As you know, we receive a lot of questions around here about all sorts of aquarium-related topics. Usually, my answer is directly to the individual who asked, in the form of an email or DM. Sometimes, however, the answer is such that it is best addressed in the form of a blog post!
Recently, a hobbyist asked me what my opinion was of the botanical-style aquarium as a type of "aquascaping approach", and how it fits in the overall aquascaping "universe." Exactly what our "thing" is...
First, I start with my assertion that the botanical-style aquarium is NOT an aquascaping "style"- it's a methodology to create a more natural-functioning aquarium by utilizing botanical materials to "fuel" the process. The look is a "collateral benefit" of the methodology.
I admit, I've never really been much of an "aquascaper."
You know- those hobbyists who can take a few rocks and a piece or two of wood and turn them into some sort of amazing design. That takes amazing talent and vision. And I made peace with that decades ago! I greatly admire those true artists who can employ all sorts of technique, color-coordination, and ratio and such snd come up with some incredible stuff with seeming ease.
On the other hand, I look at a lot of aquascaping work, admire the effort and talent and such, and then get this feeling in my gut that I can't always explain. Well, I can, but it's not always...nice. Like, I look at many "modern scapes" and just kind of...yawn.
Ouch, I'm sounding like a proper asshole, I know.
But seriously, it's not that I think their work is shitty or something...I just find the "styles" of many of the beautiful tanks out there which the world goes crazy over to be just a bit..boring. Or, should I say- not my taste. Yeah, that's better.
It's weird, I do like certain planted tanks that just blow me away. Our friend, George Farmer, does amazing planted 'scapes which I would happily have in my own home if I had the talent. I love the work of our own Johnny Ciotti- a guy who was trained as a classic "Nature Aquarium Style" 'scaper, yet, a true artist who can take botanical elements and create stunning botanical-style aquariums with ease. Jeff Sense of Aquarium Design Group is another person who can work with just about any "media" you give him- rocks, wood, plants- and crank out something that is unmistakingly original, dynamic, and gorgeous.
I'll never be as talented as those guys. And I'm perfectly okay with that. I'm comfortable in my own skin. And it's largely because, a long time ago, I found what I truly love, and work with that. I think we should all have that degree of comfort with what we love. Sadly, many hobbyists don't- and feel that-in order to be considered "talented" or whatever- that they have to embrace a certain style or technique.
I often think about the so-called "diorama style" tanks that pop up in contests, and are all over Instagram or whatever. They require enormous talent to execute, but they're far more "art" than they are "natural aquariums", I suppose. And I guess that's what gets me- these weird fantasy scapes have live plants and glued-together rock and wood and stuff, but they are anything but "natural", IMHO.
I guess what gets me is that the aquascaping world lauds these scapes as "the shit"- and sure, they are fantastic- amazing work. When they're called "natural", that sends shivers down my spine...I mean, doesn't Nature offer scenes that are equally as complex, interesting, and challenging to pull off? And, with the added bonus that you can replicate the function of these habitats, I can't see why you don't see more representations of flooded forests, vernal pools, Pantanal meadows, etc. in the major aquascaping contests.
I imagine how amazing a tank one of those diorama-style 'scapers could pull off if he/she tried to replicate an actual aquatic habitat as found in Nature. With there talent and ability to bring a vision to life....wow! I mean, sure, such a tank won't have a beach scene, winding road into a forest, or a mountain range, or any of that other cliche stuff- but it will have all of the amazing vibrancy and intricate structure of natural aquatic habitats. The possibilities are endless.
I've postulated about why we don't see more of these things in contests..
However, the benefits of entering tanks like this would be many, including calling attention to the wonders of the natural world, and the precious wild habitats which are often threatened by human activities.
I think that a good part of the reason is that these natural habitats aren't "tight" from a design standpoint. They don't -on the surface, at least-seem to require any "discipline" in order to replicate. You have to cede a certain amount of your work to Nature. I think that freaks out a lot of artistic aquascapers.
Nature, and Her many ecological niches and features, provides an endless array of habitats to recreate in the home aquarium. And my "POV" has always been to look at these niches, figure out how and why they formed, and why they look the way that they do. By researching the processes which helped create the habitat, I'm challenged to create an aquarium which attempts to replicate both the form and the function of it.
Some of these habitats are not what you'd expect to see in an aquairum. They look- and function- fundamentally different from what we've worked with before.
Some of the aesthetics of these wild habitats freaks people out. They look so...random...so...undisciplined, if we were to ascribe artistic terms to them. It's a world where we set up the system to allow Nature to do the "finishing" work. It require s a certain trust in natural processes, and the ability to let go. The ability to realize that what we see is a "finished product" is only the very beginning.
"The Delta at the intersection between science and art.”
That's where I play.
I like it here. A lot of you do, too.
This "not quite a biotope aquarium" and "not quite an artistic aquascape" thing is the perfect "sweet spot" for my interest, attention, and skills. And I think it's the place where I can be most useful to the hobby. Biotope-inspired, I suppose. A more forgiving, easygoing "style" which places function over aesthetics, yet somehow always leads to something that I find aesthetically pleasing.
It's a strange, yet wonderful place, where I've made the many "mental shifts" that allow me to enjoy the beauty and elegance of stuff like decomposing leaves, sediment, biofilms, fungal growths, random aggregations of leaves, etc. A place where much of the attraction is because the aquariums I create are intended to let Nature do some of the work.
If I were forced (and yeah, "forced" is the right word, because there are no defining "rules" here...no way) to offer some defining characteristics of the "botanical-style" aquarium, I'd say that a certain "randomness", actually, is it.
I mean, we're all about replicating what happens in Nature, NOT about perfectly proportioned placements and such. Now, I must admit, some of the world-class aquascapers that have worked with our botanicals have applied these concepts to these types of aquariums and have produced stunning results.
However, I think the "raw" botanical aquarium "essence" is about a certain degree of randomness.
I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a scene like the ones we're talking about starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept of "mise en scene", where pieces literally set the stage and help tell a story by providing context.
Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in nature.
I suppose this little rant could be viewed as a "defense" our "style", which on occasion has been criticized as "sloppy", "lazy", "undisciplined", etc...😆
Perhaps it is to some. However, I think it serves to re-examine what I feel is one of the foundational philosophies of the botanical-style aquarium "aesthetic."
I must confess, it's an aesthetic which certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, many in the mainstream aquascaping world tended to levy all sorts of "constructive criticisms" and "Yeah, but..." comments about our practices and ideas for a while...Less these days, BTW!
And that is part of the attraction of this the of aquarium for me. Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for very basic initial design, and lets Mother Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.
I think that there is a certain hunger for something different in the hobby right now. I feel that we've dedicated most of this century to figuring out ways to push back against Nature's processes. We've spent a tremendous amount of time looking for ways to remove things that we don't feel belong in our tanks: Algae, biofilms, decomposition, etc. Stuff that we, as a hobby, feel to be unwelcome, unattractive, and even "detrimental."
And quite honestly, I think we see these things as undesirable or "unsafe" because they are artifacts of outdated thinking...holdovers from a time when we felt that our technology gave us the edge to accomplish what Nature couldn't.
And of course, the reality is that the technology can accomplish some of these things, like nutrient export, heat control, circulation, etc.-but what really powers the miniature ecosystems which our aquariums actually are- is the microbiome: Fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, the process of decomposition, etc. Stuff which looks distasteful to many, yet stuff that is fundamental to the function-and yeah, the look- of our tanks.
It's not just a look. Not just an aesthetic. Not just a mindset...
It's a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much.
And, It's still early days.
A ground floor opportunity for every aquarist who gives this stuff a shot to make a meaningful- and beautiful contribution to the evolving state of the art of the botanical-style aquarium., and to share what Nature really looks like with people all over the world.
I'm fascinated by the "mental adjustments" that we need to make to accept the aesthetic and the processes of natural decay, fungal growth, the appearance of biofilms, and how these affect what's occurring in the aquarium. It's all a complex synergy of life and aesthetic.
And we have to accept Nature's input here.
Nature dictates the speed by which this decomposition process occurs. We set the stage for it- but Nature is in full control. As an aquarist with a botanical-style aquarium, it's our "job" to observe and know when- or if- to intervene by adding or removing botanicals as they break down.
The great Takashi Amano's whole idea in a nutshell was to replicate Nature to a certain extent by accepting it and laying a conceptual groundwork for it to unfold. (Just look at all of the pics of grassy fields and moss-covered fenceposts in Amano's books. He got it. He felt something.) Now, granted, his general aesthetic involved plants and what seems to be a natural-looking aquascape, although executed in an intentionally artistic way.
There is nothing wrong with this. Some of the world's most beautiful aquariums were/are created this way.
However, what I noticed over time in the freshwater world was an almost obsessive, rigid adherence to certain parts of Amano's formula and aesthetic; specifically, ratios, placement of hardscape and plants, and a certain type of aesthetic formula that one had to replicate in order to gain legitimacy or "acceptance" from the community.
I really don't think it was Amano's intent.
"Wabi-sabi", the Japanese philosophy which embraces the ephemeral nature of the existence of things, was/is a key concept in Amano's approach, and it still is.
I think it's fallen into a bit of "disuse", though, in the "Nature Aquarium" movement, as aquarists aspired to replicate the style proffered in his works, perhaps trying to by-pass what seemed to be a less exciting -or less immediately rewarding- part of his approach.
I think that this is why we have some many "diorama-style" tanks in competitions, with "details" like twigs and roots glued to wood...and I also think it's why we see more and more serious aquascapers taking another look at a more realistic type of aquarium utilizing botanicals. Aquariums which embrace decay, detritus, biofilms, and a less "ratio-centric", more "random" natural look.
I think many aquascapers are simply tired of overly-stylized and are leaning back into a truly more natural look. And maybe...perhaps- they're starting to come around to the idea of "functional aesthetics', too!
A less rigidly aesthetically-controlled, less "high-concept" approach to setting the stage for...Nature- to do what she's done for eons without doing as much to "help it along." Rather, the mindset here is to allow nature to take it's course, and to embrace the breakdown of materials, the biofilms, the decay...and rejoice in the ever-changing aesthetic and functional aspects of a natural aquatic system- "warts and all" -and how they can positively affect our fishes.
Wabi-Sabi? Yeah, I think so. I think we embody the concept beautifully.
The initial skepticism and resistance to the idea of an aquarium filled with biofilms, decomposition, and tinted water has given way to enormous creativity and discovery. Our community has (rather easily, I might add!) accepted the idea that Nature will follow a certain "path"- parts of which are aesthetically different than anything we've allowed to occur in our tanks before- and rather than attempting to mitigate, edit, or thwart it, we're celebrating it!
I think this is where Tannin Aquatics falls, if you had to nail us down into one specific "stylistic/philosphical approach" to aquariums.
The "space between", so to speak. Sort of straddling multiple approaches, with Nature as the ultimate "critic."
This can take us to some really cool places.
Let's go there.
Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
Yes, I admit that we talk about some rather obscure topics around here. Yet, many of these topics are actually pretty well known, and even well-understood by science. We just haven't consciously applied them to our aquarium work...yet.
One of the topics that we talk about a lot are food webs. To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.
So, what exactly is a food web?
A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community.
All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.
So, a trophic level in our case would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...
In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.
In many of the blackwater aquatic habitats that we're so obsessed with around here, like the Rio Negro, for example, studies by ecologists have determined that the main sources of autotrophic sources are the igapo, along with aquatic vegetation and various types of algae. (For reference, autotrophs are defined as organisms that produce complex organic compounds using carbon from simple substances, such as CO2, and using energy from light (photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.)
Hmm. examples would be phytoplankton!
Now, I was under the impression that phytoplankton was rather scarce in blackwater habitats. However, this indicates to scientists is that phytoplankton in blackwater trophic food webs might be more important than originally thought!
Now, lets get back to algae and macrophytes for a minute. Most of these life forms enter into food webs in the region in the form of...wait for it...detritus! Yup, both fine and course particular organic matter are a main source of these materials. I suppose this explains why heavy accumulations of detritus and algal growth in aquaria go hand in hand, right? Detritus is "fuel" for life forms of many kinds.
In Amazonian blackwater rivers, studies have determined that the aquatic insect abundance is rather low, with most species concentrated in leaf litter and wood debris, which are important habitats. Yet, here's how a food web looks in some blackwater habitats : Studies of blackwater fish assemblages indicated that many fishes feed primarily on burrowing midge larvae (chironomids, aka "Bloodworms" ) which feed mainly with organic matter derived from terrestrial plants!
And of course, allochtonous inputs (food items from outside of the ecosystem), like fruits, seeds, insects, and plant parts, are important food sources to many fishes. Many midwater characins consume fruits and seeds of terrestrial plants, as well as terrestrial insects.
Insects in general are really important to fishes in blackwater ecosystems. In fact, it's been concluded that the the first link in the food web during the flooding of forests is terrestrial arthropods, which provide a highly important primary food for many fishes.
These systems are so intimately tied to the surrounding terrestrial environment. Even the permanent rivers have a strong, very predictable "seasonality", which provides fruits, seeds, and other terrestrial-originated food resources for the fishes which reside in them. It's long been known by ecologists that rivers with predictable annual floods have a higher richness of fish species tied to this elevated rate of food produced by the surrounding forests.
And of course, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes. The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter!
Sounds familiar, huh?
So, how does a leaf break down? It's a multi-stage process which helps liberate its constituent compounds for use in the overall ecosystem. And one that is vital to the construction of a food web.
The first step in the process is known as leaching, in which nutrients and organic compounds, such as sugars, potassium, and amino acids dissolve into the water and move into the soil.The next phase is a form of fragmentation, in which various organisms, from termites (in the terrestrial forests) to aquatic insects and shrimps (in the flooded forests) physically break down the leaves into smaller pieces.
As the leaves become more fragmented, they provide more and more surfaces for bacteria and fungi to attach and grow upon, and more feeding opportunities for fishes!
Okay, okay, this is all very cool and hopefully, a bit interesting- but what are the implications for our aquariums? How can we apply lessons from wild aquatic habitats vis a vis food production to our tanks?
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides nutrient processing, and to some degree, a self-generating population of creatures with nutritional value for our fishes, on a more-or-less continuous basis.
Incorporating botanical materials in our aquariums for the purpose of creating the foundation for biological activity is the starting point. Leaves, seed pods, twigs and the like are not only "attachment points" for bacterial biofilms and fungal growths to colonize, they are physical location for the sequestration of the resulting detritus, which serves as a food source for many organisms, including our fishes.
Think about it this way: Every botanical, every leaf, every piece of wood, every substrate material that we utilize in our aquariums is a potential component of food production!
The initial setup of your botanical-style aquarium will rather easily accomplish the task of facilitating the growth of said biofilms and fungal growths. There isn't all that much we have to do as aquarists to facilitate this but to simply add these materials to our tanks, and allow the appearance of these organisms to happen.
You could add pure cultures of organisms such as Paramecium, Daphnia, species of copepods (like Cyclops), etc. to help "jump start" the process, and to add that "next trophic level" to your burgeoning food web.
In a perfect world, you'd allow the tank to "run in" for a few weeks, or even months if you could handle it, before adding your fishes- to really let these organisms establish themselves. And regardless of how you allow the "biome" of your tank to establish itself, don't go crazy "editing" the process by fanatically removing every trace of detritus or fragmented botanicals.
When you do that, you're removing vital "links" in the food chain, which also provide the basis for the microbiome of our aquariums, along with important nutrient processing.
So, to facilitate these aquarium food webs, we need to avoid going crazy with the siphon hose! Simple as that, really!
Yeah, the idea of embracing the production of natural food sources in our aquariums is elegant, remarkable, and really not all that surprising. They will virtually spontaneously arise in botanical-style aquariums almost as a matter of course, with us not having to do too much to facilitate it.
It's something that we as a hobby haven't really put a lot of energy in to over the years. I mean, we have spectacular prepared foods, and our understanding of our fishes' nutritional needs is better than ever.
Yet, there is something tantalizing to me about the idea of our fishes being able to supplement what we feed. In particular, fry of fishes being able to sustain themselves or supplement their diets with what is produced inside the habitat we've created in our tanks!
A true gift from Nature.
I think that we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts really have to get it into our heads that we are creating more than just an aesthetic display. We need to focus on the fact that we are creating functional microcosms for our fishes, complete with physical, environmental, and nutritional aspects.
Food production- supplementary or otherwise- is something that not only is possible in our tanks; it's inevitable.
I firmly believe that the idea of embracing the construction (or nurturing) of a "food web" within our aquariums goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the botanical-style aquarium. With the abundance of leaves and other botanical materials to "fuel" the fungal and microbial growth readily available, and the attentive husbandry and intellectual curiosity of the typical "tinter", the practical execution of such a concept is not too difficult to create.
We are truly positioned well to explore and further develop the concept of a "food web" in our own systems, and the potential benefits are enticing!
Work the web- in your own aquarium!
Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
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.
We've spent a lot of time over the least several years talking about the idea of recreating specialized aquatic systems. We've talked a lot about transitional habitats- ecosystems which alternate between terrestrial and aquatic at various times of the year. These are compelling ecosystems which push the very limits of conventional aquarium practice.
As you know, we take a "function first" approach, in which the aesthetics become a "collateral benefit" of the function. Perhaps the best way to replicate these natural aquatic systems inner aquariums is to replicate the factors which facilitate their function. So, for example, let's look at our fave habitats, the flooded forests of Amazonia or the grasslands of The Pantanal.
To create a system that truly embraces this idea in both form and function, you'd start the system as a terrestrial habitat. In other words, rather than setting up an "aquarium" habitat right from the start, you'd be setting up what amounts to a terrarium. Soil/sand, terrestrial plants and grasses, leaves, seed pods, and "fallen trees/branches" on the "forest floor."
