It's hard to believe we at Tannin Aquatics have been at this "botanical thing" for almost 4 years now it's interesting to see that we have made a lot of progress in changing minds and attitudes about the art and science of blackwater/botanical-style aquariums. Every day, I see new and exciting work by aquarists from all over the world, and it's incredible!
However, there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by the lingering doubts and misinformation that I still notice in some corners of the internet. There are a number of "myths" about blackwater aquariums which continue to perpetrate, often fielded by self-proclaimed "experts", who's hands-on experience with blackwater, botanical-style aquariums is oddly absent. The propagation of this and other incorrect information just shows that we need to work harder to educate our fellow hobbyists about the realities of these types of aquariums.
One of the biggest myths floating out there is that blackwater aquairums are somehow "dirty" affairs, with tons of decomposing material, clogged filters, and marginal water quality. The dark, soupy water seems to go hand in hand with the perception that these are haphazard, poorly-managed systems, teetering on the bring of some sort of disaster- perhaps the half-mythical "crash" that visits those who tempt the basic rules of aquarium husbandry.
And here's the thing.
I think the very appearance of the tinted, brownish water creates that myth.
As aquarium people, we were pretty much "indoctrinated" from the start of our aquatic "careers" that our tanks should have "crystal clear, blue-white water", and that this is one of the benchmarks of a healthy aquarium.
And of course, I won't disagree that clear water is nice.
I like it, too...However, I would make the case that "crystal clear" water is: a) not always solely indicative of "healthy" or "optimum" , and b) not always what fishes encounter in nature. Think about a body of water like the Rio Negro. This water is of course, "tinted" because of the dissolved tannins and humic substances that are present due to decaying botanical materials.
We know all about that, right?
Clean water is good. It's important. And that's different from being "dirty", however.
And the color? The tint? It's what's "normal" for this habitat. Although in many hobbyists minds, it isn't. Somehow, we associate anything less than the aforementioned blue-white "clear" water with "dirty."
In a blackwater environment, the color is a visual indicator of an influx of dissolved materials that contribute to the "richness" of the environment. Indeed, a blackwater environment is typically described as an aquatic system in which vegetation decays, creating tannins that leach into the water, making a transparent, acidic water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.
Despite the appearance, as a general rule, blackwater rivers are lower in nutrients than clear rivers. They have very low concentrations of major ions, such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, and lower conductivity and typically low levels of dissolved solids.
Now, in the closed environment that is an aquarium, "stuff" dissolving into the water may have significant impact on the overall quality. Even though it may be "normal" in a blackwater environment to have all of those dissolved leaves and botanicals, this could be problematic in the aquarium if nitrate, phosphate, and other DOC's ("dissolved organic compounds") contribute to a higher bioload, bacteria count, etc.
So, yeah, it boils down to common sense about how we manage our aquairums. And making a mental shift from the mindset that suggests that just because the water is brown, and hosts a lot of decomposing botanical materials, that it's somehow "dirty" or has low quality.
I think we need to contemplate and understand the difference between water "quality" as expressed by the measure of compounds like nitrate and phosphate, and color.
You can have very darkly tinted water (caused by humic substances and tannins), and still have water extremely low in DOC's, nitrate, and phosphate.
Our aesthetic "upbringing" in the hobby seems to push us towards crystal clear water, regardless of whether or not it's "tinted" or not. And think about it: You can have absolutely horrifically toxic levels of ammonia, dissolved heavy metals, etc. in water that is crystal clear and "invisible", and have perfectly beautiful parameters in water that is heavily tinted and even a bit turbid.
That's why the aquarium "mythology" which suggested that blackwater tanks were somehow "dirtier" than "blue water" tanks used to drive me crazy. Color alone is not indicative of water quality for aquarium purposes.
The reality is that many of the wild aquatic habitats from which a lot of our fave fishes come from are anything but "crystal clear." As we know now, the influence of factors like soil, and the presence of terrestrial materials like seed pods, leaves, and branches play a huge role in the chemical composition and appearance of the water. It's really no different in the aquarium, right? Tannins from wood and botanical materials will leach into the water, providing the characteristic "tint" that we've become so accustomed to in our little niche.
It's important, when passing judgement on, or evaluating the concept of botanicals and blackwater in aquariums, to remember this. Look, crystal-clear , blue-white water is absolutely desirable for 98% of all aquariums out there- but not always "realistic", in terms of how closely the tank replicates the natural environment.
The takeaway here is that we should evaluate the "health" or "normalcy" of a blackwater, botanical-influenced aquarium-or ANY aquarium, for that matter- based on it's chemical water quality first and foremost, AND the color of the water on a secondary basis (Keeping in mind, of course, that the "aesthetic" of such an aquarium may indeed mean that the brown water is perfectly normal).
And of course, water quality is very important, and we as blackwater aquarists are as keenly aware about the need for water quality as any other hobbyists out there. This is really no different from the mindset that we've had since our earliest days in the hobby: Common sense. Observation. Diligence. Patience.
When you have materials of any type breaking down in the aquarium, they are part of the bioload- and that requires an appropriately-sized population of beneficial bacteria and fungi to break down these materials without adversely affecting water quality. We've written about this idea many, many times here in "The Tint", and talked about the "ecosystem" aspect of working with this type of aquarium quite a bit.
Now, that being said, it would be utterly irresponsible of us to say that you can simply "add stuff" to an aquarium- specifically one that has been in a stable existence for some time- and not be concerned about any impact on water quality. That's part of the reason why we plead with you to go slowly when adding these materials to an established tank, and to test and gauge the impact on your water quality.
Going slowly not only allows you time to react- it gives your bacterial and fungal population the opportunity to grow and adjust to the increased bioload. These organisms can go a long way towards creating a stable, healthy botanical aquarium environment...But they can't work miracles- and they can't do it alone.
And of course, common sense husbandry procedures, like regular water exchanges, use of chemical filtration media (activated carbon, PolyFilter, etc.) give you an added layer of "insurance." A healthy dose of common sense and judgement goes a long way towards a successful outcome!
