Throwing some light on blackwater...

It goes without saying that the single most important component of our aquariums is also the most obvious...water! As the literal bearer of life and the environment in which our fishes, plants, and other organisms thrive, it's fundamental. it's the reason we're drawn to fishes, not gerbils, Tarantula, or Mice- or whatever other pets people keep!

Yeah, we're into water!

And I dear say that we take it for granted a bit.

Now, sure, some hobbyist rightfully place the importance of good quality, properly-conditioned water at the very top of their "want list" of "Stuff" required for successful aquariums. These are often fish breeders and very serious hobbyists, who understand the fundamental importance of good water for their work.

Some of the most common questions we receive lately are "How much _______ do I need to get my water to look like________?" or "How much_______ is needed to lower the pH in my tank?" Or, "How much do I need to get a good amount of humic substances and tannins into my aquarium?"

I usually respond with a simple, "I don't know."

These are all really good questions. Logical. Important.  I kind of feel like many hobbyists are looking for a plug-and-play "formula" or "recipe" for how to accomplish certain water-conditioning tasks.

I totally get that. But the reality is...there IS no "recipe" for how to do this stuff.

And it sucks, I know.

"Why, Scott? I read that you can just add some of this blackwater extract that you can buy online, and maybe add some catappa leaves, and..."

Stop. STOP. Please, we're just making this painful.

Simply adding leaves or bottled extracts to your tap water isn't going to result in "Instant Amazon" or whatever. There are numerous complexities and nuances which contribute to these habitats that to simply recommend adding "X" to your water isn't the whole story.

There are so many variables in the equation that it's almost impossible to give a definitive answer. And yeah, us guys in the botanical biz haven't really helped the situation. Over the years, vendors who sold catappa leaves, for example, would recommend starting amounts ("three leaves per 15 liters of water" or whatever...) of botanical materials to use in aquariums.

I mean, we've sort of done it, too...And, although our recommended "dosage" of leaves was given for different reasons (to avoid adding too much material to your tank too quickly), the idea of a "recipe" in general is kind of delusional, IMHO.

Now, this was all well and good, but it's based on....what? I mean, is this based on how many leaves of _______ size that a typical hobbyist with a 10-gallon aquarium needs to get the water "looking brown?" Or to lower tap water with a starting pH of 7.4 and a KH of ___ to pH of 6.9? Or to impart "x" ppm of tannins or humic substances into this given quantity of water?

See? Add to this story the fact that you really can't soften water and make it more "malleable" by using botanicals or extracts alone, and you've got a good case for confusion! It's just not that simple.

Maybe we can gain a bit of understanding- or at least, an appreciation for the dynamics of this process, by looking once again to Nature.

Have you very thought about how water reaches all of the wild aquatic systems of the world? I mean, it's got to get there some way, right? So, how does it reach the ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers and forest floors of the world?

Well, some simply falls into the body of water directly from the sky, and that's that. Some is a result of other overflowing streams and rivers (like, ya' know- those flooded Igapo forests we talk about!). Inputs of precipitation falling over the area of an aquatic habitat are transferred to the habitat via a number of different pathways.

It's surprisingly complicated.

There's like a whole field of science devoted to studying this process! It's called Hydrology, and it's incredibly interesting...As fish geeks, we're probably already acquainted with this field of study, at least tangentially! 

So, water comes from a variety of sources, reaching a myriad of ecological niches. However, not all of the water has such an easy journey on its way into our favorite aquatic habitat!

Even in the case of rainwater, some of it simply lands on tree leaves in the surrounding area and evaporates. This is a process scientists call "interception", and accounts for the fact that not all water makes it to the ground. Water that does reach the ground enters the soil through a process called infiltration. slowly percolating down to soil areas known as the "saturated zone"- and as you'd imagine, this is where the fun really begins! (to a soil geologist, at least!)

The soil properties control the infiltration capacity; these include things like soil permeability, the presence of vegetation and plant roots, and how much water is already in the soil. Through what is known as "ground water flow", ultimately, the water finds it way into our favorite aquatic habitats. It's important to note that soil texture ( the relative proportion of sand, silt and clay particles within the mix) affects infiltration rates. 

Sandy soils like the "podzols", common to forested areas of South America that we've talked about have higher permeability than some clay-based soils. In some really arid areas a "crust" can form on the soil surface, decreasing the permeability. And of course, the thickness of the soil directly affects how much water the soil can actually absorb.

And, in many cases, the substrate composition and its relationship with water has direct impact on the life forms which inhabit these aquatic systems. In the case of some habitats, like vernal pools, which are filled with water seasonally, the substrate is of critical importance to the aquatic life forms which reside there.

Yeah, soils and geology are perhaps the primary driver of water composition in Nature. 

Let's talk more about "blackwater."

In a blackwater environment, the color is a visual indicator of an influx of dissolved materials that contribute to the "richness" of the environment. Indeed, a blackwater environment is typically described as an aquatic system in which vegetation decays, creating  tannins that leach into the water, making a transparent, acidic water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.

But, that's not the whole story, really.

It’s important to really try to understand the most simple of questions- like, what exactly is “blackwater”, anyways?

A scientist or ecologist will tell you that blackwater is created by draining from older rocks and soils (in Amazonia, look up the “Guyana Shield”), which result in dissolved fulvic and humic substances, present small amounts of suspended sediment, and characterized by lower pH (4.0 to 6.0) and dissolved elements, yet higher SiOcontents. Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium, and Calcium concentrations are typically very low in blackwater. Electrical conductivity (ORP) is also lower than in so-called "whitewater" habitats.

Tannins are also imparted into the water by leaves and other botanical materials which accumulate in these habitats.

 

The action of water upon fallen leaves and other botanical-derived materials leaches various compounds out of them, creating the deep tint that many of us are so familiar with. Indeed, this "leaching" process is analogous to boiling leaves for tea. The leached compounds are both organic and inorganic, and include things like tannin, carbohydrates, organic acids, pectic compounds, minerals, growth hormones, alkaloids, and phenolic compounds.

Most of the of the extractable substances in the surface litter layer are humic acids, typically coming from decaying plant material. Scientists have concluded that greater input of plant litter leads to greater input of humic substances into ground water.

In other words, those leaves that accumulate on the substrate are putting out significant amounts of humic acids, as we've talked about previously! And although humic substances, like fulvic acid, are found in both blackwater and clear water habitats, the organic detritus (you know, from leaves and such) in blackwater contains more extractable fulvic acid than in clearwater  habitats, as one might suspect!

The Rio Negro, for example, contains mostly humic acids, indicating that suspended sediment selectively adsorbs humic acids from black water.  The low concentration of suspended sediments in rivers like the Rio Negro is one of the main reasons why high concentrations of humic acids are maintained. With little to no suspended sediment, there is no "adsorbent surface" (other than the substrate of the river, upon which these acids can be taken hold of (adsorb).

When you think about it, all of this this kind of contributes to why blackwater has the color that it does, too. Blackwater in the Amazon basin is colored reddish-brown. Why? Well, it has  those organic compounds dissolved in it, of course. And most light absorbtion is in the blue region of the spectrum, and the water is almost transparent to red light, which explains the red coloration of the water!

And many of those organic compounds come from the surrounding land, as touched on above...

In summary, natural "blackwaters" typically arise from highly leached (tropical) environments where most of the soluble elements in the surrounding rocks and soils are rapidly removed by heavy rainfall. Materials such as soils are the primary influence on the composition of blackwater.

Leaves and other materials contribute to the process and appearance in Nature, but are NOT the primary “drivers” of its creation and composition.

 

So, right from the start, it’s evident that natural blackwater is “all about the soils…” Yeah, I'll repeat it again: It’s more a product of geology than just about anything else. 

More confusing, recent studies have found that most of the acidity in black waters can be attributed to dissolved organic substances, and not to dissolved carbonic acid. In other words, organic acids from compounds found in soil and decomposing plant material, as opposed to inorganic sources. Blackwaters are almost always characterized by high percentages of organic acids.

Despite the appearance, as a general rule, blackwater rivers are lower in nutrients than clear rivers. Wouldn't it be interesting, when contemplating more natural biotope/biotype aquariums, to study and take into consideration the surrounding geology and physical characteristics of the habitat?  Too recreate the habitat based on the soil or geological composition of the surrounding terrestrial environment?

As we know now, the influence of factors like soil, and the presence of terrestrial materials like seed pods, leaves, and branches play a huge role in the chemical composition and appearance-of the water. It's really no different in the aquarium, right?

Like so many things in nature, the complexity of blackwater habitats is more than what meets the eye. Chemically, biologically, and ecologically, blackwater habitats are a weave of interdependencies- with soil, water, and surrounding forest all functioning together to influence the lives of the fishes which reside within them. No single factor could provide all of the necessary components for fish populations to thrive.

To damage or destroy any one of them could spell disaster for the fishes- and the ecosystem which supports them. It is therefore incumbent upon us to understand, protect, and cherish these precious habitats, for the benefit of future generations. 

And with regards to our aquarium work?

Although there may even be breakthroughs in terms of blackwater extracts and additives coming to market, there are still a lot of questions that would have to be answered before we could simply state that "X" drops per gallon of such an such a formula would yield a specific outcome. This reminds me of the reef aquarium world more an more, lol.

So, if I've made any "argument" here, it's that this stuff is every bit as much of an "art"- in terms of aquarium keeping- as it is a "science." We will, at least for the foreseeable future, have to use the data we have available and formulate a best guess as to how much of what can give us some of the impacts we are interested in for our aquariums.

We simply can't authoritatively make blanket statements like, "You need to use "X" catappa leaves per gallon in order to recreate Rio Negro-like conditions in your aquarium!" We can't simply state that you can throw in some podzolic soil and achieve blackwater, either. There are many factors in play, as we've discussed here, right?

Marketing hyperbole aside, we really are sort of...guessing.

And that's certainly nothing to be discouraged about!

We, as a community, are getting deeper into the functional aspects of blackwater, botanical-style aquariums than ever before. More light is being shed on what's going on in both our aquariums and in the natural habitats we desire to replicate. We are learning more every day about how the presence of tannins and humic substances in our aquariums is affecting the health, longevity, and spawning behaviors of our blackwater fishes.

We're learning about the challenges and realities of managing blackwater systems over the long term- understanding the good, the bad, and the dangerous possibilities that are present when we experiment with these ideas.

There is much, much more work to be done..And a lot of talented hobbyists like yourself are out there on the front lines every day, contributing to the body of knowledge that will benefit the hobby for generations!

Stay persistent. Stay bold. Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay disciplined...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Accumulating botanical materials...and mental toughness!

They say that Nature abhors a vacuum...

Nature also seems to like to accumulate stuff, doesn't it? 

Natural watercourses are really good at accumulating terrestrial materials, creating inviting habitats for fishes. They serve not only as physical locales for fishes to forage an hide amongst, they provide a huge habitat for a variety of other organisms which support the fishes.

And of course, these are compelling aquatic features for us fish geeks to replicate in our aquariums, aren't they? They are, and perhaps provide the basic "role model" for the botanical-style aquairum.

These aggregations of materials occur all the time in Nature, and they're caused by a variety of things; typically, weather events, which drive materials off of the trees overhead, or from the surrounding terrestrial habitats into the water. Currents caused by rising water levels move the materials along, until they might be caught up among various benthic features, like fallen trees, branches, rocks, etc.

Yeah, as you'd imagine, stream and river bottom composition is completely affected by things like weather, current, geology, the surrounding terrestrial habitat, and a host of other factors- all of which could make planning your next aquarium even more interesting if you take them into consideration! 

According to one study I read, eventually, most of the organic debris is deposited on the stream bottom or drifts downstream until it becomes trapped by a variety of natural obstacles.

If we focus on streams, it's important to note that the volume of water entering the stream, and the depth of the channels it carves out, helps in part determine the amount and size of materials which accumulate, as well as the sediment particles that can be carried along, and thus comprise the substrate of this habitat. .