You'd run this system as a terrestrial display for some extended period of time- perhaps several weeks or even months, if you can handle it- and then you'd "flood" the terrestrial habitat, turning it into an aquatic one. Now, I'm not talking about one of our "Urban Igapo" nano-sized tanks here- I"m talking about a full-sized aquarium this time.
This is different in both scale and dynamic. After the "inundation", it's likely that many of the plants and grasses will either go dormant or simply die, adding other nutrient load in the aquarium.
A microbiome of organisms which can live in the aquatic environment needs to arise to process the high level of nutrients in the aquarium. Some terrestrial organisms (perhaps you were keeping frogs?) need to be removed and re-housed.
The very process of creating and populating the system during this transitional phase from terrestrial to aquatic is a complex, fascinating, and not entirely well-understood one, at least in the aquarium hobby. In fact, it's essentially a virtually unknown one. We simply haven't created all that many systems which evolve from terrestrial to aquatic.
Sure, we've created terrariums, paludariums, etc. We've seen plenty of "seasonally flooded forest" aquairums in biotope aquarium contests...But this is different. Rather than capturing a "moment in time", recreating the aquatic environment after the inundation, we're talking about recreating the process of transformation from one habitat to another.
Literally, creating the aquatic environment from a terrestrial one.
Psychologically, it would be sort of challenging!
I mean, in this instance, you've been essentially running a "garden" for several months, enjoying it and meeting the challenges which arise, only to embark several months later on a process which essentially destroys what you've created, forcing you to start anew with an entirely different environment, and contend with all of its associated challenges (the nitrogen cycle, nutrient control, etc.)
Modeling the process.
Personally, I find this type of approach irresistible. Not only do you get to enjoy all sorts of different aspects of Nature- you get to learn some new stuff, acquire new skills, and make observations on processes that, although common in Nature, were previously unrecorded in the aquarium hobby.
You'll draw on all of your aquarium-related skills to manage this transformation. You'll deal with a completely different aesthetic- I mean, flooding an established, planted terrestrial habitat filled with soils and plants will create a turbid, no doubt chaotic-looking aquascape, at least initially.
This is absolutely analogous to what we see in Nature, by the way.Seasonal transformations are hardly neat and tidy affairs.
Yes, we place function over form. However, that doesn't mean that you can't make it pretty! One key to making this interesting from an aesthetic perspective is to create a hardscape of wood, rocks, seed pods, etc. during the terrestrial phase that will please you when it’s submerged.
You'll need to observe very carefully. You'll need to be tolerant of stuff like turbidity, biofilms, algae, decomposition- many of the "skills"we've developed as botanical-style aquarists.You need to accept that what you're seeing in front of you today will not be the way it will look in 4 months, or even 4 weeks.
You'll need incredible patience, along with flexibility and an "even keel.”
We have a lot of the "chops" we'll need for this approach already! They simply need to be applied and coupled with an eagerness to try something new, and to help pioneer and create the “methodology”, and with the understanding that things may not always go exactly like we expect they should.
For me, this would likely be a "one way trip", going from terrestrial to aquatic. Of course, much like we've done with our "Urban Igapo" approach, this could be a terrestrial==>aquatic==>terrestrial "round trip" if you want! That's the beauty of this. You could do a complete 365 day dynamic, matching the actual wet season/dry season cycles of the habitat you're modeling.
The beauty is that, even within our approach to "transformational biotope-inspired" functional ecosystems, you CAN take some "artistic liberties" and do YOU. I mean, at the end of the day, it's a hobby, not a PhD thesis project, right?
Yeah. Plenty of room for creativity, even when pushing the state of the art of the hobby! Plenty of ways to interpret what we see in these unique ecosystems.
Habitats which transition from terrestrial to aquatic require us to consider the entire relationship between land and water- something that we have paid scant little attention to in the aquarium hobby, IMHO.
And this is unfortunate, because the relationships and interdependencies between aquatic habitats and their terrestrial surroundings are fundamental to our understanding of how they evolve and function.
There are so many other ecosystems which can be modeled with this approach! Floodplain lakes, streams, swamps, mud holes...I could go on and on and on. The inspiration for progressive aquariums is only limited to the many hundreds of thousands of examples which Nature Herself has created all over the planet.
We should look at nature for all of the little details it offers. We should question why things look the way they do, and postulate on what processes led to a habitat looking and functioning the way it does- and why/how fishes came to inhabit it and thrive within it.
With more and more attention being paid the overall environments from which our fishes come-not just the water, but the surrounding areas of the habitat, we as hobbyists will be able to call even more attention to the need to learn about and protect them when we create aquariums based on more specific habitats.
The old adage about "we protect what we love" is definitely true here!
And the transitional aquatic habitats are a terrific "entry point"into this exciting new area of aquarium hobby work.
Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay resourceful. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
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.
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.
Of all of the topics we cover here in "The Tint", the one we discuss the least (rather shockingly, I might add) is the fishes that we keep in our tanks! Yeahs, I talk more about fungi, sediments, decomposition, and leaf litter than I do about fishes...
And of course, when someone hit me up the other day and asked, "Scott, what are your favorite fishes for botanical-style aquariums?" I was like, "Well, shit- I never even covered that!" I mean, we should have covered that before. It's a cool topic. I'm kind of unsure why, actually.
Probably because most of the articles on this topic are kind of...oh, crap, I'll say it- just boring. Ever read one of those "Top 10" listicle thingys about fishes? They usually-well, suck. Harsh, but they're kind of boring, IMHO. I mean, they talk about the size of the fish, what it eats, and what size tank you can keep it in. I mean, helpful, but..I dunno. Boring. Stuff you can pretty much find in any aquarium-related reference. You don't come here for that, I hope... So, we'll try to cover these fishes from "a slightly different perspective", as I like to say.
So, let's hit that topic today! Okay, let's hit some of it today...my list is longer than my patience to discuss them all in one piece! And I'll try my best not to do it the boring way...
Oh, damn, I might have a bunch of fishes...but I don't think I'm gonna cover all of them today...
Give me a break- it's a start, right?
Now, here's the thing- you'll find that my fish choices are as much based upon the habitats that they come from as they are about the fishes themselves..
Okay, so let's get this party started...
In no particular order ( well, maybe in a sort of order..):
Sailfin Characin (Crenuchus spilurus)
We've all had that ONE fish which just sort of occupies a place in our hearts and minds- a fish that-for whatever reason- bites you and never lets go, right? I think that every serious aquarist has at least one such a fish..
Of course, it's also about the habitat which this fish lives in that's kept me under its spell for so long...
As a lover of leaf-litter in our natural, botanical-style aquariums, I am fascinated not only by this unique ecological niche, but by the organisms which inhabit it. I've went on and on and spoken at length about many of the microorganisms, fungi, insects, and crustaceans which add to the diversity of this environment. And of course, we've looked at some of the fishes which live there, too! Perhaps not enough, actually...
One of my all-time favorite fishes- and my absolute favorite characin is none other than the amazing "Sailfin Tetra", Crenuchus spilurus! This is a truly awesome fish- not only is it attractive and morphologically cool-looking, it has a great demeanor and behaviors which separate it from almost every other characin out there!
I first fell for this fish as a kid, when I saw a cool pic of it in my dad's well-worn copy of William T. Innes' classic book, Exotic Aquarium Fishes. The book that pretty much assured me from toddler days that I'd be a fish geek. I obsessed over the book before I could even read...
I was hooked from the start with Crenuchus, especially when reading about the romantic etymology of the name! And it just seemed so "mysterious" and unattainable, even in the 1930's...well, especially back in the 1930's, but it seemed downright exotic! To this day, it's one you just don't see too much of in the hobby. And then, tying it together with my love of those leaf-litter-strewn habitats, it was a combo which I couldn't resist!
I never got this fish out of my system, and it took me like 30-plus years of being a fish geek to find this fish in real life. And, you know that I jumped at the chance..It was so worth the wait!
It's almost "cichlid-like" in behavior: Intelligent, interactive, and endearing. It has social behaviors which will entertain and fascinate those who are fortunate enough to keep it.
Now, I admit, it's definitely NOT the most colorful characin on the planet. But there is more than this fish than meets the eye.
It all starts with its most intriguing name...
The Latin root of the genus Crenuchus means "Guardian of The Spring"- a really cool, even romantic-sounding name which evokes imagery-and questions! Does it mean the "protector" of a body of water, or some honorary homage to everyone's favorite season? Not sure, but you must agree that the name is pretty cool! In greek, it's krenoychos -"The God of running waters."
Yeah. That's the shit. I mean, do Latin names get any cooler than that?
The Crenuchidae (South American Darters) is a really interesting family of fishes, and includes 93 species in 12 genera throughout the Amazon region. Most crenuchids are- well, how do we put it delicately- "chromatically challenged" ( ie; grey-black-brown) fishes, which tend to lie in wait near the substrate (typically leaf litter or aggregations of branches), feeding on insects and micro invertebrates. And the genus Crenuchus consists of just one species, our pal Crenuchus spilurus, a fish which shares habits and a body shape that are more commonly associated with Cyprinids and...cichlids!
That's just weird.
Now, the relatively subdued coloration serves a purpose, of course. These fishes live among leaf litter, root tangles, and botanical debris..in tinted water...which demand (if you don't want to be food for bigger fishes and birds) some ability to camouflage yourself effectively.
The Sailfin is an exception to the "drab" thing, and it's remarkably attractive for a very "simple" benthic-living fish. Sure, on the surface, it's not the most exciting fish out there, especially when it's a juvenile...but it's a fish that you need to be patient with; a fish to search for, collect, hold onto, and enjoy as it matures and grows. As the fish matures, in true "ugly duckling"🐥 style, it literally "blossoms" into a far more attractive fish.
The males have an extended dorsal and anal fin, and are larger and more colorful than females. Yes, colorful is relative here, but when you see a group- you'll notice the sexual dimorphism right away, even among juveniles.
Individuals spend a lot of their time sheltered under dead leaves, branches, roots, and aquatic plants. They tend to "hover", and don't dart about like your typical Tetra would. In fact, their behavior reminds me of the Dartfishes of the marine aquarium world...They sort of sit and flick their fins, often moving in slow, deliberate motions. Communication? Perhaps.
The Sailfin feeds during the daylight hours, and spends much of its day sheltering under branches, leaves, and root tangles, and is a mid-water feeder, consuming particulate organic matter, such as aquatic invertebrates, insects, bits of flowers, and fruits- the cool food items from outside of the aquatic environment that form what ecologists call allochthonous input-materials from outside of the aquatic habitat, which are abundant in the terrestrial habitats surrounding the aquatic ones which we love to model our aquariums after.
Tucano Tetra (Tucanoichthys tucano)
You all know by now that my philosophy is to study and understand the environments from which our fishes come, and to replicate them in function and form as best as possible. It doesn't always mean exactly- but it's definitely NOT forcing them to adapt to our "local tap water "conditions without any attempt to modify them.
I have a very current "case study" of my own that sort of reflects the execution of my philosophy.
As many of you know, I've had a long obsession with the idea of root tangles and submerged accumulations of leaves, branches, and seed pods. I love the silty, sedimented substrates and the intricate interplay of terrestrial plant roots with the aquatic environment.
I was doing a geeky "deep dive" into this type of habitat in Amazonia one evening, and stumbled upon this gem from a scientific paper by J. Gery and U. Romer in 1997:
"The brook, 80-200cm wide, 50-100 cm deep near the end of the dry season (the level was still dropping at the rate of 20cm a day), runs rather swiftly in a dense forest, with Ficus trees and Leopoldina palms...in the water as dominant plants. Dead wood. mostly prickly trunks of palms, are lying in the water, usually covered with Ficus leaves, which also cover the bottom with a layer 50-100cm thick. No submerse plants. Only the branches and roots of emerge plants provide shelter for aquatic organisms.
The following data were gathered by the Junior author Feb 21, 1994 at 11:00AM: Clear with blackwater influence, extremely acid. Current 0.5-1 mv/sec. Temp.: Air 29C, water 24C at more than 50cm depth... The fish fauna seems quite poor in species. Only 6 species were collected I the brook, including Tucanoichthys tucano: Two cichlids, Nannacara adoketa, and Crenicichla sp., one catfish, a doradid Amblydoras sp.; and an as yet unidentified Rivulus, abundant; the only other characoid, probably syncopic, was Poecilocharax weitzmani."
Yeah, it turned out to be the ichthyological description of the little "Tucano Tetra", Tucanoichthys tucano, and was a treasure trove of data on both the fish and its habitat. I was taken by the decidedly "aquarium reproducible" characteristics of the habitat, both in terms of its physical size and its structure.
Boom! I was hooked.
I needed to replicate this habitat! And how could I not love this little fish? I even had a little aquarium that I had been dying to work with for a while.
It must have been "ordained" by the universe, right?
Now, I admit, I wasn't interested in, or able to safely lower the pH down to 4.3 ( which was one of the readings taken at the locale), and hold it there, but I could get the "low sixes" nailed easily! Sure, one could logically call me a sort of hypocrite, because I'm immediately conceding that I won't do 4.3, and I suppose that could be warranted...
However, there is a far cry between creating 6.2pH for my tank, which is easy to obtain and maintain for me, and "force-fitting" fishes to adapt to our 8.4pH Los Angeles tap water!
And of course, with me essentially trashing the idea of executing a hardcore 100% replication of such a specific locale, the idea was essentially to mimic the appearance and function of such an igarape habitat, replete with lots of roots and leaf litter.
And the idea of executing it in a nano-sized aquarium made the entire project more immediately attainable and a bit less daunting. I wanted to see if I could pull off a compelling biotope-inspired aquairum on a small scale.
That's where my real interest was.
So, even the "create the proper conditions for the fish instead of forcing them to adapt to what's easiest for us" philosophy can be nuanced! And it should! I don't want to mess with strong acids at this time. It's doable...a number of hobbyists have successfully. However, for the purposes of my experiment, I decided to happily abstain for now, lol.
And without flogging a dead horse, as the horrible expression goes, I think I nailed many of the physical attributes of the habitat of this fish. By utilizing natural materials, such as roots, which are representative of those found in the fish's habitat, as well as the use of Ficus and other small leaves as the "litter" in the tank, I think we created a cool biotope-inspired display for these little guys!
And man, I love this tank!
Being able to pull off many aspects of the look, feel and function of the natural habitat of the fish was a really rewarding experience. A real "case study" for my philosophy of fish selection and stocking.
Green Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon simulans)
Everyone knows the Neon Tetra, Paracheirodon inessi. It's a strong candidate for the title of "Official fish of the Aquarium Hobby!" Of course, there other members of the genus Paracheirodon which hobbyists have become enamored with, such as the diminutive, yet equally alluring P. simulans, the "Green Neon Tetra." Topping out at around 3/4" (about 2cm) in length, it's certainly deserving of the hobby label of "nano fish!"
You can keep these little guys in nice -sized aggregations..I wouldn't necessarily call them "schools", because, as our friend Ivan Mikolji beautifully observes, "In an aquarium P. simulans seem to be all over the place, each one going wherever it pleases and turning greener than when they are in the wild."
This cool little fish is one of my fave of what I call "Petit Tetras." Hailing from remote regions in the Upper Rio Negro and Orinoco regions of Brazil and Colombia, this fish is a real showstopper! According to ichthyologist Jacques Gery, the type locality of this fish is the Rio Jufaris, a small tributary of the Rio Negro in Amazonas State.
One of the rather cool highlights of this fish is that it is found exclusively in blackwater habitats. Specifically, they are known to occur in habitats called "Palm Swamps"( locally known as "campos") in the middle Rio Negro. These are pretty cool shallow water environments! Interestingly, P. simulans doesn't migrate out of these shallow water habitats (less romantically called "woody herbaceous campinas" by aquatic ecologists) like the Neon Tetra (P. axelrodi) does. It stays to these habitats for its entire lifespan.
These "campo" habitats are essentially large depressions which do not drain easily because of the elevated water table and the presence of a soil structure, created by our fave soil, hydromorphic podzol! "Hydromorphic" refers to s soil having characteristics that are developed when there is excess water present all or part of the time.
(Image by G. Durigan)
So, if you really want to get hardcore about recreating this habitat, you'd use immersion-tolerant terrestrial plants, such as Spathanthus unilateralis, Everardia montana, Scleria microcarpa, and small patches of shrubs such as Macairea viscosa, Tococa sp. and Macrosamanea simabifoli. And grasses, like Trachypogon.
Of course, our fave palm, Mauritia flexuosa and its common companion, Bactris campestris round out the native vegetation. Now, the big question is, can you find any of these plants? Perhaps...More likely, you could find substitutes.
Just Google that shit! Tons to learn about those plants!
These habitats are typically choked with roots and plant parts, and the bottom is covered with leaves and fallen palm fronds...This is right up our alley, right?
Of course, if you really want to be a full-on "baller" and replicate the natural habitat of these fishes as accurately as possible, it helps to have some information to go on! So, here are the environmental parameters from these "campo" habitats based on a couple of studies I found:
The dissolved oxygen levels average around 2.1 mg/l, and a pH ranging from 4.7-4.3. KH values are typically less than 20mg/L, and the GH generally less than 10mg/L. The conductivity is pretty low.
The water depth in these habitats, based on one study I encountered, ranged from as shallow as about 6 inches (15cm) to about 27 inches (67cm) on the deeper range. The average depth in the study was about 15" (38cm). This is pretty cool for us hobbyists, right? Shallow! I mean, we can utilize all sorts of aquariums and accurately recreate the depth of the habitats which P. simulans comes from!
We often read in aquarium literature that P. simulans needs fairly high water temperatures, and the field studies I found for this fish this confirm this.
Average daily minimum water temperature of P. simulans habitats in the middle Rio Negro was about 79.7 F (26.5 C) between September and February (the end of the rainy season and part of the dry season). The average daily maximum water temperature during the same period averaged about 81 degrees F (27.7 C). Temperatures as low as 76 degrees' (24.6 C) and as high as 95 degrees F (35.2 C) were tolerated by P. simulans with no mortality noted by the researchers.
Bottom line, you biotope purists? Keep the temperature between 79-81 degrees F (approx. 26 C-27C).
Researchers have postulated that a thermal tolerance to high water temperatures may have developed in P. simulans as these shallow "campos" became its only real aquatic habitat.
The fish preys upon that beloved catchall of "micro crustaceans" and insect larvae as its exclusive diet. Specifically, small aquatic annelids, such as larvae of Chironomidae (hey, that's the "Blood Worm!") which are also found among the substratum, the leaves and branches.
Now, if you're wondering what would be good foods to represent this fish's natural diet, you can't go wrong with stuff like Daphnia and other copepods. Small stuff makes the most sense, because of the small size of the fish and its mouthparts.
This fish would be a great candidate for an "Urban Igapo" style aquarium, in which rich soil, reminiscent of the podzols found in this habitat is use, along with terrestrial vegetation. You could do a pretty accurate representation of this habitat utilizing these techniques and substrates, and simply forgoing the wet/dry "seasonal cycles" in your management of the system.
There are a lot of possibilities here.
One of the most enjoyable and effective approaches I've taken to keeping this fish was a "leaf litter only" system (which we've written about extensively here. Not only did it provide many of the characteristics of the wild habitat (leaves, warm water temperatures, minimal water movement, and soft, acidic water).
So, maybe you've noticed a pattern to my love of certain fishes...so much is based upon the habitats that they come from. My love for the fishes was amplified when I studied and learned more about the unique habitats from which each of these fishes come. The idea of recreating various aspects of the habitat as the basis for working with these fishes is irresistible to me!
Diptail or Brown Pencilfish (Nanostomus eques)
This one really should have been the top choice if I were doing it in order. I LOVE everything about this fish. Well, almost everything.
Honestly, if a fish could earn the moniker "cool", this little guy would be it. It's absolutely not an overstatement to declare that these Pencilfishes have distinct personalities! They're not "mindless-drone, stupid schooling fishes", like some of the Tetras. (Sorry, my homies...Love ya' lots, but alas- you have no individual personalities...😂)
They are proud members of the family family Lebiasinidae. It was first described in 1876 by the legendary ichthyologist, Franz Steindachner. In fact, it was one of the first members of the genus Nanostomus to be discovered and described by science.
Cool, but that's not my main reason for loving this fish. There's a bunch of unique aspects to this fish's behavior which I find enormously compelling.
The Latin name of the species, eques, means "knight", "horseman", or "rider", in reference to this species’ unique oblique swimming angle.
Ah, that "oblique swimming angle" thing. Yeah, they swim at an angle of about 45 degrees facing upwards. This angle is thought to give them an advantage in feeding. They see insects and such that fall from overhanging vegetation better than their horizontally-oriented buddies do. They get more food that way. Simple.
(Image by Fajoe, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
What I really love about these fish is that they are incredibly curious and obviously intelligent, checking out just about anything which goes on in their aquarium. You get the feeling when observing them that they are acutely aware of their surroundings, and once acclimated, are pretty much fearless. A fellow hobbyist once told me she thinks they're the freshwater equivalent of Pipefish...and that sounds about right..I agree with that 100%!
They're sociable, incredibly "chill" fish. Now, the thing about their ability to adeptly feed on allochthonous input into the aquatic environment makes them easy to feed. And it also gives you some clues as to the habitats they come from. Places where the food comes from the surrounding terrestrial environment.
Foods from the surrounding environment, such as flowers, fruits, terrestrial insects, etc. These are extremely important foods for many fish species that live in these habitats. We mimic this process when we feed our fishes prepared foods, as stuff literally "rains from the sky!" Now, I think that what we feed to our fishes directly in this fashion is equally as important as how it's fed.
The environments which provide this food abundance also provide lots of opportunities to replicate in our aquariums. I love that about this fish. They come from really cool, really inspiring habitats.
They are also really adept at picking on epiphytic materials in their botanical-style aquariums. It's an observation I've made many times with these fish.
Yeah, they seem to spend a large amount of time picking at biofilm and other material adhering to botanicals, and specifically, wood. They engage in this activity almost constantly throughout the day (between feedings, of course!). I am convinced that they are likely not specifically targeting the biofilm directly; rather, I think that they're looking for tiny crustaceans and other life forms that live in the matrix.
Nonetheless, their picking distrubs the films and puts it into suspension, where it can more easily be removed by filtration. This was an unexpected "plus" of this most beloved group of fishes. Now, I must warn you, biofilm haters- you shouldn't even consider Pencilfishes as a biofilm "control mechanism", but I suppose that to you heathens, the "collateral benefit" is nice.
They are very aware, very adept feeders...Always ready to pounce.
What's the thing I don't like about these fish?
Oh, they can be a bit skittish. Like, chill as they are, "stuff" just freaks them out.
They will, for seemingly no reason, launch themselves out of your open-top aquarium (well, those are the only types I keep...) with tremendous agility-sometimes landing a few inches away in the tank...Other times, completely leaving the tank, and well- usually this results in a very dried-out Pencilfish!
I guess the oblique swimming angle facilitates them reaching "escape velocity" rapidly. You get the feeling that they're always in "standby for launch!" mode. Like, full-on "defcon-5" mode.
Maybe, because they're always looking UP- the slightest disturbance from BELOW triggers a launch. I don't know, but it's as good a theory as any. And a 3-inch launch gets you away from a potential predator. A 6-inch launch lands you on the floor... Damn, a good adaptation for protection, this "launching" thing. But, like, who really wants to eat a Pencilfish, right? I guess the Pencilfish don't know that...They just jump. Millenia of genetic programming can't be overcome easily!
It sucks, but it's the downside to keeping them in open-top tanks. Lots of twisted branches and even floating plants DO help limit some of this "carpet surfing" behavior, but it's not a 100% perfect solution. I admit, These guys have, in the past played a central role in some of those "And then there were none" disappearing fish sagas that I've experienced over the years.
