You've heard the time-worn sports cliches and how they apply to other areas of life:
"The best offense is a good defense."
"Offense scores points. Defense wins games."
Well, which one is it?
Both. Applied in the proper measure. At least, that's my take on it.
We need to play "defense" in our fish-keeping as much as we play offense.
"Defense", in our world, is the day-to-day things that we need to do to keep our tanks running well: Feeding fishes, observing, adjusting parameters to make sure that the system is running optimally, or reacting to a disease or other health issue of the fishes and plants, or repairing equipment, etc. "Defense", in this context, is what almost every aquarist on the planet practices on a daily basis.
Would we be better served buy investing more energy in offense? You know, "attacking" problems proactively from the outset? Before they become problems? I think so. It's one thing I can say was a positive gain from reef keeping: Setting up a system from the start to address the potential "what-ifs?" Reefers are really good at this sort of stuff (just look at the gadgetry and plumbing in some of those forum "tank-build threads!"), and it translates well to freshwater.
Although I've typically been a "Don't - - - - with- the- tank- once- it's- up- and- running"- kind of aquarist for many years, my philosophy has evolved a bit since I began working heavily with botanical-influenced systems. The offense-defense dynamic is more important that ever.
An example of "offense", in this context, would be setting up a new system to create an optimal environment to breed your fish. Things that are big picture, growth activities are also "offensive." You know, selecting the proper sized aquarium, appropriate filter, heater, and other components falls into this category. In a botanical-style aquarium, much like any other, it's important to create the optimum situation to assure that the system can function properly as it evolves over time. A mix of "defense", with a healthy dose of "offense."
"Offense" also includes things like stocking the tank with a mix of appropriate fishes, which are compatible and capable of serving in the environment which you've created. Making logical decisions is an essential part of the development of any aquarium, although in a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium, you need to take into account the other variables in the equation: Lower pH, the bioload of decomposing botanical materials, and the long-term maintenance of stable pH and organic levels. We've talked repeatedly about not obsessing over target numbers, yet the importance of maintaining a tight range for most parameters cannot be understated.
What other "offensive" things can you do to assure long-term success in a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium?
Well, for one thing, you can continuously replace and supplement leaves and botanicals as they start to break down. This not only creates a continuously evolving aesthetic, it helps maintain the biological diversity and environmental parameters are held in the cherished "tight range".
I know a few "tinters" who make significant replacements of leaf and botanical items and replace them with fresh materials simultaneously, and this is conducted on a regular basis. This is similar to the Japanese aquascaping practice of "sozo haishoku" espoused by Takashi Amano, which is the processs of removing of as much old substrate material as possible along with the plants it contains in an aquarium, and replacing them with new materials. It preserves the overall "composition" of the layout, but the "softscape" (botanicals and leaves, in our case) could change dramatically.
This process is interesting to us as botanical-style aquarium fans, because it does sort of mimic what happens in many streams and rivers on a seasonal basis: Older materials are swept downstream as the watercourses swell, and are replaced by new ones that arrive to replace them. And of course, in the aquarium, performing a "sozo haishoku"-type replacement of materials significantly changes the aesthetic of the aquascape because the botanicals are replaced with different ones after the previous ones are removed.
Now, I'm a fan of less "radical moves", and in the interest of a good "offense", I favor regular additions to the botanical "set" in my aquariums. I tend not to remove any decomposing material, unless it becomes an aesthetic detraction because it's blowing all over the place or something like that. Having studied many images of Amazonian igarapes, it is very obvious that, although some materials are swept away, many remain in place until they fully decompose, adding to the richness and complexity of the habitat, and that we can mimic this process in our aquariums to some advantage.
Working together for long term success. It's a beautiful dynamic. A beautiful game.
Massage it. Evolve it. Tweak it. Perfect it, if you can.
Stay on top of stuff. Stay observant. Stay vigilant. Stay cautious. Stay bold. Stay balanced.
And Stay Wet.
Okay, I admit that I'm a huge fan of NOT chasing numbers and following absolute "recipes" to achieve success with aquariums. I mean, I know dozens of reef hobbyists who have literally driven themselves crazy trying to make sure that their calcium level is exactly ______ ppm, and their phosphate is ______ppm, or whatever. And yeah, I know a considerable number of freshwater guys who carry the same mindset. Like, matching the "numbers" from either some successful aquarium they admire or some article by some expert somewhere is the "Holy Grail" of success.
And of course, objectively, we know it isn't.
Numbers are important, however. I'll give you that. And numbers don't lie or play favorites. They just exist. I'll have to admit, however, that despite my fear of "target fixation" when it comes to chasing environmental parameters (I've always said to find a range that you're comfortable with and don't let your parameters deviate from the range..), I do find some of the numbers from natural blackwater streams and other habitats fascinating, oddly compelling, and educating.
I realize, from the outset, that a tank is not a river, blah, blah, blah. However, there is much we can learn from understanding the environmental parameters of some of the will habitats we find so compelling.
In a recent study of Amazonian blackwater habitats near Manaus, Brazil, researchers came up with the following average parameters among the dozen or so sites surveyed:
The streams had acidic waters (pH 3.7–4.8) with low conductivity ( 3.7 mS/cm, range 5 2.99–8.00) and relatively similar temperature (24.4 C, range 21.8–25.8). Waters were highly saturated in oxygen. Some other readings, such as the concentrations of various types of humic and fulvic acids present in the water was fascinating, yet possibly beyond our means to test for in an aquarium. Way over my head! Of course, if you're a scientist with access to proper lab equipment to test for this kind of stuff, just imagine the possibilities here! What can we learn from just this simple data set? How can we maintain pH levels so low and keep stability? We've discussed this before; it's possible and surprisingly straightforward to achieve with proper methods. And not all that difficult to maintain. It's just scary to many of us, because we've not done this before. We've heard warnings.
But numbers...well, they don't lie. They just exist. It's up to us to see why, and to see what the numbers can do for us.
Numbers from studies of wild habitats can tell even us a few things about how many of each type of fish we could stock in a given aquarium and keep a sort of "natural ratio" of fish types. One could use survey numbers from a given Igarape or stream, for example, and with a little simple math, come up with some rough extrapolations about how many of a given type of fish could be kept in an aquarium display intended to faithfully replicate the habitat. This information is readily available if you look online, and is fascinating. From a fish species richness standpoint, a recent study of just a few igarapes near the Amapa River in Brazil yielded the following numbers: 133 species were found, belonging to seven orders and 28 families. These include Characins (73 species), Silurids (27 species), Gymnotids (15 species), and Perciformes (14 species).
That's pretty serious diversity, with a preponderance of my faves, the Tetras! If one wanted to stock a "community aquarium" using-the the ratios as a guide, quite an interesting display could be created. Like any interpreted numbers we use in aquarium design, you can't always take them literally and use them as your "roadmap"...However, they are a great source for determining just what the population density of given fish types is in an area. Granted, the raw numbers from field surveys don't tell the whole story, and there are numerous other factors, but they are an interesting starting point for "brainstorming" fish populations for your tank, right? Yet another example of the value of...well, values- in aquarium work!
This quote from a paper by Mendonca, et al, tells me so many cool things about the habitats we love to replicate:
"In Central Amazonia, terra firme environments (uplands that are not seasonally flooded) are drained by streams that have acidic waters due to the presence of humic and fulvic acids. The waters are poor in nutrients and the forest canopy impairs light penetration to the stream surface, so aquatic plants are virtually nonexistent (Junk and Furch, 1985; Walker, 1995). In these oligotrophic environments, food chains are dependent on allochthonous material from the forest, such as pollen, flowers, fruits, leaves, and arthropods (Goulding, 1980; Goulding et al., 1988; Walker, 1991). However, small fishes are frequently abundant, and 20 to 50 species may occur in a single stream (Lowe-McConnell, 1999; Sabino, 1999)."
