The surprising benefits being flexible.

On of the annoying realities of our hobby- like life in general, is that sometimes you need to compromise stuff.

It's one of those words that us hobbyists naturally cringe when they hear, right?

You do. Admit it!

Compromise has such a feeling of "finality" about it, but the reality is that, in our hobby, compromising can often yield exciting results, unexpected benefits, and occasionally, breakthroughs. Sometimes, it's as simple as not being able to accommodate that one larger tank, and ending up with two, or even three smaller ones (in reality, is that EVEN a compromise for a fish geek?).

Or not being able to afford or obtain the one prized specimen of Apisto or whatever, and ending up with another species that you not only fall in love with, but learn to spawn, rear, and even foster breakthroughs with. Or thinking you were going be trying one type of aquascape, only to be "forced" into compromising a bit due to budget, space or time restrictions...only to end up with something amazing you never thought about before.


It happens. A lot. 

And it's not that bad a thing, really.

The reality is that being flexible, adventurous, and being willing to accept new ideas and approaches on perhaps a smaller scale or under a different set of circumstances is really one of the best traits that you can have as a hobbyist.

Compromising some aspects of an idea has, on so many occasions in my fishy "career", enabled me to accomplish stuff I never thought possible, with benefits, enjoyment, and opportunities that I could never have imagined previously. Especially when it comes to tank size- probably the most annoying compromise we as hobbyists feel that we have to make...Sometimes, the benefits of using a smaller tank might be surprising!

It's all really a matter of perspective. Think about it. What "compromises" have you made, only to come to realize that they were not compromises at all? 

When it comes to botanical-style aquariums, compromises require us as aquarist to make a bunch. When we understand that adding botanical materials to the aquarium, we're not only creating the environment- we're adding bioload to the system, and that we need to allow for the passage of time for the beneficial bacteria and other members of the microbiome to group and multiply within the system.

To many hobbyists, waiting for this microbiome to develop is a sort of compromise... We love stuff to happen fast! On OUR personal timeline. The reality, as we know by now, is that Nature sets the timeline, creates change, and requires us to accommodate HER- whether we want to or not!

Oh, sure, some of the changes that occur during the "life" of an aquarium are human-imposed, such as equipment modifications/replacements, aquascaping "edits", fish and plant additions, etc.

However, if you look carefully (as I'm sure that you do), as many changes can be attributed to the cycle of life which occurs in your little microcosm as to human "intervention" of the aquarium environment. 

You, the aquarist, ever keen on anything that occurs in your tank, will notice- and often perform subtle (or not-so-subtle) interventions to counteract this process, lest it descend into some sort of chaos, right? 

Yet, isn't "chaos" sort of a human-ascribed thing?

I mean, we're talking about changes in the aquatic habitat which evolve the look and perhaps the biological "operating system" of the aquarium. This is absolutely analogous to what happens in natural aquatic systems.

With a lot of botanical materials (terrestrial plants, 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. 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, of organics within the ecosystem.  In our aquariums, redistribution is limited by hardscape (wood and rocks) much as it is in nature. 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.

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.


And consistency. Working together in a most interesting way.

We've talked about it before, but it does bear some further review in this light: There are streams  where 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 more-or-less-permanent habitats for generations of fishes and their offspring, and like the tropical reefs in the ocean- are 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 throughout they year, influenced, as we discussed previously, by seasonal inundation. 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.  

On the Amazonian floodplains, for example, the flood cycle of the rivers into the igapo are the dominant seasonal factor, and fish communities are found to fluctuate greatly over the year. During inundation, fish migrate into floodplain forests to feed on insects, fruits and seeds, among other things.


Studies of blackwater communities showed that, during these cycles, a greater diversity of fishes exists there. Many species were found to be specialized feeders. Fish, detritus and insects were the most important food resources supporting the fish community in both high and low water seasons, but the proportions of fruits, invertebrates and fish in their diets were reduced during the low water season.

Change, consistency, and compromise- yet again.

Obviously, there are numerous examples of this "yin/yang" sort of thing in Nature, 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.


And that involves compromises, doesn't it?

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

Our fishes have adapted to it. We should embrace it.

Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down in their aquariums, and the 'scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. They know it or not, they are grasping the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi-Sabi"...sort of. One must appreciate the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it. To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.


And, understanding these natural processes and replicating more and more of them in our aquariums can expose more and more people- even non hobbyists- to the wonder and fragility of these fascinating aquatic ecosystems, fostering a greater demand to protect them.

It's an amazing time to be an aquarist, isn't it?

I mean, we have the fishes, the technology, the materials, and the means to research arcane topics once considered solely the domain of scholars. We can actually execute on many of these things. We can try playing with concepts that we've likely never given much thought to previously. And we can rapidly communicate and share our ideas, successes, challenges, failures, and overall progress with fellow hobbyists all over the planet.

Nature is calling. 

Another thing for us to grasp...flexibility. Maybe it's even a mental shift?

Embrace the change that being flexible brings. Enjoy Nature at work. Assist, enjoy, and work with Nature in your aquarium, and you'll develop an even greater appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, and have a lot more fun doing so!

Stay engaged. Stay attuned. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay flexible...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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