And of course, the composition of bottom materials and the depth of the channel are always changing in response to the flow in a given stream, affecting the composition and ecology in many ways.

Some leaf litter beds form in what stream ecologists call "meanders", which are stream structures that form when moving water in a stream erodes the outer banks and widens its "valley", and the inner part of the river has less energy and deposits silt- or in our instance, leaves.

There is a whole, fascinating science to river and stream structure, and with so many implications for understanding how these structures and mechanisms affect fish population, occurrence, behavior, and ecology, it's well worth studying for aquarium interpretation!  Did you get that part where I mentioned that the lower-energy parts of the water courses tend to accumulate leaves and sediments and stuff?

Likely you did!

Permanent streams will often have different volume and material composition (usually finely-packed sands and gravels, with lots of smooth stones) than more intermittent streams, which are the result of inundation caused by rain, etc.

So-called "ephemeral" streams, typically occur only immediately after rain events (which means they usually don't have fish in them unless they are washed into them from more permanent watercourses). The latter two stream types are typically more affected by leaves, botanical debris, branches, and other materials.

In the Amazon region (you knew I was sort of headed back that way, right?), it sort of works both ways, with the rivers influencing the surrounding land...and then the land "giving" some of the materials back to the rivers...the extensive lowland areas bordering the river and its tributaries, known as varzeas (“floodplains”), are subject to annual flooding, which helps foster enrichment of the aquatic environment.

Land and water, working together, provide and amazing resource for the adventurous and interested hobbyist to explore in greater detail.

The important, and overriding Thieme of many aquatic habitats which we try to replicate in the hobby is that they accumulate quantities of terrestrial materials. These materials don't just impact the physical characteristics of these habitats, they influence the ecology as well. As we know by now, terrestrial materials, when submerged in water, leach soluble compounds into the water, impacting the chemistry.

They also tend to recruit fungal growths and biofilms, which in turn serve to not only decompose the terrestrial materials- they tend to attract fishes to graze upon them! Terrestrial materials form the basis of a rich, surprisingly complex aquatic ecology. A food web arises.

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.

Interestingly, in streams, the primary producers of the food webs that attract our fishes are...algae and diatoms, which are typically found on rocks and wood wherever light and nutrients create optimum conditions for their growth. Organic material that enters streams via leaf fall is acted upon by small organisms, which help break it down.

It is probably no surprise, then, that bacteria (especially in biofilms!) and fungi are the initial consumers of the organic materials that accumulate on the bottom. Like, the stuff many of us loathe. These, in turn, are extremely vital to fishes as a food source. Hence, one of the things I love so much about utilizing a leaf litter bed as a big part of your substrate composition in an aquarium!

We are able to establish rudimentary food webs in our aquariums. It's pretty easy, if we don't try to clean the crap out of our tanks and remove every bit of organic matter which we deem offensive to our aesthetic sensibilities! Remember, all of that material which we freak out about is someone's next meal, isn't it? It's consumed. The various organisms which arise when we allow leaves, branches, seed pods and other materials to accumulate and decompose in our tanks help see to that.

Yes, aquariums are different than wild aquatic habitats, but they have many characteristics which are analogous to them. And, sure, we typically don't maintain completely "open" systems, but I wonder just how much of the ecology of these fascinating habitats we can replicate in our tanks-and what potential benefits may be realized?

I'm willing to bet that it's a lot more than we think. However, we have to start somewhere, right?

It all starts with adding and accumulating terrestrial materials in our tanks, and allowing an ecology to grow up around them. It's that simple- and that complex, right? It falls on us- the hobbyists- NOT to go crazy and try to intervene too much. We need to exercise restraint- to let the natural processes which power our aquariums arise, assemble, and thrive.

Hands off! 

That's my continuing challenge to our community..

Yeah, we have to let stuff go a bit. It's really hard for a lot of hobbyists to do this. We're essentially trained from the beginnings of our aquarium experience to scrub, polish, and siphon out everything which doesn't meet some definition of "acceptable."

We've been told that algae growth or fungal growths on our wood or substrate are bad, and must be removed. We've been encouraged to siphon out any decomposing materials, and that stuff like detritus is the source of untold disaster if we let it accumulate in our tanks.

It's hard to make this mental shift. I know. I've been trying to convince people to take this path for the better part of the past decade, and it's finally catching on. Skeptics and haters abound- more than ever, now, as these ideas have gained traction in the aquarium hobby.

It's 100% counterintuitive to everything we've been indoctrinated to believe. And worse, we're asking you to have faith that "stuff will work out" in your tank when you see all of this biofilm and fungal growth, turbid water, decomposition, and perhaps even algae. Stuff that the so-called "Nature Aquairum" crowd would absolutely shit their pants over. 

Well, this IS Nature, boys and girls. 

This is Planet Earth.

And yeah, you're actually not 100% in control. It's not the sanitized, organized, highly stylized "Nature" of your fantasies. It's the "Nature" that's perfectly imperfect, filled with non-ratioed, seemingly disorganized aggregations of materials, and life forms covering everything. You have to cede some of the work in your tank to Nature. You'll "go through some things." Some of the stuff you'll see will be "ugly" to you.

Or, will it be?

Will you perhaps study some of the wild aquatic habitats of the world where our fishes come from, see what makes them function the way that they do- and draw a parallel between what you're seeing in your tank, and what you're seeing in Nature?

 

Will you hang on?

Will you "wait out" what appears to be an endless explosion of gooey stringy stuff coming out of your leaves, wood, and  and botanicals, and allow your tank to achieve it's own form of equilibrium? Or, will you reach for the siphon hose and pull it all out, disrupting some of Natures's most elegant, valuable, and efficient processes in order to "re-set" and achieve some sort of "instant gratification" that you were told that a spotless, sterile-looking tank will provide?

Yeah. Re-setting the whole thing.

Doing things the way we've done them in then hobby for decades because they give you the predictable results in a short amount of time...

Or, will you see the real beauty of unedited Nature in your very own tank? And the amazing way Nature works it out...If you let Her.

 

That's the adventure- the challenge of the botanical-style aquarium. A methodology filled with inexact, unconventional, yet well-known natural processes. A methodology which asks you to make some leaps of faith, some educated guesses, and to play some hunches. An evolving, not entirely predictable path to a dynamic, truly remarkable aquarium.

You can do this. You might fail, but you'll likely succeed, especially if you put your faith in Nature.

Be strong. Be patient. Be experimental.

Hang on through the weird, uncomfortable, uncertain, unknown stuff. It's worth it. 

Stay bold. Stay open minded. Stay curious. Stay the course...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the dynamics of the "Urban Igapo"

I've always been fascinated by environments which transform from dry, terrestrial ones to lush aquatic ones during the course of the year. I remember as a kid visiting a little depression in a field near my home , which, every spring, with the rains would turn into a little pond, complete with frogs, Fairy Shrimp, and other life forms. I used to love exploring it, and was utterly transfixed by the unique and dynamic seasonal transition.

The thrill and fascination of seeing that little depression in the ground, which I later learned was called a "vernal" or "temporal" pool by ecologists, never quite left me. As a fish geek, I knew that one day I'd be able to incorporate what I had seen into my fish keeping hobby...somehow.

About 5 years ago, I got a real "bug up my ass", as they say, about the flooded forests of South America. There is something alluring to me about the way these habitats transition between terrestrial and aquatic at certain times of the year. The migration of fishes and the emergence of aquatic life forms in a formerly terrestrial environment fascinates me- as does the tenacity of the terrestrial organisms which hang on during these periods of inundation. 

So, I began playing with aquariums configured to replicate the function and form of these unique habitats. I spent a lot of time studying the components of the Igapo and Varzea environments- the soils, plants, fauna, etc., and learning the influences which lead to their creation and function.  

Once I had a grasp of the way these dynamic ecologies work, the task of attempting to recreate them in the aquarium became more realistic and achievable. I realized that, although hobbyists have created what they call "Igapo" simulations in biotope contests for years, for example, it was always a representation of the "wet" season.  Essentially a living "diorama" of sorts. Not really a true simulation of the seasonal dynamics which create these habitats.

They were cool, but something was somehow missing to me. With those representations, you throw in some leaves, twigs, and seed pods, maybe a few plants, and call your tank a "flooded forest."  I mean, essentially a botanical-style aquairum, although the emphasis was on appearance, not function. That wasn't really that difficult to do, nor much of a advancement in the current state of the art of aquarium keeping. I could do that already. Rather, I wanted to recreate the process- all of it- or as much as possible- in my aquariums.

Thus, the idea of the "Urban Igapo"- a functional representation of a transitional aquatic habitat was born. 

The concept behind the "Urban Igapo" is pretty straightforward:

The idea is to replicate to a certain extent, the seasonal inundation of the forests and grasslands of of Amazonia by starting the tank in a 'terrestrial phase", then slowly inundating it with water over a period of weeks or more; then, running the system in an "aquatic phase" for the duration of the 'wet season", then repeating the process again and again.  

 

Because you can do this in the comfort of your own home, we called the concept the "Urban Igapo." About 2 years ago, we went more in depth with some of the procedures and techniques that you'd want to incorporate into your own executions of the idea.

 

As with so many things in the modern aquarium hobby, there is occasionally some confusion and even misunderstandings about why the hell we do this in the first place! 

Well, that's a good question! I mean, the whole idea of this particular approach is to replicate as faithfully as possible the seasonal wet/dry cycles which occur in these habitats. It starts with a dry or terrestrial environment, managed as such for an extended period of time, which is gradually flooded to simulate inundation which occurs when the rainy season commences and swollen rivers and streams overflow into the forest or grassland.

Sure, you can replicate the "wet season" only- absolutely. I've seen tons of tanks created by hobbyists to do this. However, if you want to replicate the seasonal cycle- the real magic of this approach- you'll find as I did that it's more fun to do the "dry season!"

Think of it in the context of what the aquatic environment is- a forest floor or grassland which has been flooded. If you develop the "hardscape" (gulp) for your tank with that it mind, it starts making more sense. What do you find on a forest floor or grassland habitat? Soil, leaf litter, twigs, seed pods, branches, grasses, and plants.

 Just add water, right?

Well, sort of.

Now, recently, one of my friends who was presenting his experiences with this approach was just getting pounded on a forum by some, well- let's nicely call them "skeptics"- you know, the typical internet-brave "armchair expert" types- about why you'd do this and how it can't lead to a stable aquarium and how it's "not a blackwater aquarium" (okay, it wasn't presented as such, but it could be...) and that it's just a "dry start" (Well, sort of, but you have to understand the concept behind it, dude), and that you don't need to do it this way and...well- that kind of stuff.

I mean, the full compliment of negative, ignorant, questions by people clearly frightened about someone trying to do something a little differently. In a typical display of online-warrior hypocrisy, one particularly nasty hack did not even bother to research the idea or think about what it was really trying to do before laying into my friend.

Apparently, for these people, there was a lot to unpack.

I mean, first of all, the idea was not intended to be a "dry start" planted tank. It just wasn't. I mean, it starts out "dry", but that's where the similarity ends. This ignorant comment is a classic example of the way some hobbyists make assumptions based on a superficial understanding of something.

We aren't trying to grow aquatic plants here. It's about creating a habitat of terrestrial plants snd grasses, allowing them to establish, snd then inundating the display. Most of the terrestrial grasses will simply not survive extended periods of time submerged. Now, you COULD add adaptable aquatic plants- there are no "rules"- but the intention was to replicate a seasonal dynamic. 

The other point, which is utterly lost on some people, is that establishing a "transitional" environment in an aquarium takes time and patience. One dummy literally called the process "complete nonsense" and a "waste of time." This is exactly the kind of self-righteous, ignorant hobbyist who will never get it. In fact, I'm surprised guys like that actually have any success at anything in the hobby.

Such a dismissive and judgmental attitude. 

So, once again, let's contemplate what happens in Nature in the "rainy season" in say, the Amazon Basin.

 

The wet season in The Amazon runs from November to June. And it rains almost every day. And what's really interesting is that the surrounding Amazon rain forest is estimated by some scientists to create as much as 50% of its own precipitation! Think about THAT for a minute. It does this via the humidity present in the forest itself, from the water vapor present on plant leaves- which contributes to the formation of rain clouds.

Yeah, trees in the Amazon release enough moisture through photosynthesis to create low-level clouds and literally generate rain, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)!

That's crazy.

But it makes a lot of sense, right?

Yet another reason why we need to protect these precious habitats. You cut down a tree in the Amazon- you're literally reducing the amount of rain that can be produced.

It's that simple.

That's really important. It's more than just a cool "cocktail party sound bite."

So what happens to the (aquatic) environment in which our fishes live in when it rains? What does the rain actually do?

Well, for one thing, rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia, for example- is the evolution of our most compelling environmental niches. The water levels in the rivers rise significantly. often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams.

The Igapos are formed. 

Flooded forest floors.

The formerly terrestrial environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and spawning areas.

All of the botanical material-shrubs, grasses, fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute the leaves and seed pods and branches into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape.

Leaves begin to accumulate.

Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans multiply rapidly.  Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.

Life flourishes.

So, yeah, the rains have a huge impact on tropical aquatic ecosystems. And it's important to think of the relationship between the terrestrial habitat and the aquatic one when visualizing the possibilities of replicating nature in your aquarium in this context.

It's an intimate, interrelated, "codependent" sort of arrangement!

To replicate this process is really not difficult. The challenging part is to separate what we are trying to do here from our preconceptions about how an aquarium should work. To understand that the resulting aquatic display won't initially look or function like anything that we're already familiar with.

While it superficially resembles the "dry start" method that many aquatic plant enthusiasts play with, it's important to remember that our goal isn't to start plants for a traditional aquarium. It's to establish terrestrial growth and to facilitate a microbiome of organisms which help create this habitat. It's to replicate, on some levels, the year-round dynamic of the Amazonian forests. We favor terrestrial plants- and grasses-grown from seed, to start the "cycle."

So, those of you who are ready to downplay the significance of experimenting with this stuff because "people have done 'dry start' planted tanks for years", take comfort in the fact that I recognize that, and acknowledge that we're taking a slightly different approach here, okay?

 

You'll need to create a technical means or set of procedures to gradually flood your "rainforest floor" in your tank, which could be accomplished manually, by simply pouring water into the vivarium over a series of days; or automatically, with solenoids controlling valves from a reservoir beneath the setup, or perhaps employing the "rain heads" that frog and herp people use in their systems. This is all very achievable, even for hobbyists like me with limited "DIY" skills.

You just have to innovate, and be willing to do a little busy work. You can keep it incredibly simple, and just utilize a small tank.

You must be patient.

And of course, there are questions. Here are some of the major/common ones we receive about this concept:

Does the grass and plants that you've grown in the "dry season" survive the inundation?

A great question. Some do, some don't. (How's that for concise info!). I've played with grasses which are immersion tolerant, such as Paspalum. This stuff will "hang around" for a while while submerged for about a month and a half to two months, in my experience, before ultimately succumbing. Sometimes it comes back when the "dry season" returns. However, when it doesn't survive, it decomposes in the now aquatic substrate, and adds to the biological diversity by cultivating fungi and bacteria.

You can use many plants which are riparian in nature or capable of growing emmersed, such as my fave, Acorus, as well as all sorts of plants, even aquatics, like Hydrocotyle, Cryptocoryne, and others. These can, of course, survive the transition between aquatic and "terrestrial" environments.

How long does the "dry season" have to last?

Well, if you want to mimic one of these habitats in the most realistic manner possible, follow the exact wet and dry seasons as you'd encounter in the locale you're inspired by. Alternatively, I'd at least go 2 months "dry" to encourage a nice growth of grasses and plants prior to inundation.

And of course, you cans do this over and over again! If you're trying to keep fishes like annual killifishes, the "dry season" could be used on the incubation period of their eggs.

When you flood the tank, doesn't  it make a cloudy mess? Does the water quality decline rapidly? 

Sure, when you add water to what is essentially a terrestrial "planter box", you're going to get cloudiness, from the sediments and other materials present in the substrate. You will have clumps of grasses or other botanical materials likely floating around for a while.

Surprisingly, in my experience, the water quality stays remarkably good for aquatic life. Now, I'm not saying that it's all pristine and crystal clear; however, if you let things settle out a bit before adding fishes, the water clears up and a surprising amount of life (various microorganisms like Paramecium, bacteria, etc.) emerges.

Curiously, I personally have NOT recorded ammonia or nitrite spikes following the inundation. That being said, you can and should test your water before adding fishes. You can also dose bacterial inoculants, like our own "Culture" or others, into the water to help. The Purple Non-Sulphur bacteria in "Culture" are extremophiles, particularly well adapted to the dynamics of the wet/dry environment.

Should I use a filter in the "wet season?"

You certainly can. I've gone both ways, using a small internal filter or sponge filter  in some instances. I've also played with simply using an air stone. Most of the time, I don't use any filtration. I just conduct partial water exchanges like I would with any other tank- although I take care not to disturb the substrate too much if I can. When I scaled up my "Urban Igapo" experiments to larger tanks (greater than 10 gallons), Il incorporated a filters with no issues. 

A lot of what we do is simply letting Nature "take Her course." 

Ceding a lot of the control to Nature is hard for some to quantify as a "technique" or "method", so I get it. At various phases in the process, our "best practice" might be to simply observe...

And with plant growth slowing down, or even going completely dormant while submerged, the utilization of nutrients via their growth diminishes, and aquatic life forms (biofilms, algae, aquatic plants, and various bacteria, microorganisms, and microcrustaceans) take over. There is obviously an initial "lag time" when this transitional phase occurs- a time when there is the greatest opportunity for one life form or another (algae, bacterial biofilms, etc.) to become the dominant "player" in the microcosm.

It's exactly what happens in Nature during this period, right?

And there are parallels in the management of aquariums.

In our aquarium practice, it's the time when you think about the impact of technique-such as water exchanges, addition of aquatic plants, adding fishes, reducing light intensity and photoperiod, etc. and (again) observation to keep things in balance- at least as much as possible. You'll question yourself...and wonder if you should intervene- and how..

It's about a number of measured moves, any of which could have significant impact- even "take over" the system- if allowed to do so. This is part of the reason why we don't currently recommend playing with the Urban Igapo idea on a large-tank scale just yet. (that, and the fact that we're not going to be geared up to produce thousands of pounds of the various substrates just yet! 😆)

Until you make those mental shifts to accept all of this stuff in one of these small tanks, the idea of replicating this in 40-50, or 100 gallons is something that you may want to hold off on for just a bit.

Or not.

I mean, if you understand and accept the processes, functions, and aesthetics of this stuff, maybe you wouldwant to "go big" on your first attempt. However, I think you need to try it on a "nano scale" first, to really "acclimate" to the idea.

The idea of accepting Nature as it is makes you extremely humble, because there is a realization at some point that you're more of an "interested observer" than an "active participant." It's a dance. One which we may only have so much control- or even understanding of! That's part of the charm, IMHO.

These habitats are a remarkable "mix" of terrestrial and aquatic elements, processes, and cycles. There is a lot going on. It's not just, "Okay, the water is here- now it's a stream!"

Nope. There is a lot of stuff to consider.

In fact, one of the arguments one could make about these "Urban Igapo" systems is that you may not want to aggressively intervene during the transition, because there is so much going on! Rather, you may simply want toobserve and study the processes and results which occur during this phase. Personally, I've noticed that the "wet season" changes in my UI tanks generally happen slowly, but you will definitely notice them as they occur. 

After you've run through two or three complete "seasonal transition cycles" in your "Urban Igapo", you'll either hate the shit out of the idea- or you'll fall completely in love with it, and want to do more and more work in this alluring little sub-sector of the botanical-style aquarium world.

The opportunity to learn more about the unique nuances which occur during the transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic habitat is irresistible to me. Of course, I'm willing to accept all of the stuff with a very open mind. Typically, it results in a fascinating, utterly beautiful, and surprisingly realistic representation of what happens in Nature.

It's also entirely possible to have your "Urban Igapo" turn into an "Urban Algae Farm" if things get out of balance. Yet, it can "recover" from this. Again, even the fact that a system is "out of balance" doesn't mean that it's a failure. After all, the algae is thriving, right? That's a success. Life forms have adapted. A cause to celebrate.

It happens in Nature, too!

So, that's a brief rundown on the dynamics and challenges of the "Urban Igapo" concept. It will be exciting to see how each of us evolves the idea further!

Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics  

The commendable power of restraint.

One of the things that we find ourselves doing in the aquarium hobby is using " a little of this and that" in our tanks, because-well- because we seem to be fixated on lots of variety of "stuff" in our tanks, right?

I mean, there is nothing wrong with using a diversity of materials in our aquariums to express our creativity, and I DO own a company which sells a significant variety of natural aquascaping materials...However, I think it's important to consider exactly what it is we're trying to accomplish in our tanks when we select and employ botanical materials in our aquariums.

Huh?

As we've discussed a lot around here, the idea of using natural materials, like wood, leaves, seed pods, and roots is a faithful representation of many of the wild habitats we obsess over. And more important, it's a functional methodology of fostering natural processes and a healthy ecology in our tanks.

Are you simply trying to add some aquascaping interest to your tank? Are you interested in manipulating the aquarium water chemistry? Perhaps you're attempting to replicate a very specific ecological niche? Setting up a system for breeding fishes or rearing their fry?

There are many, many applications for botanicals in aquariums. A wide range of things you can do with them, and an even wider range of botanicals to do the job. And the most important "job" for botanicals in our aquariums, IMHO, is to foster the ecology of the aquarium...The so-called "microbiome."

And the important thing to know in this context is that you don't have to use 25 different botanicals and leaves in your aquarium to achieve this ecology within your tank. The reality is that, organisms like fungal growth, bacteria, Paramecium, and other microfauna are typically not tied to a specific leaf or seed pod, so not having a huge variety doesn't mean that you won't be able to achieve a significant microbiome within your tank.

So from a "biodiversity" or ecological standpoint, there is no reason why you would need a huge variety of botanicals in a given aquarium. It really boils down to aesthetics. Or, if you're trying to be more "biotopically accurate"- it depends upon the variety of materials that you'd expect to find in the habitat you're interested in replicating.

For example, a flooded forest might have a lot more ( in both density and variety) leaves and seed pods than say, a fast-flowing river, stream, or a small oxbow lake might have. Other locales might simply have a lot of a few materials, like branches and leaves, but minimal amounts of seed pods and other materials. 

Maybe you're not trying to replicate any specific habitat at all. Perhaps it's simply a creative expression with botanicals. That's fine. You can use as many or as little as you want...and you still get the "functional" aspects if you don't "edit" them!

How your botanical-style aquarium looks and (to a lesser extent, functions) is dependent upon these types of characteristics. Yet, it's really a matter of what works best for the aquarium that you are trying to create. The power of restraint is a very important factor when playing with botanicals!

Now again, with all of the cool botanical materials available to hobbyists here and elsewhere, it's certainly fun to use a large variety of different materials in your tank! I personally have always been of the opinion that too much variety in a given tank is sort of distracting and just somehow doesn't always look good. I mean, it certainly can..it just doesn't always! Somehow, using a little less variety in a given tank seems to just look a bit better, IMHO.

However, as we've mentioned already, if you're replicating a specific habitat that might have a wide variety of materials in a given small locale, it makes sense, right?