The aesthetic is not for everyone...I totally get that.
However, I don't think that we should not simply "give a pass" to the uninitiated hobbyists who make many of the above-referenced assumptions that perpetuate the misunderstandings. We need to educate and explain. Because to simply shrug it off will continue to allow these incorrect myths to intimidate those who want to experiment and explore- and possibly contribute to hobby breakthroughs that will benefit all of us for generations to come!
Stay educated. Stay informed. Stay diligent. Stay original. Stay undaunted. Stay observant. Stay undaunted...
And Stay Wet.
As lovers of the natural, botanical-style aquarium, it's always fun to study habitats where fishes come from and see how we can replicate aspects of them in our aquariums. In fact, it's like the whole game, right? Nature has created so many interesting habitats in which life can flourish.
One thing that we find amazing about the natural world is that there seems to be an inspiring habitat for just about everything out there. In the seemingly endless search for new aquarium ideas, we spend a lot of time looking for new ideas- new ecological niches to simulate, to stretch your creativity a bit.
We've spent some time over the past couple of years studying an aquatic environment that you might not have thought much about before, yet is just begging for you to replicate in the aquarium!
Enter the "morichal..."
Oaky, cool Scott. What's a "morichal?"
Hmm...glad you asked.
A "morichal" is a lowland stream found in Savannah areas of South America, Amazon River basin, the upper Negro River drainage in Brazil, the Orinoco River basin, and along the Orinoco River in Colombia and Venezuela, among other locales. The habitat is dominated by a certain type of palm tree, the "Moriche Palm" (Mauritia flexousa), and extensive riparium vegetation. This palm only grows were its roots can be underwate (love that!), and typically is found in groups- hence the term, "morichal", which refers to...a group of them!
Morichals are considered important systems for the maintenance of freshwater Neotropical fauna in lowland savannas. The monodominant stands of the palm and associated growths provide important food to a great number of species,
Although typically supplied with underground water sources throughout the year, these streams swell with water during periods of seasonal flooding. Riparian vegetation and sandy substrates abound. And when you have trees, vegetation, and seasonal influx of water, utilizing botanicals in your aquarium replication of this habitat is just "par for the course', right?
The habitat itself has an abundance of botanical debris, leaves, macro algae, fallen branches, palm fronds, and a matrix of roots and such. And, with terrestrial plants growing right up to the water's edge, the possibilities to create a cool aquatic display are unlimited! With a little creativity, one could simulate the growth of the riparian vegetation of the "morichal."
I've cultivated some riparian plants, such as Acorus, for the past couple of years, which "I'm gonna" use someday in a paludarium-type replication of this habitat! A paludarium would open up some unique aesthetic opportunities to really push the boundaries of creativity!
In the past, Ive even experimented with small "Cat Palms" (Chamaedorea cataractarum) and rooted them in leaf-strewn, shallow sand substrates- a sort of "micro morichal" setup! I know this concept can work! Further experimentation in this area can no doubt yield some cool results!
And of course, whenever you have these complex physical habitats, you end up with a diversity of life and food sources- and hence, fishes which are suited to exploit them. This interesting summary from a study I encountered on Morichal habitats expands upon this:
"In structurally complex habitats, specialist species also can exploit specific food resources to which they are morphologically or physiologically adapted to utilize (Willis et al., 2005). For example, in vegetated patches we found a relatively high abundance of small cichlids and doradid catfishes with different body shapes and feeding habits (e. g., Apistgramma hoignei, Physopyxis ananas). But small omnivorous characids with less-diversified body morphologies (Characidae), such as tetras of the genera Moenkhausia spp. and Hemigrammus spp., dominated open and shallow beaches.
Littoral habitats containing woody debris and leaf litter also might support higher primary and secondary productivity which provides fishes with more foraging opportunities on a larger variety of substrates (Benke et al., 1985; Crook & Robertson, 1999). Relationships between fish structure and macroinvertebrate assemblages have been associated with habitat heterogeneity (Angermeier & Karr, 1984)."
Although the waters in these habitats are largely clear (as in, not turbid), they are stained with tannins and are typically acidic in pH (usually 6.0 or less), and have a significant amount of roots and such from the terrestrial and riparium vegetation surrounding. You'll find lots of palm leaves, fruits, and seed pods submerged on the substrate in morichals.
And of course, that's where we come in, right?
What would be good botanicals to utilize in an aquarium representing this habitat?Well, some of our palm-derived selections would be a good start! Since palms are an important part of this habitat, it would only make sense that these materials form an important part of your aquascape, right?
Scattering these materials along the bottom of the aquarium would create a pretty good replication of the morichal environment! I would probably not go too crazy, in terms of variety; rather, I'd limit my selections to a few of the above and just sort of "do it up" that way, so as to emphasize the abundance of several dominating plant species in the locale.
Although not as productive as the Amazon River itself, these environments often contain dozens of different fish species in relatively small areas, including characins, catfishes, and dwarf cichlids. Unusual characin species, such as Hemiodus, are often found in these habitats. Occasionally available in the aquarium trade, they would make really cool "stars" for a specialized display like this! The lovely "Green Neon Tetra" (Paracheirodon simulans), is a known (and super sexy!) denizen of this habitat, as well!
Oh, and Dwarf Pike Cichlids are often found in morichal habitats...hello!
Of course, some of the more popular characins, such as Pencilfishes (N. unifasciatus is notable), are found there. And Apistogramma, along with the beloved Mesonauta insignis, are found in morichals, which will lend a familiar, if not somewhat exotic look to your display!
As a subject for a riparium study, the morichal environment presents a near-perfect opportunity to stretch your aquatic creativity, while highlighting some well-known fishes in an unusual and not-often-replicated niche.
Think of the creative possibilities here!
The abundance of botanicals and wood available to us today makes it easier than ever to realistically replicate this habitat! There are numerous amazing materials which you can employ to replicate the functional and aesthetic aspects.
