Of all the fun topics in botanical-style aquarium keeping, few hold my interest as much as substrates.
I imagine the substrate as this magical place which fuels all sorts of processes within our aquariums, and that Nature tends to it in the most effective and judicious manner.
Yeah, I'm a bit of a "substrate romantic", I suppose.😆
Particularly in transitional habitats, like flooded forests, etc. the composition and characteristics of the substrate plays a huge role in the ecology of the aquatic habitat. The presence of a lot of soils, clays, and sediments in these substrates, as opposed to just sand, creates a habitat which provides a lot of opportunity for organisms to thrive.
The substrates are not just "the bottom."
They are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches compose the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes we're so fascinated by to flourish. And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
Detritus ("Mulm") located in the sediments is the major source of energy and/or nutrients for many of these dynamic aquatic habitats. The bacteria which perform all the important chemical reactions, such as converting ammonia to nitrite, nitrates to nitrogen, releasing bound-up nutrients, neutralizing hydrogen sulfide, etc. will obtain essential nutrients from the detritus (this is what autotrophic bacteria that metabolize ammonia/ammonium or hydrogen sulfide for energy do).
These bacteria may also "harvest" those nutrients, as well as metabolize (aerobically or anaerobically) the organic compounds present in the detritus for energy, just like heterotrophs do.
The processing of nutrients in the aquarium is a fascinating one; a real "partnership" between a wide variety of aquatic organisms.
Yes, there is a lot of amazing biological function occurring in these layers. And of course, fostering this dynamic in the aquarium is one of the things we love the most. It's all part of our vision for the modern, botanical-style aquarium.
Now, hobbyists have played with deep sand beds and mixes of various materials in aquariums for many years, and knowledgable proponents of natural aquarium management, such as Diane Walstad, have discussed the merits of such features in far more detail, and with a competency that I could only dream of! That being said, I think the time has never been better to experiment with this stuff!
Again, we're talking about utilizing a wider variety of materials than just sand, so the dynamics are quite different, offering unique functions, processes, and potential benefits.
I've been thinking through further refinements of the "deep botanical bed"/sand substrate relationship. I've been spending a lot of time over the years researching natural aquatic systems and contemplating how we can translate some of this stuff into our closed system aquaria.
Before we talk about the actual substrate materials again, let's think about the processes that we would like to foster in a substrate, and the potential negatives that may be of concern to those of us who play with botanicals in our substrate configurations
One of the things that many hobbyists ponder when we contemplate creating deep, botanical-heavy substrates, consisting of leaves, sand, and other botanical materials is the buildup of hydrogen sulfide, CO2, and other undesirable compounds within the substrate.
Well, it does make sense that if you have a large amount of decomposing material in an aquarium, that some of these compounds are going to accumulate in heavily-"active" substrates. Now, the big "bogeyman" that we all seem to zero in on in our "sum of all fears" scenarios is hydrogen sulfide, which results from bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the total absence of oxygen.
Let's think about this for just a second.
In a botanical bed with materials placed on the substrate, or loosely mixed into the top layers, will it all "pack down" enough to the point where there is a complete lack of oxygen and we develop a significant amount of this reviled compound in our tanks? I think that we're more likely to see some oxygen in this layer of materials, and I can't help but speculate- and yeah, it IS just speculation- that actual de-nitirifcation (nitrate reduction), which lowers nitrates while producing free nitrogen, might actually be able to occur in a "deep botanical" bed.
And it's certainly possible to have denitrification without dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels. As long as even very small amounts of oxygen and nitrates can penetrate into the substrate, this will not become an issue for most systems. I have yet to see a botanical-style aquarium where the material has become so "compacted" as to appear to have no circulation whatsoever within the botanical layer.
Now, sure, I'm not a scientist, and I base this on close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, and the basic chemical tests I've run on my systems under a variety of circumstances. As one who has made it a point to keep my botanical-style aquariums in operation for very extended time frames, I think this is significant. The "bad" side effects we're talking about should manifest over these longer time frames...and they just haven't.
We need to look at substrates literally as an aquatic organism. And, like aggregations of organisms, they may be diverse, both morphologically and ecologically. They're a dynamic, functional part of the miniature ecosystems we create in our aquariums. We've used the "basic" stuff for a generation. It's time to open up our minds to a few new ideas. To rethink substrate. To reconsider why we incorporate substrate, and what we use.
What kinds of materials can we employ to create more "functional" substrates (which just happen to look cool, too?). What kinds of functions and benefits can we hope to recreate in the confines of our aquariums?
First off, think beyond just sands...or anything resembling "conventional" aquarium substrate. Think about what goes on in the benthic (bottom) regions in the natural habitats we love, and what benefits or support the materials which aggregate there provide for the organisms within the ecosystem.
Understand that the substrate is a dynamic, extremely important part of the aquarium, too. And what we construct our substrate with, and how we manage it, is of profound importance to our fishes!
Fostering fungal growth, as well as other microorganisms and small crustaceans, should be a huge component of the "why" we do this. These organisms, as we've discussed repeatedly, form a part of the "food chain" within our captive ecosystems, and offer huge benefits to the aquarium not only as potential supplemental nutrition for fishes, but as a means to process and export nutrients from within the botanical-style aquarium.
So, yeah, in summary- the substrate plays a huge role in the function of a botanical-style aquarium. We can create a "facility" with substrate materials which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides priceless benefits: Production of supplemental nutrition for our fishes, and nutrient processing via a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.
True "functional aesthetics!"
A combination of finely crushed leaves, bits of botanicals, small twigs, etc. can form the basis for a more "biologically active" and even productive substrate. As these materials break down, they are colonized by fungi and biofilms, and impart tannins, lignin, and other sources of carbon into the water to fuel a variety of microbial growth.
As you might have gathered by now, we are an advocate of some rather "unconventional" substrate materials, particularly a classification what we call "Sedimented Substrates."
Yeah, that'd be ours. NatureBase "Igapo", "Varzea", and the upcoming "Mangal", "Floresta" and "Selagor", are examples of substrates which have a lot of sediments and clays in their formulation. These substrates realistically replicate the composition, function, and look of soils which are found in many tropical aquatic habitats.
In fact, most of our NatureBase substrates have a significant percentage of clays and sediments in their formulations. These materials have typically been something that aquarists have avoided, because they will cloud the water for a while, and often impart a bit of color. Like, that's a problem? We also have some botanical components in a few of our substrates, because they are intended to be "terrestrial" substrates for a while before being flooded...and when this stuff is first wetted, some of it will float. And that means that you're going to have to net it out, or let your filter take it out.
You simply won't have that "issue" with your typical bag of aquarium sand!
You can mix them with any of the above-mentioned commercially-available sands, or use them alone. You can gradually add water (as in our "Urban Igapo" concept), or simply fill your tank form day one. Expect significant cloudiness for several days as the materials settle out, though. Don't rinse these substrates...just put them to work right away.
Now, although you can (and should) play with these substrates "wet" from the start, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you again that the igapo and varzea substrates were initially intended to be "terrestrial" for a period of time, to get the grasses and plants going, and then inundated.
So, yeah, you'll have to make a mental shift to appreciate a different look and function. And many hobbyists simply can't handle that. We've been up front with this stuff since these products were released, to ward off the, "I added NatureBase to my tank and it looks like a cloudy mess! This stuff is SHIT!" type of emails that inevitably come when people don't read up first before they purchase the stuff.
And the warning and mental shift indoctrinations have worked. No one has freaked out.
Instead, we're hearing how incredibly natural these aquariums look, and how the biological diversity and stability of these tanks are.
What goes on in an aquarium with sediments, botanicals- or leaves, in this instance as the total "substrate" or "hardscape", as the case may be, is that they become the basis for biological activity in the tank. As we have discussed a million times here, as botanicals break down, they recruit bacteria, fungi, and other organisms on their surfaces.
That's the "big deal" about substrates.
Mix it up. Play with sediments, crushed leaves, broken bits of botanicals..All sorts of natural "stuff" which would previously have been considered "dirty" and "bad for long term maintenance" in almost anyone's book. Look at the advantages that can be realized, instead of the potential risks involved in experimenting.
Open your mind up to accept the look and function- and the "aesthetic challenges" of using non-traditional materials in your substrates.
Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay studious...
And Stay Wet.
One of the toughest things in the aquarium hobby is to face the possibility of losing fishes. When you think about it, the idea of keeping live tropical fishes in an aquarium is pretty incredible to begin with. What we take on isn't necessarily "difficult" in many instances. The techniques have been known and shared in the hobby for generations. However, the awesome thing is that we are able to obtain and maintain these organisms in the first place, right?
And when you add into the equation that are completely responsible for creating essentially the entire environment in which they reside, it becomes even more incredible, right? What we do is pretty special.
However, unlike keeping many other animals as"pets", like dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, etc., we have the unique ability to create representations- functional and aesthetic-of the natural habitats from which they come. We can do all sorts of environmental manipulations, and embrace all sorts of evolutions within their aquariums to represent aspects of their natural habitats.
And this ability brings with it a lot of opportunity to innovate, as well as the assumption of some risk.
Yeah, the process of creating, optimizing and managing a specialized aquatic habitat is subject to risk, whether we expect it or not.
The risk that we might not have acclimated our fishes correctly to the new environment that we have created. Risk that our management of the environment may not be be as controlled, consistent, or appropriate for the long-term health of the fishes.
This is not unique to the botanical-style aquarium, of course. It's something that we run into with all types of aquariums and fish-keeping endeavors, from the most basic goldfish bowl (arrghh!😂) to the most sophisticated reef aquarium system.
Risk permeates this hobby. It's something that is almost never discussed, but it is at the forefront of almost everything do. Risk abounds. We take risks every single time we purchase fish. And the responsibility to manage the risk- to mitigate any potential bad outcomes-lies squarely on our shoulders as hobbyists.
A classic, easy example? When repurchase that new fish, we immediately have to chose whether or not we will quarantine it before placing it into our tank. If we don't, we run the risk of introducing illness to our other healthy fishes. And, when we do quarantine (yay!),we STILL risk the possibility that the fish might not make it through. That it might not eat, or that a disease (the very reason you quarantine in the first place!) may manifest itself and possibly kill the fish in the quarantine system.
When we first started Tannin Aquatics, the idea of utilizing seed pods, bark, leaves, branches and stuff in aquariums to manipulate the environmental conditions wasn't completely unknown. Hobbyists have been doing it for generations to some extent. However, when we embarked on our mission to curate, test, and ultimately introduce new and different botanical materials into the hobby, we know it was a risk.
Some might have proven to be toxic to fishes. Some might have been collected from polluted environments that had noxious chemicals. Some might have been intended for other purposes, and sold to us by unscrupulous suppliers, who had them treated with laquers or other industrial chemicals. We found this out the hard way a few times, killing fishes in our test tanks in the process.