And there is the benefit of a field of botanicals not only cultivating microbial and fungal food sources for fishes, there is the direct consumption of the botanicals (or their constituent materials) by fishes.

Yes, direct consumption of botanicals by fishes is something that we haven't talked all that much about over the years here.

It's long been known that many species of fishes, particularly Panaque/Panaqolus and some Hypostomus/Cochliodon love botanical stuff. These species are equipped with teeth specifically "designed" to gouge wood. And there's probably another odd one or two that consume it as well. Now, you should be aware that wood "eaters" don't consume the wood per se, they consume it as a "by-product" of their overall feeding strategy.

(The "business end" of Panaque nigrolineatus by Neale Monks, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

In fact, some recent scientific studies have corroborated digestive enzyme activity profiles and gastrointestinal fermentation levels in the fishes’ GI tracts, suggesting that the "wood-eating catfishes" are not true xylivores, such as beavers and termites, but rather, are detritivores like so many other fishes from the family Loricariidae.

In fact, the conclusion of one study indicated that "..the fishes’ whole digestive strategy ranging from intake, to passage rate, digestive enzyme activities, gastrointestinal fermentation, and decreasing surface area in the distal intestine suggests that these fishes are geared for the digestion and assimilation of soluble components of their detrital diet.

However, the wood-eating catfishes do take macroscopic detritus (i.e., woody debris) and reduce it to <1 mm in diameter, which likely has significant consequences for carbon cycling in their environment. Given that much of the Amazonian basin is unstudied, and much of it is under threat of deforestation (leading to more wood in waterways), the wood-eating catfishes may play a crucial role in the dynamics of the Amazonian ecosystem, and certainly in the reduction of coarse woody debris."

(German DP. Inside the guts of wood-eating catfishes: can they digest wood? Journal of Comparative Physiology B, Biochemical, Systemic, and Environmental Physiology. 2009;179(8):1011-1023. doi:10.1007/s00360-009-0381-1.)

Interesting, right?

And it has some implication for how we keep these fishes in our botanical-style aquariums, right? I mean, we have no shortage of pics of your Plecos tearing into various botanicals, ranging from leaves to seed pods, like the Calotropis pods, Cariniana pods, etc. So, based on the study above, it would suggest that at least part of the pods do form a part of the diet of these fishes, and in the process of consuming them, the fishes are helping enrich the aquarium habitat. 

Now, the botanicals themselves may not be "the whole meal" for many fishes, but the biofilms, algal threads, and other biocover which grow on them do provide foraging for many fishes. A number of us have noticed a wide-ranging variety of fishes, from Barbs to characin to cichlids, feeding actively on the materials on the materials which are "recruited" by submerged botanicals.

This type of activity has led me to postulate that the use of botanicals can perform a definite "feeding support function" for a wide variety of fishes. So, I suppose, one advantage of a variety of botanical materials in one tank is that it increases your chances of having something palatable to someone in the tank!

If you've followed us for any length of time, you're well aware that we are not just pushing you to play with natural, botanical-style aquariums only for the pretty aesthetics. I mean, yeah, they look awesome, but there is so much more to it than that. We are almost as obsessed with the function of these aquariums and the wild habitats which they attempt to represent!

 

 

Understanding why you're choosing to throw botanicals in your aquarium is as important as it is to understand how to employ them. Regardless of how you employ the botanicals, I cannot stress enough the need to go SLOWLY. There is no need to rush and dump everything in at one time, or in huge quantities. Particularly in an established aquarium, where your animals are used to a certain stable range of parameters...It goes without saying that if your introducing materials which can influence water chemistry and quality, you will need to go slow and exercise common sense.

And, since botanicals are actively "breaking down" in your aquarium over their "service lifetimes", it's important to employ good husbandry techniques (i.e.; monitoring of water quality, water changes, regular filter media changes, etc.). Just remind yourself that aquatic botanicals create a "dynamic" environment, and you'll enjoy using them that much more!

Apart from, "What pods should I use for a _____________ style setup?" the most common question we receive is ""Do I leave them in or let them break down in my tank?"

And of course, our simple, likely unsatisfying answer is..."It's your call!"

It's as much about your aesthetic preferences as it is long-term ecological stability of the aquarium. It's a decision that each of us makes based on our tastes, management "style", and how much of a "mental shift" we've made o except the transient nature of a botanical-style aquarium and its function. There really is no "right" or "wrong" answer here. It's all about how much you enjoy what happens  naturally versus what you choose to control in your tank.

I tend to favor Nature. Every time. It's not even close. 

But that's just me.

And of course, we can't ever lose sight of the fact that we're creating and adding to a closed aquatic ecosystem, and that our actions in how we manage our tanks must map to our ambitions, tastes, and the "regulations" that Nature imposes upon us.

Yes, anything that you add into your aquarium that begins to break down is bioload.

Everything that imparts proteins, lignins, tannins, organics, etc. into the water is something that you need to consider. However, it's always been my personal experience and opinion that, in an otherwise well-maintained aquarium, with regular attention to husbandry, stocking, and maintenance, the"burden" of botanicals on your water quality is surprisingly insignificant.

Even in test systems which I intentionally "neglected" by conducting very sporadic water exchanges, once I hit my preferred "population" of botanicals (by building them up gradually), I have never noticed significant phosphate or nitrate increases that could be attributed to their presence.

 

So, once and for all- is adding a bunch of botanicals to your aquarium "dangerous?"

I mean, it could be, in some instances. Like, adding large quantities of fresh botanicals to an established, stable tank all at once is a recipe for problems. But, this is "Aquarium Keeping 101", right? Like, what would you expect that would happen? Why would you even do that?

It's about common sense.

The reality is, adding botanicals to your tank and using them, replacing them regularly, etc, is no more "dangerous" than anything else we do as aquarists. You simply need to go slowly, apply common sense, follow our prep instructions, and observe your tank carefully.

Look, stuff can still occasionally go wrong, even when you follow instructions and employ common sense. Never lose sight of the fact that aquariums are closed natural ecosystems, and changing the delicate ecological balance within them always risks disrupting established biological processes- and that can have consequences for your fishes.

But, you already KNOW that

It's the reality of Nature, and a reminder that, although we can control some things, Mother Nature calls the shots...

So, the power of "chilling out"- the ability to exercise restraint; to not go crazy adding a ton of stuff all at once- is a huge and very, very important skill for all who play with botanicals to acquire. 

I'll bet that you already have.

Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay restrained...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

Risk.

One of the toughest things in the aquarium hobby is to face the possibility of losing fishes. When you think about it, the idea of keeping live tropical fishes in an aquarium is pretty incredible to begin with. What we take on isn't necessarily "difficult" in many instances. The techniques have been known and shared in the hobby for generations. However, the awesome thing is that we are able to obtain and maintain these organisms in the first place, right? 

And when you add into the equation that are completely responsible for creating essentially the entire environment in which they reside, it becomes even more incredible, right? What we do is pretty special.

However, unlike keeping many other animals as"pets", like dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, etc., we have the unique ability to create representations- functional and aesthetic-of the natural habitats from which they come. We can do all sorts of environmental manipulations, and embrace all sorts of evolutions within their aquariums to represent aspects of their natural habitats.

 

And this ability brings with it a lot of opportunity to innovate, as well as the assumption of some risk.

Yeah, the process of creating, optimizing and managing a specialized aquatic habitat is subject to risk, whether we expect it or not. 

Risk.

The risk that we might not have acclimated our fishes correctly to the new environment that we have created. Risk that our management of the environment may not be be as controlled, consistent, or appropriate for the long-term health of the fishes.

This is not unique to the botanical-style aquarium, of course. It's something that we run into with all types of aquariums and fish-keeping endeavors, from the most basic goldfish bowl (arrghh!😂) to the most sophisticated reef aquarium system.

Risk permeates this hobby. It's something that is almost never discussed, but it is at the forefront of almost everything do. Risk abounds. We take risks every single time we purchase fish. And the responsibility to manage the risk- to mitigate any potential bad outcomes-lies squarely on our shoulders as hobbyists.

A classic, easy example? When repurchase that new fish, we immediately have to chose whether or not we will quarantine it before placing it into our tank. If we don't, we run the risk of introducing illness to our other healthy fishes. And, when we do quarantine (yay!),we STILL risk the possibility that the fish might not make it through. That it might not eat, or that a disease (the very reason you quarantine in the first place!) may manifest itself and possibly kill the fish in the quarantine system.

Risk.

When we first started Tannin Aquatics, the idea of utilizing seed pods, bark, leaves, branches and stuff  in aquariums to manipulate the environmental conditions wasn't completely unknown. Hobbyists have been doing it for generations to some extent. However, when we embarked on our mission to curate, test, and ultimately introduce new and different botanical materials into the hobby, we know it was a risk.

Some might have proven to be toxic to fishes. Some might have been collected from polluted environments that had noxious chemicals. Some might have been intended for other purposes, and sold to us by unscrupulous suppliers, who had them treated with laquers or other industrial chemicals. We found this out the hard way a few times, killing fishes in our test tanks in the process.

Horrible to lose innocent animals, but part of the challenge we accepted when we intended to become leaders in this new arena. Releasing untested materials to fellow fish keepers and killing them was not an option. We had to assume the risk of testing ourselves. Vetting of suppliers was, and continues to be, crucial. Good quality source material doesn't guarantee success- but it does mitigate some of the risk. 

When we developed techniques for the preparation of botanicals for aquarium use, it was to help mitigate some of the risks that are inherent when you place natural terrestrial materials into a closed aquatic environment.

 

Yet, even with the development of "best practices" and recommended approaches and technique for safely utilizing botanicals in our aquariums, we knew that there was an even bigger, more ominous risk out there...Human nature.

Yes, when I started playing with botanicals in my aquariums almost two decades ago, I made a fair number of mistakes. Sometimes, they cost the lives of my fishes.

And killing fishes sucks.

 

Some mistakes were caused by my lack of familiarity with using various materials. Most were caused by not understanding fully the impact of adding botanical materials to a closed aquatic ecosystems. All were mitigated by taking the time to learn from them and honestly asses the good, the bad, and the practical aspects of using them in our aquariums. 

And that meant developing "best practices" to help mitigate or eliminate issues as much as possible, even though the "practices" may not be the easiest, most convenient, or expedient way to proceed.

I KNEW that there would be people who might kill their fishes by adding lots of botanicals to their established systems without reading and following the instructions concerning preparation, cadence, and what to expect. I knew there would be people who would criticize the idea, "edit" the processes or recommended "best practices", talk negatively about the approach and generally scoff and downplay what they didn't know, understand, or do.

It's human nature whenever you give people something a bit different to play with...They want to go from 0-100 in like one day. And I knew that some of these people would go out on social media and attempt to trash the whole idea after they failed. This, despite all of our instructions, information, and pleas to follow the guidelines we suggested. 

After more than six years of running Tannin, I have pretty much identified the two most common concerns we have for customers associated with utilizing botanicals in their aquariums. Curiously, our two biggest concerns revolve around our own human impatience and mindset- not the botanical materials themselves.

The first is... preparation.

We are often asked why we don't feel that you can, without exception, just give any of your botanicals "a quick rinse" and toss them into your aquarium.

After all, this is what happens in nature, right? Well, shit- yes...but remember, in most cases, there is a significant "dilution factor" caused by larger water volumes, currents, biologically-rich substrates, etc. that you encounter in natural aquatic systems. Even in smaller bodies of water, you have very "mature" nutrient export systems and biological equilibriums established over long periods of time which handle the influx and export of organic materials.  

However, even in Nature, things go awry, and you will occasionally see bodies of water "fouled" by large, sudden influxes of materials (often leaves, grass clippings, etc.)- sometimes after rain or other weather events- and the result is usually polluted water, large algal blooms, and a pretty nasty smell! 