The morichal is symbolic of where we are in the aquarium hobby: At a real "high point", where it's entirely possible to create realistic, "functionally aesthetic" aquatic display utilizing natural materials to mimic the look and feel of the amazing aquatic habitats of the world, while simultaneously learning about these priceless natural treasures.
Where to next?
Learn a little. Get excited. Have fun. Fly in the face of convention.
Stay studious. Stay fascinated. Stay innovative. Stay creative. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet!
As you know, we try to keep a pretty active and lively discourse with you- our community, whenever possible, and that includes asking for your feedback and thoughts on stuff all the time.
One of our recent polls on our Instagram channel was, "What geographic region should we highlight in our next blackwater aquarium?"
The options (in no particular order) were Africa, India, South America, and Southeast Asia. We had hundreds of responses, and here were the results of the poll, in order:
Now, I thought this was quite interesting, really
I mean, we've talked about the blackwater habitats of South America since our inception; featured a lot of information not only about aquariums we created to replicate features of South American habitats, but many blog pieces and pics on the habitats themselves as well.
And of course, we've featured our Asian-themed blackwater tanks before as well (and just completed an extensive photo/video shoot on the Aisan tank as well. We have an Indian-themed tinted brackish tank which also got the Hollywood treatment by Johnny Ciotti last week (photos to follow soon).
I admit, we haven't really touched Africa yet, short of a rather poorly-thought-out exercise in using Mopani wood as the basis for a scape back in 2017... Oh, aren't those SOUTH AMERICAN characins in there?
Oh, yeah...they are... well...
So, I was a bit surprised. Well, sort of. I realize we have picked up many, many new followers and customers, who may not have seen all of our South American-themed work over the past several years. And our Southeast Asian tanks are relatively new and not all that well-discussed, so I suppose it makes sense there...The big surprise, however, was Africa and India- which were very close in the poll numbers, but nonetheless, third and fourth respectively.
Now, again, I suppose it makes sense- with all of the newer enthusiasts we've attracted...And the overwhelming popularity of the Amazon and the sort of general hobby mindset which apparently equates "South America= Blackwater", right? And believe me, I'm kind of excited to do some more South American-themed blackwater tanks! Although, curiously, I recently executed a very tightly-focused South American tank, my "Tucano Tangle", which attempts to replicate the (blackwater) habitat of the diminutive characin, Tucanoichthys tucano in a unique way.
I kind of figured that the above reasons are why there is a lot of hunger for South American-themed blackwater aquariums...Well, those and the fact that they are awesome- and are home to so many cool fishes which are much-loved in the hobby. And I think that, because so many "generic" South American blackwater tanks have been done before, we'll keep looking at more specified types of these habitats and attempting to replicate them and the fishes which inhabit them! Not the typical "biotope" themed tanks you see in contests ("Rio ____ in May, 3km southeast of Manaus..."); rather, more "habitat-niche-specific" ideas (like igarape habitats, shorelines, vernal pools, Morichals, root tangles, etc.).
These will hopefully not only highlight the many diverse microhabitats in the region- they'll help us understand what the fishes that we see in them are found in these specific environments...and how they function! Hopefully, a little different from the usual stuff we see in this context.
With Southeast Asia, my first foray was not really all that unusual, I suppose- I featured some dense wood, lots of leaves, and the usual Cryptocorynes, Loaches,Barbs, and Rasbora. It's not exactly what I'd call a "deep dive" like I mentioned for the South American themes we've executed and will execute in the future...I'm actually a bit embarassed about that, lol! But here's what's interesting: I came in with such a "South American bias" that I suppose it was inevitable that I'd have to "get my feet wet" with a most "generic" idea, lol.
Yeah, I promise that our next Southeast Asian executions will be based upon far more unique habitats, like Peat Bogs, mountain streams, shrimp-specific habitats, rice paddies, etc. Not only will these be fun to play with, they'll hopefully inspire others in our community and beyond get out of the "cliche zone" and study and attempt to replicate some really cool habitats in the aquarium!
We have played with some brackish Southeast Asian ideas, embracing the little Bumblebee Goby (Brachygobius doriae), and really enjoyed seeing them in a more natural setting. We look forward to other more "fish-specific" Southeast Asian habitat executions!
Of course, achieving a very exciting third place in our poll, Africa is a region which we probably all agree deserves much more attention, in terms of blackwater and other types of natural-style botanical-themed aquariums is concerned. And Africa, much like South America, has a tremendous diversity of these types of habitats to work with. Lots of river habitats, jungle streams, temporary pools, and (perhaps most exciting to many) plant-rich ponds and tributaries- all of which have blackwater "versions"- can make this an amazing canvass upon which to execute our craft.
There are unique cichlid-themed displays and killifish-centric habitats we'd love to play with. With many beautiful; leaf-infused habitats- home to much-loved species such as Pelvicichromis and others, it will be interesting to see the types of tanks and successes we'll see when we dive deeper!
And of course, the chance to do some really unusual work, especially with the under-appreciated (in the hobby mainstream, anyways) killifishes- is always pretty cool!
Anubius species. Rocks. Leaves. Regionally- appropriate botanicals. Dense wood. Sand...all cool elements that will be great to use with an African-themed tank!
And then, there's India.
Like, this is an amazing treasure trove of diverse habitats; home to numerous interesting fishes. Perhaps no other region, with the possible exception of Australia, receives such scant attention from the bulk of the aquarium hobby. And it's really quite a shame, because there are so many incredible fishes, plants, and habitats to study and replicate in our aquariums. Okay, even the domesticated forms are pretty cool, and would be appropriate for such habitats, right?
And it's not without at least a small tinge of irony that many of our botanicals that we offer are from our suppliers in various parts of India! So, it makes perfect sense that it would be cool to use them in a more appropriate natural context in an Indian-themed aquarium, right?
Now, we have done somde work with an Indian theme, as indicated above- with our brackish-water aquarium featuring a wild brackish population of the Indian "Orange Chromide" cichlid, Etroplus maculatus, and it's proven to be a truly enjoyable tank for this somewhat under-apopreiated, yet well known fish. To keep it in an appropriate aquarium habitat is pretty rewarding, I must say!
Often, I've found that trying new things our hobby is simply a matter of jumping in with our eyes wide open- and with the willingness to look at things a bit differently than we have in the past. Playing with aquariums which replicate both the form and the function of habitats in these under-appreciated regions is something we're looking forward to doing more of!
We promise to keep featuring different ideas, approaches, and executions of the wild aquatic habitats of the world. With a global supply of inspiration and ideas- and YOU- our engaged and excited community- it's very exciting to contemplate what we can all do- and where we'll be headed next!
It's a big world.
And there are a lot of possibilities when we attack the "global checklist" which awaits us.
Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay ensued...
And Stay Wet.
With our heavy emphasis on utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquairums, I can't help but think about the long-term of their function and health. Specifically, the changes that they go through as they evolve into little microcosms.
Now, we're all about diligent, thoughtful maintenance of our aquariums, right? I mean, we spend a lot of time, money, and energy equipping our tanks with suitable gear, embracing excellent husbandry practices, and just stay on top of everything, in general.
That's part of being an engaged, responsible fish geek, right?
So, what happens to our tanks if we sort of "let them go" a bit? Especially, a botanical-style blackwater aquarium with a "deep leaf litter bed" or lots of botanicals? Let's say that we stop doing weekly water exchanges and slip to say, once a month. Let's say all we're doing is topping off for evaporation during that time period, feeding fishes; that's about it.
What will happen?
Will all of the botanical material continue to break down, keeping the water "tinted?" Will biofilms continue to colonize open surfaces? Will water chemistry swing wildly? Will phosphate and nitrate accumulate rapidly? Will the aquarium descend into chaos?
Or, will it simply continue to function as usual?
I mean, when you think about it, the natural, botanical-style blackwater aquarium is sort of set up to replicate a habitat where all of this stuff is taking place already. Leaves, seed pods, etc. are more-or-less ephemeral in nature, and are constantly breaking down in these environments. Decomposition, accumulation of epiphytic growth, and colonization of various life forms is continuous.
How much more will things change by simply delaying water exchanges for several weeks? By not siphoning detritus at all? Will this really become some sort of problem? Or, will the bacteria, fungal growths, and other microorganisms and crustacean life living in our botanical substrates continue to do what they do- break down organic waste and reproduce?
I can't help but wonder if a natural, botanical-style blackwater aquarium can better handle a period of "benign neglect" than many typical systems...Not that I'd want to do this, mind you... I'm a fairly diligent/borderline obsessive maintenance guy. I love my weekly water exchanges. But I can't help but wonder what happens in one of these systems if we let "nature take the controls" for a while?
An interesting question...and perhaps an interesting experiment for the intrepid hobbyist. Don't ask me why this was on my mind this morning!
I open the discussion up to you.
Stay curious. Stay open-minded. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay adventurous...
And Stay Wet.
Almost everything we do in the hobby involves some sort of risk, doesn't it? And many of the most important hobby advancements required us as hobbyists to assume some risk; to take a chance. And, if you're objective, I'll bet that you can look back on your hobby "career" and find a bunch of examples where you took a chance and achieved results better than you expected.
I know that I did...Not all of them are earth-shattering, long-term-impactful hobby breakthroughs, yet each represented a personal triumph achieved as a result of assuming some risk and taking a chance.
When I took a chance and incubated a spawn of "top-spawning" killies in peat instead, I netted 130 fry.
When I took a chance and attempted to keep a leaf-litter only aquarium and eliminate all external food inputs to see if the fishes could be supported by natural food sources- it worked beyond my expectations.
When I took a chance and acclimated my store-bought Glowlght Tetras to a low pH, blackwater habitat, they responded by spawning about a week and half later.
When I took a chance and shut off my protein skimmer in my reef tank for a week, and fed the tank nightly, all of my stony corals that were pallid and colorless began coloring up and extending polyps throughout the day.
When I took a chance and created my vision of a tinted, muddy, "functionally aesthetic" brackish aquarium, it thrived beyond any brackish system I'd ever had.
Risk. Chance. Opportunities to improve.
Few of the above examples are "earth-shattering" hobby accomplishments. Rather, they're examples of personal hobby growth that can be achieved by assuming some risk.
They are most assuredly not a boastful set of my hobby accomplishments designed to show how awesome I am... Some have been regularly done by hobbyists for years- but I feared attempting them for a while for some reason. Yeah, they're a simple list (that is likely overshadowed by most of you) of examples of stuff we can and do achieve when we "get out of our own way."
You will almost always take chances in the aquarium hobby. Whether you realize it or not.
You will often study the associated risks, weigh the potential consequences, and ultimately "pull the trigger." Sometimes, it will be a spontaneous move spurred on by a specific situation that forced you to act. Other times, jumping ahead in your hobby journey will be a result of beautiful, blissful ignorance...Other times, it will be the end product of a protracted, deliberate evaluation.
Regardless, it will often be an assumption of risk that yields an unexpected reward.
Sometimes you'll fail. Spectacularly. Other times, you'll succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Many times, however, you'll gain something by trying.
There are no certainties in the hobby. The only certainty is that if you don't take a good risk once in a while, you'll not have the experience of knowing what it's like to try.
It's important to follow basic "rules" in our hobby, such as understanding the nitrogen cycle, temperature control, the need to export nutrients from closed systems, etc.
Yet it's equally as important to play a hunch, try a different route, or take a chance on a new idea now and again.
The worst consequence of trying and failing with a new idea is that you might lose some animals. That's pretty awful.
The worst consequence of not taking a chance with a new idea is that you will never have the opportunity to know if your idea was valid- and you might lose some animals anyways.
And that's awful, too.
The downsides to both are similar. Yet the reward for taking a risk and trying something new in the hobby is...progress.
To not attempt anything- such as taking a risk when trying to breed a relatively rare, "import-only" fish- is that we will continue to rely on wild imports, further degrading the natural environments from which they come, and reduction in wild populations.
To lose a few animals in an attempt to save incalculably large numbers is tragic and risky, and would have some questioning if we should do it at all. It's a choice the intrepid tropical fish keeper needs to make for his or herself, and weigh the moral implications of such decisions carefully.
There has been, and always will be, opportunity to push the envelope in the aquarium hobby. There has been, and always will be risk associated with doing so.
The consequences of not taking risks at all are well known, too.
The choice is ours.
Stay brave. Stay adventurous. Stay optimistic. Stay focused. Stay relentless. Stay focused...
And Stay Wet.
As lovers of natural, botanical-style, blackwater aquariums, it's almost impossible for us not to love the little fishes which inhabit tropical streams, flooded forests, and ponds. The habitats are as alluring and intriguing as the many fishes which reside in them.
And of course, that includes the characins- "Tetras", as we have come to call them collectively.
It always amazes me how they all have such vibrant color delineation and contrast, and I got to thinking about just why it is that these little fishes have such intense coloration and, in many cases, contrasting stripes.
In particular, the Neon Tetra, (Paracheirodon inessi) has such a dramatic coloration and pattern that you just had to figure it was for some reason other than just the fact that it looks awesome! (Yeah, Nature really couldn't give two f - - -s about aesthetics, as we know...) Turns, out, I have not been the only one wondering about this stuff.
Scholars have been researching it for years!
A couple of Japanese scientists (Takehide Ikeda and Shiro Kohshima ) were curious about this same thing, and they had a hypothesis about the stripes that was published after they conducted some field studies on fishes of blackwater biotopes (!) in the Peruvian Amazon, along with some aquarium observations as well, back in 2009.
They found that the lateral stripe in the Neon is actually kind of inconspicuous in the blackwater environment...unless viewed from an angle of about 30 degrees..Similar to an angle of attack that a predator might take when pursuing the Neon! From this angle, the stripe is actually "projected" in a near "mirror image" to just beneath the surface of the water.
Totally confusing to a would-be "Neon-muncher!":
"...Although they appeared bright in colorless water, their stripes appeared darker in blackwater. In addition, the visible are of their stripes was small and their brightness decreased, unless they were observed with a limited viewing angle (approximately 30 degrees above the horizon). The results show that from the viewpoint of approaching submerged predators, a bright mirror image of the stripes is projected onto the underside of the water's surface, providing a dramatic visual target while the real fish remains less conspicuous..."
This became known as the "Mirror-Image Decoy Hypothesis" (sounds incredibly sexy intellectual, huh?), and is a brilliant explanation (pun sort of intended) for the unique coloration of the Neon (and possibly the Cardinal Tetral, Glowlight Tetra, and several other Tetras as well, though to a different extent! Although it could be construed that the Neon (and by extension, the Cardinal) have evolved this "decoy coloration" further than many other species, which have a darker-colored lateral stripe and a lighter dorsal stripe, the opposite of the Neon!
Interestingly, Neons can alter their color intensity somewhat as well; for example, at night, when the colors are "duller- which also helps them blend in a bit more in various water and lighting conditions. Essentially, they change color in response to the lighting and environmental conditions in which they reside as an anti-predatory measure. However, the "Mirror Image Decoy" appears to be a specific adaptation to the blackwater environments from which these fishes predominantly hail from.
Ad one could make that stretch, when enjoying other small Tetras from blackwater habitats- that the coloration corresponds to the characteristics of the habitat directly. In other words, fishes which hail from areas of lighter substrates would likely be light on top, to better blend in with their habitat from above, and vice versa with dark stripes on top.
That would explain some interesting color patterns in many of these small fishes, right?
So we as hobbyists enjoy the chromatic brilliance and color combination of the Neon Tetra, while the fish "enjoys" the protection afforded by this little trick of optics!
And it all started in blackwater.
Kind of a "win-win" adaptation, right?
And that is one theory about how the Neon "earned its stripes!"
Stay curious. Stay educated. Stay inspired. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
I think that sometimes, like many hobbyists, I get too caught up in "one way" of doing things...a certain way of doing something. A certain aesthetic. A certain product regimen, etc.
And you will, hopefully, change your mindset over time.
One of the things that inspires me to evolve my aquarium is looking at my current tank and seeing which "niches" within it would make a good "starring role." I am a huge fan of creating overhangs and nooks and crannies with wood pieces near the bottom of my aquarium.
And, as I might have told you previously, I often ponder the idea of simply doing an aquarium entirely filled with wood and leaves...so very little in the way of "negative space" (areas not occupied by something) and an almost "reef-like" structure that would be perfect for all sorts of bottom-dwelling, or "near bottom-dwelling" fishes, like dwarf cichlids, loaches, Corydoras and other catfishes, Darter Tetras, etc.
I've always found this an interesting configuration for an aquarium, although my "prejudice" about having lots of open water space for shoaling fishes, like characins, Danios, etc. has wrongly prevented me from trying this.
Now, I've done this sort of thing in a marine tank before- I mean, this was THE WAY we did reef tanks in the 80's and well into the 90's...a "wall of rock"- because it was thought that you needed to use "x" pounds of live rock per gallon for "biofiltration"- and how else do you get 100 lbs of rock in a 50 gallon tank? Yeah.
However, I've long fantasized about doing such a "stack" of wood in a freshwater aquarium!
I remember just railing on such a configuration in reef tanks for years, simply because it was sort of "unimaginative" and a maintenance liability for a reef tank. However, for a freshwater system with a more "porous" structure of wood, I think that not only would it function fine, I know it will look cool. The idea of creating an entire community around such a niche is really cool. There are plenty of examples of this type of structure from nature.
The assembly and function of such a configuration operates much in the manner of any other botanical-oriented aquarium, with perhaps a little greater emphasis on creating structure from the wood to more closely replicate such systems as they appear in the wild; just a real tangle of wood, and accumulations of botanicals and decomposing leaves.
When assembled in conjunction with a nice aggregation of leaves, this configuration provides a remarkably interesting aquarium with a different sort of aesthetic.
