Like many of you, I have adored Mollies since I was a kid.
They were probably the first "challenging" fish I had, as they were not quite as hardy as some of the Platies, Swordtails, and Guppies and such that were "standard issue" for hobby newbies. Now, I'll be first to admit that I am absolutely not anything close to knowledgeable on the family Poecilidae, but I have a fascination for some of the legendary fishes of our hobby, and for unravelling the reasons behind why we keep them the way we do. Mollies are one of those fishes that it seems like we've all kept, yet they have some sort of "thing" about them, as if there is some secret that we don't know, but should uncover. And there are a bunch of species that we call "Mollies", which confuses stuff further, and makes this whole story all the more juicy to me!
Like, the whole thing about salt and Mollies...If you can recall, you're always told to add "some salt" to their aquariums, in order to keep them healthy, avoiding fungal and parasitic infections. And let's face it- it's fundamentally sound advice for these notoriously touchy fish. The rationale is that at lower (compared to a full-on marine aquarium) specific gravity of say, 1.004-1.015, they're pretty "bulletproof", because most freshwater parasites and funguses that these fishes often fall victim to just can't make the osmotic "stretch" to this type of environment, and the fish can. Salt in their water gives you a sort of "insurance policy" against some of these nasty problems. And thus, the old trick of " a teaspoon of salt per gallon" or whatever it was worked.
And, somewhere along the line, the whole "add a teaspoonful of salt per gallon" thing (or whatever the "recipe" was) stuck in our heads. The husbandry recommendation morphed into the narrative: "They are brackish-water fishes. Perfect for brackish tanks!"
True. Well, only partially true, like many hobby things, as I would discover. ("blackwater tanks are dangerously uncontrollable, pH-crash-inevitble dirty time bombs!" - Sound familiar? Yeah.)
And as I became more and more enamored with brackish water aquariums over the past several years, I did more and more research on them, trying to find examples of brackish habitats in which they are native, rather than introduced. I thought to myself, "Hobbyists always seem to recommend them as candidates for keeping in brackish aquariums- that's the type of habitat where they come from, right?"
And visions of murky, tinted mangrove thickets with mud, Mollies, Archerfishes, and Orange Chromides danced in my head. I just figured I'd find some wild examples from which to draw further inspiration...
But that's where the story gets a bit fuzzy. I mean, these are surprisingly adaptable fish, as long as their needs are met: Warm, hard, alkaline water and low to nonexistent levels of nitrate. And since the toxicity of many of the organics that cause so much stress is less impactful in saltwater, we've used that as sort of "cover" for assuming the types of habitats they hail from in the wild. And of course, being blessed/cursed with euryhaline capabilities, a whole range of assumptions arise about these fish! Throw in the the fact that they come from "down there in coastal regions of Central and South America" or thereabouts creates all sorts of confusion about the types of habitats from which they come! Yikes!
And it also gives everyone the impression that Mollies are preferentially brackish water fish. I thought that. Absolutely. And, although there are some species collected in brackish water, and even some transplanted populations around the world that live in full-strength seawater, as a whole, most species have not traditionally been native to most brackish water habitats. Hard and alkaline, yeah- absolutely. But brackish (like 1.004-1.006 specific gravity)? Uh- uh. They can absolutely adapt and thrive to what we'd consider "brackish" conditions...In fact, I know many hobbyists who've kept them in full-strength (1.021-1.025) saltwater with excellent results, employing them as "algae eaters" in reef tanks and such...or worse- to "cycle" new aquariums. Yuck.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the guy you'd want to turn to for comprehensive knowledge on livebearers, particularly Mollies. I'm just a guy with a more than causal interest in the environments from which they come. This article is not about the best Mollies to keep in tanks, or about the taxonomy of the genus, or any number of other topics that you'd expect from someone who really knows what they're talking about! My main angle, really, was to see what, if any, species actually come from the types of environments we'll be talking about with "Estuary."
Early in my search for suitable brackish water candidates for the "Estuary" project, I looked towards a species I read about which had a very tantalizing common name!
Poecilia orri, the "Mangrove Molly", which occurs from Central America: Southern Mexico (Quintana Roo) to northern Honduras and Colombia (Islas de Providencia), IS actually found in brackish water habitats, living up to its common name (Don't get me started with the whole "common name" thing. Remember our piece on the so-called "Amazon Molly?" Yeah...although it is a fascinating fish- ain't from the damn Amazon, much to our collective disappointment here! The "Amazon" part referred to it's unusual "females only" species. ). As we know, common names mean little, really. But this one I somehow recall as being correct. Yet, it wasn't easy for me to verify this, if it weren't for a recollection from MY own travels, as we'll see shortly!
Now, many species of Mollies ARE found in found in brackish "salt marshes" in the Southeastern U.S., along the Gulf of Mexico; there seems to be no easy way of confirming if they naturally occur in the brackish marshes there, or were introduced. Well, there probably is- and I couldn't confirm for myself!
Some time back, while doing my fish-geek due diligence and trying to figure out what type of habitat the various collection localities for the P. orri that were listed on FishBase were, I stumbled on a locale that was familiar to me personally! One of the listed type localities was "Roatan Island, Honduras, within 0.5 miles of shrimp docks at Oakridge, two sides of peninsula, 1 side clear reef, back side muddy lagoon with mangroves..." Hmm..."shrimp docks at Oakridge..." That rang bell. Yes, of course! I was there on a dive trip some 7 years ago!
While in Roatan, like anywhere I dive, I asked about spots to dive or snorkel near mangroves and seagrass beds, 'cause who likes looking at stupid sharks and groupers? I remember our guide telling us that there was a "lagoon with a lot of mangroves near the shrimp docks near Oak Ridge..." Eureka! Best part? I remember going there with my friend (also a fish geek), wading out into the sort of murky water, and recall seeing in the brackish water (1.004, I believe- yeah, like a good fish geek, I dive-travelled with a swing arm hydrometer just for that purpose!) what I thought were "wild mollies!" Yeah, stupid me inadvertently stumbled on a brackish water habitat of Poecilia orri!
Now, look, don't get me wrong. I'm not even going to admit to being slightly well versed on Mollies. I have kept them for years, but the fact that you hear this whole "They do fine in saltwater" thing was floating about the hobby was so generally "accepted" that it simply deserved more investigating! The reality is that there ARE several species which seem to occur mainly in brackish habitats, like Poecilia vandepolli, P. elegans, and the aforementioned Poecilia orri, to name just a few- bureally t they aren't the most common varieties you'll see in the hobby, for sure! The misconception seems to come with the ever-popular P. sphenops and P. velifera...you know- THE Molly to most of us, along with P. llatipinna. However, P. latipinna does come from brackish habitats as well, further compounding this ridiculousness. Urrgghh!
And, they ARE adaptable to various salinities...even the wild ones. Interestingly, one study I found indicated that isolation in nature of populations P. latipinna in fresh and brackish waters "has not greatly altered their physiological capabilities with respect to ambient salinity."
So...where does this leave us when trying to determine which species work in a brackish water aquarium? Well, for one thing, confused. The reality is that, because of introduction to various habitats around the world, this remarkably adaptable group of fishes has found its way into a variety of niches, and managed to thrive in each! I think- I THINK- that the main misconception in the hobby is that the "domesticated/hybrid" versions that we see in shops are simply assumed to be able to live in brackish systems (which they are, mind you). However, their ancestors likely originated on hard, alkaline freshwater habitats. We use the salt in their tanks because of the aforementioned husbandry benefits..yet I think we think (LOL) that we're "doing them a favor" and giving them "natural conditions" by doing this (which we may or may not be doing...ughhh). And I'll bet the more hardcore livebearer guys will tell you that, in order to be a bit more authentic, you'd probably want to be playing with the species we've been talking about, among a few others.
This shockingly-less-than-earthshattering, haphazardly-researched "review" of the "Molly Misconception" will NOT land me a keynote at next year's American Livebearer Association convention. And that's okay. In fact, it's probably setting me up to be schooled by hobbyists who have forgotten more than I'll ever know about this subject! However, in my defense, let me tell you that we in the hobby have, in my opinion, done a remarkably good job at confusing the shit out of the subject of who comes from what habitat. The narrative is just "Oh yeah, they work in brackish tanks." True, but not all that helpful, really. It's a world of assumptions, inferences, over-generalizations, and partially correct information (hmm...is that what they mean by "alternative facts?" Not going there...). So my comeback to mean/arrogant/knowledgaeble "haters" would be, "You guys did a crappy job disseminating the actual information on this subject!"
As for me, I think it's fine to include Mollies in your brackish water aquarium, if only for the fact that lots of species of the damn fish are swimming in brackish water habitats around the world! I suppose the "fancy" domesticated varieties would be a bit less "authentic", however. Whether or not they arrived in those locations naturally is a completely different story. So, with a little research, it is relatively easy to find out who is found where. A bit harder to find out if that's the locality where they evolved. Introduction to sites around the world has confused it a bit for outsiders like myself, but it would make a cool topic for some Molly expert to present at some convention some time!
Compelling. Attractive. Interesting. And...weird, actually- Mollies continue to attract fish geeks. They got me, if for no other reason than the confusion surrounding their adaptability. Any hobby topic that has controversy, confusion, and popular misconception is totally "up my alley", as they say! I think they are a sort of "victim" of their own adaptability and variability.
That "euryhaline curse..."
(P. sphenops by Hugo Torres. Used under CC by 2.5 es)
Bottom line: If you want Mollies- any type, really- in your brackish water aquarium and have acclimated them to the environment- go for it. Who the hell am I- or anyone else, for that matter- to tell you otherwise...If you want to be a bit more hardcore, and biotopically accurate, you should consider looking for one of the species we talked about in this piece.
In the end, this hobby is all about what makes YOU happy. And to me, nothing makes me happier than a good mystery fish! That's the allure of Mollies to me.
Don't always accept the glossy, generalized answer...Stay relentless in your pursuit of the real story. Stay emboldened to try new stuff. Stay excited about the journey. Stay tuned for the debut of "Estuary..."
And Stay Wet.
If your like me, you've got that "one fish" that never leaves your mind. The one that captured your heart at some point and simply never got out of your system.
Mine was the "Black Ghost Knifefish", Apteronotus albifrons. I'm not sure what it was that first attracted to me to this fish. The odd name, the amazing "look", or, after I had seen them in real life- their interesting behavior and yes- personalities! I remember seeing a pic in "Exotic Tropical Fishes" that had a "head shot" of the fish, and it had this oddly comical, yet altogether weird look- you know, all black...even the eyes...and it's mouth gave it a sort of friendly look. And of course, the references to the endemic people of the region believing that the souls of their departed ancestors resided in the fish and I couldn't let this one go.
And since I have't kept one in years, I thought that I'd take a quick look on what the fish REALLY needs and how best to keep it based on my accumulated experience and research. There must be a FEW things we had wrong about the fish, huh?
The only "down side" I ever though about with this fish is that it has the potential to hit put to 18" (45cm) or more in length, necessitating a large aquarium if you're wanting to accommodate the fish for anything approaching a natural life span (decades!). Like a 5-6 foot long tank is appropriate.
Now, this little piece is not going to be the usual "Keeping the _______ in the Aquarium" stuff. I simply can't write a good, solid article like that without all of the weird inferences and such that I like to make. Rather, let's quickly examine my beloved fish on the basis of what we know about it from science that can help us keep it happy in our aquariums!
As we all probably know by now, Black Ghosts are known to be weekly electric fishes, using their capabilities for navigation, location and identification of potential prey. This has been extensively studied by scientists. Like, really extensively...As a fish geek searching for information on the ecology of the fish, I was met with dozens of "way-over-my-head" style scientific papers on the fish's electrolocation capabilities. You know, the kinds of articles filled with exotic graphs and formulas, and nothing that tells you what kinds of water conditions the fish comes from? Yeah. That kind. Had to really dig for that stuff.
Although they are nocturnal predators, they're hardly what we'd call "aggressive" fish; instead, being rather shy and retiring! In fact, descriptors such as "peaceful" and "friendly" have been used over the years to (accurately, IME) describe the fish's temperament! This is, I think, a bit contrary to what most of us would immediately assume about such a fish, right? The popular perception for a fish like this is usually: "It's big, it's menacing- it's a Tetra killer and hell-raiser for sure!"
Even the swimming behavior of this fish is a bit cool. And well-studied, of course...From a paper by M.J. and S.J. Lannoo, 1993 entitled, "Why do electric fishes swim backwards? An hypothesis based on gymnotiform foraging behavior interpreted through sensory constraints." you find this gem: "The fish swims backwards (reverse swimming) which is characteristic of two foraging behaviors: searching for prey and assessing it. In assessing a potential prey item, it typically scan the prey from tail to head by swimming backwards, then ingest it after a short forward lunge. A scan in the opposite direction - from head to tail by forward swimming - would have the prey located near the tail and out of position for the final lunge."
Yeah, that about covers it.
Gut content analysis of a number of wild collected specimens from Paraguay and Peru indicated that the bulk of it's diet consisted of worms (annelids) and insect larvae, so yeah, that explains why they seem to love "black worms" and "blood worms" in the aquarium. Can they prey on small fishes? Sure- they have a pretty good sized mouth and a sophisticated electromagnetic navigation system, so yeah, they can locate potential prey items easily at night when they hunt...However, in no instance in any of the papers which I reviewed on wild-collected specimens of this fish did gut-content analysis of both juvenile and adult specimens reveal anything other than worms and insect larvae! Would I trust them with my "Green Neon Tetra" shoal in my aquarium? Umm, not likely, but I think they'd have a more difficult time with the more laterally compressed, vertically oriented characins, like Hyphessobrycon species and such! And, in general, if you keep them stuffed with worms, the likelihood of "Phee-Phee", your beloved Pencilfish, disappearing one night goes down dramatically, in my experience!
Now, because they come from Amazonia, the first thing that comes into mind is sluggish, acidic blackwater streams ('cause, like, that's everything in The Amazon region, right? NO SCOTT!) The reality is that most specimens are found in the wild in rapidly flowing waters of streams with a sandy bottom. And as we know from many of our past pieces on the substrates in this region, a lot of those sands are chemically neutral. However, much to my happiness, usually, lots of botanical debris and wood are found in these habitats.
So, if one were to recreate the habitats where these fishes are commonly found, it would be an aquarium environment with good water movement, a pH range from 6.0-8.0 (hello, that's all over the freakin' map, right?), and water temps typically around 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit (25-27 C). The tank would be at least 6 feet long, with nice white sand and a ton of branchy wood, lots of hefty botanicals, and probably some vertically oriented plant growth (like Amazon Swords or something equally as generic) Since blackwater is definitely a part of the fish's natural habitat, I'd be inclined to let it tint a bit, with some large leaves and other botanicals. And, of course, good water movement, probably provided by directed returns or external pumps like EcoTech Marine VorTech powerheads.
Tank mates would be larger characins, like Headstanders, and maybe a big shoal of fishes like Emperor Tetras or other laterally compressed, non-bite-sized Tetras. Oh, and a few smaller cichlids. Simple, easy, and "semi-cliched." But hey, the star of the show, the Black Ghost, is what this is all about, right?
And I'd feed a ton of blackworms and bloodworms. I'd have fat fishes in there.
Yeah, that's all Ive got this morning. Nothing earth-shattering. Just thinking of the Black Ghost.
So the takeaway here? Is there one? There is a lot of good information out there if you dig for it, and you don't need to accept what everyone says about a fish as the absolute last word on it.
Oh, and the fact that we gave it sort of "generic" aquarium conditions all of these years, and that those were surprisingly appropriate conditions for the fish based on its natural habitats does not make me bitter at all....I think it was just luck, lol.
Stay engaged. Stay relentless. Stay excited.
And Stay Wet.
I love the fact that many of you are trying so many new things with your aquariums. I love that things are changing quickly; that the ideas we have been talking about are evolving and finding excited new followers!
We're in an amazing time right now. For the first time in years, I personally feel that the idea of blackwater aquariums has moved out of it's obscure, "fringe-culture-like" parking spot in the fish world, and into the light of the mainstream.
And it's all because of YOU! Sure, many of you were playing with blackwater tanks before, but if your experience was anything like mine, you were sort of viewed as a mildly eccentric hobbyist playing with a little "side thing"- a passing fancy that you'd eventually "get over.."
Well, I think that is changing a lot now. We're seeing a community of what was once widely scattered hobbyists starting to come together and share ideas, technique, pictures, inspiration with other equally as obsessed hobbyists. This is an amazing thing to me, and to be able to witness it firsthand is incredible! It's been a renaissance of sorts for this once-neglected aspect of the hobby.
One of the things I'm enjoying most is the experimentation that many of you are doing with more natural substrates. I know we've covered this a lot in several editions of "The Tint", but it's very interesting to see your experimental work. I think that we are starting to understand as hobbyists how the substrate affects the water chemistry, thanks in large part to our planted aquarium friends- but we're sort of applying this further in our work with botanical-style, blackwater aquariums. I think this is an area where much research can still be done. With more understanding of habitats like the inundated forest areas of Brazil, we're getting a feel for how these habitats are influenced by the material on the forest floor.
Another think that I think is interesting is that we, as a community, are viewing our aquariums as "habitats" more than ever before. We seem to have broken through the mindset of creating aquariums only based on an aesthetic WE like, and fitting the fishes into it, as opposed to creating aquariums with specialized habitats for specific fishes.
I mean, this has been done for a long time by hobbyists, and it's not truly a by-product of the "blackwater explosion", yet it seems like we're seeing more and more systems that are geared towards creating an environment for one or two species of fishes, as opposed the more "community-oriented", generically-aquascaped types of setups. I think it's a reflection on the desire to learn more about the natural habitats of fishes- perhaps with the added bit of confidence that we have access to some materials that are a good representation of what our fishes would encounter in the wild.
What I'd like to continue to see is an attitude of adventure in our community. I'd love to see hobbyists take a fresh look at how the aquatic habitats that we are interested in replicating really look. Understanding that it's not all crystal clear, pristine green plants on white sand. Seeing the agape forest pics really inspired me to push this point more. Our fishes come from habitats that are radically different in appearance than we seem to interpret them as in the aquarium world. I understand that not everyone likes the "botanical debris field" that we find so alluring, but for those who would but make the "mental shift" and understand that the truly natural aesthetics ARE amazing and intricate, and every bit as alluring as a meticulously precision-planted aquarium.
Now, a lot of you are wondering what we have in store with "estuary", and I'll give you a little insight into what to expect.
Like the blackwater aquarium world, there has been a certain degree of "neglect", if you will, of a fascinating, educational, and aesthetically unique type of aquarium system. Sure, people have played with brackish tanks before. They've even incorporated some aspects of natural habitats, like mangroves and sand and such. However, it was not...evolved, IMHO. We did not see the emphasis on a habitat. Understanding, once again, that many brackish biotopes are not crystal clear white sand and wood or plant is an important part of the concept here. Mangrove estuaries are among the most productive and intricate aquatic habitats in nature. They are based on the interaction of land and water, the confluence of fresh and salt water, and the unique substrates and botanical influences that occur in these regions. They are often different in appearance than the popular perception among hobbyists have. You'll see.
Our goal in launching "estuary" is to facilitate more understanding of these fantastic habitats, and to enable us as aquarists to create more functional, complex, and aesthetically different brackish water aquariums than we've done in the past. We'll push a few ideas that maybe you haven't considered before. Or, perhaps you have, but weren't sure about how to proceed. We're going to be bold, experimental, and preach a mindset, like we do in the blackwater world, that encourages us to release the "mental chains" that have dictated why things are the way they are in brackish. Some ideas may not be easy to embrace. Some may not work for you. Some will be amazing. We're going to examine technique, aesthetic, and function as a package, and we'll begin offering a selection items that will help you embrace this "evolved" brackish concept.
Look for the icon.
Yeah, should be a fun ride!
And the skills, ideas, and spirit of adventure that you've cultivated in your blackwater journey will serve you well if you venture into the brackish world, too!
Accept change. Embrace it.
Stay with us. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay creative.
And Stay Wet.
I have a problem.
I think my problem is that I have too many ideas floating around in my head, and not enough time or space to execute on all of them.
I think a lot of hobbyists suffer from this issue. And yeah, "suffer" is the world, because when you want to try something out and just can't, it sucks! You see all of these cool images of natural habitats and think to yourself, "I HAVE to try that! I need another tank!"
One of the cool things about my love of smaller fishes is that I can play with my ideas in small tanks. Now, mind you, coming off of decades as a practicing reef hobbyist, "small" to me has always meant "under 40 gallons,", so like a 20 gallon aquarium is practically a "nano" to me!
And that's nice, actually, because 20 gallon tanks are like the perfect size for experimenting with...stuff!
It would be nice if I had a basement to convert into a big old fish room, but, like...zero percent of homes in Los Angeles have basements...So we have to get creative- converting bedrooms, spare rooms, allocating an aquarium here and there in the living room, guest bedroom, etc., etc.
And because we operate this way, the tanks always have to look good. And that's hard on a fish geek, right? Especially if you're the "utilitarian" type. Yeah, no bubbling sponge-filtered, bare-bottom breeding tanks with a clump of Java Moss in the living room. No DIY corner filters...No warehouse-grade hanging T5 lighting fixtures...None of the cool stuff that we love so much. Nope. It all has to look "presentable." Like, non-fish-keeping/spouse/sibling/roomate/partner "presentable." Pressure, right?
And if you want to execute on a lot of ideas, that typically means you need to go with smaller tanks, as they're scattered throughout the house. (Unless, of course, you can have lots of large tanks scattered throughout the house- in which case you are one of the very lucky ones!)
So, I dare say that it's okay to go against the conventional wisdom about going with the largest tank you can get. If you're a hardcore "tinter" like me, you're no doubt scheming all sorts of ideas, all sorts of unique experiments. And yeah, it would be killer to have 3 120-gallon tanks set up to replicate different blackwater habitats and such, but I think it makes a lot more sense to try like 3-4 smaller tanks (like 20-40 US gal/75-152 l) and maybe one or two larger displays (50-100 gals/ 189-379 l), right?
As a progressive, experimental fish geek with lots of ideas, you need numbers! You need as many "test beds" as you can accommodate, huh?
The nice thing about small tanks is that, if you are talented- like most of you are- you can do some truly special things with them! And if you're a guy like George Farmer, a small tank is just another blank canvass on which to compose greatness.
It's about how we look at things, I think.
When I started playing with nano systems, I decided from the outset that each nano would have to stand up on its own as an example of good aesthetics. No dangling powerheads or heaters, mix-and-match tank components, etc. for me. If these little things are going to be in my living room, they are going to have to look nice. And, unfortunately, for me- occasionally translates into "pricy." Why is that?
Now, you don't HAVE to spend tons of money on a nano tank- and I discourage you from feeling obligated to do so- but it amazes me what you can end up with when you start out with quality, even on these tiny tanks.
If done responsibly, a nano system can be every bit as sexy and interesting as that 400 gallon behemoth you're drooling over-and still allow you to meet the monthly mortgage payment. And you won't have to worry about weather patterns forming in your living room from the moisture of a huge tank! But most important of all- nanos allow us as hobbyists to more easily push the state of the art. They are way more than "the goldfish bowl of the 21st century!"
So, use your nano tank for good: Test an idea that's popped into your head. See if you like it. See if it is even workable. Practice working in the tank. Study flow, evaporation, concealing plumbing, etc. You'll definitely learn things and hone skills that you will incorporate daily with your larger systems. Keeping a nano can and will demand more from you than you think, and it will make you a better, more well-rounded hobbyist!
Now, I realize other factors come into play when we think about limiting the number and size of tanks we have- like economics, electrical consumption, weight (in apartments), and again- that aforementioned "significant other factor."
However, I remember coming up with all sorts of creative "hacks" to establish more tanks in my childhood. Like, adding small containers inside my aquarium stands! I'd be able to accommodate a bunch of 4-6 liter plastic containers that I'd keep in the shelves underneath my display tanks. It was the coolest way to have multiple tanks in a bedroom as a 15-year-old without losing "mom approval" along the way! It was a bit of a challenge to heat and filter them ("filter" typically meant "air stone and lots of water changes"), but I made it work. I remember using those under-tank reptile heater pads to heat the little tanks on the shelves...they worked great! Of course, when I was keeping killifish, I didn't need to worry at all about heating tanks, which was one less issue to contend with!
Those plastic containers serve many a hobbyist very well...
So, fast-forward to the present...
How many of you need to contend with some of those "limitations" that we touched on here? How do you overcome your "multiple tank syndrome" without destroying your home, budget, and domestic tranquility?
A good conversation starter for a weekend, I think!
Stay creative. Stay inventive. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet!
Today we'll be a bit different in The Tint. We receive a lot of correspondence from hobbyists all over the world, asking some good questions, sharing points, sometimes even schooling us on stuff! And ocasionally, a really great compliment or two! And yes, some harsher criticisms. That's okay, it comes with the territory. We'll share a few messages and responses today that might give you a bit of insight on how we roll here at Tannin. Damn, I thought this would be easier than writing a blog...Yeah, not so much. Regardless, how you enjoy todays "Tint."
We'll be honest and frank (and in my case, undoubtedly long-winded, too!) There is no holding back when we "Open the inbox..."
"Scott, I used to read all of your stuff on the reef keeping sites. It's crazy that you made the jump to freshwater. What's it like going from a really well-known reef "celebrity" to a whole new audience? Does anyone know you there? Why did you give the reef thing up?" -Darryl F., Nashua, NH
Well, that's an interesting question to start off with!
First off, who cares, right? But hey, why not answer this one? If nothing else, it gives you some depth on who I am and how Tannin functions.
For about 10 years, I was sort of a well-known reefing name. I was all over the place, literally. I co-owned one of the most respected coral vendors/propagators in the U.S. I was a keynote speaker at numerous reef-related hobby conferences, club meetings, and a featured presenter at the "Big Show"- the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA). It was sort of the closest thing the fish-geek world offers to the "rock and roll lifestyle"- cool travel, fans, gift baskets(!), VIP store tours- you name it. A lot of fun, and an opportunity to meet some great people along the way.
Breaking back into the freshwater side after decades of "living large" in the reef keeping world was something I went into with my eyes wide open. I know that my "celebrity status" in the reef world didn't mean squat here in the FW side. And I really didn't care. The credibility would have to be earned. And it would be earned in the same way I did it in the reef world: By doing stuff. Putting in the work. Sharing experiences, building a company that reflects my values and passions. Writing a blog to share. Every single day. I remember the first posts of "The Tint", when we'd be lucky to have 30 people a day on our website, let alone, reading what I would ramble on about.
I didn't care, because I loved this stuff with all of my heart. And when you write, build, and share from an honest place, you win people over. You inspire. And if you're lucky, you earn some followers. And if you're really lucky, you earn their respect. And if you're really, really lucky- you earn their business and loaylty as well. And I'm proud to say that we've done all of those things! A lot of you say I'm your morning coffee (okay, afternoon or evening for our European fans), and that you look forward to reading my ramblings. What an honor and a privelage!! Oh, and the speaking gigs? Yeah, the freshwater ones are starting to line up...Most of you still don't know who the hell I am...which is so freaking cool! Can't wait to meet you!
"Hey Scott! Great business! Sometimes, I notice you will substitute a leaf or botanical in your packs? Why do you do that? Is it because you don't have something? It's no problem- just curious. Tint on!" - Mark S., Bowling Green, KY
Oh, good question, Mark! Thanks for the kind words, first of all! It IS a lot of fun! Now, we really, really give it our best effort to include exactly what the "recipe calls for" in every variety pack- that's why you order them, after all. However, sometimes we are forced to make a substitution in a leaf or botanical for a variety of reasons. First, we deal with suppliers all over the world, and sometimes, stuff happens to "disrupt" the global supply chain we've created here!
Occasionally, there will be an issue with the supplier getting his/her export paperwork ready in the country of origin which delays the departure. Other times, there could be weather-related issues in the tropical countries from which we receive our botanicals. Occasionally, there will be shipping issues with the postal or express services that are used to get stuff to us. And of course, some botanicals are seasonal, and are not in an abundance at certain times of the year, meaning that our suppliers can't get them for us. We try to plan ahead and order a lot when "the getting is good", but judging supply and demand is sometimes tricky (well, it was when we first started! Not as difficult now).
Regardless, stuff happens. And our policy when we HAVE to substitute something in the packs is to include something that is of equal or greater value, and something relevant to the collection. This most often happens with leaves. Sometimes, we simply run out of them because of (typically) poor planning on our part. We'll wait too long to re-order something, and of course, it's the one time of the year when the monsoons are happening in India, or when there is a month long holiday in Southeast Asia, and the re-supply can take weeks longer than we expect. This most recently happened with Guava leaves, and we're still waiting for that shipment! All in all, we do our best to get you exactly what we're supposed to. If we have to substitute an "a la carte" item, we will always contact you with options. And if you were truly not happy with the substitutions we made in a variety pack, just contact us and we'll make it up next time!
"Scott, you're service is really good! Man, I LOVED my Enigma Pack! Better than I could have imagined! You nailed the selection and my Plecos are buzzing around like it's Christmas! And it was fun to unwrap the package! Also, it seems like you're always online! Do you have regular hours or something to contact you? Keep up the good work!" - Erin C., Charlotte, NC
Well, another great one! Thanks again for the "props", Erin! Your happiness with what we do really means everything to me. As a fellow fish geek and consumer, I understand how the little things matter- like caring about what we send. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that we literally select every botanical by hand. It's time-consuming and often not the most efficient way to put things together, but it's what we're all about. It's part of the process; the experience. Taking the time to put some thought into the "Enigma Packs"- and all of our stuff, actually- is super important and a lot of fun for us and for you. It helps when you give us good information about what the pack is for, and we can really tailor our selection accordingly.
We love the whole experience of opening stuff, which is why we package the way we do. When I started Tannin, I wanted to make the experience a lot of fun. When I was a kid and would order fish stuff (mail order, lol- dating myself here), I could hardly sleep the night before the package would arrive, and I never forgot how exciting that was. SO why not spend an extra few minutes and make it an "event", right? I think we ALL relate to that, judging by the number of cool "opening" videos we receive! Glad you enjoy!
As far as me being online a lot; well, we try to keep an active presence on Facebook, Instagram, to a lesser extent, Twitter, and on our website chat feature. It's part of the day for us. We can't always get back to everyone quickly, and do miss some on chat- it's an unfortunate byproduct of being busy- not been gable to get right back to everyone who contacts us. We try to get back to you within a few hours whenever possible. I start my day really early- often around 5:00AM here in L.A., so I can write and catch up with our customers on the East Coast or in Europe before heading into the office. Coffee is important! Regardless, I can't always get back right away, so my apologies if your message isn't immediately answered. We'll keep trying!
"Scott, although some people think what you're doing with Tannin is kind of cool, I think you are a bit arrogant in assuming that everyone else who exists in the aquascaping world is a 'drone' and follows someone else's rules. There are many people who are way more talented than you who create awesome tanks, and just because they don't like blackwater and decaying stuff in their 'scapes doesn't mean they aren't respecting nature. You need to get your head out of your --- sometimes and grow up. You aren't the only game in town, and I've seen better than the tanks you guys hold in such high esteem. Get off of your thrown once in a while and give it up for the real 'scapers." - Elderberry424
Well, first of "Elderberry424"- would have been nice if I knew your real name, but that could be asking too much. I am not sitting on my "thrown"- a "throne", perhaps. But not a "thrown." Alright, I'm being snarky. I do appreciate your opinion, and believe it or not, I DO respect it. However, I will tell you up front, I will never hold back my opinions. Otherwise, it's just a big lie. My skin is incredibly thick. Im a reefer. However, the fact of the matter is that the world of aquascaping has been "dominated" by some very narrow-minded thinking and a healthy dose of attitude for a long time, to it's own detriment, IMHO. (notice, by the way, that all of my criticisms are always "in my humble opinion"?) And the amount of negative criticism we receive here at times- not for an "attitude" that we have, but simply because we are talking about a different approach to aquascaping and looking at tanks- is almost laughable! It's almost like they are cult-like and afraid. It's YOUR buddies that have the attitude, pal. Not a lot of them, but apparently a very vocal few people who don't like the fact that what we talk about here at Tannin is contrary to the technique and style coveted by your crowd. (And I NEVER called any of you guys drones- but if you want to claim the title for yourself and people with your attitude, well..)
Look, Not everyone wants a floating cloud city or underwater waterfall in their tank, and not everyone thinks that those diorama type tanks are the ultimate in 'scaping, just like not everyone wants a tinted tank with decaying leaves. Those fantasy-scales? They require enormous talent to execute- I have respect for those who build them and could never approach what they do. However, I can't help but imagine what they could do with their skills if they would apply them to a more natural-looking, botanical-style blackwater aquarium! And yeah, I get it- not everyone likes our world of biofilms, blackwater, and decomposing leaves. And that's okay. I don't target them. They don't play in my world. Oh, and apparently we're not the only game in town for this stuff, so perhaps you should go to one of the many other online vendors who specialize in the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium genre and write a daily, free, non-sales-pitch-oriented hobby blog. There must be dozens. Hundreds. I mean, a quick Google search shows...oh, what a minute... Well, anyways.
And while a select few of you guys fearfully attack our philosophy, a number of the biggest names in the aquascaping world have embraced our products and ideas to create amazing aquariums of their own. They understand the value in stretching their skills and trying new ideas, or executing with different materials. Please, please, please don't be afraid. Stop being a blind hater. Just try a tank like this. Do it for yourself. You MAY hate it. But don't hate ON it because you don't understand it- or don't read our blogs explaining the ideas, or hate on the many, many posts from happy members of our community who do amazing work. Hate it because it doesn't work for you. You will never see a member of our community- well- you won't see me- trash-talking your work. Criticizing, yes. Absolutely. But I back it up with a reason why- and it's not arrogance. Members of our "tint nation", by the way, who are incredibly skilled at many aquascaping disciplines... We all need to understand that we're on the same team here. I won't stop criticizing the narrow-mindedness of some people i the hobby. And hey, you shouldn't stop criticizing our stuff either. A healthy disagreement is okay. But being a jerk isn't. Let's be friends....
"Scott, super excited with my botanicals you sent! And really excited about this "estuary" thing! Will this be a new company? Can you tell me more? Will it be available here in Denmark? Can't wait to see it! "- Caron L., Copenhagen Denmark
Hey Caron, thanks for the kind words and enthusiasm! We're super privileged to do what we do every day. And it's so fun to see what everyone does with this stuff! Now, "Estuary" is going to be part of Tannin- not a separate brand or company- a "product line" and more important, a philosophy of sorts. And of course, it will be available wherever we are doing business!
And we are not losing our focus on blackwater, botanical-style tanks! No worries. In fact, once we get underway (in just a month or so), you'll see that our approach to brackish is unlike any you've seen before, and is extremely complimentary to what we do here at Tannin! I've been playing with brackish for years, and I'm sure you've thought about it...And we'll give this much underserved market the love it deserves...Oh, and we'll have lots of cool discussion and hopefully, get to see many cool tanks set up in the fashion in which we'll discuss. Can't wait!
Okay So that's a "mixed bag" of some selected, representative messages of the many that we receive here at Tannin. Most are pretty cool. A few, not so much. Interestingly, the negative ones seem to come from just a few of the same people, lol. And none of them seem to be telling us that our stuff sucks, so there is hope. Yet, we believe that there is good information for us in every communication we receive! In fact, the negative stuff we receive is so limited that we are typically thinking that we MUST be doing something wrong. NEWS FLASH: Well, we have and will continue to screw up stuff. Yet, we will learn from it (hopefully!)
Honestly, it's a pleasure to be here for you and to work with you on expanding the hobby in this fun (and tinted) direction. So much more to do and to cover. I hope this little sharing of the messages gives you a little insight into how we are and what we do. It is fun to share this stuff with you now and then, and we think it's great to keep chatting!
Stay engaged. Stay enthusiastic. Stay a bit rebellious...
And Stay Wet!
The recent torrential rains and flooding we've had here in California over the last few weeks has put a lot of focus on the local creeks, rivers, beaches, and flood control channels, particularly here in Los Angeles.
Every night, the local news show sensational footage of normally almost dry or placid streams now overflowing with water and debris...
And of course, apart from the human concerns, my thoughts immediately turn to...how the branches, botanicals, and other natural materials aggregate in these now swollen bodies of water! Just like in the jungles of South America or Africa!
(OMG I'm a geek...!)
Nature at work.
And nature is just as active in our aquariums (perhaps less damaging, but doing her thing nonetheless- and we should understand it.)
If I were forced (and yeah, "forced" is the right word, because there are no defining rules here...no way) to offer some defining characteristics of the "New Botanical Style" aquarium, I'd say that a certain "randomness", actually, is it.
I mean, we're all about replicating what happens in nature, NOT about perfectly proportioned placements and such. Now, I must admit, some of the world-class aquascapers that have worked with our botanicals have applied these concepts to these types of aquariums and have produced stunning results. However, I think the "raw" botanical aquarium "essence" is about a certain degree of randomness. And that's what made me really embrace what our friend Mike Bognich did with his latest iteration of his botanical tank...embracing a sort of "thoughtful randomness", if you will- and it all works so well.
And that's absolutely what occurs in nature. Random distribution of botanicals and branches, etc. Now, to a certain extent, currents and spatial factors (i.e., how wide and deep a given stream is) affects the distribution, but for the most part, it's quite random. And that is the fascination and beauty of nature...I think- THINK- that we as aquascapers have developed some amazing "rules" to proportion out 'scapes in an artistic manner, but it's my opinion that it's also okay to be a bit less "technical" and more "impulsive." I have to admit that I often squirm when I see aquascaping videos and the 'scaper goes on and on about "...You need to have a large element here to offset the piece of wood here.." I'm like, "Why?" It just seems so "restrictive."
And of course, the answer is likely, "Because it looks better."
And of course, I cringe again, because I'm not sure what "better" means- although the serious aquascapers ARE often correct. That being said, I still think that a certain degree of randomness; even what some would label as "haphazardness"- is good; and more important- awareness of how things really work in nature- is even more valuable. Couple good taste with these two key factors and you're in great shape.
Anyways, back to nature.
I think it's important to look at the way fishes behave around the litter bed or "botanical debris field" that you create. The recent blog by Mike Tuccinardi about how fishes interact with their physical surroundings in a tank is worth reading again. It's very important to take this into consideration, too. Even more so, IMHO, than the overall aesthetic. I can't tell you how many tanks I did thinking that the 'scape could have been better, but the fishes were incredibly happy with them.
Of late, we've seen more and more hobbyists playing with palm fronds, thanks in a large part to the amazing aquariums of Tai Strietman and Rene Claus, among others-who have masterfully incorporated them into their 'scapes. And they are amazing natural materials to 'scape with.
Among many other botanicals, palm fronds strike me as perhaps the most "decadent" thing we use to scape with, because they are the ultimate expression of "...shit falling into the water like it does in nature."
Yeah. Well said, huh?
And mixing larger and more durable botanicals (Like "Savu Pods", "Jungle Pods", etc.) in with the smaller stuff creates a sort of random sorting of its own as things break down, are moved by current, or partially buried by digging fishes (like my Apistogramma abacaxis, which has discovered that digging pits in the sand and tossing them on the leaves is really fun!)...And mixing little, near-permanent botanical gems like "Lampada Pods" and "Heart Pods" creates a richer, more durable "base" upon which to "build."
Hardly technical, but pretty cool. And fun to see, IMHO.
And the beauty of the leaf litter bed in your aquarium is not just it's functionality as a foraging and breeding ground for lots of fishes and aquatic life in our tanks- it's about the amazing "transient" nature of it- and the randomness of it all. Leaves slowly start to decompose from the moment we add them to our tanks, "editing" whatever plan we had right from the start. Nature follows its own set of rules!
And when we add/remove/supplement more leaves, and allow others to fully break down in our tanks, we are totally mimicking the natural processes which occur in streams and rivers around the world. And the biofilms and algal growths which appear from time to time on our botanicals-just as in the wild habitats we mimic- provide not only a degree of "biological functionality" for our systems, but an evolving aesthetic as well. Embrace these things- don't fear them.
Understand that the real "designer" of our botanical-style aquaecapes is Mother Nature herself. We just set the stage.
So set the stage, and enjoy the random, compelling, and ever-evolving work of art that is the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium. Started by you. Evolved with the steady hand of nature.
Stay enthralled. Stay awestruck. Stay calm.
And Stay Wet.
We love using all sorts of wood in our aquaecapes, don't we? Branchy driftwood, gnarled Manzanita, richly toned Mopani, and dozens of other expensive varieties from around the world.
And why not? Wood is definitely a focal point of our aquaecapes. It gives power, depth, texture, contrast, and a certain "presence" to our scapes. And many of you are absolutely incredible at 'scaping with wood! However, have you ever noticed that most of the wood we use is more of the "branchy" type, and not anything reminiscent of say, a tree trunk or very large branch?
It is not uncommon at all for small (and large) trees 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, they fall and are submerged in the inundated forest floor.
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, forage among, and hide in. An entire community of aquatic life forms uses the fallen tree for many purposes. And they will last for many years, fulfilling this important role in the aquatic ecosystems they now reside in.
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, (humic acids, tannins, sugars, etc.) into the water.
The tree literally brings new life to the waters. 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...) 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.
These materials are known as “coarse particulate organic matter”, and in the waters of these inundated forest floors there is a lot of CPOM, and the community of aquatic organisms (typically the aforementioned aquatic insects and crustaceans) has a high proportion of “shredders”, which feed on the CPOM and break it up into tinier bits called fine particulate organic matter.
And of course, some fishes consume fallen fruits and seeds as part of their diet as well, aiding in the "refinement" of the CPOM. Other 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!
And, although the forest floor receives substantially less sunlight than open rivers, the nutrients and available light are utilized by algae, which may colonize the surfaces facing up into the sun.
And of course, the tree will gradually decompose over long periods of time. Hollowed-out sections will be inhabited by fishes and exploited for the shelter they offer.
And interestingly, when you think about it, fish movement and species richness and population is affected by the physical and biological influences of fallen trees! And the deep beds of leaves that may be "corralled" by the fallen trees- a sort of natural "dam"- will definitely limit some fish species, which cannot tolerate the lower oxygen concentrations found in these areas. Other fishes take advantage of the physical barrier that a fallen tree presents to shelter from predatory species. Many adaptations have taken place over eons to allow fishes to exploit these changes in their environment caused by fallen trees!
It's pretty hardcore stuff.
So, as aquarium hobbyists, what does this all mean to us?
Well, for one thing, I think it's a call for us to employ some bigger, thicker pieces of wood in our tanks! Now, sure, I can hear some groans. I mean, big, heavy wood has some disadvantages in an aquarium. First, the damn things are...well- BIG- taking up a lot of physical space, and in our case, precious water volume. And, of course, a big, heavy piece of wood is kind of pricy. And physically cumbersome for some.
In fact, there are many 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...And to the types, I gently admonish you to return to your world of "fantasy floating forests", underwater beach scenes, and "Middle Earth" dioramas that you guys drool over at the international competitions, and leave the replication of nature to those hobbyists who think for themselves and occasionally choose step off the well-trodden, popular path. Besides, you wouldn't want to see leaves and brown water in there, right? It's...not...perfectly neat and orderly... Good heavens!
Okay, that was bit harsh...but it's an honest sentiment. 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 after these discussions, reciting dozens of well-rehearsed reasons why the concept won't work, rather than even trying to do something similar. It's weird. What can I say?
Yes, a big piece of wood in an aquarium does create some challenges, but most of them are in our head. Hell, Amano himself did a few amazing tanks with huge pieces of wood years ago. And of course, a large piece of wood relative to water volume has a chemical and physical impact on the aquatic environment that is...hey- sort of similar to that which occurs in nature, right?
Try a fairly large piece of aquatic wood (or several smaller pieces, aggregated to form one big piece) some time. Arrange it in such a way as to break up the tank space and give the impression that it simply fell in naturally. Let it create barriers for fishes to swim into, disrupted water flow patterns, and small pockets where leaves, botanicals, substrate materials, and...detritus can collect. Populate the system with food orgmaisms, like Daphnia, Gammarus, and the like, weeks or months before you add the fishes. Enjoy the biofilms. And select a population of fishes that can exploit the variety of new habitats that the "fallen tree" creates. There are many distinct "zones", if you really take a good look at it.
So, yeah. Trying what might appear to be a big, somewhat awkward piece of wood filling much of the tank can be a challenge to our aesthetic sensibilities at first. But guess what? You'll get over it when you simply enjoy the setup for what it represents- not for a "typical" aquascape. And, when you populate the tank correctly, with fishes that can utilize the interesting ecological niches within the tank, you'll realize that "conventional" aquascaping is not the only way...
Of course, hobbyists have been throwing big old wood pieces into tanks for decades...But I don't think that we've played it out in a manner that took advantage of the relative uniqueness of the concept. That is, we haven't really thought through the idea of that big, gnarly tree trunk in our tank functions not only as an aesthetic component, but more important- as an ecosystem, which supports not only an abundance of life, but provides a tremendously interesting study in adaptation and the resourcefulness of nature.
Mental shift. A little bit.
So, if a tree falls in the rain forest...will you take a peek underneath the water?
Stay adventurous. Stay inventive. Stay undaunted. Stay relentless.
And Stay Wet.
Once of the things that I’ve sort of arrived at over the years in my aquarium “career”- probably from my reef keeping side, is the love for what I like to call “microhabitats” within a given system. In other words, places within the aquariums that are exploited by fishes for various reasons.
For example, we always knew that you need to provide fishes like Plecos, knifefishes, and even many dwarf cichlids with comfy places to retreat to.
However, in planning our systems, I'll bet we all sort of create that big "feature cave" or whatever...and the rest of the scape is sort of "incidental"- when the reality is that all of the areas within the tank are possible retreats, feeding areas, spawning sites, etc...just like in nature. In this pic by Mike Tuccinardi, taken in the Rio Negro region, there must be hundreds of little "niches" in this one small area!
A real no brainer.
Taking advantage of a niches you can create in your system is super important. Not exactly novel, but often overlooked.
The concept really got me thinking…
You could take it a bit further...I mean, it’s beyond simply placing a fish into our community…It’s about viewing where your aquarium is at the time that you choose to add a fish to your selection.
What I mean is, even though our systems are artificial in nature, they are little closed microcosms, with distinct “microniches” within them-often evolving over time. For example, even a high-ligh/high flow river tank has SOME areas where the flow is lower, the light less intense…perhaps an area where (gasp) some detritus or food collects…sand gets blown into..whatever. And our leaf-litter, botanical-bottom tanks also create little areas for fishes to shelter, aggregate, and spawn in. And we can add fishes to take advantage of these figurative "cracks in the pavement."
Regardless of the "theme" of your aquarium, it's important to think about this. To let those little areas of botanical/leaf accumulation occur..to allow that driftwood branch to sort of fall into that corner behind the rock. These seemingly annoying things are actually perfectly reminiscent of what happens every day in nature, as materials are deposited, distributed, and "organized" by current and other natural occurrences. And the areas that are created by these random events within your tank? Well, these are areas that your fishes can take advantage of- just like they do in nature.
Random aggregations of materials, or shifts...or rock falls, for that matter- are amazing opportunities, if you think about it.
And, at almost any stage in an aquarium’s life, there are little niches and evolving environmental changes within the system that you can use to your advantage by “planting” aquascaping props (seed pods, wood, etc.) appropriate for the given niche. It even goes beyond planned aesthetics (ie; “That rock would look awesome there!”) and, much like happens in the natural environment- plants grow and fishes gather where conditions are appropriate. Reminds me of the little weeds that just seem to pop up out of the cracks in the sidewalk pavement…you can’t help but admire the craftiness and tenacity of life.
Same thing in an aquarium!
Don’t just look for the prime viewing spot for your fish acquisition. Look for the “cracks in the pavement", too.
Your fishes will, guaranteed.
Today’s ridiculously simple, yet quite possibly overlooked idea.
Think about things from a different angle...
Stay curious. Stay creative. Stay excited.
And stay wet.
"Seems it never rains in southern California
Seems I've often heard that kind of talk before
It never rains in California, but girl, don't they warn ya?
It pours, man, it pours"- from the song, "It Never Rains in Southern California, by Albert Hammond, 1972
Okay, yeah, here in L.A., we've just come off what was probably the rainiest couple of days in decades. And of course, LA is totally unprepared for rain. We scurry around like ants at a picnic, not sure exactly what to do, what to wear..where to go. It's funny to the rest of the world; even funnier to us, except when there is damage.
And of course, as a fish geek, after dealing with this deluge, it got me thinking about the seasonal inundation that tropical areas, such as The Amazon region, and how the seasonal rains affect the aquatic habitats there.
What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia is that the water levels in the rivers rise significantly. often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams. The Igapos are formed.
All of the botanical material- fallen leaves, sed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute this material into little pockets and "stands", affecting the now underwater "geography" of the landscape. Leaves begin to accumulate. Soils dissolve their chemical constituents, tannins, and humic acids into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biolfilsm form, crustaceans multiply rapidly. Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.
Life flourishes in these inundated forest floors.
What's really cool to me is that this is a regular cycle of life, and that we as aquarists are in a unique place to replicate some aspects of this unique ecosystem.
What about running a system like a palludarium for part of the year, with the aquarium partially filled with water, and a stand of terrestrial or marginal plans on an "island" of rock or soil (perhaps using planters)?
Then, you'd increase the water level over a period of several days, simulating this inundation. You would add a lot more and different leaves and botanicals to simulate the influx of materials swept into the streams during the rainy season.
You could turn up the filter output ever so slightly, or add small powerheads (perhaps) to simulate the increased water movement caused by the rising water levels.
Yeah, the plant might take a beating, the "aquascape" would be in a bit of chaos, with soil and other material strewn about the tank and redistributing...Just like in nature, right?
You could add some additional fishes, to simulate the "castaways" or "travelers" which flow into these inundated areas...
You'd probably see some water chemistry changes (perhaps a shift towards a more acidic pH). You'd definitely see an increase in the turbidity of the water...for a while.
And an increase in the biofilms and possibly some crustacean life forms (Oh..what if you added a bunch of Daphnia or Gammarus at the same time? Cool!)
A reasonable simulation of a remarkable cycle that occurs in nature on a regular basis. Disruptive? Perhaps. Beneficial? To the fishes, certainly- after they adjust. Transformational? Definitely.
It's something that would perhaps unlock some interesting insights into the lives of our fishes and the environments from which they come. It would be unusual, aesthetically fascinating, utterly compelling, and absolutely out of step with commonly "accepted" aquarium practice.
Rain is truly the bearer of life. It's transformational, essential for our existence...and for the continued existence of many of the fishes we love, as well as the habitats from which they come.
It can be an inconvenience, as in the case of our storm here in L.A.
or it can be an opportunity to discover the amazing cycle of life which occurs when the rain return, evolving the ecosystem as only nature can.
Until now, right?
You've got this. Try it. Learn. Share. Repeat.
Stay bold. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about substrates and their appearance, functionality, and composition, don't we?
Yeah, I think we do. But hey...this stuff is really cool! And outside of planted aquarium, not too much thought seems to be given to the substrates in nature and in our aquariums...
"Dirted" or soil-based aquarium substrates are to me, about as interesting as it gets. A soil substrate essentially consists of mineral particles, organic matter, precipitated inorganic matter and microorganisms. Pretty natural. Hardly glamorous. However, they work really well to grow aquatic plants..
Of course, the problem with me is that I have a very marginal interest in aquatic plants, and an above average interest in how the substrates function within the overall aquatic environment, with an emphasis on the fishes...and 99.999% of all hobbyists that mess around with "dirt" in their aquarium are all about growing plants. Me, personally? Well, again- I'm more interested in creating a substrate that is essentially similar to the flooded forest floors of the Amazonian igapo, simply because it's what the fishes which inhabit these waters are used to. Plants? They're cool, but not my main interest! I'm a "dirted aquarium deviant.."
So, now that I've just angered and alienated about 80% of you, let me explain my thinking a bit more.
As we've discussed before, the igapo are seasonally inundated forests. These forests have sandy, rather acidic soils with a very low nutrient content. The rainwater combines with the humic substances and tannins contained in the soils and the forest floor materials that are found on them. The acidity from the water corresponds to the acidic soils of these forests. They are the more nutrient poor than a comparable várzea forest, carrying less inorganic elements, yet higher concentrations of dissolved organics, like humic and fulvic acids.
Amazonian várzea forests are flooded by nutrient rich, high sediments, and thus are very productive environments- some of the most productive in Amazonia. They are flooded by whitewater rivers, which inundate fertile alluvial soils within várzea forests, which helps explain some of the higher nutrient concentrations found in these waters, as opposed to the nutrient-poor blackwater which inundates and characterizes the igapó areas.
So I'm thinking that the more "classic dirted substrate" would be somewhat more reminsicent of the inundated várzea forests, although, with a few changes to the recipe, you could easily represent the igapo as well.
So, playing with this concept is pretty straightforward, in my experience.
Yeah, you start with organic potting soil, free from any fertilizers or other additives. I know others who have plaid with mixes that are something like loam, peat, and some fine sand. I think you can experiment with some variations on the formula, of course.
When you prepare this stuff for aquarium use, it's hardly a high-tech affair. You need to get it wet; saturated, but not liquid. Just sort of a gooey mud. This makes sure that a lot of the trapped air is gone...
A lot of hobbyists mix in some iron-based clays...like "potter's clay", for example. Again, consistent with the várzea soils and their alluvial basis, right? Some planted people will add some crushed coral or other calcium-based product (hey, maybe super-fine aragonitic sand?) into the mix for some KH support for plants.
Typically, planted people will put down a layer that's about 1.5-2 inches (3.81-5.08 cm), and then cover the whole affair with a few millimeters of fine sand (like swimming pool filter sand)...I personally would use an inch or to of sand, but that's me. And that's it.
Then, the planted guys plant the hell out of it.
Which I wouldn't do. Not in my experimental fantasy world...
So, then I'd have this insanely nutrient-rich substrate, covered in a few inches of sand, and then I'd throw on all sorts of leaves and stuff on top of it.
Algae farm? Hydrogen sulfide bomb? Cloudy, stinky mess? A natural-looking and functioning substrate?
Possibly all of the above. And, what the hell happens to all of the susbtances released by this material if we're not trying to grow plants? This could be really problematic...Or not. But hey, it's an experiment, right?
What if you boil and soak the soil for a week or so before you use it? Would that eliminate some of the "nutrient" materials contained within it? Hmm..Could you then end up with something that is a lot less "nutritious", but texturally and aesthetically and still sort of functionally similar to the natural substrates we're talking about? And couldn't you just mix the sand all around it, rather than put it on top to hold it down? And then you could mix stuff like leaves, Coco Curls, "Fundo Tropical", and other botanicals on top?
I mean, again- this could be a colossal mess...a stinking, cloudy pit. Or, it could be something that is aesthetically, and maybe functionally similar to the natural substrate found in these habitats?
Do you realize that I actually wake up in the middle of the night scheming about stuff like this? I mean, stuff that can result in complete disaster? Reckless, bordering on stupid? Well, I wouldn't go that far...But- perhaps stuff that takes a lot of unnecessary steps in multiple, seemingly undisciplined, and possibly opposing directions? Just..because.
Yeah, I do. Maybe you do, too? Some of you?
That's how you have to think, though, when you're pushing it. I think someone with a planted aquarium background, and perhaps a killifish interest (ya' know, 'cause killie hobbyists like to play with peat moss), and a passion for doing things exactly the opposite of the way your "supposed to" do them.
A rebel that plays with...dirt.
Where are you? Don't you want to mess around with this idea, too?
Go for it. Refine it. Beat the shit out of it. Work it. Develop it.
Create a breakthrough. Substrate that provides fishes with essential trace elements and other characteristics which could benefit their health would be really cool. Notice I said a focus on fish and not plants (ADA Amazonia and the like are for that!)Some people have done this before (Hello Leng Sy and "Miracle Mud"), and I think they've been on to something. We just need to give it a fresh look and refine some of my crude ideas here.
Why not use substrate enhancement to influence/compliment/complete/enahnce the aquatic environment for fishes? It's what happens in nature...
"DIrt: It's not just for aquarium plants anymore."
You've got this.
Okay, back to Saturday morning.
Be brave. Push the boundries. Aggravate others. Disrupt the boring routines.
Stay quirky. Stay fascinated. Stay obnoxiously undeterred by the criticisms of others...(But always listen to what they have to say, and consider it)..
Oh- and Stay Wet.