Part of the aquarium hobby experience is screwing stuff up.
There are so many things that we do as aquarists which involve variables beyond our control, that failure in some things is almost inevitable.
And, after a lifetime in the hobby, I will occasionally reflect back on some of the great successes that I’ve had...and on some of the many, many failures that I’ve been involved with! Failures aren’t that bad, really. In fact, they're pretty damn helpful...As the sayings goes, “Nothing is ever wasted- it can always serve as an example of what NOT to do!”
Yeah, because if you learn from them, failures or disasters are extremely valuable tools for self-education.
I was thinking about my worst-ever aquarium disasters, and, fortunately, there have not been all that many...However, the ones I have had have been notable...and very educational!
My biggest mistakes came out of my own arrogance, really. Yes, arrogance. A desire to flaunt the "rules" set by Nature.
Usually, they were "created" when I tried to do something that disregarded simple logic (and a century of aquarium common sense), like trying mixes of fishes that were absurd, or overstocking tanks...stuff like that.
For example, from my reef keeping experience- not all that many years ago, actually- I was going to be the ONE reefer to keep several Centropyge angelfish in his reef, including a Lemonpeel, Vrolicki, Coral Beauty, Flame Angel, and Bicolor! If you don't know anything about the dwarf angelfish of the genus Centropyge, the one thing you SHOULD know is that they are very territorial, and don't generally get along with others of their own species. And mixing different species is a traditional "recipe" for disaster.
Oh, and most of the ones I wanted to keep had a well-earned reputation for snacking on coral tissue...What could go wrong here?
This was a recipe for failure that even the most inexperienced reefer could see coming. Of course, I was "experienced", so I knew better, right?
Nonetheless, I really thought I could pull this off in a large reef with specialized aquascaping... I was convinced that it could work and that I'd be the envy of the reef aquarium world for doing so...Not only did this experiment end with some "predictable" results (a lot of nice corals getting snacked on), it resulted in 5 very ticked-off, very beaten up dwarf angels! No shit? Who would have seen that coming, right?
Just plain stupid...For some reason, I really thought that my “methodology” would pay off and that it could work...WRONG.
But hey. I did it. I failed at it. I OWN it.
I distinctly remember a dubious experiment on the side of my parents' house one summer when I was a teen, attempting to culture mosquito larvae...yeah, you know how well THAT went down! I think that was the most mosquito bites I've ever had in one summer...
But I learned my lesson....
Or the time I tried to build my own fluidized reactor. It sounded like noble project, but the reality was that I started with a bad concept and used cheap PVC materials that didn't quite match up. Yeah, it didn’t work, and the resulting leaks and total lack of functionality reflected my DIY "skills!" It was a good thought, but really poor on the "execution" side.
Completely unlike the Angelfish fiasco, which was a “lose-lose” proposition! Nowadays, if I have the urge to do DIY, I simply break out the credit card and purchase whatever it is I was thinking of making. Aquarium equipment manufacturers LOVE me!
Another lesson learned.
Oh, or there was that time I tried to make a continuous-feed brine shrimp hatcher...Shit, do you know how LONG it takes to get brine shrimp eggs out of the water column in your tank?
A really long time.
However, failing- and I mean this in the most literal sense- can actually be beneficial in so many ways, especially if you share your failures publicly. Right now, somewhere out in the aquarium hobby world, there is another hobbyist contemplating one of the same absurd, disaster-inevitable ideas that you brought to life...
Perhaps it's not some huge, epic-disaster-bound system failure...Maybe, it's just something that's a bad decision; one that should be aborted on, but isn't likely to be- and the outcome is already well known in the hobby...
Maybe it's in our nature as hobbyists; we just love to tempt fate. And look, I get it...I've written on these very pages that sometimes, we need to go against the grain and try new ideas.
Even after 6 years of pushing this idea of botanical-style aquariums, we're still learning some new ideas, creating "best practices", and evolving techniques. We still make a few mistakes. And, like many hobbyists, we're still trying to get our heads around the "big picture" of the approach, which seems so contradictory to what has been passed down as "the way to do stuff" in the hobby for generations.
It makes many people uncomfortable to take leaps of faith. And, sure, despite the successful implementation of these techniques for several years by thousands of hobbyists, there is always a chance of failure.
It's scary. It can be viewed as "irresponsible" by some. At the very least, you might question the efficacy and safety of some of this stuff.
It makes sense.
We ask you to make a lot of mental shifts accept some ideas which seem to go "against the grain" of long-held hobby "best practices" and philosophies of aquarium management.
We ask you to understand what you are doing what you are doing, and what the rationale behind the approach is.
One thing that you do get when ideas are shared like this is the benefit of the body of work; the experience- good and bad- of a large community of hobbyists who have went down this same path. The key to taking an idea from "fringe" to "best practice" is sharing.
Sharing of mistakes made, the refinements done, and the "tweaks" that yielded consistent success.
It starts by creating a hobby culture of sharing.
Sharing of our mistakes is every bit as important as sharing our amazing successes.
So imagine, for a moment, if you do a quick “confessional” post on Instagram or Facebook about your biggest aquarium screw up, and just one hobbyist who is contemplating a similar thing stumbles on it, and then decides NOT to recreate your disaster!
Think of the savings in money, frustration, and innocent animals’ lives...It’s all good. "Failure" makes you a more successful aquarist- IF you learn from the mistake, and IF you share it with others!
It's kind of fun, too!
So, don’t hide your failures.
Trumpet them from the highest mountain. Savor them. Run around, scream, share, yell at people if you must...But tell ‘em that you screwed something up...Tell them how, why, and what it was that you did to screw it up!
Then laugh about it and feel better! Look at the absurdity of the thing you did.
Of course, some seemingly counter-intuitive ideas do work.
Sometimes, you try something that YOU think will be a mess, but your friends know will work, because they've done it many times, and have refined the idea and practices. You're a bit scared...and you do it anyways based on their ideas! And it DOES work! Like recently, when my friend convinced me to try several male Apistos of different species in my display tank...I was like, "Dude...really?"
And he said, "Trust me." And I did. And it was awesome!
Think about "failure" in the context of the bigger picture...
The neat thing about mistakes, screw-ups, and "failures" is that they often lead to something far, far better than whatever it was that you initially failed at. Because, if you take the time to ask yourself why it happened, and reconstruct the process, and make necessary adjustments and recalibration, you'll often find that the idea can work- just in a slightly different manner than you originally thought.
And failures are only failures if you don't learn from them.
Even in our business, we screw up shit all the time, and usually it's our own fault. And we try to learn from them and refine our processes to make sure that they don't happen again.
In fact, I've been working on a piece on the many screw-ups we’ve made here at Tannin. It’s actually kind of funny, because there ARE so many!
"Marketing blasphemy", you say? No. Not at all. Rather, it’s a living embodiment of practicing what we preach...
As humans, we all make bad decisions from time to time. Some are the result of pushing boundaries...others are simply bad judgement. Again, how the mistake was made isn't quite as important as learning from it is.
We will all benefit from being human, being honest, and getting through our trials and tribulations in fish keeping together. And yeah, we all have more to gain than to lose from sharing our mistakes.
What’s the biggest screwup- the worst mistake- that you’ve made in aquarium keeping? What did you learn from it?
Don’t be shy. Own it. Share it. Your "failure" will likely lead to others succeeding...So, it wasn’t really a failure after all, right?
Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay honest. Stay curious. Stay experimental...
And Stay Wet.
A big thought about our botanical-style aquariums:
The aquarium-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-style aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.
Oh, the part about the biofilms and fungal growths sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Let's talk about our buddies, the biofilms, just a bit more. One more time. Because nothing seems as contrary to many hobbyists than to sing the praises of these gooey-looking strands of bacterial goodness!
Structurally, biofilms are surprisingly strong structures, which offer their colonial members "on-board" nutritional sources, exchange of metabolites, protection, and cellular communication. They form extremely rapidly on just about any hard surface that is submerged in water.
When I see aquarium work in which biofilms are considered a "nuisance", and suggestions that it can be eliminated by "reducing nutrients" in the aquarium, I usually cringe. Mainly, because no matter what you do, biofilms are ubiquitous, and always present in our aquariums. We may not see the famous long, stringy "snot" of our nightmares, but the reality is that they're present in our tanks regardless.
The other reality is that biofilms are something that we as aquarists typically fear because of the way they look. In and of themselves, biofilms are not harmful to our fishes. They function not only as a means to sequester and process nutrients ( a "filter" of sorts?), they also represent a beneficial food source for fishes.
Now, look, I can see rare scenarios where massive amounts of biofilms (relative to the water volume of the aquarium) can consume significant quantities of oxygen and be problematic for the fishes which reside in your tank. These explosions in biofilm growth are usually the result of adding too much botanical material too quickly to the aquarium. They're excaserbated by insufficient oxygenation/circulation within the aquarium.
These are very unusual circumstances, resulting from a combination of missteps by the aquarist.
Typically, however, biofilms are far more beneficial that they are reven emotely detrimental to our aquariums.
Nutrients in the water column, even when in low concentrations, are delivered to the biofilm through the complex system of water channels, where they are adsorbed into the biofilm matrix, where they become available to the individual cells. Some biologists feel that this efficient method of gathering energy might be a major evolutionary advantage for biofilms which live in particularly in turbulent ecosystems, like streams, (or aquariums, right?) with significant flow, where nutrient concentrations are typically lower and quite widely dispersed.
Biofilms have been used successfully in water/wastewater treatment for well over 100 years! In such filtration systems the filter medium (typically, sand) offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the microbes to attach to, and to feed upon the organic material in the water being treated. The formation of biofilms upon the "media" consume the undesirable organics in the water, effectively "filtering" it!
Biofilm acts as an adsorbent layer, in which organic materials and other nutrients are concentrated from the water column. As you might suspect, higher nutrient concentrations tend to produce biofilms that are thicker and denser than those grown in low nutrient concentrations.
Those biofilms which grow in higher flow environments, like streams, rivers, or areas exposed to wave action, tend to be denser in their morphology. These biofilms tend to form long, stringy filaments or "streamers",which point in the direction of the flow. These biofilms are characterized by characteristic known as "viscoelasticity." This means that they are flexible, and stretch out significantly in higher flow rate environments, and contract once again when the velocity of the flow is reduced.
Okay, that's probably way more than you want to know about the physiology of biofilms! Regardless, it's important for us as botanical-style aquarists to have at least a rudimentary understanding of these often misunderstood, incredibly useful, and entirely under-appreciated life forms.
And the whole idea of facilitating a microbiome in our aquariums is predicated upon supplying a quantity of botanical materials- specifically, leaf litter, for the beneficial organisms to colonize and begin the decomposition process. An interesting study I found by Mehering, et. al (2014) on the nutrient sequestration caused by leaf litter yielded this interesting little passage:
"During leaf litter decomposition, microbial biomass and accumulated inorganic materials immobilize and retain nutrients, and therefore, both biotic and abiotic drivers may influence detrital nutrient content."
The study determined that leaves such as oak "immobilized" nitrogen. Generally thinking, it is thought that leaf litter acts as a "sink" for nutrients over time in aquatic ecosystems.
Oh, and one more thing about leaves and their resulting detritus in tropical streams: Ecologists strongly believe that microbial colonized detritus is a more palatable and nutritious food source for detritivores than uncolonized dead leaves. The microbial growth which occurs on the leaves and their resulting detritus increases the nutritional quality of leaf detritus, because the microbial biomass on the leaves is more digestible than the leaves themselves (because of lignin, etc.).
Okay, great. I've just talked about decomposing leaves and stuff for like the 11,000th time in "The Tint"; so...where does this leave us, in terms of how we want to run our aquariums?
1) Add a significant amount of leaf litter, twigs, and botanicals to your aquarium as part of the substrate.
2) Allow biofilms and fungal growths to proliferate.
3) Feed your fishes well. It's actually "feeding the aquarium!"
4) Don't go crazy siphoning out every bit of detritus.
Let's look at each of these points in a bit more detail.
First, make liberal use of leaf litter in your aquarium. I'd build up a layer anywhere from 1"-4" of leaves. Yeah, I know- that's a lot of leaves. Initially, you'll have a big old layer of leaves, recruiting biofilms and fungal growths on their surfaces. Ultimately, it will decompose, creating a sort of "mulch" on the bottom of your aquarium, rich in detritus, providing an excellent place for your fishes to forage among.
Allow a fair amount of indirect circulation over the top of your leaf litter bed. This will ensure oxygenation, and allow the organisms within the litter bed to receive an influx of water (and thus, the dissolved organics they utilize). Sure, some of the leaves might blow around from time to time- just like what happens in Nature. It's no big deal- really!
The idea of allowing biofilms and fungal growths to colonize your leaves and botanicals, and to proliferate upon them simply needs to be accepted as fundamental to botanical-style aquarium keeping. These organisms, which comprise the biome of our aquariums, are the most important "components" of the ecosystems which our aquariums are.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least touch on the idea of feeding your aquarium. Think about it: When you feed your fishes, you are effectively feeding all of the other life forms which comprise this microbiome. You're "feeding the aquarium." When fishes consume and eliminate the food, they're releasing not only dissolved organic wastes, but fecal materials, which are likely not fully digested. The nutritional value of partially digested food cannot be understated. Many of the organisms which live within the botanical bed and the resulting detritus will assimilate them.
Now, we could go on and on about this topic; there is SO much to discuss. However, let's just agree that feeding our fishes is another critical activity which provides not only for our fishes' well-being, but for the other life forms which create the ecology of the aquarium.
And, let's be clear about another thing: Detritus, the nemesis of many aquarists- is NOT our enemy. We've talked about this for several years now, and I cannot stress it enough: To remove every bit of detritus in our tanks is to deprive someone, somewhere along the food chain in our tanks, their nutritional source. And when you do that, imbalances occur...You know, the kinds which cause "nuisance algae" and those "anomalous tank crashes."
The definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material."
Shit, that's just bad branding.
The reality is that this not a "bad" thing. Detritus, like biofilms and fungi, is flat-out misunderstood in the hobby.
Could there be some "upside" to this stuff?
Of course there is.
I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."
It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.
This is really important. It's part of the biological operating system of our botanical-style aquariums. I cannot stress this enough.
Now, I realize that the idea of embracing this stuff- and allowing it to accumulate, or even be present in your system- goes against virtually everything we've been indoctrinated to believe in about aquarium husbandry. Pretty much every article you see on this stuff is about its "dangers", and how to get it out of your tank. I'll say it again- I think we've been looking at detritus the wrong way for a very long time in the aquarium hobby, perceiving it as an "enemy" to be feared, as opposed to the "biological catalyst" it really is!
In essence, it's organically rich particulate material that provides sustenance, and indeed, life to many organisms which, in turn, directly benefit our aquariums.
We've pushed this narrative many times here, and I still think we need to encourage hobbyists to embrace it more.
Okay, I'll admit that detritus, as we see it, may not be the most attractive thing to look at in our tanks. I'll give you that. It literally looks like a pile of shit! However, what we're talking about allowing to accumulate isn't just fish poop and uneaten food. It's broken-down materials- the end product of biological processing. And, yeah, a wide variety of organisms have become adapted to eat or utilize detritus.
There is, of course, a distinction.
One is the result of poor husbandry, and of course, is not something we'd want to accumulate in our aquariums. The other is a more nuanced definition.
As we talk about so much around here- just because something looks a certain way doesn't mean that it alwaysa bad thing, right?
What does it mean? Take into consideration why we add botanicals to our tanks in the first place. Now, you don't have to have huge piles of the stuff littering your sandy substrate. However, you could have some accumulating here and there among the botanicals and leaves, where it may not offend your aesthetic senses, and still contribute to the overall aquatic ecosystem you've created.
If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what really happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they" say in the books and hobby forums?
Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?
I think so. Like, almost always.
Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).
There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."
The following statement may hurt a few sensitive people. Consider it some "tough love" today:
If you're not a complete incompetent at basic aquarium husbandry, you won't have any issues with detritus being present in your aquarium.
Don't neglect regular water exchanges.
Don't fail to maintain your equipment.
Don't ignore what's happening in your tank.
This is truly not "rocket science." It's "Aquarium Keeping 101."
And it all comes full circle when we talk about "filtration" in our aquariums.
People often ask me, "What filter do you use use in a botanical-style aquarium?" My answer is usually that it just doesn't matter. You can use any type of filter. The reality is that, if allowed to evolve and grow unfettered, the aquarium itself- all of it- becomes the "filter."
You can embrace this philosophy regardless of the type of filter that you employ.
My sumps and integrated filter compartments in my A.I.O. tanks are essentially empty.
I may occasionally employ some activated carbon in small amounts, or throw some "Shade" sachets in there if I am feeling it- but that's it. The way I see it- these areas, in a botanical-style aquarium, simply provide more water volume, more gas exchange; a place for bacterial attachment (surface area), and perhaps an area for botanical debris to settle out. Maybe I'll remove them, if only to prevent them from slowing down the flow rate of my return pumps.
But that's it.
A lot of people are initially surprised by this. However, when you look at it in the broader context of botanical style aquariums as miniature ecosystems, it all really makes sense, doesn't it? The work of these microorganisms and other life forms takes place throughout the aquarium.
I admit, there was a time when I was really fanatical about making sure every single bit of detritus and fish poop and all that stuff was out of my tanks. About undetectable nitrate. I was especially like that in my earlier days of reef keeping, when it was thought that cleanliness was the shit!
It wasn't until years into my reef keeping work, and especially in my coral propagation work, that I begin to understand the value of food, and the role the it plays in aquatic ecosystems as a whole. And that "food" means different things to different aquatic organisms. The idea of scrubbing and removing every single trace of what we saw as "bad stuff" from our grow-out raceways essentially deprived the corals and supporting organisms of an important natural food source.
We'd fanatically skim and remove everything, only to find out that...our corals didn't look all that good. We'd compensate by feeding more heavily, only to continue to remove any traces of dissolved organics from the water...
It was a constant struggle- the metaphorical "hamster wheel"- between keeping things "clinically clean" and feeding our animals. We were super proud of our spotless water. We had a big screen when you came into our facility showing the parameters in each raceway. Which begged the question: Were we interested in creating sterile water, or growing corals?
Eventually, it got through my thick skull that aquariums- just like the wild habitats they represent-are not spotless environments, and that they depend on multiple inputs of food, to feed the biome at all levels. This meant that scrubbing the living shit (literally) out of our aquariums was denying the very biotia which comprised our aquariums their most basic needs.
That little "unlock" changed everything for me.
Suddenly, it all made sense.
This has carried over into the botanical-style aquarium concept: It's a system that literally relies on the biological material present in the system to facilitate food production, nutrient assimilation, and reproduction of life forms at various trophic levels.
It's changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems.
It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.
It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the asshole on Instagram with the flashy, gadget-driven tank. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.
It's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons.
It's about nuance.
It's about looking at things a bit different that we've been "programmed" to do in the aquarium hobby for so long. It's about not being afraid to question the reasons why we do things a certain way in the hobby, and to seek ways to evolve and change practices for the benefits of our fishes.
It takes time to grasp this stuff. However, as with so many things that we talk about here, it's not revolutionary...it's simply an evolution in thinking about how we conceive, set up, and manage our aquariums.
Sure, the aquairum is a "filter" of sorts, if you want to label it as such. However, it's so much more: A small, evolving ecosystem, relying on natural processes to bring it to life.
Wrap you head around that.
It might just change everything in the hobby for you.
Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
As you know, we 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.
One of the absolute "givens" in the aquarium hobby is the necessity of doing some stuff your self- figuring out and executing ways to fix things, set stuff up, accomplish all sorts of aquarium-related tasks, ranging from the most mundane to the highest-level practices, and everything in-between.
Now, there is a significant body of hobby knowledge about all sorts of stuff out there- I mean, we've been at this for a while now.
The aquarium hobby as we know it has really been around for about 100 plus years (Okay, nerd- I know that the Ancient Greeks and Chinese kept carp, or whatever-but we're talking about the "modern" aquarium hobby, okay? That's really like the last century.). During that time, lots of stuff has been figured out- the nitrogen cycle, many of the critical environmental needs of our fishes, husbandry practices, heater and filter technology, etc...
All well and good, but there is a lot of information out there- and a lot of ways to do things...And no real "central clearing house" for information, right? You have to dig for it sometimes You have to use your brain, ask around, utilize Google, read blogs and magazine articles, haunt forums, etc. And even then, you literally have to sort the B.S. and drivel from the real, useful information.
No one said this shit was easy...But it's not difficult, either.
Take for example, gadgets.
Unlike many of you, I am one of those aquarists who barely has the "Quasi-DIY Gene", and I know it. I can scheme out and plumb my reef aquarium, set up a canister filter, coordinate a flow pattern with off-the-shelf electronic pumps, dial in a CO2 regulator, etc. I can almost program a controller without throwing it at the wall, so I suppose that's progress. But that's the outer limits of my hobby mechanical skill set.
In the "serious" aquarium hobby, this is considered fairly basic stuff. However, when it comes to the hardcore stuff, like building a reliable and safe auto top off system, constructing a custom stand, or assembling my own LED lighting array, that's where I beg off and seek the guidance of fellow fish geeks that love that kind of stuff.
I know my limits.
Like most of you, I've acquired a fairly extensive set of rather obscure skills, like understanding the nuances of ball valves, re-starting a canister filter, culturing Daphnia, adjusting a CO2 solenoid, etc. These are skills you sort of accumulate by either observing other fish geeks, or just by jumping in and doing them.
And, occasionally you'll figure out how to get something like a calcium reactor or doser going on the first try, be it through luck or just having the skills required. However, if you're like most fish geeks, more often than not, you'll get it about 80% right the first try.
Just read the instructions...er, sort of...
Have you ever noticed that there is really no "instruction manual" for aquarium projects, or even for many of the pieces of equipment that we use? Okay, yeah, there are some famous You Tubers who do have videos on some of that kind of stuff...There are resources out there for almost everything. If you look really hard.
That's the key. Even in this hyper-searchable era, you still need to dig for stuff you want to find out more about. That's life. Decades ago, it was time to go to the library, go to a fish club meeting, or hang out at the LFS and pick the brains of some hardcore hobbyists. Those things still work, btw.
We as a group are pretty damn impatient, though! I will literally have times when I share a link on Instagram or Facebook to an article I wrote on a specific topic, like, preparing botanicals or whatever- and in the comments on the post, someone will inevitably ask, "Cool! How do you prepare those things before you add them to your tank? Do you have to boil them?"
Like, WTF? JUST CLICK ON THE FUCKING LINK!
I mean, it gets me sort of cranky. Like, how lazy are we?
I suppose, in all fairness, it's the desire to obtain more exact, more concise, or more immediate information that results in these bizarrely annoying questions. Like, "Just cut to the chase. How long do I have to boil my Cariniana pods for?"
That's why infographics exist, right?
Ok, you get my drift.
I mean, why should they? There are so many variations on how to do stuff, what exact components to use, and how long it takes (ie; how difficult it is) that anything more than generalities about many topics is not only hard to share- it's likely irresponsible.
Yeah, you kind of need to research what you can, roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath, and just go for it. Or, you can pay someone to do it for you, right? There are many great aquarium service people out there who do just that!
Many aquarium products do come with a diagram, maybe some basic introductory stuff about why it's good to have the piece of equipment (C'mon, you KNOW that already, or you wouldn't have purchased it, right? You STILL need to be sold on why a calcium reactor is a good thing for your reef aquarium after you bought it? That sort of stuff always makes me laugh), and if you're lucky, a decent set of instructions- or an exploded diagram.
Yeah, I agree- in some instances with some products, the manufacturers would be far better off providing a very detailed assembly and placement information for the purchaser, IMHO. Oh, sure, there are many manufacturers who do this, but not all. I know, it sometimes seems like it's "expected" that, as a fish geek, you have this "hidden knowledge database" programmed in your head to figure out how to assemble everything.
And in some ways, a lot of it makes sense. One of my buddies takes the hard stance that, if you can't figure out how to set up a piece of gear you purchased, you're probably not ready for it.
Hard to argue with that, right?
Again, we need to educate ourselves as hobbyists. If you're into this game, you'll WANT to research and learn, right? You're not just getting some gadget "because they say to do it!" -right? If you are, you need to re-think it.
Yeah, skills and experiences do go hand in hand. You sometimes DO need to do stuff to understand it...However, what you don't have "programmed", you can always find by tapping into the "matrix" (sorry, had to borrow the term) of hobby knowledge that is "out there." Have you noticed that? Often times, you must acquire the arcane knowledge that you need by internet search, listening to podcasts, watching You Tube, haunting the LFS, or hanging with your fish-keeping buddies and visiting their setups?
Fun, yes, but often frustrating for some.
There is really no formal "aquarium construction guide" out there. None. Yes, lots of books talk about the theoretical and broad implementation of this gadget or another, but no one has really written a treatise with turnkey information about how to construct a perfect aquarium.
Not really. There is no ONE perfect way.
We all know this- regardless of if we want to admit it or not. And yeah, some stuff you just need to "work through", understand the rationale for, and go for it. You need to learn for yourself. And you DO know by now that having a collection of the best and most expensive trendy gadgets and stuff won't make you a better aquarist. You need to understand the basics of the hobby. I've seen plenty of tanks quipped with the best and baddest of everything which positively sucked.
You know this, however.
Now, I suppose, if you have the DIY thing in your game, you hate this state of affairs, and you can write a bit, there's your calling- write a book on how to equip a modern aquarium system, with detailed diagrams and step-by-step instructions on how to assemble it. Woah! That would upset the entire balance of the universe, because suddenly, hobbyists would have a single resource to turn to for reference on how to do_______! You'd no longer have to go though painful trial and error while building what you feel is a properly-equipped aquarium!
Oh sure, there are some of you who would scoff at the idea, saying that the painful accumulation of this knowledge and the skills to pull of these projects SHOULD be gained through blood, sweat, and tears- you've gotta "pay your dues" by searching for obscure information and failing a few times on the way.
I mean, I understand that. In the end, it makes you a better hobbyist- assuming you don't quit along the way. Don't quit.
And I suppose, one could make an argument for having everything concisely presented on every possible aquarium topic, right? I mean, how would you feel the next time you fly from say, LA to New York, if the two guys up front were "paying their dues" during YOUR flight? Or, if the guy in the surgical scrubs patting your arm as you fall asleep on the operating table is "figuring out your procedure as he goes?"
Yeah, not so good, huh?
Okay, those are a bit extreme.
The answer is likely somewhere in between.
We need to learn most things by learning, studying, researching, and executing. You can always ask questions of a more advanced or experienced hobbyist if you're stuck. However, don't always take the easy way out and just ask for the entire answer for a topic that's widely discussed everywhere, and then get all bummed out because no one is giving you every single concise answer.
Don't be lazy. Do some of the work yourself. Avail yourself to the tons of hobby resources out there. But don't expect that the exact answer to your exact question is always easy to find. You need to dig. You might just learn more than you expected to!
Yes, we all get a bit frustrated looking for answers.
Like, I get it. I can't be totally without compassion on this topic!
Sometimes, we are excited and perhaps a bit overwhelmed at the apparent complexity of a new subject, but we're eager to learn. We just need a push in the right direction. I get that, and that's why, in our area of expertise, I'm always here to help. You'll find that most hobbyists and industry people will do the same....TO a point. And I encourage you to make use of such hobby resources when necessary.
However, for a small but noticeable sliver of the aquarium hobbyist population, there is this "thing" about taking even the slightest initiative to do some research.
"C'mon Scott, it's hard. There's so much stuff out there. Besides, you understand this stuff. And I didn't grow up doing this..."
That's literally a "mashup" of some of the "feedback" I've received from people who asked tons of questions for which the answers were readily available. It makes me scratch my head.
I mean, Google, for example, is one of the greatest resources we've ever had as a species. It's so easy to use and so powerful that it can literally make one wonder if the library as we know it is simply a relic of a gentler, kinder era, perhaps having outlived some of it's usefulness as a "go-to" resource for knowledge (It hasn't IMHO, but you could argue that it has diminished just a bit in value for some...). To not use it is almost absurd in today's era.
Laziness is a shitty trait, IMHO. Don;'t be lazy. You're supposed to enjoy a hobby, right? You should WANT to do some research!
The scariest things are when someone who appears to be operating in a more "advanced" area of the hobby asks a question about something frighteningly basic, like pH, water exchanges, the value of quarantining new fishes, etc. Stuff that's "Aquarium Keeping 101." Like, ask yourself-why are you in the deep end of the pool if you can't even float?
You can do this. You can learn the fundamentals of the hobby, build upon them, and progress to more complex stuff. It's a matter of putting in some time and work. It doesn't have to be drudgery.
Sure, people are there to help along the way. Resources are available...Yet you can't expect a grand "Aquarium Instruction Manual" with answers to 400,000 possible obscure questions on every single aspect of the hobby to just appear for you (Not yet, anyways...perhaps some day!).
And that's okay. The acquisition of knowledge in the hobby is a journey to be enjoyed and savored- not reviled and loathed. Just take a deep breath, and read beyond the cute pic in that Instagram post...Dig to page 3 of a Google search if you haven't found the answer you're looking for just yet. It's there.
And of course- always share what you know when you do figure it all out. Add to the body of knowledge in the hobby.
Just read the instructions...sort of-before you jump. It kind of works. Really!
So, I say to you: Search for knowledge. Ask questions. Execute. Learn from the experience. Share said acquired knowledge. Complain more, if you want, but you might actually find that you'll complain less when you just try stuff.
Stay courageous. Stay diligent. Stay curious. Stay studious. Stay persistent...
And Stay Wet.
A couple of days back, I was chatting with a fellow hobbyist who wanted to jump in to something a bit different within the aquarium hobby, but was afraid of the possible consequences-both socially and in his aquariums. He feared criticism from "them", and that just froze him. I felt bad that he was so afraid of criticism from others should he question the "status quo" within the hobby.
Perhaps my story might be helpful to you if you're afraid of such criticisms.
For generations, we've been told in the aquarium hobby that we need to be concerned about the appearance of all kinds of stuff in our tanks, like algae, detritus, and "biocover".
For some strange reason, we as a hobby group seems emphasize stuff like understanding some biological processes, like the nitrogen cycle, yet we've also been told to devote a lot of resources to siphoning, polishing, and scrubbing our tanks to near sterility.
It's a strange dichotomy.
I remember the first few botanical-style tanks I created, almost two decades ago now, would hit that phase early on when biofilms and fungal growths began to appear, and I'd hear my friends telling me, "Yeah, your tank is going to turn into a big pile of shit. Told you that you can't put that stuff in there."
Because that's what they've been told. The prevailing mindset in the hobby was that the appearance of these organisms was an indication of an unsuitable aquarium environment.
Anyone who's studied basic ecology and biology understands that the complete opposite is true. The appearance of these valuable life forms is an indicator that your aquatic environment is ideal to foster a healthy, diverse community of aquatic organisms, including fishes!
Exactly like in Nature.
I remember telling myself that this is what I knew was going to happen. I knew how biofilms and fungal growths appear on "undefended" surfaces, and that they are essentially harmless life forms, exploiting a favorable environment. I knew that fungi appear as they help break down leaves and botanicals. I knew that these are perfectly natural occurrences, and that they typically are transitory and self-limiting to some extent.
Normal for this type of aquarium approach. I knew that they would go away, but I also knew that there would be a period of time when the tank might look like a big pool of slimy shit. Or, rather, it'd look like a pile of slimy shit to those who weren't familiar with these life forms, how they grow, and how the natural aquatic habitats we love so much actually function and appear!
To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were.
I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. It always was. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...
I never saw them.
I knew that there wouldn't be any issues, because I created my aquariums with a solid embrace of basic aquatic biology; an understanding that an aquarium is not some sort of underwater art installation, but rather, a living, breathing microcosm of organisms which work together to create a biome..and that the appearance of the aquarium only tells a small part of the story.
I knew that this type of aquatic habitat could be replicated in the aquarium successfully. I realized that it would take understanding, trial and error, and acceptance that the aquariums I created would look fundamentally different than anything I had experienced before.
I knew I might face criticism, scrutiny, and even downright condemnation from some quarters for daring to do something different, and then for labeling what most found totally distasteful, or have been conditioned by "the hobby" for generations to fear, as simply "a routine part of the process."
It's what happens when you venture out into areas of the hobby which are a bit untested. Areas which embrace ideas, aesthetics, practices, and occurrences which have existed far out of the mainstream consciousness of the hobby for so long. Fears develop, naysayers emerge, and warnings are given.
Yet, all of this stuff- ALL of it- is completely normal, well understood and documented by science, and in reality, comprises the aquatic habitats which are so successful and beneficial for fishes in both Nature and the aquarium. We as a hobby have made scant little effort over the years to understand it. And once you commit yourself to studying, understanding, and embracing life on all levels, the world of natural, botanical-style aquariums and its untapped potential opens upon to you.
Mental shifts are required. Along with study, patience, time, and a willingness to look beyond hobby forums, aquarium literature, and aquascaping contests for information. A desire to roll up your sleeves, get in there, ignore the naysayers, and just DO.
Don't be afraid of things because they look different, or somehow contrary to what you've heard or been told by others is "not healthy" or somehow "dangerous." Now sure, you can't obey natural "laws" like the nitrogen cycle, understanding pH, etc.
You can, however, question things you've been told to avoid based on superficial explanations based upon aesthetics.
Stuff that makes you want to understand how life forms such as fungi, for example, arise, multiply, snd contribute to the biome of your aquarium.
Let's think about fungi for a minute...a "poster child" for the new way of embracing Nature as it is.
Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate on new and hospitable surfaces (ie, pretty much anywhere they damn well please!). These aquatic fungi are involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. And of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise. Anyone who's ever "cured" a piece of wood for your aquarium can attest to this!
Fungi tend to colonize wood because it offers them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, the major components of wood and botanical materials, are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials! Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
And of course, fishes and invertebrates which live amongst and feed directly upon the fungi and decomposing leaves and botanicals contribute to the breakdown of these materials as well! Aquatic fungi can break down the leaf matrix and make the energy available to feeding animals in these habitats. And look at this little gem I found in my research:
"There is evidence that detritivores selectively feed on conditioned leaves, i.e. those previously colonized by fungi (Suberkropp, 1992; Graca, 1993). Fungi can alter the food quality and palatability of leaf detritus, aecting shredder growth rates. Animals that feed on a diet rich in fungi have higher growth rates and fecundity than those fed on poorly colonized leaves. Some shredders prefer to feed on leaves that are colonized by fungi, whereas others consume fungal mycelium selectively..."
"Conditioned" leaves, in this context, are those which have been previously colonized by fungi! They make the energy within the leaves and botanicals more available to higher organisms like fishes and invertebrates!
The aquatic fungi which will typically decompose leaf litter and wood are the group known as “aquatic hyphomycetes”. Another group of specialists, "aero-aquatic hyphomycetes," colonize submerged plant detritus in stagnant and slow- flowing waters, like shallow ponds, puddles, and flooded forest areas. Fungal communities differ between various environments, such as streams, shallow lakes and wetlands, deep lakes, and other habitats such as salt lakes and estuaries.
And we see them in our own tanks all the time, don't we? Sure, it's easy to get scared by this stuff...and surprisingly, it's even easier to exploit it as a food source for your animals! We just have to make that mental shift... As the expression goes, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"
I knew when I started Tannin that I had to "walk the walk." I had to explain by showing my tanks, my work, and giving fellow hobbyists the information, advice, and support they needed in order to confidently set out on their own foray into this interesting hobby path.
I'm no hero. Not trying to portray myself as a visionary.
The point of sharing my personal experience is to show you that trying new stuff in the hobby does carry risk, fear, and challenge, but that you can and will persevere if you believe. If you push through. IF you don't fear setbacks, issues, criticisms from naysayers.
You have to try. In my case, the the idea of throwing various botanical items into aquariums is not my invention. It's not a totally new thing. People have done what I've done before. Maybe not as obsessively or thoroughly presented (and maybe they haven't built a business around the idea!), but it's been done many, many times.
The fact is, we can and should all take these kinds of journeys.
Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage.
And know that the pile of decomposing leaves, fungal growth, and detritus that you're looking at now is just a steppingstone on the journey to an aquarium which embrace nature in every conceivable way.
Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
We talk a lot about starting up and managing botanical-style aquariums. We have had numerous discussions about set up and the accompanying expectations of the early days in the life of the little ecosystems we've created. However, what about the long term..The really long term?
Like, how long can you maintain one of these aquariums?
Do they have an "expiration date? A point when the system no longer "grows" or thrives?
There is a term, sometimes used to describe the state of very old aquariums- "senescence." The definition is: "...the condition or process of deterioration with age." Well, that doesn't sound all that unusual, right? I mean, stuff ages, gets old, stops functioning well, and eventually expires...aquariums are no different, right?
Well, I don't think so.
Sometimes, this deterioration is referred to in the hobby by the charming name of "Old Tank Syndrome"
Now, on the surface, this makes some sense, right? I mean, if your tank has been set up for several years, environmental conditions will change over time. Among the many phenomenon brought up by proponents of this theory is the increase in nitrate levels. People who buy into "OTS" will tell you that nitrate levels will increase over time.
They'll tell you that phosphate, which typically comes into our tanks with food, will accumulate, resulting in excessive, perhaps rampant, algal growths. You know, the kind from which aquarium horror stories are made.
They will tell you that the pH of the aquarium will decline as a result of accumulating nitrate, with hydrogen ions utilizing all available buffers, resulting in a reduction of the pH below 6 (like, IS that a problem?), which supposedly results in the beneficial bacteria ceasing to convert ammonia into nitrite and nitrate and creating a buildup of toxic ammonia...
I mean, it's absolutely possible. We've talked about the potential cessation of the nitrogen cycle as we know it at low pH levels, and about the archaens which take over at these low pH levels. (That's a different "thing", though, and off topic ATM)
Of course, all of the bad things espoused by the OTS theorists can and will happen...If you never do any tank maintenance. If you simply abandon the idea of water exchanges, continue stocking and feeding your aquarium recklessly, and essentially abandon the basic tenants of aquarium husbandry.
The problem with this theory is that it assumes all aquarists are knuckleheads, refusing to perform water exchanges, while merrily going about their business of watching the pretty fishes swim. It seems to forecast some sort of inevitability that this will happen to every tank.
No way. Uh-uh. I call B.S. on this.
As someone who has kept all sorts of tanks (reef tanks, freshwater fish-only tanks, etc.) in operation for many years (my longest was 13 years, and botanical-style tanks going on 5 plus years), I can't buy into this idea. I mean, sure, if you don't set up a system properly in the first place, and then simply become lackadaisical about husbandry, of course your tank can decline.
But, here's the thing: It's not inevitable.
RULE OF THUMB: Do fucking maintenance, feed carefully, and don't overstock. This is not "rocket science!"
Rather than "Old Tank Syndrome"- a name which seems to imply that it's not our fault, and that it's like some unfortunate, random occurrence which befalls the unsuspecting-we should call it LAAP- "Lazy Ass Aquarists' Payback."
'Cause that's what it IS. It's entirely the fault of a lazy-ass aquarist. Preventable and avoidable.
Need more convincing that it's not some random "malady" that can strike any tank? That it's some "universal constant" which commonly occurs in all aquariums?
Think about the wild habitats which we attempt to model our aquariums after. Do these habitats decline over time for no reason? Generally, no. They will respond to environmental changes, like drought, pollution, sedimentation, etc. They will react to these environmental pressures or insults. They will evolve over time.
Now, sure, seasonal desiccation and such result in radical environmental shifts in the the aquatic environment and a definite "expiration date"- but you seldom hear of aquatic habitats declining and disappearing or becoming otherwise uninhabitable to fishes without some significant (often human-imposed) external pressures- like pollution, ash from fires or volcanoes, deliberate diversion or draining of the water source (think "Rio Xingu"), logging operations, climate change, etc.
Of course, our aquariums are closed ecosystems. However, the same natural laws which govern the nitrogen cycle or other aspects of the system's ecology in Nature apply to our aquariums. The big difference is that our tanks are almost completely dependent upon us as aquarists applying techniques which replicate some of the factors and processes which apply in Nature. Stuff like water exchanges, etc.
So if we keep up the nutrient export processes, don't radically overstock our systems, feed appropriately, maintain filters, and observe them over time, there is no reason why we couldn't maintain our aquariums indefinitely.
There is no "expiration date."
And the cool thing about botanical-style aquariums is that part of our very "technique" from day one is to facilitate the growth and reproduction of beneficial microfauna, like bacteria, fungal growths, etc., and to allow decomposition to occur to provide them feeding opportunities.What this does is help create a microbiome of organisms which, as we've said repeatedly, form the basis of the "operating system" of our tanks.
Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.
So, yeah- botanical-style aquariums are "built" for the long run. Provided that we do our fair share of the work to support their ecology. Just because we add a lot of botanical material, allow decomposition, and tend to look on the resulting detritus favorably doesn't mean that these are "set-and-forget" systems, any more than it means they're particularly susceptible to all of the problems we discussed previously.
Common sense husbandry and observation are huge components of the botanical-style aquarium "equation."
As part of our regular husbandry routine, we keep the ecosystem "stocked" with fresh botanicals and leaves on a continuous basis, to replenish those which break down via decomposition. This is perfectly analogous to the processes of leaf drop and the influx of allochthonous materials from the surrounding terrestrial habitat which occur constantly in the wild aquatic habitats which we attempt to replicate.
We favor a "biology/ecology first" mindset.
Replenishing the botanical materials provides surface area and food for the numerous small organisms which support our systems. It also provides supplemental food for our fishes, as we've discussed previously. It helps recreate, on a very real level, the "food webs" which support the ecology of all aquatic ecosystems.
And it sets up botanical-style aquariums to be sustainable indefinitely.
Radical moves and "Spring Cleanings" are not only unnecessary, IMHO- they are potentially disruptive and counter-productive. Rather, it's about deliberate moves early on, to facilitate the emergence of this biome, and then steady, regular replenishment of botanical materials to nourish and sustain the ecosystem.
My belief is steeped in the mindset that you've created a little ecosystem, and that, if you start removing a significant source of someone's food (or for that matter, their home!), there is bound to be a net loss of biota...and this could lead to a disruption of the very biological processes that we aim to foster.
Okay, it's a theory...But I think I might be on to something, maybe? So, like here is my theory in more detail:
Simply look at the botanical-style aquarium (like any aquarium, of course) as a little "microcosm", with processes and life forms dependent upon each other for food, shelter, and other aspects of their existence. And, I really believe that the environment of this type of aquarium, because it relies on botanical materials (leaves, seed pods, etc.), is significantly influenced by the amount and composition of said material to "operate" successfully over time.
No expiration date.
Personally, I don't think that botanical-style aquariums are ever "finished", BTW. They simply continue to evolve over extended periods of time, just like the wild habitats that we attempt to replicate in our tanks do.
The continuous change, development, and evolution of aquatic habitats is a fascinating, compelling area to study- and to replicate in our aquaria. I'm convinced more than ever that the secrets that we learn by fostering and accepting Nature's processes and dynamics are the absolute key to everything that we do in the aquarium.
The idea that your aquarium environment simply deteriorates as a result of its very existence is, in my humble opinion, wrong, narrow-minded, and outdated thinking. (Other than that, it's completely correct!😆).
"Old Tank Syndrome" is a crock of shit, IMHO.
Aquariums only have an "expiration date" if we don't take care of them. Period. No more sugar coating this.
If we look at them assume sort of "static diorama" thing, requiring no real care, they definitely have an "expiration date"; a point where they are no longer sustainable. When we consider our aquariums to be tiny, closed ecosystems, subject to the same "rules" which govern the natural environments which we seek to replicate, the parallels are obvious. The possibilities open up. And the potential to unlock new techniques, ideas, and benefits for our fishes is very real and truly exciting!
I'm not entirely certain how this approach to aquariums, and this idea of fostering a microbiome within our tank and caring for it has become a sort of "revolutionary" or "counter-culture" sort of thing in the hobby, as many fellow hobbyists have told me that they feel it is.
Label it what you want, I think that, if we make the effort to understand the function of our tanks as much as we do the appearance, then it all starts making sense. If you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- one which requires a bit of care on our part in order to thrive-then the idea of an "expiration date" or inevitable decline of the system becomes much less logical.
Rather, it's a continuous and indefinite process.
No "end point."
Much like a "road trip", the "destination" becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system. Every stage holds fascination.
An aquatic display is not a static entity, and will continue to encompass life, death, and everything in between for as long as it's in existence. There is no expiration date for our aquariums, unless we select one.
Take great comfort in that simple truth.
Stay grateful. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay dedicated...
And Stay Wet.
By now, this whole idea of adding botanical materials to our aquariums for the purpose of helping create the physical, biological, and chemical environment of our aquariums is becoming way more familiar. Yet, no matter how many times you've created a botanical-influenced natural aquarium, the experience seems new and somehow different.
Expectations are funny things, aren't they?
There is something very pure and evocative-even a bit "uncomfortable" about utilizing botanical materials in the aquarium. Selecting, preparing, and utilizing them is more than just a practice- it's an experience. A journey. One which we can all take- and all benefit from.
Right along with our fishes, of course!
And yeah, it can even be seen as a bit of a spiritual journey, too- leading to some form of enlightenment and education about Nature, from a totally unique perspective.
The energy and creativity that you bring with you on the journey tends to become amplified during the experience. As you work with botanicals in your aquariums, your mind takes you to different places; new ideas for how your aquarium's microcosm can evolve start flooding your mind. Every tank- like every hobbyist- is different- and different inspirations arise. We don’t want everyone walking away feeling the same thing, quite the opposite actually.
That uniqueness is a large part of the experience.
The experience is largely about discovery. And today's piece is a bit about some of the interesting discoveries- expectations, and revelations that we as a community have learned along the way during our experiences working with botanicals in our aquariums.
Our aquariums evolve, as do the materials within them. We've discussed this concept many times, but it's one that we keep coming back to.
If we think of an aquarium as we do a natural aquatic ecosystem, it's certainly realistic to assume that some of the materials in the ecosystem will change, re-distribute, or completely decompose over time.
Botanicals are not "forever" aquascaping materials. We consider them ephemeral in nature. They will soften, break down, and otherwise decompose over time. Some materials, like leaves- particularly Catappa and Guava, will break down more rapidly than others, and if you're like our friend Jeff Senske of Aquaiuim Design Group, and like the look of intact leaves versus partially decomposed ones, you'll want to replace them more frequently; typically on the order of every three weeks or so, in order to have more-or-less "intact" leaves in your tank.
On the other hand, if you're like me, and enjoy the more natural look that occurs as the leaves break down, just keep 'em in. You may need to remove some materials if you find fungal growth, biofilm, or other growth unsightly or otherwise untenable, or if material gets caught up in filter inlets, etc. However, "operational concerns" aside, and if you've made that "mental shift" and can tolerate the stuff decomposing, just let them be and enjoy!
Botanicals like the really hard seed pods (Sterculia Pods", "Cariniana Pods", "Afzelia Pods"), etc., can last for many, many months, and generally will soften on their interiors long before any decomposition occurs on the exterior "shell" of he botanical. In fact, they'll typically recruit biofilms, which almost seem to serve as a sort of "protective cover" that preserves them.
Often times, fishes like Plecos, Otocinculus catfish, loaches, Headstanders, and bottom-dwelling fishes will rasp or pick at the decomposing botanicals, which further speeds up the process. Others, like Caridina shrimp, Apistos, characins, and others, will pick at biofilms covering the interior and exterior of various botanicals, as well as at the microfauna which live among them, just as they do in Nature.
Sometimes, the fishes will use botanical materials for a spawning site.
We receive a lot of questions about which botanicals will "tint the water the darkest" or whatever. Cool questions. Well, here's the deal: Virtually all botanical materials will impact the color of the water. You'll find, as we have, that different materials will impart different colors into the water. It will typically be clear, but with a golden, brownish, or perhaps a slight reddish tint.
The degree of tint imparted will be determined by various factors, such as how much of the materials you use in your tank, how long they were boiled and soaked during the preparation process, if you're using activated carbon or other chemical filter media, and how much water movement is in your system. However, rest assured, almost any botanical materials you submerge in your tank will impart some color to the water.
Unfortunately, since botanicals are natural materials, there is no "recipe'; no formula with a set "X number of leaves/pods per ___ gallons of aquarium capacity", and you'll have to use your judgement as to how much is too much! It's as much of an "art" as it is a "science!"
Now, If you really dislike the tinted water, but love the look of the botanicals you can mitigate some of this by employing a lmuch onger "post-boil" soaking period- like over a week. Keep changing the water in your soaking container daily, which will help eliminate some of the accumulating organics, as well as to help you to determine the length of time that you need to keep soaking the botanicals to minimize the tint.
Of course, it's far easier to simply employ chemical filtration media, such as activated carbon, and/or synthetic adsorbents such as Seachem Purigen, to help eliminate a good portion of the excess discoloration within the display aquarium where the botanicals will ultimately "reside."
Another interesting phenomenon about "living with your botanicals" is that they will "redistribute" throughout the aquarium. They're being moved around by both current and the activities of fishes, as well as during our maintenance activities, etc. This is, not surprisingly, very similar to what occurs in Nature, where various events carry materials like seed pods, branches, leaves, etc. to various locales within a given body of water.
In our opinion, this movement of materials, along with the natural and "assisted" decomposition that occurs, will contribute to a surprisingly dynamic environment!
Your aquarium water may appear turbid at various times. We are pretty comfortable with this idea; however, some of you may not be. As bacteria act to break down botanical materials, they may impart a bit of "cloudiness" into the the water. Also, materials such as lignin and good old terrestrial soils/silt find their way into our tanks at times.
Some of these inputs, such as soils- are intentional! Others are the unintended by-product of the materials we use, The look is definitely different than what we as aquarists have been indoctrinated to accept as "normal." One of my good friends, and a botanical-style aquarium freak, calls this phenomenon "flavor"- and we see it as an ultimate expression of a truly natural-looking aquarium.
Yeah, the water itself becomes part of the attraction. The color, the "texture", and the clarity of the water are as engrossing and fascinating as the materials which affect it. It's something that you either love or simply hate...everyone who ventures into this method of aquarium keeping needs to make their own determination of wether or not they like it.
Need a bit more convincing to embrace the charm of the water itself in botanical-style aquariums?
Simply look at a natural underwater habitat, such as an igapo or flooded varzea grassland, and see for yourself the allure of these dynamic habitats, and how they're ripe for replication in the aquarium. You'll understand how the terrestrial materials impact the now aquatic environment- the function AND the aesthetic-fundamental to the philosophy of the botanical-style aquarium.
Speaking of the impact of terrestrial materials on the aquatic habitat- remember, too, that just like in Nature, if new botanicals are added into the aquarium as others break down, you'll have more-or-less continuous influx of materials to help provide enrichment to the aquarium environment. This type of "renewal" creates a very dynamic, ever-changing physical environment, while helping keep water chemistry changes to a minimum.
This is the perfect analog to the concept of "allochthonous input" which occurs in wild aquatic habitats- materials from outside the aquatic environment- such as the surrounding forest- entering and influencing the aquatic environment.
The fishes in your system may ultimately display many interesting behaviors, such as foraging activities, territorial defense, and even spawning, as a result of this regular influx of "fresh" aquatic botanicals. You could even get pretty creative, and attempt to replicate seasonal "wet" and "dry" times by adding new materials at specified times throughout the year...The possibilities here are as diverse and interesting as the range of materials that we have to play with!
Go into this with the expectation that you might get to experience an entirely different way of looking at aquariums- and the natural environments we try to replicate- and you'll never be disappointed.
It's all a part of your "life with botanicals"- an ever-changing, always interesting dynamic that can impact your fishes in so many beneficial ways.
Stay dedicated. Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
As we've all started to figure out by now, our botanical-influenced aquariums are a lot more of a little slice of Nature that you're recreating in your home then they are just a "pet-holding container."
The botanical-style aquarium is a microcosm which depends upon botanical materials to impact the environment.
This microcosm consists of a myriad of life format all levels and all sizes, ranging from our fishes, to small crustaceans, worms, and countless microorganisms. These little guys, the bacteria and Paramecium and the like, comprise what is known as the "microbiome" of our aquariums.
A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)
Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent:
We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-style aquarium is no different; in fact, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.
Yet, it's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist. In this little blog, we can't possibly cover every aspect of this- but we can touch on a few broad points that are really fascinating and impactful.
So much of this proces-and our understanding starts with...botanicals.
With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle.
Yeah, you understand the nitrogen cycle, right?
How do botanicals impact this process? Or, more specifically, the microorganisms that they serve?
In other words, does having a bunch of leaves and other botanical materials in the aquarium foster a larger population of these valuable organisms, capable of processing organics- thus creating a more stable, robust biological filtration capacity in the aquarium?
I believe that they do.
With a matrix of materials present, do the bacteria (and their biofilms- as we've discussed a number of times here) have not only a "substrate" upon which to attach and colonize, but an "on board" food source which they can utilize as needed?
Facultative bacteria, adaptable organisms which can use either dissolved oxygen or oxygen obtained from food materials such as sulfate or nitrate ions, would also be capable of switching to fermentationor anaerobic respiration if oxygen is absent.
Well, that's likely another topic for another time. Let's focus on some of the other more "practical" aspects of this "biome" thing.
Like...food production for our fishes.
In the case of our fave aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes, like biofilms and fungal mats are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the "biocover" on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials.
The biocover consists of stuff like algae, biofilms, and fungi. It provides sustenance for a large number of fishes all types.
And of course, what happens in Nature also happens the aquarium- if we allow it to, right? And it can function in much the same way?
I am of the opinion that a botanical-style aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the microorganisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!
Sustenence...from the microbiome.
It's well known that in many habitats, like inundated forests, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc.
And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...So I suggest once again that a botanical-style aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish and shrimp species!
Again, it's that idea about the "functional aesthetics" of the, botanical-style aquariums. The idea which acknowledges the fact that the botanicals we use not only look cool, but they provide an important function (supplemental food production) as well. As we repeat constantly, the "look" is a collateral benefit of the function.
This is a profoundly important idea.
Perhaps arcane to some- but certainly not insignificant.
And of course, we've talked before about this "botanical nursery" concept- creating an aquarium for fish fry that has a large quantity of decomposing botanicals and leaves to foster the production of these materials, which serve as supplemental food for your fish fry. I have done this before myself and can attest to its viability. You fishes will have a constant supply of "natural" foods to supplement what you are feeding them in the early phases of their life.
Learn to make peace with your detritus! As always, look to the wild aquatic habitats of the world for an example of how this food source functions within the greater biome.
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, in order to make the mental shifts which make this all work, we we have to accept Nature's input here.
Understand that, when we create a botanical-filled aquarium, not only do we have the opportunity to create an aquarium which differs significantly from those in years past- we have a unique window into the natural world and the role of these materials in the wild.
One thing that's very unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.
A profound mental shift...
And it's all about the microbiome. today's simple idea with enormous impact!
Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay observant. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
We so often discuss natural processes and features in our aquarium work.
There are a lot of interesting pieces of information that we can interpret from Nature when planning, creating, and operating our aquariums. The idea of replicating natural processes and occurrences in the confines of our aquariums, by simply setting up the conditions necessary for them to occur is fundamental to our botanical-oriented approach.
It goes without saying that there are implications for both the biology and chemistry of the aquatic habitats when leaves and other botanical materials enter them. Many of these are things that we as hobbyists observe every day in our aquariums!
Well, let's talk about our old friend and sometimes nemesis, biofilm.
A lab study I came upon found out that, when leaves are saturated in water, biofilm is at its peak when other nutrients (i.e.; nitrate, phosphate, etc.) tested at their lowest limits. Hmm...This is interesting to me, because it seems that, in our botanical-style aquariums, biofilms tend to occur early on, when one would assume that these compounds are at their highest concentrations, right? And biofilms are essentially the byproduct of bacterial colonization, meaning that there must be a lot of "food" for the bacteria at some point if there is a lot of biofilm, right?
Does this imply that the biofilms arrive on the scene and peak out really quickly; an indication that there is actually less nutrient in the water? Is the nutrient bound up in the biofilms? And when our fishes and other animals consume them, does this provide a significant source of sustenance for them? Can you have water with exceedingly low nutrient levels, while still having an abundant growth of biofilms?
Oh, and here is another interesting observation:
When leaves fall into streams, field studies have shown that their nitrogen content typically will increase. Why is this important? Scientists see this as evidence of microbial colonization, which is correlated by a measured increase in oxygen consumption. This is interesting to me, because the rare "disasters" that we see in our tanks (when we do see them, of course, which fortunately isn't very often at all)- are usually caused by the hobbyist adding a really large quantity of leaves at once, resulting in the fishes gasping at the surface- a sign of...oxygen depletion?
Makes sense, right?
These are interesting clues about the process of decomposition of leaves when they enter into our aquatic ecosystems. They have implications for our use of botanicals and the way we manage our aquariums. I think that the simple fact that pH and oxygen tend to go down quickly when leaves are initially submerged in pure water during lab tests gives us an idea as to what to expect.
A lot of the initial environmental changes will happen rather rapidly, and then stabilize over time. Which of course, leads me to conclude that the development of sufficient populations of organisms to process the incoming botanical load is a critical part of the establishment of our botanical-style aquariums.
Fungal populations are equally important in the process of breaking down leaves and botanical materials in water as are higher organisms, like insects and crustaceans, which function as "shredders." So the “shredders” – the animals which feed upon the materials that fall into the streams, process this stuff into what scientists call “fine particulate organic matter.”
And that's where fungi and other microorganisms make use of the leaves and materials, processing them into fine sediments. Allochthonous material can also include dissolved organic matter (DOM) carried into streams and re-distributed by water movement.
And the process happens surprisingly quickly, too.
In experiments carried out in tropical rainforests in Venezuela, decomposition rates were really fast, with 50% of leaf mass lost in less than 10 days! Interesting, but is it tremendously surprising to us as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts? I mean, we see leaves begin to soften and break down in a matter of a couple of weeks- with complete breakdown happening typically in a month or so for many leaves. And biofilms, fungi, and algae are still found in our aquariums in significant quantities throughout the process.
So, what's this all mean? What are the implications for aquariums?
I think it means that we need to continue to foster the biological diversity of animals in our aquariums- embracing life at all levels- from bacteria to fungi to crustaceans to worms, and ultimately, our fishes...All of which form the basis of a closed ecosystem, and perhaps a "food web" of sorts for our little aquatic microcosms.
It's a very interesting concept- a fascinating field for research for aquarists, and we all have the opportunity to participate in this on a most intimate level by simply observing what's happening in our aquariums every day!
And facilitating this process is remarkably easy:
*Approach building an aquarium as if you are creating a biome.
*Foster the growth and development of a community of organisms at all levels.
*Allow these organisms to grow and multiply.
*Don't "edit" the growth of biofilms, fungal growths, and detritus.
By accepting and embracing these changes and little "evolutions", we're helping to create really great functional representations of the compelling wild systems we love so much!
Leaf litter beds, in particular, tend to evolve the most, as leaves are among the most "ephemeral" or transient of botanical materials we use in our aquariums. This is true in Nature, as well, as materials break down or are moved by currents, the structural dynamics of the features change.
We have to adapt a new mindset when aquascaping with leaves- that being, the 'scape will "evolve" on its own and change constantly...Other than our most basic hardscape aspects- rocks and driftwood- the leaves and such will not remain exactly where we place them.
To the "artistic perfectionist"-type of aquarist, this will be maddening.
To the aquarist who makes the mental shift and accepts this "wabi-sabi" idea (yeah, I'm sort of channeling Amano here...) the experience will be fascinating and enjoyable, with an ever-changing aquascape that will be far, far more "natural" than anything we could ever hope to conceive completely by ourselves.
It's not something to freak out about.
Rather, it's something to celebrate! Life, in all of it's diversity and beauty, still needs a stage upon which to perform...and you're helping provide it, even with this "remodeling" of your aquascape taking place daily. Stuff gets moved. Stuff gets covered in biofilm.
Stuff breaks down. In our aquairums, and in Nature.
Some people cannot fully grasp that.
Recently, I had a rather one-sided "discussion" (actually, it was mostly him attacking) with a "fanboy" of a certain style of aquarium keeping, who seemed to take a tremendous amount of pleasure in telling me that "our interpretation of Nature" and our embrace of decomposing leaves, biofilms, detritus, and such is a (and I quote) "...setback for the hobby of aquascaping..." (which, those of you who know me and my desire to provoke reactions, understand that I absolutely loved hearing!) and that "it's not possible to capture Nature" with our approach... (an ignorant, almost beyond stupid POV. I mean, WTF does "capture Nature" mean? Word salad.)
I was like, "C'mon, dude. Really? This is NOT a style of aquascaping!"
We repeat this theme a million times a year here: Nature is really not always clean and tidy. In fact- most of the time, it isn't. And if you buy into the head-scratching hobby narrative that every pristine "high-concept" contest aquarium is somehow what Nature "looks like", you're simply fooling yourself.
Sure, there are some really clear, sparkling habitats out there in the world, but they represent the exception, really.
Additionally, I'll go out on a limb and suggest that none of them have tidy rows of symmetrically trimmed, color- balanced plants, or neatly arranged rocks of related size and proportion. 😆
This is directed at a small, but vocal, and apparently misinformed crowd, but I can't stress this enough:
If you really want to understand the natural aquatic habitats of our fishes, some of you have to get out of the idealized aquascaping mindset for a bit and stop dissing everything that doesn't fit your idea of the way the world should be, and just accept the realities which Nature presents...
I am actually surprised we still get the occasional DM like this.
So I occasionally push back a bit.
Okay, I'm not bragging that our avant-garde love of dirty, often chaotic-looking aquariums makes us cooler than the "sterile glass pipe-loving aquascaping crowd. It's not really even a comparison, but its typically that crowd which hurls the insults at our approach, so...😆
However, I do want everyone to understand the degree to which we love the concept of Nature in it's most compelling form, and how strongly we feel that we, as a global community of hobbyists need to look beyond what's regularly presented to us as a "natural aquarium" and really give this stuff some thought. We CAN and SHOULD interpret natural aquatic features more literally in our aquairums.
Now, not all of Nature requires us to make extreme aesthetic preference shifts in order to love it.
Well, maybe not all. A lot of it, though.
It's a very different type of "aesthetic beauty" than we are used to. It's an elegant, remarkably complex microhabitat which is host to an enormous variety of life forms. And it's a radical departure from our normal interpretation of how a tank should look. It challenges us, not only aesthetically- it challenges us to appreciate the function it can provide if we let it.
"Functional aesthetics." Again.
Our "movement" believes in representing Nature as it exists in both form and function, without "editing" the very attributes of randomness and resulting function that make it so amazing.
And it all starts with understanding and facilitating natural processes without "editing" them to meet some ingrained aesthetic preferences.
Can you do that? Can you make that mental shift?
I hope so. We'd love to have you here!
Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay enthralled...
And Stay Wet.