Of all the fun topics in botanical-style aquarium keeping, few hold my interest as much as substrates.
I imagine the substrate as this magical place which fuels all sorts of processes within our aquariums, and that Nature tends to it in the most effective and judicious manner.
Yeah, I'm a bit of a "substrate romantic", I suppose.😆
Particularly in transitional habitats, like flooded forests, etc. the composition and characteristics of the substrate plays a huge role in the ecology of the aquatic habitat. The presence of a lot of soils, clays, and sediments in these substrates, as opposed to just sand, creates a habitat which provides a lot of opportunity for organisms to thrive.
The substrates are not just "the bottom."
They are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches compose the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes we're so fascinated by to flourish. And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
Detritus ("Mulm") located in the sediments is the major source of energy and/or nutrients for many of these dynamic aquatic habitats. The bacteria which perform all the important chemical reactions, such as converting ammonia to nitrite, nitrates to nitrogen, releasing bound-up nutrients, neutralizing hydrogen sulfide, etc. will obtain essential nutrients from the detritus (this is what autotrophic bacteria that metabolize ammonia/ammonium or hydrogen sulfide for energy do).
These bacteria may also "harvest" those nutrients, as well as metabolize (aerobically or anaerobically) the organic compounds present in the detritus for energy, just like heterotrophs do.
The processing of nutrients in the aquarium is a fascinating one; a real "partnership" between a wide variety of aquatic organisms.
Yes, there is a lot of amazing biological function occurring in these layers. And of course, fostering this dynamic in the aquarium is one of the things we love the most. It's all part of our vision for the modern, botanical-style aquarium.
Now, hobbyists have played with deep sand beds and mixes of various materials in aquariums for many years, and knowledgable proponents of natural aquarium management, such as Diane Walstad, have discussed the merits of such features in far more detail, and with a competency that I could only dream of! That being said, I think the time has never been better to experiment with this stuff!
Again, we're talking about utilizing a wider variety of materials than just sand, so the dynamics are quite different, offering unique functions, processes, and potential benefits.
I've been thinking through further refinements of the "deep botanical bed"/sand substrate relationship. I've been spending a lot of time over the years researching natural aquatic systems and contemplating how we can translate some of this stuff into our closed system aquaria.
Before we talk about the actual substrate materials again, let's think about the processes that we would like to foster in a substrate, and the potential negatives that may be of concern to those of us who play with botanicals in our substrate configurations
One of the things that many hobbyists ponder when we contemplate creating deep, botanical-heavy substrates, consisting of leaves, sand, and other botanical materials is the buildup of hydrogen sulfide, CO2, and other undesirable compounds within the substrate.
Well, it does make sense that if you have a large amount of decomposing material in an aquarium, that some of these compounds are going to accumulate in heavily-"active" substrates. Now, the big "bogeyman" that we all seem to zero in on in our "sum of all fears" scenarios is hydrogen sulfide, which results from bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the total absence of oxygen.
Let's think about this for just a second.
In a botanical bed with materials placed on the substrate, or loosely mixed into the top layers, will it all "pack down" enough to the point where there is a complete lack of oxygen and we develop a significant amount of this reviled compound in our tanks? I think that we're more likely to see some oxygen in this layer of materials, and I can't help but speculate- and yeah, it IS just speculation- that actual de-nitirifcation (nitrate reduction), which lowers nitrates while producing free nitrogen, might actually be able to occur in a "deep botanical" bed.
And it's certainly possible to have denitrification without dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels. As long as even very small amounts of oxygen and nitrates can penetrate into the substrate, this will not become an issue for most systems. I have yet to see a botanical-style aquarium where the material has become so "compacted" as to appear to have no circulation whatsoever within the botanical layer.
Now, sure, I'm not a scientist, and I base this on close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, and the basic chemical tests I've run on my systems under a variety of circumstances. As one who has made it a point to keep my botanical-style aquariums in operation for very extended time frames, I think this is significant. The "bad" side effects we're talking about should manifest over these longer time frames...and they just haven't.
We need to look at substrates literally as an aquatic organism. And, like aggregations of organisms, they may be diverse, both morphologically and ecologically. They're a dynamic, functional part of the miniature ecosystems we create in our aquariums. We've used the "basic" stuff for a generation. It's time to open up our minds to a few new ideas. To rethink substrate. To reconsider why we incorporate substrate, and what we use.
What kinds of materials can we employ to create more "functional" substrates (which just happen to look cool, too?). What kinds of functions and benefits can we hope to recreate in the confines of our aquariums?
First off, think beyond just sands...or anything resembling "conventional" aquarium substrate. Think about what goes on in the benthic (bottom) regions in the natural habitats we love, and what benefits or support the materials which aggregate there provide for the organisms within the ecosystem.
Understand that the substrate is a dynamic, extremely important part of the aquarium, too. And what we construct our substrate with, and how we manage it, is of profound importance to our fishes!
Fostering fungal growth, as well as other microorganisms and small crustaceans, should be a huge component of the "why" we do this. These organisms, as we've discussed repeatedly, form a part of the "food chain" within our captive ecosystems, and offer huge benefits to the aquarium not only as potential supplemental nutrition for fishes, but as a means to process and export nutrients from within the botanical-style aquarium.
So, yeah, in summary- the substrate plays a huge role in the function of a botanical-style aquarium. We can create a "facility" with substrate materials which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides priceless benefits: Production of supplemental nutrition for our fishes, and nutrient processing via a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.
True "functional aesthetics!"
A combination of finely crushed leaves, bits of botanicals, small twigs, etc. can form the basis for a more "biologically active" and even productive substrate. As these materials break down, they are colonized by fungi and biofilms, and impart tannins, lignin, and other sources of carbon into the water to fuel a variety of microbial growth.
As you might have gathered by now, we are an advocate of some rather "unconventional" substrate materials, particularly a classification what we call "Sedimented Substrates."
Yeah, that'd be ours. NatureBase "Igapo", "Varzea", and the upcoming "Mangal", "Floresta" and "Selagor", are examples of substrates which have a lot of sediments and clays in their formulation. These substrates realistically replicate the composition, function, and look of soils which are found in many tropical aquatic habitats.
In fact, most of our NatureBase substrates have a significant percentage of clays and sediments in their formulations. These materials have typically been something that aquarists have avoided, because they will cloud the water for a while, and often impart a bit of color. Like, that's a problem? We also have some botanical components in a few of our substrates, because they are intended to be "terrestrial" substrates for a while before being flooded...and when this stuff is first wetted, some of it will float. And that means that you're going to have to net it out, or let your filter take it out.
You simply won't have that "issue" with your typical bag of aquarium sand!
You can mix them with any of the above-mentioned commercially-available sands, or use them alone. You can gradually add water (as in our "Urban Igapo" concept), or simply fill your tank form day one. Expect significant cloudiness for several days as the materials settle out, though. Don't rinse these substrates...just put them to work right away.
Now, although you can (and should) play with these substrates "wet" from the start, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you again that the igapo and varzea substrates were initially intended to be "terrestrial" for a period of time, to get the grasses and plants going, and then inundated.
So, yeah, you'll have to make a mental shift to appreciate a different look and function. And many hobbyists simply can't handle that. We've been up front with this stuff since these products were released, to ward off the, "I added NatureBase to my tank and it looks like a cloudy mess! This stuff is SHIT!" type of emails that inevitably come when people don't read up first before they purchase the stuff.
And the warning and mental shift indoctrinations have worked. No one has freaked out.
Instead, we're hearing how incredibly natural these aquariums look, and how the biological diversity and stability of these tanks are.
What goes on in an aquarium with sediments, botanicals- or leaves, in this instance as the total "substrate" or "hardscape", as the case may be, is that they become the basis for biological activity in the tank. As we have discussed a million times here, as botanicals break down, they recruit bacteria, fungi, and other organisms on their surfaces.
That's the "big deal" about substrates.
Mix it up. Play with sediments, crushed leaves, broken bits of botanicals..All sorts of natural "stuff" which would previously have been considered "dirty" and "bad for long term maintenance" in almost anyone's book. Look at the advantages that can be realized, instead of the potential risks involved in experimenting.
Open your mind up to accept the look and function- and the "aesthetic challenges" of using non-traditional materials in your substrates.
Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay studious...
And Stay Wet.