Horrible to lose innocent animals, but part of the challenge we accepted when we intended to become leaders in this new arena. Releasing untested materials to fellow fish keepers and killing them was not an option. We had to assume the risk of testing ourselves. Vetting of suppliers was, and continues to be, crucial. Good quality source material doesn't guarantee success- but it does mitigate some of the risk.
When we developed techniques for the preparation of botanicals for aquarium use, it was to help mitigate some of the risks that are inherent when you place natural terrestrial materials into a closed aquatic environment.
Yet, even with the development of "best practices" and recommended approaches and technique for safely utilizing botanicals in our aquariums, we knew that there was an even bigger, more ominous risk out there...Human nature.
Yes, when I started playing with botanicals in my aquariums almost two decades ago, I made a fair number of mistakes. Sometimes, they cost the lives of my fishes.
And killing fishes sucks.
Some mistakes were caused by my lack of familiarity with using various materials. Most were caused by not understanding fully the impact of adding botanical materials to a closed aquatic ecosystems. All were mitigated by taking the time to learn from them and honestly asses the good, the bad, and the practical aspects of using them in our aquariums.
And that meant developing "best practices" to help mitigate or eliminate issues as much as possible, even though the "practices" may not be the easiest, most convenient, or expedient way to proceed.
I KNEW that there would be people who might kill their fishes by adding lots of botanicals to their established systems without reading and following the instructions concerning preparation, cadence, and what to expect. I knew there would be people who would criticize the idea, "edit" the processes or recommended "best practices", talk negatively about the approach and generally scoff and downplay what they didn't know, understand, or do.
It's human nature whenever you give people something a bit different to play with...They want to go from 0-100 in like one day. And I knew that some of these people would go out on social media and attempt to trash the whole idea after they failed. This, despite all of our instructions, information, and pleas to follow the guidelines we suggested.
After more than six years of running Tannin, I have pretty much identified the two most common concerns we have for customers associated with utilizing botanicals in their aquariums. Curiously, our two biggest concerns revolve around our own human impatience and mindset- not the botanical materials themselves.
The first is... preparation.
We are often asked why we don't feel that you can, without exception, just give any of your botanicals "a quick rinse" and toss them into your aquarium.
After all, this is what happens in nature, right? Well, shit- yes...but remember, in most cases, there is a significant "dilution factor" caused by larger water volumes, currents, biologically-rich substrates, etc. that you encounter in natural aquatic systems. Even in smaller bodies of water, you have very "mature" nutrient export systems and biological equilibriums established over long periods of time which handle the influx and export of organic materials.
However, even in Nature, things go awry, and you will occasionally see bodies of water "fouled" by large, sudden influxes of materials (often leaves, grass clippings, etc.)- sometimes after rain or other weather events- and the result is usually polluted water, large algal blooms, and a pretty nasty smell!
In the aquarium, of course, you have a closed system with a typically much smaller water volume, limited import of fresh water, limited filtration (export) capacity, and in many cases, a less robust ecological microcosm to handle a large influx of nutrients quickly.
So you know where I'm going with this:
Fresh botanical materials, even relatively "clean" ones, are often still "dirty", from collection, storage, etc. They may have dust, airborne pollutants, soil or silt (depending upon where they were collected), even cobwebs, bird droppings, and dead insects (yuck!).
Natural materials accumulate "stuff." They're not sterile; made in some high tech "clean room" in a factory in Switzerland, right?
So," just giving botanicals a quick rinse" before tossing them in your tank is simply not good procedure, IMHO- even for stuff you collect from your own backyard. It's more risk to take on. At the very least, a prolonged (30 to 60 minute) steep in boiling hot water will serve to "sterilize" them to a certain extent. Follow it with a rinse to remove any lingering dirt or other materials trapped in the surfaces of your botanicals.
Now, I don't recommend this process simply because I want to be a pain in the ass. I recommend it because it's a responsible practice that, although seemingly "overkill" in some people's minds- increases the odds for a better outcome.
It reduces some of the risk.
The crew up in the cockpit on your flight from L.A. to New York know every system of the Boeing 737Max9 that they fly. But guess what? They still complete the pre-flight checklist each and every time they hop in the plane.
Because it can save lives.
Why should we be any different about taking the time to prepare botanicals? I know it sounds harsh; however, if you skip this step and kill your fishes- it's on you.
Why would you skip this, other than simply being impatient?
Could you get away with NOT doing this?
Sure. Absolutely. Many people likely do.
But for how long? When will it catch up with you? Maybe never...I know I'll get at least one email or comment from a hobbyist who absolutely doesn't do any of this and has a beautiful healthy tank with no problems.
Okay, good for you. I'm still going to recommend that, like I do- that you embrace a preparation process for every botanical item that you add to your aquariums.
Boiling/steeping also serves a secondary, yet equally important purpose: It helps soften and even break down the external tissues of the botanical, allowing it to leach out any remaining subsurface pollutants, sugars, or other undesirable organics to the greatest extent possible. And finally, it allows them to better absorb water, which makes them sink more easily when you place them in your aquarium.
Yes, it's an extra step.
Yes, it takes time.
However, like all good things in nature and aquariums, taking the time to go the extra mile is never a bad thing. And really, I'm trying to see what possible "benefit" you'd derive by skipping this preparation process?
Oh, let me help you: NONE.
There is simply no advantage to rushing stuff.
Like all things we do in our aquariums, the preparation of materials that we add to them is a process, and Nature sets the pace. The fact that we may recommend 30 minutes or more of boiling is not of concern to Nature. It may take an hour or more to fully saturate your Sterculia Pods before they sink.
So be it.
Savor the process. Enjoy every aspect of the experience. And don't you love the earthy scent that botanicals exude when you're preparing them?
And the shittiest thing? Even if you do all this prep, there is STILL risk that you will kill your fishes.
Damn, I'm not ever gonna make it as salesman, huh?
How much to use?
Well, that's the million dollar question.
Who knows? Even that is a guess and decidedly unscientific at best!
It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best.
Now, nothing is perfect.
Nothing we can tell you is an absolute guarantee of perfect results...You're dealing with natural materials, and the results you'll see are governed by natural processes that we can only impact to a certain extent by preparation before use. But it's a logical, responsible process that you need to embrace for long-term success.
It reduces some of the risk.
And, when it comes time to adding your botanicals to your aquarium, the second "tier" of this process is to add them to your aquarium slowly. Like, don't add everything all at once, particularly to an established, stable aquarium. Think of botanicals as "bioload", which requires your bacterial/fungal/microcrusacean population to handle them.
Bacteria, in particular, are your first line of defense.
If you add a large quantity of any organic materials to an established system, you will simply overwhelm the existing beneficial bacterial population in the aquarium, which will likely result in a massive increase in ammonia, nitrite, and organic pollutants. At the very least, it will leave oxygen levels depleted, and fishes gasping at the surface as the bacteria population struggles to catch up to the large influx of materials.
This is not some sort of esoteric concept, right? I mean, we don't add 25 3-inch fishes at once to an established, stable 10-gallon aquarium and not expect some sort of negative environmental consequence, right? So why would adding bunch of leaves, botanicals, wood, or other materials containing organics be any different?
So please, PLEASE add botanicals to your established aquarium gradually, while observing your fishes' reactions and testing the water parameters regularly during and after the process. Take measured steps.
There is no rush.
There shouldn't be.
It's interesting how the process of selecting, preparing and adding botanical materials to our aquariums has evolved over the time since we've been in business. Initially, as I discussed previously, it was all about trying to discover what materials weren't "toxic" in some way!
Then, it was about figuring out ways to prepare them and make sure that they don't pollute the aquarium. Finally, it's been about taking the time to add them in a responsible, measured matter.
I think our biggest "struggle" in working with botanicals is a mental one that we have imposed upon ourselves over generations of aquarium keeping: The need to control our own natural desire to get stuff moving quickly; to hit that "done" thing...fast.
And the reality, as we've talked about hundreds of times here and elsewhere, is that there really is no "finished", and that the botanical-style aquarium is about evolution. This type of system embraces continuous change and requires us to understand the ephemeral nature of botanicals when immersed in water.
I know I may be a bit "blunt" when it comes to these topics of preparation, practices, and patience- but they are critical concepts for us to wrap our heads around and really embrace in order to be successful with this stuff. And they are absolutely tied to the idea of reducing risk to the greatest extent possible.
All caveats and warnings aside, the art and evolving "science" of utilizing natural botanical materials for the purpose of enriching and influencing the environment of the aquarium is an exciting one, promising benefits and breakthroughs that we may not have even thought about yet!
It's okay to experiment...If we are willing to accept the additional risk.
We stress these points over and over an over, because I get questions every day from hobbyists asking if they really need to prepare their botanicals, and if it's safe to use "_____" in their tanks, etc.
This is indicative, to me, of larger problem in the aquarium hobby.
In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 280 characters of information, and where there is a apparently a "hack" for pretty much everything, I wonder if have we simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. I say this not in a sarcastic manner, but in a thoughtful, measured one.
I'm baffled by hobbyists who want to try something new and simply do next to no research or self-education prior to trying it.
When you read some of the posts on Facebook or other sites, where a hobbyist asks a question which makes it obvious that they failed to grasp even the most fundamental aspects of their "area of interest", yet jumped in head-first into this "new thing", it just makes you wonder! I mean, if the immediate goal is to have "...a great looking tank with botanicals...", it seems to me that some hobbyists apparently don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain the system on a long-term basis.
I suppose that it’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- for some hobbyists to learn about what gadgets or products can get us where we want, and what fishes are available to complete the project quickly.
This is a bit of a problem. It demonstrates a fundamental impatience, an unwillingness to learn, and a lack of desire to assume some responsibility or risk. The desire to pass the responsibility on to someone- or something- else when shit goes wrong.
And the reality is that it's really all on us.
When it comes to using botanicals- or, for that matter, embarking upon any aquarium-related speacialties, it's really important to contemplate them from the standpoint of reducing and accepting some risk. We, as aquarium hobbyists, are 100% responsible for the lives of the animals under our care. If we don't like the idea of accepting this responsibility, then we should consider another hobby. Simple as that.
I can talk about the "best practices" in our hobby until my face turns green. I can point out the benefits of making mental shifts and being patient endlessly. However, it's up to each one of us to accept- or reject- these ideas, and to accept the outcomes-positive or negative- of our choices about how we embrace-or reject-this stuff.
And, based on what I'm seeing and hearing, a lot of hobbyists simply don't feel that this applies to them.
Okay, I’m sounding very cynical. And perhaps I am. But the evidence is out there in abundance…and it’s kind of discouraging at times.
Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed "guardian of the hobby." I’m not calling us out. I’m simply asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. To question our habits. To accept responsibility for our actions. No one has a right to tell anyone that what they are doing is not the right way, but we do have to instill upon the newbie the importance of understanding the basics of our craft.
I'm super-proud that we've consistently elevated realistic discussions about unpopular topics related to our hobby sector. Yeah, we literally have blog and podcast titles like, "How to Avoid Screwing Up Your Tank and Killing all of Your Fishes with Botanicals" , or "There Will be Decomposition", or "Celebrating The Slimy Stuff."
If we are worried about risk, we need to take as many steps as possible to understand it. To mitigate it. Some steps are tedious. Unglamorous. Time consuming. Not very fun.
However, they are all steps that we need take to create better outcomes, and to help advance the state of the art of the aquarium hobby- for the benefit of us all.
Risk is part of the hobby. How we accept it, and take it on, is also part of the hobby. It doesn't have to be a dark cloud hanging over everything that we do. Rather, it should be a motivator, an opportunity to improve, and a means to grow.
Stay responsible. Stay curious. Stay engaged. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
One of the things that drives most hobbyists crazy is when "stuff" gets blown around, covered or moved about in the aquarium. It can be because of strong current, the activity of fishes, or simply overgrown by plants. I understand the annoyance that many hobbyists feel; I recall this same aggravating feeling in many reef tanks where I had high flow and sand on the bottom- almost always a combination for annoyance!
I mean, I get it. We have what feel is a carefully thought-out aquascape, looking exactly how we expected it would after setup. Yet, despite our ideas and thoughts, stuff moves around in the aquarium. It's something we can either accept, or modify in our aquariums, depending upon our preferences.
Yet, movement and "covering" of various materials by sediments, biofilms, etc., which accumulate on the substrate in natural habitats are everyday occurrences, and they help forge a very dynamic ecosystem. And they are constantly creating new opportunities for the fishes which reside in them to exploit.
When you think about how materials "get around" in the wild aquatic habitats, there are a few factors which influence both the accumulation and distribution of them. In many topical streams, the water depth and intensity of the flow changes during periods of rain and runoff, creating significant re-distribution of the materials which accumulate on the bottom, such as leaves, branches, seed pods, and the like.
Larger, more "hefty" materials, such as branches, submerged logs, etc., will tend to move less frequently, and in many instances, they'll remain stationary, providing a physical diversion for water as substrate materials accumulate around them.
A "dam", of sorts, if you will.
And this creates known structures within streams in areas like Amazonia, which are known to have existed for many years. Semi-permanent aquatic features within the streams, which influence not only the physical and chemical environment, but the very habits and abundance of the fishes which reside there.
Most of the small stuff, like leaves, tend to move around quite a bit... One might say that the "material changes" created by this movement of materials can have significant implications for fishes. As we've talked about before, they follow the food, often existing in, and subsisting off of what they can find in these areas.
New accumulations of leaves, detritus, and other materials benefit the entire ecosystem.
In the case of our aquariums, this "redistribution" of material can create interesting opportunities to not only switch up the aesthetics of our tanks, but to provide new and unique little physical areas for many of the fishes we keep.
And yeah, the creation of new feeding opportunities for life forms at all levels is a positive which simply cannot be overstated! As hobbyists, we tend to lament changes to the aquascape of our tanks caused by things outside of our control, and consider them to be a huge inconvenience, when in reality, they're not only facsimile of very natural dynamic processes-they are fundamental to their evolution.
The benthic microfauna which our fishes tend to feed on also are affected by this phenomenon, and as mentioned above, the fishes tend to "follow the food", making this a case of the fishes adapting to a changing environment. And perhaps...maybe...the idea of fishes sort of having to constantly adjust to a changing physical environment could be some sort of "trigger", hidden deep in their genetic code, that perhaps stimulates overall health, immunity or spawning?
Something in their "programing" that says, "You're at home..." Perhaps something which triggers specific adaptive behaviors?
I find this possibility fascinating, because we can learn more about our fishes' behaviors, and create really interesting habitats for them simply by adding botanicals to our aquariums and allowing them to "do their own thing"- to break apart as they decompose, move about as we change water or conduct maintenance activities, or add new pieces from time to time.
Again, just like Nature.
We just need to "get over ourselves" on this aesthetic thing!
Another mental shift? Yeah, it is. An easy one, but one that we need make, really.
Like any environment, botanical/ leaf litter beds have their own "rhythm", fostering substantial communities of fishes. The dynamic behind this biotope can best be summarized in this interesting excerpt from an academic paper on blackwater leaf-litter communities by biologist Peter Alan Henderson, that is useful for those of us attempting to replicate these communities in our aquaria:
"..life within the litter is not a crowded, chaotic scramble for space and food. Each species occupies a sub-region defined by physical variables such as flow and oxygen content, water depth, litter depth and particle size…
...this subtle subdivision of space is the key to understanding the maintenance of diversity. While subdivision of time is also evident with, for example, gymnotids hunting by night and cichlids hunting by day, this is only possible when each species has its space within which to hide.”
In other words, different species inhabit different sections of the leaf litter beds. As aquarists, we should consider this when creating and stocking our botanical-style aquariums.
It just makes sense, right?
So, when you're attempting to replicate such an environment, consider how the fishes would utilize each of the materials you're working with. For example, leaf litter areas would be an idea shelter for many juvenile fishes, catfishes, and even young cichlids to shelter among.
Submerged branches, larger seed pods and other botanicals provide territory and areas where fishes can forage for macrophytes (algal growths which occur on the surfaces of these materials). Fish selection can be influenced as much by the materials you're using to 'scape the tank as anything else, when you think about it!
And it's not just fishes, of course. It's a multitude of life forms.
There are numerous life forms which are found on ad among these materials as well, such as fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, etc. which we likely never really consider, yet are found in abundance in nature and in the aquarium, and perform vital roles in the function of the aquatic habitat.
Perhaps most fascinating and rarely discussed in the hobby, are the unique freshwater sponges, from the genus Spongilla. Yes, you heard. Freshwater sponges! These interesting life forms attach themselves to rocks and logs and filter the water for various small aquatic organisms, like bacteria, protozoa, and other minute aquatic life forms. Some are truly incredible looking organisms!
(Spongilla lacustris Image by Kirt Onthank. Used under CC-BY SA 3.0)
Unlike the better-known marine sponges, freshwater sponges are subjected to the more variable environment of rivers and streams, and have adapted a strategy of survival. When conditions deteriorate, the organisms create "buds", known as "gemmules", which are an asexually reproduced mass of cells capable of developing into a new sponge! The Gemmules remain dormant until environmental conditions permit them to develop once again!
To my knowledge, these organisms have never been intentionally collected for aquariums, and I suspect they are a little tricky to transport (despite their adaptability), just ike their marine cousins are. One species, Metania reticulata, is extremely common in the Brazilian Amazon. They are found on rocks, submerged branches, and even tree trunks when these areas are submerged, and remain in a dormant phase in the aforementioned gemmules during periods of desiccation!
Now, I'm not suggesting that we go and collect freshwater sponges for aquarium use, but I am curious if they occur as "hitchhikers" on driftwood, rocks or other materials which end up in our aquariums. When you think about how important sponges are as natural "filters", one can only wonder how they might perform this beneficial role in the aquarium as well!
We've encountered them in reef tanks for many years...I wonder if they could ultimately find their way into our botanical-style aquariums as well? Perhaps they already have. Have any of you encountered one before in your tanks?
The big takeaway from all of this: A botanical bed in our aquariums and in Nature is a physical structure, ephemeral though it may be- which functions just like an aggregation of branches, or a reef, rock piles, or other features would in the wild benthic environment, although perhaps even "looser" and more dynamic.
Stuff gets redistributed, covered, and often breaks down over time. Exactly like what happens in Nature.
Think about the possibilities which are out there, under every leaf. Every sunken branch. Every root. Every rock.
It's all brought about by the dynamic process of movement.
Perhaps instead of looking at the movement of stuff in our tanks as an annoyance, we might enjoy it a lot more if we look at it as an opportunity! An opportunity to learn more about the behaviors and life styles of our fishes and their ever-changing environment.
Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
One of the questions which we are asked less and less these days is, 'What kinds of fishes are suitable for a botanical-style aquarium?" I think that after 6 years of pounding all of these ideas into your heads about all of the strange nuances of botanical-style aquariums, it's almost universally understood that pretty much any fishes can live in them.
On the other hand, when it comes to how we stock our tanks, nothing has really changed...however, it could. And it should, IMHO.
We spend a pretty good amount of time studying, scheming, and pondering how to create a compatible, interesting, and attractive community of fishes within our aquariums.
It's probably among the most enjoyable things that we do in the hobby, right?
As a somewhat eccentric philosopher of all things fish, one of my favorite things to ponder is stuff that we do while creating our aquariums which is- intentionally or otherwise- analogous to the factors in Nature that result in the environments and fish populations that we find so compelling.
If you're like me, you likely spend a little too much time pondering all sorts of arcane aspects of the hobby...Okay, so maybe you're NOT like me, but you probably have a rather keen interest in the way Nature operates in the wild aquatic systems of the world, and stock your aquariums accordingly.
As one who studies a lot of details about some of the habitats from which our fishes come, I can't help but occasionally wonder exactly what it is that brings fishes to a given location or niche within a environment?
Now, the first answer we're likely to proffer is the most apparent...right? I mean, they follow the food!
Fishes tend to move into new areas in search suitable food sources as part of their life cycle. And food sources often become available in habitats such as flooded forest areas after the rains come, when decomposing leaves and botanical materials begin to create (or re-activate, as the case may be) "food webs", attracting ever more complex life forms into the area.
When we create our aquariums, we take into consideration a lot of factors, ranging from the temperament and size of our fish selections, to their appearance, right? These are all important factors. However, have you ever considered what the factors are in nature which affect the composition of a fish community in a given habitat?
Like, why "x" fish is living in a particular habitat?
What adaptations has the fish made that make it uniquely suitable for this environmental niche? Further, have you thought about how we as hobbyists replicate, to some extent, the actual selection processes which occur in Nature in our quest to create the perfect community aquarium?
Now, if you're an African Cichlid lover or reef hobbyist, I'm sure you have!
Social hierarchies, spatial orientations, and allopathic processes are vital to success in those types of aquariums; you typically can't get away with just throwing in a random fish or coral and hoping it will just mix perfectly.
However, for many hobbyists who aim to construct simple "community tanks", it isn't that vital to fill specific niches and such...we probably move other factors to the forefront when thinking about possible additions to our community of fishes: Like, how cool the fish looks, how large it grows, if it has a peaceful temperament, etc. More basic stuff.
However, in the end, we almost always make selections based upon factors which we deem important...again, a sort of near-mimicry of natural processes- and how the fishes work in the habitat we've created for them.
"Unnatural selection?" Or...Is it essentially what nature's does for eons?
Oh, and what exactly is an "aquatic habitat", by the way? In short, you could say that an aquatic habitat is the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics which determine the suitability for habitation and reproduction of fishes.
Of course, these characteristics can determine which fishes are found in a given area in the wild- pretty much without exception. It's been happening for eons.
Approaching the stocking of an aquarium by determining which fishes would be appropriate for the physical characteristics of the tank is not exactly groundbreaking stuff.
However, when we evaluate this in the context of "theme", and what fish would be found within, say, an Amazonian Igarape stream or a Southeast Asian peat swamp, the idea of adding fishes to "exploit" the features of the habitat we've created is remarkably similar to the processes which occur in Nature that determine what fish are found there, and it's the ultimate expression of good tank planning, IMHO.
It's just kind of interesting to think about in that context, right?
Competition is another one of the important factors in determining how fish populations in the wild. Specifically, competition for space, resources (e.g.; food) and mates are prevalent. In our aquariums, we do see this to some extent, right? The "alpha male" cichlid, the Pleco that gets the best cave, and the Tetra which dominates his shoal.
How we create the physical space for our fishes can have significant impact on this behavior. When good hiding spaces are at a premium, as are available spawning partners, their will be some form of social hierarchy, right?
Other environmental factors, such as water movement, dissolved oxygen, etc. are perhaps less impactful on our community once the tank is established. However, these factors figure prominently in our decisions about the composition of, or numbers or fishes in the community, don't they?
For example, you're unlikely to keep Hillstream loaches in a near stagnant, blackwater swamp biotope aquarium, just like you'd be unlikely to keep Altum Angelfish in a fast-moving stream biotope representation. And fishes which shoal or school will, obviously, best be kept in numbers.
"Aquarium Keeping 101", again.
One factor that we typically don't have in our aquaria is predation. I know very few aquarists who would be sadistic enough to even contemplate trying to keep predators and prey in the same tank, to let them "have at it" and see what happens, and who comes out on top!
I mean, there is a lot to this stuff, isn't there?
Again, the idea of creating a tank to serve the needs of certain fishes isn't earth-shattering. Yet, the idea of stocking the tank based on the available niches and physical characteristics is kind of a cool, educational, and ultimately very gratifying process. I just think it's truly amazing that we're able to actually do this these days.
And the sequence that you stock your tank in is extremely pertinent.
I think that you could literally create a sort of "sequence" to stocking various types of fishes based on the stage of "evolution" that your aquarium is in, although the sequence might be a bit different than Nature in some cases. For example, in a more-or-less brand new aquarium, analogous in this case to a newly-inundated forest floor, their might be a lot less in the way of lower life forms, such as fungi and bacteria, until the materials begin breaking down. You'd simply have an aggregation of fresh leaves, twigs, seed pods, soils, etc. in the habitat.
So, if anything, you're likely to see fishes which are much more dependent upon allochthonous input...food from the terrestrial environment. This is a compelling way to stock an aquarium, I think. Especially aquarium systems like ours which make use of these materials en masse.
Right from the start (after cycling, of course!), it would not be unrealistic to add fishes which feed on terrestrial fruits and botanical materials, such as Colossoma, Arowanna, Metynis, etc. Fishes which, for most aquarists of course, are utterly impractical to keep because of their large adult size and/or need for physical space!
(Pacu! Image by Rufus46, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Now, a lot of smaller, more "aquarium suited" fishes will also pick at these fruits and seeds, so you're not totally stuck with the big brutes if you want to go this route! Interestingly, the consumption and elimination of fruits by fishes is thought to be a major factor in the distribution of many plants in the region.
Do a little research here and you might be quite surprised about who consumes what in these habitats!
More realistically for most aquarists, I'd think that you could easily stock first with fishes like surface-dwelling (or near surface-dwelling) species, like hatchetfishes and some Pencilfishes, which are largely dependent upon terrestrial insects such as flies and ants, in Nature. In other words, they tend to "forage" or "graze" little, and are more opportunistic, taking advantage of careless insects which end up in the water of these newly-inundated environs.
I've read studies where almost 100 species were documented which feed near-exclusively on insects and arthropods from terrestrial sources in these habitats! As I mention often, if you dive a bit deeper than the typical hobbyist writings, and venture into scholarly materials and species descriptions, you'll be fascinated to read about the gut-content analysis of fishes, because they give you a tremendous insight about what to feed in the aquarium!
Continuing on, it's easy to see that, as the environments evolve, so does the fish population. And the possibilities for simulating this in the aquarium are many and are quite interesting!
Later, as materials start to decompose and are acted on by fungi and bacteria, you could conceivably add more of the "grazing" type fishes, such as Plecos, small Corydoras, Headstanders, etc.
As the tank ages and breaks in more, this would be analogous to the period of time when micro-crustaceans and aquatic insects are present in greater numbers, and you'd be inclined to see more of the "micropredators" like characins, and ultimately, small cichlids.
Interestingly, scientists have postulated that evolution favored small fishes like characins in these environments, because they are more efficient at capturing small terrestrial insects and spiders in these flooded forests than the larger fishes are!
And it makes a lot of sense, if you look at it strictly from a "density/variety" standpoint- lots of characins call these habitats home!
Then there are detritivores.
The detrivorus fishes remove large quantities of this material from submerged trees, branches, etc. Now, you might be surprised to learn that, in the wild, the gut-content analysis of almost every fish indicates that they consume organic detritus to some extent! And it makes sense...They work with the food sources that are available to them!
At different times of the year, different food sources are easier to obtain.
And, of course, all of the fishes which live in these habitats contribute to the surrounding forests by "recycling" nutrients locked up in the detritus. This is thought by ecologists to be especially important in blackwater inundated forests and meadows in areas like The Pantanal, because of the long periods of inundation and the nutrient-poor soils as a result of the slow decomposition rates.
All of this is actually very easy to replicate, to a certain extent, when stocking our aquaria. Why would you stock in this sort of sequence, when you're likely not relying on decomposing botanicals and leaves and the fungal and microbial life associated with them as your primary food source?
Well, you likely wouldn't be...However, what about the way that the fishes, when introduced at the appropriate "phase" in the tank's life cycle- adapt to the tank? Wouldn't the fishes take advantage of these materials as a supplement to the prepared foods that you're feeding them? Doesn't this impact the fishes' genetic "programming" in some fashion? Can it activate some health benefits, behaviors, etc?
I believe that it can. And I believe that this type of more natural feeding ca profoundly and positively impact our fishes' health.
I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.”
Because I'm really patient.
Success with this approach is simply a result of deploying "radical patience." The practice of just moving really slowly and carefully when adding fishes to new tanks.
It's a really simple concept.
The hard part is waiting longer to add fishes.
Wait a minimum of three weeks—and even up to a month or two if you can stand it, and you will have a surprisingly large population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings.
Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for wild fishes, or fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders.
And think about it. This is really a natural analog of sorts. Fishes that live in inundated forest floors (yeah, the igapo again!) return to these areas to "follow the food" once they flood.
It just takes a few weeks, really. You’ll see fungal growth. You'll see some breakdown of the botanicals brought on by bacterial action or the feeding habits of small crustaceans and fungi. If you "pre-stock", you might even see the emergence of a significant population of copepods, amphipods, and other creatures crawling about, free from fishy predators, foraging on algae and detritus, and happily reproducing in your tank.
We kind of know this already, though- right?
This is really analogous to the tried-and-true practice of cultivating some turf algae on rocks either in or from outside your tank before adding herbivorous, grazing fishes, to give them some "grazing material."
Radical patience yields impressive results.
It’s not always easy to try something a little out of the ordinary, or a bit against the grain of popular practice, but I commend you for even thinking about the idea. At the very least, it may give you pause to how you stock your tank in the future, like "Herbivores first, micro predators last", or whatever thought you subscribe to.
Allow your system to mature and develop at least some populations of fauna for these fishes to supplement their diets with. You’ll develop a whole new appreciation for how an aquarium evolves when you take this long, but very cool road.
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
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.
A big thought about our botanical-style aquariums:
The aquarium-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-style aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.
Oh, the part about the biofilms and fungal growths sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Let's talk about our buddies, the biofilms, just a bit more. One more time. Because nothing seems as contrary to many hobbyists than to sing the praises of these gooey-looking strands of bacterial goodness!
Structurally, biofilms are surprisingly strong structures, which offer their colonial members "on-board" nutritional sources, exchange of metabolites, protection, and cellular communication. They form extremely rapidly on just about any hard surface that is submerged in water.
When I see aquarium work in which biofilms are considered a "nuisance", and suggestions that it can be eliminated by "reducing nutrients" in the aquarium, I usually cringe. Mainly, because no matter what you do, biofilms are ubiquitous, and always present in our aquariums. We may not see the famous long, stringy "snot" of our nightmares, but the reality is that they're present in our tanks regardless.
The other reality is that biofilms are something that we as aquarists typically fear because of the way they look. In and of themselves, biofilms are not harmful to our fishes. They function not only as a means to sequester and process nutrients ( a "filter" of sorts?), they also represent a beneficial food source for fishes.
Now, look, I can see rare scenarios where massive amounts of biofilms (relative to the water volume of the aquarium) can consume significant quantities of oxygen and be problematic for the fishes which reside in your tank. These explosions in biofilm growth are usually the result of adding too much botanical material too quickly to the aquarium. They're excaserbated by insufficient oxygenation/circulation within the aquarium.
These are very unusual circumstances, resulting from a combination of missteps by the aquarist.
Typically, however, biofilms are far more beneficial that they are reven emotely detrimental to our aquariums.
Nutrients in the water column, even when in low concentrations, are delivered to the biofilm through the complex system of water channels, where they are adsorbed into the biofilm matrix, where they become available to the individual cells. Some biologists feel that this efficient method of gathering energy might be a major evolutionary advantage for biofilms which live in particularly in turbulent ecosystems, like streams, (or aquariums, right?) with significant flow, where nutrient concentrations are typically lower and quite widely dispersed.
Biofilms have been used successfully in water/wastewater treatment for well over 100 years! In such filtration systems the filter medium (typically, sand) offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the microbes to attach to, and to feed upon the organic material in the water being treated. The formation of biofilms upon the "media" consume the undesirable organics in the water, effectively "filtering" it!
Biofilm acts as an adsorbent layer, in which organic materials and other nutrients are concentrated from the water column. As you might suspect, higher nutrient concentrations tend to produce biofilms that are thicker and denser than those grown in low nutrient concentrations.
Those biofilms which grow in higher flow environments, like streams, rivers, or areas exposed to wave action, tend to be denser in their morphology. These biofilms tend to form long, stringy filaments or "streamers",which point in the direction of the flow. These biofilms are characterized by characteristic known as "viscoelasticity." This means that they are flexible, and stretch out significantly in higher flow rate environments, and contract once again when the velocity of the flow is reduced.
Okay, that's probably way more than you want to know about the physiology of biofilms! Regardless, it's important for us as botanical-style aquarists to have at least a rudimentary understanding of these often misunderstood, incredibly useful, and entirely under-appreciated life forms.
And the whole idea of facilitating a microbiome in our aquariums is predicated upon supplying a quantity of botanical materials- specifically, leaf litter, for the beneficial organisms to colonize and begin the decomposition process. An interesting study I found by Mehering, et. al (2014) on the nutrient sequestration caused by leaf litter yielded this interesting little passage:
"During leaf litter decomposition, microbial biomass and accumulated inorganic materials immobilize and retain nutrients, and therefore, both biotic and abiotic drivers may influence detrital nutrient content."
The study determined that leaves such as oak "immobilized" nitrogen. Generally thinking, it is thought that leaf litter acts as a "sink" for nutrients over time in aquatic ecosystems.
Oh, and one more thing about leaves and their resulting detritus in tropical streams: Ecologists strongly believe that microbial colonized detritus is a more palatable and nutritious food source for detritivores than uncolonized dead leaves. The microbial growth which occurs on the leaves and their resulting detritus increases the nutritional quality of leaf detritus, because the microbial biomass on the leaves is more digestible than the leaves themselves (because of lignin, etc.).
Okay, great. I've just talked about decomposing leaves and stuff for like the 11,000th time in "The Tint"; so...where does this leave us, in terms of how we want to run our aquariums?
1) Add a significant amount of leaf litter, twigs, and botanicals to your aquarium as part of the substrate.
2) Allow biofilms and fungal growths to proliferate.
3) Feed your fishes well. It's actually "feeding the aquarium!"
4) Don't go crazy siphoning out every bit of detritus.
Let's look at each of these points in a bit more detail.
First, make liberal use of leaf litter in your aquarium. I'd build up a layer anywhere from 1"-4" of leaves. Yeah, I know- that's a lot of leaves. Initially, you'll have a big old layer of leaves, recruiting biofilms and fungal growths on their surfaces. Ultimately, it will decompose, creating a sort of "mulch" on the bottom of your aquarium, rich in detritus, providing an excellent place for your fishes to forage among.
Allow a fair amount of indirect circulation over the top of your leaf litter bed. This will ensure oxygenation, and allow the organisms within the litter bed to receive an influx of water (and thus, the dissolved organics they utilize). Sure, some of the leaves might blow around from time to time- just like what happens in Nature. It's no big deal- really!
The idea of allowing biofilms and fungal growths to colonize your leaves and botanicals, and to proliferate upon them simply needs to be accepted as fundamental to botanical-style aquarium keeping. These organisms, which comprise the biome of our aquariums, are the most important "components" of the ecosystems which our aquariums are.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least touch on the idea of feeding your aquarium. Think about it: When you feed your fishes, you are effectively feeding all of the other life forms which comprise this microbiome. You're "feeding the aquarium." When fishes consume and eliminate the food, they're releasing not only dissolved organic wastes, but fecal materials, which are likely not fully digested. The nutritional value of partially digested food cannot be understated. Many of the organisms which live within the botanical bed and the resulting detritus will assimilate them.
Now, we could go on and on about this topic; there is SO much to discuss. However, let's just agree that feeding our fishes is another critical activity which provides not only for our fishes' well-being, but for the other life forms which create the ecology of the aquarium.
And, let's be clear about another thing: Detritus, the nemesis of many aquarists- is NOT our enemy. We've talked about this for several years now, and I cannot stress it enough: To remove every bit of detritus in our tanks is to deprive someone, somewhere along the food chain in our tanks, their nutritional source. And when you do that, imbalances occur...You know, the kinds which cause "nuisance algae" and those "anomalous tank crashes."
The definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material."
Shit, that's just bad branding.
The reality is that this not a "bad" thing. Detritus, like biofilms and fungi, is flat-out misunderstood in the hobby.
Could there be some "upside" to this stuff?
Of course there is.
I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."
It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.
This is really important. It's part of the biological operating system of our botanical-style aquariums. I cannot stress this enough.
Now, I realize that the idea of embracing this stuff- and allowing it to accumulate, or even be present in your system- goes against virtually everything we've been indoctrinated to believe in about aquarium husbandry. Pretty much every article you see on this stuff is about its "dangers", and how to get it out of your tank. I'll say it again- I think we've been looking at detritus the wrong way for a very long time in the aquarium hobby, perceiving it as an "enemy" to be feared, as opposed to the "biological catalyst" it really is!
In essence, it's organically rich particulate material that provides sustenance, and indeed, life to many organisms which, in turn, directly benefit our aquariums.
We've pushed this narrative many times here, and I still think we need to encourage hobbyists to embrace it more.
Okay, I'll admit that detritus, as we see it, may not be the most attractive thing to look at in our tanks. I'll give you that. It literally looks like a pile of shit! However, what we're talking about allowing to accumulate isn't just fish poop and uneaten food. It's broken-down materials- the end product of biological processing. And, yeah, a wide variety of organisms have become adapted to eat or utilize detritus.
There is, of course, a distinction.
One is the result of poor husbandry, and of course, is not something we'd want to accumulate in our aquariums. The other is a more nuanced definition.
As we talk about so much around here- just because something looks a certain way doesn't mean that it alwaysa bad thing, right?
What does it mean? Take into consideration why we add botanicals to our tanks in the first place. Now, you don't have to have huge piles of the stuff littering your sandy substrate. However, you could have some accumulating here and there among the botanicals and leaves, where it may not offend your aesthetic senses, and still contribute to the overall aquatic ecosystem you've created.
If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what really happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they" say in the books and hobby forums?
Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?
I think so. Like, almost always.
Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).
There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."
The following statement may hurt a few sensitive people. Consider it some "tough love" today:
If you're not a complete incompetent at basic aquarium husbandry, you won't have any issues with detritus being present in your aquarium.
Don't neglect regular water exchanges.
Don't fail to maintain your equipment.
Don't ignore what's happening in your tank.
This is truly not "rocket science." It's "Aquarium Keeping 101."
And it all comes full circle when we talk about "filtration" in our aquariums.
People often ask me, "What filter do you use use in a botanical-style aquarium?" My answer is usually that it just doesn't matter. You can use any type of filter. The reality is that, if allowed to evolve and grow unfettered, the aquarium itself- all of it- becomes the "filter."
You can embrace this philosophy regardless of the type of filter that you employ.
My sumps and integrated filter compartments in my A.I.O. tanks are essentially empty.
I may occasionally employ some activated carbon in small amounts, or throw some "Shade" sachets in there if I am feeling it- but that's it. The way I see it- these areas, in a botanical-style aquarium, simply provide more water volume, more gas exchange; a place for bacterial attachment (surface area), and perhaps an area for botanical debris to settle out. Maybe I'll remove them, if only to prevent them from slowing down the flow rate of my return pumps.
But that's it.
A lot of people are initially surprised by this. However, when you look at it in the broader context of botanical style aquariums as miniature ecosystems, it all really makes sense, doesn't it? The work of these microorganisms and other life forms takes place throughout the aquarium.
I admit, there was a time when I was really fanatical about making sure every single bit of detritus and fish poop and all that stuff was out of my tanks. About undetectable nitrate. I was especially like that in my earlier days of reef keeping, when it was thought that cleanliness was the shit!
It wasn't until years into my reef keeping work, and especially in my coral propagation work, that I begin to understand the value of food, and the role the it plays in aquatic ecosystems as a whole. And that "food" means different things to different aquatic organisms. The idea of scrubbing and removing every single trace of what we saw as "bad stuff" from our grow-out raceways essentially deprived the corals and supporting organisms of an important natural food source.
We'd fanatically skim and remove everything, only to find out that...our corals didn't look all that good. We'd compensate by feeding more heavily, only to continue to remove any traces of dissolved organics from the water...
It was a constant struggle- the metaphorical "hamster wheel"- between keeping things "clinically clean" and feeding our animals. We were super proud of our spotless water. We had a big screen when you came into our facility showing the parameters in each raceway. Which begged the question: Were we interested in creating sterile water, or growing corals?
Eventually, it got through my thick skull that aquariums- just like the wild habitats they represent-are not spotless environments, and that they depend on multiple inputs of food, to feed the biome at all levels. This meant that scrubbing the living shit (literally) out of our aquariums was denying the very biotia which comprised our aquariums their most basic needs.
That little "unlock" changed everything for me.
Suddenly, it all made sense.
This has carried over into the botanical-style aquarium concept: It's a system that literally relies on the biological material present in the system to facilitate food production, nutrient assimilation, and reproduction of life forms at various trophic levels.
It's changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems.
It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.
It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the asshole on Instagram with the flashy, gadget-driven tank. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.
It's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons.
It's about nuance.
It's about looking at things a bit different that we've been "programmed" to do in the aquarium hobby for so long. It's about not being afraid to question the reasons why we do things a certain way in the hobby, and to seek ways to evolve and change practices for the benefits of our fishes.
It takes time to grasp this stuff. However, as with so many things that we talk about here, it's not revolutionary...it's simply an evolution in thinking about how we conceive, set up, and manage our aquariums.
Sure, the aquairum is a "filter" of sorts, if you want to label it as such. However, it's so much more: A small, evolving ecosystem, relying on natural processes to bring it to life.
Wrap you head around that.
It might just change everything in the hobby for you.
Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
As you know, we've spent the better part of the past 6 years talking about every aspect of the botanical-style aquarium that we can think of. We've talked about techniques, approaches, ideas, etc. And we've spent a lot of time sharing information about wild aquatic habitats that we might be interested in replicating in both form and function.
However, I think we haven't spent as much time as we should talking about how botanicals "behave" in wild aquatic habitats. Much of this stuff has implications for those of us who are interested in replicating these habitats in our aquariums. So, let's dive in a bit more on this topic today!
Among the trees of the flooded forests, after the fruits mature (which occurs at high water levels), seeds will fall into the water and may float on the surface or be submerged for a number of weeks. Ecologists believe that the seed production of the trees coincides with the flood pulses, which facilitates their dispersal by water movement, and by the actions of fish.
Interestingly, scientists postulate that these floating or sinking seeds, which germinate and establish seedlings after the flood waters recede, do very well, sprouting and establishing themselves quickly, and are not severely affected by waterlogging in most species.
So, within their cycle of life, the trees take advantage of the water as part of their ecological adaptation. Trees in these areas have developed specialized morphologies, such as advantageous roots, butress systems and stilt roots.
In a lot of wild aquatic habitats where leaf litter and other allochthonous materials accumulate, there are a number of factors which control the density, size, and type of materials which are deposited in streams and such. The flow rate of the water within these habitats determines a lot of things, such as the size of the leaves and other botanical materials and where in the stream they are deposited.
I often wonder how much the fallen leaves and seed pods impact the water chemistry in a given stream, pond, or section of an Amazonian flooded forest. I know that studies have been done in which ecologists have measured dissolved oxygen and conductivity, as well as pH. However, those readings only give us so much information.
We hear a lot of discussion about blackwater habitats among hobbyists, and the implications for our aquariums. And part of the game here is understanding what it is that makes this a blackwater river system to begin with. We often hear that blackwater is "low in nutrients."
What exactly does this mean?
One study concluded that the Rio Negro is a blackwater river in large part because the very low nutrient concentrations of the soils that drain into it have arisen as a result of "several cycles of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation." In other words, there's not a whole lot of minerals and nutrients left in the soils to dissolve into the water to any meaningful extent!
Black-waters, drain from older rocks in areas like the Negro river, result from dissolved fulvic and humic substances, present small amounts of suspended sediment, lower pH (4.0 to 6.0) and dissolved elements. Yes, highly leached tropical environments where most of the soluble elements are quickly removed by heavy rainfall.
Perhaps...another reason (besides the previously cited limitation of light penetration) why aquatic plants are rather scare in these waters? It would appear that the bulk of the nutrients found in these blackwaters are likely dissolved into the aquatic environment by decomposing botanical materials, such as leaves, branches, etc.
Why does that sound familiar?
Besides the color, of course, the defining characteristics of blackwater rivers are pH values in the range of 4-5, low electrical conductivity, and minimal mineral content. Dissolved minerals, such as Ca, Mg, K, and Na are negligible. And with these low amounts of dissolved minerals come unique challenges for the animals who reside in these systems.
How do fishes survive and thrive in these rather extreme habitats?
It's long been known that fishes are well adapted to their natural habitats, particularly the more extreme ones. And this was borne out in a recent study of the Cardinal Tetra. Lab results suggest that humic substances protect cardinal tetras in the soft, acidic water in which they resides by preventing excessive sodium loss and stimulating calcium uptake to ensure proper homeostasis.
This is pretty extraordinary, as the humic substances found in the water actually enable the fishes to survive in this highly acidic water which is devoid of much mineral content typically needed for fishes to survive!
And of course, botanicals, leaves, and wood typically have an abundance of these humic substances, right? They are useful for more than just an interesting and unique aesthetic effect! There is a lot of room for research about influencing the overall environment in our aquariums here! I think we've barely scratched the surface of the potential for utilizing botanicals in our aquariums.
This is another one of those foundational aspects of the natural style of aquarium that we espouse. The understanding that processes like decomposition and physical transformation of the materials that we utilize our tanks are normal, expected, and beautiful things requires us to make mental shifts.
Botanical materials don't have nearly as much impact on the water parameters (other than say, conductivity and dissolved oxygen) as the soils do. These waters have high concentrations of humic and fulvic acids derived from sandy "hydromorphic podsols" prevalent in the region. However, these allochthonous materials have huge impact on the ecology of these systems!
Leaf litter, as one might suspect, is of huge importance in these ecosystems. Especially in smaller tributaries. In one study which I came across, it was concluded that, "The smaller the stream, the more dependent the biota is on leaf litter habitats and allocthonous energy derived directly or indirectly from the forest." (Kemenes and Forsberg)
From the same study, it was concluded that the substrate of the aquatic habitat had significant influence on the feeding habits of the fishes which resided in them:
"The biomass of allocthonous insectivore increased in channels with a higher percentage of sandy bottom substrate. Detritivorous insectivore biomass, in contrast, increased significantly in channels with a higher percentage of leaf substrate. General insectivores tended to increase in streams with higher proportions of leafy substrate, too.
Whats the implication for us as hobbyists? Well, for one thing, we can set up the benthic environment in our tanks to represent the appropriate environment for the fishes which we want to keep in them. Simple as that!
t's as much about function as anything else. And, about pushing into some new directions. The unorthodox aesthetics of these unusual aquariums we play with just happen to be an interesting "by-product" of theirfunction.
I personally think that almost every botanical-style aquarium can benefit from the presence of leaves. As we've discussed numerous times, leaves are the "operating system" of many natural habitats (ecology-wise), and perform a similar role in the aquarium.
The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is fundamental. Leaves and other botanicals are extremely pervasive in almost every type of aquatic habitat.
In the tropical species of trees, the leaf drop is important to the surrounding environment. The nutrients are typically bound up in the leaves, so a regular release of leaves by the trees helps replenish the minerals and nutrients which are typically depleted from eons of leaching into the surrounding forests.
Now, interestingly enough, most tropical forest trees are classified as "evergreens", and don't have a specific seasonal leaf drop like the "deciduous" trees than many of us are more familiar with do...Rather, they replace their leaves gradually throughout the year as the leaves age and subsequently fall off the trees.
The implication here?
There is a more-or-less continuous "supply" of leaves falling off into the jungles and waterways in these habitats, which is why you'll see leaves at varying stages of decomposition in tropical streams. It's also why leaf litter banks may be almost "permanent" structures within some of these bodies of water!
Our botanical-style aquariums are not "set-and-forget" systems, and require basic maintenance (water exchanges, regular water testing, filter media replacement/cleaning), like any other aquarium. They do have one unique "requirement" as part of their ongoing maintenance which other types of aquariums seem to nothave: The "topping off" of botanicals as they break down.
The "topping off" of botanicals in your tank accomplishes a number of things: first, it creates a certain degree of environmental continuity- keeping things consistent from a "botanical capacity" standpoint. Over time, you have the opportunity to establish a "baseline" of water parameters, knowing how many of what to add to keep things more-or-less consistent, which could make the regular "topping off" of botanicals a bit more of a "science" in addition to an "art."
In addition, it keeps a consistent aesthetic "vibe" in your aquarium. Consistent, in that you can keep the sort of "look" you have, while making subtle- or even less-than-subtle "enhancements" as desired.
And, of course, "topping off" botanicals helps keeps you more intimately "in touch" with your aquarium, much in the same way a planted tank enthusiast would by trimming plants, or a reefer while making frags. When you're actively involved in the "operation" of your aquarium, you simply notice more. You can also learn more; appreciate the subtle, yet obvious changes which arise on an almost daily basis in our botanical-style aquariums.
I dare say that one of the things I enjoy doing most with my blackwater, botanical-style aquariums (besides just observing them, of course) is to "top off" the botanical supply from time to time. I feel that it not only gives me a sense of "actively participating" in the aquarium- it provides a sense that you're doing something nature has done for eons; something very "primal" and essential. Even the prep process is engaging.
Think about the materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and how they actually end up in them, and it makes you think about this in a very different context. A more "holistic" context that can make your experience that much more rewarding. Botanicals should be viewed as "consumables" in our hobby- much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- they simply don't last indefinitely.
Many seed pods and similar botanicals contain a substance known as lignin. Lignin is defined as a group of organic polymers which are essentially the structural materials which support the tissues of vascular plants. They are common in bark, wood, and yeah- seed pods, providing protection from rotting and structural rigidity.
In other words, they make seed pods kinda tough.
Yet, not permanent.
That being said, they are typically broken down by fungi and bacteria in aquatic environments. Inputs of terrestrial materials like leaf litter and seed pods into aquatic habitats can leach dissolved organic carbon (DOC), rich in lignin and cellulose. Factors like light intensity, mineral hardness, and the composition of the aforementioned bacterial /fungal community all affect the degree to which this material is broken down into its constituent parts in this environment.
Hmm...something we've kind of known for a while, right?
So, lignin is a major component of the "stuff" that's leached into our aquatic environments, along with that other big "player"- tannin.
Tannins, according to chemists, are a group of "astringent biomolecules" that bind to and precipitate proteins and other organic compounds. They're in almost every plant around, and are thought to play a role in protecting the plants from predation and potentially aid in their growth. As you might imagine, they are super-abundant in...leaves. In fact, it's thought that tannins comprise as much as 50% of the dry weight of leaves!
And of course, tannins in leaves, wood, soils, and plant materials tend to be highly water soluble, creating our beloved blackwater as they decompose. As the tannins leach into the water, they create that transparent, yet darkly-stained water we love so much!
In simplified terms, blackwater tends to occur when the rate of "carbon fixation" (photosynthesis) and its partial decay to soluble organic acids exceeds its rate of complete decay to carbon dioxide (oxidation).
Chew on that for a bit...Try to really wrap your head around it...
And sometimes, the research you do on these topics can unlock some interesting tangential information which can be applied to our work in aquairums...
Interesting tidbit of information from science: For those of you weirdos who like using wood, leaves and such in your aquariums, but hate the brown water (yeah, there are a few of you)- you can add baking soda to the water that you soak your wood and such in to accelerate the leaching process, as more alkaline solutions tend to draw out tannic acid from wood than pH neutral or acidic water does. Or you can simply keep using your 8.4 pH tap water!
"ARMCHAIR SPECULATION": This might be a good answer to why some people can't get the super dark tint they want for the long term...If you have more alkaline water, those tannins are more quickly pulled out. So you might get an initial burst, but the color won't last all that long...
I think just having a bit more than a superficial understanding of the way botanicals and other materials interact with the aquatic environment, and how we can embrace and replicate these systems in our own aquariums is really important to the hobby. The real message here is to not be afraid of learning about seemingly complex chemical and biological nuances of blackwater systems, and to apply some of this knowledge to our aquatic practice.
It can seem a bit intimidating at first, perhaps even a bit contrarian to "conventional aquarium practice", but if you force yourself beyond just the basic hobby-oriented material out there on these topics (hint once again: There aren't many!), there is literally a whole world of stuff you can learn about!
It starts by simply looking at Nature as an overall inspiration...
Wondering why the aquatic habitats we're looking at appear the way they do, and what processes create them. And rather than editing out the "undesirable" (by mainstream aquarium hobby standards) elements, we embrace as many of the elements as possible, try to figure out what benefits they bring, and how we can recreate them functionally in our closed aquarium systems.
There are no "flaws" in Nature's work, because Nature doesn't seek to satisfy observers. It seeks to evolve and change and grow. It looks the way it does because it's the sum total of the processes which occur to foster life and evolution.
We as hobbyists need to evolve and change and grow, ourselves.
We need to let go of our long-held beliefs about what truly is considered "beautiful." We need to study and understand the elegant way Nature does things- and just why natural aquatic habitats look the way they do. To look at things in context. To understand what kinds of outside influences, pressures, and threats these habitats face.
And, when we attempt replicate these functions in our aquariums, we're helping to grow this unique segment of the aquarium hobby.
Please make that effort to continue to educate yourself and get really smart about this stuff...And share what you learn on your journey- all of it- the good and the occasional bad. It helps grow the hobby, foster a viable movement, and helps your fellow hobbyists!
Stay studious. Stay thoughtful. Stay inquisitive. Stay creative. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.
It's kind of fun to make little "tweaks" or adjustments to our aquarium methodology or approaches to how we do certain things. This is what pushes the state of the art in aquaristics further down the road. Now, not every one of these adjustments is a quantum leap forward, at least, not initially. Many are simply subtle iterations of things we've played with before.
One of our fave approaches, sort of derived out of our "Urban Igapo" work, has been to "dry set" the aquarium. A sort of technique I call the "transitional approach."
Basically, all you're doing is adding the prepared botanicals and leaves to your aquarium before it's filled, and spraying them down with water and our sprayable Purple Non-Sulphur bacterial inoculant, "Nurture" to kick-start the biological processes. Let it sit. Spray it down daily.
Then fill it.
Unlike in our "Urban Igapo" approach, you're not trying to grow terrestrial grasses or plants during the "dry phase." You're simply creating and managing what will ultimately be the submerged habitat in your aquarium for a while before filling it.
I've done this a number of times and had great results.
Stupidly simple. Yet, profoundly different.
Because, rather than our "traditional" approach of adding the botanicals and leaves to the aquarium after it's already filled, you're sort of replicating what happens in Nature in the wild when forest floors and other terrestrial environments are inundated by overflowing streams and rivers.
The thing I like about this approach (besides how it replicates what happens in the wild) is that it gives you the ability to really saturate and soften the botanicals and leaves, and to begin the process of decomposition and bacterial colonization before you add the water.
When do you fill the aquarium?
You can wait a few days, a week or two, or as long s you'd like, really. The idea is to get the materials physically placed, and to begin the process of colonization and "softening" by fungi and bacterial biofilms- known as "conditioning" by ecologists who study these habitats.
And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals will contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats. And look at this little gem I found in my research:
"There is evidence that detritivores selectively feed on conditioned leaves, i.e. those previously colonized by fungi (Suberkropp, 1992; Graca, 1993). Fungi can alter the food quality and palatability of leaf detritus, aecting shredder growth rates. Animals that feed on a diet rich in fungi have higher growth rates and fecundity than those fed on poorly colonized leaves. Some shredders prefer to feed on leaves that are colonized by fungi, whereas others consume fungal mycelium selectively..."
"Conditioned" leaves, in this context, are those which have been previously colonized by fungi! They make the energy within the leaves and botanicals more available to higher organisms like fishes and invertebrates!
We've long maintained that the appearance of biofilms and fungi on your botanicals and wood are to be celebrated- not feared. They represent a burgeoning emergence of life -albeit in one of its lowest and most unpleasant-looking forms- and that's a really big deal.
"Oh shit, he's going to talk about biofilms AGAIN!"
Well, just for a second.
Biofilms, as we probably all know by now, form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals. It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer.
The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together. Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.
It's a literal explosion of life. It's a gift from Nature. And we can all receive it and benefit from it!
Another advantage of this approach? The traditional "cycling" time of a new tank seems to go much faster. Almost undetectable, in many of my experiments. I can only hypothesize and assume that it's likely a result of all of the bacterial growth in the "terrestrial" phase, and the concurrent "conditioning" of the botanical materials.
Tannin's creative Director, Johnny Ciotti, calls this period of time when the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive "The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!
The real positive takeaway here: Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.
So, what about the botanicals?
The idea of utilizing botanicals in the aquarium can be whatever you want, sure. However, if you ask me (and you likely didn't)- the idea of utilizing these materials in our tanks has always been to create unique environmental conditions and foster a biome of organisms which work together to form a closed microcosm. That is incredible to me.
And the idea of "dry setting" your botanical materials and sort of "conditioning" them before adding the water, this "transitional approach", while not exactly some "revolutionary" thing, IS an evolutionary step in the development of botanical-style aquarium keeping.
The "transitional approach" is definitely a bit different than what we've done in the past, and may create a more stable, more biologically diverse aquarium, because you're already fostering a biome of organisms which will make the transition to the aquatic habitat and "do their thing" that much more quickly.
This IS unique.
We're talking about actually allowing some of the decomposition to start before water is ever added to our tanks. It's a functional approach, requiring understanding, research, and patience to execute. There's really nothing difficult about it.
And the aesthetics? They're going to be different than what you're used to, no doubt. They will follow as a result of the process, and will resemble, on a surprisingly realistic level, what you see in Nature.
But the primary reason is NOT for aesthetics...
The interactions and interdependencies between terrestrial and aquatic habitats are manifold, beneficial, and quite compelling to us as hobbyists. To be able to study this dynamic first hand, and to approach it somewhat methodically, is a significant change in our technique.
And yeah, it's almost absurdly easy to do.
The hard part is that it requires a bit more patience; not everyone will see the advantages, or value, and the trade-off between waiting to fill your tank and filling it immediately. It may not be one that some are willing to make.
If you do, however, you will get to see, firsthand, the fascinating dynamic between the aquatic and the terrestrial environment in a most intimate way.
It could change your thinking about how we set up aquariums.
At the most superficial level, it's an acknowledgement that, after many decades, we as hobbyists are acknowledging and embracing this terrestrial-aquatic dynamic. It's a really unique approach, because it definitely goes against the typical "aquatic only" approach that we are used to.
When you consider that many aquatic habitats start out as terrestrial ones, and accumulate botanical materials and provide colonization points for various life forms, and facilitate biological processes like nutrient export and production of natural food resources, the benefits are pretty obvious. Again, the "different aesthetics" simply come along as "part of the package"- both in Nature and in the aquarium.
Replicating this process and managing it in the aquarium also provides us as hobbyists highly unique insights into the function of these habitats.
From a hobby perspective, evolving and managing a closed ecosystem is really something that we should take to easily.
Setting up an aquarium in this fashion also provides us with the opportunity to literally "operate" our botanical-style aquariums; that is, to manage their evolution over time through deliberate steps and practices is not entirely unknown to us as aquarium hobbyists.
It's not at all unlike what we do with planted aquarium or reef aquarium. In fact, the closest analog to this approach is the so-called "dry start" approach to planted aquariums, except we're trying to grow bacteria and other organisms instead of plants.
Yes, it's an evolution.
Simply, a step forward out of the artificially-induced restraints of "this is how it's always been done"- even in our own "methodology"- yet another exploration into what the natural environment is REALLY like, how it evolves, and how it works- and understanding, embracing and appreciating its aesthetics, functionality, and richness.
Earth-shattering? Not likely.
Educational? For sure.
Thought provoking and fun? Absolutely.
A simple, yet I think profound "tweak" to our approach.
Stay curious. Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay observant. Stay creative.
And Stay Wet.
As you know, we receive a lot of questions around here about all sorts of aquarium-related topics. Usually, my answer is directly to the individual who asked, in the form of an email or DM. Sometimes, however, the answer is such that it is best addressed in the form of a blog post!
Recently, a hobbyist asked me what my opinion was of the botanical-style aquarium as a type of "aquascaping approach", and how it fits in the overall aquascaping "universe." Exactly what our "thing" is...
First, I start with my assertion that the botanical-style aquarium is NOT an aquascaping "style"- it's a methodology to create a more natural-functioning aquarium by utilizing botanical materials to "fuel" the process. The look is a "collateral benefit" of the methodology.
I admit, I've never really been much of an "aquascaper."
You know- those hobbyists who can take a few rocks and a piece or two of wood and turn them into some sort of amazing design. That takes amazing talent and vision. And I made peace with that decades ago! I greatly admire those true artists who can employ all sorts of technique, color-coordination, and ratio and such snd come up with some incredible stuff with seeming ease.
On the other hand, I look at a lot of aquascaping work, admire the effort and talent and such, and then get this feeling in my gut that I can't always explain. Well, I can, but it's not always...nice. Like, I look at many "modern scapes" and just kind of...yawn.
Ouch, I'm sounding like a proper asshole, I know.
But seriously, it's not that I think their work is shitty or something...I just find the "styles" of many of the beautiful tanks out there which the world goes crazy over to be just a bit..boring. Or, should I say- not my taste. Yeah, that's better.
It's weird, I do like certain planted tanks that just blow me away. Our friend, George Farmer, does amazing planted 'scapes which I would happily have in my own home if I had the talent. I love the work of our own Johnny Ciotti- a guy who was trained as a classic "Nature Aquarium Style" 'scaper, yet, a true artist who can take botanical elements and create stunning botanical-style aquariums with ease. Jeff Sense of Aquarium Design Group is another person who can work with just about any "media" you give him- rocks, wood, plants- and crank out something that is unmistakingly original, dynamic, and gorgeous.
I'll never be as talented as those guys. And I'm perfectly okay with that. I'm comfortable in my own skin. And it's largely because, a long time ago, I found what I truly love, and work with that. I think we should all have that degree of comfort with what we love. Sadly, many hobbyists don't- and feel that-in order to be considered "talented" or whatever- that they have to embrace a certain style or technique.
I often think about the so-called "diorama style" tanks that pop up in contests, and are all over Instagram or whatever. They require enormous talent to execute, but they're far more "art" than they are "natural aquariums", I suppose. And I guess that's what gets me- these weird fantasy scapes have live plants and glued-together rock and wood and stuff, but they are anything but "natural", IMHO.
I guess what gets me is that the aquascaping world lauds these scapes as "the shit"- and sure, they are fantastic- amazing work. When they're called "natural", that sends shivers down my spine...I mean, doesn't Nature offer scenes that are equally as complex, interesting, and challenging to pull off? And, with the added bonus that you can replicate the function of these habitats, I can't see why you don't see more representations of flooded forests, vernal pools, Pantanal meadows, etc. in the major aquascaping contests.
I imagine how amazing a tank one of those diorama-style 'scapers could pull off if he/she tried to replicate an actual aquatic habitat as found in Nature. With there talent and ability to bring a vision to life....wow! I mean, sure, such a tank won't have a beach scene, winding road into a forest, or a mountain range, or any of that other cliche stuff- but it will have all of the amazing vibrancy and intricate structure of natural aquatic habitats. The possibilities are endless.
I've postulated about why we don't see more of these things in contests..
However, the benefits of entering tanks like this would be many, including calling attention to the wonders of the natural world, and the precious wild habitats which are often threatened by human activities.
I think that a good part of the reason is that these natural habitats aren't "tight" from a design standpoint. They don't -on the surface, at least-seem to require any "discipline" in order to replicate. You have to cede a certain amount of your work to Nature. I think that freaks out a lot of artistic aquascapers.
Nature, and Her many ecological niches and features, provides an endless array of habitats to recreate in the home aquarium. And my "POV" has always been to look at these niches, figure out how and why they formed, and why they look the way that they do. By researching the processes which helped create the habitat, I'm challenged to create an aquarium which attempts to replicate both the form and the function of it.
Some of these habitats are not what you'd expect to see in an aquairum. They look- and function- fundamentally different from what we've worked with before.
Some of the aesthetics of these wild habitats freaks people out. They look so...random...so...undisciplined, if we were to ascribe artistic terms to them. It's a world where we set up the system to allow Nature to do the "finishing" work. It require s a certain trust in natural processes, and the ability to let go. The ability to realize that what we see is a "finished product" is only the very beginning.
"The Delta at the intersection between science and art.”
That's where I play.
I like it here. A lot of you do, too.
This "not quite a biotope aquarium" and "not quite an artistic aquascape" thing is the perfect "sweet spot" for my interest, attention, and skills. And I think it's the place where I can be most useful to the hobby. Biotope-inspired, I suppose. A more forgiving, easygoing "style" which places function over aesthetics, yet somehow always leads to something that I find aesthetically pleasing.
It's a strange, yet wonderful place, where I've made the many "mental shifts" that allow me to enjoy the beauty and elegance of stuff like decomposing leaves, sediment, biofilms, fungal growths, random aggregations of leaves, etc. A place where much of the attraction is because the aquariums I create are intended to let Nature do some of the work.
If I were forced (and yeah, "forced" is the right word, because there are no defining "rules" here...no way) to offer some defining characteristics of the "botanical-style" aquarium, I'd say that a certain "randomness", actually, is it.
I mean, we're all about replicating what happens in Nature, NOT about perfectly proportioned placements and such. Now, I must admit, some of the world-class aquascapers that have worked with our botanicals have applied these concepts to these types of aquariums and have produced stunning results.
However, I think the "raw" botanical aquarium "essence" is about a certain degree of randomness.
I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a scene like the ones we're talking about starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept of "mise en scene", where pieces literally set the stage and help tell a story by providing context.
Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in nature.
I suppose this little rant could be viewed as a "defense" our "style", which on occasion has been criticized as "sloppy", "lazy", "undisciplined", etc...😆
Perhaps it is to some. However, I think it serves to re-examine what I feel is one of the foundational philosophies of the botanical-style aquarium "aesthetic."
I must confess, it's an aesthetic which certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, many in the mainstream aquascaping world tended to levy all sorts of "constructive criticisms" and "Yeah, but..." comments about our practices and ideas for a while...Less these days, BTW!
And that is part of the attraction of this the of aquarium for me. Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for very basic initial design, and lets Mother Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.
I think that there is a certain hunger for something different in the hobby right now. I feel that we've dedicated most of this century to figuring out ways to push back against Nature's processes. We've spent a tremendous amount of time looking for ways to remove things that we don't feel belong in our tanks: Algae, biofilms, decomposition, etc. Stuff that we, as a hobby, feel to be unwelcome, unattractive, and even "detrimental."
And quite honestly, I think we see these things as undesirable or "unsafe" because they are artifacts of outdated thinking...holdovers from a time when we felt that our technology gave us the edge to accomplish what Nature couldn't.
And of course, the reality is that the technology can accomplish some of these things, like nutrient export, heat control, circulation, etc.-but what really powers the miniature ecosystems which our aquariums actually are- is the microbiome: Fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, the process of decomposition, etc. Stuff which looks distasteful to many, yet stuff that is fundamental to the function-and yeah, the look- of our tanks.
It's not just a look. Not just an aesthetic. Not just a mindset...
It's a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much.
And, It's still early days.
A ground floor opportunity for every aquarist who gives this stuff a shot to make a meaningful- and beautiful contribution to the evolving state of the art of the botanical-style aquarium., and to share what Nature really looks like with people all over the world.
I'm fascinated by the "mental adjustments" that we need to make to accept the aesthetic and the processes of natural decay, fungal growth, the appearance of biofilms, and how these affect what's occurring in the aquarium. It's all a complex synergy of life and aesthetic.
And we have to accept Nature's input here.
Nature dictates the speed by which this decomposition process occurs. We set the stage for it- but Nature is in full control. As an aquarist with a botanical-style aquarium, it's our "job" to observe and know when- or if- to intervene by adding or removing botanicals as they break down.
The great Takashi Amano's whole idea in a nutshell was to replicate Nature to a certain extent by accepting it and laying a conceptual groundwork for it to unfold. (Just look at all of the pics of grassy fields and moss-covered fenceposts in Amano's books. He got it. He felt something.) Now, granted, his general aesthetic involved plants and what seems to be a natural-looking aquascape, although executed in an intentionally artistic way.
There is nothing wrong with this. Some of the world's most beautiful aquariums were/are created this way.
However, what I noticed over time in the freshwater world was an almost obsessive, rigid adherence to certain parts of Amano's formula and aesthetic; specifically, ratios, placement of hardscape and plants, and a certain type of aesthetic formula that one had to replicate in order to gain legitimacy or "acceptance" from the community.
I really don't think it was Amano's intent.
"Wabi-sabi", the Japanese philosophy which embraces the ephemeral nature of the existence of things, was/is a key concept in Amano's approach, and it still is.
I think it's fallen into a bit of "disuse", though, in the "Nature Aquarium" movement, as aquarists aspired to replicate the style proffered in his works, perhaps trying to by-pass what seemed to be a less exciting -or less immediately rewarding- part of his approach.
I think that this is why we have some many "diorama-style" tanks in competitions, with "details" like twigs and roots glued to wood...and I also think it's why we see more and more serious aquascapers taking another look at a more realistic type of aquarium utilizing botanicals. Aquariums which embrace decay, detritus, biofilms, and a less "ratio-centric", more "random" natural look.
I think many aquascapers are simply tired of overly-stylized and are leaning back into a truly more natural look. And maybe...perhaps- they're starting to come around to the idea of "functional aesthetics', too!
A less rigidly aesthetically-controlled, less "high-concept" approach to setting the stage for...Nature- to do what she's done for eons without doing as much to "help it along." Rather, the mindset here is to allow nature to take it's course, and to embrace the breakdown of materials, the biofilms, the decay...and rejoice in the ever-changing aesthetic and functional aspects of a natural aquatic system- "warts and all" -and how they can positively affect our fishes.
Wabi-Sabi? Yeah, I think so. I think we embody the concept beautifully.
The initial skepticism and resistance to the idea of an aquarium filled with biofilms, decomposition, and tinted water has given way to enormous creativity and discovery. Our community has (rather easily, I might add!) accepted the idea that Nature will follow a certain "path"- parts of which are aesthetically different than anything we've allowed to occur in our tanks before- and rather than attempting to mitigate, edit, or thwart it, we're celebrating it!
I think this is where Tannin Aquatics falls, if you had to nail us down into one specific "stylistic/philosphical approach" to aquariums.
The "space between", so to speak. Sort of straddling multiple approaches, with Nature as the ultimate "critic."
This can take us to some really cool places.
Let's go there.
Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
Even with the exploding popularity of botanical-style aquariums, I still receive many questions from hobbyists unfamiliar with our practice, asking what the purpose or benefit is of utilizing these materials in our tanks. I find myself repeating the mantra that this is not purely an aesthetic statement.
Utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquariums is not an aquascaping style; rather, it's a methodology for creating and managing a biologically diverse closed aquatic ecosystem.
There is also something very different about the way that our fishes behave when they are living in an environment which has an abundance of natural materials present.
I know, it sounds a bit weird, but it's true! We receive lots of comments about this. It's sort of an "intangible" that comes with using them in our tanks. And I suppose it makes a lot of sense, as the fishes are utilizing them much as they do in their wild habitats, for shelter, grazing, and spawning.
Now sure, in a tank devoid of natural materials like botanicals, fishes will utilize whatever materials are available to shelter among, graze, and even spawn (hello, "spawning cones" and cracked flower pots!). Yet, there is a certain "something" that's different when you use botanicals. You can just see it.
Of course, with botanical materials, you have the added benefit that they are natural materials, consisting of substances like lignin, and they can impart other compounds stored in their tissues, such as tannin and humic substances, into the surrounding water column. And many fishes feed directly on the botanicals themselves, or remove "biocover" from their surfaces.
Yeah, think about it:
The texture and chemical composition of the botanicals' exteriors is really well-suited for the recruitment and growth of biofilms and fungal populations- important for the biological diversity and "operating system" of the aquarium, as we've talked about numerous times here. This is such an easily overlooked benefit of using natural materials in the aquarium.
And of course, as we know, terrestrial botanical materials, when submerged in water for extended periods of time, decompose. If there is one aspect of our botanical-style aquariums which fascinates me above almost anything else, it's the way they facilitate the natural processes of life- specifically, decomposition.
Decomposition is fundamental to the botanical style aquarium.
We use this term a lot around here...What, precisely does it mean?
de·com·po·si·tion- dēˌkämpəˈziSH(ə)n -the process by which organic substances are broken down into simpler organic matter.
A very apt descriptor, if you ask me!
We add leaves and botanicals to our aquariums, and over time, they start to soften, break up, and ultimately, decompose. Decomposition of leaves and botanicals not only liberates the substances contained within them (lignin, organic acids, and tannins, just to name a few) into the water- it serves to nourish bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms and crustaceans, facilitating basic "food web" within the botanical-style aquarium, just like it does in Nature- if we allow it to!
PVC pipe sections, flower pots, and plastic plants can't do THAT!
Utilizing botanical materials and leaves in your tank, and leaving them in until they fully decompose is as much about your aesthetic preferences as it is long-term health of the aquarium.
It's a decision that each of us makes based on our tastes, management "style", and how much of a "mental shift" we've made into accepting the transient nature of materials in a botanical-style aquarium and its function. There really is no "right" or "wrong" answer here. It's all about how much you enjoy what happens in Nature versus what you can control in your tank. Nature will utilize them completely, as she does in the wild.
I tend to favor Nature, of course. But that's just me.
And of course, we can't ever lose sight of the fact that we're creating and adding to a closed aquatic ecosystem, and that our actions in how we manage our tanks must map to our ambitions, tastes, and the "regulations" that Nature imposes upon us.
Yes, anything that you add into your aquarium that begins to break down is bioload.
Everything that imparts proteins, organics, etc. into the water is something that you need to consider. However, it's always been my personal experience and opinion that, in an otherwise well-maintained aquarium, with regular attention to husbandry, stocking, and maintenance, the "burden" of botanicals in your water is surprisingly insignificant.
Even in test systems, where I intentionally "neglected" them by conducting sporadic water exchanges, once I hit my preferred "population" of botanicals (by buying them up gradually), I have never noticed significant phosphate or nitrate increases that could be attributed to their presence.
Understand that the process of decomposition is a fundamental, necessary function that occurs in our aquariums on a constant basis, and that botanicals are the "fuel" which drives this process. Realize that in the botanical-style aquarium, we are, on many levels, attempting to replicate the function of natural habitats- and botanical materials are just part of the equation.
And of course, these botanical materials not only offer unique natural aesthetics- they offer enrichment of the aquatic habitat through their release of tannins, humic acids, vitamins, etc. as they decompose- just as they do in Nature.
Leaves and such are simply not permanent additions to our 'scapes, and if we wish to enjoy them in their more "intact" forms, we will need to replace them as they start to break down. This is not a bad thing. It just requires us to "do some stuff" if we are expecting a specific aesthetic.
This is very much replicates the process which occur in Nature, doesn't it? Stuff like seed pods and leaves either remains "in situ" as part of the local habitat, or is pushed downstream by wind, current, etc. - and new materials continuously fall into the waters to replace the old ones.
Pretty much everything we do in a botanical-style blackwater aquarium has a "natural analog" to it!
Despite their impermanence, these materials function as diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to micro crustaceans and even epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches make up the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes that we're so fascinated by flourish.
Intangibles? Perhaps. Yet, highly beneficial and consequential ones, indeed.
Stay persistent. Stay bold. Stay consistent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.