In the aquarium,  of course, you have a closed system with a typically much smaller water volume, limited import of fresh water, limited filtration (export) capacity, and in many cases, a less robust ecological microcosm to handle a large influx of nutrients quickly.

So you know where I'm going with this:

Fresh botanical materials, even relatively "clean" ones, are often still "dirty", from collection, storage, etc. They may have dust, airborne pollutants, soil or silt (depending upon where they were collected), even cobwebs, bird droppings, and dead insects (yuck!).

Natural materials accumulate "stuff." They're not sterile; made in some high tech  "clean room" in a factory in Switzerland, right? 

So," just giving botanicals a quick rinse" before tossing them in your tank is simply not good procedure, IMHO- even for stuff you collect from your own backyard. It's more risk to take on. At the very least, a prolonged (30 to 60 minute) steep in boiling hot water will serve to "sterilize" them to a certain extent. Follow it with a rinse to remove any lingering dirt or other materials trapped in the surfaces of your botanicals.

Now, I don't recommend this process simply because I want to be a pain in the ass. I recommend it because it's a responsible practice that, although seemingly "overkill" in some people's minds- increases the odds for a better outcome.

It reduces some of the risk.

The crew up in the cockpit on your flight from L.A. to New York know every system of the Boeing 737Max9 that they fly. But guess what? They still complete the pre-flight checklist each and every time they hop in the plane.

Because it can save lives.

Why should we be any different about taking the time to prepare botanicals? I know it sounds harsh; however, if you skip this step and kill your fishes- it's on you.

Period.

Why would you skip this, other than simply being impatient?

Could you get away with NOT doing this? 

Sure. Absolutely. Many people likely do. 

But for how long? When will it catch up with you? Maybe never...I know I'll get at least one email or comment from a hobbyist who absolutely doesn't do any of this and has a beautiful healthy tank with no problems.

Okay, good for you. I'm still going to recommend that, like I do- that you embrace a preparation process for every botanical item that you add to your aquariums.

Boiling/steeping also serves a secondary, yet equally important purpose: It helps soften and even break down the external tissues of the botanical, allowing it to leach out any remaining subsurface pollutants, sugars, or other undesirable organics to the greatest extent possible. And finally, it allows them to better absorb water, which makes them sink more easily when you place them in your aquarium. 

Yes, it's an extra step.

Yes, it takes time.

However, like all good things in nature and aquariums, taking the time to go the extra mile is never a bad thing. And really, I'm trying to see what possible "benefit" you'd derive by skipping this preparation process?

Oh, let me help you: NONE.

None.

There is simply no advantage to rushing stuff.

Like all things we do in our aquariums, the preparation of materials that we add to them is a process, and Nature sets the pace. The fact that we may recommend 30 minutes or more of boiling is not of concern to Nature. It may take an hour or more to fully saturate your Sterculia Pods before they sink.

So be it.

Relax.

Savor the process. Enjoy every aspect of the experience.  And don't you love the earthy scent that botanicals exude when you're preparing them?

And the shittiest thing? Even if you do all this prep, there is STILL risk that you will kill your fishes.

Yep.

Damn, I'm not ever gonna make it as salesman, huh?

How much to use?

Well, that's the million dollar question.

Who knows? Even that is a guess and decidedly unscientific at best! 

It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best. 

Now, nothing is perfect.

Nothing we can tell you is an absolute guarantee of perfect results...You're dealing with natural materials, and the results you'll see are governed by natural processes that we can only impact to a certain extent by preparation before use. But it's a logical, responsible process that you need to embrace for long-term success.

It reduces some of the risk.

And, when it comes time to adding your botanicals to your aquarium, the second "tier" of this process is to add them to your aquarium slowly. Like, don't add everything all at once, particularly to an established, stable aquarium. Think of botanicals as "bioload", which requires your bacterial/fungal/microcrusacean population to handle them.

Bacteria, in particular, are your first line of defense.

If you add a large quantity of any organic materials to an established system, you will simply overwhelm the existing beneficial bacterial population in the aquarium, which will likely result in a massive increase in ammonia, nitrite, and organic pollutants. At the very least, it will leave oxygen levels depleted, and fishes gasping at the surface as the bacteria population struggles to catch up to the large influx of materials.

This is not some sort of esoteric concept, right? I mean, we don't add 25 3-inch fishes at once to an established, stable 10-gallon aquarium and not expect some sort of negative environmental consequence, right? So why would adding bunch of leaves, botanicals, wood, or other materials containing organics be any different?

It wouldn't.

So please, PLEASE add botanicals to your established aquarium gradually, while observing your fishes' reactions and testing the water parameters regularly during and after the process. Take measured steps.

There is no rush.

There shouldn't be.

It's interesting how the process of selecting, preparing and adding botanical materials to our aquariums has evolved over the time since we've been in business. Initially, as I discussed previously, it was all about trying to discover what materials weren't "toxic" in some way!

Then, it was about figuring out ways to prepare them and make sure that they don't pollute the aquarium. Finally, it's been about taking the time to add them in a responsible, measured matter.

I think our biggest "struggle" in working with botanicals is a mental one that we have imposed upon ourselves over generations of aquarium keeping:  The need to control our own natural desire to get stuff moving quickly; to hit that "done" thing...fast.

And the reality, as we've talked about hundreds of times here and elsewhere, is that there really is no "finished", and that the botanical-style aquarium is about evolution. This type of system embraces continuous change and requires us to understand the ephemeral nature of botanicals when immersed in water.

I know I may be a bit "blunt" when it comes to these topics of preparation, practices, and patience- but they are critical concepts for us to wrap our heads around and really embrace in order to be successful with this stuff. And they are absolutely tied to the idea of reducing risk to the greatest extent possible.

All caveats and warnings aside, the art and evolving "science" of utilizing natural botanical materials for the purpose of enriching and influencing the environment of the aquarium is an exciting one, promising benefits and breakthroughs that we may not have even thought about yet!

It's okay to experiment...If we are willing to accept the additional risk.

We stress these points over and over an over, because  I get questions every day from hobbyists asking if they really need to prepare their botanicals, and if it's safe to use "_____" in their tanks, etc.

This is indicative, to me, of larger problem in the aquarium hobby.

In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 280 characters of information, and where there is a apparently a "hack" for pretty much everything,  I wonder if have we simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. I say this not in a sarcastic manner, but in a thoughtful, measured one.

I'm baffled by hobbyists who want to try something new and simply do next to no research or self-education prior to trying it.

Like, WTF?

When you read some of the posts on Facebook or other sites, where a hobbyist asks a question which makes it obvious that they failed to grasp even the most fundamental aspects of their "area of interest", yet jumped in head-first into this "new thing", it just makes you wonder!  I mean, if the immediate goal is to have "...a great looking tank with botanicals...", it seems to me that some hobbyists apparently don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain the system on a long-term basis.

I suppose that it’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- for some hobbyists to learn about what gadgets or products can get us where we want, and what fishes are available to complete the project quickly.

This is a bit of a problem. It demonstrates a fundamental impatience, an unwillingness to learn, and a lack of desire to assume some responsibility or risk. The desire to pass the responsibility on to someone- or something- else when shit goes wrong.

And the reality is that it's really all on us.

When it comes to using botanicals- or, for that matter, embarking upon any aquarium-related speacialties, it's really important to contemplate them from the standpoint of reducing and accepting some risk. We, as aquarium hobbyists, are 100% responsible for the lives of the animals under our care. If we don't like the idea of accepting this responsibility, then we should consider another hobby. Simple as that.

I can talk about the "best practices" in our hobby until my face turns green. I can point out the benefits of making mental shifts and being patient endlessly. However, it's up to each one of us to accept- or reject- these ideas, and to accept the outcomes-positive or negative- of our choices about how we embrace-or reject-this stuff.

And, based on what I'm seeing and hearing, a lot of hobbyists simply don't feel that this applies to them.

Okay, I’m sounding very cynical. And perhaps I am. But the evidence is out there in abundance…and it’s kind of discouraging at times.

Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed "guardian of the hobby." I’m not calling us out. I’m simply asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. To question our habits. To accept responsibility for our actions. No one has a right to tell anyone that what they are doing is not the right way, but we do have to instill upon the newbie the importance of understanding the basics of our craft.

I'm super-proud that we've consistently elevated realistic discussions about unpopular topics related to our hobby sector. Yeah, we literally have blog and podcast titles like, "How to Avoid Screwing Up Your Tank and Killing all of Your Fishes with Botanicals" , or "There Will be Decomposition", or "Celebrating The Slimy Stuff."

If we are worried about risk, we need to take as many steps as possible to understand it. To mitigate it. Some steps are tedious. Unglamorous. Time consuming. Not very fun.

However, they are all steps that we need take to create better outcomes, and to help advance the state of the art of the aquarium hobby- for the benefit of us all.

Risk is part of the hobby. How we accept it, and take it on, is also part of the hobby. It doesn't have to be a dark cloud hanging over everything that we do. Rather, it should be a motivator, an opportunity to improve, and a means to grow.

Stay responsible. Stay curious. Stay engaged. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

 

 

The slow(er) road to success with fish stocking...

One of the questions which we are asked less and less these days is, 'What kinds of fishes are suitable for a botanical-style aquarium?" I think that after 6 years of pounding all of these ideas into your heads about all of the strange nuances of botanical-style aquariums, it's almost universally understood that pretty much any fishes can live in them.

On the other hand, when it comes to how we stock our tanks, nothing has really changed...however, it could. And it should, IMHO.

We spend a pretty good amount of time studying, scheming, and pondering how to create a compatible, interesting, and attractive community of fishes within our aquariums.

It's probably among the most enjoyable things that we do in the hobby, right?

As a somewhat eccentric philosopher of all things fish, one of my favorite things to ponder is stuff that we do while creating our aquariums which is- intentionally or otherwise- analogous to the factors in Nature that result in the environments and fish populations that we find so compelling.

If you're like me, you likely spend a little too much time pondering all sorts of arcane aspects of the hobby...Okay, so maybe you're NOT like me, but you probably have a rather keen interest in the way Nature operates in the wild aquatic systems of the world, and stock your aquariums accordingly.

As one who studies a lot of details about some of the habitats from which our fishes come, I can't help but occasionally wonder exactly what it is that brings fishes to a given location or niche within a environment?

Now, the first answer we're likely to proffer is the most apparent...right? I mean, they follow the food!

Fishes tend to move into new areas in search suitable food sources as part of their life cycle. And food sources often become available in habitats such as flooded forest areas after the rains come, when decomposing leaves and botanical materials begin to create (or re-activate, as the case may be) "food webs", attracting ever more complex life forms into the area.

When we create our aquariums, we take into consideration a lot of factors, ranging from the temperament and size of our fish selections, to their appearance, right? These are all important factors. However, have you ever considered what the factors are in nature which affect the composition of a fish community in a given habitat?

Like, why "x" fish is living in a particular habitat?

What adaptations has the fish made that make it uniquely suitable for this environmental niche? Further, have you thought about how we as hobbyists replicate, to some extent, the actual selection processes which occur in Nature in our quest to create the perfect community aquarium?

Now, if you're an African Cichlid lover or reef hobbyist, I'm sure you have!

Social hierarchies, spatial orientations, and allopathic processes are vital to success in those types of aquariums; you typically can't get away with just throwing in a random fish or coral and hoping it will just mix perfectly.

However, for many hobbyists who aim to construct simple "community tanks", it isn't that vital to fill specific niches and such...we probably move other factors to the forefront when thinking about possible additions to our community of fishes: Like, how cool the fish looks, how large it grows, if it has a peaceful temperament, etc. More basic stuff.

However, in the end, we almost always make selections based upon factors which we deem important...again, a sort of near-mimicry of natural processes- and how the fishes work in the habitat we've created for them.

"Unnatural selection?" Or...Is it essentially what nature's does for eons?

