“Feed them small amounts often, and change some of the water every few days. Watch them carefully, and you’ll be able to tell if they are having any problems.”
Good advice..Great advice, actually. Some of the best aquatic advice I ever received. To this day, I apply those simple bits of advice to my aquatic efforts, with fantastic results. I will always be grateful to my father, not only for his love and compassion; not just for the advice he bestowed upon me - but for simply being there. He started me on this lifelong adventure in the aquatic realm. An adventure that would take me from the kid with a fishbowl to an owner of a truly amazing online livestock company and ultimately, to a speciality aquarium products vendor.
How funny that the most simple advice I've ever received has guided my aquatic passions far more than some of the complex directives I've been given by well-intentioned aquarists over the years.
My dad knew something that was pretty remarkable: If you have a passion, share it with your children. Teach them what you know, nurture their dreams, answer their questions, and encourage them in every way.
Give your son or daughter their first fishbowl, nano-tank, baby guppies. Allow them to feel the excitement when they add that new plant, find that cool Angelfish they’ve been looking for, or create that perfect aquascape. Embrace their geeky enthusiasm. And most of all, treasure them.
And watch them- watch YOU- evolve in the hobby. Look back at where you came from, where you've went..and reflect upon where you're at now.
After a certain number of years in the aquarium keeping game, it seems as if you develop, in addition to an ever-growing collection of fishes, plants, tanks, equipment, and “stuff”, a certain “je ne sais quoi” - an intrinsic knowledge, a “sixth sense”, or even a swagger, sort of- about your aquariums. Am I right here? I mean, after you’ve collected, kept, propagated, bred- and yeah, unfortunately- killed- your fair share of ‘em, you kinda just “know” when things are going well, and when something is terribly amiss with your collection. It’s a skill- or perhaps- a blessing- or even a “curse” that we afflicted hobbyists acquire during our tenure in the aquarium-keeping hobby..
You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Yeah…You’ve developed that crazy ability to look beyond the obvious when observing your tank, and being able to quickly ascertain what’s join on in there. You can tell at a glance that your favorite stand of aquatic plants is just not looking "right", or that your prized Tropheus is about to go south. Perhaps it’s a result of that new supplement you just switched to, or that change you made to your lighting program. Maybe, it’s a result of postponing your regular water change. Regardless of what it is, you have the ability to sense something is not right.
After dealing with- no- obsessing with- aquariums for a few years, you certainly develop a personal “baseline” for your animals, and when something is “not right”, it’s immediately apparent to you. And the interesting thing is that this ability comes to EVERYONE who keeps tanks…It’s not a skill reserved for the privileged few or the occasionally “gifted” aquarist…No- it’s a skill that we DEVELOP over time based on observing and adjusting…and enduring” the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of an aquarium.
Sure, you can read all about fishes and their care on line, in a book, or in a magazine, but the ultimate skill comes from practicing aquarium keeping. In other words, the hobby really separates the “talkers” from the “doers” without doubt or prejudice. You know because you’re a hobbyist. And if you don’t know, you’ll learn- if you stay in the game.
You'll make stuff evolve.
You’ll encounter pests, equipment failures, diseases, bad results resulting from bad decisions. You’ll also learn from the great decisions that you’ve made; from the hunch that you played about moving that Sword Plant over a few inches to the right. From the time that you passed on adding that Abramites to your system, or from the brilliant decision to change out that old heater that was sticking in the “on” position.
All decisions made as a result of your experience...
No matter how large or how small your tank is…No matter what type of methodology you embrace, the longer you stay in the game, the more you’ll develop this skill as long as you practice aquarium-keeping. The funny thing is, even though it makes sense that, yeah- the longer you do something, the better you get at it- this doesn’t always apply to aquariums. Some people can recognize that something is amiss, but they fail to interpret it or do something about it. Or, maybe, they just don't...
We used to see this in reef keeping a lot...People would know that something was amiss...and just get bogged down in analysis...sometimes with disappointing results...
You’ll develop the sense I’m talking about almost from day one in the hobby.
You already have. However, what separates the “hardcore” aquarium hobbyist from the masses who simply "keep fish tanks" is that the hobbyist with talent knows what to do with this innate sense. He or she knows that, if something is not right, they need to make this or that adjustment- or even do nothing at all. They know-You know- this because they/you practice aquarium keeping, discuss aquarium keeping, and well- live, eat, drink, sleep aquarium keeping. It becomes not just a hobby, but a lifestyle. Many of us have an attachment to our fish much the way a dog or cat owner has that attachment to their beloved pet. It’s way beyond just a hobby- it becomes part of a lifestyle.
Yeah, to some people, it’s not only part of their lifestyle, but a dominant factor in their existence, affecting all sorts of other decisions, such as relationships, travel, home buying decisions, and economic goals. Sometimes, it’s not a healthy thing, either. I’ve known reefers whose relationships failed, finances collapsed, and lifestyles negatively affected because they were more in tune with their tanks than they were with the other realities of life. I mean, yeah, those are extreme cases with perhaps other types of dysfunction present, but the signs of aquarium keeping’s affects on our lives-good and bad- are everywhere for almost all of us, if you think about it.
When was the last time you decided NOT to install that new piece of equipment before you left on the family vacation, because you were afraid of the possibility that it could fail when you were out of town? Or, perhaps you passed on a social engagement because you were doing a major overhaul to your aquascaping. Or maybe, you didn’t get that new dishwasher you really needed because it was more important at the time to get the new LED system for your tank…All decisions that can have greater impact down the line, or even collectively- possibly leading your life into unexpected new directions as a result. Sure, these are extreme interpretations, but there are unintended consequences- both good and bad- to being a hardcore hobbyist. The difference is about how you let it affect you and the rest of your life, I think.
On the good side, many people have developed lifelong friendships as a result of their hobby. Some have went on to start companies that affected the industry and hobby. Still others went on to share their experiences with others by writing or speaking. Rewarding turns that have enriched lives greatly- not only for the hobbyist- but for the other hobbyists whom he or she came into contact with as a result of their mutual love for the hobby.
The intriguing thing about this hobby is just how addicting or engaging it can be. How all-encompassing and satisfying it is. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who “dabbles” with aquariums. Then again, I tend not to hang with people who "dabble" in aquariums...Rather, it's "binary": They’re either hooked on aquariums, or they keep mice or something. Why is that? Well, I think that part of the reason is that once you try a tank, you just “get it”, and your interest and passion blossom from there. Aquarium keeping offers stimulation and challenges that few other hobbies can. It's what creates 4--tank fish rooms from one 10-gallon "community tank" in the living room from Christmas time.
Those of us who are hardcore hobbyists are basically in it for life. Sure, there might be a year or two where circumstances keep us out of the game for a bit, but we never fully disengage. I know a lot of aquarists who had awesome tanks, and then for one reason or another, got out for a while…However, when they got back into it- and they ALWAYS did- they would tell me things like, “Yeah, I always followed the forums and read the magazines and stuff..” It just never really gets out of your system.
This “thing” that we do- this hobby, pastime- obsession…whatever you wan to call it, seems to encompass every emotion and experience you can have in life, doesn’t it? Pleasure, pain, happiness, sorrow, frustration, a sense of individuality, as well as a sense of belonging- they’re all there.
