September 08, 2020

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The curious contest query..(continued)

From the "...We've been talking about this forever..." Department:

Because I've received at least 4 emails this week alone asking if we're ever going to do an "aquascaping constest" of some sort, I suppose I have to talk about this stuff again!

It's sort of "unfinished business", huh?

Yes, it's time for me to start ruminating about the idea of an "aquascapinge contests!  contest" yet again. And, well- there's no easy way to say it...Shit, I hate contests! Okay, well, I hate how they're usually judged...Or maybe I just hate them, period?

I'm not certain yet...

Now, with my complete disdain for the typical aquascaping contests- the absurd rules, the endless arguments over format, attitudes, etc, I feel like I'm likely opening up myself for more trouble... 😂

Yet, people keep asking us about having a "contest!" 

I know we talked about this thing I called the "Igapo Challenge" some time back (about 3 years ago)...It's something that I know we'll do later, especially after our "Nature Base" substrates come online...

However, I think our first contest needs to have a broader appeal than just replicating a very specific environmental niche...

It needs to be a bit more inclusive, and do more than just reward the "best-looking tank." I think that's actually too subjective. I think we need to honor tanks which embrace the functional, executional, and philosophical aspects of the botanical-style aquarium hobby movement.

That being said, I think a contest can perform some valuable functions in our world. First, it can help show the current state of the art in truly natural, botanical-style aquariums. Not just blackwater aquariums...As we've seen, the world we've all evolved here at Tannin has grown to encompass botanical-style blackwater, brackish, planted, and other types of unique systems, from vivariums to paludariums.

I'm trying to figure out criteria...And it's not easy, because there are a lot of things in typical contests that drive me crazy. And, if we do this, I know that will personally have to restrain myself from railing on any of our judges who give points for "Golden Ratio", "Iwagumi" rock placement, "proper grouping" of aquatic plants, or other conventional constructs like that.

Also, I wouldn't want to hold entrants to being compelled to enter stuff as specific as "Small meander adjacent to Rio Parauari, high water mark, 30km north of the town of Alto Maues..."  It's great for a biotope-centric contest, but for our "biotope inspired" mindset, it's just too much, IMHO. Not only would that degree of outright pretentiousness make me want to vomit- I think it would defeat the purpose of this contest idea.

So, no need to give exact GPS locations, etc.

Rather, I'd like to emphasize our "craft" of natural, botanical-style aquariums, taking inspiration from unusual environmental niches and "translating" them into aquarium s. I'd want to place more emphasis on the idea/inspiration and its execution, and less emphasis on particular ecological niche or "style" of tank. 

Does that make sense?

We'd have to get this right. And make it clear to contestants what the "big idea" is here...to inspire, inform, and educate on technique and inspiration.

That's why, I'd vet the judges carefully. It would just be ugly, otherwise!  I mean, sure, I'm not saying that we'd want to see entries like, "Liquid Methane River on the Saturnian moon of Titan"- that's too geeky and weird even for me. On the other hand, if you can pull that shit off...Respect. 

Oh, and if you give your entry a name; you know, "The wandering trail to Enlightenment" or something like that- immediate disqualification. Seriously. 😍 Not in OUR contest.

Just enter something cool. Describe what it purports to represent.

We'd likely have some set of questions that comes with entry- so that observers and judges alike can learn from your work...

The idea- our "mission statement", if you will- would be to create a contest- an exhibition, really- which celebrates our love of the "natural style" aquarium. And more important, celebrates the uniqueness; the unedited aesthetics of Nature- and the function of the aquarium.

Entrants won't be rewarded for "fantasy-style diorama" tanks, for sure! Wrong contest.

And of course, I know some jackass will try to enter a hair-algae-smothered rocksacape with piles of of uneaten food over fish-poop-saturaed #3 aquarium gravel and claim, "It's unedited Nature, bro- deal with it!" We will, by ignoring it. The idea here is not to give the middle finger to basic aquarium fundamentals..No, you have to understand http. If you've read our blogs and followed our social media, you understand what our philosophy and "modus operandi" is here.

I suppose, the whole thing also requires us to have a definition of what we think a "natural style aquarium" is in our little contest. Well, here are some of my initial thoughts:

First off, the aquarium should incorporate a large percentage of materials such as botanicals, leaves, driftwood, etc., utilized in such a manner as to create a functional representation of a wild aquatic habitat. In other words, an aquarium that operates, not just looks good.

I think that vivariums, paludariums, and aquariums should all be entered into the mix...No separate categories for them. Because we will likely evaluate a given system  on both aesthetics and function, and we want to encourage "cross-over" work by aquatic hobbyists- I don't see any reason why we should have all sorts of complicated category distinctions.  Same with display size. I see no reason why a 5-gallon aquarium can't be evaluated using the same criteria as you would a 250-gallon aquarium. Maybe I'm wrong; let me know your thoughts on that.

Form-Function.

Oh, and I think it would be important to show some "evolution" of each entry. In other words, more than just a "here's the rock work as we set up the tank" bullshit. I'm talking, several shots taken throughout the "pre-entry" life of the tank, from startup to submission- perhaps taken over the course of 4-5 months. Yeah- any talented 'scaper can do an "instascape"- it takes a talented aquarist can evolve and manage it over time.

This would, of course, necessitate a longer time window for entries. Like, there would be an entry period, and then an "evolution period", and finally, the closing date when submissions need to be received by. That would likely turn off a lot of the "BS entries", right?

Maybe?

And stuff like decomposition, detritus, biofilm- even algal growth would not be penalized. In fact, unless it's specific to a given niche you're attempting to replicate, I'd think that we'd actually look suspiciously on any tank that looks super pristine and perfect! Again, of course, I'm not saying to enter a poorly-maintained fish-death factory...What I am suggesting is that we  should see entrants which attempt to "meet Nature where it is"- that being the intersection of science, art, and evolution.

Nature is not a perfectly ordered, pristine place. Your entries don't need to be, either. 

And then there would be a strong judging component for originality and innovation. Like, if you tackled some problem uniquely to create your functionally aesthetic entry, we'd love to hear about it. No secrets in this game. It's as much about sharing technique as it is about exhibiting the results of it. And no, you don't have to only use materials you've purchased from Tannin in your entries. Sure, we'd love to see some stuff, but to make that a requirement would be- well, just sort of lame.

And of course...prizes.

If we're asking you to do a 6-month commitment to a contest, they have to be good. So, likely, we'll have stuff like aquariums, lights, accessories, gift cards, etc.

Good stuff.

Likely, there would be a nominal entry fee (like $10USD or less), which would cover some of the expenses for administering and promoting the contest and entries. We'd really want to share your work with the world.

And I think we'd have a first-third award schedule. And perhaps a couple of other categories? Like, "Most Unique Interpretation of an Ecological Niche" or "Most Innovative"- something like that?

Well, that's what I have for you so far...I'm absolutely open to hearing what you think- to your suggestions, concerns, etc.

My God, what have I unleashed now?

"Out of the frying pan- into the  damn fire, right?"

Yup.

Okay, so, we'll be chatting about this more, I'm sure... 

Until next time...

Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay diligent. Stay unique. Stay generous...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

September 04, 2020

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The nature of... "Nature!"

One of the things I am consistently amused by is the appropriation in the hobby of the term "Nature", or "Natural." These terms are often bandied about in our communities, and by aquarium industry brands to describe either an approach or an aesthetic for aquariums. Interestingly, there appears, in some areas, to be a disconnect.

I'm probably as guilty as anyone in using this term, but I think- I believe- that I understand some of the nuances of this descriptor a lot better than many others out there do. (arrogant much, Scott?)

In my opinion, too many people seem to look at Nature with an attitude of, "That's neat, but it's not the 'look' I'm trying to achieve." And, we go about our business, creating cool aquariums that are anything BUT natural-looking, and we ascribe that term "natural" to them generously and often. Cool, but...

It's kind of a weird dichotomy, actually.

I've talked about this before her, and it usually brings up very strong opinions from hobbyists all over the spectrum. And why wouldn't it? 

I mean, on one hand, it's not hard to make the stretch and say that every aquarium embraces parts of Nature, right?

Like, fishes, plants, bacteria, etc. are all "natural" life forms, and we decorate our tanks with stuff like wood and rock (both natural, of course).  So, "natural" applies, huh?  I guess. However, what I fear is that the perception of the general aquarium community, as well as those who might not be familiar with our hobby (and the wild aquatic environments from which our fishes come from), is that they are an "accurate" representation of the natural habitats.

It's a bit sticky, to me.

I mean, there is legitimacy to the claim. The main area where I take issue with the over-use of the term is when we present a specific, highly structured artistic style as an accurate representation of the wild habitats from which our fishes come.

Why is it a "problem?"

IMHO, it's a problem because what happens is that those unfamiliar with this stuff can easily get the impression that fishes come from habitats with perfectly arranged driftwood, rocks, and plants. I know, it seems ludicrous even suggesting it, but there are a lot of people who might be less inclined to be interested in learning about, or even enjoying- or preserving- Nature as it really is.

And I could literally see scenarios where an uninformed individual, who's only seen highly stylized aquaria, visits a wild aquatic habitat, and is not only profoundly disappointed by its appearance, but loses interest in protecting it- or worse let, feels that some sort of "remediation" or intervention is necessary to "bring it back to (our expectations of) what it should really look like."

Yikes. I know, that seems crazy, but it IS a scenario that I believe could happen. People are remarkably open to suggestion, as current world events demonstrate! 

And yeah, we could go crazy parsing the term, "Nature"- likely pissing off half of the  aquarium hobby in the process. (hey, that IS kind of fun to do, though...😆)

So, how do we prevent this from becoming an "issue?"

Easy!

First, we take no shame in suggesting that our beautiful words of aquatic are inspired by Nature.

Further...

We create more aquariums which represent the look and function of natural aquatic habitats as they really appear. This is where the biotope aquarium crowd can really have an impact! And you don'thave to be 100% perfectly accurate, with every twig and leaf being the exact ones found in your target habitat, ether.

"Biotope inspired" can certainly go a long way towards piquing the interest of both aquarists and non-aquarists alike towards appreciating and finding out more about the wild aquatic habitats of the world, no matter what they look like. 

Yet, it's very easy to sort of "reinvent the wheel" attempt to "edit" the way Nature looks, and attempt to configure an aquarium based on factors having less to do with an unfiltered version of Nature and more to do with an artistic interpretation of Nature that is often glorified in the hobby.

Yeah, it is!

Now, take yourself out of the "I'm-gonna-enter-THIS-ONE-in-the-aquascaping-contest-and-place high" mindset for just a second, and put yourself into the mindset of...a fish.

How do they interact with the environments they're found in. Why do they aggregate in certain areas with certain features? What benefits do they gain by associating themselves with them? 

And, most exciting- can we as hobbyists incorporate soem of these features into our aquariums?

Of course we can!

Here are just a few of the many features of streams and rivers that fishes LOVE to congregate in for a little inspiration...

Think about how you might consciously incorporate some of them into your next aquascape!

First off, a few "sweeping generalities."

Fishes tend to live in areas where the food and protection is, as we've talked about previously. Places that provide protection from stronger current and above-and below-water predators. Places where they can create territories, interact, spawn and defend themselves.

Let's examine some interesting ones.

Bends in streams and rivers are particularly interesting places, because the swifter water movement will typically carry food, and the fishes seem to know this. And if theres a tree branch, trunk, or a big rock (or rocks) to break up the flow, there will be a larger congregation of fishes present. So, the conclusion here is that, at least in theory, if you design your scape to have a higher "open water" flow rate, and include some features like rocks and large branches, you'll likely see the fishes hanging in those areas...

In situations where you're replicating a faster-flowing stream environment, think about creating some little "rock pockets", perhaps on one side of the aquarium, to create areas of calmer water movement. Your fishes will typically orient themselves facing "upstream" to catch any food articles that happen on by. So, from a design perspective, if you want to create a cool rock feature that your fishes will likely gather in, orienting the flow towards it would be a good way to accomplish this in the aquarium. 

 

Among the richest habitats for fishes in streams and rivers are so-called "drop-offs", in which the bottom contour takes a significant plunge and increase in depth. These are often caused by current over time, or even the accumulation of rocks and fallen trees, which "dam up" the stream a bit. (extra- you see this in Rift Lakes in Africa, too...right? Yeah.) 

Fishes are often found in drop offs in significant numbers, because these spots afford depth (which thwarts the hunting efforts those pesky birds), typically slower water movement, numerous "nooks and crannies" in which to forage, hide, or spawn, and a more restive "dining area" for fishes without strong currents. They are typically found near the base of...tree roots...From a botanical-style aquascaping perspective, replicating this aspect of the underwater habitat gives you a lot of cool opportunities.

If you're saddled with one of those seemingly ridiculously deep tanks, a drop-off could be a perfect subject to replicate. And there are even commercially-made "drop-off" tanks now! Consider how a drop-off style encompasses a couple of different possible niches in the aquarium as it does in Nature!

Overhanging trees and other forms of vegetation are common in jungle/forest areas, as we've discussed many times. Fishes will tend to congregate under these plants for the dimmer lighting, "thermal protection", and food (insects and fruits/seeds) that fall off the trees and shrubs into the water. (allochthonous input- we've talked about that before a few times here!) And of course, if you're talking about a "leaf litter" or botanically-influenced aquascape, a rather dimly-lit, shallow tank could work out well.

And of course, in the areas prone to seasonal inundation, you'll often see trees and shrubs partially submerged, or with their branch or root structures projecting into the water.

Imagine replicating THIS look in an aquarium. Contemplate the behavioral aspects in your fishes that such a feature will foster! And the potential for unique interactions that you simply won't see in more "conventional" setups.

Lots of leaves, small pieces of wood, and seed pods on the substrtae- doing what they do- breaking down-would complete a cool look. For a cool overall scene, you could introduce some riparian plants to simulate the bank as well. A rich habitat with a LOT of opportunities for the creative 'scaper!

Why not create an analogous stream/river feature that is known as an "undercut?" Pretty much the perfect hiding spot for fishes in a stream or river, and undercuts occur where the currents have cut a little cave-like hole in the rock or substrate material near the shore.

Not only does this feature provide protection from birds and other above-water predators, it gives fishes "express access" to deeper water for feeding and escaping in-water predators! And undercuts can be created by other materials, such as branches, logs, etc. 

Trees growing nearby add to the attractiveness of an undercut for a fish (for reasons we just talked about), so subdued lighting would be cool here. You can build up a significant undercut with lots of substrate, rocks, and some wood. Sure, you'd have some reduced water capacity, but the effect could be really cool.

Aquascaping, as we've come to know it in the hobby- is part art, part science, and every bit an interpretation of the natural world. Although we spend enormous amounts of time and energy encouraging you to look at and replicate the form and function of Nature, it is a hobby- and you should do what moves you.

Yeah, in the end, design and build the aquascape that makes you happy, regardless of the "style" or "design theory" that you embrace.

However, if you're trying to create something just a bit different and perhaps a bit more true to Nature, you might want to take a little "field trip" to a nearby stream, river, creek, lake, etc., where fishes and other aquatic animals reside, and observe things from the perspective of how they interact with the features of the environment. 

At the very least, it might open your eyes a bit and give you a different perspective on the way wild aquatic habitats evolve, function, and host fishes.

We should "get outside" and do this once in a while!

I'll guarantee that you'll definitely leave with some inspiration, ideas, and just maybe, a slightly different perspective on aquascaping than you've previously had! You'll notice subtle details which, when applied to an aquarium, could provide an amazingly unique look and function for your fishes!

And in the end, gaining a fresh perspective and new inspiration for your hobby is never a bad thing. 

Call it "Natural." Call it "Inspired by Nature."  It doesn't matter. Really, the description that you use is your call. The important part is that you enjoy the process of educating, exploring, and creating your representation of Nature.

Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

 

 

September 03, 2020

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The light stuff...

We obsess over some crazy stuff in our world of botanical-style, blackwater/brackish aquariums, don't we?  We touch on a lot of ideas and techniques on how to accomplish this process in our aquariums. However, one of the least-discussed topics is...lighting.

We receive a LOT of questions about lighting...specifically about how you can grow plants in blackwater, botanical-style aquariums, and what type, intensity, and duration to use.

Now, I'm probably not the best person to discuss many aspects of aquarium lighting with, yet being a long-time reef aquarist and former commercial coral propagator, I've long believed that having at least a basic understanding of the ideas and practical applications of lighting in our closed aquatic systems is a core requirement for success.

Lighting is a big deal I the coral world.

In the reef aquarium world in general, lighting is essential, as it powers photosynthesis within the zooxanthellae (symbiotic algae) which are found in coral tissues. It's pretty much fundamental stuff, and we are indoctrinated from day one in the hobby to embrace lighting and its importance to our systems.

Of course, in our aquariums, which typically emphasize botanicals, wood, and even rocks over growing live plants, lighting tends to be more of an "aesthetic" consideration, rather than a primary necessity for creating optimal conditions in our aquariums.

And it also compels us to turn once again to Nature for some cues...

Indeed, the tinted, blackwater habitats that we seem to gravitate towards in our world generally don't have huge stands of truly aquatic plants. This is due to factors other than just light conditions, such as the topography, the ionic composition of the water, and the geology of some of the regions that we tend to replicate in our aquariums.

That being said, light penetration and overall lighting conditions in the natural aquatic habitats that we are fascinated by are interesting and important aspects to consider in our aquariums. They create not only an interesting look, they can provide supportive intensity and spectrum for certain types of plants, like Mangroves.

In a typical tropical rain forest, it's estimated that as little as 5% of the sunlight reaches the forest "floor", so it goes without saying that any stream or creek under the canopy of trees is not getting a ton of light! If aquatic plants are present in these habitats, they're typically species that can adapt to lower lighting conditions. 

Of course, "lower light levels" in Nature is still a lot more light than you might think- and a lot more than we typically will think of in the aquarium context. We tend to measure light intensity in photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), which gives us a "value" to measure and relate to.

The "architecture" of tropical forests are determined by the vegetation's need for sunlight. There is tremendous competition among rain forest plants for this vital energy. Trees grow very tall, and  don’t waste energy on producing branches until they reach the canopy, and are able to compete successfully with other trees for the available light.

There are other systems which, despite their tinted blackwater conditions, are exposed to tremendous sunlight intensity, and foster significant aquarist plant growth, such as those found in rivers in tropical Africa.

As always, researching the habitat you're interested in replicating in your aquarium is so important.

Now, of course, lighting is just one part of the picture (with nutrition and fertilization being some of the other important parts), but it plays a huge role in our success with plants in blackwater aquariums.

For a very long time, hardcore planted aquarium enthusiasts were a bit intimidated by the idea of blackwater planted tanks, because of the concerns over sufficient light penetration into the tinted water. With a greater understanding of the overall blackwater environments and their propensity to grow certain plants, it's more of a matter of figuring out how to maximize lighting intensity to assure that sufficient quantities of light reach our plants.

Light penetration IS a big deal...perhaps the most important of all factors which determines the ability of aquatic plants to grow in blackwater habitats (along with nutrient-rich substrates). Light penetration affects diversity of both the terrestrial grasses and aquatic plants present in the natural waters.

