Anyone who's kept tropical fishes for any appreciable length of time does stuff that, while maybe not intentional, doesn't exactly fit the commonly accepted "best practices" of aquarium keeping. Stuff that perhaps doesn't provide the fishes under your care with stable, comfortable environmental conditions.
Maybe you slacked off on water exchanges for a protracted period of time. Perhaps you forgot to replace your filter media...Maybe you added a few too many fishes to that 20 gallon aquarium...What about the time you went on vacation and forgot to set up a means to feed them while you were away for 10 days? Or the time the heater failed and the water temp never got above 67 degrees F (19 C ) for like a week before you realized it?
These "lapses" are not exactly something that you want to have happen.
And yet, somehow- the fishes survived, right?
Yeah. They did.
Well, perhaps they're a lot more adaptable than we give them credit for, right?
Sure, fishes will likely always do best when provided with consistent, stable environmental conditions; conditions consistent with the environmental parameters under which they've evolved for eons.
I'm obsessed with this, as are many of you...and it's part of what interested me in the idea of using botanical materials in aquariums in the first place...an attempt to replicate some of the physical, environmental, and chemical characteristics of the environments from which they come from in the wild.
However, it's no secret that fishes will adapt to more easily-provided "captive conditions", even reproducing under them. You only need to think about all of the captive-bred tetras which, despite evolving in soft, acidic conditions, often thrive and breed in hard, alkaline water.
There's not really a mysterious reason why this is.
The reality is that most fishes can adjust and adapt to changing or challenging conditions if you give them a little help….The "help" is providing aquarium conditions which are chemically stable, and in the case of those measures which reflect the levels of metabolic waste in the water (nitrite, ammonia, nitrite and phosphate)- low and stable. Keep 'em well fed and stable.
It really boils down to common sense husbandry.
Stability- or, more specifically, stability within a given range of measure- is what always seems to keep fishes alive and thriving. Continuously, quickly changing, and wildly varying environmental parameters are simply stressful for fishes, and, while often not killing them quickly outright, will result in continuous stress, which can lead to disease and other medical problems over time.
That being said, it's not imperative that every single parameter in your aquarium needs to be perfectly stable and "spot on" to hobby-grade "standards". And out concern over any variation from perfection is really unfounded, IMHO.
We get to stressed-out over minutiae, IMHO.
To get a perspective, just have a chat with some non-fish-keeping acquaintances about stuff that happens in your aquariums.
Don't you think that sometimes, as hobbyists, we tend to get a bit- well, "overly concerned" about stuff that non-hobbyists don't understand? Or, perhaps they do-more than we can even comprehend- and will occasionally come up with some "pearls of wisdom" about fishkeeping that blow us away!
Case in point:
Not too many years ago, I recall walking into my office early one morning, and I immediately was taken aback. Apparently, one of my light timers had failed, and the one of my tank lights remained on all night.
No biggie, right? Well except for the fact that it was my South American-igarape-inspired leaf litter tank, and I recently added some cool wild characins to the tank, acclimated and carefully quarantined...and then- THIS had to happen, and....you know where I'm going with this?
This was going through my mind:
"Omigod, the fishes didn't get any dark period...they've been seriously stressed..."
You will say that this wouldn't bother you- but you're totally lying! It would bother the shit out of you, too! I know that it would, 'cause you're a fish geek. It's part of what we all do.
Of course, I relayed this concern to my wife later in the day, when we touched base and asked each other how are days were progressing.
To which my wife, not at all a fish geek, yet ever the pragmatist, noted, "You know, Scott, sometimes, unexpected things happen in the Amazon."
She was on to something there.
And it's not just lilt old me who freaks out about stuff like this. I know for a fact...
It's a fish-geek thing.
I think, that as hobbyists, we tend to get caught up in every little minute detail of the little worlds we've created for our fishes- so much so that we often forget the one underlying truth about them:
They're living creatures, which have evolved over eons to adapt to and deal with changes in their environment-big and small...or even insignificant, like an excessive amount of light one evening.
I mean, there must have been some natural precedent for this, right? Some atmospheric phenomenon- or combination of phenomenon-which rendered the night sky inordinately bright one evening at some point in the long history of the world?
Think about it for a second.
I think this high level of concern-this "overkill", if you will, on the part of all hobbyists is based on the fact that we take great pains to assure that we've created perfect little captive environments for our fishes, and do everything we can to keep them stable and consistent.
When something out of the ordinary happens- a pump fails, a heater sticks in the "on" position, we forget to feed, etc.- we tend to get a little bit, oh...crazy, maybe?
Look, I get it: When a critical piece of environmental control equipment fails (like a heater), especially during a cold spell or heatwave, it could be life or death for your fishes. If you're about to spawn a particularly picky fish or rear some fry, it could be a serious problem. You can't really downplay those concerns. However, some of the less dramatic, non-life-threatening issues, such as a light staying on or off longer than usual one evening, a circulation pump stopping unexpectedly for a couple of hours, or forgetting to change the carbon in the filter one week, don't really create that much of a problem for your fishes when you really think about it objectively, do they?
At some time during the exisience of our fishes in the wild, there was a temporary blockage in the Igarape in which they resided, slowing down the normal flow. At some point, there might have been a once-in-a-century cold morning in the tropics, right? At some point, the swarm of Daphnia or Cadis Fly larvae that were so abundant for months at a time, weren't...
In most instances, the animals that we keep are not so delicate, and the closed environments we provide aren't running so "close to the edge" that we should panic when some random factor changes things up one day. And consider this: When we purchase our fishes, they are unceremoniously netted out of the tank (or stream, lake, river, etc.) environment in which they reside, placed in a plastic bag, transported for who knows how long, and possibly making a few stops on the way before ultimately landing in our aquarium.
That's a LOT of changes to cope with. Stress.
But guess what? Fishes manage to deal with it. Somehow.
Sure, our first choice is to have rock-solid parameters and environmental conditions for our fishes 24/7/365, but sometimes stuff happens that throws a proverbial "wrench" into our plans. We have to be adaptable, flexible...just like our fishes apparently are.
So next time your light doesn't come on, or you forget to feed your fishes as you rush off to work some morning, don't stress out over it. They'll be fine. Keep calm. Always keep your concern high, but don't let obsessing over your fishes keep you from focusing on the even more important things in life (yeah, there are a few, right?).
And remember, sometimes unexpected things DO happen in the Amazon.
There is one fundamental truth, really:
The aquarium hobby isn’t difficult.
However, it CAN be when we make it that way by imposing our own barriers and obstacles to success. And that includes stressing out over what, in reality, are really not devastating issues for our fishes. Of course, you also have to realize that common sense is so important.
One of the unusual inconsistencies that I’ve noticed is that, sometimes, you’ll see information about a specific fish on a website, describing in detail it’s natural habitat.
And many natural aquatic habitats are influenced by their terrestrial surroundings.
There are all sorts of interesting influences on these natural habitats created by the surrounding terrestrial environment and the microbial associations which occur in the substrates, leaves, wood, and other materials which comprise them.
The relationship between terrestrial habitats and the aquatic environment is becoming increasingly apparent- particularly in areas in which blackwater is found. And, the lack of suspended sediments, which create a "nutrient poor" condition in these habitats, doesn't do much to facilitate "in situ" production of aquatic food sources; rather, it places the emphasis on external factors.
Many blackwater systems are simply too poor in nutrients to offer alternative food sources to fishes.The importance of the relationship between the fishes and their surrounding terrestrial habitat (i.e.; the forests which are inundated seasonally) is therefore obvious. That likely explains the significant amount of insects and other terrestrial food sources that ichthyologists find during gut content analysis of many fishes found in these habitats.
And, as we've hinted on previously- the availability of food at different times of the year in these waters also contribute to the composition of the fish community, which varies from season to season based on the relative abundance of these resources.
Another example of these unique interdependencies between land and water are when trees fall.
It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall in the rain forest, with punishing rain and saturated ground conspiring to easily knock over anything that's not firmly rooted. When these trees fall over, they often fall into small streams, or in the case of the varzea or igapo environments in The Amazon that I'm totally obsessed with, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.
And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions: Providing a physical barrier or separation from currents, offering territories for fishes to spawn in, providing a substrate for algae and biofilms to multiply on, and providing places for fishes forage among, and hide in. An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks and parts will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.
In Nature, as we've discussed many times-leaf litter zones comprise one of the richest and most diverse biotopes in the tropical aquatic ecosystem, yet until recently, they have seldom been replicated in the aquarium. I think this has been due, in large part- to the lack of continuous availability of products for the hobbyist to work with, and a lack of real understanding about what this biotope is all about- not to mention, the understanding of the practicality of creating one in the aquarium.
Long-held fears and concerns, such as overwhelming our systems with biological materials, and the overall "look" of decomposing leaves and botanicals in our tanks, have understandably led to this idea being relegated to "sideshow status" for many years. It's only been recently that we've started looking at them more objectively as ecological niches worth replicating in aquariums.
Yeah, personally- I think that the aquarium hobby has been a bit overrun, if you will, with admonitions and warnings about not doing things "the way we've done them" for so long. Concerns about "tank crashes" and "algal blooms" and stuff like that simply halted progress in looking at different, more natural ways to do stuff over the years. Look, I'm all for "best practices" and using caution and observations and such, but to stagnate because of fears of going against the grain of the hobby hegomony is, IMHO, absurd.
Sure, fishes can adapt all kinds of conditions, within reason. However, doesn't it make more sense to keep them in conditions which, on a number of levels, resemble the habitats in which they've evolved over eons?
Suree, ti does- even if those conditions may be something we've been told not to recreate in our tanks for years. I think that we've been told not to recreate these botanically rich habitats simply because the idea of decomposing materials, dark water, and fungal growths go against almost everything that we've been told to do in the hobby.
Frustrating, I know. However, I suppose that, until more information is unlocked, the best thing that we can do is to utilize the materials that we have available in a quantity and variety which "feels right" to us, and seems to have a positive impact on our fishes.
And to take note of our findings; our discoveries.
These kinds of interesting little ideas can occupy the imagination of hobbyists for decades! And the fact is that most of what we are doing in our little botanical-infused world is simply a "best guess" in many cases...a true work in progress. Yet, a "work in progress" which may have some profound impact on the hobby for decades.