Our approach to aquarium keeping is as much a "mindset" as it is a practice. And, although the practical techniques are relatively easy to grasp and execute, the philosophical components can be confusing and seem a bit contradictory at times.
We preach radical patience, yet completely embrace the idea of dramatically changing things within the greater "mindset."
Yeah, you should just do what feels right to you.
And sometimes, that means creating an aquarium which doesn't look anything like you'd want it to until long after it's been established. Other times, it means tearing stuff apart immediately and "re-directing" your tank based on a different vision.
Yet, I always urge you to take a slightly longer view of what''s going on in your tank. Not to rush to completely tear your aquarium apart just because it doesn't seem to be getting to where you want it to go right after you set it up.
Stuff takes time.
Looking back on some of my favorite tanks that I've executed in the past few years, it becomes increasingly obvious to me that these systems really didn't completely hit that "look and feel" that I want until long after they'd evolved naturally...however long that took. It seems that , in the botanical-method aquarium, stuff needs to acquire a "patina" of biofilm, a "stain" from the tannins, and decomposition of botanical materials needs to really begin before one of these systems turns "functional" as well.
That's part of why using aesthetics only as an evaluation criteria for a successful botanical-method aquairum falls a bit short, IMHO.
I mean, every new botanical-method tank likely looks cool to a broader swatch of the aquarium world from day one, if you're just using superficial aesthetics as your metric...But the long-established ones stand out for what they really are. After 4-6 months, that's when things get really special. After Nature has done a lot of the real "work" on the tank.
The decomposition of materials in water impacts our aesthetics greatly, as we all know by now. And that is what's so intriguing. The crisp leaves and dry, lifeless twigs that you submerge will evolve into a dynamic, ever-changing microcosm.
Every tank can get there.
Simply by exercisng patience, and letting your aquarium be.
I've long held that perhaps my fave botanical-method aquarium of all was the one I did about 3 years ago..an aquarium utilizing mangrove wood, extensive leaf litter, and catappa bark throughout. This is probably the only tank in recent years that I've truly regretted changing and moving on from! 😂
I knew what it was I wanted from the tank at the start, but it didn't look like much at first...It would have tested a lot of people's faith if they saw it in it's early stages!
It literally looked like shit for the first couple of months of it's existence: Slightly tinted water, a contrived-looking "campfire-like" wood stack, bare sand, and mostly intact botanical materials. I had to do a bunch of "iterations" with the hardscape to get it where I wanted it. It looked quite "contrived" at points, but I knew instinctively that if I waited it out, let Nature do Her thing- that the potential was huge in this tank.
Sure enough, a few months in, biofilms started forming. The wood acquired that "patina" we talk about so much. Leaves and botanicals broke down...And the water took on perhaps the most earthy-looking, deeply mysterious color I've seen in a botanical-influenced blackwater aquarium.
By some standards, the water in the tank could be described as almost "turbid"- taking on an appearance as though there were fine materials in the water column. Yet, the tank had a real magical appearance with the lighting; the fishes were as colorful, relaxed and happy as any I've ever seen, and the water parameters were spot-on and consistent for as long as the tank was set up.
The essence of "wabi-sabi", for sure. Transience, the ephemeral aspects of our botanicals...the wonders of Nature, embraced.
It just took a little time.
I could have "intervened" at a number of junctures- trying to "circumvent" these aesthetic "deviations" while the tank was evolving. However, I knew not to. I knew that the long-term gains from letting this system evolve would far exceed any "relief" I'd gain from siphoning out the biofilms, removing decomposing leaves, and clearing the water.
And, as usual- Nature delivered...because I didn't get in Her way.
We've done this numerous times with similar results. Inauspicious starts.
Botanical-method aquariums typically require more time to evolve than more "conventional" aquariums do. They are dependent upon the development of a specialized ecology, which includes fostering organisms like fungal growths and biofilms.This process can be "expedited" or manipulated a bit, but to achieve truly meaningful and beneficial results, you just can't rush stuff!
You can't interrupt it, either.
When you do, as we've learned, results can be, well- "different" than they would be if you allow things to continue on at their own pace. Not necessarily always "bad"- just not as good as what's possible if you relax and let Nature run Her course without interruption. Following a plan is never a bad idea; it can lead to some exciting destinations.
However, the ability to "pivot" and "go with the flow" is really important, too.
It's not always a bad idea to switch things around if you're suddenly inspired to do so. What I hate to see is when hobbyists attempt to "intervene" on the processes which are occurring in the tank- like the recruitment of biofilms and fungal growths, the breakdown of leaves, etc. THAT'S a problem, imho. You can change the "overall theme" without irrevocably interrupting Nature's processes.
Yeah, there IS a certain kind of "intervention" which I occasionally embrace myself. As I've previously discussed here, on occasion, I'll start to execute on an idea I've had, and very early (or sometimes, not so early) in the process, I'll completely lose interest in it for whatever reason (it can be anything from "not feeling it!" to "I hate that I can't hide that heater!"), and the desire to abort and move on to something else on my "to do list" beckons.
In general, however, I play a really long game.
One which acknowledges that the fact that our botanical-method aquariums evolve over very long periods fo time, not reaching the state that we perhaps envisioned for many months. My actions reflect this mindset. Unless there is some major emergency, about the only thing that I might do is to add a few more botanicals, re-arrange some wood, or just wait it out.
Of course, if you really are "not feeling it" (it happens!), does it mean tearing the whole thing apart and starting over?
You can change the "look" or aesthetic direction of an aquairum- fairly significantly- without disrupting its function.
One of the things I've done a lot in recent years when making big changes to aquariums is to keep the substrate layers from my existing tanks and "build on them." It makes a ton of sense, really. Why waste this goodness, just because the "theme" of the "new" tank is different than the existing one?
Your South American-themed tank won't be that much different if you change up the "hardscape" to turn it into s Southeast Asian-themed tank, while leaving the substrate layer intact, right?
In other words, I'm taking advantage of the well-established substrate layers, complete with their sediments, decomposing leaves and bits of botanicals, and simply building upon them with some additional substrate and leaves. I've done this many times over the years- and I'm sure a lot of you have, too-it's hardly a "game-changing" practice, but it's something not everyone talks about.
I believe that preserving and building upon an existing substrate layer provides not only some biological stability (ie; the nitrogen cycle), but it has the added benefit of maintaining some of the ecological diversity and richness created by the beneficial fuana and the materials present within the substrate.
I know many 'hobby old timers" might question the safety- or the merits-of this practice, mentioning things like "disturbing the bacterial activity" or "releasing toxic gasses", etc. A lot of 'em would rather have you simply remove this stuff altogether. It's "all or nothing" for them! I'm not sure how leaving the substrate layer intact is problematic. It doesn't "die." I believe that particular belief is steeped in "aquarium mythology", conflates a lot of different ideas and topics, and has generally been misapplied and misunderstood over the years.
I simply have never experienced any issues of this nature from this practice. Well maintained systems generally are robust and capable of evolving from such disturbances. And we're not really "disturbing" the substrate when we preserve it, are we? Moving around a few pieces of wood or rock might cloud the water a bit, but it's not wholesale disturbance of the substrate.
I see way more benefits to this practice than I do any potential issues.
Since I tend to manage the water quality of my aquariums well, if I say so myself, I have never had any issues, such as ammonia or nitrite spikes, by doing this- in fresh or saltwater systems. It's a logical way of maintaining stability and continuity- even in an arguably disruptive and destabilizing time!
This idea of a "perpetual substrate"- keeping the same substrate layer "going" in successive aquarium iterations- is just one of those things I believe that we can do to replicate Nature in an additional way.
Well, think about it for just a second. In Nature, the substrate layer in rivers, streams, and yeah, flooded forests and pools tends to not completely wash away during wet/dry or seasonal cycles.
Oh sure, some of the material comprising the substrate layer may get carried away by currents or other weather dynamics, but for the most part, a good percentage of the material- and the life forms within it- remains when the water recedes. Wind and weather add additional materials to the now terrestrial environment, which become part of the aquatic habitat when the waters return.
So, by preserving the substrate from the previous iteration of your aquarium, and perhaps "refreshing" it a bit with some new materials (ie; sand, sediment, gravel, leaves, and botanicals), you're essentially mimicking some aspects of the way Nature functions in these wild habitats!
And, from an aquarium management perspective, consider the substrate layer a living organism (or "collective" of living organisms, as it were), and you're sure to look at things a bit differently next time you "re-do" a tank!
I suppose, one could view the process of "perpetuating" the substrate almost like persuing "eternal youth"- it's not entirely possible to achieve, but you can easily embrace the idea of renewal and continuity within your aquarium. It's a very natural process. Perhaps it's even beneficial in some way over the long term?
Things change in Nature, some things are utilized elsewhere, and other things are preserved in situ. Nothing goes to waste.
Rather, stuff gets "folded" into the changing ecosystem. Leaves on the forest floor become a lush ecological niche for fungal growth and bacteria, and a grazing substrate for fishes when submerged. Tree branches become "attachment points" for epiphytic plants, sponges, and other aquatic life forms.
Nature is very efficient. We should take a cue from Her! "Disruption" is often a form of renewal and evolution in Nature.
Patience, as always, is the key ingredient here. Of course, this is a hobby, and it should be fun...and you should feel free to change stuff up if it's not. However, make it a point to consider your actions in the "big picture", and it takes on a greater significance.
You need to have an understanding that you're creating a dynamic environment, not simply an "aquascape." And it's constantly evolving- even when you're not ripping it apart! It's anything but "static"-sort of like a planted aquarium, but in reverse (rather than plants growing, the botanicals are, for want of a better word "diminishing")! At any given time, you'll have materials like leaves in various states of decomposition, seed pods, slowly softening, breaking down, and recruiting biofilms and a "patina" of fungal growth.
It begs the most fundamental of questions about our botanical method practice:
What happens over time in a botanical method aquarium? What changes occur along the way?
Well, typically, at its simplest, as most of you who've played with this stuff know, the botanicals will begin to soften and break down. Botanical materials are the very definition of the word "ephemeral." Nothing lasts forever, and botanicals are no exception! Pretty much everything we utilize- from Guava leaves to oak twigs- starts to soften and break down over time.
Most of these materials should be viewed as"consumables"- meaning that you'll need to replace them over time if you want maintain some environmental consistency. Again, perfectly analogous to what occurs in Nature.
You're not an "aquascaper" in the classic hobby sense when you play with these types of systems. Rather, you're a a sort of "superintendent" to Nature, helping Her do what she has done for eons. You're not simply an idle "passenger," either- you play an active role in conceiving, setting up, and maintaining such a system. You need to take some cues from Nature, and that often means simply standing by and observing as she does Her work and goes through Her process.
You learn. You evolve with your aquarium, on a very real level.
Sometimes, it requires intervention on your part- at least in your own mind, perhaps. Other times, it simply involves sitting back, letting things unfold, and observing patiently.
Watching a display aquarium evolve and sort of "find itself" naturally over time is proving to be one of the most enjoyable discoveries I've made in the hobby in decades. It's a mindset that I actually had in my youth- by necessity, because I had very limited resources except for time- yet lost as I grew into adulthood and "evolved" in the hobby. With more skills and economic resources, I could "do more"- but the reality is that it wasn't always the right thing.
It took me a few decades after hitting so-called "advanced" hobbyist status before it really hit me that, by simply studying the function of natural ecosystems, all of the answers I needed to be successful as an aquarist were right there! I just needed to figure out which questions to ask.
I'm still deep in that process, decades later!
By understanding that my aquariums are governed by the same "laws" which apply to natural aquatic ecosystems, and developing and following simple practices and husbandry routines to embrace this, and monitoring what's occurring in the tank (as opposed to constantly trying to intervene to "pre-empt" what we in the hobby have commonly perceived to be problems), I've personally had more beautiful, healthy and stable aquariums, and...more success than ever before.
Accepting that there is most definitely an elegant, yet complex ecological "dance" in our aquariums, and becoming an "active monitor" instead of an "active intervener" has added an enjoyable and rewarding aspect to my love of the hobby.
I think that this approach to the "dance" not only makes you a more engaged hobbyist, it gives you a remarkable appreciation for the long term evolution of an aquarium; an appreciation for the pace by which Nature operates, and the direction in which your aquarium ultimately goes.
By doing this, you get the enjoyment of seeing the "evolution" every day! Observing and enjoying the subtle nuances of your aquarium at every stage of its existence. With my "go slow" mindset and practice, the differences are subtle in the short term- the "payoffs" really more apparent over the longer term.
Again, it's okay to make changes- even significant ones- to the "theme" of your aquarium. However, it's simply not good practice to interfere with the processes which allow it to become what Nature ( and YOU, too, if you're honest with yourself) wants it to become.
I know, it does feel a bit "yin" and "yang"- like I'm pulling from both sides- telling you, on one hand, that it's okay to make significant changes to a tank, while simultaneously urging you to deploy extreme patience and an almost "sit back and relax" approach...These seemingly diametrically opposite actions actually work really well together when you have the "common denominator" of good intentions, vision, careful actions, and an appreciation for what Nature can do if we let Her.
This philosophy, like so many things I ask you to consider here- doesn't always seem to make any sense.
Until it does.
Be kind to yourself- and to Nature.
Trust that She'll guide your aquarium effectively along the way to its ultimate potential. She won't let you down. Even if you take a slight detour now and again.
Stay confident. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay patient....
And Stay Wet.
One of the "cornerstones" of our botanical-method aquarium practice is the use of substrate. Specifically, substrate materials which can influence- or make it easier to influence- water chemistry in the aquarium, as well as to help foster a "microbiome" of small organisms which will provide ecological diversity for the system.
Substrates, IMHO, are one of the most often-overlooked components of the aquarium. We tend to just add a bag of "_____________" to our tanks and move on to the "more exciting" stuff like rocks and "designer" wood. It's true! Other than planted aquarium enthusiasts, the vast majority of hobbyists seem to have little more than a passing interest in creating and managing a specialized substrate or associated ecology.
A real pity, especially for those of us who are interested in botanical-method aquariums, which replicate natural aquatic habitats where soils and geology play a HUGE role in influencing the environmental parameters of these ecosystems. And in the hobby, we've largely overlooked the benefits and possibilities which specialized substrates can offer.
So I started to experiment with materials to recreate some of the characteristics of wild aquatic habitats which fascinated me. And an obsession was born.
I started playing with substrates mainly because I couldn't find exactly what I was looking for on the market. This is not some indictment of the major substrate manufacturers out there...I LOVE almost all of them and use and happily recommend ones that I like. I'm obsessed with substrates. I think that the companies which produce them are among the coolest of the cool aquatics industry brands. If I wasn't doing this botanical thing with Tannin, I'd probably have started a company that specializes in substrates for aquariums. Seriously.