In the blackwater Amazonian Igapo areas that we obsess over, light only penetrates down to depths of 1-2 meters, and many submerged grasses and terrestrial forest plants simply die back from lack of light. Well, that and the fact that they're submerged terrestrial plants, right? They could only hang on for so long anyways! And the forest canopy adds to the shading in some areas, further reducing the amounts of light available to plants. Varzea tend to be more "open", and a greater abundance of light, and therefore, light penetration, occurs.

Of course, you can grow Amazonian aquatic plants in blackwater aquariums, such as the broad-leaved dwarf Amazon sword plant (Echinodorus quadricostatus), which prefers the dim conditions of blackwater rivers.  

As mentioned above, there is one area which comes to mind immediately when we talk of blackwater habitats with aquatic plants: Southeast Asia- particularly, Borneo.

And when we think of Borneo, what comes to mind more than the darling of the plant world, Bucephalandra? And of course, my personal fave family of plants, Cryptocoryne. If ever there were "poster children" for blackwater-native/tolerant aquatic plants, either of these two genera would be the ones.

"Generically speaking", floating plants, of course, tend to do well-because you don't really have the "light penetration factor" influencing them as much as say, rooted plants. Light penetration is a limiting factor, other things being "more-or-less" equal, right? 

Well, yeah...there are things you can do to make up the difference... You can compensate with brighter light...that's the beauty of LEDs, right? And of course, as alluded to above, just "having light" in our blackwater aquariums isn't enough. Now, you certainly CAN rely on room ambient light for some situations, and supplement lighting where needed... It's important to consider the types of plants you're dealing with, and what your goal is for the system you're creating.

The other big issue to tackle when keeping aquatic plants in blackwater aquariums is to some extent, the well-trodden opinion that blackwater may be described as more "nutrient poor", and having much lower ionic concentrations of calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium than clearwater environments.

So how do you overcome this?

You fertilize your tank- just like you do in a "clearwater" system. You'll probably have to adjust your doses to compensate for the near lack of the above-referenced major ions, but it's pretty much that simple, in my experience. You'll use more fertilizers. And if you're growing plants that rely on rich substrates, like Cryptocoryne, I've found that you really don't have to do all that much differently than you do in a "clearwater" tank.

One thing you won't hear me talking about is the use of CO2. Not because I don't recommend it or believe in it- it's simply because I don't personally have a lot of experience with using it...That being said, I have many friends who use CO2 in blackwater tanks with a tremendous degree of success...

 

I think the job I'll continue to take on here at Tannin will be to encourage aquatic plant enthusiasts, and those who want to keep aquatic plants in blackwater aquariums- to go for it and do great work. 

The simple reality is that you absolutely can keep a lot of aquatic plants in blackwater tanks, with tremendous success. It's simply a matter of compensating for the environmental parameters which need to be augmented (ie; lighting, fertilization...), and doing what you already know how to do.

Of course, many of us play with "hardscape only" types of tanks, and lighting is really more of an aesthetic choice. 

If you're into environmental/biotopic authenticity, you'd want to look at what plants are found where, of course- but the bottom line is that the variety of plants that you can keep in generic blackwater aquariums is significant!

Now, if aquatic plants are not the primary focus of our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums, lighting becomes more of an aesthetic consideration than just about anything else. 

So, it goes without saying that in an aquarium where you're trying to replicate one of those hidden "igarapes" (literally "Canoe Way" in the indigenous language of the region), without a diversity of light-demanding aquatic plants,  you really don't need to worry about providing a ton of bright light. 

Rather, it would make more sense to apply "spot" lighting or dimmed lighting from a format like LED, which gives you more control over color and intensity than most other lighting methods. In fact, although I've played with just about every type of lighting format out there, I've repeatedly turned to LED as my "go to" for about a decade now. Coming from the reef world, we were always a bit amused that LED lighting took years to catch on in the FW world at any scale. It's so versatile and configurable, that it makes perfect sense in virtually every application, from "nutritive" and plant-growth focused to purely aesthetic.

There is so much to learn from managing a system set up to replicate one of these environments, and it is helpful to look to nature once again to help us make decisions. Without tons of excess light hitting your aquarium, the incidence of excessive algal growth is definitely limited, which is important when you take into account the decaying leaves and other botanical materials present in these environments.

Of course, if you ramp up the lighting intensity (easy to do with LED's), you can certainly grow a lot of nuisance algae! We all know that light+nutrients= algae, right?  Yup. I've deliberately "over-illuminated" botanically-rich aquariums for the sole purpose of seeing how much I could apply without creating an algae nightmare....Like, full intensity on high-output, full spectrum, 40 watt LED over a "nano tank"...that kind of "over illumination!"

It grows algae. Even in "tinted" water.

So, when I hear hobbyists proffering that you can't grow plants in blackwater, I call foul. You certainly can. It's all about the technique...and the other factors which are at play.

And yet, I've experienced no more occurrence of algae in the leaf litter tanks than I have in other setups, when lighting is intelligently and thoughtfully applied. On the other hand, regardless of what type of system I work with, I'm fanatical about husbandry and nutrient control/export...obviously, another key factor.

While it would be intellectually dishonest (and just plain untrue) for me to assert that blackwater/botanical-style aquariums aren't susceptible to algae outbreaks, it is sort of remarkable that we simply don't have massive algae issues in these types of aquariums on a regular basis.

I think the main reason why we don't see massive algae issues is because we as a community have placed so much emphasis on the techniques of aquarium husbandry/management- specifically, the need to embrace nutrient control and export techniques. 

So, as usual, I rambled all over the place, with bits and pieces of different ideas woven loosely together...I suppose the biggest takeaways here are:

1) You can grow plants in aquariums with tinted water (with proper lighting, in terms of spectrum, intensity, and duration) 

2) You can grow algae in aquariums which you seriously over-illuminate, or ones which you more modestly light and don't apply proper husbandry techniques to.

3) Our recommended lighting form factor is LED, because of its versatility and adjustability.

 

There is so much more to explore here, in terms of lighting and botanical-style aquairums. Lessons to learn, experiments to undertake, breakthroughs to achieve, and even mistakes to be made. 

Stay inquisitive. Stay excited. Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

September 02, 2020

0 comments


Close ties...

One of the most important takeaways from Nature is just how connected to their environment many species of fishes are. I'm fascinated by the relationship between fishes and their habitats. 

It's no secret that many habitats, such as our favorite flooded forests, fishes move in and out of them seasonally, not only because of the water level, but because of the food sources which are available to them. 

The flood cycle of the rivers into the igarapes are the dominant seasonal factor, and fish communities are found to fluctuate greatly over the year. During inundation, fish migrate into floodplain forests to feed on insects, fruits and seeds, among other things.

Studies of blackwater communities showed that, during these cycles, a greater diversity of fishes exists there. Many species were found to be specialized feeders. Fish, detritus and insects were the most important food resources supporting the fish community in both high and low water seasons, but the proportions of fruits, invertebrates and fish were reduced during the low water season.

Are there some "takeaways" here for us fish geeks?

Well, sure!

For one thing, fishes sort of "follow the food", right? And that the "seasonal availability" of some food sources actually dictates overall fish behavior. 

And, as we've discussed previously, the fish population and diversity in these igapo regions, long thought to be somewhat "impoverished", is actually very diverse and significant. Studies have revealed that many fishes are found in the submerged litter bank of these regions, forming dense local populations which are specialized and live on the allochthonous inputs (defined as material that imported into an ecosystem from outside of it) from the inundated forest floors.

The fishes have adapted to live in an environment with varying leaf and wood density, and seasonal variations in depth.

And the food production capacity of these habitats for the resident aquatic fauna is immense!

The  seasonal flooding brings fishes into contact with a greater abundance and diversity of allochthonous food resources, especially within forested watersheds, and this is significant to their life cycle. 

With regards to the types of fishes we find in these habitats, scientists have found repeatedly that the majority seem to be characins, followed by Loricariids, cichlids, and "everything else."

As we know by now, the allochthonous inputs (terrestrial leaves, seed pods, insects, flowers, etc.) that our fishes utilize in the wild, and can no doubt benefit from In the aquarium, as well.

One of the important food resources in natural aquatic systems are what are known as macrophytes- aquatic plants- which grow in and around the water, emerged, submerged, floating, etc.

Not only do macrophytes contribute to the physical structure and spatial organization of the water bodies they inhabit, they are primary contributors to the overall biological stability of the habitat, conditioning the physical parameters of the water.

Of course, anyone who keeps a planted aquarium could attest to that, right? 

One of the interesting things about macrophytes is that, although there are a lot of fishes which feed directly upon them, the plants themselves are perhaps most valuable as a microhabitat for algae, zooplankton, and other organisms upon which fishes feed on. Small aquatic crustaceans seek out the shelter of plants for both the food resources they provide (i.e.; zooplankton, diatoms) and for protection from predators (yeah, the fishes!). And leaf litter, botanical materials, etc. serve as perfect  shelter for these macrophytes in which to grow and multiply.

And of course, these interrelationships between the environment and the fishes are not limited to just South America.

Like many of you, I do a fair amount of research about fishes and the environments that they come from. Some of the most fascinating fishes, and ones which have an intimate connection to their habitat are the annual killifishes, specifically those from Africa, such as the much-loved Nothobranchius species.

(Image by Andrew Bogott, used under CC BY-S.A. 4.0)

Now, the typical environments which these fishes live in are small temporary savannah pools in sandy soils, with a layer of black mud on top. And that's where it gets kind of interesting. Nothos don't just live and reproduce in any old mud hole.

Nope. 

Rather, they're intimately tied to specific types of soils, muds, and sands. And there is good reason, too.