So, if you can keep them in a low- traffic area, employ lots of branches, and maybe some floating plants...maybe you'll avoid this.
I mean, these methods also occasionally work with Hatchetfishes...another fave of mine, but almost too suicidal, even for me. And that's why they are not in my top 10 list, if you're wondering..
Okay, I could probably do a top 10, or even a dozen- fave fishes, but I'd be writing all day on this topic. Honorable mention- The Checkerboard Cichlid (Dicrossus filamentosus)... My "go-to" cichlid for botanical-style tanks...I love them- even over Apistos...And, as one of my friends told me, "Of course you do Scott- they're fucking brown!"
Damn, my friends really know me well, huh?
Just try them in your next botanical-style aquarium. You won't regret it. Maybe we'll deep dive in the "Fellman style" on these guys next time...
Okay that's a start... I think I can safely employ the great line used by one of the aquarium hobby's great saltwater fish experts, Scott Michael, who, upon discussing such-and-such a fish would simply declare in a deadpan manner, "If you don't keep these fish, you're stupid.."
How can you argue with THAT kind of assertion? I totally relate to that. Well, shit- you asked me what my faves are...you knew I'd have some strong feelings about them, huh? 😆
Anyhow, I hope this little start gives you a look into the unorthodox way I think about the fish I select for my aquariums: So much of it is about studying a habitat I love, and then researching what fishes are found in it- and why. Then, creating the habitat for them. Like, "habitat-first." Totally works for me.
I hope it works for you too!
Until Next time...
Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
One of the best things about not having a lot of tanks in operation at the moment (Wait, let's correct that...the ONLY good thing about not having a lot of tanks in operation at the moment...😆) is that it gives you the opportunity to plan, review, and plot your next moves.
I'm in such a phase at home, with my house undergoing a substantial remodel and all of my "full-size" tanks in storage for a couple more months. As I've told you previously, it's given me the opportunity to play with a lot of ideas quickly in "nano-sized" aquariums.
And of course, I've thought s lot about how I'm going to start up my next botanical-style tanks.
Here's an approach I'm trying on one of them. I call it the "transitional" approach.
Okay, we've tackled our "Urban Igapo" idea a bunch of times here, with the technique being described and studied quite a bit. Now, the repetition of wet and dry "seasonal cycles" in the aquarium, although fascinating and the most novel takeaway from this approach, is but one way to apply the idea of evolving a "dry forest floor" into an aquatic habitat.
This is one of the most incredible and fascinating ecological dynamics in Nature, and it's something that we as a hobby have not attempted to model to any extent, until we started messing around with the idea of replicating it around 2017. Again, we're not talking about replicating the 'look" of a flooded forest after it's been flooded...That has been done for years by hobbyists, particularly in biotope design contests. An "aquascaping" thing.
This is a bit different.
We're talking about actually replicating and flooding the damn forest floor! Replicating the cycle of inundation. It's a functional approach, requiring understanding, research, and patience to execute. And the aesthetics...They will follow, resembling what you see in Nature. But the primary reason is NOT for aesthetics...
So, the way this would work is to simply set up the tank like our "standard" approach to creating an "Urban Igapo"- utilizing a sedimented substrate (um, yeah, we make one....) to create a "forest floor." And then, you add leaves, botanicals, and perhaps, some terrestrial grass seeds, and even riparian plants.
You'd set whatever "hardscape" you want- driftwood, etc. in place. Of course, you'd have to water your little forest floor for some period of time, allowing the vegetation to sprout and grow. Based on the many times of played with the "Igapo" idea, this process typically takes around 2-3 months to establish the growth well.
And then what? Well, you'd flood it!
You could do this all at one time, or over the course of several days, depending upon your preference. I mean, you've waited a couple of months to add water to your tank...what's another few days? 😆 Now, sure, there's a difference between a 5-gallon tank and a 50- gallon tank, and it takes a lot longer to fill, so it's up to you how you want to approach this!
And what you'd initially end up with is a murky, tinted environment, with little bits of leaves, botanicals, and soil floating about. Sounds like a blast, huh? And when you think about it, this is not all that different, at least procedurally, from the "dry start" approach to a planted tank...except we're not talking about a planted tsmnk here.. I mean, you could do aquatic plants...but it's more of a "wholistic biome" approach...
The interesting thing about this approach is that you will see a tank which "cycles" extremely quickly, in my experience. In fact, Iv'e done many iterations of "Urban Igapo" tanks where there was no detectible "cycle" in the traditional sense. I don't have an explanation for this, except to postulate that the abundance of bacterial and microorganism growth, and other life forms, like fungal growths, etc., powered by the nutrients available to them in the established terrestrial substrate expedites this process dramatically.
That's my theory, of course, and I could be way, way off base, but it is based on my experience and that of others in our community over the past several years. I mean, there is a nitrogen cycle occurring in the dry substrate, so when it's inundated, do the bacteria make the transition, or do they perish, followed by the very rapid colonization by other species, or..?
An underwater biome is created immediately with this approach. Doing this type of "transition" is going to not only create a different sort of underwater biodiversity, it will have the "collateral benefit" of creating a very different aesthetic as well. And yeah, it's an aesthetic that will be dictated by Nature, and will encompass all of those things that we know and love- biofilms, fungal growth, decomposition, etc.
I've done this in aquariums up to 10 gallons so far, with great success, so I'm completely convinced that this process can be "scaled up" easily. The technique is the same.
Now, one fundamental difference between this approach and the more "traditional" "Urban Igapo" approach is that it's a "one way trip"- start our dry and take it to "wet", without going through repetitive dry cycles. The interesting thing to me about this approach is that you're going to have a very nutrient-rich aquarium habitat, with a big diversity of life from the start.
It's still early days.
There is so much to learn and experiment with. Every single one of us, when we embark on a botanical-style aquarium adventure- is playing a key role in contributing to the "state of the art" of the aquarium hobby! Everycontribution is important...
Enjoy the process!
Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay experimental. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.