And the fact is, the major manufacturers need to market products that more than like 8 people are interested in. It's unreasonable to think that they'd devote precious resources to creating a product that would be geared to such a tiny target.
And of course, being one of those 8 people who are geeked-out about weird substrates, I decided that I'd "scratch my own itch" (as we did with the botanical thing..) and formulate and create some of my own. Thus, the NatureBase product line was born!
I realized that the specialized world which we operate in embraces some different ideas, unusual aesthetics, and is fascinated by the function of the environments we strive to replicate. These are important distinctions between what we are doing with substrates at Tannin, and what the rest of the aquarium hobby is doing.
Our NatureBase line is not intended to supersede or completely replace the more commonly available products out there as your "standard" aquarium substrate, because: a) they're more expensive, b) they're not specifically "aesthetic enhancements", c) they are not intended to be planted aquarium substrates, and d) because of their composition, they'll add some turbidity and tint to the aquarium water, at least initially (not everyone could handle THAT!)
So, right there, those factors have significantly segmented our target market...I mean, we're not trying to be the aquarium world's "standard substrate", they weren't formatted to grow aquatic plants, we're not marketing them just for the cool looks, and we can't emphasize enough that they will make your water a bit turbid when first submerged. If you have fishes which dig, or which like to "work" the substrate, you may see a near-continuous turbidity in your aquarium!
Those factors alone will take us out of contention for large segments of the market!
This is important to grasp.
I mean, these substrates are intended to be used in more natural, botanical-style/biotope-inspired aquariums. Our first two releases, "Igapo" and "Varzea", are specific to the creation of a type of "cyclical" terrestrial/aquatic feature. They do exactly what I wanted them to do, and they were specifically intended for use in specialized set ups, like the "Urban Igapo" idea we've been talking about for a long time here, as well as brackish water mangrove environments, etc.
Let's touch on the "aesthetic" part for a minute.
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. 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!
Shit, you're probably just frothing right now, waiting to cloud and dirty up your aquariums with this stuff, huh?
I can't for the life of me figure out why not? ;)
Remember, some of these substrates were formulated for a very specific purpose: To replicate the terrestrial soils which are seasonally inundated in the wild. As such, these products simply won't look or act like your typical aquarium substrate materials!
Scared off completely yet? I hope not.
Why include sediments and clays in our mixes?
Well, for one thing, sediments are an integral part of the natural substrates in the habitats from which our fishes come. So, they're integral to our line. In fact, I suppose you'd best classify NatureBase products as "sedimented substrates."
Think about this: Many of our favorite habitats are forest floors and meadows which undergo periodic flooding cycles in the Amazon, which results in the creation of aquatic habitats for a remarkable diversity of fish species.
Depending on the type of water that flows from the surrounding rivers, the characteristics of the flooded areas may vary. Another important impact is the geology of the substrates over which the rivers and streams pass. This results in differences in the physical-chemical properties of the water.
In the Amazon, areas flooded by rivers of black or clear waters, with acid pH and low sediment load, in addition to being nutritionally poor, are called “igapó."
The flooding often lasts for several weeks or even several months, and the plants and trees need special biochemical adaptations to be able to survive the lack of oxygen around their roots. We've talked about this a lot here over the years.
Forest floor soils in tropical areas are known by soil geologists as "oxisols", and have varying amounts of clay, sediments, minerals like quartz and silica, and various types of organic matter. So it makes sense that when flooded, these "ingredients" will have significant impact on the aquatic environment. This "recipe" is not only compositionally different than typical "off-the-shelf" aquarium sands and substrates- it looks and functions differently, too.
YOU DON'T RINSE THEM BEFORE USE!
You CAN wet them right away; you don't have to do a "wet/dry season" igapo-style tank with them. However, you should be ready for some cloudy water for a week or more! And again, if you have fishes which like to "work" the substrate, it will be a near-constant thing, the degree to which it will be is based on the habits of the fishes you keep.
And that's where a lot of people will metaphorically "leave the room."Turbid, darker water is a guaranteed "freak out" for a super-high high percentage of aquarists.
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. I've been extremely up front with this stuff since the introduction of these substrates, 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 trust me- the fact that you're even reading this blog, or listening to this podcast puts you in the tiniest minority of aquarium hobbyists!)
Let's talk a bit about how to "live" with these substrates.
There are a lot of different ways to use these substrates in all sorts of tanks. I mean, if you want some of the benefits and want to geek out and experiment with them, you can use a "sand cap" of whatever conventional substrate you prefer on top, and likely limit the turbidity somewhat, much like the practice of aquarists who employ "dirted" substrates do.
Oh, and the plant thing...
We're asked a LOT if these substrates can grow aquatic plants. Now, although they were intended to facilitate the growth of terrestrial plants, like grasses, the fact is, both our customers and ourselves have seen pretty damn good plant growth in tanks using this stuff!
Our Igapo and Varzea substrates mimic sandy acidic soils that have a low nutrient content. And, as you know, the color and acidity of the floodwater is due to the acidic organic humic substances (tannins) that dissolve into it. The acidity from the water translates into acidic soils, which makes sense, right?
Now, I admit, I am NOT a geologist, and I'm not expert in soil science. I know enough to realize that, in order to replicate the types of habitats I am fascinated with, it required different materials. If you ask me, "Will this fish do well with this materials?" or, "Can I grow "Cryptocoryne in this?", or "Does this make a good substrate for shrimp tanks?" I likely won't have a perfect answer. Sorry.
Periodically, plant enthusiasts will ask me about the "cation exchange capacity" of our substrate. Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) is the ability of a material to absorb positively-charged nutrient ions. This means the substrate will hold nutrients and make them available for the plant roots, and therefore, plant growth. CEC measures the amount of nutrients, more specifically, positivity changed ions, which a substrate can hold onto/store for future use by aquatic plants.
Thus, a "high CEC" is important to many aquatic plant enthusiasts in their work. While it means that the substrate will hold nutrients and make them available for the plant roots. it doesn't indicate the amount of nutrients the substrate contains.
For reference, scientists measure cation exchange capacity (CEC) in milliequivalents per 100 grams ( meq/100g).
To really get "down and dirty" to analyze substrates scientifically, CEC determinations are often done by a process called "Method 9081A of EPA SW- 846." What the....? CEC extractions are often also analyzed on ICP-OES systems. A rather difficult and pretty expensive process, with equipment and methods that are not something casual hobbyists can easily replicate!
As you might suspect, CEC varies widely among different materials. Sand, for instance, has a CEC less than 1 meq/100 g. Clays tend to be over 30 meq/100 g. Stuff like natural zeolites are around 100 meq/100g! Soils and humus may have CEC up to 250 meq/100g- that's pretty serious!
What nutrients are we talking about here? The most common ones which come into play in the context of CEC are iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium. So, if you're into aquatic plants, high CEC is a good thing!
Of course, this is where the questions arise around the substrates we play with.
It makes sense, right?
Our "Nature Base" substrates do contain materials such as clays and silts, which could arguably be considered "higher CEC" materials, because they're really fine- and because higher surface area generally results in a higher CEC. The more surface area there is, the more potential bonding sites there are for the exchange to take place. Alas, nothing is ever exactly what we hope it should be in this hobby, and clays are often not all that high in their CEC "ratings."
Now, the "Nature Base" substrates are what we like to call “sedimented substrates”, because they are not just sand, or pellets of fired clays, etc. They are a mix of materials, and DO also have some terrestrial soils in the mix, too, which are also likely higher in CEC. And no, we haven't done CEC testing with our substrates...It's likely that in the future, some enthusiastic and curious scientist/hobbyist might just do that, of course!
Promising, from a CEC standpoint, I suppose!
However, again, I must emphasize that they were really created to replicate the substrate materials found in the igapo and varzea habitats of South America, and the overall habitat- more "holistically conceived"-not specifically for plant growth. And, in terrestrial environments like the seasonally-inundated igapo and varzea, nutrients are often lost to volatilization, leaching, erosion, and runoff..
So, it's important for me to make it clear again that these substrates are more representative of a terrestrial soil. Interestingly, the decomposition of detritus and leaves and such in our botanical-method aquariums and "Urban Igapo" displays is likely an even larger source of “stored” nutrients than the CEC of the substrate itself, IMHO. Thus, they will provide a home for beneficial bacteria- breaking down organics and helping to make them more available for plant growth.
Perhaps that's why aquatic plants grow so well in botanical-method aquariums?
Yeah, the stuff DOES grow aquatic and riparian plants and grasses quite well, in our experience! Yet, again- I would not refer to them specifically as "aquatic plant substrates." They're not being released to challenge or replace the well-established aquatic plant soils out there. They're not even intended to be compared to them!
Remember, our "Igapo" and "Varzea" substrates are intended to start out life as "terrestrial" materials, gradually being inundated as we bring on the "wet season." And because of the clay and sediment content of these substrates, you'll see some turbidity or cloudiness in the water. It won't immediately be crystal-clear- just like in Nature. That won't excite a typically planted aquarium lover, for sure.
I can't stress it often enough: With our emphasis on the "wholistic" application of our substrate, our focus is on the "big picture" of these closed aquatic ecosystems.
I'll be the first to tell you that, while I have experimented with many species of plants, inverts, and fishes with these substrates, I can't tell you that every single fish or plant will like them. You'll simply have to experiment!
Well, shit- that's not something that you typically hear an aquarium hobby brand tell you to do with their products every day, huh? Like, I'm not going to make all sorts of generalized statements about everything I think that these products can do. It would be very unhelpful. I'd rather focus on how they perform in the types of systems in which they were intended to work in, and what the possible downsides could be!
The whole point here is that these substrates are perfect for a whole range of applications. They're not "the greatest substrates ever made!" or anything like that. However, they are super useful for replicating the soils of some of our favorite aquatic habitats.
And for doing some of those geeky experiments that we love so much. So, that pretty much covers the "sedimented" substrate thing for now. Let's talk about "alternative" substrates for a bit...
PT.2 : "ALTERNATIVE SUBSTRATES" AND THE "DANGERS" FROM WITHIN?
In my experience, and in the reported experiences from hundreds of aquarists who play with botanical materials breaking down in and on their aquariums' substrates, undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels are typical for this kind of system. When combined with good overall husbandry, it makes for incredibly stable systems.
I've been thinking through further refinements of the "deep botanical bed"/sand substrate relationship. I've been spending a lot of time researching natural aquatic systems and contemplating how we can translate some of this stuff into our closed system aquaria.
Now, I realize, when contemplating really deep aggregations of substrate materials in the aquarium, that we're dealing with closed systems, and the dynamics which affect them are way different than those in Nature, for the most part.
And I realize that experimenting with these unusual approaches to substrates requires not only a sense of adventure, a direction, and some discipline- but a willingness to accept and deal with an entirely different aesthetic than what we know and love. And this also includes pushing into areas and ideas which might make us uncomfortable, not just for the way they look, but for what we are told might be possible risks.
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 possible 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 just don't think so. 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 personally have yet to see a botanical-method 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 the management of, and close visual inspection of numerous aquariums, as well as 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-method 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.
And then there's the question of nitrate.
Although not the terror that ammonia and nitrite are known to be, nitrate accumulation is something a lot of hobbyists are concerned with. As nitrate accumulates, fish will eventually suffer some health issues. Ideally, we strive to keep our nitrate levels no higher than 5-10ppm in our aquariums.
As a reef aquarist, I was always of the "...keep it as close to zero as possible." mindset, until I realized that corals just grow better with the presence of some nitrate! This was especially evident in my large scale coral grow-out raceways.
It seems that 'zero" nitrate is not always the most realistic or achievable target in a heavily-botanical-laden aquarium, although I routinely see undetectable nitrate reading in my tanks. You have a bit more "wiggle room", IMHO, however, before concern over fish health is a factor. Now, when you start creeping towards 50ppm, you're getting closer towards a number that should alert you.
It's not a big "stretch" from 50ppm to more potentially detrimental readings of 75ppm and higher...
And then you get towards the range where health issues could manifest themselves in your fishes. Now, many fishes will not show any symptoms of nitrate poisoning until the nitrate level reaches 100 ppm or more. However, studies have shown that long-term exposure to moderate concentrations of nitrate stresses fishes, making them more susceptible to disease, affecting their growth rates, and inhibiting spawning in many species.
At those really high nitrate levels, fishes will become noticeably lethargic, and may have other health issues that are obvious upon visual inspection, such as open sores or reddish patches on their skin. And then, you'd have those "mysterious deaths" and the sudden death (essentially from shock) of newly-added fishes to the aquarium, because they're not acclimated to the higher nitrate concentrations.
Okay, that's scary stuff. However, high nitrate concentrations are not only manageable- they're something that's completely avoidable in our aquairums.
Quite honestly, even in the most heavily-botanical-laden systems I've played with, I have personally never seen a higher nitrate reading than around 5ppm. Often, as I mentioned above, they're undetectibIe on hobby-level test kits. I attribute this to common sense stuff: Good quality source water (RO/DI), careful stocking, feeding, good circulation, not disturbing the substrate, and consistent basic aquarium husbandry practices (water exchanges, filter maintenance, etc.).
Now, that's just me.
I'm no scientist, certainly not a chemist, but I have a basic understanding of maintaining a healthy nitrogen cycle in the aquarium. And I am habitual-perhaps even obsessive- about consistent maintenance. Water exchanges are not a "when I get around to it" thing in my aquarium management "playbook"- they're "baked in" to my practice.
So yeah, although nitrate is something to be aware of in botanical-method aquariums, it's simply not an ominous cloud hanging over our success.
Relatively shallow sand or substrate beds seem to be optimal for denitrification, and many of us employ them for the aesthetics as well. Light "stirring" of the top layers, if you're concerned about any potential "dead spots" is something that is permissible, IMHO. Any debris stirred up can easily be removed mechanically by filtration, as mentioned above.
But that's it.
Of course, as we already discussed, you don't have to go crazy siphoning the shit (literally!) out of your sand every week, essentially decimating populations of beneficial microscopic infauna -or interfering with their function- in the process.
What I am starting to feel more and more confident about is postulating that some form of denitrification occurs in a system with a layer of leaves and botanicals as a major component of the tank.
Now, I know, I have little rigorous scientific information to back up my theory, other than anecdotal observations and even some assumptions. However, there is always an example to look at- Nature.
Of course, Nature and aquariums differ, one being a closed system and the other being "open." However, they both are beholden to the same laws, aren't they? And I believe that the function of the captive leaf litter bed and the wild litter beds are remarkably similar to a great extent.
The thing that fascinates me is that, in Nature, leaf litter beds perform a similar function; that is, fostering biodiversity, nutrient export, and yes- denitrification. Let's take a little look at a some information I gleaned from the study of a natural leaf litter bed for some insights.
In a slow-flowing wild Amazonian stream with a very deep leaf litter bed, observations were made which are of some interest to us. First off, oxygen saturation was 6.7 3 mg/L (about 85% of saturation), conductivity was 13.8 microsemions, and pH was 3.5.
Some of these parameters (specifically the very low pH) are likely difficult to obtain and maintain in the aquarium, but the interesting thing is that these parameters were stable throughout a months-long investigation.
Oxygen saturation was surpassingly low, given the fact that there was some water movement and turbulence when the study was conducted. The researchers postulated that the reduction in oxygen saturation presumably reflects respiratory consumption by the organisms residing in the litter, as well as low photosynthetic generation (which makes sense, because there is no real algae or plant growth in the litter beds).
And of course, such numbers are consistent with the presence of a lot of life in the litter beds.
Microscopic investigation confirmed that the leaf litter was heavily populated with fungi and other microfauna. There was also a significant amount of fish life. Interestingly, the fish population was largely found in the top 12"/30cm of the litter bed, which was estimated to be about 18"/45cm deep. The food web in this type of habitat is comprised largely of fungal and bacterial growth which occurs in the decomposing leaf litter.
Okay, I"m throwing a lot of information here, and doing what I hope is a slightly better-than-mediocre attempt at tying it all together. The principal assertions I'm making are that, in the wild, the leaf litter bed is a very productive place, and has a significant impact on its surroundings, and that it's increasingly obvious to me that many of the same functions occur in an aquarium utilizing leaf litter and botanicals.
"Enriching" a substrate with botanicals, or composing an entire substrate of botanicals and leaves is a very interesting and compelling subject for investigation by hobbyists.
So, three areas of potential investigation for us:
*Use of botanicals and leaves to comprise a "bed" for bacterial growth and denitrification.
*Understanding the chemical/physical impact of the botanical "bed" on an aquarium. (ie, pH, conductivity, etc.)
*Utilization of a botanical bed to create a supplemental food source for the resident fishes.
We've also touched on the idea of a leaf litter/botanical bed as "nursery" for fry, something more and more hobbyists/breeders are confirming is a logical "go-to" thing for them.
Interesting semi-anecdotal observations from my friends in the know suggest that the biofilms for decaying leaves form a valuable secondary food for the fry of fishes such as Discus, Uaru, (after they’re done feeding on their parent’s exuded slime coat) and even Loricariid catfishes. And I've seen juvenile fishes of a variety of species "appear" from my botanical-rich aquariums over the years, fat and happy, apparently deriving some nutrition from the fungi, bacteria, and small crustaceans which live in, on, and among the leaf litter bed.
My own experience with creating leaf-litter-bed-focused aquariums has proven that supplemental food production for the resident fishes is a real "thing" that we need to consider. It's a valid and very exciting approach to creating a functional closed aquatic ecosystem.
We talk about the concept of "substrate enhancement" or "enrichment" a lot in the context of aquatic botanicals (we tend to use the two terms interchangeably).
Again, we're not talking about "enrichment" in the same context as say, planted aquarium guys, with materials put into the substrate specifically for the benefit of plants. However, the addition of botanical and other materials CAN create a sort of organic "mulch" which benefits many aquatic plants!
Rather, "enrichment" in our context refers to the addition of botanical materials for creating a more natural-appearing, natural-functioning substrate- one which provides a haven for microbial life, as well as for small crustaceans, biofilms, and even algae, to serve as a foraging area for our fishes and invertebrates.
We've found over the years of playing with botanical materials that substrates can be really dynamic places, and benefit from the addition of leaves and other materials. For many years, substrates in aquarium were really just sands and gravels. With the popularity of planted aquariums, new materials, like soils and mineral additives, entered into the fray.
With the botanical-method aquarium starting to gain in popularity, now you're seeing all sorts of materials added on and in the substrate...for different reasons of course.
I think the big takeaway is that we should not be afraid to experiment with the idea of mixing various botanical materials into our substrates, particularly if we continue to embrace solid aquarium husbandry practices.
In my opinion, richer, botanically-enhanced substrate provides greater biological diversity and stability for the closed system aquarium.
Is it for everyone?
Not for those not willing to experiment and be diligent about monitoring and maintaining water quality. Not for those who are superficially interested, or just in it for the unique aesthetics it affords.
However, for those of you who are adventurous, experimental, diligent, and otherwise engaged with managing and observing your aquariums, I think it offers amazing possibilities. Not only will you gain some fascinating insights and the benefits of "on-board" nutrient export/environmental "enrichment"- you will also get the aesthetics of a more natural-looking substrate as well.
Like so many things we do in our niche, the "weird" alternative and botanical-enriched substrate approaches are fascinating, dynamic, and potentially ground-breaking for the aquarium hobby. For the adventurous, diligent, and observant aquarist, they present numerous opportunities to learn, explore, and create amazing, function-first aquatic ecosystems.
Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet Nature halfway."-Michael Pollan
It's long been suggested that an aquarium is sort of like a garden, right? And, to a certain extent it is. Of course, we can also allow our tanks to evolve on a more-or-less "random" path than the word "garden" implies...
Perhaps one of the most liberating things about our botanical-method aquariums is that there is no set "style" that you have to follow to "arrange" botanical materials in your tank.
When you look at those amazing pictures of the natural habitats we love so much, you're literally bombarded with the "imperfection" and apparent randomness that is Nature. Yet, in all of the "clutter" of an igarape flooded forest, for example, there is a quiet elegance to it. There is a sense that everything is there for a reason- and not simply because it looks good. It IS perfect. Can't we bring this sense to our aquariums?
I think we can...simply by meeting Nature halfway.
To a certain extent, it's "anything goes" in terms of adding materials to represent the wild habitats. I mean, when you think about flooded forest floors and rainforest streams, you're talking about an aggregation of material from the forest that has accumulated via wind, rain, and current. The influences on the "design" are things like how something arrives into the water, and how it gets distributed by water movement.
Nature offers no "style guide."
Rather, she offers clues, based on her processes.
I mean, sure, you could and should certainly use some aesthetic thought in the concept, but when you're trying to recreate what in Nature is a more-or-less random thing, you probably don't want to dwell too much on the concept! You don't want to over-think "random" too much, right? Rather, put your effort into selecting suitable materials with which to do the job.
For a bit more context, just think for just a second, about the stems and branches that we love so much in our aquascaping. Those of us who obsessively study images of the wild tropical habitats we love so much can't help but note that many of the bodies of water which we model our aquariums after are filled with tree branches and stems.
Since many of these habitats are rather ephemeral in nature, they are only filled up with water part of the year. The remainder of the time, they're essentially dry forest floors.
And what accumulates on dry forest floors?
Branches, stems, leaves, and other materials from trees and shrubs. When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate how we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches.
They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!
There is no real rhyme or reason as to why stuff orients itself the way it does once submerged. There are numerous random factors involved.
I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just literally tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?
On the other hand, I'm not so sure why they wouldn't!
I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in Nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that shit that hardcore 'scapers will hit you over the head with...
But Nature doesn't give a fuck about some competition's "rules"- and Nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."
Natural looks...well, like what you'd see in Nature.
It's pretty hardcore stuff.
And it's all part of the reason that I spend so damn much time pleading with you- my fellow fish geeks- to study, admire, and ultimately replicate natural aquatic habitats as much as you do the big aquascaping contest winners' works. In fact, if every hobbyist spent just a little time studying some of these unique natural habitats and using them as the basis of their work, I think the hobby would be radically different.
When hobbyists interpret what they see in wild aquatic habitats stats more literally, the results are almost always stunning. And contest judges are starting to take notice...
I think that there would also be hobby success on a different level with a variety of fishes that are perhaps considered elusive and challenging to keep. Success based on providing them with the conditions which they evolved to live in over the millennia, not a "forced fit" its what works for us humans.
More awareness of both the function and the aesthetics of fascinating ecological niches, such as the aforementioned flooded forests, would drive the acceptance and appreciation of Nature as it is- not as we like to "edit" and "sanitize" it.
Taking this approach is actually a "stimulus" for creativity, perhaps in ways that many aquarists have not thought of.
There are a lot of aquatic habitats in Nature which are filled with tangles of terrestrial plant roots, emergent vegetation, fallen branches, etc., which fill small bodies of water almost completely.
These types of habitats are unique; they attract a large populations of smaller fishes to the protection of their vast matrix of structures. Submerged fallen tree branches or roots of marginal terrestrial plants provide a large surface area upon which algae, biofilm, and fungal growth occurs. This, in turn, attracts higher life forms, like crustaceans and aquatic insects. Sort of the freshwater version of a reef, from a "functionality" standpoint, right?
Can't we replicate such aquatic features in the aquarium?
Of course we can!
This idea is a fantastic expression of "functional aesthetics." It's a "package" that is a bit different than the way we would normally present an aquarium. Because we as hobbyists hesitate to densely pack an aquarium like this, don't we?
Why do you think this is?
I think that we hesitate, because- quite frankly- having a large mass of tangled branches or roots and their associated leaves and detritus in the cozy confines of an aquarium tends to limit the number, size, and swimming area of fishes, right? Or, because its felt that, from an artistic design perspective, something doesn't "jibe" about it...
Sure, it does limit the amount of open space in an aquarium, which has some tradeoffs associated with it.
On the other hand, I think that there is something oddly compelling, intricate, and just beautiful about complex, spatially "full" aquatic features. Though seldom seen in aquarium work, there is a reason to replicate these systems. And when you take into account that these are actually very realistic, entirely functional representations of certain natural habitats and ecological niches, it becomes all the more interesting!
What can you expect when you execute something like this in the aquarium?
Well, for on thing, it WILL take up a fair amount of space within the tank. Of course. Depending upon the type of materials that you use (driftwood, roots. twigs, or branches), you will, of course, displace varying amounts of water.
Flow patterns within the aquarium will be affected, as will be the areas where leaves, detritus and other botanical materials settle out. You'll need to understand that the aquarium will not only appear different- it'll function differently as well. Yet, the results that you'll achieve- the more natural behaviors of your fishes, their less stressful existence- will provide benefits that you might not have even realized possible before.
This is something which we simply cannot bring up often enough. It's transformational in our aquarium thinking.
The "recruitment" of organisms (algae, biofilms, epiphytic plants, etc.) in, on, and among the matrix of wood/root structures we create, and the "integration" of the wood into other "soft components" of the aquascape- leaves and botanicals is something which occurs in Nature as well as in the aquairum.
This is an area that has been worked on by hobbyists rather infrequently over the years- mainly by biotope-lovers. However, embracing the "mental shifts" we've talked about so much here- allowing the growth of beneficial biocover, decomposition, tinted water, etc.- is, in our opinion, the "portal" to unlocking the many secrets of Nature in the aquarium.
The extraordinary amount of vibrance associated with the natural growth on wood underwater is an astounding revelation. However, our aesthetic sensibilities in the hobby have typically leaned towards a more "sterile", almost "antispetic" interpretation of Nature, eschewing algae, biofilm, etc.
However, a growing number of hobbyists worldwide have began to recognize the aesthetic and functional beauty of these natural occurances, and the realism and I think that the intricate beauty of Nature is starting to eat away at the old "sterile aquascape" mindset just a bit!
And before you naysayers scoff and assert that the emerging "botanical method" aquarium is simply an "excuse for laziness", as one detractor communicated to me not too long ago, I encourage you once again to look at Nature and see what the world underwater really looks like. There is a reason for the diversity, apparent "randomness", and success of the life forms in these bodies of water.
What is it?
It's that these materials are being utilized- by an enormous community of organisms- for shelter, food, and reproduction. Seeing the "work" of these organisms, transforming pristine" wood and crisp leaves into softening, gradually decomposing material, is evidence of the processes of life.
When you accept that seed pods, leaves, and other botanical materials are somewhat ephemeral in nature, and begin to soften, change shape, accrue biofilms and even a patina of algae- the idea of "meeting Nature halfway" makes perfect sense, doesn't it?
You're not stressing about the imperfections, the random patches of biofilm, the bits of leaves that might be present in the substrate. Sure, there may be a fine line between "sloppy" and "natural" (and for many, the idea of stuff breaking down in any fashion IS "sloppy")- but the idea of accepting this stuff as part of the overall closed ecosystem we've created is liberating.
Sure, we can't get every functional detail down- every component of a food web- every biochemical interaction...the specific materials found in a typical habitat- we interpret- but we can certainly go further, and continue to look at Nature as it is, and employ a sense of "acceptance"- and randomness-in our work.
I'm not telling you to turn your back on the modern popular aquascaping scene; to disregard or dismiss the brilliant work being done by aquascapers around the world, or to develop a sense of superiority or snobbery, and conclude that everyone who loves this stuff is a sheep...
Not at all.
I'm simply the guy who's passing along the gentle reminder from Nature that we have this great source of inspiration that really works! Rejoice in the fact that Nature offers an endless variety of beauty, abundance, and challenge- and that it's all there, free for us to interpret it as we like. Without aesthetic rules, rigid standards, and ratios. The only "rules" are those which govern the way Nature works with materials in an aquatic environment.
A botanical-method aquarium features, life, death, and everything in between.
It pulses with the cycle of life, beholden only to the rules of Nature, and perhaps, to us- the human caretakers who created it.
But mainly, to Nature.
The processes of life which occur within the microcosm we create are indifferent to our desires, our plans, or our aspirations for it. Sure, as humans, we can influence the processes which occur within the aquarium- but the ultimate outcome- the result of everything that we did and did not do- is based solely upon Nature's response.
In the botanical-style aquarium, we embrace the randomness and unusual aesthetic which submerged terrestrial materials impart to the aquatic environment. We often do our best to establish a sense of order, proportion, and design, but the reality is that Nature, in Her infinite wisdom borne of eons of existence, takes control.
It's a beautiful process. Seemingly random, yet decidedly orderly.
Think about that for a bit.
Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
Every once in a while, someone will ask me what my "style" of aquarium is. And it's a tough one to answer, because the aquariums I create are based less on aesthetics than the are on approach to interpreting natural aquatic habitats in different ways. So, not really a "style" in the conventional sense.
I see myself as a "function first" kind of guy, who's tanks happen look the way they do because they embrace aspects of Nature which create unique environmental conditions that are so compelling. And. to be honest, most aquarists historically haven't found them to be particularly attractive as subjects for aquariums!
