Welcome (Back) to "The Jungle..."

Ever since I was a kid, with my first aquarium in my bedroom, I had this vision of the underwater environment as a complex tangle of aquatic plants, branches, twigs, etc.

This idea was probably put in my head from some reading I did on jungle streams and such, and the "vision" never really left me. And curiously, as I look back on some of the memorable tanks and experiences that I've had in aquariums over the years, I couldn't help but think back to all of the ones that held a special fascination for me. 

There was a sort of commonality to them all; I think it was the "complexity" of the aquariums' "structure." It's something that I continue to play with to this day in some of my most successful aquariums.

Factors other than "planning", however, were the catalysts of my earliest learning experiences with this concept:

We all have a life outside of aquarium keeping (well, we should!), and sometimes, it impacts our aquariums.

I know that growing up, there were a number of times over the decades that, for one reason or another, I simply let the tanks "run themselves", save an occasional water change or filter media cleaning, and of course, regular feeding (that consisted of tossing in a chunk of frozen brine shrimp, or whatever was on hand at the time).

A particularly fond memory of this type of "practice" comes from my Senior year in high school, when I was seriously into breeding killies (in addition to keeping saltwater, cichlids, tetras, and of course, the usual high school-dude pursuits of girls, surfing, and socializing). As a junior AKA member, I obtained a group of killies- Epiplatys dageti "Monroviae", and was determined to breed them.

Of course, they were very "easy", by killie standards, and had a reputation for being a bit of a "beginner's fish", requiring basic care, feeding, and the usual measure of patience. As a busy kid, I had little patience (although more than the average high school guy- after all, I was a fish geek!), and even less time-so I was delighted to learn that some hobbyists found that these fishes were able to do okay in "permanent" and "natural" setups (fish-geek "code" for "set and forget", IMHO)- granted, with a smaller, but regular production of fry... So of course, this was a perfect fish for my busy lifestyle at the time!

I set up 1 pair and a few extra females in a 5-gallon tank, planted with Water Sprite, Hygrophila, and Rotala. Given moderate light from a small fixture, and a sponge filter providing filtration/circulation, this tank looked good and ran just fine with little intervention on my part. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I would sometimes go a week or more without so much as looking at the tank long enough to toss some food in there!

One day (I think it was during Spring Break), I took the time to really stare into the tank, to see what was going on...Sure enough, upon close examination, I saw several tiny fry and juveniles flitting in and among the Rotala! I was elated! Rather than panic and start hatching brine shrimp, I made the very "mature and level-headed" decision to simply...leave them alone, as I had been doing for months. I resisted the temptation to net them out, "power feed" them, and otherwise intervene.

I reasoned that I could hardly do better than what they were apparently being provided by Nature, as they have done successfully for...well, eons! I ultimately ended up with a pretty stable population of around 12-15 individuals, in a tank I "maintained" for around 3-4 years. Ironically, the difficulties started when I had the time to really get into "taking care" of the fishes, and took more initiative and control of the breeding. I ultimately slowly lost the entire colony.


But a valuable lesson. Sometimes, what we would classify as "benign neglect" is actually the best thing we could do..the closest imitation to Nature that we can offer fishes in captive environments! I experimented with this recently in my "no-scape" leaf litter tank for Paracheirodon simulans, which was set up in the hopes of "passively feeding" the fish via organisms living in, and produced via the layer of decomposing leaf litter which provided the entire "hardscape" of the aquarium.

It worked. And it worked well.

And, as part of the experiment, I did not feed these fishes during the entire 7-month duration of the experiment, and they not only were as fat and happy as any "Green Neon Tetras" I'd ever seen, but they spawned repeatedly in this tank. They subsisted entirely on food sources produced by the aquarium.

As I've reiterated previously, the tank was "pre-stocked" with some small crustaceans, paramecium cultures, and some worms and such, and allowed to "break in" for a month before fishes were even added.

It was set up to succeed in this fashion.

And it did.

I am currently repeating a variation of this with my prized Tucanoicthys tucano- and having similar good results!

Now, I'm not suggesting that you abandon all care of your fishes, but I am suggesting that you reconsider the way that you might care for some of the more demanding varieties (from a breeding aspect, anyways). Sometimes it's best to simply "monitor" and not intervene so much. Hard to do for us 'hands on" fish geeks- particularly for a hardcore reefer like myself- but it often times works far better than our efforts to take "control" of the situation, IMHO.

In a well-established, properly cared-for aquarium, fishes will find sustenance among the resources already present in their environment. In many cases, the tank itself may not produce enough food to sustain an entire population of mid-sized adult fishes...However, it might be able to supplement whatever feeding you're actively doing as an aquarist, and very likely could do the same for fry, until they are caught and moved to a "proper nursery" tank.

I was reminded this years later when I checked out the office aquarium of a friend, who had a pretty heavy travel schedule. I went to feed his fishes while was out of town for the month (of course, he didn't ask me to until over two weeks into his trip...).

His tank was the typical planted tank- CO2 and all that stuff. 

Of course, much like in our youth, with the craziness of schedules and running businesses, sometimes we can't  maintain our tanks as "steadfastly" as we would like. This was certainly the case with my friend's tank. When I popped my head in one day, the tank was just packed with plants...And the fishes were healthy, active, and solid.

In fact, his Angelfish had paired off, and at least one young pair had a small clutch of eggs!

It was just another reminder to me that there is more than one way to keep an aquarium and have fishes reproduce.

I saw this again more recently on in my friend Dave's "Jungle Tank" in his home. Now, he's a rock-solid, ultra-DIY, high-tech-loving, super-talented reefer (and he has a coral propagation facility in his backyard!)- but he keeps this freshwater tank packed full of plants and assorted livebearers...just does water changes and the occasional (I mean occasional) thinning of plants- and that's it! 

And it's an amazing tank! I could stare at it for hours...

Elegant. Simple by design, yet utterly complex in its function. A case study for ceding control to Nature.

Welcome back to the "jungle."

There's something to be said for this sort of "style" of tank...It's a more modern, better-equipped, slightly differently-executed homage to the "Leiden Style" planted tanks of the early 20th century; a way to create a densely-planted, intricate underwater world which leaves the system largely to it's own devices, with minimal human intervention. Although the true earliest "Leiden Style" tanks didn't have pumps and filters and such...

The "common element" in the tanks I referred to in this piece was that they all have/had reasonably manageable fish populations, fertile substrates, adequate lighting- and an outrageous amount and variety of plants- or, in the case of my recent experiments- significant "biodegradable" hardscape in the form of twigs, leaves, or botanicals! 

Set up for success. A significant quantity of food-producing/supporting materials is the common denominator among these tanks.

And in these days of intricately-planned, tightly-executed "high-tech/high concept" planted aquariums, it's fun to see what happens when they're left largely to their own devices...Yes, most serious "competition" aquascapers would simply lose their shit at the mere thought of this kind of thing.

Yet, there is something oddly refreshing about this idea: Plants not in perfectly-manicured form, with occasional bits of algae and awkward, untended growth...

Kind of like what happens in Nature, actually. 

And I refer you to the much-discussed "Urban Igapo" tanks that we've been playing with lately. The idea of a cyclicly-flooded terrestrial display, with rich soils, submersion-tolerant grasses and plants, and botanicals, becoming home for annual killifishes whos' eggs incubated in situ- this is a very compelling concept, IMHO!

The potential to serve as a sort of "nursery" for many types of fishes with this kind of tank is there. We're still in the early experimental phases of the concept, and we'll see how it goes!

There are numerous examples of this sort of habitat in Nature that we draw inspiration from; each hosts a large population of fishes, insects, and other aquatic organisms, existing in a unique, seasonally-controlled habitat.

Like so many things in the natural world, there is often more to it than meets the eye upon first glance.

Much more.

I think you could perhaps even envision viewing "jungle-style" or "urban igapo"-style aquariums much like the abandoned lot down the street, which is filled with patches of weeds, a few hardy shrubs, and soil. Perhaps unattractive and disorderly upon first glance (at least to the uninitiated!), yet oddly compelling and even beautiful in its own way upon, closer examination.

A unique microcosm of life.

I'm not suggesting to abandon husbandry and care protocols in favor of neglect.

I'm not suggesting that we look at our aquariums as "patches of weeds" and accept the aesthetics as "high concept" or anything. However, the term "natural" does sound more applicable in this case, right?

What I AM suggesting is that sometimes, well-thought-out, decently-maintained closed systems can regulate themselves a bit with minimal intervention on our part. This is not some recent discovery. Rather, it harkens back to the dawn of fish-keeping. And of course, the "science" behind it is as old as Nature itself.

Plants and animals whose needs are being met will thrive and come to dominate the closed ecosystem, for better or worse, just like in Nature. We could allow the plants to grow in a manner that they "want" to. We could allow some algae, some biofilm; some decomposition...Some more accurate representation of what occurs in Nature...

In fact, one could probably make the argument that- at least on a superficial level- the "benignly neglected" aquarium- or more precisely- the "minimal intervention" aquarium- may be the closest imitation of Nature that we can present!

With botanical-style, blackwater aquariums, the emphasis has been much more on the overall "scene" than on a specific component. And long-term functionality, in terms of creating a stable, biologically active and diverse system, has been the next big step we've taken after merely creating workable blackwater, botanical-style aquariums.

Plants, "active substrates", "cryptic zones", refugia, and deep leaf litter beds are becoming-and will continue to become- more and more a part of our scene, and it would be interesting to see how a "benignly-neglected" Botanical-Style system fares over time!

Something akin to what we see in Nature, I suspect.

Although I certainly wouldn't advocate running every single botanical-style, blackwater aquarium, especially one devoid of plants, in this fashion, there are aspects of the idea that I find intriguing. There is much to learn from this idea...one that me seem a bit unorthodox- even radical- yet is something that reaches back to the earliest days of aquarium keeping...

Truly "working with Nature"- not in the cliche'-ridden, aquascaping contest fanboy  bullshit sense, mind you. Rather, embracing the mindset that if we help create conditions for life to exist, Nature can work with what we offer to create conditions for life to thrive.

There are many ways to practice this craft of devotion to Nature, too.

The concept of creating our own "flooded forest"- including a rich, substrate and a mix of leaves, botanicals, and terrestrial/marginal/aquatic plants is another logical step to embrace as we continue to push the boundaries to create truly "natural style" aquariums! I think this idea will provide a lot of "unlocks" in multiple facets of the aquarium hobby, as more an more aquarists experiment with it.

So, the idea of ceding some control of our aquariums to Nature again in order for them to provide for our fishes rears its head- and it's simply not a crazy idea, is it? Nope. It makes a ton of sense, given Nature's ability to "find a way" to support life almost whenever possible.

Yeah, Nature's got this thing down!

The question is...are you down with Nature? 

We've done it before in the hobby. We can do it again.

Welcome back to the jungle.

Stay open-minded. Stay focused. Stay determined.Stay on top of things...or not!

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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