According to one study I read, "Nothobranchius never inhabit pools consisting only of orange-colored laterite soils (Reichard et al., 2009; Watters, 2009). Although these pools are very common in the African savannah, especially after heavy precipitation, they are characterized by kaoline-type clay minerals and are slightly acidic, and their substrate is not suitable for Nothobranchius embryo survival during the dry period."

And here is another huge takeaway: 

"The critical prerequisite of Nothobranchius occurrence in a particular pool is the specific composition of the substrate (Watters, 2009). Soil conditions are the primary drivers of habitat suitability for Nothobranchius, as the eggs can only survive the embryonic period and develop successfully on Quaternary vertisol and calcimorph soils."

In other words, the relationship between these fishes and their environment is supercritical.

These pools accumulate in a soil type called Vertisol.

This is a clay soil with little organic matter which occurs in regions having distinct wet and dry seasons. Alkaline clay minerals ( called smectites) are considered to be prerequisites to create suitable conditions during embryonic development in desiccated pool substrates.

An absolute relationship between the fish and their habitat.

And here's the other cool takeaway-one which actually can have some impact on the way we keep and breed these unique fishes:

The mud-rich layer in such pools has low permeability, a characteristic which enables water to remain in the pools after the surrounding water table has receded. Without the presence of this impermeable layer, the pools will rapidly desiccate. Visually, this substrate is dark brown to black, often forming a thick layer of soft mud on the bottom of the pool.

This, of course, makes these unique aquatic ecosystems all the more fascinating to us as tropical fish hobbyists!

(Image by HAL333- used under CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the dry part of  the range of the genus Nothobranchius in southwestern Mozambique, many pools inhabited by the well-known killies,  N. furzeri and N. orthonotus are usually isolated from more permanent bodies of water, and are filled exclusively by rainwater during periods of high precipitation. Some of these pools, however, may be occasionally connected, as they are essentially depressions in the dry savannah, in which water drained from these larger bodies of water, accumulates.

These pools and their cycles directly impact the life cycle and reproductive strategies of the annual fishes which reside in them.

The fascinating concept of embryonic diapause ( a form of prolonged, yet reversible developmental arrest) is well-known to scientists and lovers of annual killies. The occurrence and length of time of diapause varies from species to species, yet is considered by scientists to be an evolutionary adaptation and ecological trait in various populations of Nothobranchius, tied directly into the characteristics of the ephemeral habitats in which these fish reside!

(Image by Kils- used under CC BY-S.A. 3.0)

Diapause assures species survival by enabling the annual life cycle of these fish to be completed, and can even be affected by the presence of adult fishes in the habitat (not a good idea to hatch if potential predators are around, right?)- a fascinating adaptation! Since the embryonic phase of most Nothobranchius is a relatively long period of their lives- and in some species- the longest phase of their life, factors which impact embryonic development are extremely important. 

Oh, and the really interesting part:

"Organic material aggregates in the pool in the form of dead aquatic and terrestrial vegetation but does not cover the large part of the bottom, as is typical of water bodies in forested areas with leaf litter. Despite the presence of rapidly decaying material, the water stays alkaline due to the high buffering capacity of the alkaline clay in the sediment." (Reichard, 2009)

Something that we as botanical-style aquarists experience often- the buffering effect of substrate, despite a huge presence of decomposing leaves and botanical materials. It's part of the reason why some have trouble getting their pH down to very low levels in aquariums, I think!

That's where the idea of alternative substrates comes in! 

So, yeah- the substrate is of critical importance to the aquatic life forms which reside in them.  One study I read 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.

A takeaway for us as hobbyists.

I could go on and on and on talking about all sorts of relationships between fishes and their habitats, because there are so many!

And there are also killifish habitats covered in leaf litter-a component of the habitat which creates very specific conditions for the fishes' reproduction! Yeah- if you look hard enough, you can find examples for just about everything your looking for by observing Nature closely.

Oh, and we haven't really touched upon the relationship between land and water in this piece, but we've covered that a lot...and it's a relationship which we're just starting to consider in aquariums. A relationship which has vast implications for aquariums.

Just confining our research to hobby literature is to overlook the vast amount of information available to us via academic research. We as hobbyists should all "deep dive" now and then into the many resources available to us!

Again, the most important takeaway from today's little review is that our fishes found in specific habitats for a reason. They're often intimately tied to the environments in which they are found- not only benefitting from, but sometimes contributing to- the overall habitat.

An amazing relationship that we as hobbyists should look at very closely, as the potential for breakthroughs that can benefit our efforts is just out there...waiting for us to unpack.

Interested?

Stay dedicated. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay observant. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

September 01, 2020

0 comments


Just breathe...

 It's funny, but the deeper we go into the world of natural, botanical-style aquariums and the associated arcane topics that go with them, the more and more we find that we need to be better acquainted with the "basics" of aquarium keeping. And the underlying theme that I keep going back to is how fishes are intimately tied to their environment. It's important to consider this when creating our aquariums- and equally important to grasp this idea when creating aquariums and managing them.

Lately, we've received a number of inquiries from customers wondering if it's necessary to use aeration in a botanical-style aquarium. And, interestingly, on first thought, I wanted to simply say, "Well, yeah- of course!" However, the idea of "aeration" takes on a number of associated topics...and the primary, overarching concept here is how oxygen gets to fishes...or more properly, how they extract oxygen from their aquatic environment. 

First off, let's think for a bit about how fish take on oxygen. 

It's important to know that, even though water (H2O) is part oxygen, it is bonded with hydrogen – essentially locked together, thus making the oxygen inseparable. Fish and aquatic animals cannot "split" oxygen from water (H2O) or other oxygen-containing compounds. It needs to come from outside of the aquarium...from the surface, entering the aquatic environment via a process called gas exchange.

Essentially what happens during gas exchange is that CO2 from the water is "swapped-out" for atmospheric oxygen. And, as a side note- the larger the surface area your aquarium has, the greater the opportunity for oxygen exchange there is.

Since fishes live in water, they need to pump water through their gills, an energy-consuming process which is aided by a vast network of filament-like structures called "lamellae", which are some efficient, that the fishes can extract the majority of the oxygen from the water which passes through them (like, almost 80% of it- that's pretty damn efficient, huh?). And yeah, Anabantoids have that extra advantage of the "Labrynith organ" to help them breath atmospheric oxygen as well, a big advantage in the stagnant pools of water they come from in Nature.

Now, that's all well and good; however, because fishes live in water (duh), the bulk of them are highly dependent upon how much oxygen is available in the environment in which they live. Of course, this varies because of many factors, like temperature, water depth, salt content (saltwater doesn't retain as much oxygen as fresh water, FYI), etc., so it's always a challenge (although the fishes likely don't think about it) to extract as much oxygen as possible from the water.

And stuff like medications and other additives- or dissolved substances- can cause oxygen levels to decrease in the water, making it more difficult for fishes to extract it from the water ('cause there's less of it available). So, when you see your fishes breathing rapidly, hanging or even gasping at the surface, it's a desperate attempt to extract as much oxygen as possible from the water, at the most oxygen-rich location.

Temperature is important, too- because higher temperature water holds less oxygen than water of a cooler temperature- and consequentially, fishes- more active at higher temperatures- have to obtain more oxygen...See- intimately tied to their environment! 

Now, there is way, WAY more to the science behind how fishes breathe and extract oxygen form water than this pitiful 3rd-grade science class-style description- but you get the idea that it's a process- one that shows you how fishes are intimately tied to- and dependent upon- the aquatic environment that we provide them!

So, do you have to aerate the water in your botanical-style aquarium?

Well, it's a great question!

While the water near the surface will absorb oxygen out of the air, without surface agitation, less of it tends to get transferred down to lower depths of the aquarium. It's something to think about. 

So, is supplemental aeration necessary?

Necessary? No. Beneficial? Hell, yes.

Why?

Well, air bubbles caused by airstones and such do facilitate oxygenation and gas exchange. How? Well, bubbles create surface agitation- water movement on the surface. This lets more oxygen dissolve- and more carbon dioxide to escape. A bubble provides more surface area...letting that carbon dioxide escape-and thus providing an additional location for gas exchange to take place.

So, while it's important and beneficial, aeration in and of itself is not a "100% absolute requirement." You need gas exchange. You need surface area... 

And there are a lot of ways to facilitate and support  these processes.

I personally love wide, shallow "all-in-one" tanks, with built-in surface overflows, which pull water from the surface, helping to "skim" the air-water boundry, thus better facilitating gas exchange.

In general, tanks with large, unobstructed surface area excel at facilitating gas exchange. They also make it easy for some fishes to "carpet surf", too- so there is a little tradeoff, right?

And you could also employ some live plants, of course! Plants produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. When illuminated, they consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In the absence of light, fish and plants consume oxygen and produce CO2, but do not produce oxygen. That's part of the reason why you find lower dissolved oxygen levels in tanks with live plants in the early morning.

Why do we always say that it's important not to "overstock" your aquarium with lots of fishes?

To put it bluntly, if you have too many fishes in your aquarium, the oxygen available in the water can be consumed faster than it can be replenished. And that's a problem! Of course, there are other consequences to overstocking, like a buildup of metabolic wastes that may be too great for the bacterial population in the aquarium to assimilate.

If you're working with a large aquarium, you'll consequently have more surface area. Even smaller aquariums with a wide, shallow footprint are better than the same sized tank with a tall, narrow profile.

And that whole thing that I always bring up about adding too many botanicals at one time...overdoing it...starts to make sense, right? It's all about dissolved oxygen- and trying to facilitate as much of it as possible. 

When you use a lot of botanical materials, I think some circulation is important, too.

Why?

Oxygen consumption by the organisms living on or in the substrate is dependent on the oxygen requirement for decomposition of organic material accumulated on the bottom of the aquarium, and for vital functions of the life forms which live there. The dissolved oxygen content of the water layer directly in contact with the substrate is much lower than that of the upper layers of water.