This is always a bit sad to me, because some of these "unusual" aspects can create some of the most fascinating and ecologically successful aquariums imaginable, if we can overcome our programmed concerns about their "unconventional" (by hobby standards, anyways) appearance. And with so many super talented aquarists out there, the possibilities for "interpreting Nature more naturally" are endless, if they can get their heads out of the "aesthetics first" mindset!
Now I freely admit that not every aquatic habitat is perfect for replication in the aquarium, or even easy to recreate. Some create operational challenges and require modifications to the way we filter or otherwise manage aquariums. Soem require entirely rethinking how to recreate them in the aquarium. Like, trying to create a (stagnant) puddle seems like it would be pretty easy- and in theory, it is- just add water and mud...
However, in execution, what you often end up with is a stagnant container of water and mud...not particularly exciting or long-term sustainable...or, is it? Personally, I think it is possible. Perhaps you might be advised to "make a better mud hole" and add a few riparian plants to make it a longer-term manageable tank... Or not. That's the beauty...figure out how and you're golden!
I believe that we can do literal interpretations of natural habitats, based on how they form, and what makes them function. Now, maybe we could put a bit of artistic liberty into them, but that's it.
And I freely admit, it's not always easy figuring out how to take these ideas from the "idea phase" to the "set the dsmn thing up phase!" And, for every cool idea I've executed, I must have 5 that never made it out of the initial experimentation phase. And even more which never "made it out of the notebook" of ideas I keep on these things!
And that's okay, because each sort of "aborted" idea gets you closer to the execution of stuff you've really been trying to accomplish. The important takeaway here is to keep experimenting. Figuring out how to create viable aquarium versions of natural aquatic features is both rewarding and- yeah- beautiful!
I admit, it can be somewhat discouraging at times to be playing with all of these seemingly wacky ideas that you have in your head at times, especially when the world's adoring attention on social media are on these incredible, pristine-looking, high-concept planted tanks or whatever. I mean, you want to scream to everyone that this is not that difficult; that it's not "dangerous" or really that "weird"- and that they should give this approach a shot!
It's hard not to sometimes...
Yet, as a lover of truly natural aquariums and ways to interpret Nature in a little glass box of water, you put your head down and soldier on. You don't expect the adorations of others to motivate you.
I remember feeling this exact kind of "loneliness" earlier on in the existence of Tannin. I felt like I existed in this or of almost invisible, "parallel universe", where strange-looking tanks played out in my space, while artistic dreamscapes adorned my Instagram feed.
Yet, in my mind, I always saw the incredible beauty in these truly natural aquariums, supported by organisms and functions that many found extremely distasteful. It was certainly contrary to what all of the "cool kids" were doing! And the sort of jealousy I had for lack of attention dissipated while I kept my head down and simply enjoyed what I was playing with.
The biotope aquairum crowd were my closest comrades; yet even many of them were taking an "aesthetics over function" angle at the time, and it definitely felt a bit more "out there" to be me! All cool.
Again, If you have made the mental shifts to find stuff like decomposing leaves, brown water, detritus, and biofilms attractive and alluring, then it really doesn't matter to you. And it didn't to me. I just kept my head in my game and did my thing.
My work is not intended to be primarily "artistic" or aesthetically-focused, really. Rather, it's an interpretation of the function of the natural world. The form follows the function. I want to inspire others to look at the way natural aquatic habitats evolve and function, and try to replicate as many of the functional aspects of them as possible. If the tank just happens to look interesting- well, that's a sort of collateral benefit, right?
And, when we approach recreating some of these habitats from a "function forward" approach, as opposed to just trying to recreate the look, not only do you create interesting "operational parameters", you get many unusual benefits as well- some of which are analogous to those which the natural environment offers to the organisms which reside there.
And of course, the aesthetics often look substantially different than what you get when you just go "diorama mode." Nature goes to work and brings in Her own "finishing touches" that make it truly unique.
Multiple times in the course of a year, you'll hear me calling to you- our community (someone called it "Tint Nation" once, and I had to laugh) to really push it. I mean, to try stuff that's extremely unconventional; perhaps boundary-pushing...
Aesthetically uncomfortable...even unconvincing for some. But different. Functional. and yeah, I suppose, weird.
Stuff that pushes into "That's some strange shit!" territory. Stuff that, in previous years, would result in a lot of hobbyists telling you stuff like, "It can't work!" "You'll crash your tank!", "It can't be maintained long term!", etc., etc., etc. Stuff that, as a "disciple" of the natural, botanical-method aquarium, will leave (hopefully) asking these naysayers, "Why are you saying that? Because no one has done it before? Or, does the idea just not make sense to YOU?"
Yup. Pushing back on "conventionality" is often a good thing.
There is so much interesting stuff out there to study and replicate in our aquariums. Not just to "diorama it up" to win a biotope aquarium contest; no- but to replicate the form and function of these unique habitats. I say this over and over and over again, because it's a completely different mindset.
I think we need to spend much more time really trying to get our hands around why these natural habitats are the way they are. To understand why they formed, how they "operate", and what set of unique characteristics they possess which makes them home to our beloved fishes.
I feel like I have a "duty" to expose the aquarium world to these unusual aspects of Nature, because they just might lead to some "unlocks" about aspects of the aquatic world that will create beneficial outcomes for our captive fishes, too.
Not just because they're weird.
Not just because replicating them runs contrary to what we've been told is appropriate subject matter for an aquarium. In fact, not all of these things are "weird."Not all of them are impossible or "dangerous" to replicate in the aquarium. Some are simply ideas that have not been "played out" in the confines of an aquarium, for whatever reason.
These ideas-these habitats- are often simply overlooked.
Attempting to replicate the functional aspects of these habitats is simply a "due diligence" thing to me. It will force us to push our skills out a bit; learn something. These ideas are fascinating...
These ideas are cool.
I find it fascinating to consider that many natural habitats are things that not have considered replicating in the past simply because they seemed "dangerous" or "difficult to manage" in an aquarium. I suggest this: They were seen as "dangerous" or "difficult to manage' in an aquarium because we are evaluating them in the lens of conventional aquarium design and management.
When we evaluate unconventional ideas using a conventional mindset, of course they seem unachievable and unmanageable! We talk a lot about stuff like sedimented substrates, detritus, decomposition, turbid water, and it's important to remember that these things are common in many aquatic habitats around the world...things that we have typically not incorporated into aquariums before.
THAT to me is the next great challenge in the aquairum hobby: To create aquariums which are literal, functional interpretations of wild aquatic habitats. The neat thing is that, once we get a "handle" on keeping aquariums run with the botanical method, replete with decomposing leaves, fungal-covered branches, sediments, etc. successfully, the world literally opens up with possibilities.
Suddenly, that strange-looking flooded meadow with the epiphyte covered riparian plants and tons of Moenkhausia and other characins isn't so unachievable. It just takes a little study of the habitat, and some experience handling the "operation" of a botanical-method aquarium!
What kinds of unusual habitats or ecological niches would I like to see us play with? What about playing with more representations of unusual "niche" habitats, like vernal pools, flooded rice paddies, blackwater mangrove thickets, muddy streams, etc. I'll be doing my best to create more tangles of roots, detritus-filled tree stumps, sediment-encrusted branches, and all sorts of stuff that we see in various natural habitats.
The concept of creating aquariums to represent natural habitats in form is not a new thing in the hobby. However, what IS new is creating these aquariums to mimic the function of the habitats. To allow Nature to work Her magic on the "aquascaping materials" (ie; wood, roots, botanicals, plants, etc.) that we use, and to not try to "sanitize" everything along the way.
I personally am a little bored of seeing those "clinical" or "artistic" interpretations of "blackwater habitats" that are showing up on social media lately. There's more to it than simply "translating" a crystal-clear "Nature Aquarium"-style tank to one having some tinted water! The skill set most of those creators employ with those "Amano-esque" tanks would absolutely translate to this little niche. They just need to relax a bit on overly-stylizing things, that's all.
I think many are starting to see that it's entirely possible to have a more natural-functioning "Nature Aquairum Style" system, once which doesn't attempt to over-stylize and over-sanitize everything. It just takes a little time and experience with the botanical-method approach to get your head around it. I get it.
Re-thinking stuff like substrates, for example, is, in my opinion, another key to "unlocking" this new way of thinking. When we stop thinking about substrates as just "decoration", or even "A place to grow aquatic plants", we can approach things a bit differently. We need to examine wild aquatic habitats a bit more closely, and go beyond just thinking about how the "look" would translate into a cool aquascape.
Yeah, I think that we should look at substrates in our aquariums as more than just "the bottom" or "a place to put rocks and wood and plants"- but rather, as a dynamic, living, integral component of a balanced closed ecosystem. A place to culture supplemental food organisms, facilitate reproduction of fishes (I'm thinking soil-spawning killies here again), and impact the chemical composition of our water.
It would be great to apply as much emphasis to substrate in this vein as we do to other components of the aquarium. It's about more of those mental shifts; re-thinking the "how's" and "why's" of what we've done for so long.
A "substrate" can be- should be- way more than gravel or plain old sand.
And if we have our say in the matter, it will be!
And of course, if we dip back into Nature for some inspiration- as we should- there is an amazing amount of ideas to take away..
Consider so-called "vernal pools"- temporary (ephemeral) or seasonal aquatic habitats where killifish come from. They don't just have a certain "look" to them- they have a functional spect which affects the very life cycle of the organisms which reside there.
Vernal pools are generally found on plains or grasslands, and are typically small bodies of water- often just a few meters wide. The origin of the name, "vernal" refers to the Spring season. And, this makes a lot of sense, because most of these ephemeral habitats are at their maximum water depth during the Spring!
Vernal pools are typically found in areas comprised of various soil types that contain clays, sediments and silts. They can develop into what geologists call "hydric soils", which are defined as, “...a soil that formed under conditions of saturation, flooding, or ponding long enough during the growing season to develop anaerobic conditions in the upper part.”
A unique part of the vernal pools is what is an essentially impermeable layer of substrate called "clay pan." These substrates are hugely important to the formation of these habitats, as the clay soils bind so closely together that they become impermeable to water. Thus, when it rains, the water percolates until it reaches the "claypan" and just sits there, filling up with decaying plant material, loose soils, and water.
So, yeah- the substrate is of critical importance to the aquatic life forms which reside in these pools! Let's talk killies for a second! One study of the much-loved African genus Nothobranchius indicated that the soils are "the primary drivers of habitat suitability" for these fish, and that the eggs can only survive the embryonic period and develop in specific soil types containing alkaline clay minerals, known as "smectites", which create the proper soil conditions for this in desiccated pool substrates.
The resulting "mud-rich" substrate in these pools has a low degree of permeability, which enables water to remain in a given vernal pool even after the surrounding water table may have receded! And, of course, a lot of decaying materials, like plant parts and leaf litter is present in the water, which would impact the pH and other characteristics of the aquatic habitat.
Interestingly, it is known by ecologists that the water may stay alkaline despite all of this stuff, because of the buffering capacity of the alkaline clay present in the sediments!
And, to literally "cap it off"- if this impermeable layer were not present, the vernal pools would desiccate too rapidly to permit the critical early phases of embryonic development of the Nothobranchius eggs to occur. Yes, these fishes are tied intimately to their environment.
(Image by Andrew Bogott, used under CC BY-S.A. 4.0)
Now, that is likely a deeper dive than you might have wanted to take on the vernal pool habitat, but it's just one example of what's "out there" in Nature, waiting for us to study and replicate in functional detail in our aquariums! The embrace of the function of natural habitats and the aquariums which represent them is, IMHO, the current 'bleeding edge" of freshwater aquarium practice.
And of course, it's not just the deeply-tinted waters of the world that were talking about. For example, our friend, Thomas Minesi, has spent years exploring the widely varied habitats of his native Democratic Republic of Congo, studying clearwater habitats, such as the River Fwa- which are ripe for replication in aquariums in function and form. He's discussed these habitats on "The Tint" podcast a few times- well worth another listen.
So I suppose the "literal" interpretations of natural aquatic ecosystems are so exciting to me because of the sheer variety which exists! You could literally spend a lifetime just trying to replicate a fraction of them. There is literally something for everyone out there!
We just have to look, and dive a little deeper.
Get out there! (Literally and metaphorically)
Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay adventurous. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
I've been in the aquairum hobby practically since I could walk. And as a "lifer", I am obsessed with virtually every aspect of the hobby. I am a voracious reader of hobby information, in print and online, and ion course, in person with fellow fish geeks when possible.
I love to research stuff.
That being said, I think that I also tend to take in "too much" information at times. In other words, overly researching and analyzing almost every aspect of an idea that I have.
And that can be a problem.
You WERE a beginner at one point. You didn't know anything about keeping tropical fish, except maybe that you were drawn to them somehow. And that is not neccasarilly a bad thing. Sometimes, NOT knowing-or being aware of everything- is a good thing.
Yeah, outright beginners might have it pretty good in the aquarium hobby.
Despite everything being new to them, they don't have the "burden of experience" holding them back.
And that can be a problem at times.
Perhaps the beginner knows something we don't? And that's to not sweat it so much. To educate yourself to the best of your ability...and then to just DO.
I often think that we- that is, more "advanced" hobbyists...know too much. We've "seen it all", know what to expect, and we let this guide- or perhaps, taint- our experiences... We often overthink, or over-analyze stuff.
And, just maybe...as a result of doing this incredible thing we do regularly...we know too much.
We understand all of this stuff. Well, most of it, anyways. Enough to think about multiple angles and concerns...Enough to be hesitant when maybe- just maybe- we shouldn't be.
Sometimes, our experience holds us back from growing and learning more in the hobby.
Think about the advice we give to novices in the hobby. Much of it is simply based one having been through it ourselves many times. Yeah, we've experienced I algae blooms or whatever many times over the years, and have watched- and even reassured- others that "All of this is normal" and instruct them often to "...just be patient and it will pass..."
You know- "aquarium stuff."
Outright beginners actually have it much easier in this regard, I think.
I mean, when just having a glass or acrylic box of freshwater or saltwater in your home is a novelty- a cause for rejoicing! You tend to live in a bubble of gentle "ignorance" (eeehw- that's kind of harsh)- okay, let's call it "blissful lack of awareness about some things" that some of this stuff really sucks...
And that's actually a beautiful thing- because a beginner is taken by the sheer wonder- and joy of it all.
They don't stress out about stuff like algal films, detritus on the substrate, micro bubbles and the occasional falling piece of wood in their aquascape the way many "advanced" hobbyists do. And beginners in our little speciality? They're not worried about that "yucky biofilm" or water moment or any other of a dozen minutiae like we are, because they don't KNOW...or CARE- that it can linger a long, long time. They may our may not grasp that it's "part of the game."
And they likely don't care.
They're not "handcuffed" by their past experiences and the knowledge of having set up dozens of tanks over the years. Nor are they thinking that they have some kind of "luck." Rather, they're just stoked as hell by the thought of Glowlight Tetras, Amano Shrimp, Glass Catfish, and "ultra-common" Bettas taking up residence in the new little utopian microhabitat they just set up in their New York City apartment!
What could be more awesome?
I sometimes find myself in that same "ignorance bubble."
Like, as most of you know, my knowledge of, and experience with aquatic plants is remarkably limited. I can barely identify more than a dozen species of plants, and I am not exactly well-versed on what they need to grow, outside of the basic stuff I learned in school.
Yet, there are times when I play with plants in my tanks. I have certain aquatic plants that appeal to me for various reasons, and from time to time, I'll incorporate them into one of my displays.
Yet, the fact of the matter is, I don't really know much about plants at all. I just research what I need to know about them and work with them. To the aquatic plant purists, no doubt my applications (or, mis-applications, as the case may be!) are horrifying, laughable or just mildly amusing, at best. I barely know what I'm doing with my aquatic plants, but I have a lot of fun with them when I do play with them...I exist in an aquatic plant "ignorance bubble."
I suppose the term, "ignorance" is a bit harsh...But it is a sort of a "blissful unawareness..." Like, I get it. I don't really know- or, for that matter, care- that I may not be utilizing the optimal lighting, fertilization regimen, or other best practices for my aquatic plants, to make them to grow like mad...
All I care about is that they are healthy, look nice, and enhancing the tank that they're in. That's good enough for me.
It's a pretty fun feeling, too.
Just embracing the sheer joy of being a beginner at something again. Enjoying what's happening in your aquarium NOW- rather than worrying about it; impatiently "tweaking" stuff to get "somewhere else."
Sounds like fun to me!
And look- if the bug bites, and you really want to just go "full ham" on a topic and become a specialist- you can. That's the beauty.
But you have to start. And that sometimes means taking a different mindset.
I think it's entirely possible to release ourselves from the "burden" of our own experience, and to allow ourselves to enjoy every aspect of this great hobby, free from preconception or prejudices. To just make decisions based on what our research- gut, or yeah- I suppose, experience- tells us is the "right" thing to do, then simply letting stuff happen.
In other words, taking control of the influence that our own experience provides, rather than allowing it to taint our whole journey with doubt, dogma, second-guessing, and over-analysis of every single aspect.
The key, or the "un lock", is to try something that's new to you. Move into unknown territory. Learn what you can, and then go for it. Don't be shy, or try to protect your ego. The simple fact is that, no matter where you are now in your hobby "career"- you had to start somewhere, right?
You WERE an absolute beginner in the aquarium hobby at one point.
We all have things we know, and things that we're clueless about.
And THAT is super exciting to me. Too step outside of what we know; to move into uncharted waters...to learn by doing.
Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay bold. Stay...blissfully unaware of some stuff...
And Stay Wet.
Okay, I know it's a bit weird to say it, but as fish geeks, I think we're never completely satisfied with our aquariums. I mean, yeah, we love them, and we pour everything we've got into them (literally and figuratively!),
One of the things I've found it hardest to do as an aquarist who owns a company in recent years is to speed up the creation of new aquariums. The reality is that my whole aquarium "career" has been geared towards being able to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n and establish aquariums over long periods of time, allowing them to evolve.
This doesn't always square well with the "get more ideas out there YESTERDAY!" mindset that you seem to need to have in today's social media fueled hobby. I watch some YouTubers just crashing through every barrier in a frantic pace to get to the next project as quickly as possible. It's like, "Can't stand still for a second, or..!"
Or what, exactly?
Do "creators" really think that they're going to lose a substantial percentage of their followers just because it's Wednesday, they're still stabilizing their African river tank, and they didn't get to the 240-gallon Pirahna tank just yet?
I mean, it's kind of crazy. However, I DO understand the mindset behind it to a certain extent.
Yeah. Like, when you see part of your responsibility being to inspire others through your ideas and work, you want to show as much as possible, as frequently as possible. But, does that mean constantly creating some new setup to follow whatever the hot thing is at the moment? It gets ridiculous after a while ("If it's Thursday, it's time for the Rainbowfish biotope tank...Or was it the macro algae tank? Or maybe it's the Swordtail tank...")
Again, I suppose part of me understands.
"Creators" feel that they need to...create. But why does it always have to be a new tank? Why not produce content focusing on evolving and perfecting the existing tanks? Why not discuss the current challenges, status, and progress on the tank you just started? Some creators do this, and it's great content! Now, I understand, some professionals can show new tanks every week because that's what they do!
But hobbyists shouldn't feel that there is some "pressure" to constantly feature new stuff. Because there isn't. But the pressure is there, sure.
I could have easily succumbed to this perceived urgent "need" to crank out a rapid succession of tanks. After all, it's been almost 18 months since I was able to have a meaningful home aquarium, I've got a ton of ideas, my wife is all for it, and I feel good about all of the projects I've got planned...Full speed ahead, right?
Where's the fun in THAT?
Yeah, I've purposely kept myself on a "hobbyist footing", and am trying to simply play with each tank and work on the challenges that arise with them in a manageable, logical pace. I want to fully ENJOY each one for what it is. And I've been sharing what's been going on with them. Maybe it's not as exciting as me setting up two more cool new tanks, but it feels much more "honest" to me.
I've made the effort to document and discuss the progress with my brackish water mangrove tank. I've spent a lot of time sharing images and social media posts on the progress of the mangroves. As I mentioned a bunch of times, mangroves do not like being transplanted, and they shock out and take some time to recover. It was real touch and go there for a while; I thought I might lose all of my two and a half year old seedlings.
Fortunately, I've taken my time to let them come around and revive, and had some great discussions with fellow mangrove geeks about them. It's been really gratifying to see them come back, and it's been fun to share the progress. And to talk about the fact that my aggressive handling of the transplant almost killed them. To share the good, the bad, and the downright ugly with fellow hobbyists is the name of the game here.
But this piece isn't just about creating content for social media or whatever. It's about the mindset that you should cultivate to slow down and enjoy every aspect of what you're doing. I'm all about "deferred gratification"- or more realistically- gratification from every stage of the aquarium journey.
I think it's just more fun to "work through" a tank evolution. Yeah, I've had times when I've killed a project really quickly; changed my mind on something and just ended it. However, that's almost never happened when I've been working with a project that I put a lot of thought into.
Case in point is the simple, small botanical-method tank that I started a couple of months back. I had in my mind the desire to create a tank for some Asian blackwater fishes, utilizing the approach of "leaf litter"only", and then gradually evolving the tank into something a bit more diverse. A lot of people asked me to do another tank like this, to sort of show how a leaf litter only system can be set up and managed.
I've done this type of tank a few times before, so it wasn't exactly breaking new ground for me, but it was fun to document the process. I felt- and still feel- that the leaf-litter-only approach is one of the easiest, if not THE easiest, botanical-method aquariums to run. And of course, I wanted to work on that longer-term theme of heavy leaf litter, twigs, and easy epiphytic plants in the display, so the process was sped up considerably to begin evolving it towards that. The "leaf litter only" phase was just a sort of "waypoint" in a journey.
A journey...Because that's what each aquarium we create really is, right?
Yet, I can't help but wonder why it is that, in the aquarium world we seem to feel the need to get to something that we can call "finished"- and quickly, at that.
I wonder if it has to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; a sort of "goal oriented" mindset- something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is?
I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a dental procedure, tax return preparation, or folding laundry, I can see how rush would take on a greater significance!
On the other hand, if you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- and something enjoyable-then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process. In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system. Every stage holds fascination.
IS there even a "finish line" to an aquarium?
Does it ever reach "finished?" Does Nature? Of course not! Rather, it's continuous evolution, in which there might be some competition between fishes, plants, or corals ( in a reef tank, of course) that results in one or more species dominating all of the rest. Maybe. Or, perhaps diversity continues to win, with lots of different life forms eaking out an existence in your artificial microcosm, just as they have managed to do for eons in Nature?
We don't have all of the answers.
And that's okay. That's part of the fun, too.
And we also should enjoy those times when our tanks are doing their thing...evolving...
Which is... every single day.
Yet, there is an apparent disconnect in the general aquarium hobby. A desire to get to "finished"- whatever that actually IS- as quickly and easily as possible. Like, why are we in such a damn rush? What's the point of trying to quickly get through all of the amazing stages of aquarium development, en route to some strange and seemingly enigmatic destination called "finished?"
I personally think that our social-media-fueled hobby era has continued to push this narrative, to the detriment of the hobby. ("There he goes again, hating on social media!" ) I'm NOT hating social media- it's one of the greatest facilitators of human communication in history. However, I am criticizing the behavior of humans who use it. We want to show only the best side of everything; we seem to want to create an aura of excitement, energy, and momentum, I guess.
Just glossing over the daily progress in order to show the "finished product", overlooks the evolution, the experiences, and the little bits of knowledge gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process.
Botanical method aquariums pretty much demand that you slow down. Since the very nature of utilizing materials such as leaves and botanicals will result in them gradually decomposing in water, and not only changing in appearance, but influencing the water chemistry and physical environment of the aquarium to a varying degree, we as lovers of botanical-style aquariums view every aquarium as an evolving entity.
And, as an evolving entity, a botanical aquarium requires some understanding and patience, and the passage of time...
You can't rush this process and expect good results.
t'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.
I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-method aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome-Just like what Nature does.
It works exactly the same in an aquarium...If we let Nature do her work without excessive intervention.
Just be patient. Really patient.
The lack of patience in the hobby is often reflected in social media posts, especially many of the so-called "tank build threads."
I see these in reef-keeping forums constantly, and sadly, they often follow a very predictable path. They start out innocently and exciting enough- the tank concept is highlighted, the acquisition of (usually expensive) equipment is documented, and the build begins. The pace quickens. The urgency to “get the livestock in the tank asap” is palpable. Soon, pretty large chunks of change are dropped on some of the most trendy, expensive coral frags- or worse yet- colonies- available.
Everyone “oohs and ahhs” over the additions. Those who understand the processes involved- and really think about it- begin to realize that this is going too fast…that the process is being rushed…that shortcuts and “hacks” are cherished more than the natural processes required for success.
Sure enough, within a month or so, frantic social media and forum posts are written by the builder, asking for help to figure out why his/her expensive corals are “struggling”, despite the amount spent on high-tech equipment, additives, and said corals from reputable vendors.
When suggestions are offered by members of the community, usually they’re about correcting some aspect of the nitrogen cycle or other critical biological function that was bypassed or downplayed by the aquarist. Usually, the “fixes” involve “doubling back” and spending more time to “re-boot” and do things more slowly. To let the system sort of evolve (oh- THAT word!)
And, then, the “yeah, I know, but..” type of responses- the ones that deflect responsibility- start piling up from the hobbyist. Often, the tank owner will apply some misplaced blame to the equipment manufacturer, the livestock vendor, the LFS employee…almost anyone but himself/herself. And soon after, the next post is in the forum’s “For Sale” section, selling off components of a once-ambitious aquarium.
Another hobbyist lost to lack of patience.
We have to overcome this phobia that we have collectively developed which says, "I can only share my best work!" or, "I need to get it to some point where I'm comfortable showing it off.."
Because people might see that your tank had to start somewhere? Because you might have some algae in there? Because you haven't yet arrived at the final wood configuration? Don't have all of the leaf litter in place?
For every excuse, I can think of several reasons why you should share.
Even ideas that I thought were a bit "out there", or "not quite ready to show the world" based on the idiotic standards we in the aquarium community have set for ourselves, I shared, and continue to share.
Because to not share not only perpetuates this absurdity, it glorifies the finished product over the process.
Because, all of the things that we do- especially in an up-and-coming hobby speciality like the botanical-method aquarium movement- are important, special- and inspiring!
All of it.
Even the stuff that that we think is not so good. Or, not fully-fleshed-out just yet.
Sure, these aspects don’t make for the best “optics”, as they say in politics. You can’t show an empty, cloudy aquarium on Instagram or Facebook and get 400 “likes” on the pic. Sadly, acceptance from others of how cool our tanks are is a big deal for many, so sharing an “under construction” tank is not as exciting for a lot of people, because we as a hobby celebrate that “finished product” (whatever it is) more than the process of getting there.
However, it's all good. It's all important. Because what you may think is an undeveloped idea could very well be the spark- the inspiration- for someone else who may have been "stuck", and was just waiting for the right idea to come around.
No need to rush. Go at the pace that you're comfortable with. No matter what it "looks like" or how it might play out on Instagram.
Just share. Be proud and happy with what you've accomplished. Enjoy the aquarium that you're working on NOW.
Stay patient. Stay thoughtful. Stay brave. Stay happy.
And Stay Wet.
I'm fascinated by the dietary preferences of fishes. How they've evolved over eons to consume various items found in their environments; how many fishes became "specialists" as an adaptation to the habitats in which they live.
And, as an aquarist who derives great pleasure from seeing his fishes "live off the land" and consume foods from the aquarium environment in which they reside, I really find some of the seunderlying feeding strategies fascinating. One of the more interesting examples is the consumption of wood by various species of fishes.
We read a lot about fishes which eat wood and wood-like materials.
Of course, the ones that come immediately to mind are the Loricariidae, specifically, Panaque species. Now, I admittedly am the last guy who should be authoritatively discussing the care of catfishes, having maintained maybe a couple dozen or so species during a lifetime of aquarium keeping. However, I do understand a little bit about their diets and the idea of utilizing wood- and botanical materials- in the aquarium for the purpose of supplementing our fishes' diets!
And of course, I'm equally fascinated by the world of biofilms, decomposition, microorganism growth and detritus...And this stuff plays right into that!
Now, the idea of xylophagy (the consumption and digestion of wood) is of course, a pretty cool and interesting adaptation to the environment from which these fishes come from. And as you'd suspect, the way that wood is consumed and digested by these fishes is equally cool and fascinating!
It's thought by ichthyologists that the scraping teeth and highly angled jaws of the Loricariidae are a perfect adaptation to this feeding habit of "scraping" wood. And of course, it's even argued among scientists that these fishes may or may not actually digest the wood they consume! While scientists have identified a symbiotic bacteria which is found in the gut of these fishes that helps break down wood components, it's been argued by some the the fishes don't actually digest and metabolize the wood; indeed deriving very little energy from the wood they consume!
In fact, a lab study by Donovan P. German was described in the November, 2009 Journal of Comparative Physiology, in which several species were fed wood and found to actually digest it quite poorly:
"...in laboratory feeding trials, (Pterygoplichthys cf. nigrolineatus and Hypostomus pyrineusi) lost weight when consuming wood, and passed stained wood through their digestive tracts in less than 4 hours. Furthermore, no selective retention of small particles was observed in either species in any region of the gut. Collectively, these results corroborate digestive enzyme activity profiles and gastrointestinal fermentation levels in the fishes’ GI tracts, suggesting that the wood-eating catfishes are not true xylivores such as beavers and termites, but rather, are detritivores like so many other fishes from the family Loricariidae."
Did you see that? Detritioves. Like, they're taking in wood to get other stuff out of the deal... And detritus is comprised of stuff like macrophytes, algae, and particulate organic carbon.
And this little nugget from the same study: "...The fishes consumed 2–5% of their body mass (on a wet weight basis) in wood per day, but were not thriving on it, as Pt. nigrolineatus lost 1.8 ± 0.15% of their body mass over the course of the experiment, and Pt. disjunctivus lost 8.4 ± 0.81% of their body mass."
Oh, that's weird.
Yet, anatomical studies of these fishes showed that the so-called "wood-eating catfishes" had what physiologists refer to as "body size-corrected intestinal lengths" that were 35% shorter than the detritivore species. What does this mean? Could they have perhaps had at one time- and subsequently lost- their ability to digest wood?
And to make it even weirder, check out this passage from a study by Lujan, Winemiller, and Armbruster:
"Loricariids have a dense endoskeleton and are covered with dermal plates composed primarily of calcium phosphate, giving them a high physiological demand for dietary phosphorus. Paradoxically, the rivers and streams inhabited by loricariids as well as the detritus and biofilm that most loricariids consume tend to be highly Phosporus deficient."
The same study noted that, "Loricariids as a whole are largely unable to digest lignocellulose, and instead derive most nutrients and energy from easily digestible breakdown products (e.g., disaccharides and dipeptides) that are produced during microbial degradation of submerged, decomposing wood."
I think it's yet another case of us as hobbyists drawing innocent conclusions based on anecdotal or superficial observations. I mean,"... they're munching on my wood, therefore, they must be 'eating' it!"
Now, to the point of the argument that most loricariids are primarily detritivores, consuming a matrix of biofilm, algal growth, microorganisms, and (for want of a better word) "dirt"- what does this mean to us as hobbyists? Well, for one thing, this has made them remarkably adaptable fishes in the aquarium. They will definitely rasp at wood", but according to the studies I just cited, they are not "eating" it, per se.
Now, my personal experience with Loricariidae is nothing like many of yours, and an observation I've made over the years is at best anecdotal- but interesting:
If you follow "The Tint", you know I've had a years-long love affair with Peckolotia compta aka "L134 Leopard Frog"- a beautiful little fish that is filled with charms. Well, I recall, are years back, that my first specimen seemed to have vanished into the ether following a re-configuration/rescape of my home blackwater/botanical-method aquarium. I thought somehow I either lost the fish during the re-scape, or it died and subsequently decayed without my detecting it... Pretty upsetting either way, but I couldn't find any trace of it!
For almost three months, the fish was M.I.A., just....gone.
And then one, day- there she was, poking out from the "Spider Wood" thicket that formed the basis of my newer hardscape! To say I was overjoyed was a bit of an understatement, of course! And after her re-appearance, she was out every day. She looked just as fat and happy as when I last saw her in the other 'scape...which begs the question (besides my curiosity about how she evaded detection)- What the fuck was she feeding on during this time?
Well, I suppose it's possible that some bits of frozen food (I fed frozen almost exclusively at that time) got away from my population of hungry characins and fell to the bottom...However, I'm pretty fastidious- and the other fishes (characins) were voracious mid-water-column feeders! To think that any appreciable amount got away from the hungry hoard was a bit hopeful. I believed at the time (and now am fully convinced) that it was more likely the biofilms, fungal growth, and perhaps some of the compounds from surface tissues of the "Spider Wood" I used in the hardscape that she was feeding on.
"Spiderwood" (aka Azalea root) stuff does recruit significant biological growth on it's surfaces when submerged , and curiously, in this tank, I noticed that, during the first few months, the wood seemed to never accumulate as much of this stuff as I had seen it do in past tanks which incorporated it!
I attributed this to perhaps some feeding by a population of Nanostomus eques, which have shown repeatedly in the past to feed on the biofilm or "aufwuchs" accumulating on the wood.
I'm sure that was a valid observation, but they were actively taking prepared foods as the bulk of their diet, so I have a hard time that they solely were responsible.
There was also a layer of Live Oak leaves distributed throughout the booth of the wood matrix, which, although they break down very slowly compared to other leaves we use, DO ultimately soften over time and break down over time. Since they are rather "durable", they do accumulate a lot of fungal growth and biofilms on their surfaces.
Interestingly, in this tank, I was finding little tiny amounts of very broken-down leaves, which I attributed to decomposition, but thinking back on it, looks more like the end product of "digestion" by someone!
I don't think I ever saw my L134 consuming prepared food. When I did observe her activities, she was seemingly "grazing" away at the wood surfaces and on botanicals...That's all the proof that I needed to confirm my theory that she's pretty much 100% detritivorous, and that the botanical-method aquariums she's resided in provide a sufficient amount of this material for her to consume.
To this day, I've never seen her eat prepared foods!
I have since acquired three captive-bred specimens from my friend, master breeder Sumer Tiwari, and this group has been seen to take prepared food on occasion. At the very least, adding some pellets or frozen foods seems to initial some kind of response in the fish, wether they appear to eat it or not.
So, back the the whole "xylophore thing"... After reading the studies I mentioned, I think that in the aquarium, as well as in the wild, much of what we think is actually "consumption" of the wood by the fishes is simply incidental- as in, the fishes are trying to eat the biocover and detritus on the surface tissues of the wood, and perhaps obtain some nutrition from the compounds contained in the softer portions of the wood. They apparently do a pretty good job (with their specialized mouthparts) of rasping away the surface tissues of the wood!
So, yeah- apparently, some of the wood may pass through the digestive tract of the catfishes, but it's passed without metabolizing much from it...perhaps like the way chickens consume gravel, or whatever (don't they? City boy here! WTF do I know about chickens!)...or the way some marine Centropyge angelfishes "nibble" on corals in their pursuit of algae, detritus, and biofilms.
Again, my perusal of German's scientific paper seems to support this theory:
"Catfishes supplement their wood diet with protein-rich detritus, or even some animal material to meet their nitrogen requirements. Although I did not observe animal material in the wood-eating catfish guts, Pt. disjunctivus did consume some animal material (including insects parts, molluscs, and worms), and all three species consumed detritus."
And finally, the "clincher", IMHO: "The low wood fiber assimilation efficiencies in the catfishes are highly indicative that they cannot subsist on a wood only diet."
I mean, it's just one paper, but when he's talking about isotopic tracing of materials not consistent with digestion of wood in the guts of Loricariids, I think that pretty much puts the "eats wood" thing to bed, right? His further mention that, although some cellulose and lignin (a component of wood and our beloved botanicals!) was detected in the fish's fecal material, it was likely an artifact of the analysis method as opposed to proof that the fishes derived significant nutrition from it.
So what does all of this stuff mean to us?
Well, for one thing, once again- detritus/biofilm/fungal growths = good. Don't loathe them. Love them.
Your fishes apparently do.
I think it means that, as hobbyists probably knew, theorized, and discussed for a long time- that the Loricariids consume detritus, biofilms, and prepared foods when available. This is not exactly earth-shattering or new.
However, I think understanding that our botanical-method aquariums can- and do- provide a large amount of materials from which which these and other fishes can derive significant nutrition furthers my assertion that this type of system is perfect for rearing and maintain a lot of specialized feeders.
Materials like the harder-"shelled" botanicals (ie; "Skyfruit" pods, Cariniana pods, Mokha pods, bark, etc.) tend to recruit significant fungal growths and biofilms, and accumulate detritus in and on their surfaces. And of course, as they soften, some fishes apparently rasp and "consume" some of them directly, likely passing most of it though their digestive systems as outlined in the cited study, extracting whatever nutrition is available to them as a result. This is likely the case with leaves and softer botanicals as well.
The softer materials might also be directly consumed by many fishes, although the nutrition may or may not be significant. However, the detritus, fungal, and microorganism growth as a result of their decomposition is a significant source of nutrition for many fishes and shrimps.
Detritivores (of which the amount of species in the trade is legion), have always done very well in botanical-method aquariums, and the accumulation of biofilms and microbial growth is something that we've discussed for a long time. By their very nature, the structure and decomposition of botanical materials make the "functional aesthetics" of our aquariums an important way to accommodate the natural feeding behaviors of our fishes.
So, the answer to the question (literally!), "Who has the (literal) guts for this stuff?" is quite possibly, "everyone!"
Now, while while we're on the subject of loricariids, a further scan of scientific literature revealed some interesting things about what these fishes are actually taking in when they "graze" in the wild. It's kind of eye opening, to me. One study revealed that loricariids consumed five principal items: sponges, organic detritus, bryophytes, bryozoans and sediment.
Wood is definitely part of the equation somewhere, but for the species examined in one of the studies I found (Rhinelepis aspera, Hypostomus regani, H. ternetzi, H. maragaritifer, H. microstomus, and Megalancistrus aculeatus) the gut content analysis was quite revealing:
The food spectrum of R. aspera is primarily "organic detritus and small quantities of sediment"; with few periphytic organisms. Although H. regani was found to consume large quantities of organic detritus as well, it also consumed "plant detritus, various sediment, and periphytic organisms" (i.e.; bryozoans, sponges and aquatic insect larvae). Bryozoans and sponges, huh?
Wow! Freshwater sponges...
The study indicated that bryozoans and organic detritus were the main food food of H. ternetzi, which, according to the gut contents of a number of individuals, tended to consume more sediment, rotifers, chironomids (i.e.; "Bloodworms'), gastropods and harpacticoids than the other species.
Harpactoids...you mean, like "copepods?" Stuff we as reefers feed all the time? H. margaritifer was found to ingest plant material. Other periphytic organisms such as insect larvae, and those bryozoans and sponges contributed to the diet of H. margaritifer.
And it gets more interesting still...
Sponges- I can't let that go.
Sponges were the principal food resource of H. microstomus and M. aculeatus, along with a healthy does of chironomids, various gastropods, Trichoptera (insects), and some bryozoans also consumed. Diets of these two fishes were composed of larger-sized items, with the finer organic detritus and such being less important than it was to the other species in the study.
This kind of information is tantalizing. It's compelling.
And what really gets me going is learning that some of our favorite, most beloved fishes are consuming large quantities of materials that I doubt any freshwater aquarist adds to his/her arsenal of foodstuffs. We're really good at feeding our catfishes baby vegetables and stuff, while typically overlooking many species' surprisingly high dietary dependency on items like insects, bryozoans, harpactoid copepods, and interestingly...sponges!
While we kind of always knew that these fishes ingested wood and "stuff", it's interesting to see what they're actually eating in the wild...especially the "stuff"- and configuring our aquariums and the supplemental and primary feeding opportunities available to the fishes accordingly.
We have some interesting, yet perhaps overlooked possibilities to provide some of these items.
In fact, there are a number of marine aquarium-purposed foods (typically targeted at certain marine angelfishes, many of which consume significant quantities of sponge) which contain sponges in their formulation. One of my favorite is Ocean Nutrition's "Angel Formula." Granted, these foods contain stuff like mussels, and other marine foods, and the sponges included are marine sponges, but I can't help but wonder if these are that morphologically or nutritionally different/palatable to the fishes than a freshwater/tree sponge would be?
Could the next great frozen Loricarid food include sponges? And we DO have harpactoid copepods available live, and in a variety of other formats intended for marine fishes and corals...Interestingly, I remember that the big "knock" by us reefers, for a long time, about some of these copepods was that they were "freshwater" varieties, and therefore didn't have the "correct" nutritional profile for marine organisms.
Hmm. We're talking about freshwater fishes here, right? Yeah.
So, like, why the hell haven't we been feeding these foods to our freshwater fishes all of these years?
Try some of these foods with your loricariids..and other fishes as well. What's to lose?
Oh, I can hear the objections:
Is it?. Online ordering is really cool. It might just catch on.
"Too much work!"
Really? C'mon. Ever cultured Grindal Worms or wingless fruit flies? THAT is "too much work" by definition.
"This is ridiculous; No need to experiment with these wacky foods. We're doing just fine now with Zucchini and stuff! Stupid."
Urghhhhh. "If man was meant to fly, he'd have wings..."
To not experiment is stupid, IMHO.
Don't be stupid. And I mean that in the kindest way possible. Don't just accept "what works" as "the way."
Push forward. Experiment. Fail quickly, or move forward rapidly with success. Play a hunch or two. Try something different. This is how advances in the hobby are made. This is how breakthroughs happen.
You gotta try.
Stay studious. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay engaged. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
You saw the title.
What exactly am I talking about here?
Today, I want to double back and talk a bit about our gooey friends, the fungi- for just a few minutes. Despite their off-putting appearance to some, they may be among the most beautiful, elegant, and useful organisms we encounter in the aquatic world.
Why do I have such devotion to organisms which most of us find truly revolting in appearance?
Because they are among the most important and useful organisms which we can have in our botanical method aquariums. Think about how they arrive in aquatic ecosystems, what they consume, how they derive nutrition, and what they do for the overall ecosystem.
As everyone knows, when you put stuff in water, one of four things seems to happen:
2) It gets covered in a gooey slime of fungal growth, and "biofilm."
3) It starts to break down and decompose.
4) Both 2 and 3
Now, it's pretty much a "given" that any botanicals or leaves that you drop into your aquarium will, over time, break down. Wood, too. And typically, before they break down, they'll "recruit" (a fancy word for "acquire') a coating of some rather unsightly-looking growth. Well, "unsightly" to those who have not been initiated into our little world of decomposition, fungal growth, biofilms, tinted water, etc., and maintain that an aquarium by definition is a pristine-looking place without a speck of anything deemed "aesthetically unattractive" by the masses!
So, with that little explanatory passage out of the way, let's take a closer look at fungi-the stuff that you'll see covering the leaves, botanicals, and wood that you place into your aquarium, and why you actually WANT the stuff there in the first place.
The fungi known as aquatic hyphomycetes produce enzymes which break down botanical materials in water. Essentially, they are primary influencers of leaf maceration. They're remarkably efficient at what they do, too. In as little as 3 weeks, as much as 15% of the decomposing leaf biomass in many aquatic habitats is "processed" by fungi, according to one study I found!
Aquatic hyphomycetes play a key role in the decomposition of plant litter of terrestrial origin- an ecological process in rain forest streams that allows for the transfer of energy and nutrients to higher tropic levels.
This is what ecologists call "nutrient cycling", folks.
These fungi colonize leaf litter and twigs and such soon after they're immersed in water. The fungi mineralize organic carbon and nutrients and convert coarse particulate matter into fine particulate organic matter. They also increase leaf litter palatability to shredders, which helps facilitate physical fragmentation.
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 and assimilate these materials and their associated organics!
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 the same extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces as they would in virtually any aquatic habitat in Nature!
Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in natural aquatic habitats!
Of course, fungal colonization of wood and botanicals is but one stage of a long process, which occurs in Nature and our aquariums. And, as hobbyists, once we see those first signs of this stuff, the majority of us tend to reach for the algae scraper or brush and remove as much of it as possible- immediately! And sure, this might provide some "aesthetic relief" for some period of time- but it comes right back...because these materials will provide a continuous source of food and colonization sites for fungal growths for some time!
I know that the idea of "circumventing" this stuff is appealing to many, but the reality is that you're actually interrupting an essential, ecologically beneficial natural process. And, as we know, Nature abhors a vacuum, and new growths will return to fill the void, thus prolonging the process.
Again, think about the role of aquatic hyphomycetes in Nature.
Fungal colonization facilitates the access to the energy trapped in deciduous leaves and other botanical materials found in tropical streams for a variety of other organisms to utilize.
As we know by now, fungi play a huge role in the decomposition of leaves, both in the wild and in the aquarium. By utilizing special enzymes, aquatic fungi can degrade most of the molecular components in leaves, such as cellulose,, hemicelluloses, starch, pectin and even lignin.
Fungi, although not the most attractive-looking organisms, are incredibly useful...and they "play well" with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs, both in the wild and in our aquariums!
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...It's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
Yet, we freak the fuck out about it when it shows up.
Another "mental shift", I suppose...one which many of you have already made, no doubt. I certainly look forward to seeing many examples of us utilizing "what we've got" to the advantage of our fishes! AGAIN: A truly "Natural" aquarium is not sterile. It encourages the accumulation of organic materials and other nutrients- not in excess, of course.
The love of pristine, sterile-looking tanks is one of the biggest obstacles we need to overcome to really advance in the aquarium hobby, IMHO.
Biofilms, fungi, algae...detritus...all have their place in the aquarium. Not as an excuse for lousy or lazy husbandry- but as supplemental food sources to "power" the ecology in our tanks.
And of course, as we've discussed many times here, fungi are actually an important food item for other life forms in the aquatic environments tha we love so much! In one study I stumbled across, gut content of over 100 different aquatic insects collected from submerged wood and leaves showed that fungi comprised part of the diet of more than 60% of them, and, in turn, aquatic fungi were found in gut content analysis of many species of fishes!
One consideration: Bacteria and fungi that decompose decaying plant material in turn consume dissolved oxygen for respiration during the process.
This is one reason why we have told you for years that adding a huge amount of botanical material at one time to an established, stable aquarium is a recipe for disaster. There is simply not enough fungal growth or bacteria to handle it. They reproduce extremely rapidly, consuming significant oxygen in the process.
Bad news for the impatient.
Support. Co-dependency. Symbiosis. Whatever you want to call it- the presence of fungi in aquatic ecosystems is extremely important to other organisms.
You can call it free biological filtration for your aquarium!
GREAT news for the patient, the studious, and the accepting.
Think about this: These life forms arrive on the scene in Nature, and in our tanks, to colonize appropriate materials, to process organics both in situ on the things that they're residing upon (leaves, twigs, branches, seed pods, wood, etc.).
Yeah, if you intervene by removing stuf-f bad things can happen. Like, worse things than just a bunch of gooey-looking fungal and biofilm threads on your wood. Your aquarium suddenly loses its capability of processing the leaves and associated organics, and- who's there to take over?
Okay, I'm repeating myself here- but there is so much unfounded fear and loathing over aquatic fungi that someone has to defend their merits, right? Might as well be me!
My advice; my plea to you regarding fungal growth in your aquarium? Just leave it alone. It will eventually peak, and ultimately diminish over time as the materials/nutrients which it uses for growth become used up. It's not an endless "outbreak" of unsightly (to some) fungal growth all over your botanicals and leaves. It goes away significantly over time.
That's "Fellman Speak" for "Please be more fucking patient!"
Seriously, though, hobbyists tend to overly freak out about this kind of stuff. Of course, as new materials are added, they will be colonized by fungi, as Nature deems appropriate, to "work" them.
It's one of those things in the botanical-method aquarium that we need to wrap our heads around. We need to understand, lose our fears, and think about the many positives these organisms provide for our tanks. These small, seemingly "annoying" life forms are actually the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium. When they arrive on the scene in our tanks, we should celebrate their appearance.
Because their appearance is yet another example of the wonders of Nature playing out in our aquariums, without us having to do anything of consequence to facilitate their presence, other than setting up a tank embracing the botanical method in the first place. We get to watch the processes of colonization and decomposition occur in the comfort of our own home. The SAME stuff you'll see in any wild aquatic habitat worldwide.
For those of you who MUST find some familiar comfort in established philosophy- look no further than the beloved master, Takashi Amano. He laid down this track decades ago...
Yup. I'm channeling Mr. Amano here.
In the botanical method aquairum, Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.
Part of the game, as we've discussed ad naseum here, is to understand, appreciate, and ultimately embrace the way the aquatic environment is influenced by the fungal growths, biofilms, and decomposition which occurs when botanicals are added into our aquariums.
Remember, your aquairum is not a pice of kinetic art. It's a miniature, closed aquatic ecosystem. Processes which occur in Nature play out daily in your tank.
Yeah, I admit, decades ago, I freaked out about seeing fungal growths in my tanks, too. I'd get a bit scared, wondering if something was wrong, and why no one else's aquariums ever seemed to look like mine. I used to think something was really wrong!
To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of wild leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were.
I remember telling myself that what I was seeing in my tanks was remarkably similar to what I saw in images and videos of wild aquatic habitats that I wanted to replicate. They seem to look- and even function- so similarly.
I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. It always was. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...
I never saw them.
Truth be known, I knew that there wouldn't be any issues, because I created my aquariums with a solid embrace of basic aquatic biology; an understanding that an aquarium is not some sort of underwater art installation, but rather, a living, breathing microcosm of organisms which work together to create a biome..and that the appearance of the aquarium only tells a small part of the story.
And another big concept for you to wrap your head around:
Your aquarium- or more specificlally- the colonized botanical materials which comprise the botanical-method aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms, like fungi, utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source, thus creating a "nutrient assimilation process."
Understanding and embracing this has changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems.
It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.
It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the "influencer" on YouTube with the flashy, gadget-driven tank and nothing substantive to back up his vapid narrative. It means educating yourself a bit. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.
But you're not. And Mother Nature won't let you down if you don't lose faith in Her.
And yeah- it's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons. She's got this. She'll hook you up...If you allow Her. If you have faith in Her processes.
Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
I've been asked a lot lately to comment on our philosophical position here at Tannin; a sort of rundown of what makes us tick, and how we arrived at our overriding approach and mindset. And, looking back on our past 7 years of operation, it's interesting for me, too.
If you haven't noticed, we tend to take a different view of the aquarium hobby around. here. Not that we don't respect, value, or love all of the traditions of the hobby as it exists- we do. However, in practice, we look at things from a slightly different point of view; one which puts Nature in charge of a lot of things.
We look at it as if we have a responsibility to step out of the way a bit; to cede a little control to Nature...To set the stage and to let natural processes play out in our tanks with limited, if any intervention on our part.
To create more naturally-functioning aquatic, authentic-looking displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes- and their very existence- is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved.
Although a high percentage of the wild aquatic habitats that we love some much happen to consist of earthy, brown water, with decomposing leaves, twigs, and seed pods, we are inspired by, and play with all sorts of habitats, ranging from crystal clear karmic rivers, to brackish water estuaries, to the Rift Lakes of Africa. It's all about finding inspiration from a variety of natural aquatic habitats, and replicating their function, to the best of our ability, in aquariums.
It's not just "lip service", either. When you look at some of the aquariums we've advocated for, created and managed, that becomes fairly obvious!
We advocate some rather "unconventional" stuff.
But is it really THAT unconventional?
All we're doing is focusing on the more "natural" part of Nature, if that makes sense. We're not overstating our skill in what we do, nor basting our work with vapid rhetoric. We're just doing stuff. A bit differently. Questioning some long-held beliefs. Trying to recreate natural function in the aquarium- perhaps, a bit less "traditionally" than has previously been done in the hobby.
And it all starts with our view of Nature, and our place within it as aquarists. Hobbyists love to expound on ideas about Nature, and how what they do is an "expression of Nature", in a reverent, almost religious way. Cool, I guess, but sometimes, I find it a bit silly. I mean, every aquarium is an expression of Nature to a certain extent.
Those prosaic, often pretentious, haiku-like statements that we see posted by aquarists online about "...standing before Nature" and stuff like that sound really cool, but what the hell do they mean? And, if the aquarium that you're executing when spouting this stuff is as relevant to a wild natural aquatic habitat as a vase full of cut flowers is to a mountain meadow, how do you reconcile that kind of lofty rhetoric?
It just rings hollow when you think about it.
Unfortunately, in our social-media-soundbite iteration of the hobby, that kind of "word salad" makes a great Instagram Reel, or whatever. The headline is rad. But it "dumbs stuff down" and objectively tends to fall flat when you really look for some real meaning behind it.
In a very real way, the creation of an aquarium is a search for meaning.
The relationship between Nature and our aquariums makes a lot more sense when you look at, and study the wild aquatic habitats of the world, and and attempt to replicate their function as accurately as possible. The appearance, which we as humans hold so important, seems to follow the function. We either like it, or we don't.
That's pretty straightforward...
Of course, not everyone likes the appearance of aquariums created and executed in this manner. This makes sense. Nature doesnt create aquatic habitats for our viewing pleasure. Not all of Her creations square with our hobby definition of "beautiful."
Nature doesn't care.
Our approach understands this, and rather than trying to warp Nature into something that looks "right" to us, we advocate making mental shifts to see the beauty in what Nature does, and to embrace this stuff when it happens in our aquariums.
It's not about trying to win some contest, receive accolades from the Instagram crowd, or trying to meet some rigid standards set out for competition "biotope aquariums." You won't garner a million adoring YouTube fans by presenting aquariums filled with decomposing leaves and brown water. You won't have contest judges throwing roses at your feet. And you won't be creating aquariums that look like what you're used to seeing pretty much everywhere.
Rather, our philosophy is about looking at Nature as it is, and accepting all of it. Humbly accepting, of course, that we can't perfectly replicate every aspect of Nature and her function to the "nth degree." Instead, it's about learning what we can from the wild aquatic habitats of the world and trying to bring their function into our home aquariums to the greatest extent possible.
That means embracing stuff like sediment, turbidity, tinted water, fungal threads, biofilms, decay, and detritus...the results of natural processes which occur when terrestrial materials are immersed in water.
Stuff which, quite frankly, freaks most hobbyists out. Full stop.
To you, it also means mentally shifting to not freak out about the appearance of these things in our aquaruims.
To not seek ways to eradicate them; rather, to contemplate what makes them form, and what role they play in the overall aquatic ecosystem that we have created, And indeed, to rejoice in the fact that these same things happen in the wild aquatic habitats we strive so hard to attempt to replicate in our tanks.
These principles, and the mental shifts that we make to accept them, form the "transportive mechanism" of the botanical method aquarium. It challenges you. It tests you. It doesn't give a damn about what you think it should look like. It's about ceding some control to Nature- something not always comfortable to everyone.
It's an aquarium practice neither rooted in tradition nor hobby culture. Rather, it's based upon the whims and functions of Nature Herself.
Well, yeah...for the most part. Because "aquarium tradition" typically eschews stuff like algal films, detritus, fungal growth, turbidity, etc. It's long been part of aquarium "culture" to control, limit, or eradicate these things..to stifle natural processes rather than allow them to play out in our tanks.
However, beautiful things can happen when you meld this understanding with your skills, talents, and a good attitude.
And loving this stuff; embracing it- doesn't mean you're somehow "cool" and are a "rebel" or a visionary or something. It doesn't mean that every single aquarium you do has to be a dark, turbid morass of decomposing leaves and jumbled sediments.
It just means that you have a slightly different philosophy, outlook, and acceptance of some stuff than the majority of aquarists do. Stuff that impacts the way you create aquariums, and which influences the way they operate...and look.
This isn't the best way to run an aquarium.
It's just a way to run an aquarium.
The botanical method is not an excuse for laziness, nor a license to abandon common sense, either. You still have to do some work, and to make the effort to understand why you're doing what you're doing. And yes- Nature will rightfully kick your ass if you try to circumvent her laws. You are entirely to blame if your tank fails...
Perhaps it's not what you would expect to hear, but it's true. When I do something stupid, take a big risk without considering the consequences, I occasionally get my ass handed to me by Mother Nature. And I'm entirely okay with that. I deserve it. I learn from it. And, yeah- there IS a certain amount of risk to taking a slightly different approach. Sometimes, shit happens even when you're doing what you feel is the right thing.
Not everyone wants that. It's 100% understandable. Yet, it's what you expose yourself to when you really "...stand with Nature!"
And, there's also the way we look at things that most hobbyists view as "problems."
When people are going through "stuff" in their tanks, like algae blooms, etc., tradition in the hobby dictates "corrective action" taken by the aquarist. It's seen as a huge problem. It needs to be corrected. Often times, if we look at the "problem" objectively, it's simply Nature responding, as She has for eons, to a set of parameters which favor one life form over another. Our version of "corrective action" is to find out what is causing the "undesired" issue, and simply allowing natural processes to help bring things back into a normal balance.
As we've discussed many times before, often, our "corrective actions" to "solve" some sort of "issue" usually involves...doing nothing. Yeah. Just waiting it out. Letting Nature correct things and bring the aquarium back on course- just like She's done in the wild aquatic habitats for millennia. Asking ourselves if what we are seeing is really a "problem" in the overall scheme of Nature- or just a "problem" to us as hobbyists, because we've labeled it as such.
It can be tough to wrap your head around that. Particularly after generations of hobby wisdom and practice telling you otherwise. Again, it's a mental shift that I couldn't possibly expect everyone to make or embrace.
And you still have to apply some old-fashioned common sense to this approach...It's not, "stand by and watch as your aquarium bites the dust..."
In real problematic cases-extreme situations, like disease outbreaks, ammonia spikes, temperature drops, poisonings, etc.- intervention by the hobbyist is the absolute right call.
Standing by, waiting for an infectious disease to "run its course", is ridiculous. Assuming that the disinfectant that your housekeeper accidentally spilled in the tank will simply "work its way out of the system" is insane. However, for a bloom of biofilms, some cloudy water that can't be attributed to mismanagement on your part, or a little bit of algae, "waiting it out" is the best way to go in many cases, IMHO.
Many of these things we call "problems" are simply life forms reacting to opportunities and resources available to them. Nature seeks to balance things out, and these things are often a sign that Nature is "working on it.." Often, the "solution" we employ creates some other imbalance, and fails to contemplate that the "problem" is simply NOT a problem in the first place.
I've said it a hundred times and I'll say it again: I think that many of the things we label as "problems" in the aquarium problem receive that label because of the way they appear. Things which don't fit some hobby-imposed standard of aesthetics get labeled as "problems." IMHO, that's an absurdly incorrect, downright irrational point of view.
Looking at things we're unfamiliar with, or that we find unattractive because of hobby "norms" as "problems" deters us from evolving and moving ahead, IMHO. It sets up artificial "roadblocks" on our journey that aren't always necessary.
We need to look at these things as opportunities. Yes, opportunities to figure out what role they play in the ecology of natural aquatic ecosystems- and in our aquaruims. We need to look for ways to incorporate, rather than eliminate them from our tanks.
Because when we incorporate natural processes and functions into our tanks, we're doing the very best possible job at advancing the "state of the art" in aquarium keeping. More than we ever could by studying some rock arranging technique or sharing how to glue wood pieces together to achieve a certain "look."
This position will not win me any friends in some corners of the larger aquarium community. It will definitely anger almost everyone who's ever written a "How to solve your _________ problem"-type article for beginners, and it will certainly piss off some manufacturers of "solutions" for all sorts of "problems" with our aquariums.
Well, first, because it's wildly unorthodox.
It is a sort of different take on being proactive in the hobby. Our version of "proactive" is to set up your aquarium to work with Nature from the start- to allow Her the "space" to do her thing. It's not designed to employ numerous technical "props", additives, and complex procedures at every step. One thing we do recommend, however, is to perform regular small water exchanges on your aquariums. They make sense, especially in a closed ecosystem such as an aquarium. That's one "tradition"- and apparently not a popular one with many hobbyists- that we are behind 100%! (It figures, right? We embrace the most unpopular "tradition" in the hobby!)
We espouse studying natural aquatic habitats- their influences and functions- and how they formed, as the "model" for our aquariums. Anyone can tell you to "use this filter", "add this additive", etc. Only Nature can tell you, with authority, to allow THIS or THAT to occur in your aquarium, because that what She wants.
We ceded some of the work to Nature. We accept Her actions. Work with them, instead of resist them.
Yeah, it's a huge mental shift.
Also, it's not popular to advocate for something without some "plug-and-play" solution these days. Telling a hobbyist to study what the cause of the "algae problem" in his or her aquarium could and then to simply "wait it out" or take subtle actions until such time as the system "rebalances" itself is a wildly unpopular approach, I'll admit.
Sure, if you see something obvious- like, you're dumping a whole pack of frozen brine shrimp into your tank at every feeding, you could curtail that ASAP! But embarking on some crazy procedure to exchange 90% of the water in your tank, or scrubbing and siphoning the "detritus" out of every centimeter of sand is, IMHO, a fool's errand, which will only result in a longer "recovery time." (don't get me started on detritus, btw...)
In my opinion, most of what we label as "problems" in the aquarium are the result of environmental lapses or imbalances caused either by something your tank is efficient in- or has too much of. It's that simple. And I believe that there are other ways to tackle these issues than simply reaching for "Product A" or whatever.
That's simply NOT how great botanical-method aquariums are conceived, created, or managed.
They're created to facilitate and take advantage of natural processes- regardless of how they look initially. Function first.
In my (admittedly biased) opinion, a botanical-method aquarium is perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home! To blur the lines between Nature and aquarium. Really. Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-method aquarium challenges us in different ways. It tasks us to understand and accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, detritus, and algal growth. Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..
We just have let go sometimes, and trust in Nature to move stuff along the correct path.
Nature finds a way. Nature knows how to do this.
Again- problems are only "problems" if we interpret them as such. When we see something we didn't expect to happen in our tanks occur, the question to ask ourselves might not be, "What's the problem?" Rather, it might be, "IS there are problem?"
Look, it's not like we are trying to create warp drive or foster nuclear fusion. Nothing about the botanical-method approach is even remotely difficult or hard to execute from a technical standpoint. In fact, the only "hard" part of this whole approach is making those mental shifts. Letting go of old notions or preconceptions; that sort of thing.
Our practice and its underlying philosophy is not really that earth-shattering.
But it is an example of an approach- one of many in our hobby, which simply requires us to look at what exactly we want to accomplish, understand what it is just a bit, and to develop a mind set and practical procedures to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature- in our aquariums. It's still very much a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making truly natural, botanical-method aquariums far more common in the hobby.
Perhaps not traditional...but very exciting!
We can find comfort in forging new paths. What we don't yet know and understand is every bit as compelling as what we do.
Think about that.
Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay driven...
And Stay Wet.
I am not sure what it is with me, but, although as a hobbyist I can be as patient and goal-driven as hell, I occasionally get "restless."
Like, I'll start off on an aquarium project with a good idea and the best of intentions, and then, early on in the thing, I'll completely change my mind and do a 360 degree switch. And I honestly don't know what causes this. Maybe it's because I wanted to just DO something, and I started working with an idea that really wasn't what I wanted...and then when that "muse" strikes- I just tear the whole thing down and start anew.
It's not a great attribute for a hobbyist to have, I'll admit.
Sometimes, the trigger can be something as simple as a piece of equipment I don't like...For example, I had a filter once that, in addition to being obtrusive in the tank, was just making too much noise. And because the other filters that would I could use wouldn't be much quieter, the entire project was scrapped. Like, I didn't try to do a workaround. I didn't try to see if there was some way I could live with it.
I scrapped it. Took it down.
Because I believe that life is too short to have things which don't bring you pleasure. I never would have liked this tank, because I couldn't handle the filter. And I was honest with myself about it.
"Champagne problem, Fellman." "You're so entitled.."
Yeah, I suppose one could say that.
But when you think about it, how is it any different than say, purchasing a new outfit or a TV, getting it home. and realizing it just isn't working for you?
I mean, sure, in the case of an aquarium, you generally want to determine this before you've added fishes and gotten them acclimated and adjusted to the tank. Sure, it's not very humane to uproot animals simply because you're not happy with the filter or whatever.
One of the things I love the most is to be able to switch up an idea...to reflexible. Now, like many of you- I'm obscenely patient in some respects. However, when it comes to the idea- or getting the idea executed, well, that's where I can be a bit impatient.
I have this thing about getting stuff started right. Like, if there us an annoyance- a noisy pump, an obtrusive piece of equipment...these things usually manifest immediately, and they set the tone for how the experience in general will go with the tank. I mean, if I'm ten minutes in and the sight of a big ugly filter or something else is already annoying me- well, "game over!"
I have great admiration for some hobbyists- the ones who are able to sort of let filter intakes, outlets, heaters, etc. simply "disappear"- and by disappear, I mean not bother them. Like, they'll have this amazing aquarium, and right in the middle is a filter outlet...but no biggie- you just don't even notice it. I don't even notice it...because the rest of the tank is THAT good.
I wish I could create work like that!
But I can't. And Im okay with that.
So I will often literally tear apart a hardscape multiple times to get to "it..." That "thing" I was envisioning...and often I'll tear up my "final", only to end up right back where I started...and somehow like it.
Changing stuff up- "messing" with things- is part of the creative process. And it's part of being an aquarist for me. It may not be how everyone works. But it's how I work, and I'm okay with that.
Perhaps it's weird. Perhaps it's even fucked up.
But that's my "process", lol
It's a burden, on occasion. Other times, it's led me to some of my bast work.
Yet, I've come to realize that I'm no aquascaper. I'm no super-guru of creating the perfect hardscape or whatever. I will never be one of those guys who could be some kind of champion 'scaper, or become an authority on creating awesome aquaecapes. It's not me. I admire those who have those skills and attributes that allow them to nail every tank they do. It's just not me. I'm a guy who just has ideas that I want to play with and execute. Sometimes I can pull them off. Other times, I fall short. And when I fall short, I change them up until I hit what I wanted.
I'm totally not afraid to do that.
At least I know when I'm not hitting the target that I want, and I can admit to myself that I don't like what I'm doing, or what I've ended up with. It's a sort of comfortable feeling, knowing that what you did is NOT what you wanted to do, and being okay with admitting that and either fixing it, or simply "pulling the plug" and starting over.
I think a key component of being a successful aquarist is having a healthy dose of self awareness.
I am a sort of "self editor" of my work. It's a very honest process.
Yeah, you heard me, I’ll “edit.”, gradually dissecting my concept and morphing it into something else, until it feels right to me.
Moving this. Re-positioining that. Taking out an element, adding something.
Now, a lot of people will call this process “evolution”, or view it as a necessary stage in the development of an aquarium. I call it “A.D.D.” or sure. It's like, all of the sudden, I’ll see an article about "ephemeral floating leaf litter beds" or an underwater video of an Amazonian igarape, and It'll realize that what I have done is not what I really wanted to do, and my carefully conceived African River biotope or whatever, goes straight out the damn window.
Off we go... into a totally different direction!
I think I’m what I like to classify as a “Perpetual Editor” -type of aquarium personality. At least, in terms of my ideas. Perhaps, it's as a result of embarking on a path that, deep down inside, I knew wasn't where I really want to go. I think that's why, although I have great admiration for my friends who are masters of planted aquascapes- that I'll never do one on my own initiative. A lot of people ask me why I don't keep a full-on, high-concept planted aquarium. I have a simple answer..
It's just not ME.
If one of my friends wanted to do one for me, I'd totally agree to it, and manage it. I love the look. I'd be stoked to have on in my home. But I simply won't create one myself. There is a certain patience and love of the process in planned tank that simply isn't "active" in me. At least not right now- and in the past four decades or so. I won't hold my breath on the chance that it will activate soon. But you never know, right?
Reef tanks, on the other hand, hold a certain fascination for me, and I'm actively counting down the days until I start my next one! It's part of me- in my core, and it installs a certain passion in me.HOwever, it's not my sole passion in the hobby, and I'm able to "compartmentalize it" while I work through some of my other current hobby priorities, like brackish, etc.
Yet, at the core of it all, I'm an "editor", I suppose.
It's a bit odd that I "edit" ideas so quickly, because, as you know- I'm obsessed with the process...I have huge patience in establishing my aquariums and leaving them to evolve largely unmolested. It's really at the initial execution or ideation phase where I get detoured. And if I start executing too soon, before I've really settled on the idea- that's when tanks get broken down and shuffled around.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
My core beliefs about aquarium keeping are typically unchanging..well, they evolve, as you've seen on these pages, based on experience-like everyone else. And, like you, I am always open to suggestions to do something better. Sometimes, this is a good thing. I mean, if your idea was to develop a Knifefish community in a 50-gallon tank, and you "pivoted" to a 700-gallon tank after running it by some friends, that’s a very good thing!
“Coming to your senses” is what it’s called.
However, my changes are often more subtle: For example, I was planning on stocking an all-South-American characin system, but ended up creating a Rasbora-dominated biotope instead.
You know, that kind of thing...
They're based upon what I was really feeling.
It can get really crazy. During one particularly frenetic period of time in 2017, I re-did the same tank three different times in a span of about 3 months.
It can get a little bit crazy, I know.
On the other hand, being a “Perpetual Editor” archetype of fish keeper also has his/her advantages. mainly, the ability to modify a plan as he/she goes if he sees a better way.
Almost categorically, the “Perpetual Editor” has a looser, more flexible approach to aquarium planning, construction, and management, and is perhaps more in tune with the latest and greatest trends, techniques, and philosophies of the aquarium game. (and of course, more susceptible to being influenced by a lot of stuff!)
Now, I hate "trends", personally. However, I do find myself influenced strongly by new research I conduct on various wild habitats.
Yeah, I personally hate chasing trends. Really.
One thing about being a “Perpetual Editor” is that you are constantly availing yourself to the latest information, and, in the case of the “Active Listener”, probably having great dialogue with other hobbyists who perhaps have more- or different- experience doing what you’re thinking of doing.
And it opens you up to re-thinking ideas that you may have had before which, for whatever reason, never came to pass. Maybe you needed more information. Perhaps you needed to see something in Nature to push you. Or maybe, you just had an "itch" that you finally wanted to scratch, and did it!
The online world and social media have enabled the “Active Listener” to develop his or her idea to the ultimate degree. Although, the "danger" of being an “Active Listener” is that you can easily “lose control” of your plan by listening to every critique, suggestion, and opinion out there.
And the "trend jumpers?"
Well, e-commerce has completely enabled these people, right? You can switch gears in an instant. Regardless of your aquarium-keeping philosophy, a certain degree of independence and individuality is a key requirement to be happy, I think.
In a way, being a “Perpetual Editor” is not really a bad thing.
I mean, you’re always aware of what’s going on in your tank, you’re constantly thinking of improvements and changes, you're totally aware of the “Latest and Greatest” in the hobby, and you are “nimble”- able to change directions "on a dime", as they say. The key, in my opinion, is to stay consistent with your management philosophy.
Like, just because the new tank is getting that patina of biofilm, it's not the time to tear out everything and start over. That's not editing...that's interfering!
However, that "honesty" of knowing that what you've pulled off in that tank is NOT what you really wanted, is supremely valuable. Letting yourself change it up because YOU don't like it is a good thing.
Now sure, the argument can be made that this sort of nonsense can stress out animals and such- and it's legitimate. However, if you exercise proper due diligence during your process- and have the means to temporarily house your fishes while you ideate- that's a less disruptive thing.
Again, part of knowing yourself is admitting that this is how you work, and having an extra tank around to house fishes while you "redecorate" is a morally proper thing.
Self-awareness. A powerful tool for the aquarist.
So, if you find yourself a bit frustrated with what you've done; "restless"- oddly dissatisfied, and maybe just plain "over it"- fear not. You can and SHOULD switch it up. The "restlessness" you feel is not some sort of "mental problem" you have...Rather, it's your own heart telling you what you need to listen to: The fact that what you did wasn't what you really wanted to do.
Trust yourself. Listen to yourself.
Change it up.
Stay honest. Stay bold. Stay passionate. Stay creative. Stay persistent...
And Stay Wet.