In streams, studies indicate that an increase in species "richness" is positively related to the habitat complexity and shelter availability as well as current velocity and stream size, and that substrate, depth and current speed are among the most important physical features in many bodies of water, which contribute to the formation of numerous "microhabitats", all with fascinating ecology, environmental parameters, and fish population diversity. Stuff we've barely tapped into in the freshwater aquarium world yet!
The implications of this information for aquarists are profound and fascinating, and understanding, interpreting, and applying some of these numbers and concepts can potentially lead to some fascinating breakthroughs in aquarium work.
However, we have to "get out of our own way", first.
(FRIENDLY WARNING: This next couple of paragraphs WILL piss off some people, especially the guy who recently delivered to me a vitriolic, venomous attack asserting that we espouse "sloppy" and "undisciplined" aquascape design that is "truly an affront to most skilled aquarists." (I loved that part!) It kind of made me laugh...and made me a bit mad, of course. It's only my opinion, but I'm happy it makes people think. I've asserted this position consistently, and I'll present it yet again, because I think it sort of applies to the overall theme of this discussion, so if it aggravates you, please skip this section or boycott "The Tint" or whatever makes you feel better...)
We're talking about numbers and stats and information, and about using this stuff to create aesthetically compelling, physically functional aquariums. There is always the danger of going too far, and falling into that cliche of closed-minded replication that is, in my opinion, consuming the aquascaping world, so use the information you find with a bit of interpretation...but make use of it nonetheless.
In my opinion, one of the great untapped resources for hobbyists our there is the numerous ecological studies being done on aquatic habitats worldwide. There is so much information out there which we can utilize to help create more realistic replications of natural habitats that it's almost tragic that we expend any energy at all trying to copy "Mountains of LIghtness and Being" by ________, or whatever ridiculous name is given to this year's "Intergalactic Aquascaping Championship" winner's aquarium, and held up as the ultimate in "aspirational" freshwater aquariums. Yikes.
No disrespect to anyone intended, but, for goodness sake, nature has been doing it for millions of years, and is a trillion times better at it than anyone. Surely there is at least one natural habitat that you'll find almost as compelling as some underwater waterfall or "Middle Earth" scene or beach diorama scene, or whatever else it is that everyone is going "ga-ga" for at these contests, which are presented to us THE pinnacle of aquascaping and aquarium design. Hello- they are just ONE category of aquarium...they represent one aspect-one interpretation of nature in the aquarium. Outstanding work, indeed- yet not the "end-all and do-all" of this stuff. Please take your heads out of your glossy contest brochures and rock-placement "rules" for just a second, and realize that there is far more to be inspired by (and apply your considerable talents to) than just this stuff. Like, this entire planet. Earth. I think you've heard of it? End of rant. :)
Oh my God, that felt good! A bit mean-spirited, perhaps, but it felt good. And I think it was actually relevant to the topic.
So, back to our point...
Nature and taking a look at what goes on there is a very compelling starting point for designing functional, sustainable, and yes- aesthetically beautiful aquariums. You don't have to make sure that every twig, seed, and grain of sand is coming from the stream in Borneo that you're attempting to replicate. However, interpreting the data from field studies not only gives us "a track to run on" when attempting to replicate some of these habitats from a physical/aesthetic perspective, it gives us valuable clues as to the conditions which we need to understand, which might unlock the secrets of long-term maintenance and reproduction of numerous species. And of course, some of which have eluded our efforts to date, and even some who's survival in the wild may be questionable as well.
By understanding the "numbers" and the "whole picture" of what goes on in the rivers, streams, bogs, igarapes, and other aquatic habitats of the world, we are in a much better position to create optimum conditions for our precious fishes, and to understand how to protect and preserve these priceless ecosystems, and relieve some of the pressures off of wild fish populations.
The numbers provide information. They provide a challenge. They throw down a gauntlet of sorts, daring us to see if we can free our minds from a century or so of aquaristic practice that says, "You can't keep these fishes" or "It's not safe to maintain these types of environmental parameters in an aquarium." There is a reason why these environments are successful, why life exists- and indeed- thrives- in them. And there are reasons why we're starting to see incredible results when replicating some of these environments in a more faithful manner than may have been attempted before. Numerous questions remain to be answered. Tons of data to be accumulated. Setbacks to recover from. Triumphs to savor. Invaluable knowledge yet to be gained.
And you're right in the thick of the hunt!
Stay bold. Stay firm. Stay focused. Stay open-minded.
And by all means...
Okay, at the bit of sounding just a bit negative today, I'm pondering on a few things that have been on my mind lately when talking to a few people about creating and maintaining botanical-style aquariums. I'm thinking that I felt like writing this blog today because, as more an more hobbyists get into the game, they're attempting to start brand-new to the aquarium world, in less-conventional areas of the hobby, like the blackwater tanks, Rift Lake cichlids, or complex planted tanks, without any type of fundamental foundation. Or at the very least, starting down these specialized roads with very limited general experience, and some bad assumptions.
There are a lot of articles, blogs, and tips on "how to succeed at this-or-that" aspect of the hobby, which is awesome. But those of us who have been in the hobby and industry for a while have seen a lot of, for want of a better term- the "dark side" of the aquarium hobby. We've seen all kinds of hobbyists, businesses, and ideas come and go. And after a while, you get a distinct feeling that you know what works and what doesn't. You can see when "the train is headed for the washed-out bridge", or "the ship is steering into the rocks", if you will. And if you're in a position to intervene...you should if you can.
Today, in the hope that we can all learn about what does NOT work, I give you 5 ways to fail with aquariums. (This is really geared towards YOU- the more advanced aquarist, or the LFS person- in the interest of creating a discussion track for you to run with when dealing with someone who is completely new to aquariums, or maybe slightly experienced and perhaps...a bit misled.)
It's kind of our job, as advanced hobbyists, industry types, and good stewards of the aquarium-keeping world to look at the absurdity of some of this stuff, so that we can prevent others from making these horrible mistakes! Here are my top 5. No doubt you have more, but it's a start!
1) Jump in without doing research. Yeah, seriously. The aquarium hobby as we know it has only been around for like 100 years or so. The tenants of basic aquarium husbandry are still wide open to “dismiss.” Examples? Well, don't worry about mixing fishes and plants from different environmental conditions together. They can adapt, right? Calling your an aquarium a “community aquarium somehow negates all of the potential downsides of mixing incompatible animals! Or, how about this one: "That Pike Cichlid won't reach 14 inches! Everyone knows that fishes will grow to the size of their aquarium" and "adapt' just fine to smaller tanks! "I'll get a larger tank down the line." (If I had a dollar for every time I heard THAT one...)
2) Believing that this or that product will relieve you of the need to obey basic husbandry principles. Yeah, really! If you use this additive or employ this filter media or gadget, there is no need to worry about water quality. Ever! Feeding this food will prevent fish disease. Or, using this electronic controller means you'll never have to monitor water chemistry again! You go right to the finish line immediately! Just spending the money on ____________ automatically grants you an exemption from the "aquarium-keeping gods" and gives you special status whereby you can dismiss all of the "rules" and achieve success with minimal attention and effort. "I read on internet about this guy who..." Ughh.
3) Accelerating the timeline when establishing a new aquarium. Hey, the kids want to see fish in by Saturday for the party. "I'll start with just a few hardy fishes: Like, a dozen Mollies, six Gouramis, a few "Algae Eaters" (gotta have those)..." We've all seen and heard the various claims out there: Todays modern filters, additives, and gadgets will help you succeed despite having any knowledge of what you're doing! The nitrogen cycle is "instantly established" and your aquarium can achieve biological balance in a day with this stuff!" Regrettably, marketing hyperbole when taken out of context can give a newbie the completely wrong impression of the capabilities and applications for a product.
4) Continuing at full speed even when stuff is going wrong and animals are dying. I've seen this a lot on the coral side of the trade: A customer will buy a bunch of livestock, experience horrific losses (generally due to a complete disregard-intentional or otherwise- for the lack of an established nitrogen cycle or other basic tenants of husbandry), conclude without real research that the losses were due to "bad corals", and then continue to the next LFS, online vendor, breeder, etc. and grab another bunch of animals to replace the ones that died. You see it in freshwater, too. After the second inevitable disaster ensues, some call "uncle" and either quit or make the effort to figure out why. Those who persist, continue to kill fish, buy and misapply products and equipment to solve the "problem", and typically leave the hobby soon after, concluding that "quality control" in the industry makes it impossible to succeed.
5) If you've developed a better way, or found a "breakthrough", don't share your experiences. Really. There is nothing anyone else can learn from you. Super tragic...You need to coax these types to share their gifts with the world! Of course, there are others who won't share information because of some dark agenda: You've figured out this information after years of triumph and tragedy, so you're not just going give it away! It's "proprietary" in nature, and other hobbyists should learn the way you did. Be grumpy, and lock yourself and your secrets in your fish room, away from the "unworthy" denizens of the larger aquairum-keeping world. Yeah, there are actually hobbyists who think this way. There is almost no way to turn them, tragic as it may seem. The solution: Run from them. Run quickly.
Okay, I've just scratched the surface here. There are probably thousands of ways to fail in the aquarium hobby, and I've touched on just a few. The real important takeaway here is for those of us in a position to help to see the signs, and know what to do.
To LFS and vendor types out there, I especially direct this part of my plea to you: I think it's imperative that we encourage anyone who enters this hobby to do the research before they leap into things. Honestly, even someone coming into your shop completely green, but eager to drop money, should leave with little more than information, or a book at least, before they purchase anything. Really.
A half hour of indoctrination in the LFS is just that- a half hour of indoctrination. It takes much more for the beginner to grasp what's really going on. And yeah, it seems "fantasy land" to take on this attitude when the internet beckons and competition is fierce, but I ask you: Wouldn't you rather send someone home with information first, and gain a long-term customer, than to just grab the quick and easy sale? Don't you think that someone who is successful in the hobby because you took the time to work with them will refer their friends to you? I do. Patience.
And if you are new and reading this. I commend you. A lot of your fellow neophytes, believe it or not, take an attitude that there is no need to pay some “dues." If you've achieve some success already, you've no doubt figured out the fact that you need to do at least some research. I can’t tell you how many times I spent tremendous amounts of time on the phone or on lengthy chat/email exchanges with neophyte "botanical-style" aquarium hobbyists who would literally ask me the most basic of questions, like, fundamental stuff-when this information is just everywhere- on line, in basic books- the kind of stuff you simply HAVE to know before you ever even buy a bag of sand or a light fixture, let alone embark on a journey into a specialized area with its own set of nuances, "quirks", and "best practices.
If you’re into something, wouldn’t you WANT to do some basic research? I mean, why try to keep Mbuna if you can't keep feeder guppies alive? Or, is it simply easier to buy first and then ask for an aquarium-keeping education from the dealer, and blame it on “whatever/whomever” when you fail?
I think too many of us want to solve problems with "products." I think that many aquarium problems are created by very basic mistakes, and that simply throwing money on the problem isn't really a solution. Rather, it's a "band aid." As advanced aquarists and industry people, I think we can change the paradigm a bit here...Rather than just offering the solution, whatever it may be, to the problem at hand, take the time to explain to the newbie just what it was that caused the issue in the first place, and how to prevent it. Knowing the cause, effects, and preventative/corrective measures to take is far better than simply buying this-or-that product as a “solution”, which just perpetuates the cycle of creating “minimum viable hobbyists”- i.e.; people who figure you don’t need to know the rules- you just kind of do it and then get “stuff” to fix the problems.
Preach patience to any new hobbyist. Get them to understand just how things work in a reef aquarium, and why things are done a certain way. Explain to them that aquariums, being natural systems, are affected by the same laws of nature as occur in the wild, and that grasping stuff like the nitrogen cycle, fish compatibility, environmental requirements, etc. will give them a greater understanding of what's going on, and how to recognize for themselves in the future when something is going wrong- or right! It's a better long term strategy, IMHO.
Above all, encourage sharing of information at all levels in the hobby. With the internet, there has never been a better time to learn about the hobby. To keep information that can help others accomplish things and solve problems in the hobby isn't just uncool- it's a tragedy that can have far-reaching consequences, especially in this era where the hobby and industry face mounting external pressures from ill-informed "environmentalists" and other "nature advocates", who would just assume lump aquarists in with loggers, oil producers, and blast fishermen. The hobby is ours to share, protect, preserve, and to pass on to our children. Or to lose.
So in conclusion, we should all learn to recognize the signs of a fellow aquarist who's headed in the wrong direction- not just because it's the honorable thing to do for them, but because of the greater good in the hobby that is served when we take the time to prevent them from failing.
It’s our shared responsibility.
Until next time, I leave you with that thought.
Stay focused. Stay concerned. Stay patient.
And stay wet!
It's nice to reflect upon the journeys we take as hobbyists now and then, to gain a little perspective. Our office aquaria, which is over a year old now, has been a real "testbed" for a lot of our crazy ideas...we deliberately pushed it hard to sort of "demonstrate" all of the stuff that happens along the way from startup to maturity, and how none of the 'problems" are as bad as we make them. When people contact me and are concerned because of biofilms, algae, or whatever, I just reflect upon this tank.
The aquarium was set up with the intention of allowing the tannins and such contained in the wood and botanicals to be released "in their own time", and in as natural a fashion as possible. I also made the "command decision" to "cure" my Manzanita wood inside the display aquarium rather than in an external vessel of some sort- something I have always been hesitant to do in years past. This set the pace for the aquarium, so to speak.
Why? Because the wood will release a lot of bound-up organic material, in addition to tannins and other chemicals, not to mention good old fashion detritus and such- bound up on and within its structure. This has a direct impact in the water in a number of ways- not the least of which is the "bloom" of bacteria which arise as the wood becomes saturated.Natural consequences of a deliberate action on my part.
Couple this with the breakdown of a significant number of other botanicals as well, and the result was about 3 weeks of pretty cloudy water, which is never a fun thing to deal with. Yet, for this aquarium, I decided to stick it out, to demonstrate first hand that you can get through all of these things with time, patience, and a few "tweaks"- not big moves or panic.
With patience, frequent small water changes with prepared RO/DI water, and the use of modest amounts of chemical filtration media (I love SeaChem Purigen), I "endured" this cloudiness and began to see the wonderful brown color, clarity and richness that I've come to expect from a blackwater system.
Yes, I had to endure the "yucky biofilm phase" with my botanicals, just like many of you do. I had to remove a few pieces that got that nasty, hydrogen sulfide smell. I did some "aesthetic edits", removing what I felt were pieces that either detracted from the appearance I was trying to achieve, or were otherwise incongruous with the rest of the 'scape.
What I never did- in fact, what I never DO- is to make knee-jerk "panic decisions" and take extraordinary measures to "correct" what appear to be "problems" in the system. It pays to reevaluate and analyize just what made these "problems" arise in the first place, so you can decide what, if any- action you SHOULD take. In my case, I knew what I was in for: Cloudiness caused by my decision to "cure" the wood in the aquarium proper, and the biofilms and such that you see from using large quantities of aquatic botanicals in the system from the outset.
Rather than panic, I did water testing, which revealed no detectible nitrite, phosphate, or ammonia during this period. The pH was stable and the fishes that were present were perfectly fine. I decided to embrace all of the process that were occurring within my system, and understood that the aquatic environment was evolving.
That being said, did I enjoy the "yucky biofilm phase" or cloudy water? Of course not. However, I DID understand why they were occurring, and appreciated the natural processes, helped by my regular maintenance procedures (standard weekly 10% water changes) that were letting the system "do its thing." Perhaps that patience, borne from decades of reef keeping, where you simply have to let things evolve if you want long-term success- has become the key ingredient in my aquarium management philosophy with botanical-style aquariums.
And the "evolution" doesn't take as long as you think...
About five weeks after the aquarium was set up, things had truly "evolved" past what I call the "Initial Phase" (where everything is still kinda new and sterile) and evolved into the "Living Phase", when an aquarium starts to literally take on a life of its own, becoming less dependent upon the "management" of its owner to overcome issues like nuisance algae, cloudiness, etc. You started seeing the richness of the aquatic environment starting to emerge: The botanicals softened and saturated, the wood had a minimal coverage of biofilm or nuisance algae of any kind, and the water had that clarity and clean, "earthy" smell of a healthy aquarium. Environmental parameters were stable. And of course, the "tint" caused by the release of tannins was increasingly evident!
The fish population increased gradually (I'm a FISH GEEK, for goodness sake!), and with it, the biological demand on the system. However, I've learned a thing or two over the years, like most of you- the most important lesson being to be patient and add fishes slowly. In a "New Botanical Style" system, with little or no higher plants to help uptake the nutrients released into the system by the botanicals, wood, and fishes, it's more important than ever to go slowly and take that "it's a Marathon, not a sprint" mentality of tank management. And dealing with the occasional "bumps" in the road...even ones we caused through our own decisions- by just enduring them as part of the journey makes it so much easier.
This embracing of what is happening in the aquarium, and taking it all into consideration as part of the evolution of this ecosystem, has made the experience of starting this tank more enjoyable than virtually any freshwater or reef system I've set up previously, despite me deliberately "pushing the envelope" in a few areas. As I see and hear from more and more of you working with this "New Botanical Style" system, I realize that we are actually at a sort of interesting time in the hobby: We have all of these amazing technical advantages, yet we are at a point where we can sit back, embrace, and appreciate all of the amazing work that nature does.
So, don't sweat the small stuff...enjoy the journey. A message and theme you will continue to hear from us.
Stay calm. Stay fascinated.
And Stay Wet.
It had to happen eventually: Someone asked me on a forum a few days back if I could provide some sort of "hack" to get their new botanical tank "looking like the one you shared on ________ more quickly."
And if you read my stuff, you kind of know where I stand on "hacks", right?
(Oh- and your tank should look like...your tank- no need to try to duplicate the exact work of someone else, right? Different rant for another time, lol)
With all of the cool stuff going on in our little "tinted" corner of the aquatic world, and all of the cool blackwater/botanical tanks starting to show up in forums and social media worldwide, it's easy to lose sight of the "now" and go off looking for the "stairway to heaven" that's going to propel your tank to a "mature" state rapidly like the crazy cool ones you see being shared all over. We know that there are no shortcuts in this hobby, yet we find ourselves tempted at times. It's a classic crossroads we find ourselves in with the botanical/blackwater world- a lot of cool inspiration and a desire of many to share in the fun.
And it's great that you are! But you need to enjoy each step of the journey and savor the unique experience of a blackwater tank without being distracted by a quick jaunt over to the perceived "finish line." Every phase is very fun, actually. And you're contributing to a state of the art and body of knowledge that's going to benefit hobbyists all over the world-even when your two-week-old botanical tank is growing craploads of biofilm and such.
I think with a blackwater aquarium, you end up playing a different sort of game than you do with many other types of systems, with the possible exception of maybe planted tanks or reef aquariums. These tanks require time and patience, in addition to vision. Vision to see how each stage of the journey is intriguing and fascinating in its own right, and the "mature" phase is merely the next stop on a long journey- not the "destination." The key here is that you can't make radical, quick moves. It's one thing to "finesse" changes to say, the water chemistry, amount or type of botanicals, or your fish population. However, it's quite a different thing to go clear off in another direction because your tank isn't looking like an Amazonian igarape in three weeks.
Now, we've discussed the "mental shifts" many times here, and botanical aquarium fans know that you simply don't "freak" and yank every pod and leaf out of the tank as soon as biofilms and fungal growth and decomposition start appearing. That reflects not only a lack of understanding of how a botanical-influenced aquarium works, but more important- it reflects a lack of patience that can undermine your aquarium's success!
You're way better than that.
The key point here is that there is no "magic bullet" to get you to the perfectly natural, "broken-in", enriched look. You need to allow the botanicals to settle in, recruit microbial growth, begin to decompose, and soften up a bit first. You need to allow the tank to progress through these stages, and understand that a great botanical aquarium- like a great reef tank or planted tank- evolves. Nature dictates the pace, the look, and the extent.
The tank will have a significantly more "aged" look after a couple of months, with both the water darkening from the tannins as the botanicals break down. If you take pics of your tank when it first starts out, with all of the botanicals "crisp" and "fresh-looking", and contrast it with the look of the tank after say, two months, you'll be blown away at the difference! And you don't have to do a whole lot to get it there...other than to stay on task, and not be distracted by those tempting "shiny objects"- you know, thoughts of "shortcuts" and quick fixes...There are none.
As the aquarist, your "job" is to set the basic 'scape and look the way you want it, place the bulk of your botanicals where you want them to remain, and add the more "ephemeral" leaves last, knowing that they will decompose more rapidly, and possibly be distributed in other places throughout the tank at some point. You just need to monitor the water quality, follow a regular maintenance schedule, observe the health of the fishes...and relax and enjoy the progression; the evolution- of your little underwater microcosm.
There is no hard and fast formula here...only some guidelines for setting the stage, and an admonition to relax and enjoy the ride all the way. Botanicals will soften. Leaves will decompose. Water will darken.
All in time.
Nature is your "pilot." Patience is your traveling companion. Time is your ally.
Enjoy all of them.
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay calm.
And Stay Wet.
(Mike Tuccinardi is an author, aquarist, and traveler. His writings are regularly published in Amazonas magazine, as well as other print and online venues, and his photos and videos of wild Amazonian habitats have become extremely popular in social media, and ihere n "The Tint" as well! Mike recently set up an amazing biotope-style aquarium, which replicates a region of the Lower Tapajos River in Brazil, which we've featured in our "Inspiration" section!
I've enjoyed some stimulating exchanges on various aquatic topics with Mike, and was fortunate enough to coerce him into writing a little something for us! We're honored to have Mike as a guest author today, expanding upon the concept of "Functional Aquascaping" that we've talked about in a recent installment of "The Tint." Mike gives an amazing perspective on this subject, as someone who has explored firsthand the wild habitats we seek to replicate in our aquariums. Enjoy!)
In a much earlier post, Scott talked about how aquascaping with botanicals is about more than just aesthetics—that botanicals actually serve an important function in a healthy, thriving (usually blackwater) aquarium. This really spoke to me, both as an aquarist and as someone who has been fortunate enough to visit a number of the habitats our aquarium fish call home. And so, when he graciously offered me a guest spot here at “The Tint”, I thought I’d take a little time to expand on that theme a bit. Because seeing where and how a number of popular aquarium species live in the wild drastically changed the way I do things in my own aquariums, and has caused me to really, really embrace the concept of using leaves, seed pods, and other unique accent items in nearly every tank I set up.
But why, exactly? To sum it up in one word: enrichment. This is a concept that is used almost obsessively in the public aquarium and zoo community but rarely trickles into the hobby side of things. It has many meanings in different contexts, but the best way I would define it as it applies here would be: the addition of certain elements to an animal’s habitat to stimulate, challenge, or otherwise induce behavior in that animal. It’s quite common for zoos to incorporate food into puzzles for the animals in their care, and most dog owners can relate to stuffing peanut butter or other treats inside a "Kong" to keep their four legged friend busy. But how often do we think about stimulating the fish in our aquariums? Unless you’ve worked in the public aquarium sector or kept highly intelligent aquatic life like stingrays or octopus (both known for their propensity to “play”), the answer is probably never. But you may be offering your fish enrichment without realizing it.
In the wild, fish inhabit remarkably complex habitat. In the Rio Negro, for example, the flooded forest extends for thousands of kilometers at its peak, with basically entire forests’ worth of root masses, branches, and leaf litter all in play as habitat. Fruits and nuts fall into the water regularly, providing both food and shelter. The water temperature, pH, clarity and color changes dramatically as rainwater from the highlands fills the many tributaries, pushing sediment-rich, cool, and clear or white water into the normally blackwater river. This is an always-changing environment, one which fish have evolved to thrive in and take full advantage of.
One of the things that is most striking when you spend time below the water’s surface in this sort of environment is that the fish aren’t just passive inhabitants—they’re actively involved with their habitat, interacting in a very particular way. Apistogramma species aren’t just hanging out, they’re fighting turf wars among piles of dense leaf litter, even making their own piles by moving leaves and other bits of detritus to the center of their territories. Suckermouth catfish, whether Farlowella or Ancistrus, are actively exploring recently-submerged branches and roots, looking for a rich patch of biofilm or algae to feast on. Eartheaters and many other species of cichlids—even Severums, Angelfish, and Discus—are patrolling the bottom, taking big mouthfuls of sand and organic material to sift out any tasty morsels. It’s a big, organic mess, literally made up of various botanicals and these fish are having a field day in it.
These are things you never get to see in a typical aquarium, because, quite frankly, the tank is boring (at least from the fish’s perspective). I wrote a bit about this in a recent blog post on Reef to Rainforest, but basically, complex environments engender complex behavior. And to bring this back to the concept of enrichment, many fish are used to having a certain level of “stuff” to interact with in their environment. In a bare-bones tank, or even a carefully manicured aquascape, they’ll usually do just fine—thrive, even.
However, if you offer them an assortment of “stuff” in your aquascape that they can interact with, I think most fishkeepers would be astonished at the behavior that this brings out. Like seeing a juvenile Guianacara carefully picking up magnolia leaves, one by one, from the bottom of the tank only to arrange them in a neat pile around his favorite hiding spot. Or watching your smallest Checkerboard Cichlid peering out from the inside of its "Savu Pod" home, while a Queen Arabesque Pleco enthusiastically grazes on the biofilm growing on its outer husk. The list goes on and on, but the point is that the ever-expanding repertoire of botanicals we have available to us as aquarists can markedly enrich your fish’s lives by giving them an outlet for the naturally occurring behaviors—be it grazing, exploring, territory building, or social interaction—that they have evolved to make use of in their native habitat.
So give the whole “leaves and twigs” thing a try if you haven’t yet—your fish will more likely than not impress you with how they respond to it. Because it’s not just enrichment for the fish—I would venture a guess that the fish keeper comes away from this new approach enriched as well.
I know I have.
Yeah, the question that has plagued moms around the world for centuries is one that we give more than just a little bit of thought to in the fish world, right?
Now, before I get too deep into this, I issue the heads-up that this is one of those pieces that will possibly piss off a tiny few my friends and colleagues who work in the aquatics industry. It will no doubt show a level of obliviousness or lack of understanding of how things work in the aquarium foods sector, and perhaps a ridiculous naiveté that only an outsider would display. So be it. (Of course, I really don't give a crap if I offend you, just in case you must know. My skin is plenty thick, the world will keep rotating, and my wife will still love me even if you don't. )
The world of tropical fish foods is pretty amazing. It's an industry that has some of the hobby's most respected and dominant companies in the game. And some of the newer brands that have come along in recent years, particularly in the marine food sector, have delivered remarkable breakthrough products that have changed the game. We're talking things like live and frozen rotifers, copepods, mysids, micron-sized coral feeds, etc. The number of foods for aquatic animals on the market today is crazy! I'll bet its a high multi-million dollar industry!
I mean, a recent scan of a major online aquatics retailer's Food section yielded a remarkable 280 plus varieties of fish food. I mean, that's crazy cool! But what I found interesting is that, in the freshwater world, other than the frozen and dried foods that were things like "Blood Worms", "Tubifex", and "Daphnia", most of the foods intended for freshwater species are sort of "adopted" to our needs, a la Brine Shrimp. Now, I'm not "dissing" the venerable frozen brine shrimp, the poster child for the aquarium food industry. Nor any of the hundreds of quality dry and freeze-dried foods out there. No, sir. These foods have made the modern hobby convenient, dynamic, and accessible for millions.
However, what makes me curious (and probably shows my ignorance, too) is why there are so very few foods that are simply- well- the stuff that freshwater fishes eat in the wild? Yeah, really. I mean sure, there are a few...but they're far in between, really. Think about it for a moment. If you really want to feed your fishes "authentic" food- you know, the equivalent of fish "health food", you either have to culture your own-not something everyone wants to do-or somehow source foods that are not commercially available. To me, pellets are convenient and all that jazz- but they're kind of...souless, if you know what I mean?
Of course, you can use any of the fine 400-odd fish foods on the market and just "deal with it", in which case, my work is done here. :)
Pressing forward, following that lengthy preamble-and with much love and respect for the fish food industry- I must ask again, "Why do we not see "whole foods" on the market that are representative of what freshwater fishes consume in the wild?"
I mean, the information about what fishes consume in the wild is readily available for those who take the time to look. Gut content analysis has been part of ichthyology for many years, and yields remarkable information about the habitat- and habits- of freshwater tropical fishes. And what are the most common "menu items" for many non-herbivorous freshwater fishes? Insects, insect larvae, copepods, crustaceans, fish eggs (and fish). Of all the foods we see on the market, only a handful come to mind that are more-or-less highly representative of the type and "form factor" that freshwater fishes consume in the wild: Blood Worms, Tubifex, Daphnia, and Fish Eggs (shameless shout out to one of my fave foods, Doc's Eco Eggs), and harpactoid copepods (used for marine fish feeds). Oh, and wood-containing foods for Plecos and such.
Now, these are all fine foods, and feeding a combination of almost any one of them will do the job and keep your fishes fat and happy for a lifetime. We should feed combinations of these foods a lot, and I think we do. However, my point here is that I can't help but wonder (much like I do about replicating wild habitat water conditions for fishes, rather than "acclimate" them to ours) if our tropical fishes would be just a bit better off if they were fed foods that literally were close counterparts or exact specimens of what they have evolved to eat in the wild? Such as aquatic insects, like Diptera pupae, Coleoptera and Trichoptera larvae and adults, and a variety of Harpacticoidae copepods.
Okay, this begs the next question: "What the @#$% are Diptera and Coleoptera, etc. anyways?" Well, Diptera is an order- a big old assemblage of lots of species of...flies! Now, I'm not talking about using the annoying nasty ones we like to swat...but I suppose that's a start...Well, anyways- Trichoptera are larger insects known collectively as "Caddis Flies." Species of them are found worldwide. Hmm...
And then the next question is...How do you get this stuff? Is it even economically viable or safe, or? How many people would really buy this stuff? (they MUST have said this about Brine Shrimp, too at one point, right?) Well, I don't know. I'm not in the fish food industry, and I haven't made the effort to try to disrupt it. Yet.
And believe me, I understand...Me, "Mr. Aquatic Botanical Guy", who's sourced all sorts of exotic stuff from all over the world, literally has to tell my suppliers in the tropical regions of the world, "Just pick up some of the dried leaves that fall in the jungle...You know, the stuff near the streams?" I can name the species, even. And they still continue to supply me with the "everyday" Catappa and such...because, well- that's what they know. That's what sells to the industry. That's how it's done. Thinking outside the box for these guys is a bit risky, less cost-effective initially, and entirely full of unknowns. And as we know, most businesses eschew the unknowns and risks associated with going "off the board" on stuff. I get it. I don't like it. I don't believe in it. But I totally get it.
And with foods like insects and such from tropical aquatic environments, there are obviously other things to overcome...like the fact that some harbor parasites and disease that may infect both fishes and humans. Yeah, I know, you're thinking about the absurdity of importing wild mosquito larvae that may be carrying the Zika virus or whatever...I hear ya'. I mean, getting "assorted South American insect larvae" through customs might be a bit daunting.
What I am suggesting is that there may very well be "pure," disease-and-parasite-free laboratory-grown specimens of many tropical insects that can fill the role as "supply" for the fish food industry. Or, substitutes-species in North America, Asia, or Europe that are easier to obtain. Okay, like Wingless Fruit Flies, right? YES! Hobbyists have been culturing them for decades, and pure cultures are available in labs. They're readily available from both hobbyists and biological supply houses. Couldn't they be incorporated in a "fresh" preserved state-not freeze-dried and incorporate into a flake with fish meal and dozens of other "things" we find in fish foods? I mean, perhaps kept concentrated in some sort of nutritive solution that preserves both their form and freshness? Perhaps refrigerated?
I know that I'd pay good money for concentrated, preserved disease-free wingless fruit flies, or cultured, lab-grade Caddis Flies... Yeah. Wingless fruit flies are more-or-less utilized already in the hobby...just that no one, to my knowledge, has made them available in a more "pret a porter" fashion- ready to feed without the hassle of culturing the damn things. Wouldn't that make a few more people try them? Oh, I know that some exotic stuff has been available in the past from good companies- frozen Mosquito larvae, Glass Worms, Cyclops...However, in this exploding new age of aquarium hobby enlightenment, perhaps it's now time to go after marketing these food items more seriously and in a more coordinated fashion (Pay me the $200 consulting fee if you want my hour's worth of ideas and input on this, lol) Some budding aquatic food entrepreneur out there could literally build an "Empire of the Flies" if he or she wants to take a crack at this stuff! You could be the "Uber of exotic aquatic feeds" or something...
And of course, as previously mentioned, we do have marine species of copepods, as well as Daphnia, so we've sort of got that covered. I am sure that the nutritional profile of these is somewhat different than their freshwater counterparts, but it couldn't hurt to try these foods, right? Although I wonder if anyone is working with culturing freshwater copepods on any large scale? Something again that I have not looked into just yet.
So what would a "dream fish food" look like to me? Some form of minimally preserved, refrigerated, squeeze-bottle-feedable combination of Fruit flies, Caddis fly larvae and adults, Daphnia, and small Blood Worms. Talk about a "buffet in a bottle" for fishes, right?
Okay, fish food entrepreneurs- I've given you a minimal framework to do more research and develop a product. Many of you have advanced degrees in biology and other backgrounds that could really give you an advantage when looking to disrupt this market! There is a ton I didn't touch on, forgot to touch on, glossed over out of ignorance, etc., and much more I could have said on the subject, but for those of you who are "picking up what I'm putting down", I think that the gears are already spinning. I mean, YOU have to do some of the work on this, right? And I didn't even ask for royalties in this rant, either. Of course, if you're offering...
Well, seriously- there are possibilities here. They are not easy to execute at scale, no doubt. They involve sourcing, manufacturing, preserving, packaging, and possibly certifying. The payoff, if any, will no doubt be "down the line"...and who knows? It may NOT prove to be viable at scale. On the other hands, a convenient, easy-to-use combination or "a la carte" items from this "natural selection" of foods might prove to be a huge thing to public aquariums, hatcheries, and hobbyists worldwide. You don't know until you go for it, right?
So, maybe I once again pissed off some of you...bored a handful, turned off a bunch...but maybe...just maybe- one or two or three of you read this and thought, "Ya' know, I might just look into this..." in which case this rant was wildly successful! You've got this.
Where else are you going to read THIS kind of stuff, anyways, right?
So, until next time...
Live the dream...Or dream about living the dream...
Stay innovative. Stay creative. Stay in your blissful force field of benign ingrnarance...the one that makes you dare to ask, "Why?"- and gives you the courage to change stuff...
And stay wet!
‘We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein
Isn't it sort of amazing how the hobby seems to go in "cycles" a bit?
I mean, in the 1950's and 1960's, a "golden age" of new fishes being both collected and bred throughout the world was enabled, largely because of the advent of fast air transportation around the world, and the booming Florida tropical fish farms, as well as global print media sharing the ideas and technique with a hobby world hungry to try something new. It was a time of great excitement, new ideas, and tremendous breakthroughs.
In the 70's and 80's, the hobby expanded considerably, but sort of fell into a "rut", without any really remarkable breakthroughs/developments, until the late eighties, when the modern reef aquarium sector, as we know it now, burst forth onto the scene. Like many developments in the aquarium hobby, the explosion in popularity and availability of new equipment, technique, philosophies...and information- harkened the dawn of this new era.
The explosion continued into the 1990's, and in the freshwater sector, many other developments came about, such as the breeding of new varieties of fishes, the birth hobbyist "expeditions" , in which hardcore enthusiasts went out to the wild habitats and explored for new species of fishes, such as catfish, killies, cichlids, etc. We also saw the explosion of the modern planted aquarium, which took on new life when injected with Japanese design principles and concepts. With the internet reaching pretty much every corner of the globe, ideas, images, and personalities spread like wildfire in the aquarium world.
And here we are in the early 21st century, powered by the enthusiasm of a globally-connected social-media-fueled generation of hobbyists, who can share ideas and information, and new approaches with a speed and level of detail previously only dreamed of.
This trip down "memory lane" as I see it wasn't to recap a half century of hobby growth- it was to give context to what I see as kind of a cyclical thing we have in the hobby world. As I see it, the hobby as a whole has changed significantly in just the past 15-20 years. Many ideas once thought to be crazy, "stupid", or just plain reckless are now considered "best practice", particularly in the world of breeding fishes, and in the coral propagation sector, which I experienced firsthand.
I personally see the freshwater hobby as ripe for another round of change. Another period of growth, fed not only by the amazing new discoveries being made every day by hobbyists worldwide, but by revisiting ideas from the past, some of which were considered "novelties" for decades.
Yeah, enter the blackwater/botanical aquarium. As I say virtually every time we talk about it, this is not a "new" concept. Hobbyists have been tossing in leaves and such into aquariums for many years to initiate breeding and facilitate health of some challenging fishes. Yet, for some reason, the whole concept of utilizing these materials to create not only healthy chemical environments for out fishes, but to create aesthetically fascinating, remarkably faithful replications of wild habitats is being given some new life. The idea of blackwater aquariums being seen as a "side show" curiosity is falling by the wayside, as hobbyists are utilizing these types of tanks to keep even fishes which have been with us for decades, and achieving remarkable results...and discovering a new aesthetic and enjoyment in the process.
Every day, I'm being sent pics and videos from hobbyists around the world, eager to share the work they've been doing in this fascinating arena- often in relative obscurity, simply because they felt that they were the only ones who enjoyed this stuff- and the "body of work" in the blackwater/botanical world continues to grow and inspire others.
And, much like some of the other aquascaping sectors which have been dominating the attention the hobby, we get new inspiration from seeing each others work. However, what's even more exciting to me is that, every time we see underwater shots of tropical rivers, Amazonian Igarapes, and Asian streams, we get some new ideas. Not just aesthetic ones, mind you- but ideas to understand the dynamics and embrace some of the things we see in natural systems- like deep leaf litter beds, all-botanical bottoms, extreme acidic habitats, peat swamps, blackwater sand bed rapids, etc.
Here are a few of the "projects" which you are working on, that I see being very interesting and important in this "new age" of blackwater/botanical-style aquariums:
-Simulating the Amazonian Igarapes- We're learning more and more about this fascinating environment every day. These seasonally flooded areas create a remarkable chemical and physical habitat for a huge range of tropical fishes. And the aesthetics are undeniably compelling and simply haven't been widely replicated before. Rather than simply viewing it as a pile of disorganized, decomposing leaves and seeds, we're realizing that it's a complex, surprisingly organized environment, which provides many of the essentials for fishes to grow, reproduce, and thrive.
There is much to learn, from the composition of the fish population, to the chemical and physical properties of the igarape- which can translate well into aquarium breakthroughs. I think we'll see some fishes that were previously seen as uninteresting- such as leaf litter-bed-dwelling "Darter Characins", certain catfishes and even Knifefishes, making more and more frequent appearances in hobbyists' aquarium. And more important, I think we'll see these fishes being bred in captivity, quickly alleviating the need for mass importation of wild populations of these fishes, because we will be able to provide them with a very faithful representation of their natural habitat. A case of us having figured out how to replicate and manage a captive version of their natural habitat over the long term, and THEN bringing the fish into our aquariums...a radically different dynamic than we've played with in the past, right? By learning more about this habitat, we're unlocking new secrets about managing the long-term health and reproduction of a wide range of fishes.
-Replicating food webs- As we've looked at previously, the leaf litter zones in tropical waters are home to a remarkable diversity of life, ranging from microbial to fungal, to crustaceans. These are the basis of complex and dynamic food webs, which are one key to the productivity of these habitats. By researching, developing, and managing our own deep leaf litter/botanical beds in aquaria, we may be looking at new ways to create "nurseries" for a variety of fishes.
At least upon superficial examination, our aquarium leaf litter beds seem to function much like their wild counterparts, creating an extremely rich microhabitat within our own tanks. And initial reports from hobbyists who've bred fishes in their intentionally leaf-litter-"outfitted" aquarium systems are that they're seeing better color, more regularity in spawns, and higher survival rate of some species. We're at the beginnings here, but the future is wide open for huge hobby-level contributions that may lead to continued breakthroughs.
Understanding the management of low-pH environments- We've talked a lot about the many cautions and even "myths" surrounding keeping fishes in low-pH environments. We've learned that by simply not being afraid because "they" have made them seem so scary and unmanageable for years. Rather, we're revisiting these parameters and trying to learn exactly what happens. It's been scientifically documented that humic substances contained in blackwater environments are essential to the health of almost all fishes. We're starting to discover that the low pH aquarium is entirely functional, if one learns the dynamics. Much like the previous generations' discoveries about the aquarium "functionality" of African Rift Lake habitats and coral reefs, we're discovering that these are simply different types of environments which can be replicated and managed long term in the aquarium.
Our understanding of the nitrogen cycle and the toxicity of ammonia versus ammonium, and the importance of "stability within a range" is starting to yield some results. I firmly believe that the next few years will bring about significant change-and even breakthroughs- in the way we as a hobby manage, care for, and spawn fishes such as Altum Angelfish, which have long been though problematic and difficult because of their specialized needs. It's as much about accepting a different way of thinking as it is about actually learning what's going on and attempting to replicate the function of these unique habitats. It's always been there for us to examine...we've just been approaching it with a jaded mindset. Now, we're looking at them for what they are, the benefits they provide our fishes, and just how to replicate them properly in the aquarium. And that is a HUGE leap that is happening right now...with YOU!
And of course, there are many, many more elements to the "blackwater/botanical evolution" that is going on right now. The evolution that YOU are creating, contributing to, and growing. So many ideas, projects, and theories to be acted upon. It is truly a wide-open, incredibly fascinating area of the hobby that I think is on par with any of the other specialties out there (i.e.; Rift Lake Cichlids, "high tech" planted tanks, reef aquariums, etc.). With the energy, talent, and desire to focus on some new frontiers, the future is very bright. This is no mere "fad" or trend" to play with a new aesthetic of leaves and botanicals- it's a shift towards a more realistic replication of some of natures' most successful and unique habitats.
And judging by the amount of sharing of new information that we're seeing on the internet, and the number of hobbyists getting into the game, I think the blackwater/botanical sector can create a model for hobby-level contribution to the body of knowledge about these highly fascinating, remarkably diverse, surprisingly pervasive, and incredibly compelling habitats. YOU are at the center of this evolution in modern aquarium-keeping...and the world is not only noticing- they're benefitting for your efforts. And even more important, understanding these wild habitats will give us even more information on how to protect and preserve them for future generations to enjoy.
Until next time...
Stay excited. Stay adventurous. Stay diligent.
And Stay Wet.
“They” say that there are no “sure things” in aquarium keeping, and on the surface, I’m inclined to agree. However, there are some things that you can do that will simply tempt the “Aquarium Gods’ to kick your a-- more than others, trust me. Things that seem normal, but when you go below the shiny surface, have "tempting fate" written all over 'em.
Over my lifetime as a fish keeper, I've experienced some of them, as no doubt you have. Here are a few things, as experienced by myself and others, that you will no doubt find can lead to exceptionally bad outcomes if you’re not careful and try one of these risky maneuvers with your aquarium:
*Never move “just a couple of rocks” or "that one driftwood branch" around in your aquascape within, say, an hour of going to sleep at night- particularly on a week night, or before a morning when you just have to wake up early! Trust me, you won’t be getting restful sleep any time soon. It’s almost a certainty that moving even one rock with the intention of “opening up space” or making a minor “tweak”, will lead to you pulling out a dozen rocks, or even the whole aquascape before the job is done, which could take hours and hours without completion. In fact, the job may not be done for days! At some point, after numerous attempts to “correct” things, you’ll throw in the towel, and try to just make things “the way they were” before your started this futile endeavor…And guess what? You’ll NEVER be able to re-create what you had before…total bummer, which will take hours and hours to correct. Just don’t do it, trust me.
Changing light bulbs, settings, or lighting systems before a trip- This one is like the “kiss of death!” I mean, really, changing light bulbs is no big deal, right? Oh, trust me, it is, especially when the new bulbs are a different spectrum (like T5’s), or if you’re changing lighting formats from Halide to LED, for example. Not only will the plants (or corals, if you're a reefer) react a bit differently than you expect- they will undoubtedly demonstrate their apparent displeasure at the worst possible time (like when you are away), and you may come back to a disaster in the making, or worse! Yeah, it really happens…Don’t ask me why, but it’s nerve-wracking enough just doing such a change when you’re going to be home…but if you’re leaving town- be ready to replace some plants or corals upon your return…yikes!
(My friend Marc is a world class reefer. He'll change his reservation before he changes a controller setting when leaving town...)
Tweaking controller/light timer settings…Or, for that matter, installing a controller! -Oh, sure, controllers and timers are great tools for aquarium management, and I think highly of them…But tweaking settings must be done: a) Very early in the day, on a day when you’re not going anywhere, b) for only one or two parameters at a time (like temp or light timing), and c) Never within 2 days of leaving on any kind of trip…(sensing a theme here?) Bad idea- really bad- to make any kind of controller change before leaving town. Inevitably, you’ll realize that you had the wrong start time for your lights, or forgot to properly program the max intensity time, or…whatever. The upside is that most of the better controllers and even some timers allow you to correct or tweak remotely (which is good and bad!). Again, controllers= good. Changing things on controllers when you don’t have time to monitor= BAD.
Turning the flow adjustment valve on your filter output when you’re in a hurry, because you want to make a “quick adjustment.” -You’re sooo screwed! I mean, there is no such thing as a “quick adjustment” to these things…Regardless of brand or quality- no matter what you htink-they’re totally finicky, and a sure ticket to headaches when you’re in a hurry…Or even when you aren’t, right? The same caution applies to making adjustments to your CO2 solenoid or feed valve on a reactor or air/water mix on a protein skimmer…ridiculously small adjustments are the only way to go…I mean, almost non-existent changes…Air/water mix ratios, chemical feeds, and other dynamics can just get screwed over so easily it’s not even funny. Subtlety and time are everything with these kinds of changes. If you rush them, have plenty of Tylenol or your other pain reliever of choice available- it’s a virtual certainty that headaches will be waiting for you when you’re done.
Taking a chance on that fish that was a perfect citizen in your buddy’s tank. Are you KIDDING ME? SERIOUSLY? NO! NO! NO! It’s a virtual guarantee that, say- the innocuous cichlid that resided in your buddy’s 200 gallon assorted Mbuna tank for 4 years without incident will suddenly develop a great appetite for little fishes. Your really rare, pricy ones. I mean, you can practically take it to the bank! You can adjust this little "rule" for almost any kind of fish- Catfishes, Bettas, whatever. Same goes for reef tanks. Like, the anemone that your buddy offered you...the one that "never moved" in your friend’s reef. Ask yourself, if the animal is such a model citizen, why is he or she getting rid of it? Prepare for knocked-over corals- or worse. Why on earth reefers even think of tempting fate by trying these sorts of “additions” is beyond me sometimes!
Skipping quarantine with that new addition- This isn't just superstition talking- it’s firmly grounded in reality..Skipping quarantine with one fish can open up your entire system to a limitless number of diseases or other maladies that can create dire consequences for your reef. You know this, of course. Totally not worth it. Quarantine is a vital, logical practice that is employed by every public aquarium on the planet, and scores of successful hobbyists everywhere. You definitely are playing “Russian Roulette” with your aquarium if you skip this practice. Even if you know the source, have observed the fish repeatedly at the store or in its prior owners’ tank, it’s not worth it. Trust me. Totally not worth it.
Going to a club auction with the intention of just “checking stuff out”- Please, seriously? You have just about guaranteed that you’re going to leave with bags full of something. In fact, you’ll probably leave with bags of several “somethings”. Club auctions and coral swaps are irresistible to fish geeks, and the generosity of hobbyists is well documented. “Oh, you’re a newbie? Here- have a few of these Acara fry. They're not really mean at all, and they're super easy to keep…Can’t lose!” Even if you didn’t bring money, you’ll leave with way more than you intended. I have seen numerous times where hobbyists even ended up borrowing from their teenage kid to grab a bag of fish (because he was determined not to tempt him/herself by bringing cash to the event). So my advice if you’re attending a club auction? Bring cash. Bring a cooler. Bring teenager. Leave restraint at home.
Okay, so that was just a quick rundown of “sure things” in the aquarium hobby. I mean, there aren’t that many certainties in this game, are there? Well, actually, there are. Sure, I focused on a few with some potentially bad consequences…There are no doubt countless others with the possibility of better outcomes…but it’s far more fun to highlight the bad ones, isn’t it? LOL
So, let’s hear your “Sure things” in the aquarium hobby? I know that you’ve got way many more examples of this that you can add to our “Sure things” database!
As always, we appreciate your opinions, ideas, input, and humor. Thanks in advance for your participation!
Stay cautious. Stay respectful. Stay careful.
And Stay Wet,
If you follow our ramblings here in "the Tint" and in social media, you know that we seem to have endless discussions on the merits of leaving in or removing leaves, pods, and other botanical materials as they break down. All things being equal, my current state of thought is to "leave 'em in", and I am fascinated that many of you feel the same!
Now, we've probably beaten this subject up quite a bit over the last year, but it's still our most "asked" topic. And there is still much to learn and discover about it. By looking once again at the wild habitats- truly "nature's aquarium"- you can gain a few insights, and perhaps apply some of the observations to our practices and ideas in the aquarium world.
Now, I realize that an aquarium is a closed system, and unlike nature, has artificial, clearly defined nutrient inputs-outputs, water influx, etc. However, I have always believed that when you really think about it, the practices we engage in with our aquariums are quite a good analogy to the things that happen in nature.
Let's get back to the idea of decomposing leaves.
Interestingly enough, in field studies of rain forest streams in the Amazon, it has been noticed that entire leaves are frequently found buried in the sediments within the streams, leading some scientists to initially postulate that coarse organic matter is degraded really slowly in these streams. However, subsequent observations determined that most leaves are actually shredded by various aquatic insects and creatures; in this case, chironomids (relatives of the adult version of the "bloodworm!") -and that material is selectively removed from the leaves, lending the appearance that it is intact.
So, what this means for those of us who enjoy replicating these unique habitats is that the leaves and botanical materials are initially broken down by smaller insects and such, then acted upon by microbial life forms. Fungi and bacterial biofilms are though to be the dominant forms of life at the base of the food chain in these streams.
Indeed, due to the higher concentrations of structural compounds (e.g., lignin and cellulose) in leaf litter in Amazonian stream systems, microbes (mainly fungi, due to their greater ability to degrade structural compounds) are more important for leaf breakdown in relation to the invertebrate community, because they sort of "soften up" the leaves for the "shredders." Yet, biological decomposition and high fungal biomass were of secondary importance for leaf litter breakdown rates, together with chemical decomposition. An interesting focus was placed on "leaf quality" (chemical and structural components of the leaves), assigning it the single most important factor in leaf breakdown.
And here is another killer tidbit about leaf breakdown from wild observations of Tank, et. al: "In tropical stream systems, leaf litter with high concentrations of labile compounds (e.g., polyphenols and tannins) and nutrients (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus) generally exhibits a higher leaf breakdown rate than leaf litter with a high percentage of structural compounds (e.g., lignin and cellulose) and high degree of leaf hardness..."
So, where does that leave us, as hobbyists?
Does this observation mean that the more tannin-imparting leaves, like Catappa, for example, tend to break down faster when submerged? Well, yeah, right? Catappa leaves are generally the fastest-decomposing leaves we use. Leaves like Magnolia, Jackfruit and Guava, for example, tend to be "harder" and less prone to fast physical breakdown underwater, usually acquiring biofilms and some fungi and slowly softening over many weeks.
So, the much-feared "pollution" that people who've never worked with leaf litter in aquariums before love to scare us with may not be such a menacing factor, as the breakdown of the leaves either occurs very quickly, as in the case of Catappa, or over a very long term, with the aforementioned "harder" leaves. Most adequately filtered aquariums, managed by hobbyists with solid, consistent husbandry skills, should be just fine, IMHO. It also goes to show you that there are tangible benefits of having a diversity of leaves and other botanicals in your aquarium, right?
This new data from nature tells me that we're doing a lot of things right by letting nature run its course and having these materials beak down in our aquariums. Now, sure, there is "stuff breaking down" slowly, and then their is full-on "pollution", brought about by lack of responsible husbandry (overfeeding, overstocking, etc.). Two totally different things, IMHO. I've had more than one aquarist over the years take a rather confrontational stance and accuse me of advocating sloppy husbandry under the guise of "being natural" when discussing botanical-influenced aquariums.
This, of course, is absolutely NOT what we're advocating, and I think is based on some incomplete or even outmoded thinking. The point is that, with regular water changes, managing feeding and fish stocking levels, it's certainly not an issue leaving these materials in the aquarium until they break down. There are too many variables to make a blanket statement that leaving botanicals in until they break down is an invitation to "pollution."
Granted, we likely don't have "primary" shredders like chironomids and such populating our leaf litter beds (though I'd like to), but we do have populations of beneficial microbial life, fungi, and perhaps even a small population of crustaceans, like Gammarus, Daphnia, etc. However, maybe a few of us keep ornamental shrimp in our tanks, and grazing fishes, like Plecos and such, which help fill this role, right?
And in my experience and the experience of many of our fellow "tinters", the fear of a chemically unstable, "dirty" tank is largely unfounded, IMHO. With leaves breaking down at different rates in the aquarium, I don't think that "mass pollution" becomes an issue. In fact, in aquariums, as in nature, I believe that some of the slow decomposing species are important to fishes, invertebrates and microorganisms as substrates and sources of particulate organic matter.
As previously mentioned, phosphates and nitrates have always been essentially undetectable in my botanical, leaf-litter-dominated aquariums. I simply have not had issues with nitrate and phosphate. Now, your experience may differ, and a lot of other factors could contribute to this. On the other hand, what detrimental effects have you observed in a leaf-litter or botanical-dominated aquarium when detectible (notice I didn't say "higher") levels of nitrate and phosphate are present? Massive algal blooms? Fish death? I'm not being sarcastic, actually...I'm curious, because these observations are important!
I have nothing other than my personal experience with my tanks and some theories to go on, but I can't help but wonder if some denitirifcation occurs in deap leaf litter beds much as it does in sandbeds in a reef tank. Again, taking into account the processes that occur in natural streams, rivers, and lakes, one can only assume that similar ones occur in our aquaria.
All of these things are very interesting, and so much is yet to be learned and experienced by us as hobbyists in relation to leaf litter and botanicals in our aquariums. Yet, one can only hope that many of the positives which occur in natural habitats comprised of leaf litter and botanical cover will occur in our thoughtfully-managed closed system aquaria. The day will come when we have a better understanding of what's really going on in leaf litter systems in our tanks, and that these materials won't be coveted just for their ability to impart tannins and humic substances for lowering pH and tinting the water, but for the true biological "richness", diversity, and utility they provide.
Here's to YOU- working on this stuff every day.
Stay on top of things. Stay observant. Stay open-minded. Stay curious.
And Stay Wet.