We ask everyone who plays in the botanical-style world to be open-minded about accepting all sorts of unusual things. Things which, in our previous hobby experience freaked us out to no end.
It's a lot to ask, I'm sure. I mean, the idea of embracing an aquarium which looks and functions in a manner which is essentially contrary to virtually everything you've been brought up to believe in the hobby requires a certain leap of faith, doesn't it?
Yeah, it does.
And we- and Nature- appreciate you making the leap!
What are some of the mental shifts we've asked you to make?
Tinted Water: Okay, this isn't the most difficult demand that this hobby specialty makes of you. However, it's certainly the most immediately obvious one, isn't it?
The color is, as you know, a product of tannins and other substances leaching into the water from wood, soils, and botanicals. It's actually one of the most natural-looking water conditions around, as water influenced by soils, woods, leaves, etc. is ubiquitous around the world. Other than having that undeniable color, there is little that differentiates this water visually from so-called "crystal clear" water to the naked eye.
Of course, the water may have a lower pH and general hardness, but these factors have no bearing on the color of the water. It's entirely possible to have deeply tinted water and a high pH and hardness. Yes, it's about aesthetics...but it's also about the beautiful function of botanical materials and soils which influence the chemical environment of the aquarium- just like they do in Nature.
Biofilms: Of all the mental shifts asked of those who play in this arena, accepting the formation of biofilms is likely the biggest "ask" of all! Their very appearance- although indicative of a properly functioning ecosystem, simply looks like something that we as hobbyists should loathe.
Biofilms form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals.
And we could go on and on all day telling you that this is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in Nature.
Yet it does, so we will! :)
Biofilms on decomposing leaves are pretty much the foundation for the food webs in rivers and streams throughout the world. They are of fundamental importance to aquatic life.
Fungal Growth: Another one of those life forms which is a fundamental part of the botanical-style aquarium’s “behavior”, fungal growths perform vital and highly beneficial functions within aquatic ecosystems.
Fungi tend to colonize wood and botanical materials, because they offer them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin- the major components of wood and botanical materials- are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials!
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 this extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces! Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in Nature!
Decomposition: Another one of the things that we've previously loathed based simply on its outward appearance, the process of decomposition is an amazing process by which Nature processes materials for use by the greater ecosystem.
It's the first part of the recycling of nutrients that were used by the plant from which the botanical material came from. When a botanical decays, it is broken down and converted into more simple organic forms, which become food for all kinds of organisms at the base of the ecosystem.
Six primary breakdown products are considered in the decomposition process: bacterial, fungal and shredder biomass; dissolved organic matter; fine-particulate organic matter; and inorganic mineralization products such as CO2, NH4+ and PO43-. In tropical streams, a high decomposition rate has been related to high fungal activity...they accomplish a LOT!
Of all the processes which we foster and observe in our botanical-style aquariums, none is more fundamental than the decomposition of the leaves, seed pods, and bark that we play with in our practice. And the most amazing thing is that the very processes that we see in our aquariums have been occurring in Nature for eons.
Detritus: The definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)
Yeah, doesn't sound great.
But really, IS it that bad?
I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."
It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.
This is really important. It's part of the biological "operating system" of our aquariums.
So....IS detritus a "nutrient trap?"
Or is it a place for fishes to forage among? A place for biodiversity to arise.
A place for larval fishes to seek refuge and sustenance in? Kind of like they do in Nature, and have done so for eons?
Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).
There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."
Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?
I think so.
Think about the potential benefits of allowing some of this stuff to remain.
Think about the organisms which feed upon it, their impact on the water quality, and on the organisms which fed on them. Then, think about the fishes and how they utilize not only the material itself, but the organisms which consume it.
Consider its role in the overall ecosystem...
And that's another shift we ask you to make...To consider your aquarium as an ecosystem, subject to the same influences- and challenges- as Nature.
I'm utterly fascinated by the idea of an aquarium as a habitat, which contains a wide variety of plants and animals. Not only do these life forms constitute a source of ecological balance and environmental stability- they are a source of supplemental food for the resident fishes.
The point is, our aquariums, much like the wild habitats we strive to replicate, are constantly evolving, accumulating new materials, and creating new physical habitats for fishes to forage among. New food sources and chemical/energy inputs are important to the biological diversity and continuity of the flooded forests and streams of the tropics, and they play a similar role in our aquariums.
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-style aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides some supplemental nutritional value for our fishes, and perhaps most important- nutrient processing- a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.
This, to me, is extremely exciting.
And it's really as much of a mental shift as it is anything else- like so much of what we do with botanical-style aquarium systems. The willingness of us to really look to Nature as more than just an inspiration for making cool-looking aquariums. Rather, an approach which understands that our botanical-style aquariums require us to step back and observe what happens in wild aquatic habitats, and realizing that the same processes occur in our aquariums.
Natural materials, submerged in water, processed by a huge diversity of organisms, working together. A microbiome. A tiny, functional ecosystem. All of these things are beautiful, natural, and incredibly important in our closed systems- if we give them a chance.
It seems that we spend so much time resisting the appearance of some of this stuff and focusing on it's removal, that it's not given a chance to present its "good side" -which there most definitely is. And, the fact is that these life forms and processes appear in wild environments for a reason.
The botanical-style aquarium that we play with is perhaps the first of it's kind in the hobby to really say, "Hey, this is just like Nature! It's not that bad!" And to make us think, "Perhaps there is a benefit to all of this."
Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I have a theory that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping!
It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep. They're a key part of the functionality.
Look to Nature. And be bold.
Stay open minded. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.