Oh, and what exactly is an "aquatic habitat", by the way? In short, you could say that an aquatic habitat is the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics which determine the suitability for habitation and reproduction of fishes.

Of course, these characteristics can determine which fishes are found in a given area in the wild- pretty much without exception. It's been happening for eons.

Approaching the stocking of an aquarium by determining which fishes would be appropriate for the physical characteristics of the tank is not exactly groundbreaking stuff.

However, when we evaluate this in the context of "theme", and what fish would be found within, say, an Amazonian Igarape stream or a Southeast Asian peat swamp, the idea of adding fishes to "exploit" the features of the habitat we've created is remarkably similar to the processes which occur in Nature that determine what fish are found there, and it's the ultimate expression of good tank planning, IMHO.

It's just kind of interesting to think about in that context, right?

Competition is another one of the important factors in determining  how fish populations in the wild. Specifically, competition for space, resources (e.g.; food) and mates are prevalent. In our aquariums, we do see this to some extent, right? The "alpha male" cichlid, the Pleco that gets the best cave, and the Tetra which dominates his shoal.

How we create the physical space for our fishes can have significant impact on this behavior. When good hiding spaces are at a premium, as are available spawning partners, their will be some form of social hierarchy, right?

Other environmental factors, such as  water movement, dissolved oxygen, etc. are perhaps less impactful on our community once the tank is established. However, these factors figure prominently in our decisions about the composition of, or numbers or fishes in the community, don't they?

For example, you're unlikely to keep Hillstream loaches in a near stagnant, blackwater swamp biotope aquarium, just like you'd be unlikely to keep Altum Angelfish in a fast-moving stream biotope representation. And fishes which shoal or school will, obviously, best be kept in numbers.

"Aquarium Keeping 101", again.

One factor that we typically don't have in our aquaria is predation. I know very few aquarists who would be sadistic enough to even contemplate trying to keep predators and prey in the same tank, to let them "have at it" and see what happens, and who comes out on top!

I mean, there is a lot to this stuff, isn't there?

Again, the idea of creating a tank to serve the needs of certain fishes isn't earth-shattering. Yet, the idea of stocking the tank based on the available niches and physical characteristics is kind of a cool, educational, and ultimately very gratifying process. I just think it's truly amazing that we're able to actually do this these days.

And the sequence that you stock your tank in is extremely pertinent.

I think that you could literally create a sort of "sequence" to stocking various types of fishes based on the stage of "evolution" that your aquarium is in, although the sequence might be a bit different than Nature in some cases. For example, in a more-or-less brand new aquarium, analogous in this case to a newly-inundated forest floor, their might be a lot less in the way of lower life forms, such as fungi and bacteria, until the materials begin breaking down. You'd simply have an aggregation of fresh leaves, twigs, seed pods, soils, etc. in the habitat.

So, if anything, you're likely to see fishes which are much more dependent upon  allochthonous input...food from the terrestrial environment. This is a compelling way to stock an aquarium, I think. Especially aquarium systems like ours which make use of these materials en masse.

Right from the start (after cycling, of course!), it would not be unrealistic to add fishes which feed on terrestrial fruits and botanical materials, such as Colossoma, Arowanna, Metynis, etc. Fishes which, for most aquarists of course, are utterly impractical to keep because of their large adult size and/or need for physical space!

(Pacu! Image by Rufus46, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now, a lot of smaller, more "aquarium suited" fishes will also pick at these fruits and seeds, so you're not totally stuck with the big brutes if you want to go this route! Interestingly, the consumption and elimination of fruits by fishes is thought to be a major factor in the distribution of many plants in the region.

Do a little research here and you might be quite surprised about who consumes what in these habitats!

More realistically for most aquarists, I'd think that you could easily stock first with fishes like surface-dwelling (or near surface-dwelling) species, like hatchetfishes and some Pencilfishes, which are largely dependent upon terrestrial insects such as flies and ants, in Nature. In other words, they tend to "forage" or "graze" little, and are more opportunistic, taking advantage of careless insects which end up in the water of these newly-inundated environs.

I've read studies where almost 100 species were documented which feed near-exclusively on insects and arthropods from terrestrial sources in these habitats! As I mention often, if you dive a bit deeper than the typical hobbyist writings, and venture into scholarly materials and species descriptions, you'll be fascinated to read about the gut-content analysis of fishes, because they give you a tremendous insight about what to feed in the aquarium!

Continuing on, it's easy to see that, as the environments evolve, so does the fish population. And the possibilities for simulating this in the aquarium are many and are quite interesting!

Later, as materials start to decompose and are acted on by fungi and bacteria, you could conceivably add more of the "grazing" type fishes, such as Plecos, small Corydoras, Headstanders, etc.

As the tank ages and breaks in more, this would be analogous to the period of time when micro-crustaceans and aquatic insects are present in greater numbers, and you'd be inclined to see more of the "micropredators" like characins, and ultimately, small cichlids.

Interestingly, scientists have postulated that evolution favored small fishes like characins in these environments, because they are more efficient at capturing small terrestrial insects and spiders in these flooded forests than the larger fishes are!

And it makes a lot of sense, if you look at it strictly from a "density/variety" standpoint- lots of characins call these habitats home!

Then there are detritivores.

The detrivorus fishes remove large quantities of this material from submerged trees, branches, etc. Now, you might be surprised to learn that, in the wild, the gut-content analysis of almost every fish indicates that they consume organic detritus to some extent! And it makes sense...They work with the food sources that are available to them!

At different times of the year, different food sources are easier to obtain.

And, of course, all of the fishes which live in these habitats contribute to the surrounding forests by "recycling" nutrients locked up in the detritus. This is thought by ecologists to be especially important in blackwater inundated forests and meadows in areas like The Pantanal, because of the long periods of inundation and the nutrient-poor soils as a result of the slow decomposition rates.

All of this is actually very easy to replicate, to a certain extent, when stocking our aquaria. Why would you stock in this sort of sequence, when you're likely not relying on decomposing botanicals and leaves and the fungal and microbial life associated with them as your primary food source?

Well, you likely wouldn't be...However, what about the way that the fishes, when introduced at the appropriate "phase" in the tank's life cycle- adapt to the tank? Wouldn't the fishes take advantage of these materials as a supplement to the prepared foods that you're feeding them? Doesn't this impact the fishes' genetic "programming" in some fashion? Can it activate some health benefits, behaviors, etc?

I believe that it can. And I believe that this type of more natural feeding ca profoundly and positively impact our fishes' health.

I’m no genius, trust me. I don’t have half the skills many of you do but I have succeeded with many delicate “hard-to-feed” fishes over my hobby “career.” 

Why?

Because I'm really patient.

Success with this approach is simply a result of deploying "radical patience."  The practice of just moving really slowly and carefully when adding fishes to new tanks. 

It's a really simple concept.

The hard part is waiting longer to add fishes.

Wait a minimum of three weeks—and even up to a month or two if you can stand it, and you will have a surprisingly large population of micro and macro fauna upon which your fishes can forage between feedings.

Having a “pre-stocked” system helps reduce a considerable amount of stress for new inhabitants, particularly for wild fishes, or fishes that have reputations as “delicate” feeders.

And think about it. This is really a natural analog of sorts. Fishes that live in inundated forest floors (yeah, the igapo again!) return to these areas to "follow the food" once they flood.

It just takes a few weeks, really. You’ll see fungal growth. You'll see some breakdown of the botanicals brought on by bacterial action or the feeding habits of small crustaceans and fungi. If you "pre-stock", you might even see the emergence of a significant  population of copepods, amphipods, and other creatures crawling about, free from fishy predators, foraging on algae and detritus, and happily reproducing in your tank.

We kind of know this already, though- right?

This is really analogous to the tried-and-true practice of cultivating some turf algae on rocks either in or from outside your tank before adding herbivorous, grazing fishes, to give them some "grazing material." 

Radical patience yields impressive results.

It’s not always easy to try something a little out of the ordinary, or a bit against the grain of popular practice, but I commend you for even thinking about the idea. At the very least, it may give you pause to how you stock your tank in the future, like  "Herbivores first, micro predators last", or whatever thought you subscribe to. 

Allow your system to mature and develop at least some populations of fauna for these fishes to supplement their diets with. You’ll develop a whole new appreciation for how an aquarium evolves when you take this long, but very cool road.

Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay resourceful...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

Letting go...

So, you have this idea for an aquarium.

You kind of see it in your head...you've assembled the materials, got it sort of together.

You add water.

Then, you walk in the room one day, look at it and- you just HATE it.

Like, you're done with it.  Like, no re-hab on the design. No "tweaking" of the wood or whatever...You're just over the fucking thing. Ever felt that?

What do you do? 

Well, I had this idea for a nano tank a while back. It seemed good in my head...I had it up for a nanosecond.

Even memorialized it with some Instagram Stories posts. Doing that is almost always the sort of thing that forces me to move on something...I mean, if you lay down a public "marker", you've got to go, right?

I thought that the tank would be a sort of "blank canvas" for an idea I had...I liked the idea, in principle.

But I didn't see a way forward with this one. I even took the extraordinary step of removing one element of the tank (the wood) altogether, in the hope of perhaps pivoting and just doing my "leaf only scape V3.0"- but I wasn't feeling it.

Nope.

A stillborn idea. A tank not capable of evolving to anything that interested me at this time.

So...I let it go.

Yeah, made away with it. Shut it down. Terminated it...

Whatever you want to call it.

That's really a kind of extraordinary step for me. I mean, I'm sort of the eternal optimist. I try to make almost everything work if I can...

I mean, some of my favorite tanks evolved out of this mindset of sticking with something...We'll come back to that in bit.

Not this time, however.

I killed it.

Now, in the hours after the aborted aquarium move, I was actually able to gain some clarity about why I did it.

What made me do it? 

I almost always do a sort of "post mortem" analysis when I abort on an idea, and this time was no different. It was pretty obvious to me...the "writing was on the wall" with this one!

I think it centered around two things that I simply can't handle in aquariums anymore.

Don't laugh:

1) I absolutely can't stand aquariums which don't have some sort of background- be it opaque window tint, photo paper, or paint. This tank had no background. You could see the window behind it, and the trees outside on the street, and...yeah. 

2) I disdain seeing filters or other equipment in my aquariums. Like, I hate it more than you can ever even imagine. With really few exceptions,  I simply hate seeing filters and stuff. It's only in recent years that I've been able to tolerate seeing filter returns in my all-in-one tanks...and just barely. Now, this nano had a little hang-on-the-back outside power filter...Which I not only saw from the top, but from behind...because-you got it- I didn't have a goddam background on the tank, yes.

I mean, am I that much of a primadonna that I can't handle that? I mean, maybe, but I like to think of it as a situation where I have simply developed an aesthetic sense that just can't tolerate some stuff anymore. I have good ideas, and then I get to equipment...and it sort of "stifles" them a bit.

This is weird.

Okay, yeah, maybe I am prima donna.

What could I have done to salvage this tank? Add a background?

Use a canister filter and glassware, you say?  

Oh, sure. That's easy, right? I mean, all you see in the tank are these elegant curves of "lily pipes" and intakes...Maybe a surface skimmer...You just take 'em out and bleach 'em every once in a while and they stay nice and clean, and..

Okay, yeah. Great. On paper, anyways.

IMHO, glassware isn't the "organic art" that everyone seems to place on some lofty pedestal in the hobby. It reminds me of high school chemistry lab (which I think I got a C minus in, so some residual trauma there, no doubt). You think it's beautiful...I think it's simply dreadful.

It's another piece of equipment, which you see on the outside of the tank, too, with its "umbilical" of return lines shooting up along the sides. Now sure, I know these were developed to make an obvious, visible necessity (filter returns) more elegant and beautiful...However, to me, they're just that- obvious, visible, distracting...and ugly.

Hell, I've even made crazy efforts to hide the canister filters beneath my tanks before, when I couldn't hide them within the tank. It's like, I had to do something! 

