The "operating system..."

Pretty much every major breakthrough I've encountered in my hobby "practice" has been the result of me "breaking pattern" and trying something fairly radically new...You know, a big remake of an aquarium....Trying a new manipulation of the environment, etc.

And of course, the thing which maintains the "breakthrough?"


I've always had this thing about repetition and doing the same stuff over and over agin in my aquarium practice. It's one of the real "truisms", to me, about fish keeping: Once you've gotten in a groove, in terms of husbandry routines, it's great to just do the same thing over and over again. 


Yes, I beat the shit out of that idea fairly regularly, right?

Now, notice that I'm not talking about doing the same thing over and over when it comes to ideas...Nope. I'm of the opinion that you should do all sorts of crazy things when it comes to concepts and experiments.

However, when it comes to maintenance, I'm all about boring. Like, dull.

With so many other variables in play with aquariums, it simply makes sense to keep some things as stable and predictable as possible. Like, if you change "x" liters of water ever Tuesday, or whatever, and your tank is cranking- I say just keep doing it.

How does this stuff play into the way Nature operates?

Nature has its own rhythms. Nature has its own pace, and its own processes. Its own "operating system." And we'd do well to consider them, right?

Many of the habitats from which our fishes hail are fairly stable, in terms of water chemistry. Or are they? Sure, lakes and major rivers and tributaries, and of course, the oceans, are among the most stable environments on earth (at least in the short to medium term). Most of these habitats have conditions that are more or less constant and vary little.

I say "most" of these habitats...What about the seasonally-inundated forests and floodplains which many of us are fascinated by, and are starting to model our aquariums after?


They go through a lot of changes as aquatic habitats during the rainy season, as water levels peak and decline.

With a lot of botanical materials (terrestrial plants, soils, branches, logs, leaves, etc.) in the water, one would anticipate some sort of chemical changes the longer the areas are submerged, and as these materials begin to decompose. In addition, the leaching of organics, the water depth, clarity, tint, dissolved oxygen levels, etc. all are subject to such changes.

And with a more-or-less constant influx of rain during the wet season, I would bet that there is some dilution- or at least, redistribution and transformation- of the physical materials within the ecosystem.  

In our aquariums, redistribution is limited by our deliberate movement of components of the hardscape (wood, botanicals and rocks, etc.) much as it is in Nature. The little changes we make can mimic these dynamic processes quite easily.

And the transformation- the accumulation of biofilms...the decomposition of botanical materials- the turbidity of the water, etc.- all are the work of Nature...even in the closed system of an aquarium.

And, one could make the argument that our water changes do, indeed simulate to some extent the processes of rainfall and flooding to some extent!

And our continuous addition, removal, and replacement of botanicals is, as many of us surmised, a pretty good replication of what happens in these systems in Nature, as well. Materials are continuously falling into the water and being redistributed, with ones that have been down longer decomposing and/or being acted upon by fishes and other aquatic life forms.

In the confines of an aquarium, finding a "rhythm" that works for both us and our fishes is the key here. I mean, sure, if you want to really follow global weather patterns and do stepped-up water exchanges and botanical additions and removals to correspond with them, this would be a very cool experiment!

However, for most of us, simply establishing a routine of botanical additions and replenishment is a good idea. Removing them as they decompose, or leaving them in until they completely break down are both practices which form part of the "management"- the operating system- of our aquariums. 


And consistency. 

Working together in a most interesting way.

We've talked about it before, but it does deserve some further review in this light: There are streams in which botanical accumulation (particularly in banks of leaf litter) has been going on more or less the same way for many years, creating semi-permanent features in the aquatic environment.

For example, "meanders" (bends) in various Amazonian streams have been studied for some time, and some leaf litter beds are known to have existed for decades in the same place. The implication for this is that such leaf litter beds become habitats for generations of fishes and their offspring, and like the tropical reefs in the ocean- are literally an oasis of life- containing both the fishes and their prey items.

Now, although these are semi-permanent features in the habitat, they can vary in composition throughout the year, influenced, as we discussed previously, by seasonal inundation.

And we can absolutely recreate such structures and processes in the aquarium, can't we? Continuously adding to a leaf litter bed in an aquarium is the perfect replication of this process.

Oh- and then there are those floating leaf litter banks!

It's been postulated by researchers that the floating litter banks supply the benthic community (which includes, of course, the fishes) with food and shelter, especially during the dry season when other habitats are unavailable.  

How cool would it be to replicate such a system in the aquarium?

And interestingly, the structural changes resulting from the seasonal disintegration/decomposition of bottom litter banks and the formation of floating litter banks may also lead the fishes to move from the bottom to the surface- a sort of "migration" to offset the changes occurring in the environment at different times of the year.

They follow the food and the shelter on a more-or-less constant basis.

Change and consistency, yet again.

Now, some of these processes and transformations, when "curated" and/or performed in the confines of the aquarium, can be a bit disruptive. On the other hand- are our fishes ecologically adapted to such continuous changes?

They have.

Obviously, there are numerous examples of this "yin/yang" sort of thing, all of which have profound and interesting implications and possibilities for hobbyists eager to attempt to replicate the "functional aesthetics" of such systems.

The more we look at Nature, the more we find that trying to model our aquariums aesthetically and functionally after Her processes is an amazing way to go!

Perhaps the key to realizing many previously overlooked benefits for our fishes is to simply try to emulate the processes which occur seasonally in Nature..embracing change, and its strange, yet inexorable relationship with consistency.

Nature's "operating system."

Our fishes have adapted to it. We should embrace it. We should incorporate it into our aquarium practice.

Something to think about, right?

Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay consistent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


3 Responses


July 27, 2020

Muchas gracias. ?Como puedo iniciar sesion?

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

October 23, 2019

HI Craig,

Thanks for the kind words…This is a fun, still-evolving (even after many, many years of hobbyists playing with it…) practice. However, with some many awesome hobbyists getting into the game and experimenting with botanicals, the opportunities for breakthroughs are out there. Getting out of our comfort zones just a bit, and evolving this towards the “mainstream” of hobby consciousness is starting to pay off. Good luck on your journey!


Craig Gingrich-Philbrook
Craig Gingrich-Philbrook

October 23, 2019

Scott, I enjoy your bog so much. Thanks for demystifying this practice. It’s very helpful as I get ready to begin the slow, steady make over of a couple tanks.

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