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 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.
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.
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.
Yes, I admit that we talk about some rather obscure topics around here. Yet, many of these topics are actually pretty well known, and even well-understood by science. We just haven't consciously applied them to our aquarium work...yet.
One of the topics that we talk about a lot are food webs. To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.
So, what exactly is a food web?
A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community.
All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.
So, a trophic level in our case would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...
In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.
In many of the blackwater aquatic habitats that we're so obsessed with around here, like the Rio Negro, for example, studies by ecologists have determined that the main sources of autotrophic sources are the igapo, along with aquatic vegetation and various types of algae. (For reference, autotrophs are defined as organisms that produce complex organic compounds using carbon from simple substances, such as CO2, and using energy from light (photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.)
Hmm. examples would be phytoplankton!
Now, I was under the impression that phytoplankton was rather scarce in blackwater habitats. However, this indicates to scientists is that phytoplankton in blackwater trophic food webs might be more important than originally thought!
Now, lets get back to algae and macrophytes for a minute. Most of these life forms enter into food webs in the region in the form of...wait for it...detritus! Yup, both fine and course particular organic matter are a main source of these materials. I suppose this explains why heavy accumulations of detritus and algal growth in aquaria go hand in hand, right? Detritus is "fuel" for life forms of many kinds.
In Amazonian blackwater rivers, studies have determined that the aquatic insect abundance is rather low, with most species concentrated in leaf litter and wood debris, which are important habitats. Yet, here's how a food web looks in some blackwater habitats : Studies of blackwater fish assemblages indicated that many fishes feed primarily on burrowing midge larvae (chironomids, aka "Bloodworms" ) which feed mainly with organic matter derived from terrestrial plants!
And of course, allochtonous inputs (food items from outside of the ecosystem), like fruits, seeds, insects, and plant parts, are important food sources to many fishes. Many midwater characins consume fruits and seeds of terrestrial plants, as well as terrestrial insects.
Insects in general are really important to fishes in blackwater ecosystems. In fact, it's been concluded that the the first link in the food web during the flooding of forests is terrestrial arthropods, which provide a highly important primary food for many fishes.
These systems are so intimately tied to the surrounding terrestrial environment. Even the permanent rivers have a strong, very predictable "seasonality", which provides fruits, seeds, and other terrestrial-originated food resources for the fishes which reside in them. It's long been known by ecologists that rivers with predictable annual floods have a higher richness of fish species tied to this elevated rate of food produced by the surrounding forests.
And of course, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes. The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter!
Sounds familiar, huh?
So, how does a leaf break down? It's a multi-stage process which helps liberate its constituent compounds for use in the overall ecosystem. And one that is vital to the construction of a food web.
The first step in the process is known as leaching, in which nutrients and organic compounds, such as sugars, potassium, and amino acids dissolve into the water and move into the soil.The next phase is a form of fragmentation, in which various organisms, from termites (in the terrestrial forests) to aquatic insects and shrimps (in the flooded forests) physically break down the leaves into smaller pieces.
As the leaves become more fragmented, they provide more and more surfaces for bacteria and fungi to attach and grow upon, and more feeding opportunities for fishes!
Okay, okay, this is all very cool and hopefully, a bit interesting- but what are the implications for our aquariums? How can we apply lessons from wild aquatic habitats vis a vis food production to our tanks?
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides nutrient processing, and to some degree, a self-generating population of creatures with nutritional value for our fishes, on a more-or-less continuous basis.
Incorporating botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of creating the foundation for biological activity is the starting point. Leaves, seed pods, twigs and the like are not only "attachment points" for bacterial biofilms and fungal growths to colonize, they are physical location for the sequestration of the resulting detritus, which serves as a food source for many organisms, including our fishes.
Think about it this way: Every botanical, every leaf, every piece of wood, every substrate material that we utilize in our aquariums is a potential component of food production!
The initial setup of your botanical-style aquarium will rather easily accomplish the task of facilitating the growth of said biofilms and fungal growths. There isn't all that much we have to do as aquarists to facilitate this but to simply add these materials to our tanks, and allow the appearance of these organisms to happen.
You could add pure cultures of organisms such as Paramecium, Daphnia, species of copepods (like Cyclops), etc. to help "jump start" the process, and to add that "next trophic level" to your burgeoning food web.
In a perfect world, you'd allow the tank to "run in" for a few weeks, or even months if you could handle it, before adding your fishes- to really let these organisms establish themselves. And regardless of how you allow the "biome" of your tank to establish itself, don't go crazy "editing" the process by fanatically removing every trace of detritus or fragmented botanicals.
When you do that, you're removing vital "links" in the food chain, which also provide the basis for the microbiome of our aquariums, along with important nutrient processing.
So, to facilitate these aquarium food webs, we need to avoid going crazy with the siphon hose! Simple as that, really!
Yeah, the idea of embracing the production of natural food sources in our aquariums is elegant, remarkable, and really not all that surprising. They will virtually spontaneously arise in botanical-style aquariums almost as a matter of course, with us not having to do too much to facilitate it.
It's something that we as a hobby haven't really put a lot of energy in to over the years. I mean, we have spectacular prepared foods, and our understanding of our fishes' nutritional needs is better than ever.
Yet, there is something tantalizing to me about the idea of our fishes being able to supplement what we feed. In particular, fry of fishes being able to sustain themselves or supplement their diets with what is produced inside the habitat we've created in our tanks!
A true gift from Nature.
I think that we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts really have to get it into our heads that we are creating more than just an aesthetic display. We need to focus on the fact that we are creating functional microcosms for our fishes, complete with physical, environmental, and nutritional aspects.
Food production- supplementary or otherwise- is something that not only is possible in our tanks; it's inevitable.
I firmly believe that the idea of embracing the construction (or nurturing) of a "food web" within our aquariums goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the botanical-style aquarium. With the abundance of leaves and other botanical materials to "fuel" the fungal and microbial growth readily available, and the attentive husbandry and intellectual curiosity of the typical "tinter", the practical execution of such a concept is not too difficult to create.
We are truly positioned well to explore and further develop the concept of a "food web" in our own systems, and the potential benefits are enticing!
Work the web- in your own aquarium!
Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
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.
A couple of days back, I was chatting with a fellow hobbyist who wanted to jump in to something a bit different within the aquarium hobby, but was afraid of the possible consequences-both socially and in his aquariums. He feared criticism from "them", and that just froze him. I felt bad that he was so afraid of criticism from others should he question the "status quo" within the hobby.
Perhaps my story might be helpful to you if you're afraid of such criticisms.
For generations, we've been told in the aquarium hobby that we need to be concerned about the appearance of all kinds of stuff in our tanks, like algae, detritus, and "biocover".
For some strange reason, we as a hobby group seems emphasize stuff like understanding some biological processes, like the nitrogen cycle, yet we've also been told to devote a lot of resources to siphoning, polishing, and scrubbing our tanks to near sterility.
It's a strange dichotomy.
I remember the first few botanical-style tanks I created, almost two decades ago now, would hit that phase early on when biofilms and fungal growths began to appear, and I'd hear my friends telling me, "Yeah, your tank is going to turn into a big pile of shit. Told you that you can't put that stuff in there."
Because that's what they've been told. The prevailing mindset in the hobby was that the appearance of these organisms was an indication of an unsuitable aquarium environment.
Anyone who's studied basic ecology and biology understands that the complete opposite is true. The appearance of these valuable life forms is an indicator that your aquatic environment is ideal to foster a healthy, diverse community of aquatic organisms, including fishes!
Exactly like in Nature.
I remember telling myself that this is what I knew was going to happen. I knew how biofilms and fungal growths appear on "undefended" surfaces, and that they are essentially harmless life forms, exploiting a favorable environment. I knew that fungi appear as they help break down leaves and botanicals. I knew that these are perfectly natural occurrences, and that they typically are transitory and self-limiting to some extent.
Normal for this type of aquarium approach. I knew that they would go away, but I also knew that there would be a period of time when the tank might look like a big pool of slimy shit. Or, rather, it'd look like a pile of slimy shit to those who weren't familiar with these life forms, how they grow, and how the natural aquatic habitats we love so much actually function and appear!
To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were.
I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. It always was. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...
I never saw them.
I knew that there wouldn't be any issues, because I created my aquariums with a solid embrace of basic aquatic biology; an understanding that an aquarium is not some sort of underwater art installation, but rather, a living, breathing microcosm of organisms which work together to create a biome..and that the appearance of the aquarium only tells a small part of the story.
I knew that this type of aquatic habitat could be replicated in the aquarium successfully. I realized that it would take understanding, trial and error, and acceptance that the aquariums I created would look fundamentally different than anything I had experienced before.
I knew I might face criticism, scrutiny, and even downright condemnation from some quarters for daring to do something different, and then for labeling what most found totally distasteful, or have been conditioned by "the hobby" for generations to fear, as simply "a routine part of the process."
It's what happens when you venture out into areas of the hobby which are a bit untested. Areas which embrace ideas, aesthetics, practices, and occurrences which have existed far out of the mainstream consciousness of the hobby for so long. Fears develop, naysayers emerge, and warnings are given.