I know, I'm being waaaaay too stupid about this. 

Because, really, with a lot of my reef aquarium work, and for that matter, some of my fave botanical-style tanks, you can see some of this stuff. When you see my next reef tank, you might see couple of submersible pumps in the tank , low and deep behind the rock work.

Yeah.

For some reason, it doesn't completely fry my brain in every single situation. I suppose it's a hypocritical thing, but man, sometimes it freaks me out and sometimes I can give it a pass. 

Weird, huh?

Like, why do some tanks get a pass, and others just freak me out with this stuff.

I think, maybe, it's about the "concept"of the tank.  Or the context. Like, some of my fave ever tanks, like my leaf-litter-only tanks, typically will have some equipment evident, because they are essentially a "zero-releaf" aquascape, with nothing that you can hide this stuff behind, like wood or rocks, or whatever. It's as "honest" as it gets. If you want to filter and heat the tank, you only have few options.

It never bothered me all that much in those types of tanks.

Yet, in other tanks? Just fugettaboutit!

Yeah, it MUST be about the concept of the tank. Not only will I forgive the visible equipment, sometimes I'll forgive myself the entire poor execution, too. Because, when I look back at some of the stuff I've done, that was definitely the mindset. Like, I was just happy to sort of pull it off, despite how crappy it looked, as this little gem from 2004 graphically illustrates:

 

Now that I look back on it, there were actually tons of times when I just let a tank evolve, unmolested and unhurried, because something spoke to me...no matter how weird or seemingly dumb the concept may have initially appeared. There was something about it that I believed in...

And occasionally, I'll try something, tear it down, and just regret it. Like, I'll realize, too late, that there was something I liked about the idea, and that I should have kept at it; let it do it's thing.

Like, what IF I kept it in play for little longer?

I mean, could it have evolved into something cool?

Maybe.

I recall a particular experiment I did with Spider Wood, which I let go very early in the game. The arrangement was almost a "reef like" concept...It didn't look right at the time, so I killed it way too early.

Like, a few tweaks to the wood stack, a buildup of substrate in the back of it, a buildup of some leaves and maybe some plants in the back, and it could have been a respectable recreation of the banks of some of the forest floor streams that I've seen in South America.

Yeah, I'd love to try that one again.

Then there were others which I had great faith in right from the start. Even though they looked a bit weird initially, I knew that they'd evolve into something special if I let them be.

Some just hit  the right note, despite a possibly shaky start. Just knew that the idea was so special, that given the space and time, they'd eventually hit the right notes...And they did.

And, then, there were those ideas which, despite their unconventional appearance, were iconic to me, because they represented the culmination of although experiment; a transformation from research to idea to reality. Stuff which created a real transformation in the way I look at aquariums. The "Urban Igapo" style aquairums that many of us execute now, arose from just such an idea.

Sometimes, you just know it. You just feel that letting go of your preconceptions, doubts, and fears, rather than letting go of the tank-is just the right move.

Regardless of the idea, or the appearance of your tank, if there is any way to salvage what you feel is a great idea- even if it means just waiting it out for awhile-  do it. 

 

You just never know if that one "not so good"idea will turn out to be the one that changes everything for you, and inspires others in the process. Your "fail" might be the unlock- the key- for someone else who was about give up, and then suddenly saw something in your work, and created a tank based on your "failed" concept- executed on an idea-which truly touched others in ways you might not have even thought of.

So, yeah- let go...in the right way.

Stay bold. Stay patient. Stay creative. Stay optimistic. Stay enthusiastic. Stay persistent...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman
Tannin Aquatics 

It's only a "fail" if you make it one...

Part of the aquarium hobby experience is screwing stuff up.

There are so many things that we do as aquarists which involve variables beyond our control, that failure in some things is almost inevitable.

And, after a lifetime in the hobby, I will occasionally reflect back on some of the great successes that I’ve had...and on some of the many, many failures that I’ve been involved with! Failures aren’t that bad, really. In fact, they're pretty damn helpful...As the sayings goes, “Nothing is ever wasted- it can always serve as an example of what NOT to do!”

Really.

Yeah, because if you learn from them, failures or disasters are extremely valuable tools for self-education.

I was thinking about my worst-ever aquarium disasters, and, fortunately, there have not been all that many...However, the ones I have had have been notable...and very educational!

My biggest mistakes came out of my own arrogance, really. Yes, arrogance. A desire to flaunt the "rules" set by Nature. 

Usually, they were "created" when I tried to do something that disregarded simple logic (and a century of aquarium common sense), like trying mixes of fishes that were absurd, or overstocking tanks...stuff like that.

For example, from my reef keeping experience- not all that many years ago, actually- I was going to be the ONE reefer to keep several Centropyge angelfish in his reef, including a Lemonpeel, Vrolicki, Coral Beauty, Flame Angel, and Bicolor! If you don't know anything about the dwarf angelfish of the genus Centropyge, the one thing you SHOULD know is that they are very territorial, and don't generally get along with others of their own species. And mixing different species is a traditional "recipe"  for disaster.

Oh, and most of the ones I wanted to keep had a well-earned reputation for snacking on coral tissue...What could go wrong here?

This was a recipe for failure that even the most inexperienced reefer could see coming. Of course, I was "experienced", so I knew better, right?

Yeah. 

Nonetheless, I really thought I could pull this off in a large reef with specialized aquascaping... I was convinced that it could work and that I'd be the envy of the reef aquarium world for doing so...Not only did this experiment end with some "predictable" results (a lot of nice corals getting snacked on), it resulted in 5 very ticked-off, very beaten up dwarf angels! No shit? Who would have seen that coming, right?

Just plain stupid...For some reason, I really thought that my “methodology” would pay off and that it could work...WRONG.

But hey. I did it. I failed at it. I OWN it.

I distinctly remember a dubious experiment on the side of my parents' house one summer when I was a teen, attempting to culture mosquito larvae...yeah, you know how well THAT went down!  I think that was the most mosquito bites I've ever had in one summer...

But I learned my lesson....

Or the time I tried to build my own fluidized reactor. It sounded like noble project, but the reality was that I started with a bad concept and used cheap PVC materials that didn't quite match up. Yeah, it didn’t work, and the resulting leaks and total lack of functionality reflected my DIY "skills!" It was a good thought, but really poor on the "execution" side.

Completely unlike the Angelfish fiasco, which was a “lose-lose” proposition! Nowadays, if I have the urge to do DIY, I simply break out the credit card and purchase whatever it is I was thinking of making. Aquarium equipment manufacturers LOVE me!

Another lesson learned.

Oh, or there was that time I tried to make a continuous-feed brine shrimp hatcher...Shit, do you know how LONG it takes to get brine shrimp eggs out of the water column in your tank?

A really long time.

Enough said.

However, failing- and I mean this in the most literal sense- can actually be beneficial in so many ways, especially if you share your failures publicly. Right now, somewhere out in the aquarium hobby world, there is another hobbyist contemplating one of the same absurd, disaster-inevitable ideas that you brought to life...

Perhaps it's not some huge, epic-disaster-bound system failure...Maybe, it's just something that's a bad decision; one that should be aborted on, but isn't likely to be- and the outcome is already well known in the hobby...

 

Maybe it's in our nature as hobbyists; we just love to tempt fate. And look, I get it...I've written on these very pages that sometimes, we need to go against the grain and try new ideas.

Even after 6 years of pushing this idea of botanical-style aquariums, we're still learning some new ideas, creating "best practices", and evolving techniques. We still make a few mistakes. And, like many hobbyists, we're still trying to get our heads around the "big picture" of the approach, which seems so contradictory to what has been passed down as "the way to do stuff" in the hobby for generations. 

It makes many people uncomfortable to take leaps of faith. And, sure, despite the successful implementation of these techniques for several years by thousands of hobbyists, there is always a chance of failure.

It's scary. It can be viewed as "irresponsible" by some. At the very least, you might question the efficacy and safety of some of this stuff.

It makes sense.

We ask you to make a lot of mental shifts accept some ideas which seem to go "against the grain" of long-held hobby "best practices" and philosophies of aquarium management.

We ask you to understand what you are doing what you are doing, and what the rationale behind the approach is.

 

One thing that you do get when ideas are shared like this is the benefit of the body of work; the experience- good and bad- of a large community of hobbyists who have went down this same path. The key to taking an idea from "fringe" to "best practice" is sharing. 

Sharing of mistakes made, the refinements done, and the "tweaks" that yielded consistent success.

It starts by creating a hobby culture of sharing.

Sharing of our mistakes is every bit as important as sharing our amazing successes.

So imagine, for a moment, if you do a quick “confessional” post on Instagram or Facebook about your biggest aquarium screw up, and just one hobbyist who is contemplating a similar thing stumbles on it, and then decides NOT to recreate your disaster!

Think of the savings in money, frustration, and innocent animals’ lives...It’s all good. "Failure" makes you a more successful aquarist- IF you learn from the mistake, and IF you share it with others!

It's kind of fun, too!

So, don’t hide your failures.

Discuss them.

Trumpet them from the highest mountain. Savor them. Run around, scream, share, yell at people if you must...But tell ‘em that you screwed something up...Tell them how, why, and what it was that you did to screw it up! 

Then laugh about it and feel better! Look at the absurdity of the thing you did.


Of course, some seemingly counter-intuitive ideas do work.

Sometimes, you try something that YOU think will be a mess, but your friends know will work, because they've done it many times, and have refined the idea and practices. You're a bit scared...and you do it anyways based on their ideas!  And it DOES work! Like recently, when my friend convinced me to try several male Apistos of different species in my display tank...I was like, "Dude...really?"

And he said, "Trust me."  And I did. And it was awesome!

Think about "failure" in the context of the bigger picture...

The neat thing about mistakes, screw-ups, and "failures" is that they often lead to something far, far better than whatever it was that you initially failed at. Because, if you take the time to ask yourself why it happened, and reconstruct the process, and make necessary adjustments and recalibration, you'll often find that the idea can work- just in a slightly different manner than you originally thought. 

And failures are only failures if you don't learn from them.

Even in our business, we screw up shit all the time, and usually it's our own fault. And we try to learn from them and refine our processes to make sure that they don't happen again.

In fact, I've been working on a piece on the many screw-ups we’ve made here at Tannin. It’s actually kind of funny, because there ARE so many! 

"Marketing blasphemy", you say? No. Not at all. Rather, it’s a living embodiment of practicing what we preach...

As humans, we all make bad decisions from time to time. Some are the result of pushing boundaries...others are simply bad judgement. Again, how the mistake was made isn't quite as important as learning from it is.

We will all benefit from being human, being honest, and getting through our trials and tribulations in fish keeping together. And yeah, we all have more to gain than to lose from sharing our mistakes.

Trust me.

What’s the biggest screwup- the worst mistake- that you’ve made in aquarium keeping? What did you learn from it?

Don’t be shy. Own it. Share it. Your "failure" will likely lead to others succeeding...So, it wasn’t really a failure after all, right?

Right!

Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay honest. Stay curious. Stay experimental...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

The Botanical-Style Aquarium: A "filter" of its own, and other biological musings...

A big thought about our botanical-style aquariums:

The aquarium-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-style aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."

In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.

Oh, the part about the biofilms and fungal growths sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Let's talk about our buddies, the biofilms, just a bit more. One more time. Because nothing seems as contrary to many hobbyists than to sing the praises of these gooey-looking strands of bacterial goodness!

Structurally, biofilms are surprisingly strong structures, which offer their colonial members "on-board" nutritional sources, exchange of metabolites, protection, and cellular communication. They form extremely rapidly on just about any hard surface that is submerged in water.

When I see aquarium work in which biofilms are considered a "nuisance", and suggestions that it can be eliminated by "reducing nutrients" in the aquarium, I usually cringe. Mainly, because no matter what you do, biofilms are ubiquitous, and always present in our aquariums. We may not see the famous long, stringy "snot" of our nightmares, but the reality is that they're present in our tanks regardless.

