World in a box.

It's fun to see how the paradigms have shifted in the aquarium hobby over the past few years, particularly when it comes to our embrace of more natural, blackwater/botanical-style aquariums.

We've gone from tentatively keeping fishes in aquariums that more carefully embrace some natural conditions they evolved under, to full-blown replications of their environments, tinted water, decomposition, and all.

We've begun to understand that it's not all about creating the most scrupulously clean environment possible for the animals under our care- it's about maintaining the best possible dynamic for their overall health, growth, longevity, and hopefully- reproduction. Creating and fostering processes and conditions that create a biological balance within our little (or not so little) glass and acrylic boxes we call "aquariums."

I've seen this a lot in the "reef" side of the hobby: Within the past 10 years in the reef hobby, we've went from a doctrine of "You should have undectable nitrates and phosphates in your reef aquarium because natural reefs are virtual nutrient deserts!" to "You need to have a balance between too much and too little."

We've come to understand that reef aquariums- like any type of aquarium- are biological "microcosms", which encompass a vast array of life forms, including not just fishes, corals, and invertebrates, but macro algae, benthic animals (like worms, copepods, and amphipods), planktonic life, and more.

Reefers came to understand- as freshwater pioneers did generations before- that just because a reef has undetectable phosphates and nitrates in the waters surrounding it, our aquariums don't have to run that way. Corals need nutrients and food, and an aquarium is not a natural reef; an open system with uncounted millions of gallons of water passing through it hourly.

And they change and evolve on a continuous basis. 

I used to feel that the whole idea of keeping an aquarium was to keep it pristine and untouched, like the day it was set up...sort of like a new know...don't get that first scratch on it! Like, I was afraid to do stuff  in my tanks that would stir up the sand or to move stuff around too much. Disrupt the system to the point of no return.

I was worried it would stress the fishes too much, or whatever. As if nature isn't filled with all sorts of natural occurrences which our fishes need to compensate for in some manner? Now, I realize that in nature, a fish can escape pretty far away from a disturbance, but still..a disturbance is a disturbance, right? And fishes survive all sorts of "disturbances", right?


The "earthy, organic and natural" vibe that we talk about so much here seems to be catchy! Unlike some of the more "sterile", rigidly-styled variations of "natural" aquariums that have been embraced by many for so long, this "style" of aquarium really seems to lend itself to a far more "realistic" presentation in the eyes of many, and provides the freedom of expression that only nature can provide.


Seeing the wonderful pics of wild blackwater habitats being shared by our friends has created a powerful and compelling message for many that these aquariums are some of the more accurate depictions of natural aquatic habitats than many had previously realized.

Unique. Vibrant. Brimming with life.

We've started to make the effort to really understand the differences- and similarities-between the natural environment and the little worlds we create in our own horns for our fishes. We're starting to blur the lines between nature and aquarium in ways not previously considered or thought about. 

A melding of the look and function of nature in our aquairums.

"Functional aesthetics."

And it starts by understanding how aquatic environments function in nature and in our aquairums.

With biotope and theme aquariums quite the rage, we've come to really appreciate the acceptance of this mind set...that an aquarium is a microcosm- a functioning little biological community, with a full compliment of life forms. Yes, I know, it's not new...Just something that was, IMHO, forgotten- perhaps tucked under the rug for a bit as we pursued different avenues within the hobby...

However, it's coming back. 


What many fish breeders knew for so long- that blackwater conditions created by tannins and humic substances can lead to healthier fishes and more prolific, viable spawns- is being experienced and shared by more "casual" hobbyists, which will have great long-term implications for sustainability of the animals we cherish. Maintaining these types of conditions "full-time"- not just when we want to spawn our fishes- is a big step.

An evolution of sorts.

It is important to understand that all natural bodies of water contain humic substances. From Ocean water, to the Mississippi river, to the Amazon River, to ice covered lakes in Antartica. This should be a lesson to everyone. Life has a way of producing what is needed to prolong life. If humic substances are found in lakes covered by hundreds of feet of ice in Antarctica, there is a reason they are there. It's because they are a foundational necessity.

In some environments, such as our beloved blackwater environments, they make life possible-allowing fishes to survive in very low pH conditions. Fish could not exist in these conditions without them. In other environments, such as Central American aquifer-fed streams, or African Rift Lakes, they make life better.

This is perhaps best stated in a March 2008 Study conducted by Humboldt University at Berlin, Institute of Biology, Freshwater and Stress Ecology, Germany, in which they came to the conclusion that, “It appears that dissolved HS have to be considered abiotic ecological driving forces, somewhat less obvious than temperature, nutrients, or light.”

The body of scientific evidence to support the manifold benefits of these compounds is compelling enough for us to make a strong conclusion:

Humic substances, once considered a "fringe" aspect of the aquarium hobby- products previously employed only by blackwater enthusiasts- should instead be considered an essential component of every aquarium, almost as important as temperature and food.

So, yeah, utilizing leaves, wood, and botanicals in all sorts of aquariums is not only beneficial, it helps in many ways to replicate the physio-chemical conditions under which fishes are found. 

Sure, there is so much we need to learn. So much to experiment with. However, we're finding out ways to apply what we do in our botanical aquarium world to a variety of hobby practices. 

Like planted aquairums. 

The area of planted blackwater aquariums is really starting to take off! And it's understandable: Lots of plants come from, and can do very well in blackwater habitats! And we're finding out all sorts of ways to utilize aquatic plants in blackwater aquariums-something which is going to have broad implication for the planted aquarium hobby. Something that has crossover potential for all sorts of aquarium work!

As we've said so many times before, the idea of blackwater/botanical-style aquariums is not just about a cool aesthetic. It's about understanding and embracing natural processes, and appreciating the many benefits they provide for the fishes we treasure so much.

It's about creating and managing a world in a box.

Make your contribution to the evolving art and science of blackwater, botanical-style aquariums. Everyone can make a difference. Everyone can break new ground in this exciting hobby specialty.

Stay involved. Stay excited. Stay experimental. Stay bold. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment