After years of playing with all sorts of aspects of botanical method aquariums, you start noticing patterns and "trends" in our little speciality world. And, observing your own niche closely makes you a more keen observer of other hobby specialities, too!
I've noticed a little "trend", if you will, in some specialized areas of the hobby, such as the cichlid world, for example, which is really interesting. It seems that there has been a sort of "mental shift" from keeping cichlids in more-or-less "utilitarian", almost "sterile" setups for breeding, to aquariums that more accurately reflect the habitats from which these fishes hail from in the wild, and just sort of letting them "do their thing" naturally.
I really like this, because it means that we're paying greater attention to the "big picture" of their husbandry- not just feeding, water chemistry, and providing spawning locations. Instead, we're providing all of these things within the context of a more natural display...and hobbyists are getting great results...and they're enjoying their tanks even more!
I think it's probably the hobby's worst kept "secret" that, even if it wasn't your ambition to do so- your fishes will often spawn in your tanks by simply providing them optimum environmental conditions.
I'm not saying that the bare breeding tank with a sponge filter and a flower pot is no longer the way to approach maintenance and breeding of fishes like cichlids. I am saying that I think there is a distinct advantage to the fish-and their owners- to keeping them in a setup that is more "permanent"- and more reflective of their natural environment from a physical/aesthetic standpoint.
I recall, many years ago, keeping killifish, such as Epiplatys, Pseudoepiplatys and some Fundulopanchax, in permanent setups with lots of plants, Spanish Moss., and leaves (yeah, even back in my teens I was into 'em..). And you know what? I Would get some good spawns, and it seems like I always had some fry coming along at various stages. I am sure that some might have been consumed by the older fishes or parents along the way, but many made it through to adulthood.
I had stable breeding populations of a variety of Epiplatys species in these kinds of tanks for years. Sure, if you are raising fishes for competition, trade, etc., you'd want to remove the juveniles to a operate tank for controlled grow out, or perhaps search for, and harvest eggs so that you could get a more even grow out of fry, but for the casual (or more than causal) hobbyist, these "permanent" setups can work pretty nicely!
This is not a new concept; however, I think the idea of setting up fishes permanently and caring for them, having them spawn, and rearing the fry in the same tanks is a lot more popular than it used to be. I realize that not all fishes can be dealt with like this, for a variety of reasons. Discus, fancy guppies, etc. require more "controlled" conditions...However, do their setups have to be so starkly...utilitarian all the time?
I was talking not too long ago with a fellow hobbyist who's been trying all sorts of things to get a certain Loricarid 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 of course, I was impressed by all of the efforts he's made to get these fish to spawn thus far...But I kept thinking that there must be something fundamental-something incredibly simple, yet important- that he was overlooking...
What exactly could it be? Hard to say, but it must be something- some environmental, chemical, or physical factor, which the fish are getting in the wild, but not getting in our aquariums.
It's all the more intriguing, I suppose...
Fish breeding requires us as hobbyists to really flex some skills and patience!
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! We do an amazing job. And of course, being the thoughtful type, I always wonder if there is some key thing we're missing that can help us do even better.
Now, I realize that most fish breeders 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.
I often wonder what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, the proper environmental conditions, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..."
Now, I realize that a lot of hardcore, very experienced breeders will scoff at this- and probably rightly so. Giving up control when the goal is the reproduction of your fishes is not a good thing. Practicality becomes important- hence the employment of clay flowerpots, spawning cones, breeding traps, bare tanks to raise fry, etc.
What do the fishes think about this?
Sure, to a fish, a cave is a cave, be it constructed of ceramic or if it's the inside of a hollowed-out seed 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 can't help but ruminate about this "non-approach approach" (LOL)
Not a "better spawning cone", "breeding trap", or more heartily-enriched brine shrimp. Rather, a holistic approach featuring excellent food, optimum natural water conditions, and...a physical-chemical environment reminiscent of the one they evolved in over millennia.
Won't the fishes "figure it all out?"
Yeah, I think that they will. Just a hunch I have.
And my point here is not to minimize the work of talented fish breeders worldwide, or to over-simplify things ("Just add this and your fish will make babies by the thousands!").
It's to continue to make my case that we should, at every opportunity, continue to aspire to provide our fishes with conditions that are reminiscent of those what the evolved under for eons. I think we should make it easier for the fishes- not easier for us.
Sure, Discus can spawn and live in hard, alkaline tap water. And I know that many successful, serious breeders and commercial ventures will make a strong and compelling case for why this is so, and why it's practical in most cases.
Yet, I'm still intrigued by the possibilities of maintaining (and hopefully) spawning species like this in aquariums approximating their natural conditions on a full time basis.
Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't help but wonder if it's really possible that a couple of dozen generations of captive breeding in "unnatural conditions" could undo millions of years of evolution, which has conditioned these fish to live, grow, and reproduce in soft, alkaline, tannin-stained waters, and that our tap water conditions are "just fine" for them?
I mean, maybe it's possible...Hey, I am no scientist, but I can't help but ask if there is a reason why these fishes have evolved under such conditions so successfully? And if embracing these conditions will yield even betterlong-term results for the fishes?
I just think that there's a good possibility that I'm kind of right about that.
So, again, I think it is important for those of us who are really into creating natural aquariums for our fishes to not lose sight of the fact that there are reasons why- and benefits to- fishes having evolved under these conditions. I think that rather than adapt them to conditions easier for us to provide, that we should endeavor to provide them with conditions that are more conducive to their needs- regardless of the challenges involved.
Something to think about, right?
And , 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 Apisto 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.
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?
And what about the "spontaneous" spawning events that so many of you tell us have occurred in your botanical method aquariums?
Over the decades, I've had a surprisingly large number of those "spontaneous" spawning events in botanical method tanks, myself. You know, you wake up one morning and your Pencilfishes are acting weird...Next thing you know, there are clouds of eggs flying all over the tank...
That sort of stuff.
And after the initial surprise and excitement, during my "postgame analysis", I'd always try to figure out what led to the spawning event...I concluded often that was usually pure luck, coupled with providing the fishes a good environment, rather than some intentionally-spawning-focused efforts I made.
Well, maybe luck was a much smaller contributor...
After a few years of experiencing this sort of thing, I began to draw the conclusion that it was more the result of going out of my way to focus on recreating the correct environmental conditions for my fishes on a full-time basis- not just for spawning- which led to these events occurring repeatedly over the years.
With all sorts of fishes, too.
When it happened again, a couple of years ago, in my experimental leaf-litter only tank, hosting about 20 Paracheirodon simulans ("Green Neon Tetras"), I came the conclusion, in a rather circuitous sort of way, that I AM a "fish breeder" of sorts.
Well, that's not fair to legit fish breeders. More precisely, I'm a "fish natural habitat replication specialist."
A nice way of saying that by focusing on the overall environmental conditions of the aquarium on a full time basis, I could encourage more natural behaviors- including spawning- among the fishes under my care. A sort of "by product" of my practices, as opposed to the strict, stated goal.
Additionally, I've postulated that 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-,method fry-rearing system", with it's abundant decomposing leaves, biofilms, and microbial population, be of benefit?
I think so.
This is an interesting, in fact, fundamental aspect of botanical-style aquariums; we've discussed it many, many times here: 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.
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!
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.
While I believe that we can be "lucky" about having fishes spawn in our tanks when that wasn't the intent, I don't believe that fishes reproduce in our tanks solely because of "luck." I mean, sure you will occasionally happen to have stumbled n the right combination of water temp, pH, current, light, or whatever- and BLAM! Spawning.
However, I think it's more of a cumulative result of doing stuff right. For a while.
So, 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..?"
There really is nothing "wrong" with that.
It's about wonder. Awe. The happenstance of giving your fishes exactly what they need to react in the most natural way possible.
And that's pretty cool, isn't it?
Of course, there is more to being a "successful" breeder than just having the fishes spawn. You have to rear the resulting fry, right? Sure, half the battle is just getting the fishes to lay eggs in the first place- a conformation that you're doing something right to make them comfortable enough to want to reproduce! And there is a skill set needed to rear the fry, too.
Yet, I think that with a more intensive and creative approach, our botanical-style aquariums can help with the "rearing aspect", too. Sure, it's more "hands-off" than the traditional "keep-the-fry-knee-deep-in-food-at-all-times" approach that serious breeders employ...but my less deliberate, more "hands-off" approach can work. I've seen it happen many times in my "non-breeding" tanks.
We're seeing more and more reports of "spontaneous" spawnings of all sorts of different fishes associated with blackwater conditions.
Often, it's a group of fishes that the aquarist had for a while, perhaps with little effort put into spawning them, and then it just sort of "happened." For others, it is perhaps expected- maybe the ultimate goal as it relates to a specific species...but was just taking a long time to come to fruition.
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. 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?"
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 fewer, yet healthier, more vigorous young fish?
It's not a new idea...or even a new theme here in our blog.
Now, this is pretty interesting stuff to me. Everyone has their own style of fry rearing, of course. Some hobbyists like bare bottom tanks, some prefer densely planted tanks, etc. I'm proposing the idea of rearing young fishes in a botanical-method (blackwater?) aquarium with leaves, some seed pods, and rich soil; maybe some plants as well. The physically and "functionally" mimic, 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 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 or other "biocover" in their environment, and providing such natural conditions will certainly accommodate this behavior.
Decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with "infusoria" and even forms of bacteria 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 occasionally think that, in our intense effort to achieve the results we want, we sometimes 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...
Let's keep thinking about this. And let's keep enjoying our fishes by creating more naturalistic conditions for them in our aquariums.
Stay curious. Stay enthralled. Stay diligent. Stay methodical. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
One of the great joys in creating and working with botanical method aquairums is that we have such a wide variety of natural habitats to take inspiration from. And, as we've discussed here over the years, it's not just types of natural aquatic habitats or specific locales- it's seasons and cycles that we can emulate in our tanks as well.
I find it fascinating to think about how we can emulate the environmental characteristics of aquatic habitats during certain times of the year, such as the "wet" and "dry" seasons...and the idea of actually "operating" your aquarium to spur the environmental changes which take place during these transitions.
Do we create true seasonal variations for our aquariums? I mean, changing up lighting duration, intensity, angles, colors, increasing/decreasing water levels or flow?
With all of the high tech LED lighting systems, electronically controlled pumps; even programmable heaters- we can vary environmental conditions to mimic what occurs in our fishes' natural habitats during seasonal changes as never before. I think it would be very interesting to see what kinds of results we could get with our fishes if we went further into environmental manipulations than we have been able to before.
I mean, sure, hobbyists have been dropping or increasing temps for spawning fishes forever, and you'll see hobbyists play with light durations. Ask any Corydoras breeder. However, these are typically only in the context of defined controlled breeding experiments.
Why not simply research and match the seasonal changes in their habitat and vary them accordingly "just because", and see if you achieve different results?
We've examined the interesting Igapo and Varzea habitats of The Amazon for years now, and how these seasonally-inundated forest floors ebb and flow with aquatic life during various seasons.
And, with the "Urban Igapo", we've "operated" tanks on "wet season/dry season" cycles for a few years now, enjoying very interesting results.
I think it would be pretty amazing to incorporate gradual seasonal changes in our botanical method aquariums, to slowly increase/decrease water levels, temperature, and lighting to mimic the rainy/dry seasonal cycles which affect this habitat.
What secrets could be unlocked?
How would you approach this?
You'd need some real-item or historical weather data from the area which you're attempting to replicate, but that's readily available from multiple sources online. Then, you could literally tell yourself during the planning phases of your next tank that, "This aquarium will be set up to replicate the environmental conditions of the Igarape Panemeo in May"- and just run with it.
What are some of the factors that you'd take into account when planning such a tank? Here are just a few to get you started:
-percentage of coverage of aquatic plants (if applicable)
-substrate composition and depth
-leaf litter accumulation
-density of fish population
-diversity of fish population
...And the list can go on and on and on. The idea being to not just "capture a moment in time" in your aquarium, but to pick up and run with it from there!
Yes, we love the concept of seasonality in our botanical method world- but not just because they create interesting aesthetic effects- but because replicating seasonal changes brings out interesting behaviors and may yield health benefits for our fishes that we may have not previously considered.
The implications of seasonality in both the natural environment- and, I believe- in our aquariums- can be quite profound.
Amazonian seasonality, for example, is marked by river-level fluctuation, also known as "seasonal pulses." The average annual river-level fluctuations in the Amazon Basin can range from approximately 12'-45' /4–15m!!! Scientists know this, because River-water-level data has been collected in some parts of the Brazilian Amazon for more than a century! The larger Amazonian rivers fall into to what is known as a “flood pulse”, and are actually due to relatively predictable tidal surge.
And of course, when the water levels rise, the fish populations are affected in many ways. Rivers overflow into surrounding forests and plains, turning the formerly terrestrial landscape into an aquatic habitat once again.
Besides just knowing the physical environmental impacts on our fishes' habitats, what can we learn from these seasonal inundations?
Well, for one thing, we can observe their impact on the diets of our fishes.
In general, fish/invertebrates, detritus and insects form the most important food resources supporting the fish communities in both wet and dry seasons, but the proportions of invertebrates, fruits, and fish are reduced during the low water season. Individual fish species exhibit diet changes between high water and low water seasons in these areas...an interesting adaptation and possible application for hobbyists?
Well, think about the results from one study of gut-content analysis form some herbivorous Amazonian fishes in both the wet and dry seasons: The consumption of fruits in Mylossoma and Colossoma species (big ass fishes, I know) was significantly less during the low water periods, and their diet was changed, with these materials substituted by plant parts and invertebrates, which were more abundant.
Tropical fishes, in general, change their diets in different seasons in these habitats to take advantage of the resources available to them.
Fruit-eating, as we just discussed, is significantly reduced during the low water period when the fruit sources in the forests are not readily accessible to the fish. During these periods of time, fruit eating fishes ("frugivores") consume more seeds than fruits, and supplement their diets with foods like leaves, detritus, and plankton.
Interestingly, even the known "gazers", like Leporinus, were found to consume a greater proportion of materials like seeds during the low water season.
The availability of different food resources at different times of the year will necessitate adaptability in fishes in order to assure their survival. Mud and algal growth on plants, rocks, submerged trees, etc. is quite abundant in these waters at various times of the year. Mud and detritus are transported via the overflowing rivers into flooded areas, and contribute to the forest leaf litter and other botanical materials, becoming nutrient sources which contribute to the growth of this epiphytic algae.
During the lower water periods, this "organic layer" helps compensate for the shortage of other food sources. And of course, this layer comprises an ecological habitat for a variety of organisms at multiple "trophic levels."
And of course, there's the "allochthonous input"- materials imported into the habitat from outside of it...When the water is at a high period and the forests are inundated, many terrestrial insects fall into the water and are consumed by fishes. In general, insects- both terrestrial and aquatic, support a large community of fishes.
So, it goes without saying that the importance of insects and fruits- which are essentially derived from the flooded forests, are reduced during the dry season when fishes are confined to open water and feed on different materials, as we just discussed.
And in turn, fishes feed on many of these organisms. The guys on the lower end of the food chain- bacterial biofilms, algal mats, and fungal growths, have a disproportionately important role in the food webs in these habitats! In fact, fungi are the key to the food chain in many tropical stream ecosystems. The relatively abundant detritus produced by the leaf litter is a very important part of the tropical stream food web.
Interestingly, some research has suggested that the decomposition of leaf litter in igapo forests is facilitated by terrestrial insects during the "dry phase", and that the periodic flooding of this habitat actually slows down the decomposition of the leaf litter (relatively speaking) because of the periodic elimination of these insects during the inundation.
And, many of the organisms which survive the inundation feed off of the detritus and use the leaf substratum for shelter instead of directly feeding on it, further slowing down the decomposition process.
AsI just touched on, much of the important input of nutrients into these habitats consists of the leaf litter and of the fungi that decompose this litter, so the bulk of the fauna found there is concentrated in accumulations of submerged litter.
And the nutrients that are released into the water as a result of the decomposition of this leaf litter do not "go into solution" in the water, but are tied up throughout in the "food web" comprised of the aquatic organisms which reside in these habitats.
This concept is foundational to our interpretation of the botanical method aquarium.
So I wonder...
Is part of the key to successfully conditioning and breeding some of the fishes found in these habitats altering their diets to mimic the seasonal importance/scarcity of various food items? In other words, feeding more insects at one time of the year, and perhaps allowing fishes to graze on detritus and biocover at other times?
And, you probably already know the answer to this question:
Is the concept of creating a "food producing" aquarium, complete with detritus, natural mud, and an abundance of decomposing botanical materials, a key to creating a more true realistic feeding dynamic, as well as an "aesthetically functional" aquarium?
Well, hell yes!
On a practical level, our botanical method aquariums function much like the habitats which they purport to represent, famously recruit biofilm and fungal growths, which we have discussed ad nasueum here over the years. These are nutritious, natural food sources for most fishes and invertebrates.
And of course, there are the associated microorganisms which feed on the decomposing botanicals and leaves and their resulting detritus.
Having some decomposing leaves, botanicals, and detritus helps foster supplemental food sources. Period.
And you don't need special botanicals, leaves, curated packs of botanicals, additives, or gear from us or anyone to create the stuff! Nature will do it all for you using whatever botanical materials you add to your aquarium!
Apparently, the years of us beating this shit into your head here on "The Tint" and elsewhere are finally striking a chord. There are literally people posting pics of their botanical method aquariums on social media every week with hashtags like #detriusthursday or whatever, preaching the benefits of the stuff that we've reviled as a hobby for a century!
That absolutely cracked me up the first time I saw people posting that. Five years ago, people literally called me an idiot online for telling hobbyists to celebrate the stuff...Now, it's a freaking hashtag. It's some weird shit, I tell you...gratifying to see, but really weird!
Now, we've briefly talked about how decomposing leaf litter and the resulting detritus it produces supports population of "infusoria"- a collective term used to describe minute aquatic creatures such as ciliates, euglenoids, protozoa, unicellular algae and small invertebrates that exist in freshwater ecosystems.
And there is much to explore on this topic. It's no secret, or surprise- to most aquarists who've played with botanicals, that a tank with a healthy leaf litter component is a pretty good place for the rearing of fry of species associated with blackwater environments!
It's been observed by many aquarists, particularly those who breed loricariids, gouramis, bettas, and characins, that the fry have significantly higher survival rates when reared in systems with leaves and other botanical present. This is significant...I'm sure some success from this could be attributed to the population of infusoria, etc. present within the system as the leaves break down.
And the insights gained by seeing first hand how fishes have adapted to the seasonal changes, and have made them part of their life cycle are invaluable to our aquarium practice.
It's an oft-repeated challenge I toss out to you- the adventurers, innovators, and bold practitioners of the aquarium hobby: follow Nature's lead whenever possible, and see where it takes you. Leave no leaf unturned, no piece of wood unstudied...push out the boundaries and blur the lines between Nature and aquarium.
Follow the seasons.
And place the aesthetic component of our botanical method aquarium practice at a lower level of importance than the function.
I'm fairly certain that this idea will make me even less popular with some in the aquarium hobby crowd who feel that the descriptor of "natural" is their exclusive purview, and that aesthetics reign supreme..Hey, I love the look of well-crafted tanks as much as anyone...but let's face it, a truly "natural" aquarium needs to embrace stuff like detritus, mud, decomposing botanical materials, varying water tint and clarity, etc.
Yes, the aesthetics of botanical method tanks might not be everyone's cup of tea, but the possibilities for creating more self-sustaining, ecologically sound microcosms are numerous, and the potential benefits for fishes are many.
It goes back to some of the stuff we've talked about before over the years here, like "pre-stocking"aquariums with lower life forms before adding your fishes- or at least attempting to foster the growth of aquatic insects and crustaceans, encouraging the complete decomposition of leaves and botanical materials, allowing biocover ("aufwuchs") to accumulate on rocks, substrate, and wood within the aquarium, utilization of a refugium, etc.during the startup phases of your tank.
All of these things are worth investigating when we look at them from a "functionality" perspective, and make the "mental shift" to visualize why a real aquatic habitat looks like this, and how its elegance and natural beauty can be every bit as attractive as the super pristine, highly-controlled, artificially laid out "plant-centric" 'scapes that dominate the minds of most aquarists when they hear the words "natural" and "aquarium" together!
Particularly when the "function" provides benefits for our animals that we wouldn't appreciate , or even see- otherwise.
At Tannin, we've pushed rather unconventional hobby viewpoints since our founding in 2015. As an aquarist, I've had these viewpoints on the hobby for decades. A desire to accept the history of our hobby, to understand how "best practices" and techniques came into being, while being tempered by a strong desire to question and look at things a bit differently. To see if maybe there's a different- or perhaps-better-way to accomplish stuff.
Most of my time in the hobby has been occupied by looking at how Nature works, and seeing if there is a way to replicate some of Her processes in the aquarium, despite the aesthetics of the processes involved, or even the results.
As a result, I've learned to appreciate Nature as She is, and have long ago given up much of my "aquarium-trained" sensibilities to "edit" or polish out stuff I see in my aquariums, simply because it doesn't fit the prevailing aesthetic sensibilities of the aquarium hobby. Now, it doesn't mean that I don't care how things look...of course not!
Rather, it means that I've accepted a different aesthetic- one that, for better or worse in some people's minds- more accurately reflects what natural aquatic habitats really look like.
And the idea of replicating the seasonal changes in our aquariums is driven not primarily from aesthetics- but from function.
To sort of put a bit of a bow on this now rather unwieldy discussion about fostering and managing our own versions of seasonal ecological systems in our aquariums, let's just revisit once again how botanical materials accomplish this in our aquariums.
The idea that we are adding these materials not only to influence the aquatic environment in our aquariums, but to provide food and sustenance for a wide variety of organisms, not just our fishes. The fundamental essence of the botanical-method aquarium is that the use of these materials provide the foundation of an ecosystem.
Just like they are in Nature.
And the primary process which drives this closed ecosystem is... decomposition.
Decomposition of leaves and botanicals not only imparts the substances contained within them (lignin, organic acids, and tannins, just to name a few) to the water- it serves to nourish bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms and crustaceans, facilitating basic "food web" within the botanical-method aquarium- if we allow it to!
Decomposition of plant matter-leaves and botanicals- occurs in several stages.
It starts with leaching -soluble carbon compounds are liberated during this process. Another early process is physical breakup or fragmentation of the plant material into smaller pieces, which have greater surface area for colonization by microbes.
And of course, the ultimate "state" to which leaves and other botanical materials "evolve" to is our old friend...detritus.
And of course, that very word- as we've mentioned many times here, including just minutes ago- has frightened and motivated many hobbyists over the years into removing as much of the stuff as possible from their aquariums whenever and wherever it appears.
Siphoning detritus is a sort of "thing" that we are asked about near constantly. This makes perfect sense, of course, because our aquariums- by virtue of the materials they utilize- produce substantial amounts of this stuff.
Now, the idea of "detritus" takes on different meanings in our botanical-method aquariums...Our "aquarium definition" of "detritus" is typically agreed to be dead particulate matter, including fecal material, dead organisms, mucous, etc.
And bacteria and other microorganisms will colonize this stuff and decompose/remineralize it, essentially "completing" the cycle.
And, despite their impermanence, these materials function as diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to micro crustaceans and even epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches make up the substrate for a complex web of life which helps the fishes that we're so fascinated by flourish throughout the various seasons.
And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, these assemblages-and the processes which form them- are beautiful. We would be well-advised to let them do their work unmolested.
On a purely practical level, these processes accomplish the most in our aquariums if we let Nature do her work without excessive intervention.
An example? How about our approach towards preparing natural materials for use in our tanks:
After decades of playing with botanical method aquariums, I'm thinking that we should do less and less preparation of certain botanical materials-specifically, wood- to encourage a slower breakdown and colonization by beneficial bacteria and fungal growths.
The "rap" on wood has always been that it gives off a lot of tint-producing tannins, much to the collective freak-out of non-botanical-method aquarium fans. However, to us, all those extra tannins are not much of an issue, right? Weigh down the wood, and let it "cure" in situ before adding your fishes!
And then there is the whole concept of getting fishes into the tank as quickly as possible.
We should slow our roll.
I've written and spoken about this idea before, as no doubt many of you have: Adding botanical materials to your tank, and "pre-colonizing"with beneficial life forms BEFORE you ever think of adding fishes. A way to sort of get the system "broken in", with a functioning little "food web" and some natural nutrient export processes in place.
A chance for the life forms that would otherwise likely fall prey to the fishes to get a "foothold" and multiply, to help create a sustainable population of self-generating prey items for your fishes.
And that's a fundamental thing for us "recruiting" and nurturing the community of organisms which support our aquariums. The whole foundation of the botanical-method aquarium is the very materials- botanicals, soils, and wood- which comprise the "infrastructure" of our aquariums.The botanicals create a physical and chemical environment which supports these life forms, allowing them to flourish and support the life forms above them.
From there, we can "operate" our aquariums in any manner of ways.
Nature provides some really incredible inspiration for this stuff, doesn't it? Marshland and flooded plains and forests along rivers are like the "poster children" for seasonal change in the tropics.
Flood pulses in these habitats easily enable large-scale "transfers" of nutrients and food items between the terrestrial and aquatic environment. This is of huge importance to the ecosystem. As we've touched on before, aquatic food webs in the Amazon area (and in other tropical ecosystems) are very strongly influenced by the input of terrestrial materials, and this is really an important point for those of us interested in creating more natural aquatic displays and microcosms for the fishes we wish to keep.
Because the aquatic ecology is driven by the surrounding terrestrial habitats seasonally, the impact of leaves which fall into the aquatic habitats is very important.
What makes leaves fall off the trees in the first place? Well, it's simple- er, rather complex...but I suppose it's simple, too. Essentially, the tree "commands" leaves to fall off the tree, by creating specialized cells which appear where the leaf stem of the leaves meet the branches. Known as "abscission" cells. for word junkies, they actually have the same Latin root as the word "scissors", which, of course, implies that these cells are designed to make a cut!
And, in the tropical species of trees, the leaf drop is important to the surrounding environment. The nutrients are typically bound up in the leaves, so a regular release of leaves by the trees helps replenish the minerals and nutrients which are typically depleted from eons of leaching into the surrounding forests.
And the rapid nutrient depletion, by the way, is why it's not healthy to burn tropical forests- the release of nutrients as a result of fire is so rapid, that the habitat cannot process it, and in essence, the nutrients are lost forever.
Now, interestingly enough, most tropical forest trees are classified as "evergreens", and don't have a specific seasonal leaf drop like the "deciduous" trees than many of us are more familiar with do...Rather, they replace their leaves gradually throughout the year as the leaves age and subsequently fall off the trees.
The implication here?
There is a more-or-less continuous "supply" of leaves falling off into the jungles and waterways in these habitats throughout the year, which is why you'll see leaves at varying stages of decomposition in tropical streams. It's also why leaf litter banks may be almost "permanent" structures within some of these bodies of water!
Here's an easy "seasonal" experiment for you to try:
Manage and replicate this in the aquarium by adding leaves at different times of the year..increasing the quantities in some months and backing off during others. It's a relatively simple process with possible profound implications for aquariums.
And it makes me wonder...
What if we stopped replacing leaves and even lowered water levels or decreased water exchanges in our tanks to correspond to, for example, the Amazonian dry season (June to December)? What would it do?
If you consider that many fishes tend to spawn in the "dry" season, concentrating in the shallow waters, could this have implications for breeding or growth in fishes?
I think so.
Just a few easy ideas...each with a promise and a potential to change the way we manage botanical method aquariums, and impact the way we look at so-called "natural" aquariums in the first place!
And, with all of the research data from the wild habitats of our fishes available easier than ever before, the time is right to start these bold experiments!
Obviously, there is still much to learn, and of course, the bigger question that many will ask, "What is the advantage?"
Well, that's all part of the fun...we can play a hunch, but we won't know for certain until we really delve into this stuff!
Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay engaged. Stay innovative. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
In the 8 years since Tannin made its debut, we've seen a lot of incredible growth in the interest of creating truly more natural aquatic setups. Over these years, it's been really satisfying to see aquarists studying and appreciating some of the more dynamic habitats in Nature, and attempting to replicate them in our aquariums.
Land and water...
If there's one foundational concept to the botanical method "philosophy", it's that land and water are inexorably linked together. And, I think that when we contemplate the dynamic of how water and the aquatic environment interact, it makes us look at aquatic habitats- and our aquariums-a bit differently.
Seasonally-inundated forest floors and grasslands, such as the Igapo and Varzea in South America, are some of the most fascinating and dynamic ecologies in Nature- and they're ripe for replicating-in both form and function- in our aquariums.
The idea of the "Urban Igapo"- our home-grown version of these habitats, has been something we've talked about for about 4 years or so now, and I've seen more and more hobbyists attempting to replicate them in aquariums. And of course, in addition to questions about the techniques and processes involved to create such a display, many of you want to know what the best plants are to utilize in your own systems.
The concept behind the "Urban Igapo" is pretty straightforward:
The idea is to replicate to a certain extent, the seasonal inundation of the forests and grasslands of of Amazonia by starting the tank in a 'terrestrial phase", then slowly inundating it with water over a period of weeks or more; then, running the system in an "aquatic phase" for the duration of the 'wet season", then repeating the process again and again.
Because you can do this in the comfort of your own home, we called the concept the "Urban Igapo." A few years years ago, we went more in depth with some of the procedures and techniques that you'd want to incorporate into your own executions of the idea.
And, as there are with so many things in the modern aquarium hobby, there is occasionally some confusion and even misunderstandings about why the hell we do this in the first place!
Well, that's a good question!
I mean, the whole idea of this particular approach is to replicate as faithfully (and practically) as possible the seasonal wet/dry cycles which occur in these habitats. It starts with a dry or terrestrial environment, managed as such for an extended period of time, which is gradually flooded to simulate inundation which occurs when the rainy season commences and swollen rivers and streams overflow into the forest or grassland.
Sure, you can replicate the "wet season" only- absolutely. I've seen tons of tanks created by hobbyists to do this. However, if you want to replicate the seasonal cycle- the real magic of this approach- you'll find as I did that it's more fun to do the "dry season!"
Think of it in the context of what the actual aquatic environment is- a forest floor or grassland which has been flooded. If you develop the "hardscape" (gulp) for your tank with that it mind, it starts making more sense. And, what do you find on a forest floor or grassland habitat? Soil, leaf litter, twigs, seed pods, branches, grasses, and plants.
Just add water, right?
Well, sort of.
Of course, when you proffer ideas like this, in the modern aquarium hobby, the heat will follow!
I recall, a few years back, one of my friends who was presenting his experiences with this approach was just getting pounded on a forum by some, well- let's nicely call them "skeptics" (aka "assholes")- you know, the typical internet-brave "armchair expert" types- about why you'd do this, and how it can't possibly lead to a stable aquarium- and how it's "not a blackwater aquarium" (okay, it wasn't presented as such, but it could be...) and that it's just a "dry start" aquarium (Well, sort of, but you have to understand the concept behind it, dude!), and that "you don't need to do it this way" and...well- that kind of stuff.
I mean, the full compliment of negative, ignorant comments and attacks by some people clearly frightened about someone trying to do something a little differently was on display. In a typical display of online-warrior hypocrisy, one particularly nasty hack did not even bother to research the idea or think about what it was really trying to do before laying into my friend.
Apparently, for these people, there was a lot to unpack. The "gotcha!" kinds of attacks, asserting that this is something that is already done by the whole aquarium world are particularly ignorant and offensive to any thinking aquarist.
I mean, first of all, the idea is not intended to be a "dry start" planted tank. It just isn't. I mean, yeah-it starts out "dry", but that's where the similarity ends. This ignorant comment is a classic example of the way some hobbyists make assumptions based on a superficial comprehension of something.
We aren't simply trying to grow aquatic plants here. It's about creating a habitat of terrestrial or riparian plants snd grasses, allowing them to establish, snd then inundating the display. Most of the terrestrial grasses will simply not survive extended periods of time submerged. Now, you COULD add adaptable aquatic plants- there are no "rules"- but the intention is to replicate a seasonal dynamic.
The other point, which is utterly lost on some people, is that establishing a "transitional" environment in an aquarium takes time and patience. It's not a 48 hour "project." One particularly nasty dummy literally called the process "complete nonsense" and a "waste of time." This is exactly the kind of self-righteous, ignorant hobbyist who will never get it. In fact, I'm surprised guys like that actually have any success at anything in the hobby!
Oaky, well, enough of my venting...But you can understand how such B.S. really doesn't play well around here!
So, a lot of you want to know what plants to use, and if they can tolerate the transition from terrestrial to aquatic environments well.
Some do, some don't. (How's that for concise info!). I've played with grasses which are "immersion tolerant", such as Paspalum. This stuff will "hang around" for a while while submerged( for about a month and a half to two months, in my experience) before ultimately succumbing. Sometimes it comes back when the "dry season" returns. However, when it doesn't survive, it decomposes in the now aquatic substrate, and adds to the biological diversity by cultivating fungi and bacteria.
You can use many plants which are riparian in nature or capable of growing emmersed, such as my fave, Acorus, as well as all sorts of plants, even aquatics, like Hydrocotyle, Cryptocoryne, and others. These can, of course, survive the transition between aquatic and "terrestrial" environments.
If you want to mimic one of these habitats in the most realistic manner possible, follow the exact wet and dry seasons as you'd encounter in the locale you're inspired by. Alternatively, I'd at least go 2 months "dry" to encourage a nice growth of grasses and plants prior to inundation.
Of course, if I had to select only one plant for inclusion in the "Urban Igapo", it would have to be Acorus. Hardy, attractive, versatile, and essentially "bulletproof", Acorus is perfect for this type of setup.
Although it's far more common as a plant found around the water's edge in ponds, Acorus can do quite well partially submerged indefinitely, or even fully submerged for extended periods of time. It will glow very slowly underwater, but it will survive just fine. Although it's a native of Eastern Asia, it's ideal for simulations of the Igapo habitat.
Acorus can handle all sorts of light, from diffuse, partially shaded sunlight, to natural room ambient light, or even LED's. Its remarkable adaptability is only one of its many selling points.
And of course, there are true aquatic plants which are found in these seasonally-inundated habitats...
There are literally dozens of species of true aquatic plants that are found in these inundated grasslands and forests, and a number of representative species or genera are commonly kept in aquariums. Most of the aquatic plant life occurs in Varzea and Igapo floodplains, both of which we've talked about before. The Varzeaare seasonally-flooded forest areas, which are inundated by pH-neutral "whitewater", and can reach significant depths, whereas the Igapo are generally shallow, blackwater environments with relatively low nutrient content and acidic soils.
Varzea forests are extremely rich, which leads to a very rich aquatic ecosystem when inundated, and tend to have greater density of aquatic plants. Várzea forest soils have high nutrient contents because they receive high loads of sediment (from the Andean and pre-Andean regions) from the whitewater rivers nearby.
Igapó forests, on the other hand do not receive this seasonal influx of sediments , which is why they have relatively inorganic nutrient- poor soils. Igapo waters are acidic, with a pH ranging between 4 and 5, and are rich in organic materials- particularly humic and fulvic acids. It is also thought by scientists that the seasonal inundation of the Igapo soils creates anoxic conditions, limiting plant growth in general.
So, we have two contrasting aquatic environments, with widely varying conditions available for the growth of plants. Obviously, the Varzea forests are better conditions for a wider variety of plants, with their less acidic water and higher overall nutrient availability than Igapo, which tend to be representative of a more "classic" blackwater habitat, with far less plant growth and fewer species of fishes.
The other important factor affecting plant growth in these aquatic habitats is light; or specifically, light penetration. This affects diversity of both the terrestrial grasses and aquatic plants present in the waters. In the blackwater Igapo areas, light only penetrates down to depths of 1-2 meters, and many submerged grasses and terrestrial forest plants simply die back from lack of light. And the forest canopy adds to the shading in some areas, further reducing the amounts of light available to plants.
It should hardly be surprising that the diversity of plants, both terrestrial and aquatic, which survive in the inundated season is much greater in the areas of the savannas flooded by clear, nutrient-rich waters. In fact, it was determined in one study that around 900 species of grasses alone occur in the Pantanal (Varzea ) region, with almost 250 of them considered aquatic!
(The flooded Pantanal region. Image by Alicia Yo at the English Language Wikipedia)
Okay, terrestrial grasses are interesting, but they're not something that we typically will be keeping in our aquariums, right? However, the common "Barnyard Grass", Echinochloa, is ubiquitous worldwide and would make a and interesting subject to play with...you know, planting some in rich soils and filling it with water...oh, man, that's the kind of experiment I'm into!
Who's on THIS idea?
(Echinochloa- Image by Michael Becker, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
So, what types of aquatic plants would you expect to find in these habitats? Well, in the here are a few:
Nymphaea, Polygonum, Salviania, and Pistia, and the much-loved Water Hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, and yeah, some species of "Amazon Sword Plants", just to name a few.
I've kept Polygonum species before (ironically, in more of a "blackwater" setting) and had great success with them, so a more "clearwater" botanical-style aquarium would no doubt really help them grow like mad!
Floating plants seem to be some of the dominant aquatic species found in both regions, with no shortage of well-known, readily varieties from which to choose. Now, their suitability for aquarium use (as opposed to ponds) is debatable, but there are numerous varieties of Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia) to play with if you're so inclined!
In the Igapo areas, the predominant aquatic plants seem to be Cabomba, Nymphaea, and Utricularia, all of which are commonly kept in aquaria or ponds.
(Nymphaea, image by TC Tao, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)
I have always had a soft spot for Cabomba, being one of the first aquatic plants I've ever kept. So, seeing that it's at home in a blackwater habitat is, well- comforting, lol! It's super adaptable, fast-growing, and easily obtainable...Winner!
So, yeah- an article on plants from a guy who is hardly a plant person!
Yeah, I'm being totally honest here: I don't really know that much about aquatic plants. Sure, I can tell an Anubias barteri from an A. coffeefolia, or Water Sprite from Anacharis...I can even sort of ID a few Cryptocorynespecies...
But that's really it.
Java Moss? Sure. All of those other fancy mosses? Um, no.
I mean, they're all moss, right?
(all moss enthusiasts are cringing now!)
And I'm okay with that.
And I have a sort of theory that, while a lot of plants aren't found in blackwater habitats, many, many species are adaptable to this environment in the aquarium, especially if their lighting and nutrition requirements are met.
Now, if you're trying to replicate a specific environment, or create a highly accurate biotope aquarium, such "freelancing" is to be discouraged, I know. However, for most of us who are simply content with creating a great display, it's "game on!"
Many of us are at least semi-obsessed with replicating, to a certain extent, the flooded forest (iagpo) habitats of Brazil, which, as outlined above, contain, but are not generally known for a huge variety of true aquatic plants, there is another "frontier" to play with:
Terrestrial plants and grasses that can tolerate immersion for extended periods of time.
This is, as far as I know, and entirely new and different "playground" for aquarists, as we've typically concentrated on the true aquatic plants in our tanks. With a greater interest in these habitats, and the evolving techniques of the planted aquarium work- specifically the use and continued development of soils, the possibilities are expanding.
Let's do a little more collective research on this topic, and make a few exciting discoveries...because that's what we do, right?
Have at it!
Stay resourceful. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay persistent...
And Stay Wet.
Starting a new botanical method aquarium is an exciting, fun, and interesting time. And the process of creating your aquarium is shockingly easy, decidedly un-stressful, and extremely engaging.
The main ingredients that you need are vision, a bit of knowledge, and... patience.
Bringing your tank from a clean, dry,"static display" to a living, breathing microcosm, filled with life is an amazing process. This, to me is really the most exciting part of keeping botanical method aquariums.
And how do we usually do it?
I mean, for many hobbyists, we've been more or less indoctrinated to rinse the substrate material, age water, arrange wood and rocks, add plants (if that's in your plans), and add fishes. Something like that. And that works, of course. It's the basic "formula" that we've used for over a century in the hobby .
Yet, I'm surprised how we as a hobby have managed to turn what to me is one of the most inspiring, fascinating, and important parts of our aquarium hobby journey into what is more-or-less a "checklist" to be run through- an "obstacle", really- to our ultimate enjoyment of our aquarium.
When you think about it, setting the stage for life in our aquariums is the SINGLE most important thing that we do. If we utilize a different mind set, and deploy a lot more patience for the process, we start to look at it a bit differently.
I mean, sure, you want to rinse sand as clean as possible. You want make sure that you have a piece of wood that's been soaked for a while, and..
Wait, DO you?
I mean, sure, if you don't rinse your sand carefully, you'll get some cloudy water for weeks...no argument there.
And if you don't clean your driftwood carefully, you're liable to have some soil or other "dirt" get into your system, and more tannins being released, which leads to...well, what does it lead to?
Does it lead to some kind of disaster? Does having "dirt" in your tank spell doom for the aquarium?
I mean, an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat. Let's not fool ourselves.
The natural aquatic habits which we attempt to emulate, although comprised of many millions of times the volumes of water volume and throughput that we have in our tanks- are also typically not "pristine"- right? I mean, soils from the surrounding terrestrial environment carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.
And that's kind of what our whole botanical-method aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect" nature of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions between the terrestrial and aquatic realms which occur.
Now, granted, the wild aquatic habitats benefit from the dissolution of millions of gallons/liters of throughput, but the processes which impact closed systems are essentially the same ones that influence the wild ecosystems.
Of course, much like Nature, our botanical-method aquariums make use of the "ingredients" found in the abundant materials which comprise the environment. And the "infusion" of these materials into the water, and the resulting biological processes which occur, are what literally make our tanks "come alive."
And yeah, it all starts with the nitrogen cycle...
We can embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity, function, and yeah, sure- a new view of aesthetics in our aquariums.
I'm not saying that we should NOT rinse sand, or soak wood before adding it to our tanks. What I AM suggesting is that we don't "lose our shit" if our water gets a little bit turbid because we didn't "sterilize" it before adding it, or if there is a bit of botanical detritus accumulating on the substrate in our tank over time. And guess what?
We don't have to start a tank with brand new, right-from-the-bag substrate.
Of course not.
We can utilize some old substrate from another tank (we have done this as a hobby for years for the purpose of "jump starting bacterial growth") for the purpose of providing a different aesthetic as well.
And, you can/should take it further: Use that slightly fungal-covered piece of driftwood or algae-encrusted rock in our brand new tank...This helps foster a habitat more favorable to the growth of the microorganisms, fungi, and other creatures which comprise an important part of our closed aquarium ecosystems.
In fact, in a botanical-method aquarium, facilitating the rapid growth of such biotia is foundational. It's something that we should simply view as an essential part of the startup process.
And from a purely "aesthetic" stanpoint- It's okay for your tank to look a bit "worn" right from the start. This is a definite version of the Amano-embraced Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi"- the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
In fact, I think most of us actually would prefer that! It's okay to embrace this. From a functional AND aesthetic standpoint. Employ good husbandry, careful observation, and common sense when starting and managing your new aquarium.
But don't obsess over "pristine." Especially in those first hours and days.
The aquarium still has to clear a few metaphorical "hurdles" in order to be a stable environment for life to thrive.
I am operating on the assumption (gulp) that most of us have a basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle and how it impacts our aquariums. However, maybe we don’t all have that understanding. My ramblings have been labeled as “moronic” by at least one “critic” before, however, so it’s no biggie for me as said “moron” to give a very over-simplified review of the “cycling” process in an aquarium, so let’s touch on that for just a moment!
During the "cycling" process, ammonia levels will build and then suddenly decline as the nitrite-forming bacteria multiply in the system. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't appear until nitrite is available in sufficient quantities to sustain them, nitrite levels climb dramatically as the ammonia is converted, and keep rising as the constantly-available ammonia is converted to nitrite.
Once the nitrate-forming bacteria multiply in sufficient numbers, nitrite levels decrease dramatically, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is considered “fully cycled.”
And of course, the process of creating and establishing your aquarium's ecology doesn't end there.
With a stabilized nitrogen cycle in place, the real "evolution" of the aquarium begins. This process is constant, and the actions of Nature in our aquariums facilitate changes.
And our botanical-method systems change constantly.
They change over time in very noticeable ways, as the leaves and botanicals break down and change shape and form. The water will darken as tannins are released. Often, there may be an almost "patina" or haziness to the water along with the tint- the result of dissolving botanical material and perhaps a "bloom" of microorganisms which consume them.
This is perfectly analogous to what you see in the natural habitats of the fishes that we love so much. As the materials present in the flooded forests, ponds, and streams break down, they alter it biologically, chemically, and even physically.
It's something that we as aquarists have to accept in our tanks, which is not always easy for us, right? Decomposition, detritus, biofilms- all that stuff looks, well- different than what we've been told over the years is "proper" for an aquarium. And, it's as much a perception issue as it is a husbandry one. I mean, we're talking about materials from decomposing botanicals and wood, as opposed to uneaten food, fish waste, and such.
I love that more and more hobbyists are grasping this concept. What's really cool about this is that, in our community, we aren't seeing hobbyists freak out over some of the aesthetics previously associated with "dirty!"
The understanding that we are helping to foster an ecosystem- not just "setting up an aquarium" changes your perspective entirely.
And soon after your tank begins operation, you'll see the emergence of elegant, yet simple life forms, such as bacterial biofilms and fungal growths. We've long maintained that the appearance of biofilms and fungi on your botanicals and wood are to be celebrated- not feared. They represent a burgeoning emergence of life -albeit in one of its lowest and (to some) most unpleasant-looking forms- but that's a really big deal!
Biofilms form when bacteria adhere to surfaces in some form of watery environment and begin to excrete a slimy, gluelike substance, consisting of sugars and other substances, that can stick to all kinds of materials, such as- well- in our case, botanicals. It starts with a few bacteria, taking advantage of the abundant and comfy surface area that leaves, seed pods, and even driftwood offer.
The "early adapters" put out the "welcome mat" for other bacteria by providing more diverse adhesion sites, such as a matrix of sugars that holds the biofilm together. Since some bacteria species are incapable of attaching to a surface on their own, they often anchor themselves to the matrix or directly to their friends who arrived at the party first.
We've long called this period of time when the biofilms emerge, and your tank starts coming alive "The Bloom"- a most appropriate term, and one that conjures up a beautiful image of Nature unfolding in our aquariums- your miniature aquatic ecosystem blossoming before your very eyes!
We see this "bloom" of life in botanical method aquariums, and we also see it in my beloved reef tanks as well...a literal explosion of lower life forms, creating the microcosm which supports all of the life in the aquairum.
The real positive takeaway here:
Biofilms are really a sign that things are working right in your aquarium! A visual indicator that natural processes are at work, helping forge your tank's ecosystem.
About a year or so go, had a discussion with our friend, Alex Franqui. His beautiful Igarape-themed aquarium pictured above, "bloomed" beautifully, with the biofilms, fungal growths, and sediments working together to create a stunning, very natural functioning- and appearing-ecosystem. He was not repulsed at all. Rather, he was awed and fascinated...He celebrated what was occurring in his tank. He has an innate understanding of the ecological process, and replaced "fear and loathing" with excitement.
Alex is a hardcore aquascaper, and to see him marveling and rejoicing in the "bloom" of biofilms in his tank is remarkable.
He gets it.
And it turns out that our love of biofilms is truly shared by some people who really appreciate them as food...Shrimp hobbyists! Yup, these people (you know who you are!) go out of their way to cultivate and embrace biofilms and fungi as a food source for their shrimp.
They get it.
And this makes perfect sense, because they are abundant in Nature, particularly in habitats where shrimp naturally occur, which are typically filled with botanical materials, fallen tree trunks, and decomposing leaves...a perfect haunt for biofilm and fungal growth!
Nature celebrates "The Bloom", too.
There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating "The Bloom" is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-looking, natural-functioning aquarium.
You'll gradually see an accumulation of organic detritus...similar to what you encounter in wild aquatic habitats. Various organisms make use of the fine particulate matter by filtering it from the water or accessing it in the sediments that result.
These allochthonous materials support a diverse food chain that's almost entirely based on our old friend, detritus!
Yes, detritus. Sworn enemy of the traditional aquarium hobby...misunderstood bearer of life to the aquatic habitat.
The very definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)
Yeah, doesn't sound great, I admit. I mean- fecal material and dead organisms?
Not surprisingly, a lot of hobbyists think that it is so bad.
I'm not buying it.
Why is this necessarily a "bad" thing?
Could there be some "upside" to this stuff?
The Latin root word, is really weird, too: It means "rubbing or wearing away."
But really, IS it that bad?
I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."
It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity- and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.
This is really important. It's part of the biological "operating system" of our aquariums.
It's also known that detritus may be formed by some types of bacterial aggregations. These may result from the feeding activities of animals, but often they are simply a result of bacterial growth. Detritus can be composed of inorganic mineral grains resulting from the actions of animals burrowing into wood or botanicals, or from ingested larger mineral grains of material, which are only partially dissolved via digestion.
That's not all bad, right?
I know that uneaten food and fish poop, accumulating in a closed system can be problematic if overall husbandry issues are not attended to. I know that it can decompose, overwhelm the biological filtration capacity of the tank if left unchecked. And that can lead to a smelly, dirty-looking system with diminished water quality. I know that. You know that. In fact, pretty much everyone in the hobby knows that.
Yet, as a hobby, we've really sort of heaped detritus into this "catch-all" descriptor which has an overall "bad" connotation to it. Like, anything which is allowed to break down in the tank and accumulate is bad. Anything that looks like "dirt" is...well, "dirty", dangerous, and should be treated accordingly.
Now, "dirty-looking" and "dangerous" are two very different things, right? Do natural habitats look "dangerous" to the life forms which reside in them?
In botanical-method aquariums, if most of what is accumulating in your mechanical filter media and on the substrate, etc. is just broken-up, decomposing bits of botanicals, I'd have little concern. That's what happens to terrestrial materials in an aquatic environment. It's normal for these types of aquariums. As we've discussed ad infinitum here, various organisms, like fungi, etc., work to break down these materials and begin the decomposition process.
I think we should embrace this. Especially in a botanical-method aquarium, which essentially "runs" on the decomposition of materials.
If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they"say in the books and hobby forums?
Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?
I think so.
Now, I'm just one guy, but I personally haven't had issues with the complete decomposition of botanicals and leaves being left to accumulate in my aquariums.
In almost three decades of playing with this stuff, and being a hardcore, water-quality-testing reef keeper during much of that time, I can't ever, EVER recall I time where the decline of a system I maintained could be pinned specifically on the detritus from decomposing botanical materials as a causative factor in reducing water quality.
With this undefined "detritus" that you may see, however, do you have phosphate or nitrate issues as a result of accumulating organics from this stuff, or is some of it- enough of it- being utilized by bacteria and other "unseen residents" of your tank that it's not really a "problem" from an environmental standpoint? What does the test kit say? Do you have massive excess algal growths? A depressed oxygen level in the tank?
Or does it just look sloppy?
Is this another case of us in the aquarium hobby making a grand pronouncement like, "It looks shitty, so it's always bad!" yet again?
I think so.
Ahh, "detritus"- menace or benefit? Or perhaps, something in between? Like biofilms, fungal growth, aufwuchs,and decomposition- is it something that is inevitable, natural- perhaps even beneficial in our aquariums? Or, is it something that we should learn to embrace and appreciate? All part of a natural process and yes- aesthetic- that we have to understand to appreciate?
The natural habitats seem to have plenty of it.
Fellow hobbyists keep asking me my thoughts about detritus, and I admit, they have evolved over the years. I think so many things in moderation are pretty good- even things that we have historically "freaked out" about. Yes, hardly a scientific conclusion, but I think valuable from an aquarium management perspective.
It's about moderation. It's about going beyond the superficial.
Of course, if you're allowing large quantities of uneaten food and fish poop to accumulate in your aquarium, that's a very different distinction. Such materials accumulating will contribute to nitrate and phosphate accumulation in closed aquatic systems, and ultimately drive down the pH and oxygen levels unless removed or acted upon by organisms residing in the aquarium. So, our love of detritus shouldn't be a surrogate for poor husbandry- ever.
I have always been a firm believer in some forms of nutrient export being employed in every single tank I maintain. Typically, it's regular water exchanges. And, not "when I think about it', or "periodically", mind you.
Nope, it's weekly.
So, yeah- I'm not saying that you can essentially disobey all the common sense husbandry practices we've come to know and love in the hobby (like not overcrowding/overfeeding, etc.) and just "change the water weekly and everything's good", either.
Water exchanges are helpful.
However, they're not a panacea for all of the potential "ills" of a poorly managed tank. You need to master the well-known basics of aquarium care. Period. You know this, of course...right?
Again- water exchanges are part of the process which creates an amazing aquarium.
Common sense, acceptance of things we've been told to fear, and fostering a greater understanding of aquatic ecology and its role in our aquariums are so important for us to embrace.
Along with patience. Heaps of it. Learning to go slowly, to observe, and to wait for your ecosystem to unfold, instead of racing off to some self-imposed "finish line" for your aquarium.
As if there IS a "finished" aquarium, anyways...
We're collectively afraid to wait. To let things happen. To evolve. We want it done...NOW.
Look, I am going to beat that impatience out of you if it's the last thing we do here.
And I'm going to call us all out:
I absolutely, 100% blame this on the "hardcore aquascaping world", who feature these instant "masterpiece scapes" on social media, and make little to no mention whatsoever about the time required for an aquarium to cycle, to process nutrients, to go through not-so-attractive phases. (Hint: showing you placing goddam rocks in an empty tank isn't the "not attractive phases" I"m talking about here...)
It takes time for plants to establish and grow. Time for the tank to go through the phases where things aren't established.
Yeah, it takes months to get a tank truly "established", regardless of what approach we take, or what type of tank we're setting up. Yet, as a hobby, we seem to fear this. We glorify the "finished" or "presentable" product, eschewing the developmental phases as if they're something to be avoided or circumvented. As if we're afraid to see a tank that doesn't meet some "standard" of what "nice" is.
Don't be afraid to share this.
And yes, less you think I"m being a bit of a drama queen about this- not everyone on social media hides the process.
Only about, oh- I dunno- like, 95% of us...
What we've done collectively by only illustrating the perfectly manicured "finished product "is give our brothers and sisters the impression that all you do is choose some rock, wood, and plants or whatever , do some high concept scape, and Bam! Instant masterpiece.
Yes, there are PLENTY of people who actually think that...WHY are we so fucking scared to show an empty tank, one with the "not-so-finished" hardscape or plant arrangement? The period of time when the wood may not be covered in moss, or when the rock has a film of fungal growth on it? One that has perhaps an algae bloom, a bunch of wood that needs to be rearranged, etc.
That's reality. That is what fellow hobbyists need to see. It's important for us to share the progress- the process- of establishing a beautiful tank- with all of its "ugliness" along the way.
Not sharing this stuff does severe long-term damage to the "culture" of our hobby. It's sends a dumbed-down message that a perfect tank is the only acceptable kind.
I freaking HATE that.
Stop being so goddam afraid of showing stuff when it's not "perfect." You don't need anyone's approval. Period.
To all of us...an appeal: PLEASE STOP doing this.
At least, without taking some time to describe and share the process and explain the passage of time required to really arrive at one of these great works. Share the pics of your tank evolving through its early, "honest" phases. That's the magic...the amazing, inspiring, aspirational part EVERY bit as much as the finished contest entry pic.
And it all starts at the beginning...
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay open-minded. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
Over the years, I've revisited a lot of old ideas.
Sometimes, my mindset deviates from long-held beliefs. Sometimes, it's a permanent shift. Other times, it's just long enough to realize that my new-found love for something just isn't me being my "authentic self."
Rather, an infatuation of sorts, based on an idea that doesn't; really represent what I believe in.
One of our recent products which really brings this idea home was sachets of selected, crushed botanicals, intended to create some of the effects of a botanical method aquarium without the "hassle" of using actual botanicals in your tanks. It was different than the usual teabag-type products out there because our formulation was from botanical materials, not simply crushed leaves like everyone else did.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. A lot of hobbyists wanted a "tinted aquairum" without the decomposing botanicals and all that their use entails. We had very sexy packaging and a great name for it, "Shade."
It sold out quickly several times. Our supplier in Southeast Asia who made it for us was thrilled. Stores wanted to stock it. As a marketer, I was pleased...But something about it always sort of bothered me. It somehow felt "dirty" to me. I mean, it was a cool product, I guess- but it kind of went against some of the very principles I have preached for years...And because ours was made form botanicals, not leaves, like everyone else's, the "results" (ie; color effects) were highly variable and rather inconsistent from batch to batch. Too inconsistent for a product designed to be a "quick fix" should be.
And why the hell was I offering a "quick fix" product, anyways?
So, the last time it sold out, I decided to wait on restocking it...and wait even longer.
Then I really thought about it during my "sabbatical."
And I decided to retire it. Kill it.
It was a "hack."
You know that, historically, I have a great disdain for "hacks" in our hobby...
Sometimes, our shared progression and experience even makes me think about my own personal "rules" and directives. Pushing outwards has really helped me grow in the hobby.
Every once in a while, I'll have a friend contact me about something that I'm "missing out on" or some new "thing" that will "change the game" and perhaps be an "existential threat" to Tannin Aquatics. I certainly appreciate that, but it's okay. (As I've learned over the years- particularly in recent months-the biggest threat to Tannin, really, is me, lol.)
Of course, as part of my "due diligence" as a business owner, I DO take note and check out the "thing" which is pointed out to me -whatever it might be-and see what it's all about.
And, to be honest, like 9 times out of 10, it's usually a link to a a new vendor who sells some of the same materials that we do, yet making outrageous claims about what they do, or link to a forum discussion about people collecting their own botanicals (which I've encouraged from day one of our existence and still do...), or a discussion about using some "extract" or "solution" to create "blackwater" easily as an alternative to leaves or what not. A "hack" of some sort.
And the products? Usually, they're nothing that novel. Same stuff. Just perhaps, with a cool name or packaging (ya know...like "Shade" 😂)
Of course, these "products"-often "extracts" and "additives"- almost always tend to be derivations of things we've done for a generation or two in the hobby, and are no better-or worse- than the idea of tossing leaves and botanicals in the aquarium, in terms of what they appear to do on the surface.
And it almost always seems to me that these "solutions" are simply an alternative of sorts; generally one which requires less effort or process to get some desired result. Of course, they also play into one of the great aquarium hobby "truisms" of the 21st century:
We hate waiting for stuff. We love "hacks" and shortcuts. We're impatient.
Me? I'm about the process. My philosophy is that the "aesthetics" always follow the function of what we do in the botanical method.
And I'm really fucking patient.
I've had tanks sit with leaves and substrate for months before adding the fishes I've been looking for. I've also "pre-stocked" botanical method and reef tanks with microorganism cultures and let them stay "fishless" for months while a population assembled itself.
I'm okay with that.
I'm not impatient.
Impatience is, I suppose, part of being human, but in the aquarium hobby, it occasionally drives us to do things that, although are probably no big deal- can become a sort of "barometer" for other things which might be of questionable value or risk. ("Well, nothing bad happened when I did THAT, so, if I do THIS...") Or, they can cumulatively become a "big deal", to the detriment of our tanks. Others are simply alternatives, and are no better or worse than what we're doing with botanicals, at least upon initial investigation.
Yeah, most of these solutions and teas and teabags (like "Shade!")- although I suppose seen by many as an "alternative"- are hacks.
Now, for a lot of reasons, I fucking hate most "hacks" that we use in the hobby.
To many, "hacking" it implies a sort of "inside way" of doing stuff...a "work-around" of sorts. A term brought about by the internet age to justify doing things quickly and to eliminate impatience because we're all "so busy." I think it's a sort of sad commentary on the prevailing mindset of many people.
We all need stuff quickly...We want a "shortcut to our dream tank. "Personally, I call it "cheating."
With what we do, a "hack" really is trying to cheat Nature. Speed stuff up. Make nature work on OUR schedules. We justify it by saying that it's an alternative, or by reminding ourselves (as we did with "Shade") that it's "made from natural materials..."
Anything to make ourselves feel better about trying to do an "end run" around Nature.
Bad idea, if you ask me.
Of course, there are some hacks, like the one we're discussing here, which aren't necessarily "bad" or harmful- just different. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing them. Yet, they deny us some pleasures and opportunities to learn more about the way Nature works. And we can't fool ourselves into believing that they are some panacea, either.
The idea just doesn't resonate with some of us. Like the use of botanical sachets such as "Shade" or whatever.
The other one that seems to come up at least a few times a year in discussion, and is often proferred to me as rendering the botanical-method aquarium "obsolete" is the use of...tea.
Like, legit, human-consumable tea.
If you haven't heard of it before, there is this stuff called Rooibos tea, which, in addition to bing kind of tasty, has been a favored "tint hack" of many hobbyists for years. Without getting into all of the boring details, Rooibos tea is derived from the Aspalathus linearis plant, also known as "Red Bush" in South Africa and other parts of the world.
(Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis. Image by R.Dahlgr- used under CC-BY S.A. 2.5)
It's been used by fish people for a long time as a sort of instant "blackwater extract", and has a lot going for it for this purpose, I suppose. Rooibos tea does not contain caffeine, and and has low levels of tannin compared to black or green tea. And, like catappa leaves and other botnaicals, it contains polyphenols, like flavones, flavanols, aspalathin, etc.
It's kind of tasty, too!
Hobbyists will simply steep it in their aquariums and get the color that they want, and impart some of these substances into their tank water. I mean, it's an easy process. Of course, like any other thing you add to your aquarium, it's never a bad idea to know the impact of what you're adding.
Like using botanicals, utilizing tea bags in your aquarium requires some thinking, that's all.
The things that I personally dislike about using tea or so-called "blackwater extracts"or even botanical tea bags like "Shade" or the numerous other "teabag" products out there is that you are mainly going for an effect, without getting to embrace the functional aesthetics imparted by adding leaves, seed pods, etc. to your aquarium as part of its physical structure, as well as the ecological support they offer to the microcosm that is your aquarium. I mean, sure, you're likely imparting some of the beneficial compounds we talk about into your water.
And, despite anyone's recommendation, they're remarkably "improvisational" products. There is no real way to determine how much you need to add to achieve______. Like, what concentration do they impart what compounds into the water at? And at what rate?
Obviously, the same could be said of botanicals, but we're not utilizing botanicals simply to create brown water or specific pH parameters, etc. We're using them to foster an underwater ecology...The "tint" part is a "collateral" aesthetic benefit. Nature Herself determines how much of what compound actually leaches into the water from the botanicals as they break down.
Yes, with tea, teabags, or extracts, you sort of miss out on replicating a little slice of Nature in your aquarium. And of course, it's fine if your goal is just to color the water, or to impart some compounds into the water, I suppose. And I understand that some people, like fish breeders who need bare bottom tanks or whatever- like to "condition water" without all of the leaves and twigs and seed pods that we love.
On the other hand, if you're trying to replicate the look and function (and maybe some of the parameters) of THIS:
You won't achieve it by using THIS:
It's simply a shortcut.
And look, I understand that we are all looking for the occasional shortcuts and easier ways to do stuff. And I realize that none of what we proffer here at Tannin is an absolute science. It's an art at this point, with a bit of science and speculation mixed in. There is no current way available to the hobby to test for "x" types or amounts of tannins (of which there are hundreds) or humid substances in aquariums.
I have not yet found a study thus far which analyzed wild habitats (say, Amazonia) for tannin concentrations and specific types, so we have no real model to go on.
The best we can do is create a reasonable facsimile of Nature.
We have to understand that there are limitations to the impacts of botanicals, tea, wood, etc. on water chemistry. Adding liter upon liter of "extract", or bag after bag of tea to your aquarium will have minimal pH impact if your water is super hard. When you're serious about trying to create more natural blackwater conditions, you really need an RO/DI unit to achieve "base water" with no carbonate hardness that's more "malleable" to environmental manipulation. Tea, twigs, leaves- none will do much unless you understand that.
There really is no "Instant Amazon" bottled solution that you just add to tap water and your Rio Nanay Angels will just spontaneously spawn!
Again, lest you feel that I'm trashing on the industry or product manufactueres- I'm not. I'm merely getting back to what made me fall in love with this stuff in the first place- the process. I'm sharing with you how I feel about this. And being authentic to myself and my philosophies on botanical method aquariums. You know, the ideas that many of you share...the ones that brought you to our community some 7 plus years ago!
I'm pretty adamant about it when I assure you that I won't stray off course again like I did with "Shade." I won't pander to the mass market, or try to jump on some "trend" And I will no longer offer a product which represents a shortcut; an abandonment of the process. It's not true to me.
I'm not trying to throw a wet blanket on any ideas we might have. Not trashing on anyone else's products. I'm not feeling particularly "defensive" about using tea or other "extracts" because I sell botanical materials for a living. It's sort of apples and oranges, really.
The hobby need not be an excercise in misery or toil or doing things the hard way.
And hey, the whole idea of utilizing concentrated extracts of stuff is something I've looked on with caution for a long time, and we've discussed here before. I'm an "equal opportunity critic"- I'll jump on our community for stuff we do, too! I'll even get on my own case, as I have about "Shade!"🤬
Yes- one of the things that I DO have an issue with in our little hobby sector is the desire by many "tinters" to make use of the water in which the initial preparation of our botanicals takes place in as a form of "blackwater tea" or "blackwater extract."
Now, while on the surface, there is nothing inherently "wrong" with the idea, I think that in our case, we need to consider exactly why we boil/soak our botanicals before using them in the aquarium to begin with.
I discard the "tea" that results from the initial preparation of botanicals- and I recommend that you do, too.
As I have mentioned many times before, the purpose of the initial "boil and soak" is to release some of the pollutants (dust, dirt, etc.) bound up in the outer tissues of the botanicals. It's also to "soften" the leaves/botanicals that you're using to help them absorb water and sink more easily. As a result, a lot of organic materials, in addition tannins and other substances are released.
So, why would you want a concentrated "tea" of dirt, surface pollutants, and other organics in your aquarium as a "blackwater extract?" And how much do you need? I mean, what is the "concentration" of desirable materials in the tea relative to the water? Like with teabags, it's not an easy, quick, clean thing to figure, right?
There is so much we don't know.
A lot of hobbyists tell me they are concerned about "wasting" the concentrated tannins from the prep water. I get it. However, trust me- the leaves and botanicals will continue to release the tannins and humic substances (with much less pollutants!) throughout their "useful lifetimes" when submerged, so you need not worry about discarding the initial water that they were prepared in.
Is it worth polluting your aquarium for this?
I certainly don't think so!
Do a lot of hobbyists do this and get away with this? Sure. Am I being overly conservative? No doubt. In Nature, don't leaves, wood, and seed pods just fall into the water? Of course.
However, in most cases, Nature has the benefit of dissolution from thousands of gallons/litres of water, right? It's an open system, for the most part, with important and export processes far superior and efficient to anything we can hope to do in the confines of our aquariums!
Okay, I think I beat that horse up pretty good!
How much botanical materials to use to get "tint effects?"
Well, that's the million dollar question.
I spent a lot of years right here perpetuating this absurdity, myself. So I'm at least partially to blame. But it's not just me...
There are (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. We used to do it, too...It's kind of stupid, actually.
There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best.
Personally, if I recommend certain quantities of leaves or whatever, its more based upon my concern of not overloading an existing aquarium with excessive amounts of materials which can decompose and create environmental issues, more than any concern over making your water too dark.
How do you determine how much stuff you should add, then?
This might shock you:
You need to kind of go with your instinct. Go slowly. Evaluate the appearance of your water (if that WAS your main goal, lol), the behaviors of the fishes...the pH, alkalinity, TDS, nitrate, phosphate, or other parameters that you like to test for. It's really a matter of experimentation.
An understanding of aquatic ecology and basic aquarium water chemistry is invaluable if you're into this sort of stuff, trust me. And you likely won't get it from a cute 5 minute YouTube video or a hashtag-ridden Instagram post by me or anyone else. You'll need to do old-fashioned research. Trust me, it's not that difficult- and it's totally worth it!
Am I a fan of intentionally "tinting" the water at ALL? Well, of course! I mean, this blog is called "The Tint", right? And my company is called "Tannin Aquatics!"
I'm a much bigger fan of "tinting" the water based on the materials I incorporate into the aquarium's ecology. The botanicals will release their "contents" at a pace dictated by their environment. And, when they're "in situ", you have a sort of "on board" continuous release of tannins and other substances based upon the decomposition rate of the materials you're using, the water chemistry, etc.
And most important, they become "fuel" for biological processes and the colonization of fungal and bacterial growths.
Of course, you can still add too many botanicals too fast to an established tank, as we've mentioned numerous times. Learning how much to use is all about developing your own practices based on what works for you...In other words, incorporating them in your tank and evaluating their impact on your specific situation. It's hardly an exact science. Much more of an "art" or "best guess" thing than a science..at least right now.
That being said, I think that our entire botanical-method aquarium approach needs to be viewed as just that- an approach. A way to use a set of materials, techniques, and concepts to achieve desired results consistently over time. An approach that tends to eschew short-term "fixes" in favor of long-term technique.
In my opinion, this type of "short-term, instant-result" mindset has made the reef aquarium hobby of late more about adding that extra piece of gear or specialized chemical additive as means to get some quick, short term result than it is a way of taking an approach that embraces learning about the entire ecosystem we are trying to recreate in our tanks and facilitating long-term success.
Yeah, once again- the "problem" with Rooibos or blackwater extracts and teabags as I see it is that they encourage a "Hey, my water is getting more clear, time to add another tea bag or a teaspoon of extract..." mindset, instead of fostering a mindset that looks at what the best way to achieve and maintain the desired environmental results naturally on a continuous basis is.
A sort of symbolic manifestation of encouraging a short-term fix to a long-term concern.
Again, there is no "right or wrong" in this context- it's just that we need to ask ourselves why we are utilizing these products, and to ask ourselves how they fit into the "big picture" of what we're trying to accomplish. And we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that you simply add a drop of something- or even throw in some Alder Cones or Catappa leaves- and that will solve all of our problems.
Are we fixated on aesthetics, or are we considering the long-term impacts on our closed system environments?
Sure, I can feel cynicism towards my mindset here. I understand that. This is part of my personal journey, and like everything else, I'm sharing it with you. These things just don't feel "good" to me.
I'm not going to take Tannin into directions that don't feel good to me. Our "refresh" is going to be very different- perhaps slightly disorienting to some- yet it will be much, much more devoted to our founding principles and mindset. A lot more about the process and how to achieve our goals than simply a huge array of every seed pod and leaf on the market. Been there, done that.
Rather, it will be as much a celebration of the art and science of botanical method aquariums as it will be an outlet to purchase stuff.
Oh, I'm straying off topic..sort of. Let's get back to the "meat" of this...
Now, if we look at the use of extracts and additives, and additional botanicals- for that matter- as part of a "holistic approach" to achieving continuous and consistent results in our aquariums, that's a different story altogether.
Yes, one of the things I've often talked about over the years here is the need for us as hobbyists to deploy patience, observation, and testing when playing with botanical materials in our aquariums.
I've eschewed, even vilified "hacks" and "shortcuts"...I felt (and continue to feel, really), that trying to circumvent natural processes in order to arrive at some "destination" faster is an invitation to potential problems over the long term, and at the very least, a way to develop poor skills that will work to our detriment.
Obviously, I'm not saying that the botanical-method aquarium approach should be all drudgery and ceaseless devotion to a series of steps and guidelines issued by...someone. I'm not saying that every "teabag" product is a big joke, and a rip off designed for suckers, etc...NO! That's even more frightening to me than the idea of "shortcuts" and "hacks!" Dogma sucks.
And guess what? Ideas and practices DO evolve over time as we learn more about what we're doing and accumulate more experience.
It's why I though that "Shade" might have been a good idea at the time...
It makes a lot more sense to learn a bit more about how natural materials influence the wild blackwater habitats of the world, and to understand that they are being replenished on a more or less continuous basis, then considering how best to replicate this in our aquariums consistently and safely.
So, enjoy your teabags. Prep your botanicals. Replace your leaves. Observe, study, inquire. Read. Share.
Remember, it's a hobby. You're building up an ecosystem. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And to truly understand what goes on in Nature, it's never a bad idea to replicate Nature to the best extent possible- even if it's not a "hack" sometimes.
"Shade" won't be coming back. But the lessons that it taught me will stick around for a long time.
RIP, "Shade." It was good to know you... And you looked pretty sexy while you were here!
Stay studious. Stay devoted. Stay authentic...
And Stay Wet.
One of the more remarkable things about the botanical-method aquarium approach is that it offers us a unique insight into the operation of many wild aquatic habitats. These habitats are tremendously influenced by their surrounding terrestrial environment. The very soils which make up the substrate, and the fallen tree trunks, leaves, and seed pods present in the water cement the relationship between land and water.
The "operating system" of a botanical method aquairum, as we've discussed many times before, is literally driven by the presence of these materials.
A few days ago, I was doing a small water exchange in one of my personal botanical method aquariums, and I reached in to move a seed pod away from the siphon hose (so that it wouldn't block it), and it promptly disintegrated in my fingers! Another botanical did its job, gradually releasing tannins, humic substances, and other compounds into the water over the months, until finally decomposing back into its (likely) near-inert constituent parts.
This is the essence of what we call have called "habitat enrichment" over the years-the imparting of beneficial substances and materials into the overall aquatic environment via botanical materials. Of course, as we've reiterated before here, we can't say exactly what they are imparting, and how much.
We can conclude via observation, that they are contributing...something...to the aquatic environment.
This submerged botanical, like many others in the tank, contributed greatly to the microbiome of the system. Fishes foraged upon its surfaces, shrimp consumed its lignin-rich tissues, and fungal growths, biofilms, and microorganisms flourished on its matrix of interstitial surfaces.
The "end" of this botanical's "service life" was symbolic, in a way, of what takes place in our aquariums: Fungi, bacteria, algae...indeed, the water itself all conspire to erode, degrade, and ultimately, decompose these materials...a real "cycle of life." As I continued with my weekly maintenance, I siphoned out a few stray pieces of broken-down leaves and added some new ones.
Adding new botanicals serves the multifold purpose of resupplying the organisms at the base of the microbiome with a new food source, keeping the water visually "tinted", the physical environment consistent, and the look and vibe of the tank "fresh"- so similar to what goes on in Nature, when old leaves break down, and new ones fall into bodies of water to take their place.
New leaves and botanical materials are a sort of a biological/chemical "shot in the arm" for our aquariums.
Some of the most amazing comments we receive after sharing underwater pics of the wild habitats of Amazonia and elsewhere are from hobbyists who, at first, thought that some of these pics were from someones' aquarium! In a few instances, some of the close ups of botanical-themed aquaria are virtually indistinguishable from wild scenes!
This is a real turning point in the history of natural aquarium keeping, IMHO. One in which the function of the aquariums we are creating trumps the aesthetics...or, perhaps better put- the function and natural processes drive the aesthetics..and it's an incredible replication of what you'd encounter in Nature!
By facilitating these natural processes within the aquairum- not resisting them, we've fostered in an entirely new approach to creating truly "natural" aquairums in the hobby!
Blurring the lines between Nature and the aquarium, at the very least, from an aesthetic sense- and in many aspects, from a "functional" sense, proves just how far today's hobbyists have come...how damn good you are at what you do. And how much more you can do when you turn to Nature as an inspiration, and embrace it for what it is.
Many of our most incredible natural aquariums are replications of what I like to call "opportunistic habitats"- or habitats which arise in Nature because of some specific events or occurrences, like seasonal inundation, sediment accumulation, and fallen trees.
It’s not uncommon for a tree to fall in the rain forest, with punishing rain and saturated ground conspiring to easily knock over anything that's not firmly rooted. When these trees fall over, they often fall into small streams, or in the case of the varzea or igapo environments in The Amazon that I'm totally obsessed with, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor when the waters return.
And of course, they immediately impact their (now) aquatic environment, fulfilling several functions: Providing a physical barrier or separation from currents, offering territories for fishes to spawn in, providing a substrate for fungi and biofilms to multiply on, a space for leaves to accumulate, and places for fishes forage among, and hide in.
An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And the tree trunks and parts will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in each time the waters return.
What an incredible dynamic!
Let's focus on this "ecological component" for just a bit. Let's review what happens when a tree falls...literally!
Shortly after falling into the water, fungi and other microorganisms act to colonize the surfaces, and biofilms populate the bark and exposed surfaces of the tree. Over time, the tree will impart many chemical substances, (lignin, humic acids, tannins, sugars, etc.) into the water as the bark breaks down and the tree itself softens.
In aquatic ecosystems, much of the initial breakdown of botanical materials is conducted by detritivores- specifically, fishes, aquatic insects and invertebrates, which serve to begin the process by feeding upon the tissues of the seed pod or leaf, while other species utilize the "waste products" which are produced during this process for their nutrition.
In these habitats, such as streams and flooded forests, a variety of species work in tandem with each other, with various organisms carrying out different stages of the decomposition process.
The fallen tree literally brings new life to the waters.
I can't stress enough how interesting and important this transformation of the terrestrial environment to the aquatic one is. It helps explain so much of why the aquatic habitats look and function the way they do, and how they impact the life forms which make use of them.
The materials that comprise the tree are known in ecology as "allochthonous material"- something imported into an ecosystem from outside of it. (extra points if you can pronounce the word on the first try!) We've talked about that stuff for a while now, right?
And of course, in the case of fallen trees, this includes includes leaves, fruits and seed pods that fall, or are washed into the water along with the branches and trunks that topple into the stream.
All of this can be replicated, to a certain extent, in the confines of an aquarium. You just need to use some larger pieces of wood or branches.
Now, there are many aquarists who would make the case that you can't make big, gnarly pieces of wood "work" in an aquarium because of their impact on "ratio" and "proportion", etc... You know, the "artistic" part.
And to these types, I gently admonish you to check out the works of some talented 'scapers, like our friend, Mitch Mazur, who have made that now-famous "mental shift" to work with Nature in an artistic interpretation...
These pleas and "look what HE did!" sort of arguments are almost a "prerequisite" of late when I talk about any idea that has an "aesthetic" component to it, because the self-appointed "guardians of aquascaping style" seem to come out of the woodwork (lol) after these discussions, reciting dozens of well-rehearsed reasons why the concept won't work, rather than even trying to do something similar.
To that, of course, I call, "Bullshit!"
Yeah, a big piece of wood or dense aggregation of smaller pieces in an aquarium does create some challenges, but most of them are in our head. Hell, Takashi Amano himself did a few amazing tanks with huge pieces of wood years ago. Remember?
And of course, when we utilize a large piece of wood (relative to the aquarium's water volume), it has a chemical and physical impact on the aquatic environment that is...hey- sort of similar to that which occurs in Nature, right?
Function and aesthetics are linked. In Nature, and in the aquarium!
And, look- I'm not telling you to turn your back on the modern popular aquascaping scene; to disregard or dismiss the brilliant work being done by aquascapers around the world, to completely eschew aesthetics, or to develop a sense of superiority and snobbery, and conclude that everyone who loves that kind of stuff is a sheep...
Not at all.
I'm simply the guy who's passing along the gentle reminder from Nature that we have this great source of inspiration that literally "works!" Rejoice in the fact that Nature offers an endless variety of beauty, abundance, and challenge- and that it's all there, free for us to interpret it as we like. It's not all perfect "rule of thirds" or flawless layouts and such.
Lots of places in Nature, beautiful though they may be, are a bit "rougher around the edges" than some aquarists seem to want to accept. Not all, but some.
And the rest of us?
We see the beauty in the apparent chaos and randomness.
We just happen to like things bit more, well- "natural" than others...
Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay intrigued. Stay studious. Stay open-minded.
Blur the lines.
And Stay Wet.
Assumptions about various things in the aquarium hobby are quite pervasive. Especially assumptions based on aesthetics or appearances. For example, our hobby seems to place a heavy emphasis on the color of the water in botanical method aquariums.
The deeply tinted water in many of the fantastic aquariums we see shared on social media seems to imply to many that these "tinted" aquariums feature "soft, acidic" water conditions as a matter of course- something that we erroneously assume.
And a fair number of hobbyists, upon embarking on their first adventure with botanical materials, express frustration, confusion, and dismay that their hard, alkaline tap water is still, hard and alkaline! This type of confusion in likely cause by a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of aquarium water chemistry, and what exactly "blackwater" is.
Understand that, as we've said many times here, botanicals (AKA "expensive botanicals" as one armchair expert referred to them recently) will not create soft, acidic "blackwater conditions" without other measures being taken by the hobbyist.
Yes, the water color is a cool “collateral benefit” and worthy of celebration - but it doesn’t really mean all THAT much, in actuality, does it? Sure- it means that leaves, seed pods, etc. have imparted their color-producing tannins into the water…but, which ones (there are hundreds!), and in what concentration? And what does it mean to your fishes?
Color alone is not an indication of the pH, dKH, or TDS of your water.. It's not an indicator of water quality. In actuality, it’s little more than an indicator that some of these materials are dissolving into the water.
Yet, we in the hobby make claims.
And we make recommendations based off of them...
And at best, they’re subjective guesses. How much tannin or other compounds are in a given botanical is, without very specific bioassays and highly specialized equipment- simply a guess on our part.
I think about it a lot..
For us to make "dosing" recommendations based on theoretical concentrations of various compounds thought to be present in a given botanical is simply irresponsible and not grounded in fact. Sure, we tell you that, based upon our experience, a given wood or seed pod, or leaf will color the water a darker color than another...but, again, what does that mean, really?
Not that much.
Again, the color of the water is absolutely not an indication of anything- other than the fact that tint producing types of tannins are present. It's an "aesthetic factor"- that's it. It doesn’t tell you what the pH, dKH, or TDS of the water are.. let alone, how much of what types and forms of tannins are present…
Yet, we in the hobby are continuously making this "crossover assumption," if not in our minds, on our social media feeds and ads as vendors. It's another example of us dumbing shit down to make things more "accessible" to hobbyists. How does dumbing stuff down make things more "accessible?" Is that what the hobby needs: Marginally educated, yet highly "entertained" hobbyists, with their eager minds filled with drivel and supposition instead of some of the "boring" stuff, then continuing to dutifully pass it along to fellow hobbyists as if it means something...
Ya know, ignoring facts?
Final thoughts on the "water color" thing:
What does the color of the water mean, from an environmental standpoint?
Quite honestly, we don’t really know! We need more information. That’s where the power of our observations and experiences can help fill in some of the mystery. Advanced water testing and monitoring will also help.. however, the reality is that we have more questions than answers, and likely will for some time!
There is nothing wrong with speculation, and researching stuff to attempt to validate or disprove our theories...as long as we're open-minded and follow the facts, whenever possible.
Sleuthing as a hobbyist is cool.
I went through this phase myself...And, being the geek that I am, I went to extraordinary lengths to try to correlate specific environmental conditions, or the presence of specific compounds in the water with the use of botanical materials in our tanks. A few years back, I was really "hair-on-fire" about this. It was a real area of "speculative science"...not exactly scholarly, but fun for a hobbyist, sure.
Here's a story that might interest you:
I was visiting a killifish forum on Facebook one night, and one of the participants was discussing some new fishes he obtained. One was from a rare genus called Episemion. Weird, because it is a fish that falls genetically halfway between Epiplatys and Aphyosemion.
Even more interesting to me was the discussion that it's notoriously difficult to spawn, and that it is only found in a couple of places in The Congo.
And even more interesting was that it is in a region known for high levels of selenium in the soil...And that's VERY interesting. Selenium is known to be nutritionally beneficial to higher animals and humans at a concentration of 0.05-0.10ppm. It's an essential component of many enzymes and proteins, and deficiencies are known to cause diseases.
One of its known health benefits for animal is that it plays a key role in immune and reproductive functions!
Okay, that perhaps helps explain the "difficult to breed" part? Sounds like the fishes need higher levels of selenium than we generally provide in aquarium water, right?
Selenium occurs in soil associated with sulfide minerals. It's found in plants at varying concentrations which are dictated by the pH, moisture content, and other factors of the soil they reside in. Soils which contain high concentration of selenium are found in greater concentration certain tropical regions.
But, how much do we need to provide our Episemion in order for them to reproduce more easily...or DO we, even need them? And how do we provide elevated selenium levels in the aquarium?
Now, soil is perhaps one way, right? Yet, I'm doubtful that we know the specific concentrations of selenium in many of the planted aquarium substrates out on the market, and most hobbyists aren't just throwing in that "readily available" tropical Congo soil that you can pick up at any LFS in their tanks, right? 😜
So, how would we get more selenium into our tanks for our killies?
My thought was that perhaps botanicals could be one way. I rationalized that maybe decomposing botanicals from plants known to contain higher levels of selenium in them could impart this compound into the water! What botanical comes from a plant which is known to have elevated levels of selenium?
The Brazil nut is known to have selenium. It comes from a botanical that we are familiar with in the botanical aquarium world...
The "Monkey Pot!"
Yes- it's technically a fruit capsule, produced from the abundant tree, Lecythis pisonis, native to South America -most notably, the Amazonian region. Astute, particularly geeky readers of "The Tint" will recognize the name as a derivative of the family Lecythidaceae, which just happens to be the family in which the genus Cariniana is located...you know, the "Cariniana Pod." Yeah...this family has a number of botanical-producing trees in it, right?
Ahh...it's also known as the taxonomic family which contains the genus Bertholletia- the genus which contains the tree, Bertholletia excelsa- the bearer of the "Brazil Nut." You know, the one that comes in the can of "mixed nuts" that no one really likes? The one that, if you buy it in the shell, you need a freakin' sledge hammer to crack?
Yeah. That one.
(Craving more useless Brazil Nut trivia?
Check this out: Because of their larger size size, they tend to rise to the top of the can of mixed nuts from vibrations which are encountered during transport...this is a textbook example of the physics concept of granular convection- which for this reason is frequently called...wait for it...the "Brazil Nut effect." (I am totally serious!)
Okay, anyways...I went way too far off course here.)
So, yeah, I thought I was on to something...
I was wondering it would be possible to somehow utilize the "Monkey Pot" in a tank with these fishes to perhaps impart some additional selenium into the water? Okay, this begs additional questions? How much? How rapidly? In what form? Wouldn't it be easier to just grind up some Brazil nuts and toss 'em in? Or would the fruit capsule itself have a greater concentration of selenium? Would it even leach into the water?
Where the ---- am I going with my sharing of my exercise?
I'm just sort of taking you out on the ledge here; demonstrating how the idea of making speculations can potentially yield some practical solutions, if you can actually verify through testing or practical experimentation. However, we can't "default" assume that "Monkey Pots in aquarium= Elevated selenium levels". We can only speculate, in the absence of proper, legit lab tests. Perhaps we can find anecdotal evidence to support our theories, but that's often about all we can do.
But we can't dumb it down by making our speculations "factual"...
We talk a lot here about utilizing botanicals to provide "functional aesthetics" at the every least, a possibility to help solve some potential challenges in the hobby. THAT is a good start. It's kind of a safe "catch all", which leaves open the possibility of proving or disproving more intensive assumptions, though. It doesn't really adamantly assume anything that cannot be proven through observation.
Yet, we in the hobby and industry (present company included) have continuously spouted speculation on the various "other benefits" of botanical materials as if they are a given. Like, this is something that we have done with Catappa leaves forever. You've seen my blogs questioning the carte blanche accessions that we in the industry heap on to vendors' assertions about the alleged health benefits that they are purported to offer fishes. Some is pure marketing bullshit. Some of it IS perhaps, legit, proven in lab experiments.
Yet, I think it's worth continuously investigating this stuff; experimenting on a practical level as hobbyists-"end users"- when possible, to see if there is some merit to these claims...right?
We need to connect observation and investigation with the practical application of patience.
Yeah, our old friend, patience. Patience is simply fundamental in the botanical-method aquarium world, and it can truly make the difference between success and failure.
Observation and attempting to ascertain what's going on in your tank "real time" are key practices that we need to embrace in order to determine what, if any benefits botanicals are bringing to the fight.
Yes, I know, we talk a lot about patience here, especially in the context of working with our botanical-style blackwater aquariums. We've pretty much "force-fed" you the philosophy of not rushing the evolution of your aquarium, of hanging on during the initial breakdown of the botanicals, not freaking out when the biofilms and fungal growths appear...
Embracing the process.
Not giving in to preconceived notions about we're told should happen in our tanks, one way or another.
What goes hand-in-hand with patience is the concept of...well, how do I put it eloquently...leaving "well enough alone"- not messing with stuff. In the context of trying to get fishes to breed, this is always a bit of a challenge, isn't it?
Yeah, just not intervening in your aquarium when no intervention is really necessary is not easy for many aspiring hobbyists. I mean, sure, it's important to take action in your aquarium when something looks like it's about to "go south", as they say- but the reality is that good things in an aquarium happen slowly, and if things seem to be moving on positive arc, you need not "prod" them any further.
I think this is one of the most underrated mindsets we can take as aquarium hobbyists. Now, mind you- I'm not telling you to take a laissez-faire attitude about managing your aquariums. However, what I am suggesting is that pausing to contemplate what will happen if you intervene is sometimes more beneficial than just "jumping in" and taking some action without considering the long-term implications of it. It's one thing to be "decisive"- quite another to be "overreactive!"
However, it's easy to forget when its "your babies", right? Online aquarium forums are filled with frantic questions from members about any number of "problems" happening in their aquariums, a good percentage of which are nothing to worry about. You see many of these hobbyists describe "adding 100 mg of _______ the next day, but nothing changed..." (probably because nothing was wrong in the first place!).
Now, sure, sometimes there ARE significant problems that we freak out about, and should jump on-but we have to "pick our battles", don't we? Otherwise, every time we see something slightly different in our tank we'd be reaching for the medication, the additives, or adding another gadget (a total reefer move, BTW), etc.
Let Nature take Her course on some things.
Understand that our closed systems are still little "microcosms", subject to the rules laid down by the Universe. Realize that sometimes- more often than you might think- it's a good idea to "leave well enough alone!" Make good hypothesis, but don't push out highly speculative over generalizations as "the gospel" on something...
And circling back- we as hobbyists should hesitate to make quick, unverifiable assumptions based only on aesthetics.. We can and should enjoy them, but we need to think about how the aesthetics are kind of a “byproduct” of some sort of biochemical process.. it’s all a grand experiment, and we’re all a part of it!
We can do better. And we should want to... Studying what actually occurs in our tanks is not that hard! And in fact, you'll find that the pretty pics of tanks we all love some much will take on so much more meaning when we understand the function- and some of the science behind them.
Stay educated. Stay informed. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay enthusiastic...
And Stay Wet.
One of the most common questions that I receive about botanical method aquariums is about how these systems "play out" over extended periods of time; how you manage them for the "long haul."
For whatever reason, many in the "mainstream" hobby outside of our little niche are under the impression that botanical method tanks are forever teetering on the brink of disaster- running precariously close to environmental failure if we take our eyes off of them for even the shortest period of time.
It's a bizarre, if not completely erroneous viewpoint which I think had its origins in (yet again) a complete misunderstanding of how the botanical method aquairum is conceived, set up, and "managed."
I believe that the appearance of our tanks- with tinted water, decomposing leaves, and accumulating detritus- gives the uninformed the impression that we are simply managing ticking "biological time bombs", with marginal water quality, improper "filtration", and overall lack of care.
The reality couldn't be more the opposite.
As we've come to find out as a community over the decades, botanical-method tanks run incredibly stable, healthily, and yeah- easily- once established. The whole mindset behind how these tanks are established and run involves creating the means for a stable natural ecology, valuing bacteria, fungi, and other. microfauna as an intimate part of our systems.
It involves facilitating the proper conditions for them to thrive and do their thing- just as they've done in Nature for eons- to benefit our closed systems. All of the leaves and botanicals are the "operating system" which our little microcosms run on!
These tanks just look a bit different than what hobbyists are familiar with.
And the myth about these tanks needing so much extra care to avoid disaster is pretty amusing to me. Like any well managed aquairum, the botanical method system actually runs quite smoothly, providing a healthy environment for fishes, despite the "unorthodox" aesthetics. They handle minor changes and occasional moments of lack of attention just fine!
In most instances, the fishes that we keep are not so delicate, and the closed environments we provide aren't running so "close to the edge" that we should panic when some random factor changes things up one day (ie; filter stops, the lights don't run on, etc.).
And consider this: When we purchase our fishes, they are unceremoniously netted out of the tank (or stream, lake, river, etc.) environment in which they reside, placed in a plastic bag, transported for who knows how long, and possibly making a few stops on the way before ultimately landing in our aquarium.
That's a LOT of changes to cope with. Stress.
But guess what? Fishes manage to deal with it. Somehow.
So, it kind of goes without saying that even a bout of "benign neglect" from time to time isn't going to spell Armageddon for your tank. I mean, it shouldn't.
Botanical method aquariums, especially well-established ones, can, in my experience, run for almost indefinite periods of time with minimal maintenance.
Now, let me make it perfectly clear:
I'm NOT saying that you can and should forgo water exchanges or other routine husbandry tasks in your botanical method aquariums!
I am, however, suggesting that these systems, based largely on ecology, and "configured" in some ways like the wild habitats they purport to represent, can endure periods of time when you're not on top of things.
Again, it's really a function of how we set up these tanks to begin with. We encourage the growth of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms, and "fuel" their growth by supplying botanical materials for them to colonize and feed upon. There is more or less a continous supply of food for the organisms at the bottom of the food chain to keep doing their job.
I don't portend to have all of the answers, but after decades of constructing, observing, and testing botanical method aquariums under all sorts of situations, I can definitely attest to their long-term reliability and ability to rebound easily from periods of neglect.
This is something that we as hobbyists likely have some degree of firsthand experience with. I know that I do.
Over the lifetime that I've been in the hobby there have been a number of times that, for one reason or another, I simply let my aquariums "run themselves", save an occasional water change or filter media cleaning, and of course, regular feeding (that consisted of tossing in a few flakes or pellets, or whatever was on hand at the time).
You know, putting Mother Nature in control!
A particularly fond memory of this type of "practice" comes from my Senior year in high school, when I was seriously into breeding killies (in addition to keeping saltwater, cichlids, tetras, and of course, the usual high school pursuits of girls, sports, and socializing). As a junior AKA member, I obtained a group of the "Clown Killie", Epiplatys annulatus Monroviae, and was determined to breed the little fuckers.
Of course, they always had a reputation for being just a bit of a challenge, requiring steadfast care, feeding, and a fair measure of patience. As a busy kid, I had little patience (although more than the average high school guy- after all, I was a fish geek!), so I was delighted to learn that these fishes were thought to fare better in "permanent" and so-called "natural" setups (fish geek code for "set and forget", IMHO).
So of course, I thought that this species was a perfect fish for my busy lifestyle at the time!
I set up 2 pairs and a few extra females in a 2.5 gallon tank, planted with Water Sprite, Hygrophila, and Rotala. Given moderate light from a small fixture, and a sponge filter providing filtration/circulation, this tank looked good and ran just fine with little intervention on my part. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I would sometimes go a week or more without so much as looking at the tank long enough to toss some food in there.
One day (I think it was during Spring Break), I took the time to really stare into the tank, to see what was going on...Sure enough, upon close examination, I saw several tiny fry flitting in and among the Rotala! I was elated! Rather than panic and start hatching brine shrimp, I made the very mature and level-headed decision to simply...leave them alone, as I had been doing for months. I resisted the temptation to net them out, "power feed" them, and otherwise intervene.
I reasoned that I could hardly do better than what they were apparently being provided by Nature, as they have done successfully for eons.
I ultimately ended up with a pretty stable population of around 12-15 individuals, in a tank I "maintained" for around 3-4 years. Ironically, the difficulties started when I had the time to really get into "taking care" of the fishes, and took more initiative and "control" of the breeding.
I ultimately slowly lost the entire colony. Sad.
But a valuable lesson.
Sometimes, what we would classify as "benign neglect" is actually the best thing we could do..the closest imitation to Nature that we can offer fishes in captive environments!
Other times, it's a fusion of both "hands on" and "hands off" approaches.
Now, again-I'm not suggesting that you abandon all care of your fishes, but I am suggesting that you reconsider the way that you might care for some of the more demanding varieties (from a breeding aspect, anyways).
Sometimes, what we would classify as "benign neglect" is actually the best thing we could do..the closest imitation to Nature that we can offer fishes in captive environments! I experimented with this a few years back in my "no-scape" leaf litter tank for Paracheirodon simulans, which was set up in the hopes of "passively feeding" the fish via the organisms living in, and produced via the layer of decomposing leaf litter which composed the entire "hardscape" of the aquarium.
It worked. And it worked well.
And, as part of the experiment, I did not feed these fishes during the entire 7-month duration of the experiment, and they not only were as fat and happy as any "Green Neon Tetras" I'd ever seen, but they actually spawned repeatedly in this tank! They subsisted entirely on food sources produced by the aquarium.
As I've reiterated previously, the tank was "pre-stocked" with some small crustaceans, paramecium cultures, and some worms and such, and allowed to "break in" for a month before fishes were even added.
It was set up to succeed in this fashion.
And it did.
I repeated a variation of this with my prized Tucanoicthys tucano- and had similar good results!
After decades of playing with these types of tanks, I'm now a firm believer that, in a well-established, properly cared-for botanical method aquarium, fishes will find sustenance among the resources already present in their environment.
In many cases, the tank itself may not produce enough food to sustain an entire population of mid-sized adult fishes...However, it might be able to supplement whatever feeding you're actively doing as an aquarist, and very likely could do the same for fry, until they are caught and moved to a "proper nursery" tank.
Yet, you don't have to go nuts trying to control every aspect of the tank...
Sometimes it's best to simply "monitor" and not intervene so much.
Hard to do for us 'hands on" fish geeks- particularly for a hardcore hobbyist like myself- but it often times works far better than our efforts to take control of the situation, IMHO.
Nature really knows how to do this stuff!
She's been doing it for eons.
For the final time- I'm not suggesting to abandon husbandry and care protocols in favor of neglect, just to "see what happens." What I AM suggesting is that sometimes, closed systems can regulate themselves a bit with minimal intervention on our part.
Not quite "set and forget"- but something sort of close, right?
Plants and animals whose needs are being met will thrive and come to dominate the closed ecosystem, for better or worse, just like in Nature. In fact, one could probably make the argument that- at least on a superficial level- the "benignly neglected" botanical method aquarium may be the closest imitation of Nature that we can present!
Let Nature do her thing?
Something to think about...
Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.
As I ease back into the world of Tannin and botanical method aquariums, I think it's important to hit on some of the foundational philosophies, ideas, and "truths" that form the basis of our approach once again.
As I've reiterated time and again lately, upon my return from my self-imposed "sabbatical", I noticed a creeping, slowly-evolving "dumbing down" of what we do, placing higher emphasis on aesthetics than function in the popular social media.
Too many hobbyists have worked too hard for too long to research, understand, and develop this approach to allow it to become a "style of aquascaping", or to simply lose sight of what really drives these types of tanks...Nature.
Not goofy-sounding botanicals, "influencers", or entertaining YouTube videos. Not even our brand or the brands of my industry "besties" ( BWUK and Betta Botanicals).
We get that.
You need to, as well.
Although I'm the first person to tell you to enjoy the hobby how you want to, I'm also going to be the first guy to (metaphorically) "whack the hobby upside its head" when the situation dicates. As long as I'm cognitively functional and breathing, I'll continue to push out "the boring stuff" as required to keep this a methodology, not a Tok Tok trend, meme, or otherwise bubbly social media splash.
Yeah, I sort of pledged to myself a while back that, for every one of these dumbed down exercises in vapidity which I encounter on social media, I'm going to counter with something deeper, more informative, and more instructive... So, based on the current state of things, I'll be really f--king busy for the foreseeable future!
Honestly, the hobby doesn't have to be childish, vapid, and trendy to be fascinating and fun. It never did, and it doesn't have to be now. Nor does it need to be boring, snobby, or exclusive to be fun and cool. There IS a middle ground between some of the garbage that prevails in the hobby, and the boring stereotype of a bunch of old timers sitting around chugging beers, lamenting about how the hobby used to be cool when everyone had to build their own tanks and collect their own Daphnia and Tubifex worms
I think the recent audience numbers of "The Tint" podcast bare this out...They're really growing! There seems to be a "hunger" for more fundamental, deeper information on botanical-method aquariums.
That's super encouraging!
At it's core, what we do is about ecology. Or, rather, the development of an ecological system within our aquariums.
The development of an ecology based on botanical materials is foundational to the successful function of our aquariums- even if it looks a bit "unusual" to many! If we embark on a botanical-method aquarium journey with the mindset that we're helping to encourage the development of an ecological system in our tank, not just a "cool aquascape", the whole thing is that much better.
And guess what?
When you work with Nature to foster such an ecosystem, the cool aesthetics almost always follow...
There is something truly remarkable about natural processes playing out in our own aquariums, as they have done for eons in the wild.
Remember, it's all part of the game with a botanical-influenced aquarium. Understanding, accepting, and celebrating the process of an ecological system "sorting itself out" in our tanks is all part of that "mental shift" towards accepting and appreciating a more truly natural-functioning - and natural-looking- aquarium.
The "price of admission", if you will- along with the tinted water, decomposing leaves, etc., the metaphorical "dues" you pay, which ultimately go hand-in-hand with the envious "ohhs and ahhs" of other hobbyists who admire your established aquarium when they see it for the first time.
We ask everyone who plays in the botanical-method aquairum world to be open-minded about accepting all sorts of unusual things. Things which, in our previous hobby experience freaked us out to no end!
It's a lot to ask, I'm sure. I mean, the idea of embracing an aquarium which looks and functions in a manner which is essentially contrary to virtually everything you've been brought up to believe in the hobby requires a certain leap of faith, doesn't it?
Yes, it's about aesthetics...but it's more about the beautiful function of botanical materials and soils which influence the chemical environment of the aquarium- just like they do in Nature.
There are aesthetic factors that you need to embrace to really appreciate what we do. They require fundamental shifts in our thinking about what is "cool" and "acceptable" in the aquarium hobby.
Of all the mental shifts asked of those who play in this arena, accepting the formation of biofilms is likely the biggest "ask" of all! Their very appearance- although indicative of a properly functioning ecosystem, simply looks like something that we as hobbyists should loathe.
This is a completely natural occurrence; bacteria and other microorganisms taking advantage of a perfect substrate upon which to grow and reproduce, just like in the wild. Freshly added botanicals offer a "mother load"of organic material for these biofilms to propagate, and that's occasionally what happens - just like in Nature.
Biofilms on decomposing leaves are pretty much the foundation for the food webs in rivers and streams throughout the world. They are of fundamental importance to aquatic life.
Fungi tend to colonize wood and botanical materials, because they offer them a lot of surface area to thrive and live out their life cycle. And cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin- the major components of wood and botanical materials- are degraded by fungi which posses enzymes that can digest these materials!
Fungi are regarded by biologists to be the dominant organisms associated with decaying leaves in streams, so this gives you some idea as to why we see them in our aquariums, right?
In aquarium work, we see fungal colonization on wood and leaves all the time. Most hobbyists will look on in sheer horror if they saw this extensive amount of fungal growth on their carefully selected, artistically arranged wood pieces! Yet, it's one of the most common, elegant, and beneficial processes that occurs in Nature!
When we start one of these aquariums, I think that it's important that we go in with the understanding that Nature gets to do a lot of the "work"- if we let Her.
Let me finish by clarifying a few things.
I suppose my "attack on vapidity" sounds judgmental, hard, egotistical, and perhaps envious to some. Lest you think that it is, I beg to differ. Rather, I think it's just really important to have a greater understanding than our current state of culture deems necessary. You're NOT to damn "busy" to learn more about the hobby you love. You're NOT intellectually incapable. You're NOT supposed to be a pHd, or held to dogmatic thinking- even mine.
However, you, me- everyone- we ALL have a responsibility- to the hobby, the fishes we love, and to Nature Herself. A responsibility to take care of each other, the hobby, and the natural world.
And that starts with understanding what we do on a deeper level than a few dozen characters, a meme, or a cute, flashy video short can ever hope to convey.
From a "hobby culture" standpoint, we need to have a good understanding of what we talk about. And we need to ditch the pretentiousness. No one owns the damn title of "botanical method aquarium characteristics" or whatever.
Sure, some people might understand more about specific topics than others do, but their obligation at that point is to share, encourage, and mentor others- not to be a pretentious loudmouth bully. And not to keep dumbing stuff down in the belief that doing so will "reach a wider audience."
Reach people by teaching people everything...not just by sugar coating a few select topics that make a good video short.
So, if I'm a bit wound up at times about this stuff, it's really because I care about it so much..and I do care about you and your enjoyment of this amazing hobby.
Stay curious. Stay educated. Stay inspired. Stay gracious. Stay creative. Stay smart...
And Stay Wet.
There is something about the materials that we place on the bottom of our aquariums, collectively known as "substrates"- which has always appealed to me.
I find them compelling and fascinating in both form and function.
And it's not like I see substrates as just a package of sand or gravel. It's about a combination of materials, used to create what I like to call "functionally aesthetic" effects. Yeah, I've always looked substrate materials the way other people look at cocktails:
It's about mixing stuff.
Substrates in Nature are not always just uniformly comprised of one material. Rather, they're aggregations of various materials, ranging from geological materials (rocks, sand, etc.) to botanical materials, like leaves, roots, etc., and sediments (clays, etc.).
Now, in Nature, there are numerous factors which contribute to the composition of aquatic substrates , including geology, the flow velocities of the body of water, the surrounding topography, the seasonal variations in water level (ie; inundation/dessication cycles), and accumulation of materials from the surrounding terrestrial environment.
There's a whole scientific field of study about this stuff.
So, why the hell do we as hobbyists, who want to create" the most realistic approximations of wild habitats possible", always seem to just "mail it in" when it comes to substrate? I mean, for a lot of hobbyists, it's just "open a bag of _____________ sand or whatever, and call it a day" and move on to the more "exciting" parts of our tank?
I think we just rely on the commercially available stuff- and that's that.
Kind of sad. Kind of...short-sided, really.
Now, in defense of the manufacturers of sands and gravels for aquarium use- I love what they do, and what they have available. These items are of generally excellent quality, provide a wide range of choices for a variety of applications, and are readily available. Most are fantastic.
Yet, they're not the "end-all/do-all" solution, IMHO.
We can, and should go further.
Most commercially available aquarium substrates are a great "starting point" for creating more dynamic ecosystems for our aquariums. Kind of like tomato puree is to pasta sauce...a beginning! Sure, you can use just the puree and enjoy your "sauce", but isn't it always better to add a bit of this and that and build on the "base"to create something better?
And we can.
And another thing:
I have concluded- after a lifetime in the aquarium hobby, and decades of researching and visiting natural aquatic habitats of all types-that the substrate in most wild ecosystems is...well- kind of "dirty."
"DIrty" isn't what you think, however.
It's not "dirty" in the "polluted" sense...
"Dirty" in the sense of it not being sterile or pristine the way we like to keep our substrates in aquariums.
Think about it:
Over the past century or so of the aquarium hobby, it's become pretty much "doctrine" that we don't allow stuff like uneaten food, fish waste, or "detritus" to accumulate in the substrate. We're implored to regularly siphon this stuff out of our substrate and discourage its accumulation at all costs.
Now, on the surface, I totally get this. Some of it is "Aquarium Hobby 101" kind of stuff.
Allowing uneaten food and excessive amounts of fish waste to accumulate in your sand bed is conceivably a recipe to create a "nutrient sink" which will begin degrading the water quality of your aquarium. So, we remove it...Sound advice, sure.
I mean, no one wants to have increasing phosphate, nitrate, and other organic compounds accumulating in their tank, right?
I've seen many recommendations in aquarium content over the years to siphon out your substrate weekly or monthly. Now, again, I don't have a problem in us preaching good habits to new aquarists: Don't overstock. Don't overfeed. Filter your aquarium properly. Complete regular water exchanges. I mean, sure, these are foundational "best practices", and part of the fundamentals of keeping fishes in a closed aquatic systems for the widest variety of hobbyists.
That being said, if you're NOT overfeeding, NOT overstocking, and conducting regular water exchanges in your aquarium, why is there a necessity to thoroughly siphon the substrate frequently?
Think about it for a second before you go and pelt me with stones for my heretical questioning of this "fundamental" practice in aquarium keeping. The reality is that we have been urged to siphon out "stuff" from the substrate for fear of it accumulating and degrading water quality, right?
Okay, sounds good. However, consider that, in an otherwise well-managed aquarium, the organics in the substrate are...food...for bacteria and other organisms which live within it.
Ask yourself why we try to seek a balance of life forms within our aquairum.
And, we embrace good husbandry because we want to facilitate the proper biological function within the system. And that means, "partnering" with our friends, the bacteria- to facilitate nutrient processing. Not trying to wipe them out on a continuous basis!
So, if you're a typical aquarist, and run a properly stocked aquarium, and embrace generally accepted husbandry practices, it seems to me that aggressively siphoning the substrate is essentially removing food resources from the bacteria and other organisms which live within the substrate. The very organisms which we rely upon to keep our little ecosystems thriving!
So, it's actually counterproductive.
Yeah- in our effort to keep the tank "clean", we are actually starving these organisms, and creating a sort of "dependency" on our aggressive, artificially imposed maintenance practices.
Much of the organic detritus we fear is an essential "component" of the substrtae- in both Nature, and in a natural aquarium system...
Okay- back to Nature for now:
When we started Tannin, my fascination with the varied substrate materials of tropical ecosystems got me thinking about ways to more accurately replicate those found in flooded forests, streams, and diverse habitats like peat swamps, estuaries, creeks, even puddles- and other bodies of water, which tend to be influenced as much by the surrounding flora (mainly forests and jungles) as they are by geology.
It's turned into a minor obsession, and I've learned a lot along the way.
Many substrates in tropical regions which are subject to seasonal flooding are comprised of a unique class of soil, the"Podzols" -soils characterized by a whitish-grey subsurface, bleached by organic acids. They have an overlying dark accumulation of brown or black illuviated humus. These soils support the rainforests surrounding blackwater streams, yet are the most infertile soils in Amazonia.
And of course, my obsession with botanical materials to influence and enrich the aquarium habitat caused me to look at the use of certain materials for what I call "substrate enrichment" - adding materials reminiscent of those found in the wild to augment the more "traditional" sands and other substrates used in aquariums.
And in some instances, to replace them entirely.
Now, in many of the tropical regions we admire, the basic substrate is often referred to by ecologists simply as "fine, white sand" in most scientific papers- typically, but not necessarily a silica of some sort. And of course, other locations have slightly larger grain sizes of other pulverized stones and such. Still others are comprised of sediments which wash down from higher elevations during seasonal rains.
Deep rivers will typically have different substrate compositions than say, marginal streams or floodplain lakes, or even flooded forests. In the Amazon region, a huge percentage of the sediment and materials which comprise the substrates are from the Andes mountains, where they are transported down into the lower elevations by water flow.
This has huge foundational impact on the chemistry of the waters in the region. This process builds the fertile floodplain soils along Andean tributaries and the main stem of The Amazon.
As I mentioned before, there is a whole science around aquatic substrates and their morphology, formation, and accumulation- I don't pretend to know an iota about it other than skimming Marine biology/hydrology books and papers from time to time.
However, merely exploring the information available in scientific literature about the tropical aquatic habitats we love so much- even just looking long and hard at some good underwater pics of them- can give us some good ideas!
The first recorded observations of bed material of the Amazon River were made in 1843 by Lt William Lewis Herndon of the US Navy, when he travelled the river from its headwaters to its mouth, sounding its depths, and noting the nature of particles caught in a heavy grease smeared to the bottom of his sounding weight.
He reported the bed material of the river to be, "mostly sand and fine gravel." Oltman and Ames took samples at a few locations in 1963 and 1964, and reported the bed material at Óbidos, Brazil, to be fine sands, with median diameters ranging from 0.15 to 0.25 mm.
That's pretty much what we expect, right? Of course, there is more..and there are factors which impact both the composition and appearance of substrate.
First off, in some areas- particularly streams which run through rain forests and such, the substrates are often simply a soil of some sort. A finer, darker-colored sediment or soil is not uncommon. It's based on the ionic, mineral, and physical concentrations of materials that are dissolved into the water. And it varies based on water velocities and other factors, as touched on above.
Meandering lowland rivers maintain their sediment loads by continually re-suspending and depositing materials within their channels- a key point when we consider how these materials stay in the aquatic ecosystems.
Okay, I could go on and on with my amateur, highly un-scientific review of substrates in Amazonia and elsewhere, but you get the point!
There is more to the substrate materials found in Nature than just "sand." That's the biggest takeaway here! So, as hobbyists, we have more options and inspiration to to draw on to create more compelling substrates in our aquariums!
What that means to us is (taking into account the "pasta sauce analogy", of course) is that we should consider mixing other materials into our basic aquarium sands. For example, you could mix aquatic plant soils into your sand. You could experiment with materials such as clay, or other mineral/plant-based components of varying particle sizes.
Obviously, your substrate will look a lot different than the "typical" aquarium substrate when you start mixing materials. Your overall aquarium will, too. And that's a good thing, IMHO. I played around with this a lot in my office brackish water Mangrove aquarium, where the substrate played an integral functional role in the aquarium, as well as an aesthetic one...
You'll have to accept stuff like tinted water, turbidity, and "texture" within the aquarium.
We talk a lot about a concept that we call "substrate enhancement" or "enrichment" in the context of botanicals (we tend to use the two terms interchangeably). We're not talking about "enrichment" in the same context as say, planted aquarium people, with materials put into the substrate specifically for the benefit of plants.
Rather, "enrichment" in our context refers to the addition of botanical materials for creating a more natural-appearing, natural-functioning substrate- one which provides a haven for microbial life, as well as for small crustaceans, biofilms, fungal growths, and even algae, to serve as a foraging area for our fishes and invertebrates.
There is something oddly compelling to me about both aquariums and natural biotopes with a diverse, interesting bottom structure.
Rather than simply "the bottom of the tank", I see the substrate as this magical place which fuels all sorts of processes within our aquariums, supporting higher life forms- and that Nature tends to it in the most effective and judicious manner possible.
Substrates in Nature- and aquariums-are diverse harbors of life, ranging from fungal and biofilm mats, to algae, to epiphytic plants. Decomposing leaves, seed pods, and tree branches prepare the substrate to recruit a complex web of life which helps the fishes we're so fascinated by to flourish.
And, if you look at them objectively and carefully, they are beautiful.
I envision that the future of mainstream aquarium practice may include creating such a substrate as simply part of "what we do." Adding a mix of botanical materials, live bacterial and small organism cultures, and even some "detritus" from healthy aquatic systems may become how we establish systems.
It's not some amazing "revolution"- it's simply an evolution of practices that we've been playing with peripherally for decades in the hobby. It's a way of looking at what's already working and trying to figure out the "whys" as we go.
Think beyond just sands...or anything resembling "conventional" aquarium substrate. Think about what goes on in the benthic (bottom) regions in the natural habitats we love, and what benefits or support the materials which aggregate there provide for the organisms within the ecosystem.
Understand that the substrate is a dynamic, extremely important part of the aquarium, too. And what we construct our substrate with, and how we manage it, is of profound importance to our fishes!
A combination of finely crushed leaves, bits of botanicals, small twigs, etc.within the sand can form the basis for a more "biologically active" and even productive substrate. As these materials break down, they are colonized by fungi and biofilms, and impart tannins, lignin, and other sources of carbon into the water to fuel a variety of microbial growth.
And of course, larger crustaceans and even fishes will consume the organisms which live in this "matrix", as well as possibly consuming some of the detritus from the decomposing leaves themselves. This is precisely what happens in natural aquatic ecosystems.
Because of the very "operating system" of our tanks, which features decomposing leaves, botanicals, soils, roots, etc., we are able to create a remarkably rich and complex population of creatures within them.
Let's take advantage this!
This is one of the most interesting aspects of a botanical-method aquarium: We have the opportunity to create an aquatic microcosm-on many levels- which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides some supplemental nutritional value for our fishes, and perhaps most important- nutrient processing- a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.
Most of our substrates will simply look different.
They'll have a variegated, sediment-laden, even "dusty"-looking appearance. Something very different from the fine, white sand that we typically see in aquariums. Adding mixes of materials to our substrates creates an entirely different form and function.
Yes, there is something incredibly beautiful and useful about utilizing these alternative materials in our substrates. They have created an incredible opportunity for us as hobbyists to forge new directions in the hobby. To embrace function first, and let the aesthetics unfold as a result.
And most important- to appreciate the wonders of Nature as it is- and how these systems organize themselves into beautiful, highly unique aquariums if we let them...
This is a huge point; something which everyone who works with botanical method aquariums comes to know and usually accept. We need to have an attitude which doesn't allow us to panic; to make fast, short-term moves in favor of longer-term outcomes. It's a very different philosophy. You need to accept different aesthetics. You need flexibility. You may even have to accept short-term losses for a greater long-term good.
You need to have faith in Nature.
It's a dance. An art form. A process, and an evolution. Sometimes seemingly chaotic, other times maddeningly slow. Always alluring. Always deferring to Nature...
And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion as you do procedure- all done in the proper time...at the right cadence.
Observe. Study. Learn. Share...Evolve...
...and Stay Wet.