The other reality is that biofilms are something that we as aquarists typically fear because of the way they look. In and of themselves, biofilms are not harmful to our fishes. They function not only as a means to sequester and process nutrients ( a "filter" of sorts?), they also represent a beneficial food source for fishes.

Now, look, I can see rare scenarios where massive amounts of biofilms (relative to the water volume of the aquarium) can consume significant quantities of oxygen and be problematic for the fishes which reside in your tank. These explosions in biofilm growth are usually the result of adding too much botanical material too quickly to the aquarium. They're excaserbated by insufficient oxygenation/circulation within the aquarium.

These are very unusual circumstances, resulting from a combination of missteps by the aquarist.

Typically, however, biofilms are far more beneficial that they are reven emotely detrimental to our aquariums.

Nutrients in the water column, even when in low concentrations, are delivered to the biofilm through the complex system of water channels, where they are adsorbed into the biofilm matrix, where they become available to the individual cells.  Some biologists feel that this efficient method of gathering energy might be a major evolutionary advantage for biofilms which live in particularly in turbulent ecosystems, like streams, (or aquariums, right?) with significant flow, where nutrient concentrations are typically lower and quite widely dispersed.

Biofilms have been used successfully in water/wastewater treatment for well over 100 years! In such filtration systems the filter medium (typically, sand) offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the microbes to attach to, and to feed upon the organic material in the water being treated. The formation of biofilms upon the "media" consume the undesirable organics in the water, effectively "filtering" it!

Biofilm acts as an adsorbent layer, in which organic materials and other nutrients are concentrated from the water column. As you might suspect, higher nutrient concentrations tend to produce biofilms that are thicker and denser than those grown in low nutrient concentrations.

Those biofilms which grow in higher flow environments, like streams, rivers, or areas exposed to wave action, tend to be denser in their morphology. These biofilms tend to form long, stringy filaments or "streamers",which point in the direction of the flow. These biofilms are characterized by characteristic known as  "viscoelasticity." This means that they are flexible, and stretch out significantly in higher flow rate environments, and contract once again when the velocity of the flow is reduced.

Okay, that's probably way more than you want to know about the physiology of biofilms! Regardless, it's important for us as botanical-style aquarists to have at least a rudimentary understanding of these often misunderstood, incredibly useful, and entirely under-appreciated life forms.

And the whole idea of facilitating a microbiome in our aquariums is predicated upon supplying a quantity of botanical materials- specifically, leaf litter, for the beneficial organisms to colonize and begin the decomposition process. An interesting study I found by Mehering, et. al (2014) on the nutrient sequestration caused by leaf litter yielded this interesting little passage:

"During leaf litter decomposition, microbial biomass and accumulated inorganic materials immobilize and retain nutrients, and therefore, both biotic and abiotic drivers may influence detrital nutrient content."

The study determined that leaves such as oak "immobilized" nitrogen. Generally thinking, it is thought that leaf litter acts as a "sink" for nutrients over time in aquatic ecosystems.

Oh, and one more thing about leaves and their resulting detritus in tropical streams: Ecologists strongly believe that microbial colonized detritus is a more palatable and nutritious food source for detritivores than uncolonized dead leaves. The microbial growth which occurs on the leaves and their resulting detritus increases the nutritional quality of leaf detritus, because the microbial biomass on the leaves is more digestible than the leaves themselves (because of lignin, etc.).

Okay, great. I've just talked about decomposing leaves and stuff for like the 11,000th time in "The Tint"; so...where does this leave us, in terms of how we want to run our aquariums?

Let's summarize:

1) Add a significant amount of leaf litter, twigs, and botanicals to your aquarium as part of the substrate.

2) Allow biofilms and fungal growths to proliferate.

3) Feed your fishes well. It's actually "feeding the aquarium!"

4) Don't go crazy siphoning out every bit of detritus.

Let's look at each of these points in a bit more detail.

First, make liberal use of leaf litter in your aquarium. I'd build up a layer anywhere from 1"-4" of leaves. Yeah, I know- that's a lot of leaves. Initially, you'll have a big old layer of leaves, recruiting biofilms and fungal growths on their surfaces. Ultimately, it will decompose, creating a sort of "mulch" on the bottom of your aquarium, rich in detritus, providing an excellent place for your fishes to forage among. 

Allow a fair amount of indirect circulation over the top of your leaf litter bed. This will ensure oxygenation, and allow the organisms within the litter bed to receive an influx of water (and thus, the dissolved organics they utilize). Sure, some of the leaves might blow around from time to time- just like what happens in Nature. It's no big deal- really!

The idea of allowing biofilms and fungal growths to colonize your leaves and botanicals, and to proliferate upon them simply needs to be accepted as fundamental to botanical-style aquarium keeping. These organisms, which comprise the biome of our aquariums, are the most important "components" of the ecosystems which our aquariums are.

I'd be remiss if I didn't at least touch on the idea of feeding your aquarium. Think about it: When you feed your fishes, you are effectively feeding all of the other life forms which comprise this microbiome. You're "feeding the aquarium." When fishes consume and eliminate the food, they're releasing not only dissolved organic wastes, but fecal materials, which are likely not fully digested. The nutritional value of partially digested food cannot be understated. Many of the organisms which live within the botanical bed and the resulting detritus will assimilate them.

Now, we could go on and on about this topic; there is SO much to discuss. However, let's just agree that feeding our fishes is another critical activity which provides not only for our fishes' well-being, but for the other life forms which create the ecology of the aquarium.

And, let's be clear about another thing: Detritus, the nemesis of many aquarists- is NOT our enemy. We've talked about this for several years now, and I cannot stress it enough: To remove every bit of detritus in our tanks is to deprive someone, somewhere along the food chain in our tanks, their nutritional source. And when you do that, imbalances occur...You know, the kinds which cause "nuisance algae" and those "anomalous tank crashes."

The definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:

"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material."

Shit, that's just bad branding.

The reality is that this not a "bad" thing. Detritus, like biofilms and fungi, is flat-out misunderstood in the hobby.

Could there be some "upside" to this stuff? 

Of course there is. 

I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."

It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.

This is really important. It's part of the biological operating system of our botanical-style aquariums. I cannot stress this enough. 

Now, I realize that the idea of embracing this stuff- and allowing it to accumulate, or even be present in your system- goes against virtually everything we've been indoctrinated to believe in about aquarium husbandry. Pretty much every article you see on this stuff is about its "dangers", and how to get it out of your tank. I'll say it again- I think we've been looking at detritus the wrong way for a very long time in the aquarium hobby, perceiving it as an "enemy" to be feared, as opposed to the "biological catalyst" it really is!

In essence, it's organically rich particulate material that provides sustenance, and indeed, life to many organisms which, in turn, directly benefit our aquariums.

We've pushed this narrative many times here, and I still think we need to encourage hobbyists to embrace it more.

Yeah, detritus.

Okay, I'll admit that detritus, as we see it, may not be the most attractive thing to look at in our tanks. I'll give you that. It literally looks like a pile of shit! However, what we're talking about allowing to accumulate isn't just fish poop and uneaten food. It's broken-down materials- the end product of biological processing.  And, yeah, a wide variety of organisms have become adapted to eat or utilize detritus.

There is, of course, a distinction.

One is the result of poor husbandry, and of course, is not something we'd want to accumulate in our aquariums. The other is a more nuanced definition. 

As we talk about so much around here- just because something looks a certain way doesn't mean that it alwaysa bad thing, right?

What does it mean? Take into consideration why we add botanicals to our tanks in the first place. Now, you don't have to have huge piles of the stuff littering your sandy substrate. However, you could have some accumulating here and there among the botanicals and leaves, where it may not offend your aesthetic senses, and still contribute to the overall aquatic ecosystem you've created.

If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what really happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they" say in the books and hobby forums?

Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?

I think so. Like, almost always.

Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).

There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."

The following statement may hurt a few sensitive people. Consider it some "tough love" today: 

If you're not a complete incompetent at basic aquarium husbandry, you won't have any issues with detritus being present in your aquarium.

Just:

Don't overstock.

Don't overfeed.

Don't neglect regular water exchanges.

Don't fail to maintain your equipment.

Don't ignore what's happening in your tank.

This is truly not "rocket science." It's "Aquarium Keeping 101."

And it all comes full circle when we talk about "filtration" in our aquariums.

People often ask me, "What filter do you use use in a botanical-style aquarium?" My answer is usually that it just doesn't matter.  You can use any type of filter. The reality is that, if allowed to evolve and grow unfettered, the aquarium itself- all of it- becomes the "filter." 

You can embrace this philosophy regardless of the type of filter that you employ.

My sumps and integrated filter compartments in my A.I.O. tanks are essentially empty.

I may occasionally employ some activated carbon in small amounts, or throw some "Shade" sachets in there if I am feeling it- but that's it. The way I see it- these areas, in a botanical-style aquarium, simply provide more water volume, more gas exchange; a place for bacterial attachment (surface area), and perhaps an area for botanical debris to settle out. Maybe I'll remove them, if only to prevent them from slowing down the flow rate of my return pumps.

But that's it. 

A lot of people are initially surprised by this. However, when you look at it in the broader context of botanical style aquariums as miniature ecosystems, it all really makes sense, doesn't it? The work of these microorganisms and other life forms takes place throughout the aquarium.

I admit, there was a time when I was really fanatical about making sure every single bit of detritus and fish poop and all that stuff was out of my tanks. About undetectable nitrate. I was especially like that in my earlier days of reef keeping, when it was thought that cleanliness was the shit!

It wasn't until years into my reef keeping work, and especially in my coral propagation work, that I begin to understand the value of food, and the role the it plays in aquatic ecosystems as a whole. And that "food" means different things to different aquatic organisms. The idea of scrubbing and removing every single trace of what we saw as "bad stuff" from our grow-out raceways essentially deprived the corals and supporting organisms of an important natural food source.

We'd fanatically skim and remove everything, only to find out that...our corals didn't look all that good. We'd compensate by feeding more heavily, only to continue to remove any traces of dissolved organics from the water...

It was a constant struggle- the metaphorical "hamster wheel"- between keeping things "clinically clean" and feeding our animals. We were super proud of our spotless water. We had a big screen when you came into our facility showing the parameters in each raceway. Which begged the question: Were we interested in creating sterile water, or growing corals? 

Eventually, it got through my thick skull that aquariums- just like the wild habitats they represent-are not spotless environments, and that they depend on multiple inputs of food, to feed the biome at all levels. This meant that scrubbing the living shit (literally) out of our aquariums was denying the very biotia which comprised our aquariums their most basic needs.

That little "unlock" changed everything for me.

Suddenly, it all made sense. 

This has carried over into the botanical-style aquarium concept: It's a system that literally relies on the biological material present in the system to facilitate food production, nutrient assimilation, and reproduction of life forms at various trophic levels.

It's changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems. 

It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.

It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the asshole on Instagram with the flashy, gadget-driven tank. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.

It's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons.

It's about nuance.

It's about looking at things a bit different that we've been "programmed" to do in the aquarium hobby for so long. It's about not being afraid to question the reasons why we do things a certain way in the hobby, and to seek ways to evolve and change practices for the benefits of our fishes. 

It takes time to grasp this stuff. However, as with so many things that we talk about here, it's not revolutionary...it's simply an evolution in thinking about how we conceive, set up, and manage our aquariums. 

 

Sure, the aquairum is a "filter" of sorts, if you want to label it as such. However, it's so much more: A small, evolving ecosystem, relying on natural processes to bring it to life.

Wrap you head around that.

It might just change everything in the hobby for you.

Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

 

 

Cool Places.

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.

That's absurd.

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.

And then there are details which nature can do best.

 

Details.

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!

"Functional aesthetics."

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.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics