Letting go...

So, you have this idea for an aquarium.

You kind of see it in your head...you've assembled the materials, got it sort of together.

You add water.

Then, you walk in the room one day, look at it and- you just HATE it.

Like, you're done with it.  Like, no re-hab on the design. No "tweaking" of the wood or whatever...You're just over the fucking thing. Ever felt that?

What do you do? 

Well, I had this idea for a nano tank a while back. It seemed good in my head...I had it up for a nanosecond.

Even memorialized it with some Instagram Stories posts. Doing that is almost always the sort of thing that forces me to move on something...I mean, if you lay down a public "marker", you've got to go, right?

I thought that the tank would be a sort of "blank canvas" for an idea I had...I liked the idea, in principle.

But I didn't see a way forward with this one. I even took the extraordinary step of removing one element of the tank (the wood) altogether, in the hope of perhaps pivoting and just doing my "leaf only scape V3.0"- but I wasn't feeling it.

Nope.

A stillborn idea. A tank not capable of evolving to anything that interested me at this time.

So...I let it go.

Yeah, made away with it. Shut it down. Terminated it...

Whatever you want to call it.

That's really a kind of extraordinary step for me. I mean, I'm sort of the eternal optimist. I try to make almost everything work if I can...

I mean, some of my favorite tanks evolved out of this mindset of sticking with something...We'll come back to that in bit.

Not this time, however.

I killed it.

Now, in the hours after the aborted aquarium move, I was actually able to gain some clarity about why I did it.

What made me do it? 

I almost always do a sort of "post mortem" analysis when I abort on an idea, and this time was no different. It was pretty obvious to me...the "writing was on the wall" with this one!

I think it centered around two things that I simply can't handle in aquariums anymore.

Don't laugh:

1) I absolutely can't stand aquariums which don't have some sort of background- be it opaque window tint, photo paper, or paint. This tank had no background. You could see the window behind it, and the trees outside on the street, and...yeah. 

2) I disdain seeing filters or other equipment in my aquariums. Like, I hate it more than you can ever even imagine. With really few exceptions,  I simply hate seeing filters and stuff. It's only in recent years that I've been able to tolerate seeing filter returns in my all-in-one tanks...and just barely. Now, this nano had a little hang-on-the-back outside power filter...Which I not only saw from the top, but from behind...because-you got it- I didn't have a goddam background on the tank, yes.

I mean, am I that much of a primadonna that I can't handle that? I mean, maybe, but I like to think of it as a situation where I have simply developed an aesthetic sense that just can't tolerate some stuff anymore. I have good ideas, and then I get to equipment...and it sort of "stifles" them a bit.

This is weird.

Okay, yeah, maybe I am prima donna.

What could I have done to salvage this tank? Add a background?

Use a canister filter and glassware, you say?  

Oh, sure. That's easy, right? I mean, all you see in the tank are these elegant curves of "lily pipes" and intakes...Maybe a surface skimmer...You just take 'em out and bleach 'em every once in a while and they stay nice and clean, and..

Okay, yeah. Great. On paper, anyways.

IMHO, glassware isn't the "organic art" that everyone seems to place on some lofty pedestal in the hobby. It reminds me of high school chemistry lab (which I think I got a C minus in, so some residual trauma there, no doubt). You think it's beautiful...I think it's simply dreadful.

It's another piece of equipment, which you see on the outside of the tank, too, with its "umbilical" of return lines shooting up along the sides. Now sure, I know these were developed to make an obvious, visible necessity (filter returns) more elegant and beautiful...However, to me, they're just that- obvious, visible, distracting...and ugly.

Hell, I've even made crazy efforts to hide the canister filters beneath my tanks before, when I couldn't hide them within the tank. It's like, I had to do something! 

I know, I'm being waaaaay too stupid about this. 

Because, really, with a lot of my reef aquarium work, and for that matter, some of my fave botanical-style tanks, you can see some of this stuff. When you see my next reef tank, you might see couple of submersible pumps in the tank , low and deep behind the rock work.

Yeah.

For some reason, it doesn't completely fry my brain in every single situation. I suppose it's a hypocritical thing, but man, sometimes it freaks me out and sometimes I can give it a pass. 

Weird, huh?

Like, why do some tanks get a pass, and others just freak me out with this stuff.

I think, maybe, it's about the "concept"of the tank.  Or the context. Like, some of my fave ever tanks, like my leaf-litter-only tanks, typically will have some equipment evident, because they are essentially a "zero-releaf" aquascape, with nothing that you can hide this stuff behind, like wood or rocks, or whatever. It's as "honest" as it gets. If you want to filter and heat the tank, you only have few options.

It never bothered me all that much in those types of tanks.

Yet, in other tanks? Just fugettaboutit!

Yeah, it MUST be about the concept of the tank. Not only will I forgive the visible equipment, sometimes I'll forgive myself the entire poor execution, too. Because, when I look back at some of the stuff I've done, that was definitely the mindset. Like, I was just happy to sort of pull it off, despite how crappy it looked, as this little gem from 2004 graphically illustrates:

 

Now that I look back on it, there were actually tons of times when I just let a tank evolve, unmolested and unhurried, because something spoke to me...no matter how weird or seemingly dumb the concept may have initially appeared. There was something about it that I believed in...

And occasionally, I'll try something, tear it down, and just regret it. Like, I'll realize, too late, that there was something I liked about the idea, and that I should have kept at it; let it do it's thing.

Like, what IF I kept it in play for little longer?

I mean, could it have evolved into something cool?

Maybe.

I recall a particular experiment I did with Spider Wood, which I let go very early in the game. The arrangement was almost a "reef like" concept...It didn't look right at the time, so I killed it way too early.

Like, a few tweaks to the wood stack, a buildup of substrate in the back of it, a buildup of some leaves and maybe some plants in the back, and it could have been a respectable recreation of the banks of some of the forest floor streams that I've seen in South America.

Yeah, I'd love to try that one again.

Then there were others which I had great faith in right from the start. Even though they looked a bit weird initially, I knew that they'd evolve into something special if I let them be.

Some just hit  the right note, despite a possibly shaky start. Just knew that the idea was so special, that given the space and time, they'd eventually hit the right notes...And they did.

And, then, there were those ideas which, despite their unconventional appearance, were iconic to me, because they represented the culmination of although experiment; a transformation from research to idea to reality. Stuff which created a real transformation in the way I look at aquariums. The "Urban Igapo" style aquairums that many of us execute now, arose from just such an idea.

Sometimes, you just know it. You just feel that letting go of your preconceptions, doubts, and fears, rather than letting go of the tank-is just the right move.

Regardless of the idea, or the appearance of your tank, if there is any way to salvage what you feel is a great idea- even if it means just waiting it out for awhile-  do it. 

 

You just never know if that one "not so good"idea will turn out to be the one that changes everything for you, and inspires others in the process. Your "fail" might be the unlock- the key- for someone else who was about give up, and then suddenly saw something in your work, and created a tank based on your "failed" concept- executed on an idea-which truly touched others in ways you might not have even thought of.

So, yeah- let go...in the right way.

Stay bold. Stay patient. Stay creative. Stay optimistic. Stay enthusiastic. Stay persistent...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman
Tannin Aquatics 

It's only a "fail" if you make it one...

Part of the aquarium hobby experience is screwing stuff up.

There are so many things that we do as aquarists which involve variables beyond our control, that failure in some things is almost inevitable.

And, after a lifetime in the hobby, I will occasionally reflect back on some of the great successes that I’ve had...and on some of the many, many failures that I’ve been involved with! Failures aren’t that bad, really. In fact, they're pretty damn helpful...As the sayings goes, “Nothing is ever wasted- it can always serve as an example of what NOT to do!”

Really.

Yeah, because if you learn from them, failures or disasters are extremely valuable tools for self-education.

I was thinking about my worst-ever aquarium disasters, and, fortunately, there have not been all that many...However, the ones I have had have been notable...and very educational!

My biggest mistakes came out of my own arrogance, really. Yes, arrogance. A desire to flaunt the "rules" set by Nature. 

Usually, they were "created" when I tried to do something that disregarded simple logic (and a century of aquarium common sense), like trying mixes of fishes that were absurd, or overstocking tanks...stuff like that.

For example, from my reef keeping experience- not all that many years ago, actually- I was going to be the ONE reefer to keep several Centropyge angelfish in his reef, including a Lemonpeel, Vrolicki, Coral Beauty, Flame Angel, and Bicolor! If you don't know anything about the dwarf angelfish of the genus Centropyge, the one thing you SHOULD know is that they are very territorial, and don't generally get along with others of their own species. And mixing different species is a traditional "recipe"  for disaster.

Oh, and most of the ones I wanted to keep had a well-earned reputation for snacking on coral tissue...What could go wrong here?

This was a recipe for failure that even the most inexperienced reefer could see coming. Of course, I was "experienced", so I knew better, right?

Yeah. 

Nonetheless, I really thought I could pull this off in a large reef with specialized aquascaping... I was convinced that it could work and that I'd be the envy of the reef aquarium world for doing so...Not only did this experiment end with some "predictable" results (a lot of nice corals getting snacked on), it resulted in 5 very ticked-off, very beaten up dwarf angels! No shit? Who would have seen that coming, right?

Just plain stupid...For some reason, I really thought that my “methodology” would pay off and that it could work...WRONG.

But hey. I did it. I failed at it. I OWN it.

I distinctly remember a dubious experiment on the side of my parents' house one summer when I was a teen, attempting to culture mosquito larvae...yeah, you know how well THAT went down!  I think that was the most mosquito bites I've ever had in one summer...

But I learned my lesson....

Or the time I tried to build my own fluidized reactor. It sounded like noble project, but the reality was that I started with a bad concept and used cheap PVC materials that didn't quite match up. Yeah, it didn’t work, and the resulting leaks and total lack of functionality reflected my DIY "skills!" It was a good thought, but really poor on the "execution" side.

Completely unlike the Angelfish fiasco, which was a “lose-lose” proposition! Nowadays, if I have the urge to do DIY, I simply break out the credit card and purchase whatever it is I was thinking of making. Aquarium equipment manufacturers LOVE me!

Another lesson learned.

Oh, or there was that time I tried to make a continuous-feed brine shrimp hatcher...Shit, do you know how LONG it takes to get brine shrimp eggs out of the water column in your tank?

A really long time.

Enough said.

However, failing- and I mean this in the most literal sense- can actually be beneficial in so many ways, especially if you share your failures publicly. Right now, somewhere out in the aquarium hobby world, there is another hobbyist contemplating one of the same absurd, disaster-inevitable ideas that you brought to life...

Perhaps it's not some huge, epic-disaster-bound system failure...Maybe, it's just something that's a bad decision; one that should be aborted on, but isn't likely to be- and the outcome is already well known in the hobby...

 

Maybe it's in our nature as hobbyists; we just love to tempt fate. And look, I get it...I've written on these very pages that sometimes, we need to go against the grain and try new ideas.

Even after 6 years of pushing this idea of botanical-style aquariums, we're still learning some new ideas, creating "best practices", and evolving techniques. We still make a few mistakes. And, like many hobbyists, we're still trying to get our heads around the "big picture" of the approach, which seems so contradictory to what has been passed down as "the way to do stuff" in the hobby for generations. 

It makes many people uncomfortable to take leaps of faith. And, sure, despite the successful implementation of these techniques for several years by thousands of hobbyists, there is always a chance of failure.

It's scary. It can be viewed as "irresponsible" by some. At the very least, you might question the efficacy and safety of some of this stuff.

It makes sense.

We ask you to make a lot of mental shifts accept some ideas which seem to go "against the grain" of long-held hobby "best practices" and philosophies of aquarium management.

We ask you to understand what you are doing what you are doing, and what the rationale behind the approach is.

 

One thing that you do get when ideas are shared like this is the benefit of the body of work; the experience- good and bad- of a large community of hobbyists who have went down this same path. The key to taking an idea from "fringe" to "best practice" is sharing. 

Sharing of mistakes made, the refinements done, and the "tweaks" that yielded consistent success.

It starts by creating a hobby culture of sharing.

Sharing of our mistakes is every bit as important as sharing our amazing successes.

So imagine, for a moment, if you do a quick “confessional” post on Instagram or Facebook about your biggest aquarium screw up, and just one hobbyist who is contemplating a similar thing stumbles on it, and then decides NOT to recreate your disaster!

Think of the savings in money, frustration, and innocent animals’ lives...It’s all good. "Failure" makes you a more successful aquarist- IF you learn from the mistake, and IF you share it with others!

It's kind of fun, too!

So, don’t hide your failures.

Discuss them.

Trumpet them from the highest mountain. Savor them. Run around, scream, share, yell at people if you must...But tell ‘em that you screwed something up...Tell them how, why, and what it was that you did to screw it up! 

Then laugh about it and feel better! Look at the absurdity of the thing you did.


Of course, some seemingly counter-intuitive ideas do work.

Sometimes, you try something that YOU think will be a mess, but your friends know will work, because they've done it many times, and have refined the idea and practices. You're a bit scared...and you do it anyways based on their ideas!  And it DOES work! Like recently, when my friend convinced me to try several male Apistos of different species in my display tank...I was like, "Dude...really?"

And he said, "Trust me."  And I did. And it was awesome!

Think about "failure" in the context of the bigger picture...

The neat thing about mistakes, screw-ups, and "failures" is that they often lead to something far, far better than whatever it was that you initially failed at. Because, if you take the time to ask yourself why it happened, and reconstruct the process, and make necessary adjustments and recalibration, you'll often find that the idea can work- just in a slightly different manner than you originally thought. 

And failures are only failures if you don't learn from them.

Even in our business, we screw up shit all the time, and usually it's our own fault. And we try to learn from them and refine our processes to make sure that they don't happen again.

In fact, I've been working on a piece on the many screw-ups we’ve made here at Tannin. It’s actually kind of funny, because there ARE so many! 

"Marketing blasphemy", you say? No. Not at all. Rather, it’s a living embodiment of practicing what we preach...

As humans, we all make bad decisions from time to time. Some are the result of pushing boundaries...others are simply bad judgement. Again, how the mistake was made isn't quite as important as learning from it is.

We will all benefit from being human, being honest, and getting through our trials and tribulations in fish keeping together. And yeah, we all have more to gain than to lose from sharing our mistakes.

Trust me.

What’s the biggest screwup- the worst mistake- that you’ve made in aquarium keeping? What did you learn from it?

Don’t be shy. Own it. Share it. Your "failure" will likely lead to others succeeding...So, it wasn’t really a failure after all, right?

Right!

Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay honest. Stay curious. Stay experimental...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Botanical materials in the wild...and in the aquarium: Influences and Impacts.

As you know, we've spent the better part of the past 6 years talking about every aspect of the botanical-style aquarium that we can think of. We've talked about techniques, approaches, ideas, etc. And we've spent a lot of time sharing information about wild aquatic habitats that we might be interested in replicating in both form and function.

However, I think we haven't spent as much time as we should talking about how botanicals "behave" in wild aquatic habitats.  Much of this stuff has implications for those of us who are interested in replicating these habitats in our aquariums. So, let's dive in a bit more on this topic today!

Among the trees of the flooded forests, after the fruits mature (which occurs at high water levels), seeds will fall into the water and may float on the surface or be submerged for a number of weeks. Ecologists believe that the seed production of the trees coincides with the flood pulses, which facilitates their dispersal by water movement, and by the actions of fish.

Interestingly, scientists postulate that these floating or sinking seeds, which  germinate and establish seedlings after the flood waters recede, do very well, sprouting and establishing themselves quickly, and are not severely affected by waterlogging in most species.

So, within their cycle of life, the trees take advantage of the water as part of their ecological adaptation. Trees in these areas have developed specialized morphologies, such as advantageous roots, butress systems and stilt roots.

 In a lot of wild aquatic habitats where leaf litter and other allochthonous materials accumulate, there are a number of factors which control the density, size, and type of materials which are deposited in streams and such. The flow rate of the water within these habitats determines a lot of things, such as the size of the leaves and other botanical materials  and where in the stream they are deposited. 

I often wonder how much the fallen leaves and seed pods impact the water chemistry in a given stream, pond, or section of an Amazonian flooded forest. I know that studies have been done in which ecologists have measured dissolved oxygen and conductivity, as well as pH. However, those readings only give us so much information.

We hear a lot of discussion about blackwater habitats among hobbyists, and the implications for our aquariums. And part of the game here is understanding what it is that makes this a blackwater river system to begin with. We often hear that blackwater is "low in nutrients." 

What exactly does this mean?

One study concluded that the Rio Negro is a blackwater river in large part because the very low nutrient concentrations of the soils that drain into it have arisen as a result of "several cycles of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation." In other words, there's not a whole lot of minerals and nutrients left in the soils to dissolve into the water to any meaningful extent!

Black-waters, drain from older rocks in areas like the Negro river, result from dissolved fulvic and humic substances, present small amounts of suspended sediment, lower pH (4.0 to 6.0) and dissolved elements. Yes, highly leached tropical environments where most of the soluble elements are quickly removed by heavy rainfall.

Perhaps...another reason (besides the previously cited limitation of light penetration) why aquatic plants are rather scare in these waters? It would appear that the bulk of the nutrients found in these blackwaters are likely dissolved into the aquatic environment by decomposing botanical materials, such as leaves, branches, etc.

Why does that sound familiar?

Besides the color, of course, the defining characteristics of blackwater rivers are pH values in the range of 4-5, low electrical conductivity, and minimal mineral content. Dissolved minerals, such as  Ca, Mg, K, and Na are negligible. And with these low amounts of dissolved minerals come unique challenges for the animals who reside in these systems.

How do fishes survive and thrive in these rather extreme habitats?

It's long been known that fishes are well adapted to their natural habitats, particularly the more extreme ones. And this was borne out in a recent study of the Cardinal Tetra. Lab results suggest that humic substances  protect cardinal tetras in the soft, acidic water in which they resides by preventing excessive sodium loss and stimulating calcium uptake to ensure proper homeostasis.

This is pretty extraordinary, as the humic substances found in the water actually enable the fishes to survive in this highly acidic water which is devoid of much mineral content typically needed for fishes to survive!

And of course, botanicals, leaves, and wood typically have an abundance of these humic substances, right? They are useful for more than just an interesting and unique aesthetic effect! There is a lot of room for research about influencing the overall environment in our aquariums here! I think we've barely scratched the surface of the potential for utilizing botanicals in our aquariums.

This is another one of those foundational aspects of the natural style of aquarium that we espouse. The understanding that processes like decomposition and physical transformation of the materials that we utilize our tanks are normal, expected, and beautiful things requires us to make mental shifts.

Botanical materials don't have nearly as much impact on the water parameters (other than say, conductivity and dissolved oxygen) as the soils do. These waters have high concentrations of humic and fulvic acids derived from sandy "hydromorphic podsols" prevalent in the region.  However, these allochthonous materials have huge impact on the ecology of these systems!

Leaf litter, as one might suspect, is of huge importance in these ecosystems. Especially in smaller tributaries. In one study which I came across, it was concluded that, "The smaller the stream, the more dependent the biota is on leaf litter habitats and allocthonous energy derived directly or indirectly from the forest." (Kemenes and Forsberg)

From the same study, it was concluded that the substrate of the aquatic habitat had significant influence on the feeding habits of the fishes which resided in them: 

"The biomass of allocthonous insectivore increased in channels with a higher percentage of sandy bottom substrate. Detritivorous insectivore biomass, in contrast, increased significantly in channels with a higher percentage of leaf substrate. General insectivores tended to increase in streams with higher proportions of leafy substrate, too.

Whats the implication for us as hobbyists? Well, for one thing, we can set up the benthic environment in our tanks to represent the appropriate environment for the fishes which we want to keep in them. Simple as that!

t's as much about function as anything else. And, about pushing into some new directions. The unorthodox aesthetics of these unusual aquariums we play with just happen to be an interesting "by-product" of theirfunction.

I personally think that almost every botanical-style aquarium can benefit from the presence of leaves. As we've discussed numerous times, leaves are the "operating system" of many natural habitats (ecology-wise), and perform a similar role in the aquarium.

The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is fundamental. Leaves and other botanicals are extremely pervasive in almost every type of aquatic habitat.

In the tropical species of trees, the leaf drop is important to the surrounding environment. The nutrients are typically bound up in the leaves, so a regular release of leaves by the trees helps replenish the minerals and nutrients which are typically depleted from eons of leaching into the surrounding forests.

Now, interestingly enough, most tropical forest trees are classified as "evergreens", and don't have a specific seasonal leaf drop like the "deciduous" trees than many of us are more familiar with do...Rather, they replace their leaves gradually throughout the year as the leaves age and subsequently fall off the trees.

The implication here?

There is a more-or-less continuous "supply" of leaves falling off into the jungles and waterways in these habitats, which is why you'll see leaves at varying stages of decomposition in tropical streams. It's also why leaf litter banks may be almost "permanent" structures within some of these bodies of water!

Our botanical-style aquariums are not "set-and-forget" systems, and require basic maintenance (water exchanges, regular water testing, filter media replacement/cleaning), like any other aquarium.  They do have one unique "requirement" as part of their ongoing maintenance which other types of aquariums seem to nothave: The "topping off" of botanicals as they break down.

The "topping off" of botanicals in your tank accomplishes a number of things: first, it creates a certain degree of environmental continuity- keeping things consistent from a "botanical capacity" standpoint. Over time, you have the opportunity to establish a "baseline" of water parameters, knowing how many of what to add to keep things more-or-less consistent, which could make the regular "topping off" of botanicals a bit more of a "science" in addition to an "art."

In addition, it keeps a consistent aesthetic "vibe" in your aquarium. Consistent, in that you can keep the sort of "look" you have, while making subtle- or even less-than-subtle "enhancements" as desired. 

Yeah, dynamic.

And, of course, "topping off" botanicals helps keeps you more intimately "in touch" with your aquarium, much in the same way a planted tank enthusiast would by trimming plants, or a reefer while making frags. When you're actively involved in the "operation" of your aquarium, you simply notice more. You can also learn more; appreciate the subtle, yet obvious changes which arise on an almost daily basis in our botanical-style aquariums.

I dare say that one of the things I enjoy doing most with my blackwater, botanical-style aquariums (besides just observing them, of course) is to "top off" the botanical supply from time to time. I feel that it not only gives me a sense of "actively participating" in the aquarium- it provides a sense that you're doing something nature has done for eons; something very "primal" and essential. Even the prep process is engaging.

Think about the materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and how they actually end up in them, and it makes you think about this in a very different context. A more "holistic" context that can make your experience that much more rewarding. Botanicals should be viewed as "consumables" in our hobby- much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- they simply don't last indefinitely.

Many seed pods and similar botanicals contain a substance known as lignin. Lignin is defined as a group of organic polymers which are essentially the structural materials which support the tissues of vascular plants. They are common in bark, wood, and yeah- seed pods, providing protection from rotting and structural rigidity.

In other words, they make seed pods kinda tough.

Yet, not permanent.

That being said, they are typically broken down by fungi and bacteria in aquatic environments. Inputs of terrestrial materials like leaf litter and seed pods into aquatic habitats can leach dissolved organic carbon (DOC), rich in lignin and cellulose. Factors like light intensity, mineral hardness, and the composition of the aforementioned bacterial /fungal community all affect the degree to which this material is broken down into its constituent parts in this environment.

Hmm...something we've kind of known for a while, right?

So, lignin is a major component of the "stuff" that's leached into our aquatic environments, along with that other big "player"- tannin.

Tannins, according to chemists, are a group of "astringent biomolecules" that bind to and precipitate proteins and other organic compounds. They're in almost every plant around, and are thought to play a role in protecting the plants from predation and potentially aid in their growth. As you might imagine, they are super-abundant in...leaves. In fact, it's thought that tannins comprise as much as 50% of the dry weight of leaves!

Whoa!

And of course, tannins in leaves, wood, soils, and plant materials tend to be highly water soluble, creating our beloved blackwater as they decompose. As the tannins leach into the water, they create that transparent, yet darkly-stained water we love so much!  

In simplified terms, blackwater tends to occur when the rate of "carbon fixation" (photosynthesis) and its partial decay to soluble organic acids exceeds its rate of complete decay to carbon dioxide (oxidation).

Chew on that for a bit...Try to really wrap your head around it...

And sometimes, the research you do on these topics can unlock some interesting tangential information which can be applied to our work in aquairums...

Interesting tidbit of information from science: For those of you weirdos who like using wood, leaves and such in your aquariums, but hate the brown water (yeah, there are a few of you)- you can add baking soda to the water that you soak your wood and such in to accelerate the leaching process, as more alkaline solutions tend to draw out tannic acid from wood than pH neutral or acidic water does. Or you can simply keep using your 8.4 pH tap water! 

"ARMCHAIR SPECULATION": This might be a good answer to why some people can't get the super dark tint they want for the long term...If you have more alkaline water, those tannins are more quickly pulled out. So you might get an initial burst, but the color won't last all that long...

I think just having a bit more than a superficial understanding of the way botanicals and other materials interact with the aquatic environment, and how we can embrace and replicate these systems in our own aquariums is really important to the hobby. The real message here is to not be afraid of learning about seemingly complex chemical and biological nuances of blackwater systems, and to apply some of this knowledge to our aquatic practice.

It can seem a bit  intimidating at first, perhaps even a bit contrarian to "conventional aquarium practice", but if you force yourself beyond just the basic hobby-oriented material out there on these topics (hint once again: There aren't many!), there is literally a whole world of stuff you can learn about!

It starts by simply looking at Nature as an overall inspiration...

Wondering why the aquatic habitats we're looking at appear the way they do, and what processes create them. And rather than editing out the "undesirable" (by mainstream aquarium hobby standards) elements, we embrace as many of the elements as possible, try to figure out what benefits they bring, and how we can recreate them functionally in our closed aquarium systems.

There are no "flaws" in Nature's work, because Nature doesn't seek to satisfy observers. It seeks to evolve and change and grow. It looks the way it does because it's the sum total of the processes which occur to foster life and evolution.

We as hobbyists need to evolve and change and grow, ourselves.

We need to let go of our long-held beliefs about what truly is considered "beautiful." We need to study and understand the elegant way Nature does things- and just why natural aquatic habitats look the way they do.  To look at things in context.  To understand what kinds of outside influences, pressures, and threats these habitats face.

And, when we attempt replicate these functions in our aquariums, we're helping to grow this unique segment of the aquarium hobby.

Please make that effort to continue to educate yourself and get really smart about this stuff...And share what you learn on your journey- all of it- the good and the occasional bad. It helps grow the hobby, foster a viable movement, and helps your fellow hobbyists!

Stay studious. Stay thoughtful. Stay inquisitive. Stay creative. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Evolving techniques

It's kind of fun to make little "tweaks" or adjustments to our aquarium methodology or approaches to how we do certain things. This is what pushes the state of the art in aquaristics further down the road. Now, not every one of these adjustments is a quantum leap forward, at least, not initially. Many are simply subtle iterations of things we've played with before.

An example?

One of our fave approaches, sort of derived out of our "Urban Igapo" work, has been to "dry set" the aquarium.  A sort of technique I call the "transitional approach." 

Basically, all you're doing is adding the prepared botanicals and leaves to your aquarium before it's filled, and spraying them down with water and our sprayable Purple Non-Sulphur bacterial inoculant, "Nurture" to kick-start the biological processes. Let it sit. Spray it down daily.

Then fill it.

Unlike in our "Urban Igapo" approach, you're not trying to grow terrestrial grasses or plants during the "dry phase." You're simply creating and managing  what will ultimately be the submerged habitat in your aquarium for a while before filling it.

I've done this a number of times and had great results.

Stupidly simple. Yet, profoundly different.

Why?

Because, rather than our "traditional" approach of adding the botanicals and leaves to the aquarium after it's already filled, you're sort of replicating what happens in Nature in the wild when forest floors and other terrestrial environments are inundated by overflowing streams and rivers.

The thing I like about this approach (besides how it replicates what happens in the wild) is that it gives you the ability to really saturate and soften  the botanicals and leaves, and to begin the process of decomposition and bacterial colonization before you add the water. 

When do you fill the aquarium?

You can wait a few days, a week or two, or as long s you'd like, really. The idea is to get the materials physically placed, and to begin the process of colonization and "softening" by fungi and bacterial biofilms- known as "conditioning" by ecologists who study these habitats. 

And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals will contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats. And look at this little gem I found in my research:

"There is evidence that detritivores selectively feed on conditioned leaves, i.e. those previously colonized by fungi (Suberkropp, 1992; Graca, 1993). Fungi can alter the food quality and palatability of leaf detritus, aecting shredder growth rates. Animals that feed on a diet rich in fungi have higher growth rates and fecundity than those fed on poorly colonized leaves. Some shredders prefer to feed on leaves that are colonized by fungi, whereas others consume fungal mycelium selectively..."

"Conditioned" leaves, in this context, are those which have been previously colonized by fungi! They make the energy within the leaves and botanicals more available to higher organisms like fishes and invertebrates! 

We've long maintained that the appearance of biofilms and fungi on your botanicals and wood are to be celebrated- not feared. They represent a burgeoning emergence of life -albeit in one of its lowest and most unpleasant-looking forms- and that's a really big deal. 

"Oh shit, he's going to talk about biofilms AGAIN!"

Well, just for a second.

Biofilms, as we probably all know by now, form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals. It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer.

The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together. Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.

It's a literal explosion of life. It's a gift from Nature. And we can all receive it and benefit from it! 

Another advantage of this approach? The traditional "cycling" time of a new tank seems to go much faster. Almost undetectable, in many of my experiments. I can only hypothesize and assume that it's likely a result of all of the bacterial growth in the "terrestrial" phase, and the concurrent  "conditioning" of the botanical materials.  

Tannin's creative Director, Johnny Ciotti, calls this period of time when the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive "The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!

The real positive takeaway here: Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.

So, what about the botanicals?

The idea of utilizing botanicals in the aquarium can be whatever you want, sure. However, if you ask me (and you likely didn't)- the idea of utilizing these materials in our tanks has always been to create unique environmental conditions and foster a biome of organisms which work together to form a closed microcosm. That is incredible to me.

And the idea of "dry setting" your botanical materials and sort of "conditioning" them before adding the water, this "transitional approach", while not exactly some "revolutionary" thing, IS an evolutionary step in the development of botanical-style aquarium keeping.

The "transitional approach" is definitely a bit different than what we've done in the past, and may create a more stable, more biologically diverse aquarium, because you're already fostering a biome of organisms which will make the transition to the  aquatic habitat and "do their thing" that much more quickly.

This IS unique.

We're talking about actually allowing some of the decomposition to start before water is ever added to our tanks. It's a functional approach, requiring understanding, research, and patience to execute. There's really nothing difficult about it.

And the aesthetics? They're going to be different than what you're used to, no doubt. They will follow as a result of the process, and will resemble, on a surprisingly realistic level, what you see in Nature.

But the primary reason is NOT for aesthetics... 

 

The interactions and interdependencies between terrestrial and aquatic habitats are manifold, beneficial, and quite compelling to us as hobbyists. To be able to study this dynamic first hand, and to approach it somewhat methodically, is a significant change in our technique.

And yeah, it's almost absurdly easy to do.

The hard part is that it requires a bit more patience; not everyone will see the advantages, or value, and the trade-off between waiting to fill your tank and filling it immediately. It may not be one that some are willing to make.

If you do, however, you will get to see, firsthand, the fascinating dynamic between the aquatic and the terrestrial environment in a most intimate way.

It could change your thinking about how we set up aquariums. 

It could.

At the most superficial level, it's an acknowledgement that, after many decades, we as hobbyists are acknowledging and embracing this terrestrial-aquatic dynamic. It's a really unique approach, because it definitely goes against the typical "aquatic only" approach that we are used to.

 

 

When you consider that many aquatic habitats start out as terrestrial ones, and accumulate botanical materials and provide colonization points for various life forms, and facilitate biological processes like nutrient export and production of natural food resources, the benefits are pretty obvious. Again, the "different aesthetics" simply come along as "part of the package"- both in Nature and in the aquarium.

Replicating this process and managing it in the aquarium also provides us as hobbyists highly unique insights into the function of these habitats. 

From a hobby perspective, evolving and managing a closed ecosystem is really something that we should take to easily.

Setting up an aquarium in this fashion also provides us with the opportunity to literally "operate" our botanical-style aquariums; that is, to manage their evolution over time through deliberate steps and practices is not entirely unknown to us as aquarium hobbyists.

It's not at all unlike what we do with planted aquarium or reef aquarium. In fact, the closest analog to this approach is the so-called "dry start" approach to planted aquariums, except we're trying to grow bacteria and other organisms instead of plants.

Yes, it's an evolution.

Simply, a step forward out of the artificially-induced restraints of "this is how it's always been done"- even in our own "methodology"- yet another exploration into what the natural environment is REALLY like, how it evolves, and how it works- and understanding, embracing and appreciating its aesthetics, functionality, and richness.  

Earth-shattering? Not likely.

Educational? For sure.

Thought provoking and fun? Absolutely.

A simple, yet I think profound "tweak" to our approach.

Stay curious. Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay observant. Stay creative.

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

What our fishes eat...The wonder of food webs.

Yes, I admit that we talk about some rather obscure topics around here. Yet, many of these topics are actually pretty well known, and even well-understood by science. We just haven't consciously applied them to our aquarium work...yet.

One of the topics that we talk about a lot are food webs. To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.

So, what exactly is a food web?

 

A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community. 

All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.

So, a trophic level in our case would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...

In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.

In many of the blackwater aquatic habitats that we're so obsessed with around here, like the Rio Negro, for example, studies by ecologists have determined that the main sources of autotrophic sources are the igapo, along with aquatic vegetation and various types of algae. (For reference, autotrophs are defined as organisms that produce complex organic compounds using carbon from simple substances, such as CO2, and using energy from light (photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.)

Hmm. examples would be phytoplankton!

Now, I was under the impression that phytoplankton was rather scarce in blackwater habitats. However, this indicates to scientists is that phytoplankton in blackwater trophic food webs might be more important than originally thought! 

Now, lets get back to algae and macrophytes for a minute. Most of these life forms enter into food webs in the region in the form of...wait for it...detritus! Yup, both fine and course particular organic matter are a main source of these materials. I suppose this explains why heavy accumulations of detritus and algal growth in aquaria go hand in hand, right? Detritus is "fuel" for life forms of many kinds.

In Amazonian blackwater rivers, studies have determined that the aquatic insect abundance is rather low, with most species concentrated in leaf litter and wood debris, which are important habitats.  Yet, here's how a food web looks in some blackwater habitats : Studies of blackwater fish assemblages indicated that many fishes feed primarily on burrowing midge larvae (chironomids, aka "Bloodworms" ) which feed mainly with organic matter derived from terrestrial plants!

And of course, allochtonous inputs (food items from outside of the ecosystem), like fruits, seeds, insects, and plant parts, are important food sources to many fishes.  Many midwater characins consume fruits and seeds of terrestrial plants, as well as terrestrial insects.

Insects in general are really important to fishes in blackwater ecosystems. In fact, it's been concluded that the the first link in the food web during the flooding of forests is terrestrial arthropods, which provide a highly important primary food for many fishes.

These systems are so intimately tied to the surrounding terrestrial environment. Even the permanent rivers have a strong, very predictable "seasonality", which  provides fruits, seeds, and other terrestrial-originated food resources for the fishes which reside in them. It's long been known by ecologists that rivers with predictable annual floods have a higher richness of fish species tied to this elevated rate of food produced by the surrounding forests.

 

 

And of course, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes. The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter! 

Sounds familiar, huh?

So, how does a leaf break down? It's a multi-stage process which helps liberate its constituent compounds for use in the overall ecosystem. And one that is vital to the construction of a food web.

The first step in the process is known as leaching, in which nutrients and organic compounds, such as sugars, potassium, and amino acids dissolve into the water and move into the soil.The next phase is a form of fragmentation, in which various organisms, from termites (in the terrestrial forests) to aquatic insects and shrimps (in the flooded forests) physically break down the leaves into smaller pieces. 

As the leaves become more fragmented, they provide more and more surfaces for bacteria and fungi to attach and grow upon, and more feeding opportunities for fishes!

Okay, okay, this is all very cool and hopefully, a bit interesting- but what are the implications for our aquariums? How can we apply lessons from wild aquatic habitats vis a vis food production to our tanks? 

This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides nutrient processing, and to some degree, a self-generating population of creatures with nutritional value for our fishes, on a more-or-less continuous basis.

Incorporating botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of creating the foundation for biological activity is the starting point. Leaves, seed pods, twigs and the like are not only "attachment points" for bacterial biofilms and fungal growths to colonize, they are physical location for the sequestration of the resulting detritus, which serves as a food source for many organisms, including our fishes.

Think about it this way: Every botanical, every leaf, every piece of wood, every substrate material that we utilize in our aquariums is a potential component of food production!

The initial setup of your botanical-style aquarium will rather easily accomplish the task of facilitating the growth of said biofilms and fungal growths. There isn't all that much we have to do as aquarists to facilitate this but to simply add these materials to our tanks, and allow the appearance of these organisms to happen. 

 

You could add pure cultures of organisms such as Paramecium, Daphnia, species of copepods (like Cyclops), etc. to help "jump start" the process, and to add that "next trophic level" to your burgeoning food web. 

In a perfect world, you'd allow the tank to "run in" for a few weeks, or even months if you could handle it, before adding your fishes- to really let these organisms establish themselves. And regardless of how you allow the "biome" of your tank to establish itself, don't go crazy "editing" the process by fanatically removing every trace of detritus or fragmented botanicals.

When you do that, you're removing vital "links" in the food chain, which also provide the basis for the microbiome of our aquariums, along with important nutrient processing.

So, to facilitate these aquarium food webs, we need to avoid going crazy with the siphon hose! Simple as that, really!

Yeah, the idea of embracing the production of natural food sources in our aquariums is elegant, remarkable, and really not all that surprising. They will virtually spontaneously arise in botanical-style aquariums almost as a matter of course, with us not having to do too much to facilitate it.

It's something that we as a hobby haven't really put a lot of energy in to over the years. I mean, we have spectacular prepared foods, and our understanding of our fishes' nutritional needs is better than ever.

Yet, there is something tantalizing to me about the idea of our fishes being able to supplement what we feed. In particular, fry of fishes being able to sustain themselves or supplement their diets with what is produced inside the habitat we've created in our tanks!

 

A true gift from Nature. 

I think that we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts really have to get it into our heads that we are creating more than just an aesthetic display. We need to focus on the fact that we are creating functional microcosms for our fishes, complete with physical, environmental, and nutritional aspects.

Food production- supplementary or otherwise- is something that not only is possible in our tanks; it's inevitable.

I firmly believe that the idea of embracing the construction (or nurturing) of a "food web" within our aquariums goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the botanical-style aquarium. With the abundance of leaves and other botanical materials to "fuel" the fungal and microbial growth readily available, and the attentive husbandry and intellectual curiosity of the typical "tinter", the practical execution of such a concept is not too difficult to create.

We are truly positioned well to explore and further develop the concept of a "food web" in our own systems, and the potential benefits are enticing! 

Work the web- in your own aquarium!

Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Stuff we've been told to fear...

A couple of days back, I was chatting with a fellow hobbyist who wanted to jump in to something a bit different within the aquarium hobby, but was afraid of the possible consequences-both socially and in his aquariums. He feared criticism from "them", and that just froze him. I felt bad that he was so afraid of criticism from others should he question the "status quo" within the hobby.

Perhaps my story might be helpful to you if you're afraid of such criticisms. 

For generations, we've been told in the aquarium hobby that we need to be concerned about the appearance of all kinds of stuff in our tanks, like algae, detritus, and "biocover".

For some strange reason, we as a hobby group seems emphasize stuff like understanding some biological processes, like the nitrogen cycle, yet we've also been told to devote a lot of resources to siphoning, polishing, and scrubbing our tanks to near sterility.

It's a strange dichotomy.

I remember the first few botanical-style tanks I created, almost two decades ago now, would hit that phase early on when biofilms  and fungal growths began to appear, and I'd hear my friends telling me, "Yeah, your tank is going to turn into a big pile of shit. Told you that you can't put that stuff in there."

Because that's what they've been told. The prevailing mindset in the hobby was that the appearance of these organisms was an indication of an unsuitable aquarium environment.

Anyone who's studied basic ecology and biology understands that the complete opposite is true. The appearance of these valuable life forms is an indicator that your aquatic environment is ideal to foster a healthy, diverse community of aquatic organisms, including fishes!

Exactly like in Nature.

I remember telling myself that this is what I knew was going to happen. I knew how biofilms and fungal growths appear on "undefended" surfaces, and that they are essentially harmless life forms, exploiting a favorable environment. I knew that fungi appear as they help break down leaves and botanicals. I knew that these are perfectly natural occurrences, and that they typically are transitory and self-limiting to some extent.

Normal for this type of aquarium approach. I knew that they would go away, but I also knew that there would be a period of time when the tank might look like a big pool of slimy shit. Or, rather, it'd look like a pile of slimy shit to those who weren't familiar with these life forms, how they grow, and how the natural aquatic habitats we love so much actually function and appear!

To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were.

I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. It always was. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...

I never saw them.

I knew that there wouldn't be any issues, because I created my aquariums with a solid embrace of basic aquatic biology; an understanding that an aquarium is not some sort of underwater art installation, but rather, a living, breathing microcosm of organisms which work together to create a biome..and that the appearance of the aquarium only tells a small part of the story.

 

I knew that this type of aquatic habitat could be replicated in the aquarium successfully. I realized that it would take understanding, trial and error, and acceptance that the aquariums I created would look fundamentally different than anything I had experienced before.

 

I knew I might face criticism, scrutiny, and even downright condemnation from some quarters for daring to do something different, and then for labeling what most found totally distasteful, or have been conditioned by "the hobby" for generations to fear, as simply  "a routine part of the process."

It's what happens when you venture out into areas of the hobby which are a bit untested. Areas which embrace ideas, aesthetics, practices, and occurrences which have existed far out of the mainstream consciousness of the hobby for so long. Fears develop, naysayers emerge, and warnings are given.

Yet, all of this stuff- ALL of it- is completely normal, well understood and documented by science, and in reality, comprises the aquatic habitats which are so successful and beneficial for fishes in both Nature and the aquarium. We as a hobby have made scant little effort over the years to understand it. And once you commit yourself to studying, understanding, and embracing life on all levels, the world of natural, botanical-style aquariums and its untapped potential opens upon to you.

Mental shifts are required. Along with study, patience, time, and a willingness to look beyond hobby forums, aquarium literature, and aquascaping contests for information. A desire to roll up your sleeves, get in there, ignore the naysayers, and just DO.

Don't be afraid of things because they look different, or somehow contrary to what you've heard or been told by others is "not healthy" or somehow "dangerous." Now sure, you can't obey natural "laws" like the nitrogen cycle, understanding pH, etc. 

You can, however, question things you've been told to avoid based on superficial explanations based upon aesthetics.

Mental shifts.

Stuff that makes you want to understand how life forms such as fungi, for example, arise, multiply, snd contribute to the biome of your aquarium. 

Let's think about fungi for a minute...a "poster child" for the new way of embracing Nature as it is.

Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate on new and hospitable surfaces (ie, pretty much anywhere they damn well please!). These aquatic fungi are involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. And of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise. Anyone who's ever "cured" a piece of wood for your aquarium can attest to this!

Fungi tend to colonize wood because it offers them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, the major components of wood and botanical materials, are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials! Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?

And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats. And look at this little gem I found in my research:

"There is evidence that detritivores selectively feed on conditioned leaves, i.e. those previously colonized by fungi (Suberkropp, 1992; Graca, 1993). Fungi can alter the food quality and palatability of leaf detritus, aecting shredder growth rates. Animals that feed on a diet rich in fungi have higher growth rates and fecundity than those fed on poorly colonized leaves. Some shredders prefer to feed on leaves that are colonized by fungi, whereas others consume fungal mycelium selectively..."

"Conditioned" leaves, in this context, are those which have been previously colonized by fungi! They make the energy within the leaves and botanicals more available to higher organisms like fishes and invertebrates! 

The aquatic fungi which will typically decompose leaf litter and wood are the group known as “aquatic hyphomycetes”. Another group of specialists, "aero-aquatic hyphomycetes," colonize submerged plant detritus in stagnant and slow- flowing waters, like shallow ponds, puddles, and flooded forest areas. Fungal communities differ between various environments, such as streams, shallow lakes and wetlands, deep lakes, and other habitats such as salt lakes and estuaries.

And we see them in our own tanks all the time, don't we? Sure, it's easy to get scared by this stuff...and surprisingly, it's even easier to exploit it as a food source for your animals! We just have to make that mental shift... As the expression goes, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"

 

I knew when I started Tannin  that I had to "walk the walk." I had to explain by showing my tanks, my work, and giving fellow hobbyists the information, advice, and support they needed in order to confidently set out on their own foray into this interesting hobby path.

I'm no hero. Not trying to portray myself as a visionary.

The point of sharing my personal experience is to show you that trying new stuff in the hobby does carry risk, fear, and challenge, but that you can and will persevere if you believe. If you push through. IF you don't fear setbacks, issues, criticisms from naysayers.

You have to try. In my case, the the idea of throwing various botanical items into aquariums is not my invention. It's not a totally new thing. People have done what I've done before. Maybe not as obsessively or thoroughly presented (and maybe they haven't built a business around the idea!), but it's been done many, many times.

The fact is, we can and should all take these kinds of journeys.

Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage.

And know that the pile of decomposing leaves, fungal growth, and detritus that you're looking at now is just a steppingstone on the journey to an aquarium which embrace nature in every conceivable way.

Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Transitional Habitats...A new aquarium hobby frontier?

We've spent a lot of time over the least several years talking about the idea of recreating specialized aquatic systems. We've talked a lot about transitional habitats- ecosystems which alternate between terrestrial and aquatic at various times of the year.  These are compelling ecosystems which push the very limits of conventional aquarium practice. 

As you know, we take a "function first" approach, in which the aesthetics become a "collateral benefit" of the function. Perhaps the best way to replicate these natural aquatic systems inner aquariums is to replicate the factors which facilitate their function. So, for example, let's look at our fave habitats, the flooded forests of Amazonia or the grasslands of The Pantanal.

To create a system that truly embraces this idea in both form and function, you'd start the system as a terrestrial habitat. In other words, rather than setting up an "aquarium" habitat right from the start, you'd be setting up what amounts to a terrarium. Soil/sand, terrestrial plants and grasses, leaves, seed pods, and "fallen trees/branches" on the "forest floor."

 

You'd run this system as a terrestrial display for some extended period of time- perhaps several weeks or even months, if you can handle it- and then you'd "flood" the terrestrial habitat, turning it into an aquatic one. Now, I'm not talking about one of our "Urban Igapo" nano-sized tanks here- I"m talking about a full-sized aquarium this time.  

This is different in both scale and dynamic. After the "inundation", it's likely that many of the plants and grasses will either go dormant or simply die, adding other nutrient load in the aquarium.

A microbiome of organisms which can live in the aquatic environment needs to arise to process the high level of nutrients in the aquarium. Some terrestrial organisms (perhaps you were keeping frogs?) need to be removed and re-housed.

The very process of creating and populating the system during this transitional phase from terrestrial to aquatic is a complex, fascinating, and not entirely well-understood one, at least in the aquarium hobby. In fact, it's essentially a virtually unknown one. We simply haven't created all that many systems which evolve from terrestrial to aquatic.

Sure, we've created terrariums, paludariums, etc. We've seen plenty of "seasonally flooded forest" aquairums in biotope aquarium contests...But this is different. Rather than capturing a "moment in time", recreating the aquatic environment after the inundation, we're talking about recreating the process of transformation from one habitat to another.

Literally, creating the aquatic environment from a terrestrial one.

Psychologically, it would be sort of  challenging!

I mean, in this instance, you've been essentially running a "garden" for several months, enjoying it and meeting the challenges which arise, only to embark several months later on a process which essentially destroys what you've created, forcing you to start anew with an entirely different environment, and contend with all of its associated challenges (the nitrogen cycle, nutrient control, etc.)

Modeling the process. 

Personally, I find this type of approach irresistible. Not only do you get to enjoy all sorts of different aspects of Nature- you get to learn some new stuff, acquire new skills, and make observations on processes that, although common in Nature, were previously unrecorded in the aquarium hobby. 

 

You'll draw on all of your aquarium-related skills to manage this transformation. You'll deal with a  completely different aesthetic- I mean, flooding an established, planted terrestrial habitat filled with soils and plants will create a turbid, no doubt chaotic-looking aquascape, at least initially. 

 

This is absolutely analogous to what we see in Nature, by the way.Seasonal transformations are hardly neat and tidy affairs. 

Yes, we place function over form. However, that doesn't mean that you can't make it pretty! One key to making this interesting from an aesthetic perspective is to create a hardscape of wood, rocks, seed pods, etc. during the terrestrial phase that will please you when it’s submerged.

You'll need to observe very carefully. You'll need to be tolerant of stuff like turbidity, biofilms, algae, decomposition- many of the "skills"we've developed as botanical-style aquarists.You need to accept that what you're seeing in front of you today will not be the way it will look in 4 months, or even 4 weeks.

You'll need incredible patience, along with flexibility and an "even keel.”

We have a lot of the "chops" we'll need for this approach already! They simply need to be applied and coupled with an eagerness to try something new, and to help pioneer and create the “methodology”, and with the understanding that things may not always go exactly like we expect they should.

For me, this would likely be a "one way trip", going from terrestrial to aquatic. Of course, much like we've done with our "Urban Igapo" approach, this could be a terrestrial==>aquatic==>terrestrial "round trip" if you want! That's the beauty of this. You could do a complete 365 day dynamic, matching the actual wet season/dry season cycles of the habitat you're modeling.

Absolutely. 

The beauty is that, even within our approach to "transformational biotope-inspired" functional ecosystems, you CAN take some "artistic liberties" and do YOU. I mean, at the end of the day, it's a hobby, not a PhD thesis project, right?

Yeah. Plenty of room for creativity, even when pushing the state of the art of the hobby! Plenty of ways to interpret what we see in these unique ecosystems.

Habitats which transition from terrestrial to aquatic require us to consider the entire relationship between land and water- something that we have paid scant little attention to in the aquarium hobby, IMHO. 

And this is unfortunate, because the relationships and interdependencies between aquatic habitats and their terrestrial surroundings are fundamental to our understanding of how they evolve and function.

There are so many other ecosystems which can be modeled with this approach! Floodplain lakes, streams, swamps, mud holes...I could go on and on and on. The inspiration for progressive aquariums is only limited to the many hundreds of thousands of examples which Nature Herself has created all over the planet.

We should look at nature for all of the little details it offers. We should question why things look the way they do, and postulate on what processes led to a habitat looking and functioning the way it does- and why/how fishes came to inhabit it and thrive within it.

With more and more attention being paid the overall environments from which our fishes come-not just the water, but the surrounding areas of the habitat, we as hobbyists will be able to call even more attention to the need to learn about and protect them when we create aquariums based on more specific habitats.

The old adage about "we protect what we love" is definitely true here!

And the transitional aquatic habitats are a terrific "entry point"into this exciting new area of aquarium hobby work.

Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay resourceful. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Someplace like...home?

Like so many of you, I am utterly awed by the sheer variety of tropical fish species that we've managed to breed in our aquariums over the decades. This is a testimony to the skill set and dedication of talented hobbyists and commercial breeders worldwide. And with obvious implications for some wild populations of fishes whose habitats arena danger, the idea of breeding fishes is a timely one.

Of course, there are absolutely benefits to a well-managed wild fishery, too, including protection of resources, economic benefits to indigenous peoples, and the preservation of wild populations. Programs like Project Piaba in Brazil have shown the tangible benefits to the people, environment, and the fishes that may be had with a properly-managed program of sourcing wild-caught fishes.

And, when it comes to the way we keep our fishes in the hobby on an everyday basis, I find a very interesting dichotomy here...

Have you ever thought about the way we've "domesticated" the fishes that we keep in our aquariums? I mean, the way we have sort of categorically "made" fishes more accommodating of the environmental conditions that we would like to provide them with in our aquariums? For example,  we've proudly advertised that fishes like Discus don't require soft, acidic water to thrive and reproduce. In fact, a number of breeders spawn and rear them in harder, more alkaline conditions.

This is interesting and makes me think about this from multiple angles...good and bad.

As you know, I tend to spend a fair amount of time snooping around the scientific literature online, looking for tidbits of information that might fit nicely into our fascination and evolving technique with natural blackwater and brackish- aquariums.

It's a pretty fun, albeit geeky- pastime, really- and quite educational, too!

And one of the interesting things about sifting through much of the scientific stuff is that you can occasionally find bits and pieces of information which may not only confirm a "hunch" that you have had about something- these data can sometimes send you into an entirely new direction! (I know that it can, lol!)

As a lover of brackish-water habitats, I've spent a lot time over the years researching suitable fishes and other aquatic organisms from this environment for aquarium keeping. I've made a lot of interesting discoveries about brackish water habitats and the fishes which supposedly occur in them. 

Notice I use the term "supposedly..?"

Interestingly, many of the fishes that we in the hobby have assigned the "brackish" moniker to are actually seldom found in these types of habitats. Perhaps some small populations of some of these fishes might be from mildly brackish environments, but many of them are primarily found in pure freshwater.

Perhaps through a combination of misinformation, assumption, and successful practice by a few hobbyists over the years, we've sort of attached the "brackish water fish" narrative to them in general.

Now, sure, many fishes can adapt to brackish water conditions, but I'm more fascinated by the fishes which are actually found naturally in these environments. And it's always interesting when you can find out that a fish which you have previously dismissed as not having typically come from this environment actually does come from it naturally!

It's like a little discovery!

One of those happy "surprises" is our good friend, the "Endler's Livebearer", Poceilia wingei. Many of you love this fish and keep it extensively. 

This popular fish is widely kept under "typical livebearer conditions" in the aquarium ( higher pH and harder water).

However, there are a number of wild populations form their native Venezuela which inhabit mildly brackish water coastal lagoons and estuaries, for example, Laguna de los Patos, near Cumana, which has definite ocean influence, although it is far less salty than researchers thought it may have been in the past. And the wild populations residing there might very well be considered "endangered", or at least, limited.

Now, this kind of stuff is not "revolutionary" from a hobby standpoint, as it seems like we've known this for some time. And although the fish are very adaptable, we don't hear all that much about keeping them in what we'd call "brackish" conditions (like typically SG of 1.003-1.005, although I like to push it a bit higher, lol). It's just interesting to ponder and kind of get your head around.

And with all of the popularity of this fish, it seems to me like the brackish water habitat for this species has not been embraced much from a hobby standpoint.

And I suppose it makes sense- it's far easier to simply give fishes harder, alkaline water than to "mess with adding salt" to their tanks for a lot of hobbyists. In addition, wild populations of these fishes are scant, as is natural habitat data, so indeed confirming with any great certainty that they are even still occurring in these types of habitats is sketchy.

And often, so-called 'populations" of fishes in these specialized habitats might have been distributed as a result of actions by man, and are not even naturally occurring there- further confounding things!

In general, the question about adding salt to livebearer tanks has been debated for a long time, and there are many views on the subject. Obviously, the ultimate way to determine if you should or should not add salt to an Endler's or other livebearer tank would be to consider the natural habitats of the population you're working with.

 

Easier said than done, because  the vast majority of them are now commercially or hobbyist bred for generations- especially Endler's- and wild collection data is not always easy to obtain.

I think the debate will go on for a long time!

Yet, with the increasing popularity of brackish water aquariums, we're hoping to see more experiments along this line for many different species! I was recently very happy to secure some specimens of the miserably-named "Swamp Guppy", Micropoceilia picta, a fish which absolutely does come from brackish water. And I have no intention of ever "adapting" them to environmental conditions which are more "convenient" for us hobbyists!

Now, you know I've always been a fan of sort of "re-adapting" or "re-patriating" even captive-bred specimens of all sorts of fishes (like "blackwater-origin" characins, cichlids, etc.) to more "natural" conditions (well, "natural" from perhaps a few dozen generations back, anyhow). I am of the opinion that even "domesticated" fishes can benefit from providing them with conditions more reminiscent of those from the natural habitats from which they originated.

Although I am not a geneticist or biological ethicist, I never will buy into the thought that a few dozen captive generations will "erase" millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to specific habitats, and that re-adapting them to these conditions is somehow "detrimental" to them. Something just seems "off" to me about that thinking.

I just can't get behind that.

Now, even more compelling "proof" of that it's not so "cut-and-dry" is that many of the recommended "best practices" of breeding many so-called "adaptable" species are to do things like drop water temperatures, adjust lighting, or perform water exchanges with peat-influenced water, etc....stuff intended to mimic the conditions found in the natural habitats of the fishes...

I mean...WTF? Right? 

Like, only give the fishes their "natural" conditions when we want to breed them? Really? That mindset just seems a bit odd to me...

Of course, there are some fishes for which we don't really make any arguments against providing them with natural-type environmental conditions, such as African rift lake Cichlids.

I find this absolutely fascinating, from a "hobby-philosopher" standpoint!

And then, there are those fishes which we have, for various reasons (to minimize or prevent the occurrence of diseases) arbitrarily decided to manipulate their environment deliberately away from the natural characteristics under which they evolved for specific reasons. For example, adding salt to the water for fishes that are typically not known to come from brackish habitats.

Examples are annual Killifishes, such as Nothobranchius, which in many cases don't come from brackish environments naturally, yet we dutifully add salt to their water as standard practice. The adaptation to a "teaspoon of salt per gallon" or so environment is done for prophylactic reasons, rather than what's "convenient" for us- a rather unique case, indeed...and again, something that I find fascinating to look at objectively.

Is salt simply the easiest way to prevent parasitic diseases in these fishes, or are there other ways which don't require such dramatic environmental manipulations?

And then, of course, there are those unexpected populations of fishes, like various Danios and Gold Tetras, for example, which are found in mildly brackish conditions...Compelling, interesting...yet we can't conclude that all Gold Tetras will benefit from salt in their water, can we?

And, as we evolved to a more sustainable hobby, with greater emphasis on captive -bred or carefully-sourced wild fishes, and as more wild habitats are damaged or lost, will we also lose valuable data about the wild habitats of the fishes we love so much?  

Data which will simply make the "default" for many fishes to be "tap water?"

I hope not.

Is it possible, though, that we've been so good at "domesticating" our fishes to our easier-to-provide tap water conditions- and our fishes so adaptable to them- that the desire to "repatriate" them to the conditions under which they've evolved is really more of a "niche" thing for geeky hobbyists, as opposed to a "necessary for success" thing?

I mean, how many Discus are now kept and bred exclusively in hard, alkaline water- markedly different than the soft, acid blackwater environmental conditions under which they've evolved for eons? Am I just being a dreamer here, postulating without hard data that somehow the fishes are "missing something" when we keep and breed them in conditions vastly different than what the wild populations come from?

Do the same genetics which dictate the color patterns and fin morphology also somehow "cancel out" the fish's "programming" which allows them to be healthiest in their original native conditions?

How do we reconcile this concept?

In the end, there are a lot of variables in the equation, but I think that the Endler's discussion is just one visible example of fishes which could perhaps benefit from experimenting with "throwback" conditions. I'm by no means anything close to an expert on these fish, and my opinions are just that- opinions. Commercially, it may not be practical to do this, but for the hobbyist with time, resources, and  inclination, it would be interesting to see where it takes you.  

Like, would the same strain kept in both brackish and pure freshwater habitats display different traits or health characteristics?

Would there even be any marked differences between specimens of certain fishes kept under "natural" versus "domesticated" conditions? Would they show up immediately, or would it become evident only after several generations? And again, I think about brackish-water fishes and the difficulty of tracing your specimens to their natural source, which makes this all that much more challenging!

I look forward to many more such experiments- bringing natural conditions to "domesticated" fishes, and perhaps unlocking some more secrets...or perhaps simply acknowledging what we all know:

That there truly is "no place like home!"

Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay adventurous. Stay resourceful. Stay experimental. Stay relentless...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Epiphytes, macrophytes, allochthonous input, and other "natural" fish foods...

As a hardcore enthusiast of the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium, you're more than well-attuned to the nuances involved in managing a system filled with decomposing leaves, seed pods, wood, etc. And you're keenly aware of many of the physiological/ecological  benefits that have been attributed to the use of these materials in the aquarium. However, I am willing to bet that most of us have not really considered the "nutritional" aspects of both botanicals and the life forms they foster as an important part of the "functional/aesthetic" dynamic we've touched on before.

Let's consider some of the types of food sources that our fishes might utilize in the wild habitats that we try so hard to replicate in our aquariums, and perhaps develop a greater appreciation for them when they appear in our tanks. Perhaps we will even attempt to foster and utilize them to our fishes' benefits in unique ways? 

 

One of the important food resources in natural aquatic systems are what are known as macrophytes- aquatic plants which grow in and around the water, emerged, submerged, floating, etc. Not only do macrophytes contribute to the physical structure and spatial organization of the water bodies they inhabit, they are primary contributors to the overall biological stability of the habitat, conditioning the physical parameters of the water. Of course, anyone who keeps a planted aquarium could attest to that, right? 

One of the interesting things about macrophytes is that, although there are a lot of fishes which feed directly upon them, the plants themselves are perhaps most valuable as a microhabitat for algae, zooplankton, and other organisms which fishes feed on. Small aquatic crustaceans seek out the shelter of plants for both the food resources they provide (i.e.; zooplankton, diatoms) and for protection from predators (yeah, the fishes!).

So, plants in the aquarium have been valued by aquarists "since the beginning" for all sorts of benefits- that's not really groundbreaking. I personally think that one of the more interesting functions of plants in the aquarium is to serve as this sort of "feeding ground" for fishes in all stages of their existence. Oh, yeah, they look cool, too! 

Perhaps most interesting to us blackwater/botanical-style aquarium people are epiphytes. These are organisms which grow on the surface of plants or other substrates and derive their nutrients from the surrounding environment. They are important in the nutrient cycling and uptake in both nature and the aquarium, adding to the biodiversity, and serving as an important food source for many species of fishes.

In the case of our aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the biocover on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials. Although most animals use leaves and tree branches for shelter and not directly as a food item, grazing on this epiphytic growth is very important. Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.

And the resulting detritus produced by the "processed" and decomposing pant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential factor in the food webs of these habitats. And of course, if you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricarids, and others, you'll see that in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at "stuff" on the bottom of the tank. In a botanical style aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe an important benefit of this type of system. 

I am of the opinion that a botanical-style aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the organisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes! It's well known that in many habitats, like inundated forests, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc. And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...so I suggest one again that a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish species! 

You'll often hear the term "periphyton" mentioned in a similar context, and I think that, for our purposes, we can essentially consider it in the same manner as we do "epiphytic matter." Periphyton is essentially a "catch all" term for a mixture of cyanobacteria, algae, various microbes, and of course- detritus, which is found attached or in extremely close proximity to various submerged surfaces. Again, fishes will graze on this stuff constantly.

And then, of course, there's the "allochthonous input" that we've talked about so much here: Foods from the surrounding environment, such as flowers, fruits, terrestrial insects, etc. These are extremely important foods for many fish species that live in these habitats. We mimic this process when we feed our fishes prepared foods, as stuff literally "rains from the sky!" Now, I think that what we feed to our fishes directly in this fashion is equally as important as how it's fed.

I'd like to see much more experimentation with foods like ants, fruit flies, and other winged insects. Of course, I can hear the protests already: "Not in MY house, Fellman!" I get it. I mean, who wants a plague of winged insects getting loose in their suburban home because of some aquarium feeding experiment gone awry, right?

That being said, I would encourage some experimentation with ants and the already fairly common wingless fruit flies. Can you imagine one day recommending an "Ant Farm" as a piece of essential aquarium food culturing equipment? Why not right?

As many of you may recall, I've often been amused by the concerns many hobbyists express when a new piece of driftwood is submerged in the aquarium, often resulting in an accumulation of fungi, algal growth and biofilm. I realize this stuff looks pretty shitty to most of us, particularly when we are trying to set up a super-cool aquascaped tank. That being said, I think we need to let ourselves embrace this. I think that those of us who maintain blackwater. botanical-style aquariums have made the "mental shift" to understand, accept, and even appreciate the appearance of this stuff.

When you start seeing your fishes "graze" casually on the materials that pop up on your driftwood and botanicals, you start realizing that, although it might not look like the aesthetics we had in mind, it is a beautiful thing to our fishes. And this made me think that an "evolved" preparation technique for driftwood might be to "age" it in a large aquarium that also serves as an acclimation system for certain fishes. For example, fishes like Headstanders (Chilodus punctatus) and various loaches, catfishes, and others, would be excellent additions to this "driftwood prep tank." You could get the benefit of having the gunky stuff accumulate on the wood outside of your main display (if it bothers you, of course), while helping acclimate some cool fishes to captivity!

Just throwing the idea out there.

And of course, we've talked before about the "botanical nursery" concept- creating an aquarium for fish fry that has a large quantity of decomposing botanicals and leaves to foster the production of these materials, which serve as supplemental food for your fish fry. I have done this before myself and can attest to its viability. You fishes will have a constant supply of "natural" foods to supplement what you are feeding them in the early phases of their life. Learn to make peace with your detritus! 

This little discussion has probably not created any earth-shattering "new" developments, but I believe that it has at least looked at a few of the terms you see bandied about now and again in hobby literature, perhaps clarifying their significance to us. And I think it's really about us understanding what happens in nature and how we can work with it instead of against it, taking advantage of the food sources that she provides to our fishes when we don't rush off for the algae scraper and siphon hose before considering the upside!

Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! 

Stay bold. Stay open-mined. Stay interested. Stay creative. Stay engaged.

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics