Ok, I’m man enough to admit this…
After literally a lifetime in the aquarium world, there are still some things that I’m flat-out afraid to do. Stuff that scares the daylights out of me.
Stuff that- well, let's just put it bluntly- I just SUCK at.
Now, in all fairness- some of these are challenging tasks and hobby skills for almost anyone- others are seemingly mundane, easy for most, yet have hidden difficulties that can sink your whole project…yeah.
And others...well, others are just things that, for one reason or another- I can't do very well.
Now, I also admit that there are some hobby things I do exceedingly well.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, every once in a while it's therapeutic for me to pull the stuff I completely suck at out from under the metaphorical rug, stare at it and just shudder...
Maybe we should all do this from time to time?
And there is a lot of it. I decided to just arrive at 7 things I suck at, and- well, it took some "editing" down to stop there!
Yeah, I had trouble narrowing it down to just 7 items (What 7? Supposedly some online content gurus say that 7 is like the optimum number of "points" for people to absorb in a blog. Whatever the fuck...)
Besides, you just can't read shit like this anywhere else on any other hobby blog or in any other article...Not that you'd want to, and not that any other author would want to write this kind of stuff, or even admit it. But hey...I'm keeping it real here!
Here’s a list you can build on, I’m sure…(Well, I think I'm sure.)
So, in no particular order, here is my list of the top 7 aquarium-related things that I know I totally suck at; stuff that scares the proverbial crap out of me:
*Drilling aquariums- Glass, acryilc; doesn’t matter…The idea of taking a perfectly good aquarium, and using my extremely limited DIY skills to drill it out for a bulkhead, fitting- whatever, is a akin to performing an apendectomy on myself…ain’t gonna happen. I have friends who think NOTHING about doing stuff like this...Me? No freaking way, man. Strictly for professionals, IMHO, with experience, skill, tools…and liability insurance!
Why do people even take on this challenge themselves? Not only does it void the warranty on almost any aquarium made, it just opens you up to all sorts of scary possible outcomes. I mean, outcomes that may not even happen right away...they could occur at any time!
How do you people sleep at night? How do you ever go out of town without worrying about coming home to...well- the unthinkable? I mean, just the experience of installing and -gulp-tightening- a bulkhead into a hole drilled into my aquarium by someone else freaks me the fuck out! I mean- there's a LOT of water behind that bulkhead...And, hardwood flooring is really expensive!
*"Automatic" water changing systems- If I had a dollar/euro/bitcoin/whatever for every person I know who’s had a nightmare failure (ranging from minor leaks, to full-on flooding of a friend's multimillion dollar Hollywood Hills home) caused by "automating" water changes, I wouldn’t be slinging botanicals for a living. It's like, would you build your own airplane from scratch?
Top-off systems with limited reservoirs are one thing. I've got 'em, and I swear by 'em. No problem.
Fully automated systems hooked up to your house water supply and such are a whole different kind of scary.The mere thought of installing such a system in my home makes me shudder. Like, just pick up a siphon hose and sleep better at night. Or when you're out of town. Who is so busy that they can't spend 15 minutes taking care of their aquarium, right?
Besides, I love manual water changes. Really!
Siphon hoses- low tech toys that they are- won't destroy your house.
*Building my own aquarium stand- Seriously? Well, I- the guy who can't build a picture frame or assemble a piece of Ikea furniture without extra pieces left over, wouldn't even contemplate such an endeavor...and YOU shouldn't, either! Just fork over the money to a professional! Unless you have mad carpentry skills, this is another one that is just fraught with danger, IMHO.
I fully admire anyone who has those skills, and the courage to forge ahead on a project like that…and I will gracefully step aside and admire from afar. I mean, if you don’t get it perfectly right…flawlessly level...how long will it be until the inevitable disaster?
*Plumbing a reef tank- A HUGE one! Look, I’ve set up my Roku. Learned how to build an e-commerce website. Figured out how to make my own Pasta from scratch. I've got solid Fresh Press skills with coffeee...I mix a mean Tanqueray and Tonic., etc.- but few things intimidate me like trying to plumb stuff like return pumps, overflows, and protein skimmers. As a reefer, you have to do a certain amount of plumbing...most of you hardcore, freshwater-only guys probably don't get this...However, it just goes with the territory in reef keeping.
And I suck at it.
On the other hand, I've learned a few "hacks"- workarounds, if you will- which allow me to skirt some of this stuff! Why do you think I love sump-based skimmers so much? Drop the Motherfuckers in and away you go! Yup. Calcium reactors, an essential piece of reef gear, are another one of those “ white knuckle” devices that I have had mixed results with over the years! I mean, you have CO2, a plastic reactor, lots of plumbing connections...a perfect recipe for disasters of all sorts!
Cannister filters push the "outside of the envelope" for me. I mean, those cutoff valves and such are a pain I the ass, too. Don't even start me on glassware... When I DO execute plumbing, however, even for stupidly simple stuff- it's usually so over-thought-out and SO overbuilt that it's sort of humorous!
That's how reefers do it, 'yo.
*Retrofit Lighting Systems- Okay, I know I’m not alone in this one…Anything that involves wiring, light bulbs, and water is a recipe for "scary" in my book. I know a lot of you are pretty damn good at this stuff: "It's just twisting some wires and soldering a few connections..." Okay, yeah. Right.
Death by electrocution, vaporizing my cichlid collection, or flat-out burning down the house are all sort of bad outcomes, in my book. To me, it makes a helluva lot more sense to pay the extra few bucks for the completed lighting system, right from the manufacturer.
Now, I love LEDs. At least with LED, you're way safer... I mean, I've dropped whole fixtures in the water before...(don't ask).
*Bagging fishes, plants, and corals- This is a skill I simply go to great lengths to avoid ever acquiring. I always did, Yeah, even though I was an owner of a company that sold coral frags and marine fishes, I sucked at bagging them. I sucked at it as a kid when I worked at the LFS, and I still suck at it. Like, I have "two left hands" or something…That’s why I had people that are really skilled with rubber bands to do the job! I hate it so much you can't believe it. In fact, HATE isn't a strong enough word.
Back in my days as co-owner of Unique Corals, we'd be at major reef hobby shows (MACNA, RAP, etc.), breaking down our booth after a weekend of sales- re-bagging the unsold corals for the flight home, and I'd just sort of wander off and engage in discussions with...well- ANYONE I could find- to avoid bagging up frags!
I'd go to any pathetic length to avoid bagging stuff.
I'd make insane offers of "Buy 1 get 10 free!" or whatever at the close of a show to minimize the horror of re-packaging frags..
Ahh, the "fake injury trick" was the best, though. It worked a lot! Of course, the joke was that everyone knew that I was full of shit but they were too kind to call me on my b.s., LOL. And, of course, being the boss had its advantages, too!
I'm not proud of this at all- I'm only admitting that I did it: On one occasion, a purposely let a minor cut on my finger bleed like crazy, just ridiculously- so that I could demonstratively show everyone that I was in no condition to bag up those dirty corals...Yeah. I did. I remember I squeezed my finger like mad to get as much blood out there from this paper cut as possible! Again, never mind that I was the boss, but...
Oh, I’m a demon on an impulse sealer or electric clip machine, but that is not quite as widely used..yet. So next time you see me at a show and need some help bagging stuff- I'll be the guy on the imaginary "important business call"- at 6 PM on a Sunday night...
Bagging fishes. Yuck. Hey, I’m honest- it’s the task I like the least in this industry. I suck. Bad. Like, really bad.
*Netting fishes from a display tank- Sure, it’s a fundamental skill we all need. Knowing I have to net a fish out of my display tank strikes fear into my heart, as well as that of the fishes I’m trying to catch. I am the kind of aquarist that believes that aquarium nets are purposely designed to snag on everything and not even catch fishes. And I never, EVER have the right-sized one for the job at hand available...Not that having the "right" net would result in a better sort of outcome, however... I even suck at netting out fishes in a bare holding tank! If I killed 3 fishes to get one of the 8 specimens the customer wanted, that was like a pretty damn good day!
I was literally the guy at the LFS that would be like, "Do you really want THAT Tiger Barb? He looks kind of sick." (Said while pointing to a perfectly healthy specimen. Yeah, I was evil. Well, hey, desperate times called for desperate measures, right?) At home, I fare no better. It pretty much always results in a wrecked aquascape, frayed nerves, and some seriously stressed-out fishes. I’ve found that, in recent years, I’m actually getting worse at this. Or so I tell myself. I mean, I didn't know it was even possible. Now, I honestly don’t know if my "skills" have deteriorated in recent years, or if I just never had ‘em..hmm?
Wait. Don't answer that.
Well, that's a brief run-down of aquarium-related stuff I suck at. Stuff I'm horrified of. It felt good to get those off my chest. Very therapeutic! And that represented some core aquarium-related skills, huh? Oh, there are plenty of other hobby-related things I suck at, trust me…and that could conceivably fill a book…hmm, nothing to be proud of, really, but hey, I own 'em!
Anyways, I shared mine- let’s hear some of yours! I can't be the only aquarium person who sucks at multiple things in the hobby..or could I?
Never be afraid to laugh at your own foibles. Stay humorous. Stay dedicated to the craft. Stay sharp. Stay AWAY from stuff that could destroy life, ego, and property. Double down on what you're good at. Stay confident.
We all suck at something, right?
Stay afraid of some stuff. Stay brave. Stay proud. Stay confident. Stay humble. Stay cautious...
And Stay Wet.
For those of you who breed tropical fish, the idea of electing your breeders, setting up a dedicated aquarium for them, conditioning them with food, etc. is part of a dedicated process- one which we as humans-fish geeks- have a certain degree of control over.
I was talking not too long ago with a fellow hobbyist who's been trying all sorts of things to get a certain Loricarid catfish to spawn. He's a very experienced aquarist and has bred many varieties of fishes...but for some reason, this one is just vexing to him! I suppose that's what makes this hobby so damn engaging, huh?
And maddening at times, too!
And of course, I was impressed by all of the efforts he's made to get these fish to spawn thus far...I mean, he was trying shit I've never even thought of! Talk about dedication! Yet, I kept thinking that there must be something fundamental-something incredibly simple, yet incredibly important- that he was somehow overlooking...
I mean, what is that "thing"- or set of "things" which make fishes spawn- or not- despite, or without, our best efforts?
Are there simply some factors which we cannot manipulate to affect spawning in some fishes? What makes some fishes "easy" to spawn, and others tantalizingly difficult?
When I travel around the country on speaking engagements or whatever and have occasion to visit the fish rooms of some talented hobbyists, I never cease to be amazed at what we can do when it comes to fish breeding!
We do an amazing job.
And of course, being the thoughtful type, I always wonder if there is some way we can do it better....If there is some key thing we're missing that can help us do even better.
We do so much so well already.
Now, I realize that most of us like to keep things controlled to a great extent- to be able to monitor the progress, see where exactly the fishes deposit their eggs, and to be able to remove the eggs and fry if/when needed.
I mean, we strive to create the water conditions (i.e.; temperature, pH, current, lighting, etc.) for our fishes to affect spawning, but we tend to utilize more "temporary" type, artificial-looking setups with equipment to actually facilitate egg-laying, fry rearing, etc.
Now, I realize that it's long been thought that more rapid environmental changes will trigger spawning in certain fishes, like Corydoras. We have known for some time that changes in environmental parameters really stimulate these fish...
And, of course, we use this to our advantage as aquarists by manipulating temperature and such within our aquariums. My understanding is that some of these changes replicate stuff like "rain storms", "Cold fronts", seasonal changes, etc. Stuff that we've been advocating in a different way with our "Urban Igapo" idea, right?
I often wonder what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..."
This is pretty much the "classic" way many of us "bred" livebearers, killifish, and Rainbowfishes for a long time. It's a very low-labor, aesthetically interesting way to keep and breed these guys.
Now, I realize that a lot of hardcore, very experienced breeders will scoff at this- and probably rightly so. For the serious breeder, giving up control when the specific goal is the reproduction of your fishes is probably not a good thing. Practicality becomes important- hence the employment of clay flowerpots, spawning cones, breeding traps, bare tanks to raise fry, etc.
Sure, to a fish, a cave is a cave, be it constructed of ceramic or if it's the inside of a hollowed-out Cariniana pod. To the fish, it's a necessary place to spawn quietly and provide a defensible territory to protect the resulting fry. In all likelihood, they couldn't care less what it is made of, right? And to the serious or professional breeder, viable spawns are the game.
I get that.
I guess my personal approach to fish breeding has always been, "If it happens, great...If not, I want the fishes to have an environment that mimics the one they're found in naturally." And that works to a certain extent, but I can see how many hobbyists feel that it's certainly not the practical way to do systematic, controlled breeding. I mean, can you imagine how weird the availability of tropical fishes would be in the hobby if we simply "let them do their own thing?" Yeah, that wouldn't work.
I get, THAT, too.
Yet, isn't their something wonderful (for those of us who are not hell-bent on controlling the time and place of our fish's spawnings) to check out your tank one night and see a small clutch of Apistogramma fry under the watchful eye of the mother in a Sterculia Pod or whatever? Perhaps not as predictable or controllable as a more sterile breeding tank, but nonetheless, exciting!
And of course, to the serious breeder, it's just as exciting to see a bunch of wriggling fry in a PVC pipe section as it is to see them lurking about the litter bed in the display tank.
I suppose it's all how you look at it.
No right or wrong answer.
The one thing that I think we can all agree with is the necessity and importance of providing optimum conditions for our potential spawning pairs. There seems to be no substitute for good food, clean water, and proper environment. Sure, there are a lot of factors beyond our control, but one thing we can truly impact is the environment in which our fishes are kept and conditioned.
And the environment in which the resulting fry are reared.
So, like many things in the hobby- the approaches to spawning fishes may have changed over the years, but the idea remains the same- using whatever means we have at our disposal to create the best possible outcomes for our fishes!
So, what is wrong with the idea of "permanent" setups for some of us in our efforts?
Now, no discussion of rearing our little fishes would be complete without revisiting the idea of a botanical-influenced "nursery" tank for fishes. You know where I'm going with this, no right?
I think it's interesting for a number of reasons:
First, as we've discussed many times, the humic substances and other compounds associated with leaves and other botanicals, when released into the water, are known to have beneficial health impact on fishes. The potential for antimicrobial and antifungal effects is documented by science and is quite real.
Wouldn't this be something worth investigating from our unique angle?
I think so!
Additionally, rearing young fishes in the type of environmental conditions under which they will spend the rest of their lives just makes a lot of sense to me. Having to acclimate young fishes into unfamiliar/different conditions, however beneficial they might be, still can be stressful to them.
So, why not be consistent with the environment from day one?
Wouldn't a "botanical-style fry-rearing system", with it's abundant decomposing leaves, biofilms, and microbial population, be of benefit?
I think so.
This is an interesting aspect of botanical-style aquariums; we've discussed it before- the idea of "on board" food cultivation for fishes.
The breakdown and decomposition of various botanical materials provides a very natural supplemental source of food for young fishes, both directly (as in the case of fishes such as wood-eating catfishes, etc.), and indirectly, as they graze on algal growth, biofilms, fungi, and small crustaceans which inhabit the botanical "bed" in the aquarium.
Now, this is pretty interesting stuff to me!
I know- everyone has their own style of fry rearing- controlled or otherwise.
Some hobbyists like bare bottom tanks, some prefer densely planted tanks, etc., and there are valid reasons for each, of course.
I'm proposing the idea of rearing young fishes in a botanical-style aquarium with leaves, some seed pods, and maybe some plants as well. This type of aquarium physically and "functionally" mimics, at least to some extent, the habitats in which many young fishes grow up in.
My thinking is that decomposing leaves will not only provide material for the fishes to feed on and among, they will also provide a natural "shelter" for them as well, potentially eliminating or reducing stresses.
In nature, many fry which do not receive parental care tend to hide in the leaves, substrate, or other biocover in their environment, and providing such natural conditions will certainly accommodate this behavior.
And of course, decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with infusoria, forms of bacteria, and small crustaceans, becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster.
However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!
I've experimented with the idea of "onboard food culturing" in several aquariums systems over the past few years, which were stocked heavily with leaves, twigs, and other botanical materials for the sole purpose of "culturing" (maybe a better term is "recruiting) biofilms, small crustaceans, etc. via decomposition.
I have kept a few species of small characins in these systems with no supplemental feeding whatsoever and have seen these guys as fat and happy as any I have kept.
And it's the same with that beloved aquarium "catch all" of infusoria that we have talked about before here...These organisms are likely to arise whenever plant matter decomposes in water...And in an aquarium with significant leaves, botanical materials, and such, there is likely a higher population density of these ubiquitous organisms available to the young fishes, right?
Now, I'm not fooling myself into believing that a large bed of decomposing leaves and botanicals in your aquarium will satisfy the total nutritional needs of a batch of characins, and that you won't have to do anything else- but it might provide the support for some supplemental feeding!
Perhaps, significant, actually.
On the other hand, I've been playing with this recently in my "varzea" setup, stocked with a rich "compost" of soil and decomposing leaves, rearing the annual killifish Notholebias minimus "Campo Grande" with great success.
It's essentially an "evolved" version of the "jungle tanks" I reared killies in when I was a teen. A different sort of look- and function! The so-called "permanent setup"- in which the adults and fry typically co-exist, with the fry finding food amongst the natural substrate and other materials present I the tank. Or, of course, you could remove the parents after breeding- the choice is yours.
I'd take the concept even a bit further by "seeding" the tank with some Daphnia and perhaps some of the other commonly available live freshwater crustaceans, and letting them do their thing before the fry arrive. This way, you've got sort of the makings a little bit of a "food web" going on- the small crustaceans helping to feed off of some of the available nutrients and lower life forms, and the fish at the top of it all.
Now, granted, I'm truly "romancing" this and perhaps even over-simplifying it a bit. However, I think that there is a compelling case to be made for creating a rearing tank that supports a biologically diverse set of inhabitants for food sources.
The basis of it all would be leaves and some of the botanicals which seem to do a better job at recruiting biofilms- the "harder shelled/surfaced" stuff, like Jackfruit leaves, Yellow Mangrove leaves, Guava Leaves, Carinaina Pods, Dysoxylum pods, etc...I think these would be interesting items to include in a "nursery tank." And of course, they provide shelter and foraging areas and impart some tannins into the water...the "usual stuff."
On the other hand, we DO control the environment in which our fishes are kept- regardless of if the tank looks like the bottom of an Asian stream or a marble-filled 10-gallon, bare aquarium, right?
I just wonder...being a lover of the more natural-looking AND functioning aquarium, if this is a key approach to unlocking the spawning secrets of more "difficult-to-spawn" fishes. Not a "better spawning cone" or breeding trap, or more enriched brine shrimp, mind you. Rather, a wholistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and a physical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
I think so!
And, I wonder if fry-rearing tanks can- and should- be "natural" setups, too- even for serious breeders. You know, lots of plants, botanical cover, whatever...I mean, I KNOW that they can...I guess it's more of a question of if we want make the associated trade-offs? Sure, you'll give up some control, but I wonder if the result is healthier, more vigorous young fish?
It's not a new idea...or even a new theme here in our blog.
However, I think that, in our intense effort to achieve the results we want, we occasionally will overlook something as seemingly basic as this.
I certainly know that I have.
And I think that our fishes will let us know, too...I mean, those "accidental" spawnings aren't really "accidental", right? They're an example of our fishes letting us know that what we've been providing them has been exactly what they needed.
It's worth considering, huh?
Nature has a way.
It's up to us to figure out what it is. Be it with a ceramic flower pot or pile of botanicals...
It might not be all about control of every aspect...
And that certain "lack of control"- that "ceding" of some of the work to Nature. Having trust in Her- may be exactly what our fishes need?
Stay diligent. Stay persistent. Stay curious. Stay determined. Stay driven. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
Change is in the air in the aquarium hobby. It's palpable...We see so many fascinating developments in the botanical-style aquarium world alone. It's a very exciting time!
Over the past four-plus years that we've been in operation at Tannin Aquatics, I've certainly noticed a few "trends", and most of them are pretty cool!
And some of them are kind of "cyclical" in nature. We've seen them before, sort of.
One of the most interesting things I've seen is the philosophical "evolution" of many of our customers and members of our community. Perhaps the most unique aspect of what we do with the botanical-style, blackwater aquarium is to allow Nature to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
This has been a really big thing. A mental shift- and a quantum leap, actually!
Despite a lot of discussion and marketing and such over the past decade or so, I think we as a hobby have somehow "edited", in our minds, what a really "natural" aquarium is. It's become more of a semantic thing in some places, IMHO.
I think that, in our effort to foster some natural processes, such as plant growth or whatever, we've pushed things in a direction that actually may have fought Nature a bit. And with that, created a mindset and culture based on "conformity" instead of bold individuality.
This effort might have pushed a lot of hobbyists out of their personal "comfort zones", which is cool- but I also think it created a sense of "expectations" and a certain set of "rules" that hobbyists felt they had to conform to in order to be "accepted" into the "culture" that developed around this stuff.
It not only permeated the "processes" they needed to follow, it also dictated stuff like the specific products they had to use, the way stuff is presented, etc.
I've seen this sort of stuff before in the hobby.
I almost think that the aquarium world has a sort of "cyclical nature", where we jump on the latest technology or trends to help enhance what Nature has been doing all along. Now, there's nothing wrong at all with the tech and advancements...It can help us accomplish many things. However, it's no substitute for understanding the underlying processes involved.
And, I firmly believe that understanding and appreciating the fundamentals of the hobby- and the natural world- can yield the same results- or better- than tons of expensive gear and "stuff" when simply "thrown" at the situation without thought as to why..
It requires us to shift our minds to places that might be less comfortable for us...
It just is a lot less sexy than "gearing up" or blindly following someone else's "rules"- it requires us to open our minds up...It requires patience, process and personal observation.
That mental shift is something.
I think the pendulum is swinging back a bit. Not "digressing", mind you. Just switching back to a more accepting approach; taking our hands off just a bit. Once again realizing that Nature knows best. Understanding that we can use technology and technique to work with Nature.
We're realizing that Nature has been doing this stuff for billions of years longer than we have, and She has some damn good ideas on how to run things!
Rather than fighting processes like decomposition, formation of detritus, and biological diversity, we seem to be spending much more energy setting the stage for natural processes to occur.
And our fishes and other aquatic animals are really benefiting from this. Fish health, appearance, overall vivaciousness, and spawning activity are being positively impacted by the concept of working with Nature in this manner.
Once again, just as aquarists did since the dawn of the modern age of fish keeping, we've been thinking of an aquarium as a place to grow stuff- and we're looking at the whole aquarium as a "microcosm" of Nature.
A living, breathing, growing entity.
I saw a sort of "compressed" version of this century-long evolution of freshwater aquaristics during the rise of the reef aquarium hobby, which really started to take off in the mid 1980's. My mind has been on this "side of the fence" quite a bit lately, as I'm going to be speaking at a reef club in a few weeks. It got me reflecting about this stuff...
For the longest time, in the reef hobby, we were happy to just keep a box full of fishes and maybe a few tough invertebrates alive. Then, we evolved up to trying to house them long term, and propagate them.
Experiments with new technology and technique resulted in the birth of the modern reef system, with robust filtration, lighting, and studious analysis of water chemistry. The emphasis was on providing a great environment for the corals and inverts, so that they can thrive and reproduce.
And the learning never stops. The techniques and philosophies continue to evolve...
Within the past 10 years in the reef hobby alone, we've went from a doctrine of "You should have undectable nitrates and phosphates in your reef aquarium because natural reefs are virtual nutrient deserts!" to "You need to have a balance between too much and too little."
We've come to understand that reef aquariums- like any type of aquarium- are truly biological "microcosms", which encompass a vast array of life forms, including not just fishes, corals, and invertebrates, but macro algae, benthic animals (like worms, copepods, and amphipods), planktonic life, and more.
Reefers came to understand- as freshwater pioneers did generations before- that just because a reef has "undetectable" levels of phosphates and nitrates in the waters surrounding it, our aquariums don't have to run that way. The "optimum" environment for our animals might not be exactly what we think it may be on the surface.
The reality in the reef keeping wold is that corals need nutrients and food, and an aquarium is not a natural reef; an open system with uncounted millions of gallons of water passing through it hourly.
We discovered this reality in the coral propagation business, where the long-held aquarium mindset that you need a "nutrient poor" system in order for corals to thrive was not really the whole story. Particularly when we were trying to mass-culture corals on a commercial level.
They needed to eat. Polishing out everything from the water with lots of gear and such was actually detrimental. We allowed some detritus to accumulate in our systems; didn't fear feeding our corals...and they grew.
Reliance on some aspects of Nature is a good thing.
Yet in recent years, with the explosion of gadgets and internet-enabled "hacks", reefkeeping as a hobby has sort of gone a bit the other way- heading into that "technology can do everything" phase that the freshwater world did decades ago, in my opinion. Somehow "saving time" has surpassed applying patience as the underlying "mantra" of that hobby sector.
Yet, I think it's finally starting to break just a bit again. Recently, Iv'e seen soem well-known reef keepers having some rather spectacular failures, and I can't help but wonder if at least part of the underlying causes were the hobbyist getting a bit too far away from Nature, and a bit too "cozy" with tech instead!
They'll never admit it. However, I think they know better...
Needlessly (IMHO) complicating things in order to foster the same results that can be achieved by embracing natural processes- with a bit less "certainty", though- seems a bit odd to me. ... Positive, even predictable results generally take longer than if you apply all the gadgets, additives, and tech to the process- but Nature will find the way to get where she wants to go- with or without all the gadgets we employ.
We've sort of figured this out in our sector of the hobby.
It just takes patience. And good equipment. In balance.
And patience is often more economical than gear... And the results far more interesting, IMHO!
You can have extraordinary success working with Nature AND technology together.
It's a balance of sorts.
And, gaining further understanding of dynamic natural aquatic habitats, such as the igapo flooded forest floors of South America, serves to enhance the "state of the art" of our segment of the hobby by looking good and hard at Nature and how She works, not just at the next gadget, product, or "movement" (not that "movements in the hobby are a bad thing...lol) that promises "No water changes!" or whatever...
Much like the freshwater world has done, I believe that the reef-keeping world will end up "pulling back" a bit from an almost complete "reliance" on gadgets and tech to create advancements in the state-of-the-art, and put more emphasis on learning how natural systems work once again, and how they can be replicated in aquariums through a balance of tech and technique.
We can and should use technology to embrace natural processes...Not to "fight" them, circumvent them, and "supersede" them. The experimentation required and the ideas we play with are very bit as interesting as the "toys" we can use!
We've begun to understand that it's not all about creating the most scrupulously clean environment possible for the animals under our care- it's about maintaining the best possible dynamic for their overall health, growth, longevity, and hopefully- reproduction.
Creating and fostering processes and conditions that create a biological balance within our little (or not so little) glass and acrylic boxes we call "aquariums."
Today's aquarist can appreciate the "elegance" of the complete aquatic ecosystem, from the most beautiful fish to the lowest bacterial life form, and everything in between. When we strive to understand, embrace, and replicate natural systems in our aquaria in form AND function, we are truly embarking on a more enlightened way of aquarium keeping.
And guess what?
You, with your tank full of leaves, wood, water, and life- are doing just that.
Every single day.
Stay brave. Stay studious. Stay intrigued. Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay enlightened...
And Stay Wet.
As you undoubtedly know by now, we've been playing with the "365 Dynamic" approach to aquariums with our "Urban Igapo" idea.
I suppose that, on the surface, it's hardly an earth-shattering approach: You set up an aquarium. You don't fill it immediately. Rather, you grow some terrestrials plants and grasses, allow them to take hold...then you bring on the "rainy season" and flood it. After a few months, you begin drawing down the water significantly, ultimately returning it to its "dry" state again.
Repeat as desired.
Perhaps its time to loosen the chains of "conventional aquarium practice" and look towards some largely unexplored waters, right? Could there be something to be gained by modeling our aquariums after natural habitats during different times of the year? Some benefits for our fishes and the other organisms we want to nurture in our closed aquatic systems?
I just think that it would be kind of cool to model our aquariums after typical environments as they look and function at different times of the year. We've already touched on the flooded Igapo forests of Brazil, in which the forest floor becomes seasonally inundated by overflowing streams and rivers. It's an amazingly dynamic habitat that I'm glad we're starting to see more interest in.
Yet, I wondered for years how interesting it would be to take it even further, and create an aquarium around the seasonal changes in such a habitat. You know, with more shallow water levels, a greater ratio of botanicals/substrate to water, and different temperatures, lighting, etc.?
That was the basis of my "urban igapo" idea- starting out with a dry, "terrestrial" habitat and gradually flooding it to simulate the seasonal inundations which these habitats go through annually. I've done this whole cycle now something like 14 times in 3 different aquariums, nuancing various aspects like soil composition, planting, and fish stocking along the way.
It's become one of my fave projects, and I hope to see many of you playing with the idea, too!
I think that it's not only simply an enjoyable "hobby within a hobby"- it's a dynamic that we can can and should learn more about. When we flood and desiccate an aquarium, attempting to replicate this cycle, we have to learn to manage a number of different dynamics, ranging from varying levels of nutrients, to nitrogen cycle management, to stocking with fishes.
The seasonal dynamic is broad-reaching and multi-faceted in the aquarium, as it is in Nature.
Seasonal change is hugely impactful in tropical regions.
The wet season in The Amazon runs from November to June. And it rains almost every day. And what's really interesting is that the surrounding Amazon rain forest is estimated by some scientists to create as much as 50% of its own precipitation! Think about THAT for a minute. It does this via the humidity present in the forest itself, from the water vapor present on plant leaves- which contributes to the formation of rain clouds.
Yeah, trees in the Amazon release enough moisture through photosynthesis to create low-level clouds and literally generate rain, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)!
But it makes a lot of sense, right?
Yet another reason why we need to protect these precious habitats. When you cut down a tree in the Amazon- you're literally reducing the amount of rain that can be produced.
It's that simple.
That's really important. It's more than just a cool "cocktail party sound bite."
So what happens to the (aquatic) environment in which our fishes live in when it rains? What does the rain actually do?
Well, for one thing, rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia, for example- is the evolution of our most compelling environmental niches. The water levels in the rivers rise significantly. often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams.
The Igapos are formed.
Flooded forest floors.
The formerly terrestrial environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and spawning areas.
All of the botanical material-shrubs, grasses, fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute the leaves and seed pods and branches into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape.
Leaves begin to accumulate.
Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans multiply rapidly. Some robust varieties grasses hang on for extended periods of time during this inundation.
Others go into a sort of "dormant" phase, "browning out" and awaiting the time when the waters will recede and once again turn the igapo into a terrestrial forest floor.
In this rich, highly dynamic environment, the fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.
Life simply flourishes.
Each time I flood my "Urban Igapo" systems, I am utterly fascinated by how life manages to "sort it out" to not only "make it though", but to thrive. It's really cool to see the many microorganisms swimming around in the aquarium, obviously feeding among the submerged grasses and other materials.
Now, of course, I'll be the first to tell you that what you get out of this process is not what I"d ever label as a "conventional" aquarium system. Because of the high level of nutrients, dense growth of terrestrial grasses/plants, and rich terrestrial soil, it's certainly not a "recipe" for an aquascaping contest winner!
And yeah- it's not intended to be. This is not just about cool, "Instagram-ready" aesthetics. Sure, these "Urban Igapo" systems look very cool! (And, yeah, they're pretty damn sharable on social media- I'll give you that much...). However, it's much more than that. The focus here is on studying the function and dynamics of this unique environment in the aquarium.
If you're only looking for perfect, static aesthetics, you're bound to ultimately be disappointed, because- just like in Nature- the terrestrial plants will ultimately slip into a "dormant" phase, where they aren't all "crisp and green." They become stringy, limp, and brown over time. That being said, I personally find this "look" kind of cool...I think that you might, too, when this is considered in context.
Now, again, this is easily confused with, and I supposed comparable to a "dry start" planted aquarium or the "Walstad method" on a superficial level. However, remember that we are talking about terrestrial plants and grasses, as well as soils without any kind of "sand cap."
Sure, you can utilize some emergent-tolerant aquatic plants in your "Urban Igapo"- I've done this a few times with great success, and the added benefit that they typically look as good in the "terrestrial" phase as they do in the "aquatic" phase.
Of course, you could also use riparian-type plants, like Sedges and such, which can tolerate- or even require immersion and very moist soils for long-term health and growth. Some species of these plants are indeed found in such temporal environments in Nature, so it goes without saying that you should experiment with them in the aquarium, too!
Now, sure, playing with this type of setup brings together hobbyists fro ma number of disciplines- vivarium/terrarium people, aquarists, planted tank enthusiasts, botanical-style aquarium lovers (that's US!), etc. Now, sure, each party will have their own unique "take" on this process, as well as accompanying criticisms of the process and management.
However, "putting it all together" is really a fun process!
All sorts of fun variations are possible. Remember, it's not about trying to please some contest judge with an absolutely perfect biotopic representation, or a "ratio-compliant" aquascape.
It's about experimentation; studying, observing, and replicating a natural process in the aquarium...to the best of our capabilities. "Artistic liberties" are not only possible- they're welcome! So many iterations, interpretations, and experiments are possible here.
And of course, it's not just about these Amazonian habitats...there are numerous other habitats around the world that are suitable for such simulations.
What about a vernal pool in Africa that houses annual killifish?
Could lowering the water level significantly at various times of the year perhaps trigger specific behaviors related to the onset of the dry season? We already have a good handle on the spawning of annual fishes like Nothobranchius, and how CO2 and such affects egg viability, development, and hatching times ( a concept known as "diapause"), but I wonder if we could gain even more insight into the fishes themselves by gradually decreasing water levels to simulate this seasonal change?
Or perhaps even changing food sources to simulate the varying resources which are available during different seasons?
I've personally played with a group of South American annual killies (Notholebias minimus "Campo Grande") in one of my recent "Varzea" versions ( a different soil "formulation" than I use in the Igapo representation...), and I've had them spawn like crazy, and the tank is currently In its "dry season phase", allowing the eggs too incubate in the soil. The idea being, of course, that the eggs will hatch and the resulting fry can be raised in the "inundated" habitat.
There are many fishes which could benefit from such replications! Lots of possibilities.
I've also played with a "Pantanal-type" simulation, in which I used a mix of terrestrial grasses, weeds, and even some dead pieces of roots to recreate the look, richness, and the function of this unique habitat. It's an altogether "unconventional" aesthetic, and a most counter-intuitive aquarium, rich, sediment-laden, tinted and turbid. A relatively high-nutrient tank...One in which the fishes utterly thrived, however!
Yes, the "Urban Igapo" idea is one which we can all play with- on many different levels. There is so much to learn, and all sorts of fun experiments to do!
Now, the number one question we are asked is when we will be releasing the "Urban Igapo" NatureBase soils that we play with for sale. The answer is very, very soon! We will be releasing these soils in "small batches", not unlike the way gourmet coffee roasters do. We won't have each "formulation" available in huge quantities immediately.
There are several reasons.
First, it's literally "hand mixed" at the present time, and it's a bit of a tedious process for us! In addition, the soils are not intended (at least in the initial phases) to be used in large aquariums. We are deliberately going to be offering relatively small packages of the materials in order for hobbyists to use them in "nano-sized" aquairums.
The reason being that the dynamic is easier to recreate and manage in such smaller systems. Also, smaller batches and package sizes will give the largest number of hobbyists to play with this stuff in the initial phases!
There will be three different "NatureBase" formulations initially- Igapo, Varzea, and Mangal (brackish!). Each will be different in formulation and appearance. Each "recipe" has been tested and used here for some time with greta results. Each one can still be refined significantly, based on your feedback!
That's part of the fun of this...A sort of "open source" project/product that we can all have some input on! It won't be perfect.
However, It will be cool.
Eventually, if they prove popular, we will market larger quantities and sizes of the soils for larger tanks.We will also have additional "additives", like special mixes of crushed botanicals/leaves, grass seeds, etc. Initially, though, we want to see you experiment, iterate, innovate, and share your ideas, iterations, successes and yeah- failures- with the community.
We understand that not everyone will do the same thing, and not everyone will have great results! In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of you simply make a mess...
And that's okay, too! It's a big experiment! We not only welcome- but encourage input, constructive criticism, and suggestions to improve these products!
Oh, don't forget that it's okay to make a little mess sometimes. Beautiful things can come from it.
The ongoing experimentation, the mental shifts that we've asked you to make, the "norms" of botanical-style aquarium "practice" that we've pushed here for a few years- all will come together to make the "Urban Igapo" experiment unique and enjoyable to a wide variety of hobbyists!
Stay tuned. Won't be long now!
Stay excited. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay creative. Stay innovative. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
It's a big world, and there are numerous places where amazing fishes come from...Like, Africa, for example!
Africa is a particularly fascinating place for the botanical-style aquarium enthusiast to study, because of the huge variety of aquatic ecosystems that we can replicate in our tanks!
Yup, the coolest thing about the African content is that it has a diversity of habitats and fishes that is equally as stunning as anything found anywhere else on the planet. Yet, for some reason, outside of the Rift Lake cichlids and a few popular favorites, the region seems stunningly under-represented, at least from a "Natural habitat replication" standpoint, IMHO.
Of course, the Rift Lakes are amazing; they're filled with incredible fishes and unique and compelling underwater features that aquarists have been specializing in replicating for decades.They do insanely cool work. I admit, my knowledge of African Rift Lake cichlids is slightly above zero, but I have nothing but respect for the hobbyists who work with them.
I think a large part of the success with these fishes- and their popularity in the hobby-is because the environments from which they come are as fascinating as the fishes themselves.
Over the decades, hobbyists have gotten really, really good at creating accurate, biotopically-correct aquarium representations of the environments in which Rift Lake Cichlids are found.
And of course, at least at the moment, our interest lies elsewhere in this continent: Soft, acidic water habitats powered by the soils, geology, vegetation, botanical materials, and weather. Oh, and the major waterways play a huge role, too!
in many tropical African regions, you have influence from the mighty Congo River, arguably the natural African "analog" to The Amazon. It flows almost 3000 miles, and is the world's deepest river. There are over 700 species of fishes recorded as having been from this river, making it remarkable for species richness!
And of course, the numerous tributaries which branch out from this river, including the Kasai, Lufimi, Ubangi, Tshuapa, and Lomami, and hundreds of tiny, lesser-known ones, contain more unique fishes, and encompass a variety of compelling habitats.
Many of the fishes we keep from this region are from an area known as the "Malebo Pool", with its sandy substrates, often choked with leaves and branches, and its interesting reed grass "islands." It's known for slower water flow than the rapids of the main river itself.
Africa contains perhaps some of the most compelling ecological niches on earth. The opportunity to replicate them in our aquariums, with unique displays not previously contemplated, is significant. In Part 2 of this "mini epic", we'll touch on some ideas that you can play with, which will unlock some amazing discoveries with some previously under-appreciated fishes.
Stay bold. Stay excited...Stay tuned!
Africa...perhaps the most diverse and fascinating aquatic environment on earth.
Africa contains thousands of small tributaries and streams which flow throughout the continent, encompassing a variety of aquatic environments of every type.
Yes- the aquatic habitats of Africa encompass just about every cool idea we throw at you here- and then some!
The chance to replicate some truly unique ecological niches is tantalizing, isn't it? There are remarkable aquatic habitats in Africa which we can readily replicate with the materials and techniques we already use. Some of them are rather simple for us to execute, such as a variety of plants and terrestrial grasses in a blackwater habitat filled with leaves.
Many fishes, like the cool Ctenopoma, are found in habitats like this, which bear a remarkable similarity to the ones we're familiar with in South America: Rather dimly illuminated, thickly vegetated jungle streams, choked with floating vegetation and a bed of leaf litter and botanical materials (submerged branches, seed pods, etc.). The water itself is typically soft and acidic, with pH levels ranging from 5.5-6.8.
And Africa, much like South America, has a tremendous diversity of these types of leaf-choked habitats to work with.
There are lots of different types 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 canvas upon which to execute our craft.
Yes, lots of cool cichlids, characins, and other types of fishes are available in the hobby which inhabit variety of "fairly standardized" and well-represented ecological niches in the aquarium. I'm not the first person to argue this case in the hobby. You likely don't need me to sell you on them.
Yet, there is a group of fishes which we can play with that are almost the perfect "subjects" to work with to attempt to replicate some unusual habitats in the aquarium. Unique fishes which are colorful, interesting, downright tough, and highly adaptable...
Yup, the chance to do some really unusual work, especially with the under-appreciated (in the hobby mainstream, anyways) killifishes- is always pretty cool! The habitats in which killies are typically found are compelling, and their unique structure and aesthetics pushes us to the very edge of what we consider our "craft" if we want to replicate them.
Hobbyists have kept them for many decades; not much truly "new" there, right? The list of popular killies from Africa reads like a "who's who" of the aquarium world: Nothobranchius, Chromaphyosemion, Fundulopanchax, Epiplatys, Aphyosemion...just to name a few.
So, although new species are being discovered all the time, and taxonomic debates rage in the hobby and scientific communities, their husbandry has pretty much been "standardized" for a long time. The main "theme" of the killifish hobby, at least in my opinion as a sort of "peripheral" killie keeper, has been simply to breed them and maintain captive populations of them.
A super noble goal, of course, yet rather "one dimensional", in my opinion. The "formula is straightforward: Keep them in small aquariums filled with spawning mops, containers of peat moss, and maybe a few floating plants. Useful, efficient, highly functional, and..well...boring.
The idea of controlled breeding in peat-filled containers is just one way to approach their care. Imagine the interesting types of "permanent setups" you could create by looking more closely at the actual physical/chemical/environmental aspects of their natural habitats and attempting to replicate them in the aquarium.
Yeah. The habitats themselves are the key, IMHO to unlocking more interest in these amazing fishes!
Hear me out...
Arguments abound online in killifish forums with hobbyists preferring all sorts of ways to popularize these rather under-appreciated fishes, and what many call a "moribund" sector of the aquarium hobby, seemingly lacking a significant influx of new hobbyists. So, why not solve this "problem" by working on "the whole picture" of killifish care?
The inspiration is right in front of us. The information about them is abundant.
Many killifish enthusiasts have visited the wild habitats of killies and documented information about the ecosystems in which they are found, so why not use this data to replicate this most interesting, yet remarkably under-represented aspect of the killie realm?
Think of what our community, which has a tremendous amount of experience with unique aspects of habitat replication, can bring to the table here!
I've already started doing some of this type of work with South American annual killifishes, keeping them in my "Urban Igapo" habitat replications in "wet/dry" cycles, and the results have been really interesting! Spawning annual fishes in an aquarium environment which more realistically and accurately represents the natural habitats from which they have evolved in over eons is truly exciting!
And of course, a vast variety of killifish species inhabit leaf-strewn, sediment-laden bodies of water.
Bodies of water which offer habitat "enrichment", physical structure, and chemical influence. Bodies of water which our community is quite "fluent" at replicating in the aquarium. Leaves, botanical materials, and sediments are right up our proverbial "alley", right?
Sediments and substrates and leaves again!
Yeah, I suspect that we would do well to work with sediments, particularly sediments mixed with finely-crushed botanical materials like leaves. These materials will, of course, not only visually tint the water snd add some turbidity, they'll very accurately represent some of the chemical aspects of the natural habitats, too.
And of course, Africa has some other very compelling environments that would be equally fascinating to replicate in our aquaria. Environments seldom replicated in the hobby:
Tiny jungle streams, vernal pools, and... MUD PUDDLES!
Yes, mud puddles! Now, would it be possible to recreate a mud puddle in an aquarium to any degree? I think so! We've more-or-less done this already, right?
And what better fishes to use as "subjects" for this unique biotope-inspired work than killifishes?
I mean, for the hardcore biotope enthusiast, messing around with aquariums simulating the various habitats in which killies alone are found could be a lifelong obsession!
Imagine how cool it would be to delve into the world of killies...By working with "the whole picture" of their world?
Yes, they've been kept by avid enthusiasts for a century or more, but there are still so many secrets to unlock. I think that the killifish hobby is really great at what they do, but is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees! The answer to getting these fishes more into the mainstream of the hobby AND bringing in new enthusiasts at the same time is right in front of our eyes.
Creating aquariums that specifically aim to replicate the particular habitats of some of these species is simply beyond just an "under-served" area of the hobby. It's one which YOU could make very useful contributions to with a little research and some cool documented work!
I couldn't think of a better way to increase awareness within the hobby and outside of it about an amazing group of fishes, and the awe-inspiring natural habitats from which they come. Habitats which are increasingly endangered by mankind's encroachments and activities.
Habitats which need our protection more than ever!
Habitats which we can create a greater appreciation for and understanding of by attempting to replicate them in the aquarium!
What better outcome for the fishes, the hobby, the content, and the planet-could there be than that?
Stay thoughtful. Stay informed. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay bold. Stay unique...
And Stay Wet.
It seems like the longer I'm in this hobby, the more I learn. And sometimes, the more I learn, the more I realize that what we have been doing for a long time IS not such a bad thing. Yet, sometimes, we as a group tend to forget this stuff.
Yeah, every once in a while, me- Mr. "Question-Everything-You-Know-About-The-Hobby"- will ponder stuff which has long been considered a hard and fast "rule", and beat the shit out of it with my consistent questioning and personal research.
Sometimes, I think I'm correct in my conclusions that we've been too stubborn, and that all sorts of other approaches can not only work- but create better outcomes than we've ever considered!
Other times, I tend to go along with prevailing wisdom, as it really makes no sense to question what seems logical and beneficial for our animals. I still think about it a lot, though. Like, the social structures that we provide when we keep various species of fishes... It something that is fascinating, yet many of us don't give it a lot of thought...We add our fishes to our tanks and simply enjoy them, without much consideration for the fascinating aspects of this stuff!
That's okay, I guess...but there is a lot to this stuff that I think can really help us enjoy our fishes even more when we study it a bit.
Let me digress for a quick second. Give you a bit of context for what I'm thinking here.
I suppose one of the real fun parts of aquarium keeping is figuring out what fishes you want to keep, and setting up the aquarium to accommodate them. In many cases, not only does "setting up the tank to accommodate them" mean selecting the proper sized tank, environmental parameters, and physical layout, it also means suitable social groups of them.
Now, if you're like me, you love sizable shoals or schools of small fishes-usually characins- in large tanks. There's something about the "scale" and interest that such groups provide, particularly in an aquarium designed to meet their needs. And you, too, have probably have kept many schools of characins and such. You KNOW that most of these fishes simply fail to thrive when not kept in schools.
Schools. Shoals. Groups.
I've always felt that as hobbyists, we need to do all that we can to help facilitate the beneficial aspects of this social behavior.
Oh, but first, a "refresher" of sorts...
The word "fish” is the correct plural form when you’re referring to a group of specimens all belonging to the same species. “Fishes,” on the other hand, refers to a group which consists of more than one species.
Us fish geeks mess that one up all the time.
I mean, I know that I do!
Oh, and let's just jump on that most confusing of fishy distinctions...the difference between a shoal of fishes and a school of fishes:
A shoal is a group of fish congregating together, perhaps even to benefit from the safety in numbers...yet not moving or behaving in unison. They can be facing in multiple directions, with no coordinated actions.
That's the distinction.
A school is when all of the members of the group are moving and behaving in a coordinated manner.
Personally, I've always liked the idea of keeping groups of the same species together whenever possible- regardless of if they school together, or simply "cohabit."
And then there are fishes which live in "groups", right?
Social aggregations of fishes which don't really display "coordinated movements" and such, but do exhibit social behaviors in a group setting, such as dominance hierarchies, feeding and spawning orders, etc.
Okay, all of that grammatical B.S. now safely felt with and tucked away neatly, let's ruminate more about the idea of keeping lots of fish- or fishes- together in our tanks! I know, it's sort of "Aquarium Keeping 101", but it's something that we likely tend not to give much thought to as we move on to other stuff, right?
Some of the best fishes to keep as single-species units, in my opinion, are catfishes, like the Corydoras, Brochus, and even the Otocinculus species.
The dynamic of keeping these endearing fish in groups is almost irresistible...and mimics how they are often found in Nature. It's fun to watch, and really enlivens your aquarium experience.
They are really social fish!
Not only do the fish show their most interesting behaviors in single-species groups, they seem to feed better, stay healthier, and spawn more easily, in my experience.
Makes perfect sense, right?
I recall that I had a sizable group of 14 Corydoras panda a while back in one of my aquariums that lived very well together in a school that I gradually built up. However, almost paradoxically, they actually seemed to behave more shy- or perhaps you could say, "cautious"-as a large group than they were as individuals or small group.
I would say that they definitely "schooled", but they adapted a strange "schedule" once the group truly became a school, and they were almost nocturnal or crepuscular, often coming out as a school, seemingly from out of nowhere, just as "dusk" broke in my tank (gotta love controllable LED's, huh?)! Of course, if you dropped in food at almost any time of the day, all bets were off, and they came out to feed actively- and then quickly went back to wherever the hell they hid during the day..
And then there are those Otocinculus...
This is a fish that just seems to be, well- problematic- for many...And I think it's no secret that they often suffer from 1) Lack of sufficient algal growth, and 2) The apparent "comfort" of the company of their own kind. They will often live for what seems like extended periods of time in a solitary manner, or even in small groups- only to just sort of "fade" at some point.
Personally, I think that this fish creates a sort of "paradox" for aquarists: One one hand, you want to support it's need for socialization by keeping it in larger groups (say, a minimum of 6-8 specimens), while on the other hand, providing sufficient micro algae growth on rocks, plants, and other aquariums surfaces. I wouldn't even think of keeping this fish in groups of less than 6 individuals...again, possibly problematic if you're tank can't provide sufficient algal growth for them.
Yeah. A paradox.
And of course, everyone knows that some species simply need to be kept in groups to confidently exist in your aquarium. For example, the Glass Catfish, Kryptopterus sp. is a fish that will literally waste away when kept individually, like so many of us probably did with this fish when we were kids. (Okay, well, I did!)
These are fishes that truly have a timid and non-aggressive nature, and they should always be kept in a group...and by "group", I'm thinking 6 or more...even larger, if your tank can accommodate them. And of course, this means an appropriately-sized aquarium and physical layout to accommodate their needs.
(Pic by JohnstonDJ, used under CC BY-S.A. 2.0)
And, if you're curious to see how these fish can act in a large group, check out Tai Strietman's video of his Asian-themed tank. They display a relaxed, gregarious nature, which is much more natural than the skulking-in-the-corner, timid personality they typically display when kept individually. It's plainly obvious, when you watch this video, that these fishes are near-perfect to keep in this fashion, and you'll never attempt keep them individually again!
You probably have already considered this idea of keeping various species of catfishes in groups, but it's something I felt like touching on because I still see many hobbyists keeping them individually or in very small groups, which is a bit surprising. Now, yes, this is a "general" statement, and it would be irresponsible of me to intimate that it applies automatically to every species. Obviously, there are many exceptions to this.
And of course, there are fishes which tend to be kept singly, which, if the proper space and environment is set up- and if introduced as juveniles together, could sort it out and live in some semblance of a peaceful social order for an indefinite period of time.
The key there is observation, study, and patience...And the ability to take quick and decisive action should things "head south" in your little aquatic Utopia!
There is certainly a lot we can learn, and much to consider about the social behavior of our fishes, and how we can provide the optimum conditions to enhance it.
Regardless, in this era where tanks are set up as a" temporary" display, or set up to highlight the aquascape, with the fishes simply being "accessories", we often see tanks with the fishes installed without due consideration for their long-term need.
It need not be this way. In fact, it shouldn't be this way.
I'd go so far to suggest that, even if you're setting up a temporary display for a competition, or whatever, you need to display them in proper groups. Remember, a display seen by a lot of people who might be influenced by it should be set up with animals in proper context.
Yeah, it sends the wrong message to the uninitiated to do this.
A simple concept. Probably almost "remedial" in nature. However, something that we need to keep in the front of our mind when setting up our next aquarium, no matter how unique or different it may be. Place the needs of your fishes first.
You probably know that.
In fact, I"m certain that you do.
So, please pass along the thought to someone who might not. There are a lot of new people coming into the hobby all the time- and we'd all be better off it they stay in it!
Stay thoughtful. Stay considerate. Stay supportive. Stay inspirational. Stay devoted. Stay curious...
And Stay Wet.
Confession: I used to hate small aquariums. I really did. I think part of it was because, as a kid, all I could keep in my room ('cause I had like 10 tanks!) was small aquariums. When I was able to get larger tanks, I went all-in on larger tanks (like50-gallons and up) and vowed never to go small again.
My, how times change!
Fast forward a few decades and enter our crazy botanical-style aquarium world here at Tannin, and the idea of using small aquariums is indispensable!
Yeah, I've completely changed my attitude about them, to the point where it's no secret that we love small aquariums around here. For a lot of reasons, really...not the least of which is that they can serve as a sort of reliable and easy-to-iterate "test bed" for lots of new ideas.
Now, you're also likely aware of the fact that we're crazy about small, shallow bodies of water, right? I mean, almost every fish geek is like "genetically programmed" to find virtually any random body of water irresistible!
Especially little rivulets, pools, creeks, and forest streams. The kinds which have an accumulation of leaves and botanical materials on the bottom. Darker water, submerged branches- all of that stuff...
You know, the kind where you'll find fishes!
Happily, such habitats exist all over the world, leaving us no shortage of inspiring places to attempt to replicate. Like, everywhere you look!
In Africa for example, many of these little streams and pools are home to some of my fave fishes, killifish!
As mentioned above, many of these little jungle streams are really shallow, cutting gently through accumulations of leaves and forest debris. Many are seasonal. The great killie documenter/collector, Col. Jorgen Scheel, precisely described the water conditions found in their habitat as "...rather hot, shallow, usually stagnant & probably soft & acid."
Ah-ah! We know this territory pretty well, right?
I think we do...and understanding this type of habitat has lots of implications for creating very cool biotope-inspired aquariums.
And why not make 'em for killifish?
So, for the most part, these fishes are often found in very shallow jungle streams. How shallow? Well, reports I've seen have stated that they're as shallow as 2 inches (5.08cm). That's really shallow. Seriously shallow! And, quite frankly, I'd call that more of a "rivulet" than a stream!
"Virtually still, with a barely perceptible current..." was one description. That kind of makes my case.
What does that mean for those of us who keep small aquariums?
Well, it gives us some inspiration, huh? Ideas for tanks that attempt to replicate and study these compelling shallow environments...
Now, I don't expect you to set up a tank with a water level that's 2 inches deep..And, although it would be pretty cool, for more of us, perhaps a 3.5"-4" (8.89-10.16cm) of depth is something that can work? Yeah. Totally doable. There are some pretty small commercial aquariums that aren't much deeper than 8" (20.32cm), and you could adapt other containers for this purpose, right?
We could do this with some of the very interesting South American or Asian habitats, too...Shallow tanks, deep leaf litter, and even some botanicals for good measure.
How about a long, low aquarium, like the ADA "60F", which has dimensions of 24"x12"x7" (60x30x18cm)? You would only fill this tank to a depth of around 5 inches ( 12.7cm) at the most. But you'd use a lot of leaves to cover the bottom...
And another idea for you...Nano brackish tanks!
Here is a pic of my experimental brackish water Epiplatys annulatus setup from several years back. (Yes, there are actually some populations which come from brackish coastal streams! ohhhh!) This one I actually filled to the top, used a fine layer of fine, white sand, and kept the water at a specific gravity of 1.003. It was kind of an odd dichotomy, really, because I used some botanical items in the sort of "island" of rock I created in the lower light area on one side.
You can guess where the fish spent most of their time! I incorporated what I now call "Mariposa Pods" a few little Cariniana Pods, and some Coco Curls into the "island", which had a mix of terrestrial and true aquatic plants, with slightly different water. I guess you could say that it was kind of my first attempt at a "botanical-style brackish water aquarium!" Yeah, it was kind of weird. Not exactly an aquascaping triumph, but an execution on an idea that was in my head for a long time.
(Yeah, I've always liked pushing in different directions!)
You could, of course, do a far more refined version of this early experiment, one with mangroves and leaf litter and a deep, muddy substrate- all of the elements we've talked about, but in a small scale.
Yes, this is another blog where I'm sort of all over the place; must be the caffeine?
The big takeaway here?
Research jungle stream or pool ecology.
Learn which fishes are found in them. Try replicating those super-shallow aquatic environments with nano tanks. Keep the water in the tank really shallow. Add leaves and stuff. Observe. Explore. Enjoy.
Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay informed...
And Stay Wet.
In recent months, I've spent a lot of time developing some new ideas for botanical-style aquariums; thinking through iterations, processes, materials, and mental shifts that need to be made as we move forward. Some are pretty radical ones. Others, subtle, incremental steps.
All of them are useful and, in my opinion, potentially very interesting!
Among the numerous concepts that I've been thinking about is how specific botanical materials can impact aquatic habitats in the geographical regions from which they come- and how we might be able to take advantage of this in our aquariums.
Of course, it is perfectly logical to imply that botanicals, wood, and other materials which we ultiize in our aquascapes not only have an aesthetic impact, but a consequential physical-chemical impact on the overall aquatic environment, as well.
Not really difficult to grasp, when you think about it in the context of stuff we know and love in other areas of life...
Wine, for example, has "terroir"- the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown, and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma... And it's well-known that coffee acquires traits from the soils and climates in which it grows that are similar. Tangible effects and characteristics, which impact the experience we get from them.
And of course, I can't help but wonder if this same idea applies to our botanicals?
Yeah, it HAS to. Right?
I mean, leaves come from specific trees, imparting not only tannins and humic substances into the water, but likely falling in heavier concentrations, or accumulating in various parts of rain forest streams or inundated forest floors at particular times of the year, or in specific physical locales with in a stream or river.
And, it's absolutely not out of the question to assume that the leaves, seed pods, etc. on these trees and shrubs have different concentrations of these compounds at different times of the year as well, and that these factors have varying influences upon water chemistry, right?
And of course, when these materials end up in waterways, they provide the fishes which reside in that given area a specific set of physical/chemical conditions, which they have adapted to over time. The same with soils and sediments that accumulate on forest floors and meadows (The Pantanal in Brazil comes to mind here), which have an absolute impact on the aquatic environment when the waters return.
Is this not the very definition of "terroir?"
Yeah, sort of...right?
Actually, it makes perfect sense.
As we've discussed before, the soils, plants, and surrounding geography of an aquatic habitat play an important and intricate role in the composition of the aquatic environment. They influence not only the chemical characteristics of the water (like pH, TDS, alkalinity), but the color (yeah- tannins!), turbidity, and other characteristics, like the water flow. Large concentrations of botanical materials or leaves become physical structures in the course of a stream or river that affect the course of the water.
And of course, they also have important impact on the diet of fishes...Remember allochthonous input form the land surrounding aquatic habitats? And the impact of humic substances? Yeah, these factors are extremely important in the grand scheme of things.
And of course, I simply can't help but wonder what sorts of specific environmental variations we can create in our aquarium habitats; that is to say, "variations" of the chemical composition of the water in our aquarium habitats- by employing various different types and combinations of botanicals and aquatic soils.
I mean, on the surface, this is hardly a revolutionary idea...
We've been doing stuff like this in the hobby for a while- more crudely in the fish-breeding realm (adding peat to water, for example...), or with aragonite substrates in Africa Rift Lake cichlid tanks, or with mineral additions to shrimp habitats, etc.
Now, this is NOT exactly the same idea as the "biotope aquarium" crowd plays with, IMHO. That's more of a physical and arguably "superficial" attempt at replicating aspects of the natural habitats from which our fishes hail. Very, very cool- but different, I believe, than what we're talking about here.
We can, of course, borrow "mental capital" from the work done in other aquatic endeavours. It's there for the taking, lol.
In the planted aquarium world, for example, it's long been known that soil types/additives, ie; clay-based aquatic soils, for example, will obviously impact the water chemistry of the aquarium far differently than say, iron-based soils, and thusly, their effect on the plants, fishes, and, as a perhaps unintended) side consequence, the overall aquatic environment will differ significantly as a result.
So, it pretty much goes without saying that the idea that utilizing different types of botanical materials in the aquarium can likely yield different effects on the water chemistry, and thus impact the lives of the fishes and plants that reside there- is not that big of a "stretch", right?
I can't help but wonder what the possible impacts of different leaves, or possibly even seed pods from different areas can have on the water and overall aquarium environment.
I mean, sure, pH and such are affected in certain circumstances - but what about the compounds and substances we don't- or simply can't- test for in the aquarium? What impacts do they have? Subtle things, like combinations of various amino acids, antioxidant compounds, obscure trace elements- even hormones, for that matter...
Could utilizing different combinations of botanicals in aquariums potentially yield different tangible results for our fishes? You know- scenarios like, "Add this if you want fishes to color up. Add a combination of THIS if you want the fishes to commence spawning behavior", etc.
It sounds a bit exotic, but is it really all that far-fetched an idea?
Absolutely not, IMHO.
I think the main thing which keeps the idea from really developing more in the hobby- knowing exactly how much of what to add to our tanks, specifically to achieve "x" effect- is that we simply don't have the means to test for many of the compounds which may affect the aquarium habitat.
At this point, it's really as much of an "art" as it is a "science", and more superficial observation- at least in our aquariums- is probably almost ("almost...") as useful as laboratory testing is in the wild. Sure, we can test for tannins in the aquairum- but what does it mean? What is a concentration that makes sense for our purposes? What's a "good" number? Is there any correlating test work on these substances being done in the wild aquatic habitats?
Now, I have found some work on ionic and trace element concentrations in some well-known aquatic habitats, but the ability for a hobbyist to test for many of the compounds measured is virtually non-existent at the present time. I can only hope that at some point, detailed hobbyist-level ICP-OES analysis- similar to what is available for reef tanks, becomes available for freshwater hobbyists. That would be a game-changer!
At least at the present time, we're largely limited to making "superficial" observations about stuff like the color a specific botanical can impart into the water, etc. Impact on pH, TDS, etc. is what we have to work with- better than nothing, I suppose! Of course, our home aquarium "field studies" of our fishes in various water chemistry scenarios is useful for our purposes! Even simply observing the effects upon our fishes caused by environmental changes, etc. is useful to some extent.
Of course, not everything we can gain from this is superficial...some botanical materials that we play with actually do have scientifically-confirmed impacts on the aquarium environment; or on fish health, at the very least.
In the case of catappa leaves, for example, we can at least infer that there are some substances (flavonoids, like kaempferol and quercetin, a number of tannins, like punicalin and punicalagin, as well as a suite of saponins and phytosterols) imparted into the water from the leaves- which do have scientifically documented affects on fish health and vitality.
When we first started Tannin, I came up with the term "habitat enrichment" to describe the way various botanicals can impact the aquarium environment. I mused on the idea a lot. (I know that doesn't surprise many of you, lol...) Now, I freely admit that this term may be interpreted as much a form of "marketing hyperbole" as it is a useful description.
However, I believe that the idea sort of resonates, when we think of the aquarium as an analog for the wild aquatic habitats, and how the surrounding environment- the terroir- impacts the aquatic environment, right?
As we play more and more with the "Urban Igapo" idea of creating a "wet-dry" seasonal cycle replication in aquariums, perhaps this dynamic can be more easily and dramatically understood by hobbyists.
And of course, when it comes to utilizing botanicals and creating more "authentic" blackwater conditions in our aquariums, we hear the interesting stories from fellow hobbyists about dramatic color changes, positive behavioral changes, rehabilitated fishes, and those "spontaneous" spawning events, which seem to occur after a few weeks of utilizing various botanicals in aquariums which formerly did not employ them.
Sure, these are not carefully-controlled scientific experiments. Likely, a good number of these interesting events and effects could likely be written off as mere coincidences or anecdotal occurrences. However, when it happens over and over and over again in this context, I think it at least warrants some consideration! There must be "something in the water", right?
We're slowly figuring this stuff out.
Yeah, we’re artists at this point.
And this stuff is really as much of an “art” as it is a “science”, IMHO.
There is so much we don’t know yet. Or, more specifically, so much we don’t know about botanicals in the context of keeping fishes. We're still largely in an "experimental" phase, and likely will be for some years to come. And that's just fine with me...The "art" is pretty fun and engaging at this point!
We need to tie a bunch of loose ends together to get a really good read on this stuff until we get to the "Dial-a-River” additive stage ("Just add a little of this and a bit of that, and...")
But we're slowly getting there...At least in terms of understanding some of the tangible benefits of botanical use, besides just the aesthetics.
Continued experimentation with different approaches within our botanical-style aquarium obsession is likely to yield more information that will advance the "state of the art." Allowing ourselves to "get out of our own way" and give serious thought to the impacts of things like alternative substrates, and "substrate-centric" aquariums is a really huge avenue for us to explore. We're literally just scratching the surface here.
And it all starts with understanding the impact of...the terroir, right? The impact of the materials that we use on the aquatic environments of our fishes. It's something we've played with for years, but are only recently starting to understand...Separating mere aesthetics from a deeper, possibly more meaningful understanding of Nature as it relates to our aquariums.
Stay observant. Stay resourceful. Stay methodical. Stay curious. Stay dedicated. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
As more and more hobbyists start incorporating botanical materials in all sorts of aquariums, we are once again exposed to a lot of different approaches, ideas, and "techniques."
There is a sort of "blending" of approaches and techniques- all of which serve to bring us joy and appreciation for the wonders of Nature. However, we often tend to "edit" Nature, polishing out or trying to "bypass" the processes, aesthetics, and functions that we find distasteful- in search of what we have generically called a "balanced" aquarium.
It's a noble, important goal. However, I think we need to understand that Nature seeks "balance" in Her own way- one that really doesn't take into account our schedules, goals, or aesthetic preferences.
And it's well known that an aquarium is a closed ecosystem that can easily "fall out of balance."
We often say it's "delicate"- but I don't think that it is. Rather, it's a robust system, which establishes itself in a way that utilizes "what's available" at any given time. And sometimes, it results in the pendulum shifting from one life form to another. The "balance" may be delicate; in that various life forms can "take over" at any given time- and rapidly, too. However, if you've ever battled something like an algae bloom- you'd never call the life forms themselves "delicate", right?
They're tenacious. You have to respect that. Any life form that takes advantage of optimum conditions to thrive is at least worthy of some appreciation- even if it looks like- well- shit, right?
Sure. excessive algae growth is a sign of imbalance of something- light, nutrients, often exacerbated by deficiencies in husbandry, or a combination of these factors. This is "Aquarium Keeping 101", of course, but when you're in the middle of these kinds of struggles, it's easy to overlook seemingly "basic" stuff.
It is not always easy or clear to understand why a tank is "out of balance." Sometimes, it just takes time to figure it out. I think the important thing is to think of an aquarium- especially our botanical-style aquariums- as a small, closed ecosystem or microcosm, with internal and external influences-any one of which may be extremely impactful when they converge.
Understanding that the various possible impacts that our techniques and executions may have on our aquariums is just the start. On the most superficial level, adding a lot of botanical material into a tank is a recipe for: a) a lot of bioload for resident organisms to process, b) a substrate for biofilm and/or algal growth, and c) biodiversity- a proliferation of a variety of organisms.
And of course, "bioload" can be taken advantage of by a particularly adaptable life form which could proliferate more quickly than others...throwing your little ecosystem "out of balance."
This is part of the reason why the so-called "Walstad Method" for planted aquariums, which I love dearly, proffers incorporating fast-growing plants from the start..They will compete with algae for the same nutrients, and typically, they'll out-pace the algae as they grow.
It's about starting out your aquarium to empower various life forms to help seek a balance.
In our "Urban Igapo" approach, we advocate what amounts to a "dirted bottom" aquarium, sans aquatic plants (at least, initially) and a "sand cap" over the soil. Rather, we plant terrestrial plants and/or grasses (ideally, submersion-tolerant ones) during the "dry" phase. And of course, when we add water, the abundance of nutrients in the substrate creates a significant "bioload" in the now aquatic environment.
"Stuff" is going to happen.
Perhaps- do we dare say, the UI is the metaphorical "ugly stepchild" of the "Walstad Method?" Maybe, but I suppose that could be viewed as a bit presumptuous.
Ceding a lot of the control to Nature is hard for some to quantify as a "technique" or "method", so I get it. At various phases in the process, our "best practice" might be to simply observe...
And with plant growth slowing down, or even going completely dormant while submerged, the utilization of nutrients via their growth diminishes, and aquatic life forms (biofilms, algae, aquatic plants, and various bacteria, microorganisms, and microcrustaceans) take over. There is obviously an initial "lag time" when this transitional phase occurs- a time when there is the greatest opportunity for one life form or another (algae, bacterial biofilms, etc.) to become the dominant "player" in the microcosm.
It's exactly what happens in Nature during this period, right?
In our aquarium practice, it's the time when you think about the impact of technique-such as water exchanges, addition of aquatic plants, adding fishes, reducing light intensity and photoperiod, etc. and (again) observation to keep things in balance- at least as much as possible. You'll question yourself...and wonder if you should intervene- and how..
Someone in the system- one life form or another-will exploit the available resources, to the detriment of others, and the key here is observation, followed by intervention as needed/desired. "Intervention" being manipulation of environmental parameters or impacts in order to "rebalance" the ecosystem- if you can,or if you feel you must.
Like in any aquarium, there is no "magic elixir"- no single solution to a situation like this.
It's about a number of measured moves, any of which could have significant impact- even "take over" the system- if allowed to do so. This is part of the reason why we don't currently recommend playing with the UI on a large-tank scale just yet. (that, and the fact that we're not going to be geared up to produce thousands of pounds of the various substrates just yet! 😆)
Until you make those mental shifts to accept all of this stuff in one of these small tanks, the idea of replicating this in 40-50, or 100 gallons is something that you may want to hold off on for just a bit.
I mean, if you understand and accept the processes, functions, and aesthetics of this stuff, maybe you would want to "go big" on your first attempt. However, I think you need to try it on a "nano scale" first, to really "acclimate" to the idea.
The idea of accepting Nature as it is makes you extremely humble, because there is a realization at some point that you're more of an "interested observer" than an "active participant." It's a dance. One which we may only have so much control- or even understanding of! That's part of the charm, IMHO.
These habitats are a remarkable "mix" of terrestrial and aquatic elements, processes, and cycles. There is a lot going on. It's not just, "Okay, the water is here- now it's a stream!"
Nope. A lot of stuff to consider.
In fact, one of the arguments one could make about these "Urban Igapo" systems is that you may not want to aggressively intervene during the transition, because there is so much going on! Rather, you may simply want to observe and study the processes and results which occur during this phase. Personally, I've noticed that the "wet season" changes in my UI tanks generally happen slowly, but you will definitely notice them as they occur.
After you've run through two or three complete "seasonal transition cycles" in your "Urban Igapo", you'll either hate the shit out of the idea- or you'll fall completely in love with it, and want to do more and more work in this alluring little sub-sector of the botanical-style aquarium world.
The opportunity to learn more about the unique nuances which occur during the transition from a terrestrial to an aquatic habitat is irresistible to me. Of course, I'm willing to accept all of the stuff with a very open mind. Typically, it results in a fascinating, utterly beautiful, and surprisingly realistic representation of what happens in Nature.
It's also entirely possible to have your "Urban Igapo" turn into an "Urban Algae Farm" if things get out of balance. Yet, it can "recover" from this. Again, even the fact that a system is "out of balance" doesn't mean that it's a failure. After all, the algae is thriving, right? That's a success. Life forms have adapted. A cause to celebrate.
It happens in Nature, too!
I know, seems weird. What we've long feared- what we've always felt looked like "failure"- is actually something to cherish. A huge, HUGE "mental shift" that literally goes against every single thing you've been taught in the hobby.
I can see why you would be.
We're essentially asking you to do the equivalent of turning a potted plant into a fish pond. And that's sort of- well, sort of crazy, right? Well, maybe not. I mean, this transition has been happening in the igapo- the flooded forests- of South America for eons. Nature has processes, organisms and parameters which allow this annual transition to occur. Life forms have adapted to this cycle.
Now, sure, the forests of South America are open ecological systems, and your 2-gallon "Urban Igapo" in suburban Cincinnati isn't...On the other hand, the same processes and laws which govern the functions of the forest impact the function in your little experimental glass box.
Once again, the idea of a "mental shift" to accept and understand the processes and the way they look and impact our closed systems is a huge part of the equation. Think about this: Yeah, the tank may look like a cloudy, brown, glass full of shit at some phases of the terrestrial-aquatic transition. However, there are reasons why, right? Nature is trying to establish a functioning little ecosystem, and not all of this fits our definition of "attractive."
But it's "natural."
And what's wrong with it? The looks? I mean, are your fishes dying? No? Than what's the real "problem" here?
Yeah, I know, it's a weird way of thinking of this.
If you make this kind of "mental shift", you'd even be ablel to tolerate, accept, and even appreciate the appearance of biofilms, "beard algae", fungal growth, and any number of things that you'd likely see during this environmental transition. It's simply Nature working through her transitional process.
Yet, accepting all of this stuff-aesthetic and otherwise- is contradictory to what we've been taught over generations to be "acceptable" in an aquarium. However, if you really want to own a real "Nature Aquarium" (sic), then I think that you need to make this big "mental shift."
This is what Nature looks like.
And there is no single thing that you can do, change, or add to magically transform your "Urban Igapo" into a shiny-clean, perfectly-balanced closed ecosystem. No "magic elixir" or single practice to get you perfectly predictable results every time.
Rather, its a series of changes, practices, processes, and the passage of time, which we as hobbyists need to study, understand, and accept. The whole idea of the UI is to foster a closed ecosystem- to replicate, on a small scale- what happens in Nature. It starts by accepting what happens in Nature, and letting it play out in our aquariums.
Nature finds a way. Nature knows how to do this.
It's up to us to decide wether to understand and accept- or to resist and circumvent the offerings of Nature.
Which way will you go?
Stay determined. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay resourceful. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet