The experimental mode

It's been almost 6 years since we started Tannin Aquatics, and it's never been more exciting or satisfying to be playing with botanical-style aquariums! When we first launched, the idea was to share our love and experience with as many hobbyists as possible. However, it was also to encourage bold experimentation.

The reality is, despite the fact that hobbyists have been tossing leaves, twigs, and seed pods their tanks for generations, it's only been in more recent years that we've seen the development of more of an "approach" to using them, complete with techniques, "best practices", and a spirit of open-mindedness. A desire to use botanicals as more than just "decorative set pieces." 

A desire to do more than use them for purely "artistic" purposes.

Trust me. You can do more than that!

One of the things I am enjoying the most is seeing so many of you in our community trying very unusual things with botanical-style aquariums. You're using botanicals and some of our products for a wide range of experiments, ranging from fish breeding to fry rearing, to food production, to nutrient export. It's pretty cool!

The desire to question "status quo" and try to do things differently than the way we've always done them in the hobby often leads us down some paths that, although seemingly not that complicated or "exotic", shun convention enough to be considered "evolutionary" steps. Ones that, if built upon further, may definitely lead into some completely new directions.

There is something very pure and evocative-even a bit "uncomfortable" about utilizing botanical materials in the aquarium. And that's okay. Pushing beyond our comfort zone is okay. And selecting, preparing, and utilizing botanicals in our tanks is more than just a practice- it's an experience. A journey. One which we can all take- and all benefit from.

Right along with our fishes, of course!

The energy and creativity that you bring with you on the journey tends to become amplified during the experience. We don’t want everyone walking away feeling the same thing, quite the opposite actually. 

That uniqueness is a large part of the experience.

The experience is largely about discovery.

I believe that all aquarists are wildly curious about the natural world, but that we collectively tend to "overcomplicate" what is unknown, not well understood, or outside of the lines of "conventional aquarium aesthetics and practices"-and literally "polish out" the true beauty of Nature in the process-often ascribing "rules" and "standards" for how our interpretations of Nature must look. 

Such rules, in my opinion, not only stifle the creative process- they serve to deny Nature the opportunity to do as She's done for eons- to seek a path via evolution and change to forge a successful ecosystem for its inhabitants. When we seek to "edit" Nature because the "look" of Her process doesn't comport with our sense of aesthetics, we are, in my opinion, no longer attempting to replicate Nature as it is.

It's important to keep that idea in mind when we forge ahead.

Allowing ourselves to enjoy the process of exploration has opened up our minds to cool experiments. Looking beyond the hobby literature and exploring academic studies and just observing Nature myself have been huge "unlocks" for me. I've been able to find out some interesting things about ecological niches which hold my fascination.

My personal obsession has (no surprise here!) been with leaf litter/botanical beds.

My obsession with leaf litter started when I took a much closer look at these habitats, and considering how fishes live within the leaf litter in Nature. It was mind-blowing! Understanding the way these habitats support the abundance of fishes and other life forms led to a real epiphany of sorts for me.. I realized that this type of habitat is not only relatively simple to recreate in the aquarium- it also performs the dual role of creating "functional aesthetics!"

One of the more fascinating scientific observations I stumbled upon in recent years concerns the productivity (in terms of food inputs) of Amazonian streams. It's long been known by science that the primary production of food in these streams has been our friend, allochthonous inputs- you know, leaves, wood, fruits, blossoms, etc. from the surrounding forests.

Now, although there is a lot of the "stuff" in these streams, interestingly, biologists tended to classify these habitats as "low in biomass."

However, recent studies of the microfaunal diversity of these streams (Walker and Feriera), it was found that the stream fauna was aggregated in submerged litter and "may reach considerable densities..." This observation suggested that the animal community within the submerged leaf litter banks was of greater importance to the productivity of these waters than previously believed.

In other words, a lot of life-and food- is present in submerged leaf litter beds!

I spent- and continue to spend- a lot of time and energy exploring the idea of replicating some of the function of natural leaf litter/botanical beds in my aquariums. I've done a fair number of experiments with the intention of seeing if it's possible to develop closed ecosystems which can provide a fair amount of supplemental- if not primary-food for fishes.

My setup approach was anything but "radical"- however, it is "different", and I believe- successful.

Other than eschewing feeding, there is  little more to distinguish this approach from more traditionally-run botanical-style systems. However, I think it helps prove, to some extent, that there is a "low-maintenance, low food-input" aquarium approach for keeping certain small fishes which is viable.  


Of course, that means setting the system up correctly from day one to function in this fashion. And that meant, a lot of leaves. More than usual. 


Much like in Nature, if properly conceived and populated with an initial population of live food sources, I believe that an aquarium can be configured to create a productive, biologically-sustainable system, requiring little to no supplemental food input on the part of the aquarist to function successfully for extended periods of time. Of course, it is significantly different than a natural, fully-open system in many ways. And this is not a "revolutionary" statement or pronunciation, or some "breakthrough" in the art of aquarium keeping.


It is just an idea that- like so many we encourage here- replicates some aspects of natural aquatic systems. With responsible management and continued experimentation, I really see no reason why this concept couldn't be done on a larger scale with the same great success. 

These types of experiments represent a further exploration into a natural approach which embraces both the aesthetics and function of some of the compelling habitats that we love so much. My hope is that my simple efforts will inspire those far more learned/talented than I to look at Nature, and interpret many of its aspects with a bent towards pushing ourselves in terms of management, husbandry, and aquascaping. 

A marriage of ideas, form, and function. In around, and above the leaf litter bed. One that leads to an eloquent, dynamic ecosystem which can provide beautifully for all of its inhabitants.

Just like what happens in Nature.

And sometimes, that means putting aside our preconceived notions- the "burden" imposed by our own experiences- to open ourselves up to try some new things.

I often think that we- that is, more "advanced" hobbyists...know too much. We've "seen it all", know what to expect, and we let this guide- or perhaps, taint- our experiences...


And I don't mean that from an arrogant perspective or anything.

I just can't help but postulate that I- like so many hobbyists at my level of experience- tend to overthink every aspect of the aquarium hobby, particularly during the new tank startup phase, rather than just letting ourselves enjoy the moment- the wonder, and the awe that comes from doing something special, beautiful, and, let's face it- incredibly cool!

I mean, setting up a "slice of nature" in your own home?

This IS something amazing, huh? 

Something that nine-tenths of the world will never get to experience or even comprehend.

And yet, perhaps- just a result of doing this incredible thing regularly...we know too much.


We understand all of this stuff. Well, most of it, anyways. Enough to think about multiple angles and concerns...

And that means we often fail to let go of our own preconceptions...We cannot rid ourselves of a lot of bias that can influence our openness to new ideas and experiments. 

Yet, when we do- the results, the processes, the ideas, and the experiments that we engage in often take us to places we have never previously considered. Some surprise us. Some may frighten us. Some might even excite us, or vindicate us!

Try things. Screw them up. Tweak them. Learn from them. Change them. Refine them. Share. Repeat.

Everyone wins.

There's been a fair amount of research and speculation by both scientists and hobbyists about the processes which occur when terrestrial materials like leaves and botanical items enter aquatic environments, and most of it is based upon field observations by scientists and ecologists.

As hobbyists, we have a unique opportunity to observe firsthand the impact and affects of this material in our own aquariums! I love this aspect of our "practice", as it creates really interesting possibilities to embrace and create more naturally-functioning systems, while possibly even "validating" the field work done by scientists! 

It goes without saying that there are implications for both the biology and chemistry of the aquatic habitats when leaves and other botanical materials enter them.

THAT is the real value of experimenting- pushing outwards...plying the exotic niches and metaphorical "backwaters" of the aquarium hobby.

Let yourself enter "experimental mode" once in a while. 

It's a good place to be. 

Stay unique. Stay thoughtful. Stay daring. Stay creative. Stay fearless. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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