The immortal aquarium?

I remember an old sayings to the effect that, "...Nothing is ever wasted..."

I've often applied this adage to my aquarium work. Quite literally, actually. If you've been in the hobby for any appreciable length of time, you've no doubt heard that one of the best ways to "kick start" the biological process in a new aquarium is to add some substrate from an established, healthy aquarium.

It's hardly a new idea.

The thinking is that the established material contains a population- an inoculant- of beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms to help establish pioneering populations in your new tank.

It's a sound practice that has borne the test of time well, and is part of basic aquarium keeping. It's the thinking behind many strategies and products used to help establish the nitrogen cycle in new tanks. I've always embraced this practice, and have sort of taken it farther in the past decade or so.

Since botanical-style aquariums at their very foundation rely on biological processes and diversity, I tend to utilize more than just a handful of sand for this process. I will typically use wood, botanicals, twigs, and even some of the leaves, regardless of their condition, for this process. 

So yeah, I'll literally transfer a fair percentage of the "software" from an existing tank into the new one. The rationale is exactly the same as the rationale for using sand from an established tank. And, as you probably recall, fungal growths and bacterial biofilms are also extremely valuable as food sources for life forms at many levels, including fishes.

The growth of these organisms is powered by...decomposing leaf litter! 

And the idea of adding "pre-colonized" materials from existing tanks to help "jump start" a new tank is simply a logical and economical practice. Having a big chunk of completely-established ecology transferred from one tank to another is almost too easy a process not to take advantage of!

Now, sure, transferring all of this material over isn't a way to take a shortcut to circumvent the establishment of the nitrogen cycle in the new tank, it's a step in establishing it. A way to bring some extant ecology into a new location.

And, think about it: This isn't all that different than what happens when a stream overflows and forms a new small tributary. Some of the materials from the established aquatic ecosystem flow into the newly-inundated area, bringing with them their "on-board" population of microorganisms, fungi, and insects.

Nothing's ever wasted, right?

This isn't exactly earth-shattering, I know, but it's worth thinking about vis-a vis our aquarium work. 

And, as we've discussed many times, the same sort of concept applies when you're "remodeling" an existing aquarium; perhaps switching up from say, a "South American theme" to an "African theme", or whatever.

This is similar to the Japanese aquascaping practice of "sozo haishoku" espoused by the "Master" of this in aquariums, the late Takashi Amano. This is the processs of removing of as much old substrate material as possible along with the plants it contains in an aquarium, and replacing them with new materials.

It preserves the overall "composition" of the layout, but the "softscape" (botanicals and leaves, in our case) could change dramatically.

Yeah, in the world of the botanical-style aquarium, the idea of leaving the substrate and leaf litter/botanical "bed" intact as you "remodel" isn't exactly a crazy one. It's about preserving ecology over time, and despite changes.

And conceptually, once again, it sort of replicates what occurs in Nature, doesn't it?

Yeah, think about this for just a second.

This idea is at the very heart of the "Urban Igapo" idea we love so much!

As we almost constantly discuss, habitats like flooded forests, meadows, vernal pools, igarape, and swollen streams tend to encompass terrestrial habitats, or go through phases where they are terrestrial habitats for a good part of the year.

In these wild habitats, the leaves, branches, soils, and other botanical materials remain in place, or are added to by dynamic, seasonal processes. For the most part, the soil, branches, and a fair amount of the more "durable" seed pods and such remain present during both phases. 

Materials are utilized in the habitat continuously.

As the waters return, the formerly terrestrial physical 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 complex, protected 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.

It's all an elaborate dance, choreographed by Nature, encompassing numerous organisms, each filling a specialized role in the burgeoning aquatic ecosystem.

Continuing, developing, and evolving cycles and processes which have gone on for eons is what Nature does best.

Nothing is ever wasted. 

I might just be torturing this simple idea to death- I admit this point that I'm probably not adding much more to the "recipe" here; likely simply being redundant and even a bit vague...However, I think we need to think about how interesting and indeed, transformative this simple practice is.

And yeah, I'll concede that we probably don't have every answer on the processes which govern this stuff.

For example:

The most common question I get when it comes to taking out a fair amount of this material and then "continuing" the tank is, "Will it cycle again?"

And the answer is...Sure, it could.

On the other hand, here is my personal experience:

Remember, I keep a sort of diary of most of my aquarium work. I have for over three decades (gulp...). Just random scanning my "diary", I see that I have executed this practice dozens of times in all types of aquariums, ranging from simple planted aquariums to hardscape-only tanks, to botanical-style, blackwater and brackish aquariums, to reef tanks.

Not once- as in never- have I personally experienced any increase in ammonia and nitrite, indicative of a new "cycle."


Now, this doesn't mean that I guarantee a perfect, "cycle-free" process for you.  I'd be a complete asshole if I asserted that! Every system is different. There are numerous factors which impact the unique functions of a specific tank.

And you can't simply expect instant results, right?

Transferring a good compliment of material to an otherwise brand-new tank isn't going to fool Nature.

On the other hand, in an existing tank, by leaving the bulk of the substrate material and botanicals intact, and continuing to provide "fuel" for the extant biotia by leaving in and adding to the botanicals present in the aquarium, this lack of a "new" cycle makes a lot of sense.


Botanical-style systems are, in my opinion, more robust than they are vulnerable.

I believe that our botanical-style systems, with their diverse and dynamic biology, rebound quickly from disruptions and changes. And I also believe that, because of our approach and it's reliance on biological processes, they establish themselves to a more "stable" state far more quickly than "typical" aquariums do.

Much like the natural systems they purport to represent!

Of course, I also have in place a mindset and (like most of you) a mastery of basic aquarium husbandry practices that assure success with this approach, and that's a huge key here. Patience, and the understanding that yeah, a tank might take a while to establish itself, even with a large influx of "old" materials...or grasping the fact that you might experience an ammonia or nitrite spike when you "reconfigure" an existing tank- and being able to "go with that"- is critical to success, IMHO.

Not needing to rush to some arbitrary "finish line" is a most liberating approach to keeping any kind of aquarium. It will not only guide your practices, it will instill in you a better understanding of the processes and occurrences which take place in Nature as well. 

If you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey.

It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system.

Every stage of the aquarium's existence holds a unique fascination. 

By reusing and re-purposing existing materials and the organisms which colonize them in new iterations of your tank, or new tanks altogether, you're simply carrying on the same process which have occurred in natural aquatic systems for eons.

In essence, one could argue that this process instills a certain "immortality" into our aquariums...The botanical materials and substrate form one established aquarium can literally "bring life" to a succession of new systems indefinitely!

A sort of "immortality", for sure!

Something to think about, right?

I believe so...

Stay thoughtful. Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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