Yet, all of this stuff- ALL of it- is completely normal, well understood and documented by science, and in reality, comprises the aquatic habitats which are so successful and beneficial for fishes in both Nature and the aquarium. We as a hobby have made scant little effort over the years to understand it. And once you commit yourself to studying, understanding, and embracing life on all levels, the world of natural, botanical-style aquariums and its untapped potential opens upon to you.
Mental shifts are required. Along with study, patience, time, and a willingness to look beyond hobby forums, aquarium literature, and aquascaping contests for information. A desire to roll up your sleeves, get in there, ignore the naysayers, and just DO.
Don't be afraid of things because they look different, or somehow contrary to what you've heard or been told by others is "not healthy" or somehow "dangerous." Now sure, you can't obey natural "laws" like the nitrogen cycle, understanding pH, etc.
You can, however, question things you've been told to avoid based on superficial explanations based upon aesthetics.
Stuff that makes you want to understand how life forms such as fungi, for example, arise, multiply, snd contribute to the biome of your aquarium.
Let's think about fungi for a minute...a "poster child" for the new way of embracing Nature as it is.
Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate on new and hospitable surfaces (ie, pretty much anywhere they damn well please!). These aquatic fungi are involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. And of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise. Anyone who's ever "cured" a piece of wood for your aquarium can attest to this!
Fungi tend to colonize wood because it offers them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, the major components of wood and botanical materials, are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials! Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats. And look at this little gem I found in my research:
"There is evidence that detritivores selectively feed on conditioned leaves, i.e. those previously colonized by fungi (Suberkropp, 1992; Graca, 1993). Fungi can alter the food quality and palatability of leaf detritus, aecting shredder growth rates. Animals that feed on a diet rich in fungi have higher growth rates and fecundity than those fed on poorly colonized leaves. Some shredders prefer to feed on leaves that are colonized by fungi, whereas others consume fungal mycelium selectively..."
"Conditioned" leaves, in this context, are those which have been previously colonized by fungi! They make the energy within the leaves and botanicals more available to higher organisms like fishes and invertebrates!
The aquatic fungi which will typically decompose leaf litter and wood are the group known as “aquatic hyphomycetes”. Another group of specialists, "aero-aquatic hyphomycetes," colonize submerged plant detritus in stagnant and slow- flowing waters, like shallow ponds, puddles, and flooded forest areas. Fungal communities differ between various environments, such as streams, shallow lakes and wetlands, deep lakes, and other habitats such as salt lakes and estuaries.
And we see them in our own tanks all the time, don't we? Sure, it's easy to get scared by this stuff...and surprisingly, it's even easier to exploit it as a food source for your animals! We just have to make that mental shift... As the expression goes, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"
I knew when I started Tannin that I had to "walk the walk." I had to explain by showing my tanks, my work, and giving fellow hobbyists the information, advice, and support they needed in order to confidently set out on their own foray into this interesting hobby path.
I'm no hero. Not trying to portray myself as a visionary.
The point of sharing my personal experience is to show you that trying new stuff in the hobby does carry risk, fear, and challenge, but that you can and will persevere if you believe. If you push through. IF you don't fear setbacks, issues, criticisms from naysayers.
You have to try. In my case, the the idea of throwing various botanical items into aquariums is not my invention. It's not a totally new thing. People have done what I've done before. Maybe not as obsessively or thoroughly presented (and maybe they haven't built a business around the idea!), but it's been done many, many times.
The fact is, we can and should all take these kinds of journeys.
Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage.
And know that the pile of decomposing leaves, fungal growth, and detritus that you're looking at now is just a steppingstone on the journey to an aquarium which embrace nature in every conceivable way.
Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
We've spent a lot of time over the least several years talking about the idea of recreating specialized aquatic systems. We've talked a lot about transitional habitats- ecosystems which alternate between terrestrial and aquatic at various times of the year. These are compelling ecosystems which push the very limits of conventional aquarium practice.
As you know, we take a "function first" approach, in which the aesthetics become a "collateral benefit" of the function. Perhaps the best way to replicate these natural aquatic systems inner aquariums is to replicate the factors which facilitate their function. So, for example, let's look at our fave habitats, the flooded forests of Amazonia or the grasslands of The Pantanal.
To create a system that truly embraces this idea in both form and function, you'd start the system as a terrestrial habitat. In other words, rather than setting up an "aquarium" habitat right from the start, you'd be setting up what amounts to a terrarium. Soil/sand, terrestrial plants and grasses, leaves, seed pods, and "fallen trees/branches" on the "forest floor."
You'd run this system as a terrestrial display for some extended period of time- perhaps several weeks or even months, if you can handle it- and then you'd "flood" the terrestrial habitat, turning it into an aquatic one. Now, I'm not talking about one of our "Urban Igapo" nano-sized tanks here- I"m talking about a full-sized aquarium this time.
This is different in both scale and dynamic. After the "inundation", it's likely that many of the plants and grasses will either go dormant or simply die, adding other nutrient load in the aquarium.
A microbiome of organisms which can live in the aquatic environment needs to arise to process the high level of nutrients in the aquarium. Some terrestrial organisms (perhaps you were keeping frogs?) need to be removed and re-housed.
The very process of creating and populating the system during this transitional phase from terrestrial to aquatic is a complex, fascinating, and not entirely well-understood one, at least in the aquarium hobby. In fact, it's essentially a virtually unknown one. We simply haven't created all that many systems which evolve from terrestrial to aquatic.
Sure, we've created terrariums, paludariums, etc. We've seen plenty of "seasonally flooded forest" aquairums in biotope aquarium contests...But this is different. Rather than capturing a "moment in time", recreating the aquatic environment after the inundation, we're talking about recreating the process of transformation from one habitat to another.
Literally, creating the aquatic environment from a terrestrial one.
Psychologically, it would be sort of challenging!
I mean, in this instance, you've been essentially running a "garden" for several months, enjoying it and meeting the challenges which arise, only to embark several months later on a process which essentially destroys what you've created, forcing you to start anew with an entirely different environment, and contend with all of its associated challenges (the nitrogen cycle, nutrient control, etc.)
Modeling the process.
Personally, I find this type of approach irresistible. Not only do you get to enjoy all sorts of different aspects of Nature- you get to learn some new stuff, acquire new skills, and make observations on processes that, although common in Nature, were previously unrecorded in the aquarium hobby.
You'll draw on all of your aquarium-related skills to manage this transformation. You'll deal with a completely different aesthetic- I mean, flooding an established, planted terrestrial habitat filled with soils and plants will create a turbid, no doubt chaotic-looking aquascape, at least initially.
This is absolutely analogous to what we see in Nature, by the way.Seasonal transformations are hardly neat and tidy affairs.
Yes, we place function over form. However, that doesn't mean that you can't make it pretty! One key to making this interesting from an aesthetic perspective is to create a hardscape of wood, rocks, seed pods, etc. during the terrestrial phase that will please you when it’s submerged.
You'll need to observe very carefully. You'll need to be tolerant of stuff like turbidity, biofilms, algae, decomposition- many of the "skills"we've developed as botanical-style aquarists.You need to accept that what you're seeing in front of you today will not be the way it will look in 4 months, or even 4 weeks.
You'll need incredible patience, along with flexibility and an "even keel.”
We have a lot of the "chops" we'll need for this approach already! They simply need to be applied and coupled with an eagerness to try something new, and to help pioneer and create the “methodology”, and with the understanding that things may not always go exactly like we expect they should.
For me, this would likely be a "one way trip", going from terrestrial to aquatic. Of course, much like we've done with our "Urban Igapo" approach, this could be a terrestrial==>aquatic==>terrestrial "round trip" if you want! That's the beauty of this. You could do a complete 365 day dynamic, matching the actual wet season/dry season cycles of the habitat you're modeling.
The beauty is that, even within our approach to "transformational biotope-inspired" functional ecosystems, you CAN take some "artistic liberties" and do YOU. I mean, at the end of the day, it's a hobby, not a PhD thesis project, right?
Yeah. Plenty of room for creativity, even when pushing the state of the art of the hobby! Plenty of ways to interpret what we see in these unique ecosystems.
Habitats which transition from terrestrial to aquatic require us to consider the entire relationship between land and water- something that we have paid scant little attention to in the aquarium hobby, IMHO.
And this is unfortunate, because the relationships and interdependencies between aquatic habitats and their terrestrial surroundings are fundamental to our understanding of how they evolve and function.
There are so many other ecosystems which can be modeled with this approach! Floodplain lakes, streams, swamps, mud holes...I could go on and on and on. The inspiration for progressive aquariums is only limited to the many hundreds of thousands of examples which Nature Herself has created all over the planet.
We should look at nature for all of the little details it offers. We should question why things look the way they do, and postulate on what processes led to a habitat looking and functioning the way it does- and why/how fishes came to inhabit it and thrive within it.
With more and more attention being paid the overall environments from which our fishes come-not just the water, but the surrounding areas of the habitat, we as hobbyists will be able to call even more attention to the need to learn about and protect them when we create aquariums based on more specific habitats.
The old adage about "we protect what we love" is definitely true here!
And the transitional aquatic habitats are a terrific "entry point"into this exciting new area of aquarium hobby work.
Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay resourceful. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.