Obviously, aquariums with dense aggregations of wood/roots have husbandry considerations, such as the need to keep a good flow rate through the "matrix", and the ability to access some of the "nooks and crannies" for routine maintenance tasks, like siphoning, replacing leaves/botanicals, etc.
Yet, I think with the proper equipment and husbandry practices in place, it's not really that difficult to sustain for an indefinite period of time. I mean, we did it with reef tanks for a decade, lol!
I think another interesting aspect of a denser wood configuration is the potential to keep little groups of fishes, like my beloved Checkerboard cichlids, behaving naturally in the same tank. Now, I'm no cichlid expert, but I do have a certain love for keeping little "communities" of fishes like Checkerboards together.
I think it could work with fishes like Apistos, too...Even when they start to pair off. I mean, I've done it with notroriously aggressive marine fishes, like Pseudochromis. And from the interesting photos and videos I've seen in the wild (like Tai Strietman's stuff!), where you see multiple breeding pairs in dense tangles of roots and wood, I can't help but attempt this at home!
So, yeah- perhaps the most interesting aspect of such an aquascaping configuration is to foster natural behaviors and spawning activities among the resident fishes. I would imagine that for "uncontrolled" breeding of many species, the dense wood/botanical matrix would create a very good environment for this. I've already seen very interesting behavior among my Eques Pencilfish (N. eques), which typically would hang in a sort of loose aggregation just under the water surface in the more "open format" in my tank.
Now, since there is less of this "wide open" space just below the surface, I've noticed that the fish seem to choose their own spots among the wood tangles and sort of hang there- without any apparent desire to "cling together."
Perhaps just a coincidence, but it's a distinct change.
And my more active characins, like the Rummynoses, tend to be more "calm" and less "frantically" swimming with less negative space in the tank...they just appear more relaxed and just "comfortable" in a way that has been very different that what I've seen before.
I love the idea of a "community" aspect to such hardscape configurations.
It is interesting to see lots of young fishes emerge from the wood matrix now and then, settling in and finding their own territories within the aquarium, creating a very realistic replication of the types of behaviors and activities which occur in natural ecological niches.
Yes, I totally know that the idea of "adding a lot of wood" to an aquarium is not some revolutionary aquascaping concept. However, I think the idea of looking at it within the context of creating/fostering an interesting platform for behavior, and configuring a functional representation of a unique ecological niche, as opposed to just some aesthetic variation, could yield some interesting results for those willing to play with the concept.
With all of the interesting types of wood pieces available to hobbyists nowadays, and the ability to filter, administer good flow into the aquarium, and with the availability of a wide variety of fishes from speciality ecological niches, it has never been easier to play with ideas like this!
And it's always fun to "evolve" your existing aquariums. As we've discusses so many times, the very nature of a botanical-style blackwater aquarium lends itself to "evolving" your tank over time.
We'd love to see and hear about YOUR experiments with evolving your existing tanks, as well as your thoughts with this type of configuration; I'm sure there are a fair number of you who might have played with this already, and it's fun to see what you're up to!
Stay creative. Stay original. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay curious...
And Stay Wet.
We talk so much about the use of botanicals for their aesthetics and functional attributes (as in the tannins, humic substances, and other compounds they impart into the water) around here, but one of the things that we don't talk about enough is the use of botanical materials as food; or "food culturing" vehicles in our aquariums.
The simple reality is that likely many fishes may graze on the epiphytic growth of biofilms and algae which accumulate on the surfaces of most of these materials after they've been down for a while. It's no secret that shrimp, in particular, are big consumers of these growths, and will spend most of their day grazing on them. Of course, there are some botanicals that, by virtue of their structure or composition, which seem to accumulate more biofilms and such.
And of course, the inherent issue with a "review" of this nature is that it sort of looks like a "sales pitch" for the botanical materials we offer...Well, there's no way around that, right? I mean, we've curated our collection based on materials that work for us and for others, so it goes without saying that we will discuss them. Sure, some of these may be collected and/or ordered from other sources online and elsewhere.
Obviously, leaves come to mind immediately. Most any leaves will soften and recruit growth over time, some better than others. After many years of playing with a variety of leaves , I've formulated some opinions about which ones are the best.
Here are my top choices, and why:
Mulberry Leaves: We love these leaves because they serve no purpose other than to serve as food. It's long been known that Mulberry leaves provide carbohydrates, fiber, and essential nutrients, such as phytosetrols, which are essential to shrimp for optimum health and reproduction. Mulberry leaves are surprisingly nutritious supplemental foods for shrimp, as they're packed full of vital nutrients, like Vitamins B1, B2, B6, and Vitamin C, as well as carbohydrates, fiber, amino acids, and elements such as Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc, Iron, and Calcium.
Jackfruit Leaves: These leaves contain phytonutrients, such as lignans, isoflavones, and saponins that have health benefits that are wide ranging for humans. There is some conflicting data regarding jackfruit's antifungal activity. However, the leaves are thought to exhibit a broad spectrum of antibacterial activity. In traditional medicine, these leaves are used to help heal wounds as well. Do these properties transfer over to our fishes and shrimp? We are not aware of any scientific studies that have been completed to correlate one way or another. That being said, they seem to flock to these leaves and graze on them and on the biofilms which accumulate on their surface tissues.
Malaysian Bamboo Leaves: Although I'm not aware of specific nutritional benefits that these leaves offer to shrimp, I have seen shrimp spend hours and hours "working" their surfaces. These are very durable, long-lasting leaves, which do recruit biofilms and epiphytic algal growths after prolonged submersion. Bamboo is found in many environments from which shrimp hail, so one could (Well, I AM!) make the assumption that they are leaves which are "familiar" to them, and that grazing on the growths which cover them, or even consuming them is a part of their natural diet.
Magnolia Leaves: These long-lasting, beautiful leaves have long been popular for providing an aesthetic to the aquarium, both with their "generic tropical" sort of look once submerged, and for the tint that they impart into the water. Unique among the leaves that we offer, they have a sort of waxy "cuticle" which enables these leaves to "recruit" a lot of biofilm when submerged!
Magnolia grandiflora (the species we typically offer) produces phenolic antimicrobial chemicals, compounds called coumarins and sesquiterpene lactones, which discourage predation and grazing by terrestrial insects. Coumarins have known anti fungal properties. We can't help but wonder if these same antimicrobials and antifungals might provide some sort of benefits to fishes in a similar fashion to those attributed to Catappa, but this is just conjecture on our part; we are not aware of any specific scientific study on the matter, nor of the existence of data to confirm this theory. Fun to speculate, though!
And of course, there are numerous botanical materials besides leaves which fulfill similar purposes in the aquarium. Here are just a few of our faves:
Dregea Pods: Yes, the dreadful genus name sounds decidedly unappetizing, but there is something about these botanicals which shrimp seem to love! They have a very interesting "ribbed" exterior and a contrasting interior structure. The aforementioned "ribbed" exterior surface does a great job "recruiting" these biofilms after the pod has been submerged for a while. And the smooth interior tends to soften after preparation and submersion, offering fishes an (apparently) easily-consumed, highly palatable food source.
The fruit follicle-which we call a "pod" in our game- is known to contain many different secondary metabolites (aka "Anthocyanidins"- Delphinidin, Petunidin), Flavonoids (Rutin, Myricetin, Quercetin, Luteolin, Apigenin, Orientin, and at least one unidentified flavonoid), and Phenolic compounds. Sounds vaguely familiar, right? I'm recalling from Catappa...
And further phytochemical evaluation of the Dregea fruit revealed the presence of alkaloids, Terpenoids, Steroids, Coumarins, Tannins, Proteins, Phenolic compounds, as well as carbohydrates, glycosides, starch, phytosterol, lipids, amino acids, and lignins.
Dysoxylum Pods: Of course, what we call a "pod" is really the woody fruit capsule of Dysoxylum binectariferum. Botanists will tell you that the fruit capsule is 5-8 x 6 cm in length, red, "obovoid", depressed at the apex, and smooth in texture. The outer surface remains quite firm, while the inside will soften and ultimately attract significant biofilms once submerged. We've found over the years that ornamental shrimp, in particular, really take a liking to these pods, devouring the soft interior and the resulting biofilms which it recruits over time.
Interestingly, compounds derived from the tree are also known by modern medical researchers to have extremely valuable medicinal properties...Dysoxylum binectariferum bark was identified as an alternative source of CPT, through a process of bioassay-guided isolation. Camptothecin ( known to clinical researchers as "CPT 1") is a potent anticancer product, which led to the discovery of two other clinically used anticancer drugs, Topotecan and Irinotecan. Does this translate to health benefits for fishes and shrimp? I don't know, but I DO know that they love these pods!
Pyrifolium Pods: We love these botanicals, because they have the appearance of a leaf, but have the "heft" that you'd expect from a seed pod. Derived from the Aspidosperma pyrifolium tree from Brazil, They have a wonderful, "teardrop-like" shape. Most important, the interior of the pod tends to soften significantly when submerged, and is apparently irresistible to our little shrimp pals. This, of course, makes them very interesting to us as well!
Of course, there are dozens and dozens more botanical materials which shrimp and fishes love to graze on or consume, and we've barely scratched the surface of even our own collection here. I could literally just toss up the whole catalog of botanicals we offer and assert that shrimp and fishes will graze on them. You'll note that I didn't even touch on the popular and useful Alder, Birch, and Casuarina Cones, all of which are very useful for these purposes and more.
The same could be said for the various bark varieties that we offer. Their primary "attraction" is aesthetics and environmental "enrichment" (ie; they add a lot of "tint" to the water!); however, like everything else that we play with, they will provide supplemental neutron and grazing for...someone- right?
So, this is the briefest of summaries of what botanicals work for food and fun for your fishes and shrimp. You no doubt have other ideas and practices. And that's the beauty of this! It's an ever-evolving concept.
Keep searching. Keep experimenting. Keep sharing.
Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.
Of all of the natural water courses found in the tropical regions of the world, few hold as much allure for me as streams.
The definition of a "stream" is: "...a body of water flowing in a channel or watercourse, as a river, rivulet, or brook..."
And of course, these little bodies of water flow through jungled areas, where they're bound to pick up some leaves, twigs, and other plant parts as they wind along their path. Leaves, the "jumping off point" of our botanical obsession, form a very important part of these stream habitats.
It is known by science that the leaf litter and the community of aquatic animals that it hosts is, according to one study, "... of great importance in assimilating energy from forest primary production into the blackwater aquatic system."
It also functions as a means to preserve the nutrients that would be lost to the forests which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was simply washed downstream. The fishes, crustaceans, and insects that live in the leaf litter and feed on the fungi, detritus, and decomposing leaves themselves are very important to the overall habitat.
In the aquarium, leaf litter and botanicals certainly perform a similar role in helping to sequester these materials.
As we've talked about before briefly, another interesting thing about leaf litter beds is that they actually have "structure" and even longevity. In several studies I read on the subject, the accumulations of leaves in various streams are documented to have existed in the same locations for years- to the point where scientists actually have studied the same ones for extended periods of time.
Some litter beds form in what stream ecologists call "meanders", which are stream structures that form when moving water in a stream erodes the outer banks and widens its "valley", and the inner part of the river has less energy and deposits silt- or in our instance, leaves.
There is a whole, fascinating science to river and stream structure, and with so many implications for understanding how these structures and mechanisms affect fish population, occurrence, behavior, and ecology, it's well worth studying for aquarium interpretation! Did you get that part where I mentioned that the lower-energy parts of the water courses tend to accumulate leaves and sediments and stuff?
It's logical, right? And it's also interesting, because, as we know, fishes and their food items tend to aggregate in these areas, and embracing the "theme" of a litter/botanical bed or even wood placement, in the context of a stream structure in the aquarium is kind of cool!
In nature, the rain and winds also effect the depth and flow rates of many of the waters in this region, with the associated impacts mentioned above, as well as their influence on stream structures, like submerged logs, sandbars, rocks, etc. Stuff gets redistributed constantly. Much in the way we might move a few things around now and again during maintenance! Perhaps we could aggregate botanicals in part off ur aquariums, rather than "coat" the whole bottom...
Well, rather than covering the whole bottom of your tank with leaves, would it be cool to create some sort of hardscape structure- with driftwood, etc., to retain or keep these items in one place..to create a "framework" for a long-term, organized, specifically-placed litter bed. You could build upon, structure, and replace leaves and botanicals in this "framework"- like, indefinitely...sort of like what happens in the "meanders!"
How would fishes react when presented with a deep litter bed in part of the aquarium; would they prefer to reside there? Or would they simply forage there and stay in the more open areas of the aquarium? Would the spawn there? Probably some fry would seek shelter there, right?
So, protection from predators- survival- is a powerful motivation for fishes to seek out these different habitats. Now, granted, in the aquarium we are almost guaranteed NOT to keep predators and prey in the same tank (at least, not for long-term display purposes!), but is there not something to be gained by replicating such environments?
Reduction of stress. Indeed, survival. That's pretty important in the wild...so I'd imagine it's equally as important in the aquarium.
And of course, in the aquarium, we're all about fostering of natural behaviors...Even if they are not "necessary" for survival. I can't hope but wonder if providing some of these more specific environmental conditions (in concert with stuff like water chemistry and the presence of stuff like leaves, wood, etc.) could facilitate greater possibilities for spawning, long-term health, and greater lifespan?
And THAT is a beautiful thing, right?
Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
As you know, by now, when I get on a "roll" about something, I tend not to let up on it, right? I've been bothering you a lot about the idea of "functional aesthetics" in the natural-style botanical aquarium. In other words, creating an aquascape in your tank comprised of natural materials assembled in such a way as to not only be aesthetically pleasing, but to enhance the aquatic environment chemically, biologically, or physically.
And interestingly, I tend to stumble on stuff that reinforces this idea on a pretty regular basis. I think it's largely because I'm attuned to these kinds of "fun facts" and when I see stuff that reinforces the concept, I'll often jump right into it.
Such a case occurred the other day when I was visiting a killifish forum on Facebook. One of the participants was discussing some new fishes he obtained, and one was from a rare genus called Episemion. Weird, because it is a fish that falls genetically halfway between Epiplatys and Aphyosemion.
Even more interesting to me was the discussion that it's notoriously difficult to spawn, and that it is only found in a couple of places in The Congo.
And even more interesting was that it is in a region known for high levels of selenium I the soil...And that's VERY interesting. Selenium is known to be nutritionally beneficial to animals and humans at a concentration of 0.05-0.10ppm. It's an essential component of many enzymes and proteins, and deficiencies are known to cause diseases. One of it's known health benefits for animal is that it plays a key role in immune and reproductive functions!
Okay, that helps with the "difficult to breed" part, right?
Selenium occurs in soil associated with sulfide minerals. It's found in plants at varying concentrations which are dictated by the pH, moisture content, and other factors. Soils which contain high concentration of selenium are found in greater concentration in plants which occur in these regions.
So, I"m doubtful that we know the specific concentrations of selenium in many of the planted aquarium substrates out on the market, and most hobbyists aren't just throwing in that "readily available" tropical Congo soil that you can pick up at any LFS in their tanks, right? 😜
So, how would we get more selenium into our tanks for our killies?
Botanicals could be one way. Like, The Brazil nut...
And the Brazil nut is kind of known to us, isn't it? The Monkey Pot has something to do with tis, right?
And, yes- it's technically a fruit capsule, produced from the abundant tree, Lecythis pisonis, native to South America -most notably, the Amazonian region. Astute, particularly geeky readers of "The Tint" will recognize the name as a derivative of the family Lecythidaceae, which just happens to be the family in which the genus Cariniana is located...you know, the "Cariniana Pod." Yeah...this family has a number of botanical-producing trees in it, right?
Ahh...it's also known as the taxonomic family which contains the genus Bertholletia- the genus which contains the tree, Bertholletia excelsa- the bearer of the "Brazil Nut." You know, the one that comes in the can of "mixed nuts" that no one really likes? The one that, if you buy it in the shell, you need a freakin' sledge hammer to crack?
Yeah. That one.
Craving more useless Brazil Nut trivia?
Check this out: Because of their larger size size, they tend to rise to the top of the can of mixed nuts from vibrations which are encountered during transport...this is a textbook example of the physics concept of granular convection- which for this reason is frequently called...wait for it...the "Brazil Nut effect." (I am totally serious!)
Okay, anyways...woudl it be possible to somehow utilize the "Monkey Pot" in a tank with these fishes to perhaps impart some additional selenium into the water? Okay, this begs additional questions? How much? How rapidly? In what form? Wouldn't it be easier to just grind up some Brazil nuts and toss 'em in? Or would the fruit capsule itself have a greater concentration of selenium? Would it even leach into the water?
Where the ---- am I going with this exercise?
I'm just sort of taking you out on the ledge here; demonstrating how the idea of utilizing botanicals to provide "functional aesthetics" is, at the every least, a possibility to help solve some potential challenges in the hobby.
Like, this is something that we have done with Catappa leaves forever. You've seen my numerous reviews on them and the alleged health benefits that they are purported to offer fishes. Some is marketing bullshit. Some of it IS legit...SO, could the same assumption be made for botanicals?
I think so. I think it's worth investigating; experimenting...right?
We offer a lot of botanicals here at Tannin Aquatics, many of which find their way into tropical aquatic habitats around the world. Many come from regions where specific soil types are found...perhaps they contain concentrations of various micronutrients or minerals which are beneficial to fishes in ways that haven't been thoroughly studied..or at least, the connection between the two hasn't.
We often hear from our customers how fishes seem to spawn not long after botanicals are introduced toothier tank, or how they are seemingly healthier and more colorful, etc. Is it just the tannins? The humic substances? Or other compounds found in the botanicals?
A ton to learn here. The possibilities are endless.
Let's get cracking at it.
Stay curious. Stay attuned. Stay excited. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.