When did YOU know that you had that “thing” for fish? Was it a gradual transition from other hobbies, or was it this thing that just hit you one day? Did you start on your own, or did someone else get you hooked? How long did it take to get hooked on this hobby? What kind of impact does aquarium keeping have on the rest of your life?
Interesting questions to ponder, aren’t they?
A little more to ponder as we get on with the week.
Make it a good one. Make it count.
Keep evolving. Stay engaged. Stay philosophical...
And Stay Wet.
It never ceases to amaze me how some fishes seem to get lumped into a broad category in terms of what type of habitat they come from.
Assumptions, inferences, and downright bad information abounds out there. It's really hard to get accurate information sometimes! This has been really obvious in the more serious research I was doing for brackish water fishes for one of our displays. A friend suggested "Raibows"- and, like any superficially-interested, completely inexperienced non-specialist, I jumped on line and started searching. I was looking for some information to see if there are any Melanotaenia Rainbowfishes that occur naturally in brackish water habitats. (because I fell into that large group of ignorant, hapless "heathens" that assume every Rainbowfish must be from the classic Melanotaeinia genus, right? I mean, is there any other genus for Rainbows? )
(The beloved M. boesmani...Pic by Eileen Kortright, used under CC BY 2.5)
Once you get beyond stuff like "Jimmy's Tropical Favorite Fish Page!" or whatever, the real hard facts are often more difficult to ferret out. It often boils down to having to sift through various scientific papers and resources, which are often confusing as well. You can also haunt hobby specialty forums, and get really good information from a few people that may comfortably be referred to as "experts." Notice, I said "a few"- because it seems that even in specialty forums, inferences and assumptions are not uncommon, either...Ideally, you want to contact a person who's actually physically collected the fish in question...not always all that easy!
It's not just confusing for Rainbows..but for a lot of the fishes commonly labeled as being "brackish water" fishes.
One of my favorite fishes is the "Indian Glassfish", Parambassis ranga. It's one of those euryhaline "switch hitters", in that it's found in both fresh and brackish water habitats. Yet, over the decades, it's been dogmatically characterized as a "brackish fish." The reality is that it's actually more common in pure freshwater habitats, but IS adaptable to brackish water. In fact, if you consult a source like fishbase.org and search for where the referenced specimens were collected, it appears as though every specimen referenced in their database was collected in pure freshwater, typically in areas adjacent to streams and rivers, with no salt content whatsoever.
((Image by opencage used under CC BY- SA 2.5)
Now, the fish CAN live in brackish, but seeing that the highest likelihood is that your fish was collected or bred in pure freshwater, adapting it to salt is not necessary. In fact, many come from water that is typically more soft and acidic! Yet, somehow, most of us immediately think "Brackish fish...add some salt to the water to keep it happy!"
AND BY THE WAY- DO NOT PURCHASE THE ARTIFICIALLY PAINTED VERSIONS OF THESE FISH!!!!
I only include the pic so that you can remember what an atrocity against nature this practice is...
This confusion/assumption stuff seems to be the case with a lot of Rainbowfishes, actually. For some reason, you'll stumble onto literature that suggests that quite a number of these cool fishes come from brackish habitats. And that is the case with a few species, but you can't make generic assumptions with them! In fact, you'll actually have a fairly difficult time finding truly good detailed information about these amazing fishes outside of some of the speciality groups.
Even the well-known "Celebes Rainbowfish" is merely tolerant of salt in its water, but it would be hard to call it a true "brackish water fish", occurring predominantly in this type of environment. In fact, it's pretty much the same with most Rainbows. Most species are never found in brackish waters, so keeping any of these fish in an aquarium with a specific gravity at or above SG 1.005 is pushing it, IMHO. But they are hardy and tolerant of slightly brackish water, and will do well in a low-salinity aquarium (like 1.003).
To most non-specialist fish people, the genus Melanotaenia is like THE genus for Raibowfishes... In popular hobby perception, those are the ones we think of when someone tells you "I keep Rainbowfishes!" Of course, like so many other things in the hobby, it pays to know specialists who really know their stuff...And even then it's not entirely cut and dry...
Depending upon who you ask there is a Melanotaenia Rainbowfish that is, according to many hobby sources, supposedly a more-or-less "full-time" brackish-water dweller, the "Black-Banded Rainbowfish", Melanotaenia nigrans.
It's interesting to note that it's the "type species" of its genus. Although somewhat common in its natural habitat in Australia, it's not hugely popular in the hobby. Yet it seems to be listed consistently as a Rainbowfish that IS found in brackish water. However, when you dig further, particularly into scientific literature, as opposed to hobby literature, it's hard to find a reference to specimens collected in brackish areas, not just "implied" to be in them. Although it does reference brackish occurrences in the description on fishbase.org, all of the specimens noted were collected from pure freshwater! In fact, the "Fishes of Australia" website of Museums Victoria lists the occurrences for this fish as follows:
"Known only from two isolated populations in NT in coastal streams from Daly River, eastwards across Arnhem Land to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and a Cape York, QLD population known from Prince of Wales Island and a few small tributaries of the Jardine River.
Occurs in a variety of freshwater habitats including rainforest streams, lily lagoons and small, swampy creeks. Also found in larger streams and rivers in areas of low flow such as backwaters or along the shoreline."
It's not easy to discern from the available literature which, if any, of the Melanotaeinia Rainbowfishes actually are found in brackish water to any extent in nature! Yet, we in the more general areas of the hobby seem to be under the impression that some of them are brackish water fishes. It's kind of like the Mollies, right? Remember our blog on them not too long ago?
I'm totally confused.
Again, that's a classic reason why you join those speciality study groups and get in touch with real experts, many of whom have actually been to the wild habitats of the fishes they love and can give you some pretty good information on them!
Now, one thing I'm not confused about is that there are some fishes classified as "Rainbowfishes" that definitely come from brackish, even possibly marine habitats: The Pseudomugil. Yep, Pseudomugil signifer, P. tenellus, and P. cyanodorsalis will be fine in brackish, and even full-strength saltwater, though somewhat rarely.
(P. signifier. Image by Caliber used under CC BY-SA- 4.0)
Again, from fishbase: "Distribution: New Guinea and adjacent islands, northern and eastern Australia, and parts of eastern Indonesia. Brackish and freshwater, rarely in marine water (2 spp.)"
These are about as cool a bunch of fishes as there is, and they are excellent subjects for our "semi-slaty" world. We'll be devoting some "blog time" to our experiences and thoughts on these species in upcoming editions of "The Tint" for sure!
And that's where the story ends for now. It's not so much that this is some hard-hitting exposure on the Rainbowfishes and their suitability or occurrence in brackish water habitats...Rather, it's a gentle reminder that we all need to dig a bit deeper before we accept face value on stuff, or make assumptions on information found in our hobby literature and discussions. I've definitely made the mistake of making broad assumptions based on just a bit of information many times, and I don't want to confuse the issues further by perpetuating them. And even then, I know I've personally assumed and shared some shaky stuff before...it's something many of us have, and we owe it to ourselves- to the hobby- to reign it in as much as possible. None of us are perfect. None of us have all of the answers. But that doesn't mean we can't search for them...
Especially when it comes to stuff like Rainbows.
Until next time...
Stay relentless. Stay informed. Stay skeptical, when needed...
And Stay Wet.
This blog sort of arose because someone asked me about how Tannin Aquatics came to be...I guess you'd say that the background idea presented here is an integral part of our "creation story"...deeply rooted in the very essence of being a hardcore, practicing aquarium hobbyist, absolutely tied to the creative process.
FACT: Yup. You may not know this: I'm the ultimate aquarium designer/builder.
I Know it sounds a bit arrogant, but it's true.
I've tried crazy ideas no one has ever really executed: Simulated underground cave systems for Astyanax mexicanus, vivarium-style tanks with tiny puddles of water and hollowed-out moist logs for keeping jumping Rivulus, deep Mangrove mud flats, temperate tide pools, Micronesian "rock islands', flooded South American grasslands, bubbling hot springs for the Devil's Hole Pupfish, etc.
Yeah, crazy-cool concept stuff.
Built 'em all.
Okay, well, sort of. Well, not really...I mean, I built 'em...I've solved every plumbing issue, schemed out filtration systems, sourced components, made modifications to tanks...all that stuff.
Well, sort of. I mean, I "built" them in my head!
I guess it was Walt Disney's guys back in the 1950's that developed the idea of "imaginareeing"- coming up with crazy theoretical ideas and seeing if they could turn them into reality. It certainly brought some cool concepts into the the world..or at least, into Disneyland!
And free thinking outside of conventional boundaries is pretty cool, IMHO. I look at what some of you have accomplished when freeing yourself from conventionality, and can't help but smile.
Yeah, I know that, by simply free-thinking, I've "designed" and "built" some insane stuff!
And believe it or not, I did actually execute some of it over the years; sort of went through the design process and even some of the "proof-of-concept" in my mind, without spilling a drop of water, before heading down to the hardware store to buy all sorts of stuff. There is actually a certain "luxury" you can enjoy by doing this. It may not be initially as satisfying as just going for it, but for those of us who might be somewhat "DIY-challenegd", actually "building the tank" in our minds helps us see the unforeseen challenges that we might encounter once we forge ahead. Plus, it can help you fall asleep when you have a bout of insomnia, trust me!
I've had dozens of occasions when I thought of a complex, yet elegant way to execute something, only to find that there was a much easier way that was sort of "right in my face"- the downside to getting "hyper-innovative", I suppose! I literally would have "reinvented the wheel" (and not always in a good way, either!) instead of embracing the better, extant solution!
I suspect every hobbyist does this to some extent, right?
I know the truly great aquascapers do it a lot: select and build aquariums in their mind, consciously or subconsciously, before they begin the actual work.
(George Farmer...visionary AND executionist!)
I mean, you kind of have to, right? Although, are there any "seat of the pants" tank builders out their? I mean, you just get a tank at the LFS or where ever, look around for stuff to put in it, and start building?
If you do, that's a whole different set of talents, and demonstrates a resolve that's pretty crazy! Not to mention, you've got a sense of spontaneity that's quite inspiring! However, you are definitely square in the minority! You cool cats in same-day tank build contests...wow. That's not easy. Hat's off to you crazies!
One of the things I like best about what we did at Tannin is that we evolved out of me having to solve a "pain point" in my design process: For a long time, it was hard to source, aggregate, and work with a lot of natural materials for many of the "alternative" aquarium projects I wanted to do. I literally spent months trying to source these things. The company arose very organically out of my own desire to solve a problem that used to drive me crazy. I figured, if this stuff bothered me- it might just bother some other hobbyists who like to try out new ideas. And might inspire a few others to play with this stuff a bit.
And I think we were right!
It's fun to take the roads less travelled- even more fun when you have the right stuff in your suitcase!
That's really what we're about: Helping you "pack correctly" for the journey! And that's really fun to me, because it frees you up to do what you do best- execute on your cool ideas, and share them with our growing global "tint nation!" We started with blackwater, and as you can see, we're working with customers who play with vivariums, cichlid aquariums, fry rearing systems, and next month, brackish!
We're pretty excited about "estuary", because again, it arose out of a desire to solve some pain points for us, and gives us a chance to not only give some love to a sort of "neglected" segment of the aquarium hobby- the brackish water aquarium- it gives us the opportunity to properly equip brackish water enthusiasts with a different set of tools than they might have had previously- in one place...and therefore, the ability to apply some slightly different thinking and execution to the formerly "white and grey" popular concept of a brackish water aquarium habitat!
And we'll keep bringing you new stuff each year...2018 has it's own "pivot" concept as well. "Alternative style" aquariums are hear to stay. Stay tuned!
I suppose the best thing about "building" these "thought aquariums" is that you can sort of imagine the process, and visualize not only the finished product, but the potential issues you'll have along the way- without leaks, rock cave-ins, and dead fishes. You can think through the exotic...and even the mundane- all without needing a single towel...at least until it comes time to execute.
Sure, eventually it becomes time to pull the trigger, and when it does, you've at least had the chance to visualize some of the more obvious- and maybe a few less obvious- potential pitfalls of your design- perhaps encouraging "edits" before you even start the process!
My biggest problem always has been the lack of time, aquarium space, and resources to pull off every crazy idea floating around in my mind. I suppose it definitely impacts many of you, too! That's why I've had these "build offs" in my head between competing concepts, in which the "winner" ends up being the one I built. Not the most satisfying thing- 'cause I want to build 'em all...but practicality reigns, right?
What ideas are floating around in that "dream fish room" in your head? And which ones will you bring to life soon?
Keep dreaming. Keep scheming. Keep "executing" on some of those crazy ideas...even if they're only "built" in the dark recesses of your imagination between 11:00PM and 6:00AM...At some point, you'll have the means and to make them reality.
And we'll be here to help you pack your suitcase accordingly.
Stay creative. Stay innovative. Stay passionate...
And Stay Wet.
“Stay the course.”
You hear that expression in lots of endeavors, ranging from sports to business, to investing. It’s sound advice, a great philosophy,
This sort of thinking has been on my radar a lot over the past year or so as I watched a number of my favorite sports teams persevere through challenge after challenge to win championships in their respective leagues.
How did they accomplish this? What was their secret weapon? Skill? Talent? Of course. Belief and will? Yeah, belief that they were as good as anyone, and the will to buy into a system, understand it, and stay the course regardless of challenges.
Think about it. Having a vision, then developing and executing a plan to achieve it is a powerful thing. And it’s totally applicable to the aquarium hobby...in every way possible.
Everyone wants a beautiful, healthy tank, and there are so many ways to get to the same place. We can embrace any number of philosophies. As a hobbyist, when you are setting out to create an aquarium, you have so many choices in equipment, livestock, technique, etc. that it’s almost overwhelming, isn’t it? I mean, you could try a different "approach" setting up a new tank every week for years!
The most important thing, in my opinion, is to have a goal. And not only to have a goal…but to have a commitment to that goal. Not to waiver when things go wrong, or when others question your techniques and methods.
In sports, they call it “mental toughness.”
In this hobby, you are constantly “reminded” by well-intended armchair “experts” that what you’re doing isn’t the right way, or that you’re embarking on an exercise in futility…
You know, the whole "naysayer" thing.
Why is this?
I thought that there might be at least two possibilities:
Perhaps people are jealous, because you’re displaying the courage to try doing things a bit differently. Or, maybe it’s just that some of these detractors need to feel better about the dogmatic way that they run their aquariums- or their lives, for that matter, and the lack of original thinking they bring to the table.
Or, maybe they WANT to see you fail, because your idea CAN’T be right. After all, THEY weren't the one that thought about it…Are hobbyists really this mean spirited and negative? I should hope not. But I must tell you, I have experienced a bit of this from hobbyists in the past. Hobbyists that, for whatever reason, just felt that it was their obligation to dissuade you from following your plan. We've talked about this a lot, because it comes up a lot.
“Mental toughness” is surprisingly important in aquarium keeping…Not only to keep the naysayers at bay, but to keep focused. It’s so darned easy to be detracted in this hobby. So easy to “drink the Koolade” and buy into the collective mindset because “that’s how it’s done.”
Why not be the one who tells yourself how it's done?
We heard it at Tannin all the time while plotting the startup: “You can’t sell the product mix you offer…put up WYSIWYG wood, get people excited by leaves and seed pods, etc. It’s a waste of time pursuing obscure products from overseas suppliers; you can’t sustain the pace, it will drain your resources….” Or, my personal fave- from a very jaded Industry insider: “You can’t have guarantee policies that favor the consumer- they’ll abuse it and you’ll just bleed money…”
Stuff like that.
So pessimistic, really. If we would have listened to all of the unsolicited "advice" were were given, you'd see a very different company than you do now, believe me.
As a hobbyist, you just can’t let yourself buy into that sort of thinking. It will not only hold YOU back- it will hold the hobby in general back, because if you’re beaten into submission any time you dare think against the prevailing “norms”, you’ll never take that next step that can push the hobby ahead in some manner.
Also, at the risk of beating a very well-flogged horse (at least in this forum), I hate to see soem hobbyists feel that you need to keep “such and such” a fish, coral, or plant in your tank because it’s “hot” right now. This seems to be super relevant in the reef side of things, where trends come and go very quickly. It’s really weird, in my opinion- but super obvious to anyone who's observed reef keeping "culture" over the past few years. Are we so unsure of our own “coolness” that we feel it necessary to replicate everyone else’s? I hope not.
Inspiration is one thing. But doing something because you think others will give you respect is not.
In my opinion, this is exactly what we should NOT be doing as hobbyists. For goodness’ sake, just keep the fish and plants that YOU like. Build your system the way that you want to. As long as you’re not doing something dangerous or downright cruel and reckless, responsible experimentation is a good thing. You’re not keeping a tank to pander to the masses or win a “tank of the week/month/year” award. If you are, there is something else wrong with you, IMHO!
So, the idea here is to simply be yourself. Enjoy the hobby. Don’t be trapped by someone else’s definition of what is “cool.” I can’t help but implore you to be yourself above anything else, in both the hobby and in life. Realize that things that YOU do inspire so many every day. We're honored to share your pics and ideas every day in our social media feeds! They're amazing!
Push on through the algae. Persevere when the first biofilms appear- especially if you haven't seen them in an aquarium before...Be patient while your aquarium evolves. Regardless of what others tell you. You have a plan. You have a goal. You have talents.
You're driven. And you're excited!
It is ridiculously appropriate to end this piece with the well-worn, oft-used, yet consumate Steve Jobs quote:
“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Stay the course.
And most important…
One of my earliest fish memories was a 30-gallon display tank that my dad had in our living room, which showed off some of his fancy Blue Delta Tail guppies...He was a serious guppy breeder, and growing up around that was just so cool. I got to help hatch brine shrimp at age four, clean filters at age five...well, you get it. I had my first non-livebearing-fish spawning- Rasbora- when I was like 7 or 8 years old.
Yet, I can't forget the aesthetic of seeing crystal clear water and tons of my favorite all-time plant, Water Sprite (Ceratopteris thalictroides). And there was something about seeing that thick covering of plants in that tank which was compelling, yet serene. Occasionally, you'd see a few babies poking in and out of the 'sprite, and that was always so exciting! And I thought about all of the guppy breeding books that I poured over as a kid, reading about small tanks with dense growth of Water Sprite for giving birth to, and later rearing fry. I loved the idea of rearing fry in nicely planted tanks...tanks which looked good, as well as provided some utility for spawning. To this day, Water Sprite is my favorite aquatic plant, hands down.
Yet, plastic breeding traps were becoming more and more prevalent with livebearer enthusiasts...and I could see what was attractive about them from a functionality standpoint: I mean, you could easily isolate and collect the fry, and you didn't have to keep them in the "birthing tank" for growout...It was about efficiency and function. Very important if you're a serious breeder producing for show or commercial purposes and avoiding losses by hungry mothers, I suppose...but again- just sort of a utilitarian vibe that seemed to me to be so clinical...so...sterile.
Fast forward a few years, and I was playing with killifish, and I was keeping fishes like Epiplatys (my fave genus of killies), and some Fp. gardneri, and some assorted "top spawning" Aphysemion species...And I was really into breeding them...and yeah, I tried the spawning mop thing in bare aquairum, which DID work well at getting a maximum egg count and facilitating easy removal...highly efficient-but it seemed to lack- I dunno- soul, maybe?
There was something oddly compelling- romantic, even- about looking into a densely platned 2.5 gallon tank and caching a glimpse of a few fry poking about. Occasionally, one would pop out that was already a nicely-sized juvenile- a very pleasant byproduct of having a safe area to hunker down in as he/she grew. I fell back in love with this concept when I spent some time admiring my friend Dave's densely planted livebearer tank, replete with tons of different fry of different types flitting in and out of the plants!
When I bred Kribs, I just had no desire to use a clay flower pot or coconut shell for a "cave". Nope- better to supply lots of cool rocks and let the fish do what they had done for eons...find a good spot in the rocks and occupy it as they saw fit.
Again, much respect to the super breeders of fishes like Discus and Angels who use spawning cones and such in a sterile tank and enjoy tremendous success. I know that these are touchy spawners, and that efficiency and all that jazz is so important. But again, I guess I'd rather forgo some efficiency for a little bit of soul. I mean, your talking to a guy who hand selects every botanical item he ships...inefficient by any business standard, but entirely satisfying by other standards.
I guess it boils down to how we look at it as fish breeders. I mean, I have nothing but admiration for those who breed. You inspire and motivate everyone. I suppose the efficiencies and utilitarian practices and...breeding traps- go with the territory to soem extent. Yet, I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the idea of a bare tank and a rock or whatever to spawn fishes. I guess I look at the spontaneous clutches of Apisto fry, or whatever, that appear in our customers' botanical-style aquariums, and I think to myself, "THEY'RE not in a sterile breeding tank...look what happened!"
Sure, some "control" might be ceded by just keeping fishes you intend to spawn in an attractively arranged, more natural setting...but is that always a bad thing? I mean, I suppose if your hobby is the actual spawning and rearing of fishes, you want to do everything in your power to control the situation and create the best possible outcome. I just can't get my head around that "breeding trap" sort of concept, for some reason...Which, of course, is why I'll never be a great fish breeder!
On the other hand, as a "incidental" breeder of fishes, I can appreciate the hard work that the serious guys and gals do, and their technique- as much as I do the spontaneity and joy of finding your Rams guarding a clutch of eggs in your biotope tank, or discovering that you wild Bettas are spawning in the pods you laid out...
In the end, we all have our specialties. We all enjoy this amazing hobby how we want to... And it's great to breed fishes- whether it's sort of "accidental", because you created a great habitat that encouraged it, or because you employed all sorts of procedure, technique, and gear..like a breeding trap, for example.
What's your take on this stuff? Are you an "opportunistic fish breeder", who relies on nature to do a lot of the work, or are you a hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool fish breeder, who uses skill, technique, and specialized equipment to conduct controlled breeding? Have you "crossed over" and tried the other way?
Until next time...keep doing what you do.
Stay bold. Stay engaged. Stay dedicated.
And Stay Wet.
As we get more and more into this botanical-style, blackwater thing, we learn more and more interesting things about how these types of aquariums perform over the long term, and how you manage the systems with all of the "stuff" in there, breaking down and imparting their tannins, humic substances, and bound-up organic materials.
From a physical standpoint, we don't really have a problem with the leaves, seed pods, and other materials breaking down in the aquarium. Once you've made that "mental leap" to accept this as a very natural look and function, then it's a matter of making it all work. Fortunately, we as a community have moved beyond the initial perception (particularly from the "nun-initiated") that, just because our water is brown, and because our tanks contain decomposing leaves, that they're "dirty" or "out of control", or "poorly maintained." (all things we heard a lot a couple of years ago...and still do on occasion)
Now, although we've addressed this stuff before, with so many people getting into the game, it makes sense to review it from time to time- especially in light of the many different types of setups that our community is utilizing botanicals in (i.e.; planted aquariums, hardscapes, fry rearing tanks, dedicated botanical/leaf litter systems, etc.). And let's face it, with more people, comes more knowledge, more refinement of technique, and more opportunity for us all to learn together!
One of the concerns we hear a lot is that when botanicals (specifically, leaves, but everything else, too!) break down, they end up in little pieces that can end up creating a bit of a mess if they start accumulating in filter intakes and such. It's a valid question, because, let's face it- we've been "trained" throughout our fishy careers to look at debris and such with a certain degree of disdain- not only from an aesthetic standpoint- but from a maintenance one as well!
First off, as we all know, stuff does break down over time. Some leaves, like Catappa, tend to be less durable than others and are far more "transitory" in nature than say, Guava, Magnolia, or Jackfruit, which tend to be more durable and take a much, much longer time to fully break down in the aquarium. That being said, Catappa tends to break down gradually, over a period of a few (maybe 2-3 weeks, depending on various factors, such as temperature, pH, water movement, fish foraging, etc.), and you'll see it breaking up, at which time you can either physically remove it, or leave it in to completely break down.
Now, with regard to the decomposing leaves getting sucked into filters and such...it can happen, but I have not personally had this be a factor in my tanks. And coming as I do fro ma reefing background, where we are incredibly paranoid about debris that can clog overflow weirs and intakes and such, I am acutely aware of the need to monitor this stuff. However, I have personally found that, unless you're directing a lot of flow right into the botanical bed (which you wouldn't likely do, because you'll have stuff being dispersed everywhere-you're more likely to use indirect flow), most of the debris that occurs from leaf/botnanical breakdown tends to stay "low" in the tank, where it is easily removed manually if desired. Surface skimmers, or intakes placed higher up the water column are one easy solution, but a combination of stuff usually does the trick.
And, believe it or not, I've found that one of your best allies in keeping stuff out of the water column (and therefore, filter intakes and such) is...biofilm! Yes, biofilm, the previously vilified, snotty-looking stuff that accumulates on your botanicals over time, causing much consternation for the uninitiated or neophyte "tinter", until he/she realizes that they are ubiquitous in nature, and highly beneficial as a food source and localized nutrient processing "vehicle." This stuff actually helps function as a sort of "biological glue" which not only weighs down some of the leaves and such, but holds them in place, keeping them from floating all over the place should they catch a favorable current.
And while we're at it, a quick refresher on biofilms: They are essential and absolutely natural. When terrestrial materials fall into the water, opportunistic life forms, ranging from algae to fungi to bacteria, will colonize the available space, taking out a living as they compete for resources.
In addition to helping to break down some of these terrestrial materials, the life forms that inhabit submerged tree branches and such reproduce rapidly, providing forage for insects and aquatic crustaceans, which, in turn are preyed upon by fishes. Yeah, a food chain...started by a piece of tree or plant that fell in the forested was covered by water during periods of inundation. Amazing.
And sure, the aesthetic "shift" that we make when we accept the presence of biofilms, decomposition, and even a bit of algae is hard for many of us.
I get it. We, as a group, like things orderly. We like to see things looking "pristine" and well-kept...and I understand that well. For decades I was the guy in who's tanks you wouldn't see a speck of algae...Like, none. My reef tanks were so clean-looking that one of my friends jokingly suggested that "you could give birth in there..."
But guess what? "sterile" is not natural. At least, not in most aquatic habitats. I see how planted tank people take great care to optimize the environment for the plants, eliminating any algae they can find, in favor of lush plant growth. And that makes sense in that context. However, when I see systems comprised of perfectly "ratio-obeying" rocks, covered in mosses, with neat "lawns" of low-cut, perfectly manicured grass on the substrate, the word "natural" doesn't immediately come to mind. Rather, I find them stunningly beautiful; artistic- much in the same manner as a finely-kept garden or planter box. Respect for the enormous effort and talent that went in to planning, executing, and maintaining the tank. However, I take exception with the (IMHO) overstated and all-encompassing moniker of "natural-looking" ascribed to many such tanks. Natural, perhaps in the sense that plants are growing there, with fertilizers, etc...but that's about it, IMHO.
So, understanding that, while biofilms and decomposition are part of the biological "load" of the aquarium, they are not inherently "bad" or "dangerous"- they're part of the natural ecology of underwater systems, and it's good to see hobbyists finally embracing them and their cohorts in our aquariums!
In fact, most aquatic animals simply thrive in their presence...We've just never "embraced them" before...rather, we've removed 'em immediately, much the way one might squash an ant, or pull a weed from the garden...not moving beyond the initial revulsion, and failing to take into account the true "functionality" they bring to an aquarium. We've talked about biofilms in detail before, and I think it's not bad to give ourselves a "refresher" on them now and then!
Now, all of our "zen-like" acceptance of the wabi-sabi nature of leaves and the presence of biofilms and detritus and such, but the fact is, when you add materials like leaves and botanicals into your tanks, they are part of the biological load that your system needs to adjust to. We've talked about it a lot before, but there are dangers of adding too much too fast. The beneficial bacteria which break down biological waste can only grow so fast, so a huge influx of leaves or botanicals in a brief time span in an existing aquarium can certainly have some negative effects, including a rapid decrease in oxygen levels. The key, as we've stressed repeatedly, is to move slowly, incrementally. Sure, one you gain experience, you'll know how far you can "push it", but nature doesn't really care about your "experience"- if the conditions aren't right and the bacteria in your system cannot accommodate a rapid significant increase in bioload, she'll kick your ass like a personal trainer!
Respect nature. Learn from her.
We benefit immensely when we consider our botanical-style aquariums- or any type of aquarium, for that matter- as a small ecosystem, which has inputs, outputs, cycles, and rhythms, all of which are dictated by the fungi and bacteria which are the real "workers" in our aquariums. We can assist by performing the same types of maintenance we'd do on any aquarium: Regular water changes, filter media cleaning/replacement, and common sense stocking and feeding of our fishes. Much like a reef tank, or a planted aquarium, for that matter, I believe that a botanical-style aquarium will find a sort of "functional equilibrium" over time which works. It may take a bit of playing with stocking, botanical additions, and husbandry practices by you to help your system "find" it's path- but it will happen. And make no doubt- a botanical system will "correct" for any errors via chemical imbalances, CO2 increases, and overall functional challenges if you push.
Active management is part of the game with botanical-style aquariums. Although they settle down nicely once established, they are simply not "set and forget" aquariums (as if ANY of them really are, if we're honest with ourselves?)...
This is not new.
Conceptually, it's not unknown to us as aquarium hobbyists. However, the context in which this occurs- and accepting things like decomposition, biofilms, leaves on the bottom, etc., as part of the visual "ecosystem" - is a bit different. They're more "overtly functional"- that is, you can actually "see" the tangible evidence of the processes in many cases, which would otherwise be occurring out of sight in other systems (in the filter, under the sand, in "cryptic areas" in the tank, etc.). Not everyone will like this. Not everyone will agree with the philosophy or concept as I'm presenting it here. It's a point of view that accepts way more than we're used to- and also one in which we 'cede" a bit more control to nature, and question more...and have much, much more to learn about, too.
That makes some hobbyists uncomfortable, and that's perfectly understandable. There is still a lot of room for experimentation and input from hobbyists at all levels.
As a botanical/blackwater aquarium enthusiast, you're going to become more attuned to these processes. Much will come out of necessity, and other parts of the equation will perk your fascination, spurring you to research more. You'll want to educate yourself more on the nitrogen cycle, the role that terrestrial materials play in the aquatic environment, and how fishes and other aquatic organisms "fit" into the grand scheme of things. You'll become as much an "aquarium ecologist" as a fish keeper!
It's an always-changing, continuously-evolving cycle of life. And we get to see it all in the comfort of our own home.
I don't think we as aquarists couldn't ask for much more than that.
Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay involved.
And Stay Wet.
As fish geeks, we have this incredible "intuition" about stuff, don't we? Not only that, we just know when something bad is going to happen in our aquariums. If you've been in this game long enough, you develop a sort of fishy "sixth sense", and can really tune in on things that affect your tank; your fishes.
You ever get that suspicion that something is just “not right” with your tank? You do a little investigation, and notice that the problem appears to be something minor: The reason your tank looked a bit darker is that the cover glass over your LED pendant was a bit dirty. Easy fix. You wipe it down and move on.
Of course, for every easy, quickly-solved issue, there are other signs...things that you notice over time and know that you need to address...like, pronto!
Stuff that you kind of "know" could turn into a larger, more serious problem. Stuff you might keep "putting off" because the idea of dealing with it is just too painful, or at the very least- more than you feel like handling at the moment. We all do this. However, you KNOW better. It's time to face your fears directly. These things don't go away on their own...at least, not without extracting a great physical, emotional, and economic cost.
Deal with them now. Please.
1) That small drip...means something. You regularly notice a bit of dried mineral or an occasional, yet consistent "dampness" near a plumbing connection. It’s obvious that the fit isn’t perfect, and that you have a very small leak. A lot of hobbyists will simply note it and accept this as a “self-curing” problem. It will mineralize and create a natural seal. But isn’t that near-constant leak bothering you? Could it be indicative of a greater problem, or simply an isolated instance of an ill-fitted connection? Who cares! Fix it now, by either re-fitting the section, or utilizing a material like "Rescue Tape" to create a more permanent seal. No time like the present. Over time, “small” leaks can often result in major water damage or other issues for your aquarium and the room in which it resides.
2) That Sword Plant is declining steadily. It’s apparently the only one in your tank that’s doing poorly. Its started with a hint of algae on the tips...now it's like a "patina" all over, and some of the leaves are showing some "wear and tear." Time to finally roll up your sleeves and take a serious look. You need to take some action- either snipping off large portions of the affected plants, or simply removing it all together. Don't be like me: I tend to sit on this kind of stuff…like, indefinitely…until I have a plant with...no leaves…much to my dismay. Just yank an unhealthy plant out!
3) Getting a handle on your system’s water chemistry is important. Yeah, I know. I’ve went on and on about you not getting obsessive about shooting for specific"numbers" on your test kits. I still believe that firmly. However, I also believe that you need to get an initial “baseline” reading on your environmental parameters. It will make it easier to spot trends- both good and bad- in your aquarium. Test when your tank is looking awesome. This will establish what is “normal” for your system. Obviously, if the condition of your tank starts to decline, you’ve drifted away from what was "ideal" for your system. The same tests conducted at that time will no doubt confirm a few things. Use the differences as a means to determine an acceptable range. In a botanical style blackwater aquarium, there are a lot of moving parts, and you best get a handle on them, without being "handicapped" by "absolutes." Don’t obsess over your TDS being exactly “X”, or your pH being exactly 6.3, or whatever. Understand that it may fall into a narrow range that is acceptable for your fishes, without disease or other serious consequences occurring. Stability within a range. Understand what the consequences are-both good and bad- for your system when parameters deviate from the "baseline." You can't guess at this stuff. It’s never bad to have information.
4) Is it time for backup? I've been astounded over the years at the sheer amount of money fish geeks will spend assembling a huge dream tank or fish room, and then not take the extra steps to ensure its survival in an emergency. With all of the storms, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, power interruption is more of a possibility than ever before, and lack of power for even a few hours can doom your expensive and precious collection in some instances. Why would you not protect the investment with a battery backup or backup generator? It may seem like a luxury, but when you take into account just how much time, energy and money you’ve invested into your tanks, spending a several hundred dollars/pounds/euro on a dedicated generator to keep the lights, heat, and circulation going after the power fails just makes sense, doesn’t it? In my opinion, it should be as important a part of your planning as developing the correct stocking program, or purchasing the right lighting system for your aquarium. Consider this from day one of the planning of your next dream tank/fish room. You will not regret it, trust me.
5) That __________ has become a real problem. You've taken a "calculated risk" by adding this guy to your aquarium when you knew- everyone knew- that you shouldn't. But you nobly pressed on with your plan. It started out okay, but he's gotten a bit too "comfortable" and now considers the whole tank his territory. It's a real problem. Not only is he chasing all of your other fishes around the tank relentlessly, he's digging up your substrate! Removing this fish is going to be almost impossible without tearing apart your tank! It’s gonna suck. What to do? In my opinion, you can do one of two things: Continuously subject your other fishes to disease-causing stress, and watch your pricy fish collection shrink continuously, or you can suck it up, start breaking apart some of your beloved hardscape, and getting the offender out. Wow! That’s pretty radical! You could try fish traps, trying to get the fish out at night…whatever. But in the end, almost inevitably, you’ll end up tearing some or all of your hardscape out to get the fish out before it decimates the tank. It’s always an "ego blow", a disappointment, and a royal pain in the ass. Reality. Of course, the alternative is to watch your other animals suffer continuously. Trust me, after doing this, you’ll never take a “calculated risk” again quite so easily! Unfortunately, it’s a clear cut example of the "..needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, or the one...” as Mr. Spock would say. Bite the bullet and get him out.
6) The heater seems to be having trouble holding a steady temp. The tank is drifting way more than you’d expect from day/night variations. Perhaps it’s running a bit warmer? If you have a controller, it’s really easy to spot this problem. Regardless, you need to have a backup for critical components like heaters and system pumps. These things don’t have infinite life spans, as you may have surmised. Even the best ones can fail. It's a simple reality. Build items like a backup main system pump and backup heaters into your overall budget when you build your system. Yeah, forgo that one extra crazy rare wild Discus pair and have these backups in your closet “just in case.” Usually, the “just in case” seems to come at night. On a holiday weekend. During a snowstorm. Right after you paid that huge roofing repair bill. ‘Nuff said.
7) You have a life. You travel a lot, work hard, and are simply not always around. On occasion, you’ll need to entrust your tank to someone else. Maybe that person is an experienced aquarist if you’re lucky. Maybe you have a controller that will at least tip you off to a failure. Maybe not. Maybe, you’ll have to talk that person through some sort of emergency procedure from thousands of miles away. You can make the process somewhat less dramatic and daunting by taking just a few steps. First, make sure that you label every plumbing connection, every power cord, every switch, and every piece of equipment. This may seem insanely time consuming, but it just might save your aquarium or entire fish room if you need a rapid response from someone who isn't familiar with it. Trust me, there are few things more difficult than trying to simultaneously diagnose a problem from a distance, while telling the person taking care of your tank which valve to turn, or which cord to disconnect. It’s one of those projects that you can do as you set up your system that will pay potential dividends when you need it the most.
Okay, so I’ve given you my top seven things that I don’t think you can ignore. You must have dozens more, no doubt! It’s part of being an aquarium hobbyist- solving problems. Or in the case of some of these things- identifying them BEFORE they become serious problems!
Let’s hear some of your favorite aquarium-related things that you simply cannot afford to ignore. Please share, so that we can all add your experiences to ours! The tank you save might just be your own!
Until next time..
Stay vigilant. Stay observant. Stay confident. Stay prepared.
And Stay Wet.
If you're like me, you love talking to and reading about other hobbyists, and seeing how they do stuff. I love to sort of "peek in" on other "worlds" in which I may not operate. I not only gain some knowledge, but I pick up ideas that could be applied to whatever I happen to be working on at the time...
For example, I love reading forums on livebearers, in particular, the wild ones. I Love the work these people are doing; how they're managing some endangered populations of fishes, and seeing how they use their insanely good fish keeping skill to maintain and breed some of the more unusual varieties. Man, if I could just find one fro ma blackwater habitat....I can spend hours on the American Livebearer Association forums, just seeing how they roll. I love the technique, care levels, and ideas they share.
And I haven't kept a livebearer in years.
But I'd like to.
And what about the African Cichlid keepers? I love perusing websites and forums that cater to this section of the hobby. The cool thing to me is that there are so many different subspecialties within the African Cichlid world, that there is something for everyone. Like, the Lake Tanganyika people alone have shell-dweller specialists, and others who work with fishes from the sandy or muddy bottom environments (one of those obscure, yet irresistible niches that I can't help but be fascinated by!), and all sorts of pelagic and even benthic varieties to work with.
Yeah, if I were doing African Cichlids, I'd be a "Lake Tang" guy for sure.
And of course, one can't leave the cichlid world without taking a glance at the Biotodoma cupido...one of my fave "Eartheaters"- another fish I'd love to invite into my home for a while. I don't know why the idea of a sandy-bottomed aquarium with some wood, rocks, and a few hefty botanicals appeals to me so much...I suppose something about sand from my reef keeping background or something, right? I have kept these fish before in an aquarium that really wasn't set up just for them, yet I have this fantasy of a nicely-filtered setup with reasonably clear water and a mixed bed of sand for them to do their "benthophagous- lifestyle" thing...
Wow. So many varied ideas...so many different types of fishes and habitats for just cichlids...one could easily spend a lifetime playing with all of the different ones out there, huh? They could easily take me out of my blackwater realm into entirely different directions... And seeing what others have done to accommodate the diversity of this family really inspired me...For some reason, Mike Tuccinardi's Rio Xingu biotope aquarium does this to me! There is something extremely compelling about this tank that has grabbed me like few others that I've seen lately!
I love the idea of taking inspiration from- but maybe not being completely "biotopically obsessive"-about different types of habitats or niches, incorporating different types of fishes. It's just another avenue for my fishy obsessions...
So, that's why I have this fantasy about keeping some of the more obscure gouramis and wild Bettas...I mean, you've got small, interestingly-colored blackwater-loving fishes that are remarkably unique and as fascinating as the environments from which they come.
I could just imagine a small, interestingly- appointed blackwater tank, replete with lots of leaves and roots and palm fronds, and all kinds of stuff- with a little community of some diminutive gouramis or other anabantoid fishes...Just managing a tank like this would be fun in and of itself..but working with almost any of the cool fishes that inhabit this type of habitat could become a whole different obsession....
Speaking of obsessions, I've sort of had this off-again/on-again fascination throughout my lifetime with killifishes. The colors, size, lifestyle, and spawning habits of these fishes are obsession-inducing in and of themselves.
There is something altogether fascinating about keeping fishes that are from such obscure, yet highly specific locales as to have names like "Aphyosemion Calliurum Funge ADL 2013/39!" Yeah, and there is something only the initiated can grasp about packing up some peat fibers filled with annual killifish eggs- little time travelers- and packaging them up for hatching 9-12 months later. It's a very "romantic" process, when you think about it. Think of how much your life- or the world, for that matter- can change in 9-10 months while you incubate these eggs in a plastic sandwich bag, or the fact that some of these eggs are "programmed" not to hatch during that time span; only to remain in incubation for...years, potentially...wow!
When you think about all of the different fishes that we as aquarists keep, admire, and breed, it's truly remarkable. There are "experts" and "specialists" for virtually everything we keep. It's as much a tribute to the "spell" that fishes hold over us as it is the skill of those who play with them. I suppose that's why it's always a good thing that many beginners start with the venerable "community tank", and ultimately find out their obsessions and start specializing in them...Kind of like the "General Education" classes you have to take in your first year of college- you often need to try a variety of fishes and aquarium types before ultimately arriving at the one- or 100- types of fishes that grab your fancy!
There is almost no reason to be bored or "burned out" on this hobby. I've spent a lifetime playing with fishes, personally and professionally, and I have yet to be "done" with them in any way. Oh, sure, the interests flip-flop or evolve over time, with different fishes occupying my "I'm obsessed" list- but it's always SOME fish- SOME new tank idea...something that piques the interest, compels me. And I know it's the same with most of you.
This hobby, this interest...this obsession- with fishes and the habitats from which they come, is not just something you can set up a tank for and be satisified, IMHO. I think the true fish geek is simply never "done" with this stuff. Sure, tastes may change, levels of commitment may wax and wane- but we always come back and try something else. It's the reason 50-100 tank fish rooms exist...
Because we just can't let it go...we can stop "iterating" ideas, or trying new stuff. Even the most hardcore, focused "guppy gal" or "cichlid guy" has a tank full of...Rainbowfishes, or whatever- lurking somewhere in their vast fish room collection.
Yeah, it's an obsession, isn't it? With thousands of species possibilities, and hundreds of sub-specialities within the various families of fishes, there is literally a fish for everyone- at every skill level- with almost any interest.
Guess it's time for another tank...or should I say, "tanks?"
Stay obsessed. Stay engaged. Stay fascinated.
And Stay Wet.
As we all know, nothing lasts forever.
And it's especially true with our botanicals. From the minute you prepare a leaf or botanical for use in the aquarium, it begins to break down. The processes of hot water steeping, boiling, or soaking start to soften the tissues of the leaves or seed pods, and they begin the gradual, but irreversible process of breaking down, at a pace, or "cadence" which nature determines.
As they break down, more and more materials (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall environment. Some, like Catappa leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "tint level" you've started to achieve in your aquarium.
Knowing when to replace them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially. Once you get used to working with them, you may be able to notice pH increased, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators which can clue you in that it's time to replace them.
On the other hand, many types of seed pods will last much longer periods of time than leaves in most aquariums, yet may not impart their tannins and other substances as quickly as say, leaves, simply because their very structure is different than the softer, thinner leaves. Many will hold their form for a very long period of time, yet may not be releasing quite as much tannins or humic substances as they were initially.
Again, it's sort of a judgement call. Without the ability to measure the levels of the specific substances that botanical items are imparting into your tank (and, quite frankly, knowing just what they are!), it's really about "nuancing it", isn't it? Like so many other things in this hobby, you sort of have to take a "best guess", or go with your instincts. Hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of tank. It's not like, our example, a reef tank, where we have detailed chemical baselines for seawater parameters, and 32-component ICP-OES tests to establish baselines and measure deviations from them.
Nope. It's about nuance, observation, "feel"... finesse.
Obviously, you need to obey all of the common best practices of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, nutrient export, etc. in a botanical-style blackwater aquarium. However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well.
Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium. It's about understanding a balance, a quantity, a "cadence" for adding stuff, so that the closed environment of your aquarium can assimilate the new materials, and the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms which serve to break them down can adjust.
Rapid, dramatic environmental shifts are never a good thing for any type of aquarium, and a system like we run, with lots of organic material present, is just as susceptible to insults from big moves as any other- perhaps even more.
Again, the key here is that "cadence"- understanding that the material we add needs to be added-and replaced- on a pace that makes sense for your specific system. Those of us who have been maintaining these types of tanks for some time now really get this, and have a great "feel" for how our tanks run in this fashion.
Again, there is no "plug and play" formula to follow- only procedure. Only recommendations for how to approach things. We sound a bit like the proverbial "broken record"; however, like so many things in aquarium-keeping, our "best practices" are few, simple and need to be repeated until they simply become habit:
1) Prepare all botanicals prior to adding them to your aquarium.
2) Add botanical materials slowly and gradually, assessing the impact on your aquarium environments and inhabitants.
3) Either remove botanical materials as they break down (if that's your aesthetic preference), or replace them when they reach a point where they are no longer providing the aesthetic and environmental conditions that you desire.
If you noticed, the first practice is simply logical. You need to employ it...if there were ever a "hard and fast rule in the botanical/blackwater game, this would be it. Number 2 is all about the cadence...the "secret", if you will, which sort of sets up everything else. BY observing and assessing, you'll get a real feel for how botanicals work in your aquarium. And #3 is the real "finesse" part of the equation...the nuance, the subtle, yet noticeable adjustments and corrections we make to keep things moving along nominally- sort of like pruning in a planted tank, or weeding a garden...it's a process.
In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion as you do procedure- all done in the proper time...at the right cadence.
Stay focused. Stay in touch. Stay attuned.
And Stay Wet.
Much has been discussed about the proper foods feed our fishes, and lots of anecdotal and other evidence and theories have been bandied about by hobbyists for decades about who eats what and where. It's one of the more interesting and intruiging topics of discussion we have as hobbyists, in my opinion, and there are so many factors which contribute to "who eats what" among the fishes that we keep in our aquariums.
Some of the most interesting food sources for tropical to me involve what scientists call allochthonous input, such as plant materials and terrestrial insects. And even more interesting are organisms like "tree-living sponges", which become part of the food chain during higher water periods of time in the intruiging Amazonian streams we obsess about so much here.
And of course, there's algae.
Now, the interesting thing to me is that the fishes in blackwater, leaf-litter habitats depend little on algae as a primary food-mainly because there's not a whole lot of it in these habitats. They'll eat the stuff when it's available, but because algal densities are lsol ow in this type of habitat, fewer creatures (Pseudopalaemon sp. shrimp are an exception) consume algae as their primary food source.
And, with varying seasonal water levels in these streams, food inputs and fish populations change in both size and composition, creating a sort of "partitioning" of available resources.
Many fish species take food from what are known as "allochthonous sources" (i.e. food originated from sources outside the aquatic habitat), such as insects, other invertebrates, and plant parts that fall from the nearby trees. Like, remember seeing films of Pacus chowing on fruits that fall in the water? I've even seen pics of Arowanna leaping out of the water to pluck a frog off of a branch! And then, of course, there are terrestrial insects, which form a large part of the diet of many fishes.
Yeah, terrestrial insects are a very important and significant part of the diet of some small characins. In fact, a study of some Hemmigramus species indicated that a whopping 96% of their stomach contents were terrestrial insects, mainly...ants! This is actually not surprising, when you think about it, because ants are ridiculously abundant in tropical forests, and in particular in the central Amazon basin, where scientific surveys have estimated that they may constitute as much as three-quarters of the biomass of the soil fauna!
In addition to providing a potentially rich source of energy for Characins, ants tend to become vulnerable to predation once in the water, so they are "easy pickings" for tetras! The predominance of ants in the gut content analysis of Hemmigramus, Hypessobrycon, and other tetras may also indicate that these species feed naturally on the surface of the water, given that these insects tend to float and flail away on the surface after falling into the water.
The "allochthonous inputs" of tropical streams are really fascinating to me, for the reason that these are some of the easiest food items in many fishes's diets for us to replicate as naturally as possible. We've discussed before that items like Blood Worms represent an excellent, highly "realistic" representation of the insect larvae that fishes from these habitats consume.
Since items like ants and various flies are such an important component of the diet of many fishes, including things like fruit flies, small houseflies, and the aforementioned small ants in your fishes' diets is actually a really realistic representation of part of what they consume in the wild!
And then there are fungi, biofilms, and detritus...The literal bottom of the food chain; some of the things we as aquarists have traditionally found the least desirable from an aesthetic standpoint to have in our tanks. Ironically, these are some of the most important components of the food web, and are consumed by a wide variety of aquatic life forms that live in these streams as part of their diet. Again, only certain shrimp present in these waters are more likely to consume them exclusively; however, fishes, being somewhat opportunistic, will consume them "as needed."
And gee, don't we have some good "on site production" of biofilms and fungi in our decomposing leaves and botanicals? Yeah, we sure do! We're really good at that. Many fishes will consume these items as a part of their daily "grazing" activities. Now, our aquarium fishes get a bit spoiled, especially after being with us for a while and knowing that they're never more than a few hours away from stuff like brine shrimp and black worms, etc. However, I can't help but imagine if there is some value to abstaining from feeding them prepared foods say, once a week, to let them sort of engage in their natural, instinctive feeding habits, like picking at the substrate, etc. In a botanical-style aquarium, this type of "feeding abstinence" could easily be achieved, right?