So, yeah...if you circulate the water well in an aquarium with a lot of material on the substrate, you can help move some dissolved oxygen already in the water to these lower levels of the aquarium, where your benthic population of organisms work and live. 

Yes, aquariums which feature deep leaf litter or botanical beds, and the organisms, like fungi, bacteria, and micro crustaceans, which "work" them, benefit from this gross water movement. And, of course, what impacts the organisms at bottom of the food web affects everything above it. An excerpt from one study I encountered on natural leaf litter beds confirms this:  

"...these stressor effects acting on the base of the detrital food web are likely to- directly or indirectly- also effect higher trophic levels of stream ecosystems."

Okay, I'm sort of all over the place with this, but the big "tie in" is that gas exchange and facilitating dissolved oxygen are fundamentally important processes in any type of aquarium- but especially so in our highly dynamic botanical-style systems filled with leaves, seed pods, and their associated biotia.

Bottom line- you certainly can run a botanical-style system without supplemental aeration IF you have sufficient surface area, DON'T overstock, and obey the common-sense "best practices" of aquarium husbandry which have guided our hobby for generations. It's why hobbyists in the 1920's were breeding all sorts of fishes. It's why killie keepers have successfully bred hundreds of varieties in shoeboxes, bowls, and small, filterless containers for years. 

Personally, I run 90% of my botanical-style aquariums with filtration, providing adequate water movement and gas exchange. I've experimented with filterless, non-aerated systems, too, with success...because I have a basic grasp of these concepts.

Many of you do, too.. It's not some "secret knowledge" that only a select few hobbyists posses. 

Rather, it's about common sense, observation, and understanding. 

So, open your mind, do a little research, be patient...and..just breathe.

Stay careful. Stay diligent. Stay curious. Stay educated. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

August 31, 2020

2 comments


The danger of over specialization.

I know, I'm a bit opinionated about a lot of hobby topics! Annoyingly so, at times.

It's sort of my "trademark." And my opinions are often based upon my own experience, or the experience I've had observing others. And on occasion, my opinions are based upon queries that others bring to me.

For instance...

I've had no less than 6 different hobbyists- all apparently experienced and successful- tell me that they are "bored", "fed up with", or otherwise "discouraged" (all their words) about the hobby, for various reasons.

All in the last 2 months. 

I couldn't help but see this as some sort of "mini trend!"

And not a good one, either. So, I tried to sort of analyze what's going on; what commonalities these 6 talented people had that made them unhappy with their hobby experience. After a lot of thought and discussion with them, I think I know what it is.

It turns out that the stuff that was causing them grief were aspects of the hobby which they not only weren't really good at- they had no knowledge of, or little interest in..

In short, I think that they're "over-specialized."

"WTF is that, Fellman?"

Think about this:

In the aquarium hobby, it seems that these days, virtually everyone is a "specialist" of some sort. An expert on a very specific subject, skill, fish, plant, etc. While that's really cool (because we need "experts" to help lead the way in various areas), it's also a bit of a problem at times, because some of these people can't seem to manage the basics. Or, perhaps they're not interested in them? Not sure exactly- but in at least 3 of the cases I mentioned above, "not interested" came into play.

And of course, in a hobby like aquarium keeping, it's more than just a basic requirement to be "interested" in multiple aspects, right?

Yet, how could this be?

I think it starts with the way we view our aquairums.

To some, they are simply a vessel to hold water containing our favorite fishes- and that's it. It's all about breeding the particular species or variety they're into. Nothing else. To others, aquariums are a very special canvass upon which to create achingly beautiful underwater scenes. Yet, it ends there. They just want to look at their creations and that's it. Done. They break 'em down after they've taken a few hundred pics and shot a video.

That's their whole joy in the hobby.

Another "subset" are hobbyists who love the dual aspects of acquiring stuff for their  new tank, and putting together their crazy plumbing, lighting, and electrical systems for the tank. And they're almost "bored" with the "keeping and maintaining fishes and corals" part. Like, they enjoy searching for and purchasing them...just not taking care of them. And their high-tech "aquatics shrines" show this too. They are filled with amazing tech, but they just seem to fall short as enjoyable aesthetic displays.

All of the hobbyists who came to me with this "issue" don't seem to find "the middle ground." And on the surface, they'll tell you that they love their craft- and they do-but that there is "something" missing- something that keeps them from enjoying every aspect of it. 

I think that the problem is that "middle ground." It's difficult to love the hobby if you don't enjoy the whole process. And it has a lot to do with the way we view our aquariums.

There is something magical about thinking about our aquariums as little microcosms.

I know, I've touched on this idea like 10,000 times here, as recently as last week- but it's something that I think needs constant reinforcement. For some reason, the hobby world still seems caught up in this "aesthetics first" mentality, which, quite frankly, leaves us vulnerable to failure and frustration over the long term.

Failure, because working only the aesthetic angle fails to take into account that you're dealing with a living closed ecosystem, and all of it's inputs and outputs- not a piece of "kinetic art."

I know plenty of super talented aquascapers that are among the worst and most incompetent aquarists I've ever seen. Like, they can barely keep a tank going. They could set up a hardcscape for the ages- beautiful, perfectly rationed, etc. However, when it comes to actually managing the thing over the long haul, their completely awful at it. They'll tell you that they're all about "the art" and the "husbandry part" is not their thing.

I suppose that's true. 

Of course, I know plenty of hobbyists who can literally look at a rare fish and it'll spawn for them- and they can raise the fry no sweat. However, their tanks look like a lab experiment at best, or a complete piece of shit at worst. They'll tell you that they're all about breeding the fish and the function of the filtration, or whatever, and it's hard to argue with that, I guess. That's their idea of what's important. Aesthetics are not their focus.

Yet, they tell me that something is missing in their enjoyment of the hobby. Oh, it's the enjoyment part!

Far be it from me to tell others how to enjoy their hobby. However, when I have multiple hobbyists pointing out the same sort of "X factor" that limits their enjoyment of the hobby, I think I'm on to something here. And the scary part is that 4 of them are talking about packing it in and leaving the hobby.

Yikes. 

I think there is an easy solution, really. At least, in theory:

I think we all need to broaden out our horizons just a bit. 

I know that I love a lot of different things in the hobby. A few, I think I'm pretty good at. Some, I'm competent with. Others, I'm sub par at...and some I just suck at. Yet, I find a way to enjoy them all, not at the expense of the others. Rather, I keep finding ways to weave together all of these diverse hobby practices to enhance my experience. I make it a point not to get too into one thing at the expense of the others. I've found a sort of balance. 

And I'm not afraid to challenge myself by venturing into some of the areas that I'm less talented with; areas that I find more challenging. I think that you can incorporate the challenging parts into your regular areas of specialization- and perhaps..maybe try to find some joy in them. Understanding that stuff like husbandry or aquascaping, or plumbing your reef tank can be seen as less of a chore, and more of a way to improve the lives of the fishes, or the overall outcome of the system can really help change your outlook. 

If this is you, try to view stuff from that perspective, rather than just the, "Oh, shit, I need to plumb the tank!" mindset. Somehow, mentally "plugging" the task you don't like into the process of achieving the end result helps make it more palatable. Don't let your skills for things that aren't your primary hobby focus "atrophy", or simply fail to develop at all!

Expose yourself more to the things you don't find completely engrossing. You'll find that, more often than not- the skills you've acquired in your speciality will help you enjoy- and excel-at the other areas of the hobby which you work with. Obsessed with fish breeding? Try a planted aquarium Like biotope aquariums? Try breeding your fishes in a simulation of their natural habitat...

"Crossover skills" are huge.

And, embracing some of the simple tasks which we find perhaps off-putting, and learning to enjoy aspects of aquarium keeping which we somehow find challenging,  not fun, or even a bit objectionable, is a key to staying engaged and excited about the hobby, IMHO.

I really think it's that simple.

Again, how you enjoy the hobby is your business- and it's not for me or anyone else to tell you how to do it. In the end, it's a personal thing. However, in a hobby where everyone's contribution is so important, we need as many hobbyists as possible to stay in the game. We need you. 

Don't get so caught up with your speciality that you overlook all of the other amazing things which the aquarium hobby offers.

Stay engaged. Stay adaptable. Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

August 28, 2020

0 comments


Do it yourself...for yourself.

As a hobbyist/aquarium industry entrepreneur, I find myself in interesting positions at times. I like to do different work, push out new ideas, and share them.  Above almost all else in the hobby, I love authenticity...the act of being who we are- doing our aquariums the way WE want them to be...Not just copying someone else's work, ideas or thoughts.

I think we should take the works of others and study them, refine them... build upon them. Those things advance the hobby. Yet, of late, I've noticed a disturbing trend towards flat-out replication, without any further effort. And what's worse, I have seen and heard successful hobbyists urging others to embrace this stupid mindset!

An example of this was some "advice" I heard in a podcast with a talented aquarist: "Copy an existing work that you like- exactly. Work with it for a long time and gain confidence with it before moving on to a design of your own"

Are you fucking kidding me? That's a good idea? Like, truly some of the shittiest advice I've ever heard in the hobby.

The message is just awful:

"You're not good enough to come up with something of your own, so duplicate somebody else's work until you figure it out..."

Why would anyone want to do that?

Who thinks that is good advice?

I mean, I suppose that in some corners, it could be interpreted as good because we all aspire to create stuff that pleases us, and if you want to copy others' work because you love it, so be it.

Nothing wrong with that.

And of course, for many hobbyists, that might mean recreating an aquascape that we saw online, at the LFS, in a fellow hobbyist's tank, or one of those international competitions. Gaining inspiration from the work of others is great...It gives us a "guideline", so to speak, for creating our own version of the word. 

Artists have been doing it for centuries- drawing inspiration from others, then sort of "tweaking" their own versions. Nothing inherently wrong with this. Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources.

However...

When it starts becoming a "paint by numbers" thing, with everyone trying to create an aquascape they've seen verbatim- one that meets someone else's rigid "formula" for theme, layout, composition, stocking, etc., it's really "unhealthy", in my opinion.

I have been noticing an incredible blandness in aquarium work lately on social media...lots and lots of tanks trying to look like other tanks and...

Yawn...

And part of this comes from the aquascaping contest world, I think. A narrative has been pushed for a very long time, IMHO. A narrative which seems to preach that you have to submit to and execute a specific "style" of aquarium, or your work is irrelevant somehow. 

I mean, it seems to me that to place highly in one of those contests, an aquarium has to employ soem very specific elements. I suppose that's their call...I mean, it's THEIR contest and rules, right? However, it's kind of laughable at how limiting this is: 'Scapes that employ these things are studied, analyzed- revered as THE way to 'scape. Anything that seems to deviate from this is just sort of shrugged off as a "nice try", "gimmicky",  or something equally dismissive.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with me from the outset. However, if you look at this objectively, I'm kind of right...

It need not be this way.

From the outside- especially to someone like me who comes from the reef aquarium world, which has went through similar "Copy this exactly in order to have a successful, attractive tank..." periods, its all too familiar- and all too disappointing.

I suppose that it's even kind of funny, too.

A sort of "paint by numbers" approach to 'scaping, quantifying, and looking at the aquatic world. Trying to be exactly what we see elsewhere; what others "approve" of. And worse yet: Perhaps not even what we feel in our hearts.

That can't be a "positive" for the hobby.

Look, I have no problem with different styles of aquascaping or tank management.  This is not a critique of any particular "style" or approach- it's a critique of the attitude...Wether you're into floating forests, Dutch-style scapes, leaf-litter only tanks, or just a pile of rocks and stuff, Mazel Tov. Good for you. Keep doing them.

Because you love them.

Where I have problems is when we (and I mean it generically and collectively) are resistant to any deviation from what we as a group  feel is "the way."

Now, again, just because I'm advocating utilizing materials and adopting an interpretation of Nature as it really appears in some areas, doesn't mean that every other way sucks. Although I'm not the only one who thinks this wayI always hear from at least one or two persons, who, after reading a piece like this, will tell me that I'm doing the same thing as those I question, and am nothing but a hypocrite.

No. No I'm not. Read this again.

All I'm saying is that no one should "hijack" aquarium keeping and dictate what is the accepted "style" and what isn't. Trust me, I'm well aware that many people find the approach that we advocate, the interpretation of Nature, and the resulting "look"  as aesthetically ugly, "dirty", messy, etc. 

And that's okay. Opinions- and tastes- vary.

Personally, I'd rather most hobbyists not play with this stuff- because if you think about botanical-style aquariums as just an "aesthetic", you're missing most of the point here. It's about understanding function and influence as much as it is about a "look." 

And I hear a lot that blackwater/botanical-style aquariums are all the rage and "trendy" now...I see lots of these types of tanks showing up on Facebook and in my Instagram feed. It's gratifying...However, I've noticed a scary thing:

A lot-not all-but a lot-of the tanks seem to look almost exactly like a lot of other tanks...Like, same kind of layout. Same sort of use of materials...And the number of inquiries we receive from hobbyists, accompanied by a pic of one of the tanks we did, asking for us to select some pieces of wood that look as close to the ones we selected as possible- is kind of disconcerting.

I mean, on one hand, you're flattered that you're having an impact- and that others are inspired enough to try to replicate what you're doing. On the other hand, you don't want hobbyists to think that your interpretation is the only way to be create a great looking, smooth-operating tank.

And there's this other thing...

Because our "craft" requires an understanding of natural processes and occurrences, I fear that inspiring others to try to simply replicate the look of aquariums that we've done verbatim also carries with it the need to educate them on why these tanks look this way, what to expect, and how to manage them- and that a lot of hobbyists aren't getting THAT part.

It's why we've spent like 50x more time talking about how these tanks function than we do talking about how to create a "look" with botanicals. The "look", as we've said a million times here, is tangentially related to the function. A byproduct of it, really. To simply focus on botanical-style aquariums from an aesthetic standpoint alone is a mistake.

This sort of "assimilation" of blackwater/brackish botanical-style aquariums into the aquascaping world as a "style" scares the crap out of me. It's not a "style." It's a methodology. A mindset.

I cringe.

I cringe, because these types of aquariums require a greater understanding than just trying to get things to look a certain way- I can't stress it enough. There is moe to this than just creating a cool layout.

 Tossing leaves and botanicals into your tank just to achieve a "look", without considering their impact on the environment on the aquarium is to flirt with disaster.

And guess what? Even with the different function and operation of these kinds of tanks, there is a ton of room for creativity, interpretation, and individual style.

Absolutely.

Do you.

Yet, I just can't help but wonder why so many aquarists worldwide seem to be "held hostage" by a mindset that proffers that "you have to do it like everyone else" in order for your aquarium to be taken seriously, or to operate successfully- and how it arose.

What is the reason for this attitude?

To be "cool?" To belong? Because we want so badly to be like the great aquascapers that we'll forcibly subscribe to some rigid style to appease the masses?  I don't think so.

So how did all of this stuff become the accepted norm? When did we as a hobby decide to take this weird turn?

I have no idea.

And I'm not telling you how to think here...Believe it or not.

I merely suggest that we consider the absurdity of this close-minded thinking when choosing to precisely replicate the work of others- no matter where they are from or who they are. And you know what? I am pretty confident that most of the creators of these beautiful 'scapes will be flattered that others are inspired by their work, but they'll be the first to tell you that you should not feel that you have to exactly replicate their work exactly in order for it to be considered "great."

Don't get me wrong.

I'n not saying not to copy, replicate, interpret, or emulate the work of others. If it speaks to you, why wouldn't you?

However- if you have your own cool idea; if you have a unique approach...and it looks different, functions in a way that you're interested in, and makes you feel good, you should go for it- even if "they" don't approve of it.

And you should share it.

Not because you want people to duplicate your work verbatim, but because you want to inspire them to build upon what you did, to improve it and evolve it.

Do it yourself...FOR yourself.

This is how the hobby moves forward.

Stay brave. Stay independent. Stay unique. Stay excited...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

 

 

August 27, 2020

0 comments


Tall Tales?

Like s one of you, I'm into pretty much whatever kind of tank I can grab...like, if it holds water, I"m all over it! That likely comes from my upbringing as a fish geek; being a resourceful kid, I was pretty much obsessed with the idea of containers that hold water- regardless of their size and shape.

And it's not just me, of course. 

Every fish geek thinks this way!

Where others see a plastic storage container, we hobbyists see a 10 gallon aquarium!  I mean, its inexpensive, scratch-proof, and, well.... who cares that you can only see into it from the top? I mean, it holds water and...fishes! 

Of course, being older sand slightly more discriminating in my taste, and definitely more opinionated, I still have some ideas on this stuff..

Like the "configuration" of the aquarium that we use. Like, the shape...

When it comes to picking an aquarium, it seems that I fall into the majority of aquarists out there in the world who favor tanks that are typically shallow and wide. Not only are these the most practical tanks to work in- they are arguably the best "footprint" in which to execute incredible aquascapes and many of the cool ideas we play with in our botanical-style aquarium world.

Right? I mean, aren't they? Maybe? 

Most of us will go to almost any length to avoid purchasing a tall, narrow aquarium. It's like the "unwritten opinion" of a pretty high percentage of hobbyists to simply avoid any tank that falls into that category! Tall,  narrow tank are pretty challenging to work with for many hobbyists, aren't they? 

Yet, every once in a while, you end up with one of those tanks, right?

Maybe it's the one that your uncle or your neighbor had, sitting I the garage for years and years collecting dust and cobwebs, and they called you up and said, "Hey, aren't you into fishes? We have this incredible aquarium you might want!" (usually the first sign that it's a bad configuration...)

Or maybe it's the one that you "win" at the club raffle...that dusty, yet serviceable  aquarium with those weird dimensions... And they'll tell you, "A great tank for Seahorses or Corckscrew Vals!" 

Um, okay...justify it any way you can, right? 

Yeah...And the reality is that it IS an aquarium.

And you can't get enough aquairums, right?

If it holds water, it can somehow be used, right?

Even a really tall tank can be incorporated in a variety of ways. I mean, you don't have to fill it all the way, right? You simply fill it half way, and that weird "footprint" suddenly isn't so weird and awkward. You'll be able to "break the waterline" if you want, with the branches our plants you incorporate in your 'scape, right?

And a tall tank, filled halfway, perhaps lessens the possibility of some fish known to be "jumpers" of "carpet surfing..." (Notice that I said "some", right? Ever seen a Rivulus jump? Yeah. Enough said.). I mean, we rationalize it, right?

And since when do we have to fill tanks to the rim? Right?

I mean, there are probably dozens of uses for tall tanks, right?

Sure. I think so. 

Like, yeah- you can finally start that brackish water mangrove tank, and grow those suckers right out of the top, right? I did this with the stupid, tall cube tank in my office (I hate cubes, FYI), and I think it turned out  pretty cool!

Or, you can forgo the water almost completely and you can start a vivarium!

Who wouldn't want a totally cool habitat, filled with tropical plants, earthy soil, botanicals, and some Dart Frogs! Our friend Paul Dema of Vivariums in The Mist has a vast gallery of vivariums to inspire you! Playing with the terrestrial habitat as well as the aquatic one is super exciting!

