We've been playing with the "botanical method" of natural aquariums for a long time now, and during that time, we've pushed out some unconventional ideas, haven't we? I mean, the idea of embracing fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, and detritus isn't exactly popular in the mainstream hobby, right?
And there are numerous other life forms which are found on these materials as well, which we never really consider, yet are found in abundance in nature and perform vital roles in the function of the aquatic habitat.
Perhaps most fascinating and rarely discussed in the hobby, are the unique freshwater sponges, from the genus Spongilla. These interesting life forms attach themselves to rocks and logs and filter the water for various small aquatic organisms, like bacteria, protozoa, and other minute aquatic life forms.
(A BIG freshwater sponge! Image by Jomegat, used under CC BY-S.A. 3.0)
Unlike the better-known marine sponges, freshwater sponges are subjected to the more variable environment of rivers and streams, and have adapted a strategy of survival. When conditions deteriorate, the organisms create "buds", known as "gemmules", which are an asexually reproduced mass of cells capable of developing into a new sponge! The Gemmules remain dormant until environmental conditions permit them to develop once again!
To my knowledge, these organisms have never been intentionally collected for aquariums, and I suspect they are a little tricky to transport (despite their adaptability), just ike their marine cousins are. One species, Metania reticulata, is extremely common in the Brazilian Amazon. They are found on rocks, submerged branches, and even tree trunks when these areas are submerged, and remain in a dormant phase in the aforementioned gemmules during periods of desiccation!
Now, I"m not suggesting that we go and collect sponges for aquarium use, but I am curious if they occur as "hitchhikers" on driftwood, rocks or other materials which end up in our aquariums. When you think about how important sponges are as natural "filters", one can only wonder how they might perform this beneficial role in the aquarium as well! Have any of you encountered one before in your tanks?
Think about the possibilities which are out there, under every leaf. Every sunken branch. Every rock.
It was suggested (years ago) in the reef aquarium hobby that sponges can be encouraged to multiply in a collection of "live rock" rubble in the sump of a reef tank. In this way, they'd be utilized as a "cryptic zone" filter...I've always loved this idea, first proferred by reef hobby pioneer, Steve Tyree...And, I think that there is a definite application for them in freshwater, too.
Of course, since there ARE currently no sponges deliberately imported for aquarium hobbyists to work with, perhaps there are other alternatives?
What about our friends- the fungi and biofilms?
And a bonus, bigger thought- one which we've discussed before; but one which bares repeating:
The aquarium-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-method aquarium "infrastructure"- acts as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.
Oh, the part about the biofilms and fungal growths sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Let's talk about our buddies, the biofilms, just a bit more. One more time. Because nothing seems as contrary to many hobbyists than to sing the praises of these gooey-looking strands of bacterial goodness!
Structurally, biofilms are surprisingly strong structures, which offer their colonial members "on-board" nutritional sources, exchange of metabolites, protection, and cellular communication. They form extremely rapidly on just about any hard surface that is submerged in water.
When I see aquarium work in which biofilms are considered a "nuisance", and suggestions that it can be eliminated by "reducing nutrients" in the aquarium, I usually cringe. Mainly, because no matter what you do, biofilms are ubiquitous, and always present in our aquariums. We may not see the famous long, stringy "snot" of our nightmares, but the reality is that they're present in our tanks regardless.
The other reality is that biofilms are something that we as aquarists typically fear because of the way they look. In and of themselves, biofilms are not harmful to our fishes. They function not only as a means to sequester and process nutrients ( a "filter" of sorts?), they also represent a beneficial food source for fishes. They readily colonize leaves and other botanicals.
Now, look, I can imagine a few rare scenarios where massive amounts of biofilms (relative to the water volume of the aquarium) could consume significant quantities of oxygen and be problematic for the fishes which reside in your tank. These explosions in biofilm growth are usually the result of adding too much botanical material too quickly to the aquarium. They're excaserbated by insufficient oxygenation/circulation within the aquarium.
These are very unusual circumstances, resulting from a combination of missteps by the aquarist.
Typically, however, biofilms are far more beneficial that they are reven emotely detrimental to our aquariums.
Nutrients in the water column, even when in low concentrations, are delivered to the biofilm through the complex system of water channels, where they are adsorbed into the biofilm matrix, where they become available to the individual cells. Some biologists feel that this efficient method of gathering energy might be a major evolutionary advantage for biofilms which live in particularly in turbulent ecosystems, like streams, (or aquariums, right?) with significant flow, where nutrient concentrations are typically lower and quite widely dispersed.
Biofilms have been used successfully in water/wastewater treatment for well over 100 years! In such filtration systems the filter medium (typically, sand) offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the microbes to attach to, and to feed upon the organic material in the water being treated. The formation of biofilms upon the "media" consume the undesirable organics in the water, effectively "filtering" it!
Biofilm acts as an adsorbent layer, in which organic materials and other nutrients are concentrated from the water column. As you might suspect, higher nutrient concentrations tend to produce biofilms that are thicker and denser than those grown in low nutrient concentrations.
Those biofilms which grow in higher flow environments, like streams, rivers, or areas exposed to wave action, tend to be denser in their morphology. These biofilms tend to form long, stringy filaments or "streamers",which point in the direction of the flow. These biofilms are characterized by characteristic known as "viscoelasticity."This means that they are flexible, and stretch out significantly in higher flow rate environments, and contract once again when the velocity of the flow is reduced.
Okay, that's probably way more than you want to know about the physiology of biofilms! Regardless, it's important for us as botanical-style aquarists to have at least a rudimentary understanding of these often misunderstood, incredibly useful, and entirely under-appreciated life forms.
And the whole idea of facilitating a microbiome in our aquariums is predicated upon supplying a quantity of botanical materials- specifically, leaf litter, for the beneficial organisms to colonize and begin the decomposition process. An interesting study I found by Mehering, et. al (2014) on the nutrient sequestration caused by leaf litter yielded this interesting little passage:
"During leaf litter decomposition, microbial biomass and accumulated inorganic materials immobilize and retain nutrients, and therefore, both biotic and abiotic drivers may influence detrital nutrient content."
The study determined that leaves such as oak "immobilized" nitrogen. Generally thinking, it is thought that leaf litter acts as a "sink" for nutrients over time in aquatic ecosystems.
Oh, and one more thing about leaves and their resulting detritus in tropical streams: Ecologists strongly believe that microbial colonized detritus is a more palatable and nutritious food source for detritivores than uncolonized dead leaves. The microbial growth which occurs on the leaves and their resulting detritus increases the nutritional quality of leaf detritus, because the microbial biomass on the leaves is more digestible than the leaves themselves (because of lignin, etc.).
Okay, great. I've just talked about decomposing leaves and stuff for like the 11,000th time in "The Tint"; so...where does this leave us, in terms of how we want to run our aquariums?
1) Add a significant amount of leaf litter, twigs, and botanicals to your aquarium as part of the substrate.
2) Allow biofilms and fungal growths to proliferate.
3) Feed your fishes well. It's actually "feeding the aquarium!"
4) Don't go crazy siphoning out every bit of detritus.
Let's look at each of these points in a bit more detail.
First, make liberal use of leaf litter in your aquarium. I'd build up a layer anywhere from 1"-4" of leaves. Yeah, I know- that's a lot of leaves. Initially, you'll have a big old layer of leaves, recruiting biofilms and fungal growths on their surfaces. Ultimately, it will decompose, creating a sort of "mulch" on the bottom of your aquarium, rich in detritus, providing an excellent place for your fishes to forage among.
Allow a fair amount of indirect circulation over the top of your leaf litter bed. This will ensure oxygenation, and allow the organisms within the litter bed to receive an influx of water (and thus, the dissolved organics they utilize). Sure, some of the leaves might blow around from time to time- just like what happens in Nature. It's no big deal- really!
The idea of allowing biofilms and fungal growths to colonize your leaves and botanicals, and to proliferate upon them simply needs to be accepted as fundamental to botanical-style aquarium keeping. These organisms, which comprise the biome of our aquariums, are the most important "components" of the ecosystems which our aquariums are.
When you think about it objectively, they're among the most important and useful organisms which we can have in our botanical method aquariums. Think about how they arrive in aquatic ecosystems, what they consume, how they derive nutrition, and what they do for the overall ecosystem.
Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
In aquarium work, we see fungal colonization on wood and leaves all the time. Most hobbyists will look on in sheer horror if they saw the same extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces as they would in virtually any aquatic habitat in Nature!
Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in natural aquatic habitats!
Of course, fungal colonization of wood and botanicals is but one stage of a long process, which occurs in Nature and our aquariums. And, as hobbyists, once we see those first signs of this stuff, the majority of us tend to reach for the algae scraper or brush and remove as much of it as possible- immediately! And sure, this might provide some "aesthetic relief" for some period of time- but it comes right back...because these materials will provide a continuous source of food and colonization sites for fungal growths for some time!
I know that the idea of "circumventing" this stuff is appealing to many, but the reality is that you're actually interrupting an essential, ecologically beneficial natural process. And, as we know, Nature abhors a vacuum, and new growths will return to fill the void, thus prolonging the process.
Again, think about the role of aquatic hyphomycetes in Nature.
Fungal colonization facilitates the access to the energy trapped in deciduous leaves and other botanical materials found in tropical streams for a variety of other organisms to utilize.
As we know by now, fungi play a huge role in the decomposition of leaves, both in the wild and in the aquarium. By utilizing special enzymes, aquatic fungi can degrade most of the molecular components in leaves, such as cellulose,, hemicelluloses, starch, pectin and even lignin.
Fungi, although admittedly not the most attractive-looking organisms, are incredibly important in Nature and useful to us as hobbyists...and they "play well" with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs, both in the wild and in our aquariums!
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...It's like the whole game here- a literal explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
Yet, we freak the fuck out about it when it shows up in our tanks!
It requires another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt.
I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! AGAIN- one of the most important lessons we can take away from this is:
A truly "Natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course.
Imagine, if you will, a sump connected to a large display aquarium, filled with leaves and other botanical materials- in which biofilms and fungal growths are encouraged to proliferate extensively. Can you imagine the level of biological support such a mechanism could provide to an aquarium? It's essentially a freshwater, botanically-powered "refugium."
Yeah, a refugium...a concept that sort of came and went in the reef hobby, but who's time hasn't yet come in the freshwater world...
A completely unexplored (or, is it?), yet thoroughly useful way to manage nutrients and more for natural aquariums...The possibilities are endless. The potential benefits are beyond exciting. And the application really couldn't be more simple. Experimenting with a fungal/biofilm refugium would be super easy.
Stuff like this is truly at the cutting edge in our hobby- the true "outer limits" to what we know and do.
Stay progressive. Stay creative e. Stay brave. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.
Interesting. I’ve heard some things about the importance and benefits of biofilms before. I’m also wondering though, do these biofilms come in hand when controlling populations of waterborne microorganisms that would otherwise pose a threat to the tank’s inhabitants?