Well, for one thing, we can adjust the lighting within our aquariums, and simply ramp up color and intensity. This is where modern LED lighting fixtures work so very well. You'll have to do some experimentation, but the versatility of LED's makes it easy!
Remember, all of this revolves around the properties of the water itself. Indeed, in our tanks, the water itself becomes a part of the attraction, doesn't it? And it becomes a consideration if you're trying to keep aquatic plants. You simply need to ramp up intensity to assist with light penetration, as we recently discussed right here on "The Tint."
One of the big discussion points we have in our world is about the color and "clarity" of the water in our botanical method aquariums. We receive a significant amount of correspondence from customers who are curious how much "stuff" it takes to color up their water.
This is so far from "mainstream" aquarium hobby thinking that I just have to laugh sometimes. I mean, those of us in the community of blackwater, botanical-method aquarists seek out tint and "body" in our water...while the rest of the aquatic world- well, they just sort of... freak the fuck out about that, huh?
And beyond just the color, there are other factors to the water which impact the "visuals", right?
Our aesthetic "upbringing" in the hobby seems to push us towards "crystal clear water", regardless of whether or not it's "tinted" or not. And think about it: You can have absolutely horrifically toxic levels of ammonia, dissolved heavy metals, etc. in water that is "invisible", and have perfectly beautiful parameters in water that is heavily tinted and even a bit turbid.
(FYI, WIkipedia defines "turbidity" in part as, "...the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air.")
That's why the long-standing aquarium "mythology" which suggested that blackwater aquariums, or aquariums with tinted water were somehow "dirtier" than "blue water" tanks used to drive me crazy. The term "blackwater" describes a number of things; however, it's not a measure of the "cleanliness" of the water in an aquarium, is it?
Chemical analysis of compounds like ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, and phosphate- and measurements of the conductivity/redox potential of the water are the indicators of its "cleanliness."
Color alone is not indicative of water quality for aquarium purposes, nor is "turbidity." Sure, by municipal drinking water standards, color and clarity are important, and can indicate a number of potential issues...But we're not talking about drinking water here, are we?
No, we aren't!
(And yes, aquariums with high quantities of organic materials breaking down in the water column add to the biological load of the tank, requiring diligent management. This is not shocking news. Frankly, I find it rather amusing when someone occasionally tells me that what we do as a community is "reckless", and that our tanks look "dirty."
As if we don't see that or understand why our tanks look the way they do? And we do know the color and visual characteristics of are water are the way they are for certain reasons- just NOT because the water is of "low quality."
There is a difference between "color" and "clarity."
The color is, as you know, a product of tannins and humic acids leaching into the water from wood, soils, and botanicals, and typically is not "cloudy." It's actually one of the most "natural-looking" water conditions around, as water influenced by soils, woods, leaves, etc. is ubiquitous around the world. Other than having that undeniable color, there is little that differentiates this water from so-called "crystal clear" water to the naked eye.
Of course, the water may have a lower pH and general hardness, but these factors have no bearing on the color or visual clarity of the water. And conversely, dark brown water isn't always soft and acidic. You can have very hard, alkaline water that, based on our hobby biases, looks like it should be soft and acid. Color is NO indicator of pH or hardness! Again, it's one of those things where we seem to ascribe some sort of characteristics to the water based solely on its appearance.
As I've mentioned before, a funny by-product of our more recent obsession with blackwater aquariums in the hobby is a concern about the "tint" of the water, and yeah, perhaps even the "flavor" of said water! A by-product of our acceptance of natural influences on the water, and a desire to see a more realistic representation of certain aquatic environments.
And that means that dark water we love so much.
Natural black waters typically arise from highly leached tropical environments where most of the soluble elements are rapidly removed by heavy rainfall. Materials such as soils are the primary influence on the composition of blackwater. Leaves and other materials contribute to the process in Nature, but are NOT the primary “drivers” of its creation and composition.
Okay, so there we had another discussion of the visual characteristics of water. It's a bit funny that we don't have to think much about water, in terms of "aesthetics" in most typical aquariums.
It's definitely a "botanical method thing."
Yet, it all boils down to the fact that, when we utilize botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of influencing the ecology, we also get the "collateral benefit" of tinted water. And in some instances, the tinted water can impact the appearance of the inhabitants.
We as aquarists need to get our heads around the idea, once again, that this type of more natural aquarium brings its own unique aesthetics. And we, as hobbyists can and should learn to embrace them. It's totally okay if we don't, but it's important to understand that what we see in our aquariums is perhaps the truest reflection of Nature.
Something to think about.
And Stay Wet.
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.
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.
It goes without saying that the single most important component of our aquariums is also the most obvious...water! As the literal bearer of life and the environment in which our fishes, plants, and other organisms thrive, it's fundamental. it's the reason we're drawn to fishes, not gerbils, Tarantula, or Mice- or whatever other pets people keep!
Yeah, we're into water!
And I dear say that we take it for granted a bit.
Now, sure, some hobbyist rightfully place the importance of good quality, properly-conditioned water at the very top of their "want list" of "Stuff" required for successful aquariums. These are often fish breeders and very serious hobbyists, who understand the fundamental importance of good water for their work.
Some of the most common questions we receive lately are "How much _______ do I need to get my water to look like________?" or "How much_______ is needed to lower the pH in my tank?" Or, "How much do I need to get a good amount of humic substances and tannins into my aquarium?"
I usually respond with a simple, "I don't know."
These are all really good questions. Logical. Important. I kind of feel like many hobbyists are looking for a plug-and-play "formula" or "recipe" for how to accomplish certain water-conditioning tasks.
I totally get that. But the reality is...there IS no "recipe" for how to do this stuff.
And it sucks, I know.
"Why, Scott? I read that you can just add some of this blackwater extract that you can buy online, and maybe add some catappa leaves, and..."
Stop. STOP. Please, we're just making this painful.
Simply adding leaves or bottled extracts to your tap water isn't going to result in "Instant Amazon" or whatever. There are numerous complexities and nuances which contribute to these habitats that to simply recommend adding "X" to your water isn't the whole story.
There are so many variables in the equation that it's almost impossible to give a definitive answer. And yeah, us guys in the botanical biz haven't really helped the situation. Over the years, vendors who sold catappa leaves, for example, would recommend starting amounts ("three leaves per 15 liters of water" or whatever...) of botanical materials to use in aquariums.
I mean, we've sort of done it, too...And, although our recommended "dosage" of leaves was given for different reasons (to avoid adding too much material to your tank too quickly), the idea of a "recipe" in general is kind of delusional, IMHO.
Now, this was all well and good, but it's based on....what? I mean, is this based on how many leaves of _______ size that a typical hobbyist with a 10-gallon aquarium needs to get the water "looking brown?" Or to lower tap water with a starting pH of 7.4 and a KH of ___ to pH of 6.9? Or to impart "x" ppm of tannins or humic substances into this given quantity of water?
See? Add to this story the fact that you really can't soften water and make it more "malleable" by using botanicals or extracts alone, and you've got a good case for confusion! It's just not that simple.
Maybe we can gain a bit of understanding- or at least, an appreciation for the dynamics of this process, by looking once again to Nature.
Have you very thought about how water reaches all of the wild aquatic systems of the world? I mean, it's got to get there some way, right? So, how does it reach the ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers and forest floors of the world?
Well, some simply falls into the body of water directly from the sky, and that's that. Some is a result of other overflowing streams and rivers (like, ya' know- those flooded Igapo forests we talk about!). Inputs of precipitation falling over the area of an aquatic habitat are transferred to the habitat via a number of different pathways.
It's surprisingly complicated.
There's like a whole field of science devoted to studying this process! It's called Hydrology, and it's incredibly interesting...As fish geeks, we're probably already acquainted with this field of study, at least tangentially!
So, water comes from a variety of sources, reaching a myriad of ecological niches. However, not all of the water has such an easy journey on its way into our favorite aquatic habitat!
Even in the case of rainwater, some of it simply lands on tree leaves in the surrounding area and evaporates. This is a process scientists call "interception", and accounts for the fact that not all water makes it to the ground. Water that does reach the ground enters the soil through a process called infiltration. slowly percolating down to soil areas known as the "saturated zone"- and as you'd imagine, this is where the fun really begins! (to a soil geologist, at least!)
The soil properties control the infiltration capacity; these include things like soil permeability, the presence of vegetation and plant roots, and how much water is already in the soil. Through what is known as "ground water flow", ultimately, the water finds it way into our favorite aquatic habitats. It's important to note that soil texture ( the relative proportion of sand, silt and clay particles within the mix) affects infiltration rates.
Sandy soils like the "podzols", common to forested areas of South America that we've talked about have higher permeability than some clay-based soils. In some really arid areas a "crust" can form on the soil surface, decreasing the permeability. And of course, the thickness of the soil directly affects how much water the soil can actually absorb.
And, in many cases, the substrate composition and its relationship with water has direct impact on the life forms which inhabit these aquatic systems. In the case of some habitats, like vernal pools, which are filled with water seasonally, the substrate is of critical importance to the aquatic life forms which reside there.
Yeah, soils and geology are perhaps the primary driver of water composition in Nature.
Let's talk more about "blackwater."
In a blackwater environment, the color is a visual indicator of an influx of dissolved materials that contribute to the "richness" of the environment. Indeed, a blackwater environment is typically described as an aquatic system in which vegetation decays, creating tannins that leach into the water, making a transparent, acidic water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.
But, that's not the whole story, really.
It’s important to really try to understand the most simple of questions- like, what exactly is “blackwater”, anyways?
A scientist or ecologist will tell you that blackwater is created by draining from older rocks and soils (in Amazonia, look up the “Guyana Shield”), which result in dissolved fulvic and humic substances, present small amounts of suspended sediment, and characterized by lower pH (4.0 to 6.0) and dissolved elements, yet higher SiO2 contents. Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium, and Calcium concentrations are typically very low in blackwater. Electrical conductivity (ORP) is also lower than in so-called "whitewater" habitats.
Tannins are also imparted into the water by leaves and other botanical materials which accumulate in these habitats.
The action of water upon fallen leaves and other botanical-derived materials leaches various compounds out of them, creating the deep tint that many of us are so familiar with. Indeed, this "leaching" process is analogous to boiling leaves for tea. The leached compounds are both organic and inorganic, and include things like tannin, carbohydrates, organic acids, pectic compounds, minerals, growth hormones, alkaloids, and phenolic compounds.
Most of the of the extractable substances in the surface litter layer are humic acids, typically coming from decaying plant material. Scientists have concluded that greater input of plant litter leads to greater input of humic substances into ground water.
In other words, those leaves that accumulate on the substrate are putting out significant amounts of humic acids, as we've talked about previously! And although humic substances, like fulvic acid, are found in both blackwater and clear water habitats, the organic detritus (you know, from leaves and such) in blackwater contains more extractable fulvic acid than in clearwater habitats, as one might suspect!
The Rio Negro, for example, contains mostly humic acids, indicating that suspended sediment selectively adsorbs humic acids from black water. The low concentration of suspended sediments in rivers like the Rio Negro is one of the main reasons why high concentrations of humic acids are maintained. With little to no suspended sediment, there is no "adsorbent surface" (other than the substrate of the river, upon which these acids can be taken hold of (adsorb).
When you think about it, all of this this kind of contributes to why blackwater has the color that it does, too. Blackwater in the Amazon basin is colored reddish-brown. Why? Well, it has those organic compounds dissolved in it, of course. And most light absorbtion is in the blue region of the spectrum, and the water is almost transparent to red light, which explains the red coloration of the water!
And many of those organic compounds come from the surrounding land, as touched on above...
In summary, natural "blackwaters" typically arise from highly leached (tropical) environments where most of the soluble elements in the surrounding rocks and soils are rapidly removed by heavy rainfall. Materials such as soils are the primary influence on the composition of blackwater.
Leaves and other materials contribute to the process and appearance in Nature, but are NOT the primary “drivers” of its creation and composition.
So, right from the start, it’s evident that natural blackwater is “all about the soils…” Yeah, I'll repeat it again: It’s more a product of geology than just about anything else.
More confusing, recent studies have found that most of the acidity in black waters can be attributed to dissolved organic substances, and not to dissolved carbonic acid. In other words, organic acids from compounds found in soil and decomposing plant material, as opposed to inorganic sources. Blackwaters are almost always characterized by high percentages of organic acids.
Despite the appearance, as a general rule, blackwater rivers are lower in nutrients than clear rivers. Wouldn't it be interesting, when contemplating more natural biotope/biotype aquariums, to study and take into consideration the surrounding geology and physical characteristics of the habitat? Too recreate the habitat based on the soil or geological composition of the surrounding terrestrial environment?
As we know now, the influence of factors like soil, and the presence of terrestrial materials like seed pods, leaves, and branches play a huge role in the chemical composition and appearance-of the water. It's really no different in the aquarium, right?
Like so many things in nature, the complexity of blackwater habitats is more than what meets the eye. Chemically, biologically, and ecologically, blackwater habitats are a weave of interdependencies- with soil, water, and surrounding forest all functioning together to influence the lives of the fishes which reside within them. No single factor could provide all of the necessary components for fish populations to thrive.
To damage or destroy any one of them could spell disaster for the fishes- and the ecosystem which supports them. It is therefore incumbent upon us to understand, protect, and cherish these precious habitats, for the benefit of future generations.
And with regards to our aquarium work?
Although there may even be breakthroughs in terms of blackwater extracts and additives coming to market, there are still a lot of questions that would have to be answered before we could simply state that "X" drops per gallon of such an such a formula would yield a specific outcome. This reminds me of the reef aquarium world more an more, lol.
So, if I've made any "argument" here, it's that this stuff is every bit as much of an "art"- in terms of aquarium keeping- as it is a "science." We will, at least for the foreseeable future, have to use the data we have available and formulate a best guess as to how much of what can give us some of the impacts we are interested in for our aquariums.
We simply can't authoritatively make blanket statements like, "You need to use "X" catappa leaves per gallon in order to recreate Rio Negro-like conditions in your aquarium!" We can't simply state that you can throw in some podzolic soil and achieve blackwater, either. There are many factors in play, as we've discussed here, right?
Marketing hyperbole aside, we really are sort of...guessing.
And that's certainly nothing to be discouraged about!
We, as a community, are getting deeper into the functional aspects of blackwater, botanical-style aquariums than ever before. More light is being shed on what's going on in both our aquariums and in the natural habitats we desire to replicate. We are learning more every day about how the presence of tannins and humic substances in our aquariums is affecting the health, longevity, and spawning behaviors of our blackwater fishes.
We're learning about the challenges and realities of managing blackwater systems over the long term- understanding the good, the bad, and the dangerous possibilities that are present when we experiment with these ideas.
There is much, much more work to be done..And a lot of talented hobbyists like yourself are out there on the front lines every day, contributing to the body of knowledge that will benefit the hobby for generations!
Stay persistent. Stay bold. Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay disciplined...
And Stay Wet.