Or, you can do a cool "ledge" tank, perhaps representing one of the African Rift Lakes, where the rocks which are aggregated on the lake bottom provide a fascinating "reef-like" structure for cichlids and Lampeyes, etc. to aggregate.

I mean, you could also do this for a reef tank, too...doing a "drop off" for fishes like Gramma, Assessor, etc. I've been intending to do such a tank for many years...I suppose it's coming at some point, lol.

And of course, the paludarium concept is as compelling as anything for us...The ability to create a terrestrial and aquatic habitat which replicates a flooded forest floor is very tempting, and certainly takes your mind off of the tall dimension of the tank! 

Oh, sure you could go really exotic, like a waterfall, perhaps?

Sure, there are lots of ideas...lots of possibilities.

The thing I LIKE about tall tanks is that they actually push you to be innovative and creative. The obvious maintenance and husbandry challenges (access, light penetration, circulation, and filtration, to name a few) that these tanks present are but a few of the obstacles that need to be overcome when you go for it with one of these tanks. 

In fact, for some of the crazy ideas that we do occasionally try, I can see us actually seeking out these kinds of unusual tanks. I mean, manufacturers make 'em for a reason, right?

Of course, they don't always have to be used as aquariums to house fishes, right? They could actually be used to do more purposeful stuff.

Yeah- some of these might be more "functional" than aesthetic:

Maybe you can simply use the tank as a big botanical refugium? A giant "reactor" filled with leaves and botanicals, to service one of more aquairums?

Hmm...I like that one.

So, yeah...you got "stuck" with a tall, narrow tank. Don't look at it as a "problem..."

Don't let it collect dust and spider webs in the garage, either.

Do something with it!

See it as an opportunity to try something entirely different; to approach it as a challenge.

What would you do with a tall, narrow aquarium (Besides use it as  a bookend or something)?

Stay innovative. Stay creative. Stay challenged. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

August 26, 2020

2 comments


Tackling the "barbs are boring" myth.

Let's face it, with all of the amazing fishes available to the hobby, some get more favorable treatment than others. Some are simply loved more. Soem get all of the "good press", and others get a bad reputation.

Example?

Take this little quiz:

Quick- Which is the first word that comes to your mind when a fish geek says "Barbs?"

1) meh

2) mean

3) big

4) messy

5) dull

6) meh

Sensing a there a theme here? 

I think so.

I think my "theme" is admittedly based on equal parts childhood experiences, fish store "chatter", outdated information, and good old lack of experience with them over the years. However, if you poll a random group of hobbyists (and I have), you see this sort of thing.

And any time "meh" comes up twice in a few seconds when talking about a group of fishes, you know that there are equal parts of inexperience and  a sprinkling of ignorance mixed in there somewhere!

Yup. 

Barbs are "old school" fishes, for sure.

I mean, even the name "Barb" is sort of "old school" sounding- like a name origin lost in the mists of aquarium history..a haze of metal-framed aquariums, filter floss, and "air-powered outside filters..." 

Even the name "Barb"- sort of reeks of that "big, gnarly PROBLEM fish" label, right? I mean, they're called freakin' "BARBS?" Really?

According to Wikipedia, The root of the group, "Barb" is "common in cyprinid names of European languages", derived from the Latin word, "barba"- a humble reference to the "barbels" which are prominently seen around the mouth of many fishes we classify as "barbs".

Old school.

Yeah. Sounds really "1950's" to me. And that means it's a group of fishes that's ready for a new look. 

Okay, I'll admit it, for all to hear:

I consider myself an "advanced" hobbyist, but I'm shockingly ignorant about Barbs.

And it's not like Barbs are obscure fishes, kept only by highly advanced specialists or ignorant beginners. Nope. They're really considered one of the "cornerstone" groups of aquarium fishes...well, sort of...Right?

I think so.

And I fully admit,  I'm downright lacking in my knowledge of them. I'm going to be a bit arrogantly presumptuous for a moment and suggest that many of you might be, too!

I mean, I can identify some of the more popular members of the group. I can hold my own in a very lightweight conversation on them with general hobbyists. However, once you get beyond, "Which do you like better: The 'classic' Tiger Barb, or the 'Moss Green' Tiger Barb?" my lack of knowledge is "front and center!"

Yet, when you think about "Barbs"- that's like IT, right? I mean, "Tiger Barb", "Cherry Barb", "Tinfoil Barb", and...um, well...uhh...?

Not only am I sort of ignorant about 'em...I never even really gave them a fair shake over the past- oh, like 25 years or so...

And that's a real shame. They're kind of- well, cool!

It's hard to imagine being this ignorant or at least, indifferent- about a group of fishes that are so pervasive in the hobby, but I simply think it's because I just haven't played with them as much as other fishes. When I was a kid, I always had a few Cherry Barbs or Tiger Barbs; maybe a "Gold Barb" or two- in my tanks- but was always held back from trying others by what "the books" said about them. I was literally scared away from them:

"Aggressive!" "Metallic." (aquarium hobby code word for "butt-ass ugly", BTW) "May eat aquatic plants!" "Produce copious amounts of metabolic waste", "Attain 5 inches in length!" 

Shit. That's some bad PR, huh?

Literally, they're "typecast" as mean, ugly, tropical versions of Goldfish!

So, I was a classic example of someone who was simply "programmed" by the popular opinions of the day, and it sort of shut me down on this large and diverse group of fishes for decades! 

I think that it's time to re-think these fishes. Yeah, we need to look at them yet again.

I was doomed from the earliest days in my hobby "career" to simply smile as I walked by tanks filled with them at the LFS...

However, in defense of my ignorance- I don't think I'm the ONLY one who was sort of "chased off" by the popular sentiment regarding these guys! Why is it that we have all sorts of Cichlid clubs, Killie clubs, Betta clubs, Guppy Clubs, even Catfish clubs, but NO "Cyprinid clubs" ("Okay, you can say the same about characins, too...but let's stick to the Barbs here, Fellman" )

Curious.

Maybe what's not helping these guys is that, taxonomically, they're heaped into the family Cyprinidae, which also includes such notable big, messy, butt-ugly and non-aquarium-friendly fishes as Carps and Minnows...Yeah.

Damn taxonomy!

Now, in defense, the family Cyprinidae also includes the ultra-cool Danios and the popular "Sharks", not to mention, the group of fishes that we collectively refer to as Rasbora...

So, we can't categorically "dis" the whole group...but man- the "poster children" of the family are, well...pretty much everything our forefathers in the aquarium world told us: Big, ugly, gluttonous fishes that would pretty much lay to waste any well-managed aquarium in minutes!

(Cyprus carpio- Latin for "Big fuckng ugly fish?" Well, it scared me off!  Pic by Kapr Obecny-Used under CC BY SA-3.)

Or we hear of pretty, yet mass-bred, genetically-weak, mankind-exploited versions of these fishes, damning the marketplace for years with their general "non-vigorousness..." So, the caveats about this group of fishes become ingrained into our collective fish-geek psyche from an early age, don't they?

But then again, if you're a kid, looking for active, cool fishes for your first 20-gallon tank, the Tiger Barb (currently Systomus tetrazona) and it's relatives are sort of hard to turn away from...Of course, until said Tiger Barb and its pals starts beating the shit out of your Neons in your small "community" tank, that is.

Yet, that's not really the fish's fault, right?

(The "classic" Tiger Barb. Pic by Anandarajkumar -used under CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The reality is that many, many of these guys DO make cool aquarium fish, particularly if your tank is large enough to keep a school, and to provide enough room for the other inhabitants to "get out of the way" when the barbs start partying. I mean, "relentlessly active" doesn't always translate into "aggressive", right?

Especially when they're maintained in a tank set up for their needs.

Stuff we need to research, think about, and prepare for before we purchase. Otherwise, the "hate cycle" continues forever, as the fish live up to our very lowest base expectations of them.

And yes, speaking of needs- there are a ton of Barbs that come from tinted, acidic waters in Southeast Asia- perfect for what we do.

And perfect for a well-researched biotope aquarium, right? Yeah. I think this is another group of fishes that could benefit from being maintained under conditions more closely representing their natural habitats...which are both interesting and attractive aquarium subjects.

(Yeah, the "Siamese Tiger Barb", Putnigrus partipentazona...Hello, Asian biotope aquarium!)

Can you imagine a Barb "biotope" tank? One which "riffs" on some of the sexy botanical-laden blackwater habitats from which many come from?

Oh, yeah. I can!

Jungle streams, filled with leaves, seed pods, interesting rocks, plants...the sort of habitats that make even the most jaded fish geek sit up and give them a second look.

Well, wait just a minute...Seems as though we've been down this road before.

Remember our video, "The Tint Meets The Aquascaper", by the legendary George Farmer, which we featured a few years back?

What fish did George choose to "star" in this awesome blackwater aquarium?

Why, Puntius pentazona, which look incredibly sexy when given the proper environment, don't they? And when an aquarium personality with the extraordinary taste and talent of George-freaking-Farmer chooses to feature them in one of his videos, you'd think it would open up the floodgates to a new era of popularity for these seemingly forgotten fishes...

Nope.

Crickets.

A tank this nice, with fish this cool- should definitely help change some minds on this diverse group. And yet...I still cannot recall off the top of my head if, to date,  I have received a pic of a tank from one of our community set up exclusively for- or even featuring-Barbs! 

No respect.

So we'll keep forging ahead...

Hoping to undo a century or so of "bad programming" that we and hobbyists worldwide  have been exposed to, telling us to approach them with extreme caution...

We had to do a little of it ourselves...We featured a sexy, Asian-themed botanical-style tank from Johnny Ciotti absolutely "starred" Barbs- specifically, Desmopuntius omboocellatus- the "Snakeskin Barb"-one of THE coolest barbs you'll ever see. They're flat-out awesome in this tank. And peaceful. And they don't eat aquatic plants.

Yet you almost never see them in a proper context like this, IMHO. And context, as we know, can make a big difference in perception of a given species within the aquarium hobby.

So we've seen a few "modern twists" on the idea of Barbs in an aquarium conceived around them...

And still...the sound of silence.

Weird, huh? 

I mean, they truly look amazing in blackwater! What's the deal here? 

Hello?

Really, what IS it that keeps these fishes from exploding with popularity?

I'm at a loss, here. 

Work with me...

I really do think that this is a group that truly suffered/suffers from the cumulative effects of "bad press" they've received over the decades, warning us about the general need for "large tanks", "hefty filters", "tough tank mates", etc. I totally fell for this stuff, when the reality is that, as that a group, many of these guys don't seem all that much more aggressive than a bunch of rowdy Apistos, if you ask me.

Yes, there are some aggressive ones. There are some huge ones. There are some which poop like mad. And yeah, there are some which tear up live plants.

So...We can just avoid these pain-in-the-ass species, right?

Easy.

Yeah...totally.

I think that we can collectively blow up the popularity of Barbs by maintaining the most "aquarium-friendly" species under the most appropriate possible conditions. Employ botanicals. Select the correct plants. Follow rigorous husbandry regimens.

Nothing different here than we've done for other varieties of fishes, right?

The fact that they are so diverse, generally hardy (with the possible exception of the damn Cherry Barb for many of us-perhaps a victim of lowest-common-denominator "commoditized breeding?"), and typically rather easy to breed, makes the disrespect they have received by the general hobby all that much more perplexing.

And interestingly, Barbs do have a certain "character" that many of the shoaling fishes we keep (like my beloved Tetras) seem to lack. Maybe it's because many of them are "larger" fishes by aquarium hobby standards- 3" (7.62cm) or so on the average, and almost seem to have individual "personalities.."

That's a pretty cool thing, right?

Not sure, but they do have that "It factor" going for them... Sure, some WILL tear up plants...but I mean, c'mon...plants or fishes? Really.

LOL. Seriously, thought- you CAN compromise. And there are some good compromises! 

(The undeniably sexy Black Ruby Barb (Puntius nigrofasciatus), captured by my mentor, the late, great Bob Fenner!)

There are numerous relatively modest-sized species, which, when placed in an aquarium designed to highlight them and accommodate their needs, can create a vibe and aesthetic that are truly second to none. We know that "subtle" coloration is not a "nonstarter" for a fishes kept in a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium. The right conditions can really highlight a fish in a very special way!

Of course, in a blog piece of this necessary brevity, we can scarcely scratch the surface of this topic, short of giving everyone a little shove to research more about them and consider them for inclusion in your next tank!

I know that I will. 

With sufficient swimming space, water chemistry, and oh...aquatic plants and botanicals- what kinds of fascinating results are possible? Perhaps a break in the "meh cycle," which has unfairly plagued these fishes for decades in the hobby.

Barbs, like so many of the fishes we play with in our aquariums, benefit- and suffer- from the perceptions and "misconceptions" they dealt with for years.

Yeah, not all of them are aggressive, mean bastards that nip fins and eat live plants, so maybe we need to give 'em another look...and cut 'em some slack? 

I think we do...

Perhaps looking more closely at Barbs can help us improve in other areas, too? Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned that can be applied to life in general? By giving them the respect and consideration they deserve, we can absolutely "de-program" ourselves from the (unfair) biases of our own making, avoiding the over-generalization and stereotyping which sours so many things in our culture, right?

Damn. I'm feeling like Barbs can change the world! 

Well, maybe they can change the hobby!

Let's start by seeing if they can change a few minds, first, right?

Let's take the "blah" out of the "Barb equation", okay?

As always...Stay excited. Stay thoughtful. Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay excited. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

August 25, 2020

0 comments


The "upside" of detritus..?

Detritus.

The definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:

"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)

Yeah, doesn't sound great.

Not surprisingly, a lot of hobbyists think that it is so bad.

I'm not buying it.

Why is this necessarily a "bad" thing?

Could there be some "upside" to this stuff? 

The Latin root word, is really weird, too:  It means  "rubbing or wearing away."

Okay...

But really, IS it that bad?

I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."

It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.

This is really important. It's part of the biological "operating system" of our aquariums.

It's also known that detritus may be formed by some types of bacterial aggregations. These may result from the feeding activities of animals, but often they are simply a result of bacterial growth. Detritus can be composed of inorganic mineral grains resulting from the actions of animals burrowing into wood or botanicals, or from ingested larger mineral grains of material, which are only partially dissolved via digestion.

That's not all bad, right?

I think we should embrace this. Especially in a botanical-style aquarium, which essentially "runs" on the decomposition of materials.

In the flooded forest floors we find in Nature, the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, detritus, and microorganisms is really important to the overall tropical environment, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system, and acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream!

Stuff is being used by a myriad of life forms.

Is there a lesson from Nature here that we can incorporate into our aquarium work?

I think so!

Now, I realize that this stuff- allowing it to accumulate or even be present in your system- goes against virtually everything we've been indoctrinated to believe in about aquarium husbandry. Pretty much every article you see on this stuff is about its "dangers", and how to get it out of your tank. I'll say it again- I think we've been looking at detritus wrong for a long time; perceiving it as an enemy to be feared, as opposed to the "biological catalyst" it really is!

In essence, it's organically rich particulate material. 

We've pushed this narrative many times here, and I still think we need to encourage hobbyists to embrace it more.

Yeah, detritus.

Okay, I'll admit that detritus, as we see it, may not be the most attractive thing to look at in our tanks. I'll give you that. It literally looks like a pile of shit! However, what we're talking about allowing to accumulate isn't fish poop and uneaten food. It's broken-down botanical-materials- the end product of biological processing.  Yeah, a wide variety of organisms have become adapted to eat or utilize detritus.

There is, of course, a distinction between these two.

One is the result of poor husbandry, and of course, is not something we'd want to accumulate in our aquariums. The other is a more nuanced definition. 

As we talk about so much around here- just because something looks a certain way doesn't mean that it alwaysa bad thing, right? What does it mean? Take into consideration why we add botanicals to our tanks in the first place. Now, you don't have to have huge piles of the stuff littering your sandy substrate. However, you could have some accumulating here and there among the botanicals and leaves, where it may not offend your aesthetic senses, and still contribute to the overall aquatic ecosystem you've created.

If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they"say in the books and hobby forums?

Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?

I think so.

Now, I'm just one guy, but I personally haven't had issues with the complete decomposition of botanicals and leaves being left to accumulate in my aquariums. In almost three decades of playing with this stuff, and being a hardcore, water-quality-testing reef keeper during much of that time, I can't ever, EVER recall I time where the decline of a system I maintained could be pinned specifically on the detritus from decomposing botanical materials as a causative factor in reducing water quality.

Of course, if you're allowing large quantities of uneaten food and fish poop to accumulate in your aquarium, that's a very different distinction. Such materials accumulating will contribute to nitrate and phosphate accumulation in closed aquatic systems unless removed or acted upon by organisms residing in the aquarium. So, our love of detritus shouldn't be a surrogate for poor husbandry- ever.

I have always been a firm believer in some forms of nutrient export being employed in every single tank I maintain. Typically, it's regular water exchanges. And, not "when I think about it', or "periodically", mind you.

Nope, it's weekly. 

So, yeah- I'm not saying that you can essentially disobey all the common sense husbandry practices we've come to know and love in the hobby (like not overcrowding/overfeeding, etc.) and just change the water weekly and everything's good, either.

Water exchanges are helpful.

However, they're not a panacea for all of the potential "ills" of a poorly managed tank. You need to master thewell-known basics of aquarium care. Period. You know this, of course...right?

And you could employ some well-known friends to help you keep detritus well-managed in your aquarium, such as snails, like the Malaysian Livebearing Snail, fish like catfishes and loaches, and all sorts of worms, like blackworms, and even organisms like Gammarus.  

Think about the potential benefits of allowing some of this stuff to remain.

Think about the organisms which feed upon it, their impact on the water quality, and on the organisms which fed on them. Then, think about the fishes and how they utilize not only the material itself, but the organisms which consume it.

Consider its role in the overall ecosystem...

So....IS detritus a nutrient trap?

Or is it a place for fishes to forage among? A place for biodiversity to arise.

A place for larval fishes to seek refuge and sustenance in? Kind of like they do in Nature, and have done so for eons?

Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).

There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."

Stay the course. Don't be afraid. Open your mind. Study what is happening. Test your water. Observe the health of your fishes. Draw parallels to the natural aquatic ecosystems of the world. Look at this "evolution" process with wonder, awe, and courage.

Maybe, as the years go by, we as a hobby will overcome generations of fear over stuff like detritus and fungi and biofilms- the very life-forms which power the aquatic ecosystems we strive to duplicate in our aquariums.

Ahh..this "stuff."

This "annoying" end product of decomposition, and the life forms that accompany/produce it can actually be one of the most beautiful, elegant, beneficial friends that we can have in the aquarium...

We just need to embrace them all. Understand what role they play in Nature- and in our tanks.

It's a mental shift.

A perspective of open-minded curiosity...and a willingness to look at things a bit differently and go beyond the usual and generally accepted ideas on stuff. It's not always pretty. 

I'll give you that much. 

However, it's always, always worth considering and exploring. Because just accepting "status quo", keeping a closed mind to alternative ideas, and not pushing the edges from time to time is not just a little bit boring- it's denying fellow hobbyists the opportunity to learn about- and potentially benefit from- stuff we might have long been afraid of.

Open your mind up and reconsider the "upside" to detritus.

Stay thoughtful. Stay engaged. Stay open-minded. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics