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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay honest. Stay curious. Stay experimental...
And Stay Wet.
No brackish water aquarium is complete without brackish-water fishes...And traditionally, that has been a bit of a challenge, in terms of finding some "different" fishes than we've previously associated with brackish aquariums. I think that this will continue to be a bit of a challenge, because some of the fishes that we want are still elusive in the hobby.
New brackish-water fishes will become more readily available when the market demand is there. In the mean time, we can focus on some of the cool fishes from these habitats which are currently available to us.
And there are a few!
They can be hard to find; however, I think the biggest challenge facing those of us who love brackish water aquariums is trying to separate aquarium "fact" from scientific fact! This is pretty fun to do, actually.
However, one of the things I've found is that you need to go beyond "what the hobby articles say" and look into actual information from scientific sources about the types of habitats our target fishes actually come from. There is still a surprisingly large amount of misinformation about there concerning fishes long thought to be "brackish", when the reality is that they are often found predominantly in non-brackish habitats, with perhaps only isolated populations of them being brackish fishes.
Like many hobbyists who play with brackish water tanks, I've found over the years that it's mighty tricky to source genuine brackish water fishes. Through lots of follow up and a bit of luck, I have managed to secure fishes from these types of habitats from time to time, which is, of course, paramount if you're trying to recreate one of these habitats in your aquarium!
As most of you know, I'm no huge cichlid fanatic, but there are some which have found their way into my heart over the decades. One of these is a genuine hobby legend, which just happens to be one of my fave all-time fishes: The venerable "Orange Chromide", Pseudetroplus maculatus - a cichlid with a very weird popular name.
Despite being a cichlid (😆), the Orange Chromide is a relatively easy-going fish that tops out at about 4" in size, which is a huge plus in my book. And, being one of the very few species of cichlids which comes from India, it's even more interesting. In fact, there are just three species which are native to India: Etroplus suratensis, Pseudetroplus maculatus, and the cool and hard-to-find Etroplus canarensis.
Oh, the name. It drives me crazy:
The official Meriam-Webster origin of the name is, "chromide, ultimately from Greek chromis, a sea fish"
A sea fish? WTF?
Yeah, not really satisfying. And it begged me to do little more digging, of course!
But I tried to find out more for you. Now, interestingly, the fish was originally described by the ichthyologist Bloch in 1795 as Chaetodon maculatus...and if this genus sounds familiar to us saltwater aquarium geeks, it should- that's the same genus in which many marine Butterflyfishes are found. And, the fish seems to bear at least a very superficial physical resemblance to a marine Butterflyfish of that genus at first glance...
So, the "Chromide" part of the popular name refers to it's appearance as a "sea fish", or chromis. And, to add a final note of confusion to this taxonomic/popular name scramble, Chromis is a popular genus of colorful marine Damselfishes... So the popular name of this fish is based on it being confusingly similar in appearance to a marine fish... Oh, weird, right?
Yeah, that's why common names are often fraught with problems, and for the ultimate in accuracy, we should at least have a working familiarity with the Latin species names of our fishes. Oh, and this little fish has been bounced around a few genera over the years, from Chaetodon to Etroplus, and finally to Pseudetroplus!
Okay, whatever you call it...This is a pretty interesting fish! Even if it IS a cichlid!😆
And, about that brackish-water thing...
The Orange Chromide endemic to freshwater and brackish streams, lagoons and estuaries in southern India and Sri Lanka. And of course, as soon as we in the hobby hear the word "brackish" when discussing some of the natural habitats in which the fish is found, it forever becomes a brackish water fish!
That's just how it goes in the aquarium hobby, right?
The reality is that the Orange Chromide is classified as a euryhaline fish, and mostly inhabits brackish estuaries, coastal lagoons and the lower reaches of rivers.
Damn, we've heard that term before, haven't we?
That single definition seems to give us as hobbyists the freedom to label the fish as a brackish water fish, despite the fact that it has the ability to live in both pure freshwater and brackish water conditions.
It helps to know exactly where your specimens come from, right?
I was lucky when I sourced my specimens, as there was no ambiguity about what type of habitat they were originally from. Or should I say, where their parents came from. They were actually F1 from parents collected in a brackish water lagoon in the state of Karnataka in western India, so I was pretty happy to be able to keep them in a brackish aquarium and have the confirmation that they were only a generation removed from a natural brackish water habitat.
Okay, all well and good for me, but what if you're not so sure about where your Chromides come from? Well, as we discussed a minute ago, they are euryhaline fishes, and can adapt to brackish relatively easily. You just need to do it very gradually, like over a week or more.
Now, one thing I will tell you about these fishes is that, despite their peaceful reputation, and relatively they can be little shits among themselves. These guys are pretty social...but they also have a social order, which is maintained when feeding and even schooling. The "Alpha male" generally gets to eat first, followed by the less dominant specimens..and of course, he leads the "pack" when they school in the tank (and they do, which is pretty cool!).
And, yeah, the social order in a group of these guys is a big deal. The dominant fish WILL, indeed pick on the weakest ones. In fact, I lost a few over the years due to a super aggressive dominant male essentially bullying and beating the shit out of the subordinate ones in my group before I could remove them.
However, I will tell you to keep them in a group. Not only do they seem to be happier that way, but they display the most interesting behaviors- short of this harassment of the really weak ones. I'd love to tell you that, with a large enough tank, this won't be as big an issue, but I kept mine in a decent-sized tank with lots of hiding spaces and it still was an issue, so...
Another thing about these fishes that you will read is that they are relatively intolerant of poor water quality. Without sounding like an arrogant S.O.B., I'd have to tell you that I won't dispute this, but can't confirm it, because- like most of you- I maintain high water quality in my tanks! It's one of those things that I will just typically accept as a given.
Like many cichlids, spawning is typically a given, given the passage of time and under appropriate environmental conditions. (ie; being in water...)
In the wild, the Orange Chromide spawns in shallow water, typically in a depression in the substrate excavated by both parents. What that tells you, BTW, is that this fish is best kept in a tank with sand, sediment, or other soft substrate materials if you intend to breed them.
It's time to play with dirt, soil, mud, silt, decomposing leaves, branches, marginal plants, roots...materials which replicate both the appearance and function of natural habitats from which many of our fishes come. And, if utilized skillfully and thoughtfully, can yield functionally aesthetic aquariums far different and unique from anything previously attempted in the aquarium hobby. Another call to the evolved, botanical-style brackish-water aquarium!
In Nature, Orange Chromides spawn twice a year, during the drier pre-monsoonal and monsoonal seasons, in which the salinity is slightly higher (an interesting takeaway for us!). During these times, the turbidity of the water is lower, and the parents can more easily construct their nests and maintain visual contact with their fry after they hatch.
Interestingly, in Nature, when Orange Chromide pairs spawn in isolation, they tend to construct nests in areas of dense aquatic vegetation or root systems, which provide a lot of camouflage. Ecologists also have noted that during the month of July, which is their peak breeding season, Chromides will construct their nests in areas that are rather sparsely filled with vegetation, roots, etc.- a sort of compromise between fry survival and foraging opportunities for the adults.
Other, non-spawning fishes will also make use of these areas, increasing the threat to the broods of fry which emerge after hatching. Under these conditions, most Orange Chromides nest in colonies, which is believed to help decrease predation.
Hmm, breeding colonies? Interesting!
About 200 eggs are laid in a typical event, according to just about every source you'll find in the aquarium world. Of course, the largest batch I ever counted was around 100 or so eggs. The eggs hatch after about 5 days, during which time the parents tend to, and fan them.
In typical cichlid fashion, one parent will always remain with the eggs while the other goes out and forages for food. The fry of Orange Chromides feed on the mucus secreted onto the skin of their parents, like Discus or Uaru do. This form of feeding is called "contacting" by biologists. And perhaps most interesting, the good-sized fry are guarded by parents until they almost reach sexual maturity and are almost the size of the parents! Like, a pretty long time! This is a very unique behavior in cichlids!
It is known that immunoglobulin concentrations are higher in the breeding fish than they are in non-breeding ones, and are highest in wild breeding individuals. Biologists are curious to ascertain whether this immunoglobulin is passed on to the contacting fry in the same concentrations as it is found in the mucus. If it is, the big question is how does the increased amount of immunoglobulin affect the growth and survival of these fry?
Want a final bit of unusual trivia on this fish?
Yeah, it's been documented by researchers Richard L. Wyman and Jack A. Ward that the young of Pseudetroplus maculatus actively clean the related species, Etroplus suratensis (the "Green Chromide") when they occur together. .E. suratensis are naturally inhibited from attacking small fish, in case you are wondering!
Much like what you see in the ocean, with Wrasses or Shrimp cleaning territories are established by the young Orange Chromides, and the "shop hours"seem to follow a daily circadian rhythm. This is a unique, almost symbiotic kind of behavior, in which removal of fungus from fins and tail of the E. suratensis appears to be an important adaptive function of this symbiosis.
Interestingly, it's thought by researchers that the "contact feeding" behavior in Orange Chromide fry during parental care may have aided in the evolution of this cleaning relationship. This represents the first report of a cleaning symbiosis involving cichlid fish.
So, yeah, there is much more to this "old hobby favorite" than we might first imagine!
So, what would be some cool ways to keep this fish? Well, to begin with, you should definitely keep them in an aquarium with a fair amount of substrate, roots, and perhaps even a few aquatic plants. Now, if you're aiming to go brackish, it brings up the usual "What plants can grow in brackish water?" discussions...And yeah, there are a few, and you'll need to research that. (Hint: Cryptocoryne ciliata )
Or, you could keep it simple and go for something like a tangled hardscape, with wood and roots, mixed with sand and small quantities of rubble. This would be a very interesting representation of the monsoonal conditions.
Or, you could simply do a "proper" brackish water aquarium with my fave all time plant, the Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). This would be a very rewarding way to keep these fishes, as I can attest!
Yes, new brackish-water fishes will become more readily available when the market demand is there. In the mean time, we can focus on some of the cool fishes from these habitats which are currently available to us, like our pal the Orange Chromide. And the brackish water habitats are as interesting, dynamic, and bountiful as any on the planet.
There is still a surprisingly large amount of misinformation about there concerning fishes long thought to be "brackish", when the reality is that they are often found predominantly in non-brackish habitats, with perhaps only isolated populations of fishes being brackish fishes.
Fortunately for us, our friend the Orange Chromide is one of those which you can do the research on and find a surprisingly large amount of interesting, scholarly information out there.
You just have to be willing to look.
Stay motivated. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay diligent. Stay persistent...
And Stay Wet.
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.
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.
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.