(Oh, before we begin today's piece, let me preface it by warning you that it contains the usual compliment of profanity. obnoxious sentiments, occasional backhanded comments, and a lot of "opinion" which some may find utterly offensive. I feel you...but you have been warned and you can go back to lower stakes media like Tik Tok or whatever and get your" rah-rah drivel quotient" there, okay? Scott)
Like every hobbyist, I spend a lot of time dreaming and scheming about new aquarium setups. And one of the beautiful things about this kind of "imagineering" ( to coin a Disney term) is that I can venture into all sorts of areas in the hobby- including ones which I might have relatively little- or even no- experience with. You know, stuff you wouldn't expect from "Mr. Tinted Water Guy", like Mbuna tanks, Stiphodon goby habitats, livebearer tanks ,etc.
The beauty of doing these mental "feasibility studies" is that I can imagine, design, "shop" and scheme without spending a dime, spilling a drop of water, or sourcing the equipment I need to use!
Yet, I get really distracted easily, when it comes to aquarium stuff!
The goal is not to get into a loop of "analysis paralysis" and never make a move simply because I'm "still planning..." Yeah. I've seen guys do that and the tank sits empty and collects dust and cobwebs while they are "contemplating."
You see, like many of you, my imagination, appetite, and enthusiasm are often larger than my ability, time, or means to get the job done. I've concluded that to do all of my crazy concept tanks, I'd probably need like 17 aquariums of all shapes and sizes, many with technologies and components that would carry a breathtaking price tag- if they exist at all...
And, this is AFTER I've eliminated some of the early front runners, like the intertidal Pipefish Mangrove tank, the Amazonian waterfall tank, the monospecific Acropora microcaldos tank, the "Nothobranchius Temporal Pool" concept tank (ask me about the "mud hole" idea I've been playing with sometime), and others that are earmarked for some "indefinite future date...."
So, I kind of have this personal thought about "ideas."
Okay, that sounded a bit harsh. Let me clarify a bt.
I mean, if you're not going to do anything with them, they're sort of just "nice things" to have- maybe inspiring-but you need to act on them or they are just...theoretical, right?
I don't want to keep "theoretical" tanks.
And, I realize that there are limitations that we all have- Space, time, money, etc.- and that these temper many of ideas from being executed. I suppose that is part of the reason why I've changed my thinking about so-called "nano"-sized tanks over the past few years. Because their smaller size and ease of use helps you rapidly iterate from idea to completed system quickly and easily! I've had a lot of fun with them lately.
One of the best things about my business is getting to help fuel the dreams of other hobbyists. It gives me great pleasure to see you guys enjoying the hobby, and motivates me to do more.
And of course, when it comes time to do my own tank, I have to weed through all of these crazy ideas- some of which challenge me in ways I hadn't even considered. Some are just fun to play with.
Others launch me and Tannin into entirely new directions- those are the best ideas!
Okay, so maybe not ALL ideas are worthless.
What are some of my personal tank ideas that are going through my mind lately?
Well, here are a few:
An "old fashioned" Guppy Aquairum
Yeah, seriously. Lately, I am having this flashback to my childhood, when I spent hours and hours looking at my dad's guppy tanks (he was really into 'em). I'm sort of obsessed with the whole idea of clear water, "number 3 grade" aquairum gravel, and water sprite. Oh, and some cool guppies...Likely a mix of strains and color varieties that would cause any serious guppy breeder to run screaming into the night!
I have no idea why I'm longing for this. No "wild Guppy biotope" bullshit...No "high concept Guppy Tank" crap...Just a simple tank filled with a jungle of Water Sprite, a couple of pieces of petrified wood, gravel, and guppies. Total throwback tank! Maybe a modern twist would be to include some planted aquarium substrate underneath the essentially sterile gravel, but that's it.
Yeah, clear water, crisp white 7000k LED light, and all! I love the idea. Although I admittedly pause and wonder how long I could enjoy this tank before I'd become bored with it?
Wild Livebearer Aquairum
Okay, this is sort of sounding closer to the type of thing you might expect from me. Perhaps a tank set up to replicate some of the South American habitats in which you'd find wild livebearers...Maybe a mixed bed substrate, with sand, silt, and some gravel-sized materials, a few small stones, and perhaps some plants like Sagittariusaor whatever. Not an exact biotope (F that!)- but more of my "biotope inspired" approach.
What livebearers? Well, Maybe Swordtails or perhaps Endless (although I've done an Endler's tank recently and it got boring after a while...). What about OG black Mollies, a little bit of salt ( I am a reefer, for goodness sakes), and a few tolerant plants? I dunno. That could be cool for a while, I suppose.
Maybe even something more unusual, like Poecilia picta, or some sort of other less common ones, like the "Tiger Teddy" (Neoheterandria elegant) ; yeah, WTF kind of common name is THAT? Though it's tiny and can tolerate soft water better than most livebearers! Or maybe, the "Porthole Livebearer" (Pocilopsus gracious)- about as dull-looking a fish as you can imagine (part of its appeal to me!)?
Mbuna..Just because they're colorful and live around rocks
Yeah, okay. This idea has been floating around in my head for a long time. We're not talking about "Shellies" (shell dwelling cichlids from the rift lake down the road, so to speak)- even though I'm obsessed with their habitat and all, the fish themselves are pretty boring looking, if you ask me. Faint grey stripes on a silver fish in a tank with white sand, grey rocks, and tan shells is too monochromatic even for me.
So yeah, smaller Malawi species like Pseudotropheus saulosi, Pseudotropheus sp. "acei", and the much-loved Labidochromis caeruleus would be nice. I'm thinking a group of a few males of each, to get maximum color and minimal aggression. Maybe like 4 or 5 male specimens of those three species in a 50 gallon tank.
Crowded but not "overly crowded?"
I'd just water change the shit out of it every week, and employ some reef gear (like AI Nero or EcoMarine Vortech electronic pumps) for water movement? We have naturally hard, alkaline water here in Los Angeles, so keeping a high pH would be a snap! I've had friends do this type of tank, and it was gorgeous. Really colorful fishes over a background of aragonite sand and grayish rocks.
Yeah, I can get behind THIS idea!
Marine Macroalgae tank with Mandarin Dragonets and Pipefishes?
Oh, I've loved that idea for decades...Did it in 2005 and loved it. Played with it again in 2021. Spoke about Macroalage and Seagrasses at MACNA way back in 2009... Was probably a bit too early. Unfortunately, the idea of sterile-looking, "high concept macrolagae tanks" (a la Nature Aquairum "style" b.s.) is becoming "trendy" in that vomit-inducing way that I hate...so Fuck this idea for a while, lol. I think I'll wait to play with this idea again until after people start ignoring these kinds of tanks again.
I know, my attitude sucks. It's just that I hate doing stuff and sharing it and then having people tell me, "Oh, did you see ________ tanks on Instagram? They're so incredible!" (You know, the drivel-esque, polar opposite interpretation of what I'd do) "You should try one like HIM!" (at which time I most definitely want to vomit. What, my rather eco diverse, natural-looking version isn't any good? LOL
Regardless, I still have a long-running healthy obsession with seagrasses and macroalage. I love the calcareous macroalage, Halimeda; perhaps the least "trendy" of the macroalage in this new dumbed-down "high concept artistic macroalage tank renaissance" which we find ourselves in.
Maybe it's time to do another off-trend tank to piss off everyone? Yeah, maybe. I know that a few fellow old crusty, treacherous reefers like me might appreciate me dropping a tank like that to shit on this "scene" before it gets to be too awful. to tolerate
God, I've become a complete asshole in recent years!
Oh, and since I'm at it: If you ever put your nano tank on a little turntable, please don't ever talk to me again. That's the freaking stupidest thing I've EVER seen in aquaruum keeping, hands down.
Oh, there IS a guy doing it right in the macrolagae space . A guy in Japan who goes by the handle "-ichistarium". His work is amazing. Oh, and our friends inland_reef and afishionado are positively crushing it with their own natural interpretations of macroalage/mangrove habitats. Check them out and give them the love they deserve!
Okay, deep breath....
Not sure what it is...maybe it's the reefer in me again... I have a big desire to do a tank with just rocks. No plants, wood, leaves. Nada. Just rock. What's the reason for this newfound fascination for rocks? Like, perhaps it's the angst built up in me after 18 years of playing with just leaves and twigs and botanicals and sediments that makes the idea of a tank with just rocks fascinating to me again.
And what kinds of fishes would I put in a "rock tank?"
Well, sure, Mbuna for one. But there are other fishes, like gobies, Danios, perhaps some loaches and barbs? For that matter, Swordtails or some kind of Geophagus or Central American cichlids? A tank meant to replicate some version of a rocky pool, stream, or even river could be super cool, and just different for me. Maybe I could toss a few token branches in there? Maybe not.
Yeah, Ditched selling rocks here back in 2020, citing the (fact) that rocks are generally not associated with the types of habitats that we play with here. Their reality, however, is that when I started Tannin. in 2015, I wanted to embrace "natural aquariums", and that concept can embrace multiple genres and multiple materials...including rocks, right?
I've been talking about this idea for years. A tank created to replicate the wild habitat of the Zebra Danio. Yes, the humble fish of my childhood. Yet, one which I feel gets no respect. Now, I'll be the first to admit that dedicating an entire aquarium to this little fish is a bit "different", right? Yet, there is something about the idea that find super compelling nonetheless. a conventional square or rectangle-shaped tank is not what would really work here. Rather, I feel that a long, low aquarium would be best. To really help facilitate their swimming and their activities, such a tank would really work well.
Yet, could I devote and entire 50 gallon tank just to them? I'll be honest, I'm not sure. it might be a bit of a challenge mentally, lol. Part of the charm of this fish is its fast swimming and schooling behavior, and to facilitate that, a long, shallow tank would be best, IMHO. Can you imagine a 4 or 5 foot long, 16" (40 cm) high tank for these fishes? Maybe nice and wide. Yeah! A bottom of mixed sediments and gravels, some smooth stones, perhaps some Rice plants or Acorus..perhaps a scattering of random leaves and twigs..That would be a simple and cool display.
A substrate-only display?
Imagine a tank which has absolutely no rock, no plants, or no driftwood. Just a bunch of sand or other substrate. Perhaps an interesting, mixed-grade substrate...but only substrate nonetheless! I've done leaf litter only, botanicals-only, and twigs-only substrates before...but only sand or other substrate materials? Not yet.
Talk about "negative space!" This would require a very focused, mentally-shifted (or "twisted"), highly dedicated aquarist to pull it off. I mean, we're talking about the only "relief" in the tank would come from the fishes themselves. The key would be coming up with an interesting mix of materials and grades and colors to really make it work. Oh, and a more shallow, longer tank again, IMHO.
What kinds of fishes would you keep?
Well, I would imagine that you could keep bottom-dwelling fishes like Corydoras, or gobies and bennies...perhaps even Eels and loaches. I suppose some schooling fishes would work, too> Would you go with relatively dull, monochromatic ones, or super colorful ones? I wonder how the fishes would react to being "out in the open" all the time. Would this be "cruel?" Would it result in a more "protective" swimming behavior like tight shoaling?
Or, would this facilitate natural behaviors among fishes which swim in open waters. I wonder, though, are there fishes which preferentially inhabit open water areas over vast stretches sand? There must be, right? If so, they're likely fishes that are either really fast swimmers, or predators, I would suppose.
Or, am I simply overthinking this? I mean, it's essentially like a bare bottom breeding tank; an idea that's been used in the trade for decades. It's just that this is a permanent, allegedly decorative setup, right?
The fishes would absolutely be the focus here.
And there are those geographic replications, too.
When I contemplate "turning east" to Africa, I get pretty damn excited at the possibilities. Of course, The blackwater habitats and fishes of Southeast Asia beckon. However, with the setups I've done with brackish, I'm already "riffing" on those locales.
And so part of my mindset tells me, "Well, dude, you're sort of already there...just stick to your South American thing...You love it. It's you..."
...And then my mind flashes to Kribs. The first cichlid I ever bred..when I was like 13! In a 2.5 gallon tank, no less!
Never forgot that...
And of course, the African characins...
...and the idea of killies in a community-type setting dances through my mind.
And those Ctenopoma. Always the Ctenopoma...
And yet, the lure of the Amazon is almost too great to resist. Like, it's just the freshwater region I identify with the most. Everything about it.
It just "works" for me, I guess..
We need to act on our crazy (and not-so crazy) ideas whenever we can. Because it's hard to allow one of your ideas to shrivel up and die without ever being executed because you were afraid of criticism.
For those of you taking on your new ideas, and pushing out into new territories- new frontiers:
Move forward. Bravely.
Take comfort in the fact that you are trying. Take comfort in the fact that your work may inspire others...and in it's own little way, perhaps change the aquarium hobby.
You're not foolish.
And your ideas aren't, either.
Everything we do helps advance the state of the art in the aquarium hobby. Each new tank- no matter how awesome we or the world think it is-gives us experience, ideas, and inspiration to do other tanks that perhaps bring us closer to the idea that we had in mind. And it can influence other hobbyists to do the same.
I can't tell you how many times I've done a "thing" or "things" which were based on some idea, some inspiration, or some thought that I had about how to execute an aquarium, which may not have gotten me "there" right from the start, but taught me all sorts of things along the way too ultimately arriving where I wanted to be.
It often starts with a concept..an idea.
...Until it gradually emerges into a more "polished" configuration.
Now, often an idea will start based on something we see in Nature. Perhaps an element of a habitat that we like. Perhaps, it will dovetail with some sort of hypothesis we have, and lead to other executions to prove out the concept.
Often, it's simply a way to see if we can work out a concept. A way to push things forward.
One of the things I enjoy most about Tannin- is to look at things the way they are in the hobby-the way they've been practiced for generations- and to question WHY.
Not for the sake of being an arrogant jerk- but in the spirit of questioning why we do stuff the way we do. Is it because it's the BEST way? Or is it because that's what worked well with the prevailing skill set/knowledge/equipment available at the time the idea was presented to the hobby, and we've just accepted it as "the way" ever since, even though all of the "back story" which lead to this unwavering acceptance of the practice has long since changed?
A practice or idea that may have been appropriate and optimum 30 years ago may be woefully outdated now. I mean, it still "works", but there are better ways now...
Accepting ideas, practices, and techniques in the hobby "...just because we've done it that way forever" is, in my opinion, a way to stagnate.
And in all fairness, an admonition to change things "just because" is equally as detrimental. Rather, it's better to simply look honestly and boldly at how/why we do something, and ask ourselves, "Is this really the best way? Is it really necessary?"
Is it a practice we should keep embracing?
Or is it time to "rewrite the code?"
I think so.
Simple thought. Powerful implications.
Every observation we make on all sorts of these aspects of the botanical-method aquarium s helps us move the needle a bit. With a growing number of hobbyists experimenting with botanical materials in all sorts of aquariums and enjoying improving fish health, spawning, etc., it's getting more and more difficult to call it a "novelty" or "fad."
I mean, Nature isn't exactly a "fad" or trend-follower, right? She's been doing this stuff for eons. We're just sort of "catching up"- and beginning to study, contemplate, and appreciate what happens when form meets function in the aquarium.
And that's pretty exciting, isn't it?
Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay dedicated. Stay observant. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
After years of playing with all sorts of aspects of botanical method aquariums, you start noticing patterns and "trends" in our little speciality world. And, observing your own niche closely makes you a more keen observer of other hobby specialities, too!
I've noticed a little "trend", if you will, in some specialized areas of the hobby, such as the cichlid world, for example, which is really interesting. It seems that there has been a sort of "mental shift" from keeping cichlids in more-or-less "utilitarian", almost "sterile" setups for breeding, to aquariums that more accurately reflect the habitats from which these fishes hail from in the wild, and just sort of letting them "do their thing" naturally.
I really like this, because it means that we're paying greater attention to the "big picture" of their husbandry- not just feeding, water chemistry, and providing spawning locations. Instead, we're providing all of these things within the context of a more natural display...and hobbyists are getting great results...and they're enjoying their tanks even more!
I think it's probably the hobby's worst kept "secret" that, even if it wasn't your ambition to do so- your fishes will often spawn in your tanks by simply providing them optimum environmental conditions.
I'm not saying that the bare breeding tank with a sponge filter and a flower pot is no longer the way to approach maintenance and breeding of fishes like cichlids. I am saying that I think there is a distinct advantage to the fish-and their owners- to keeping them in a setup that is more "permanent"- and more reflective of their natural environment from a physical/aesthetic standpoint.
I recall, many years ago, keeping killifish, such as Epiplatys, Pseudoepiplatys and some Fundulopanchax, in permanent setups with lots of plants, Spanish Moss., and leaves (yeah, even back in my teens I was into 'em..). And you know what? I Would get some good spawns, and it seems like I always had some fry coming along at various stages. I am sure that some might have been consumed by the older fishes or parents along the way, but many made it through to adulthood.
I had stable breeding populations of a variety of Epiplatys species in these kinds of tanks for years. Sure, if you are raising fishes for competition, trade, etc., you'd want to remove the juveniles to a operate tank for controlled grow out, or perhaps search for, and harvest eggs so that you could get a more even grow out of fry, but for the casual (or more than causal) hobbyist, these "permanent" setups can work pretty nicely!
This is not a new concept; however, I think the idea of setting up fishes permanently and caring for them, having them spawn, and rearing the fry in the same tanks is a lot more popular than it used to be. I realize that not all fishes can be dealt with like this, for a variety of reasons. Discus, fancy guppies, etc. require more "controlled" conditions...However, do their setups have to be so starkly...utilitarian all the time?
I was talking not too long ago with a fellow hobbyist who's been trying all sorts of things to get a certain Loricarid to spawn. He's a very experienced aquarist, and has bred many varieties of fishes...but for some reason, this one is just vexing to him! I suppose that's what makes this hobby so damn engaging, huh?
And of course, I was impressed by all of the efforts he's made to get these fish to spawn thus far...But I kept thinking that there must be something fundamental-something incredibly simple, yet important- that he was overlooking...
What exactly could it be? Hard to say, but it must be something- some environmental, chemical, or physical factor, which the fish are getting in the wild, but not getting in our aquariums.
It's all the more intriguing, I suppose...
Fish breeding requires us as hobbyists to really flex some skills and patience!
When I travel around the country on speaking engagements or whatever and have occasion to visit the fish rooms of some talented hobbyists, I never cease to be amazed at what we can do! We do an amazing job. And of course, being the thoughtful type, I always wonder if there is some key thing we're missing that can help us do even better.
Now, I realize that most fish breeders like to keep things controlled to a great extent- to be able to monitor the progress, see where exactly the fishes deposit their eggs, and to be able to remove the eggs and fry if/when needed.
I mean, we strive to create the water conditions (i.e.; temperature, pH, current, lighting, etc.) for our fishes to affect spawning, but we tend to utilize more "temporary" type, artificial-looking setups with equipment to actually facilitate egg-laying, fry rearing, etc.
I often wonder what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, the proper environmental conditions, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..."
Now, I realize that a lot of hardcore, very experienced breeders will scoff at this- and probably rightly so. Giving up control when the goal is the reproduction of your fishes is not a good thing. Practicality becomes important- hence the employment of clay flowerpots, spawning cones, breeding traps, bare tanks to raise fry, etc.
What do the fishes think about this?
Sure, to a fish, a cave is a cave, be it constructed of ceramic or if it's the inside of a hollowed-out seed pod. To the fish, it's a necessary place to spawn quietly and provide a defensible territory to protect the resulting fry. In all likelihood, they couldn't care less what it is made of, right? And to the serious or professional breeder, viable spawns are the game.
I get that.
I guess my personal approach to fish breeding has always been, "If it happens, great...If not, I want the fishes to have an environment that mimics the one they're found in naturally." And that works to a certain extent, but I can see how many hobbyists feel that it's certainly not the practical way to do systematic, controlled breeding.
I can't help but ruminate about this "non-approach approach" (LOL)
Not a "better spawning cone", "breeding trap", or more heartily-enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a holistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and...a physical-chemical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
Yeah, I think that they will. Just a hunch I have.
And my point here is not to minimize the work of talented fish breeders worldwide, or to over-simplify things ("Just add this and your fish will make babies by the thousands!").
It's to continue to make my case that we should, at every opportunity, continue to aspire to provide our fishes with conditions that are reminiscent of those what the evolved under for eons. I think we should make it easier for the fishes- not easier for us.
Sure, Discus can spawn and live in hard, alkaline tap water. And I know that many successful, serious breeders and commercial ventures will make a strong and compelling case for why this is so, and why it's practical in most cases.
Yet, I'm still intrigued by the possibilities of maintaining (and hopefully) spawning species like this in aquariums approximating their natural conditions on a full time basis.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't help but wonder if it's really possible that a couple of dozen generations of captive breeding in "unnatural conditions" could undo millions of years of evolution, which has conditioned these fish to live, grow, and reproduce in soft, alkaline, tannin-stained waters, and that our tap water conditions are "just fine" for them?
I mean, maybe it's possible...Hey, I am no scientist, but I can't help but ask if there is a reason why these fishes have evolved under such conditions so successfully? And if embracing these conditions will yield even betterlong-term results for the fishes?
I just think that there's a good possibility that I'm kind of right about that.
So, again, I think it is important for those of us who are really into creating natural aquariums for our fishes to not lose sight of the fact that there are reasons why- and benefits to- fishes having evolved under these conditions. I think that rather than adapt them to conditions easier for us to provide, that we should endeavor to provide them with conditions that are more conducive to their needs- regardless of the challenges involved.
Something to think about, right?
And , isn't their something wonderful (for those of us who are not hell-bent on controlling the time and place of our fish's spawnings) to check out your tank one night and see a small clutch of Apisto fry under the watchful eye of the mother in a Sterculia pod or whatever? Perhaps not as predictable or controllable as a more sterile breeding tank, but nonetheless, exciting!
And of course, to the serious breeder, it's just as exciting to see a bunch of wriggling fry in a PVC pipe section as it is to see them lurking about the litter bed in the display tank. I suppose it's all how you look at it.
No right or wrong answer.
The one thing that I think we can all agree with is the necessity and importance of providing optimum conditions for our potential spawning pairs. There seems to be no substitute for good food, clean water, and proper environment. Sure, there are a lot of factors beyond our control, but one thing we can truly impact is the environment in which our fishes are kept and conditioned.
On the other hand, we DO control the environment in which our fishes are kept- regardless of if the tank looks like the bottom of an Asian stream or a marble-filled 10-gallon, bare aquarium, right?
And what about the "spontaneous" spawning events that so many of you tell us have occurred in your botanical method aquariums?
Over the decades, I've had a surprisingly large number of those "spontaneous" spawning events in botanical method tanks, myself. You know, you wake up one morning and your Pencilfishes are acting weird...Next thing you know, there are clouds of eggs flying all over the tank...
That sort of stuff.
And after the initial surprise and excitement, during my "postgame analysis", I'd always try to figure out what led to the spawning event...I concluded often that was usually pure luck, coupled with providing the fishes a good environment, rather than some intentionally-spawning-focused efforts I made.
Well, maybe luck was a much smaller contributor...
After a few years of experiencing this sort of thing, I began to draw the conclusion that it was more the result of going out of my way to focus on recreating the correct environmental conditions for my fishes on a full-time basis- not just for spawning- which led to these events occurring repeatedly over the years.
With all sorts of fishes, too.
When it happened again, a couple of years ago, in my experimental leaf-litter only tank, hosting about 20 Paracheirodon simulans ("Green Neon Tetras"), I came the conclusion, in a rather circuitous sort of way, that I AM a "fish breeder" of sorts.
Well, that's not fair to legit fish breeders. More precisely, I'm a "fish natural habitat replication specialist."
A nice way of saying that by focusing on the overall environmental conditions of the aquarium on a full time basis, I could encourage more natural behaviors- including spawning- among the fishes under my care. A sort of "by product" of my practices, as opposed to the strict, stated goal.
Additionally, I've postulated that rearing young fishes in the type of environmental conditions under which they will spend the rest of their lives just makes a lot of sense to me. Having to acclimate young fishes into unfamiliar/different conditions, however beneficial they might be, still can be stressful to them.
So, why not be consistent with the environment from day one?
Wouldn't a "botanical-,method fry-rearing system", with it's abundant decomposing leaves, biofilms, and microbial population, be of benefit?
I think so.
This is an interesting, in fact, fundamental aspect of botanical-style aquariums; we've discussed it many, many times here: The idea of "on board" food cultivation for fishes.
The breakdown and decomposition of various botanical materials provides a very natural supplemental source of food for young fishes, both directly (as in the case of fishes such as wood-eating catfishes, etc.), and indirectly, as they graze on algal growth, biofilms, fungi, and small crustaceans which inhabit the botanical "bed" in the aquarium.
And of course, decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with infusoria, forms of bacteria, and small crustaceans, becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster.
However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
It's essentially an "evolved" version of the "jungle tanks" I reared killies in when I was a teen. A different sort of look- and function! The so-called "permanent setup"- in which the adults and fry typically co-exist, with the fry finding food amongst the natural substrate and other materials present I the tank. Or, of course, you could remove the parents after breeding- the choice is yours.
While I believe that we can be "lucky" about having fishes spawn in our tanks when that wasn't the intent, I don't believe that fishes reproduce in our tanks solely because of "luck." I mean, sure you will occasionally happen to have stumbled n the right combination of water temp, pH, current, light, or whatever- and BLAM! Spawning.
However, I think it's more of a cumulative result of doing stuff right. For a while.
So, what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..?"
There really is nothing "wrong" with that.
It's about wonder. Awe. The happenstance of giving your fishes exactly what they need to react in the most natural way possible.
And that's pretty cool, isn't it?
Of course, there is more to being a "successful" breeder than just having the fishes spawn. You have to rear the resulting fry, right? Sure, half the battle is just getting the fishes to lay eggs in the first place- a conformation that you're doing something right to make them comfortable enough to want to reproduce! And there is a skill set needed to rear the fry, too.
Yet, I think that with a more intensive and creative approach, our botanical-style aquariums can help with the "rearing aspect", too. Sure, it's more "hands-off" than the traditional "keep-the-fry-knee-deep-in-food-at-all-times" approach that serious breeders employ...but my less deliberate, more "hands-off" approach can work. I've seen it happen many times in my "non-breeding" tanks.
We're seeing more and more reports of "spontaneous" spawnings of all sorts of different fishes associated with blackwater conditions.
Often, it's a group of fishes that the aquarist had for a while, perhaps with little effort put into spawning them, and then it just sort of "happened." For others, it is perhaps expected- maybe the ultimate goal as it relates to a specific species...but was just taking a long time to come to fruition.
I just wonder...being a lover of the more natural-looking AND functioning aquarium, if this is a key approach to unlocking the spawning secrets of more "difficult-to-spawn" fishes. Not a "better spawning cone" or breeding trap, or more enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a wholistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and a physical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
And, I wonder if fry-rearing tanks can- and should- be natural setups, too- even for serious breeders. You know, lots of plants, botanical cover, whatever...I mean, I KNOW that they can...I guess it's more of a question of if we want make the associated trade-offs? Sure, you'll give up some control, but I wonder if the result is fewer, yet healthier, more vigorous young fish?
It's not a new idea...or even a new theme here in our blog.
Now, this is pretty interesting stuff to me. Everyone has their own style of fry rearing, of course. Some hobbyists like bare bottom tanks, some prefer densely planted tanks, etc. I'm proposing the idea of rearing young fishes in a botanical-method (blackwater?) aquarium with leaves, some seed pods, and rich soil; maybe some plants as well. The physically and "functionally" mimic, at least to some extent, the habitats in which many young fishes grow up in.
My thinking is that decomposing leaves will not only provide material for the fishes to feed on and among, they will provide a natural "shelter" for them as well, potentially eliminating or reducing stresses. In Nature, many fry which do not receive parental care tend to hide in the leaves or other "biocover" in their environment, and providing such natural conditions will certainly accommodate this behavior.
Decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with "infusoria" and even forms of bacteria becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster. However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
I occasionally think that, in our intense effort to achieve the results we want, we sometimes will overlook something as seemingly basic as this. I certainly know that I have. And I think that our fishes will let us know, too...I mean, those "accidental" spawnings aren't really "accidental", right? They're an example of our fishes letting us know that what we've been providing them has been exactly what they needed. It's worth considering, huh?
Nature has a way. It's up to us to figure out what it is. Be it with a ceramic flower pot or pile of botanicals...
Let's keep thinking about this. And let's keep enjoying our fishes by creating more naturalistic conditions for them in our aquariums.
Stay curious. Stay enthralled. Stay diligent. Stay methodical. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
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.