The allure of "throwback" conditions?

I like to think of myself as a very forward-thinking aquarist, and sometimes, it starts with embracing the idea of "throwback" conditions for my fishes!  You know, trying to keep them under environmental conditions which replicate, on as many levels as possible, those under which they've evolved...

Yeah, I've spent a lot of time over the decades playing with the idea of replicating- at least in part- some of the natural environmental conditions under which our fishes have evolved. In fact, one could say that the whole mission of Tannin Aquatics has been to emphasize the practice of replicating-on a number of levels- such conditions.

As a lover of brackish water habitats, I've spent a lot time over the years researching suitable fishes and other aquatic organisms from this environment for aquarium keeping. It's a fascinating world!

Along the way, I've learned a few things. I remember vividly  pissing off some of my surfing buddies on a trip to Fiji a number of years ago, paddling away from the pristine reef to a stifling, smelly Mangrove thicket (apparently filled with alligators, I'd learn later!) to search for fishes. In years of searching, I've stepped in a lot of smelly mud, even collected a mosquito bite or two along the way...

And, I have developed some opinions after seeing these habitats up close and personal! Personally, I think that brackish water habitats are home to more fishes than we think as hobbyists.

Now, sure, many fishes can adapt to brackish water conditions, but I'm more fascinated by the fishes which are actually found naturally in these environments. And it's always interesting when you can find our that a fish which you have previously dismissed as not having typically come from this actually does come from it naturally!

 There are a LOT of examples of fishes which fit this category in the hobby!

I absolutely believe that one of the big factors which is limiting the popularity of brackish water aquariums in the hobby has been the lack of availability and/or information about the origins of the fishes which may be kept in such aquariums.

Based on a recent, informal  survey I did on our Instagram feed, it seems like a lot of hobbyists are "sold" on the idea of a brackish tank, but aren't necessarily sure which fishes we can keep in them!

An interesting dichotomy, for sure!

The environments are compelling...Hobbyists are fascinated by brackish systems, yet the mystery about which fishes actually come from these habitats continues to be an issue. There are opinions, misinterpretations, and downright misconceptions among hobbyists about what fishes are actually from brackish habitats, versus "adaptable?"

And of course, there are surprises!

One of those happy "surprises" is our good friend, the "Endler's Livebearer", Poceilia wingei.

This popular fish is widely kept under "typical livebearer conditions" in the aquarium ( higher pH and harder water). And for years, I was convinced that the fish was found exclusively in these types of habitats...until I dug a bit deeper.

During my research, I learned that there are a number of wild populations form their native Venezuela which apparently inhabit mildly brackish water coastal lagoons and estuaries, for example, Laguna de los Patos, near Cumana, which has definite ocean influence, although it is far less salty than researchers thought it may have been in the past. And the wild populations residing there might very well be considered "endangered", or at least, limited.

Now, this kind of stuff is not "revolutionary" from a hobby standpoint, as it seems like we've known this for some time. Endler's enthusiasts are aware of this, yet it's not discussed all that often.

And although the fish are most adaptable, we don't hear all that much about keeping them in what we'd call "brackish" conditions (like SG of 1.003-1.005-1.010). It's just interesting to ponder and get your head around. It seems to me like the brackish water habitat for this species has not been embraced much from a hobby standpoint.

Why do you think that is?

I think I have an idea why.

I suppose it makes sense, too:

It's far easier to simply give fishes harder, alkaline water than to "mess with adding salt" to their tanks for a lot of hobbyists. Let's face it, the idea of mixing salt and monitoring specific gravity is a big pain, and even a bit intimidating for a lot of hobbyists who are not indoctrinated into the practice.

And, now having been domesticated and selectively bred for decades, wild populations of these fishes are apparently scant, as is natural habitat data, so indeed confirming with great certainty that they are still even occurring in these types of habitats is  difficult, at best, and downright sketchy at worst.

In general, the question about adding salt to livebearer tanks has been debated for a long time, and there are many views on the subject. If you google the topic, you'll literally see directly contradictory references on the first page of the search.

So, are livebearers found in brackish conditions?

Well, sure, many species are...Or, one could more safely say that some populations of many species are found in brackish conditions!

Obviously, the ultimate way to determine if you should or should not add salt to an Endler's or other livebearer tank would be to consider the natural habitats of the population you're working with.

Easier said than done,  of course- because the vast majority of them are now commercially or hobbyist bred- especially Endler's and guppies, of course.

I think the debate around salt and livebearers will go on for a long time!

Yet, with the increasing popularity of brackish water aquariums, and our continuous development of our brackish selection, "Estuary",(wait until you see what we're up to with this stuff in 2021!), we're hoping to see more experiments along this line for many different species of fishes!

Now, you know I've always been a fan of Sort of "re-adapting" even captive-bred specimens of all sorts of fishes (like "blackwater-origin" characins, etc.) to more "natural" conditions (well, "natural" from perhaps a few dozen generations back!) I am of the opinion that even "domesticated" fishes can benefit from providing them with conditions more reminiscent of those from the natural habitats from which they originated.

Yeah, I'm a stubborn ass, and never will buy into the thought that a few dozen captive generations will "erase" millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to specific habitats, and that re-adapting them to these conditions is somehow "detrimental" to them. Perhaps the ultimate example is the Discus, which has been bred for decades in "hard, alkaline water."

Is the idea of "repatriating" them to conditions more like those which they evolved under for eons somehow detrimental to them after a few dozen generations of captive breeding?

Personally, I don't think so. I'm sort of convinced that the rationale here is that it's simply easier for more hobbyists to provide them with "tap water" conditions than it is to manipulate water chemistry for the purpose of recreating some of the natural conditions form which the fishes have evolved under.

In the end, there are a lot of variables in the equation, but I think that the Endler's discussion is just another example of fishes which could benefit from experimenting with "throwback" conditions. I'm by no means anything close to an expert , or even "considerably knowledgable" on these fish, and my opinions are just that- opinions.

Yet, the idea is compelling, isn't it?

Commercially, it may not be practical to do this, but for the hobbyist with time and the inclination, it would be interesting to see where it takes you. We are very proud as a company to offer the natural materials that you can use to help replicate- in form and in function- some of these natural habitats. We want to encourage and facilitate research into this exciting area.

I realize that it's difficult to recreate every aspect of the many different wild habitats which we find compelling. Not everyone has the patience, means, or even the desire to keep their Rasbora at 4.3pH to replicate the peat swamp environment which they came from, or whatever.

Yet, most of us can make impactful changes to the way we keep such fishes, and experiment with creating more "authentic" environmental conditions for them on many levels.

I look forward to many more such discussions and experiments- bringing natural conditions to "domesticated" fishes, and perhaps unlocking some more secrets...or perhaps simply acknowledging what we all know:

That there truly is "no place like home!"

Stay open minded. Stay adventurous. Stay experimental. Stay resourceful. Stay creative. Stay relentless in your pursuit of information...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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