We've talked a lot about creating aquariums to replicate specific habitats...it's kind of what we do here, right? Super rewarding. Yet, it's even more fascinating and rewarding to design an aquarium around a specific fish sometimes.
Especially when it's one that you have coveted for so long, right?
We've all had that ONE fish which just sort of occupies a place in your heart and mind- a fish that-for whatever reason- bites you and never lets go, right? I think that every serious aquarist has at least one such a fish..
Of course, it's also about the habitat.
As a lover of leaf-litter in our botanical-style aquariums, I am fascinated not only by this unique ecological niche, but by the organisms which inhabit it. I've went on and on and spoken at length about many of the microorganisms, fungi, insects, and crustaceans which add to the diversity of this environment. And of course, we've looked at some of the fishes which live there, too!
One of my all-time favorite fishes- and my absolute favorite characin is none other than the amazing Sailfin Tetra, Crenuchus spilurus! This is a truly awesome fish- not only is it attractive and morphologically cool-looking, it has a great demeanor and behaviors which separate it from almost every other characin out there!
It's almost "cichlid-like" in behavior.
It's definitely NOT the most colorful characin on the planet. But there is more than this fish than meets the eye.
It all starts with its intriguing name...
The Latin root of the genus Crenuchus means "Guardian of The Spring"- a really cool, even romantic-sounding name which evokes imagery-and questions! Does it mean the "protector" of a body of water, or some honorary homage to everyone's favorite season? Not sure, but you must agree that the name is pretty cool! In greek, it's krenoychos -"The God of running waters."
Yeah. That's the shit.
The Crenuchidae (South American Darters) is a really interesting family of fishes, and includes 93 species in 12 genera throughout the Amazon region. Most crenuchids are- well, how do we put it delicately- "chromatically unexciting" ( ie; grey-black-brown) fishes, which tend to lie in wait near the substrate (typically leaf litter or aggregations of branches), feeding on insects and micro invertebrates. And the genus Crenuchus consists of just one species, our pal Crenuchus spilurus, a fish which shares habits and a body shape that are more commonly associated with Cyprinids and cichlids!
That's just weird.
The Sailfin is an exception to the "drab" thing, and it's remarkably attractive for a very "simple" benthic-living fish. Sure, on the surface, it's not the most exciting fish out there, especially when it's a juvenile...but it's a fish that you need to be patient with; a fish to search for, collect, hold onto, and enjoy as it matures and grows. As the fish matures, in true "ugly duckling"🐥 style, it literally "blossoms" into a far more attractive fish.
The males have an extended dorsal and anal fin, and are larger and more colorful than females. Yes, colorful is relative here, but when you see a group- you'll notice the sexual dimorphism right away, even among juveniles.
Individuals spend a lot of their time sheltered under dead leaves, branches, roots, and aquatic plants. They tend to "hover", and don't dart about like your typical Tetra would. In fact, their behavior reminds me of the Dartfishes of the Marien aquarium world...They sort of sit and flick their fins, often moving in slow, deliberate motions.
The Sialfin feeds during the daylight hours, and is a mid-water feeder, consuming particulate organic matter, such as aquatic invertebrates, insects, bits of flowers, and fruits- the cool food items from outside of the aquatic environment that form what ecologists call allochthonous input- materials abundant in the botanical habitats which we love to model our aquariums after.
Yeah, we've written about that topic a lot...Trust me, that new "leaf vendor" who's trying desperately to rip off our style and vibe hasn't...'cause, oh, yeah... they just sell stuff and don't bother to write (ouch, a DIG! Yup.)...
Oh, back now from my ugly digression...
Further distinguishing the Sailfin from other characins is the males' parental care (yeah, you read that correctly!) of it's small (for a characin, that is) clutches of eggs (usually only like 100) and larval stages of the fish- characteristic more commonly associated with cichlids than characins!
Are you interested yet?
I first fell for this fish as a kid, when I saw a cool pic of it in a well-worn copy of William T. Innes' classic book, Exotic Aquarium Fishes.
I was hooked from the start, especially when reading about the romantic etymology of the name! And it just seemed so mysterious and unattainable, even in the 1930's...well, especially back in the 1930's, but it seemed downright exotic! And then, tying it together with my love of those leaf-litter-strewn habitats, it was a combo which I couldn't resist!
I never got this fish out of my system, and it took me like 30-plus years of being a fish geek to find this fish in real life. And, you know that I jumped at the chance..So worth the wait! The Sailfin is one of the most engaging and unique fishes I've ever had the pleasure of keeping!
Oh, and they are known to "vocalize', producing an audible "clicking" sort of sound that you can hear outside the aquarium...A very interesting phenomenon!
Although they are a bit solitary in nature, I've found that they've done really well in groups, sometimes forming loose aggregations within the confines of the aquarium, hovering over the leaf/botanical bed, waiting for food. And they have a sort of social order that only they seem to understand, but it's very evident. A fascinating set of activities which makes them even more interesting-and endearing!
Sailfins might be a bit shy initially upon introduction to the aquarium, as these fishes are cautious, rather "sedentary" characins, and don't swim quite as actively as other characins. Getting them to feed regularly in the aquarium- while not difficult- may be a bit of a process, as they are cautious fish, and tend to not stray too far from the botanical cover.
If you have other, more active Tetras and other fishes in the aquarium, they'll be a bit more tentative at first. However, these are decent sized fishes that will eventually overcome their initial shyness, and move confidently- if not slowly-throughout the aquarium.
Once you keep this fish, you'll just sort of "get" it! They're one of the most perfect fishes for the botanical-style, blackwater aquarium, and will fit right in to a well-thought-out community aquarium of smaller fishes, like the less "hyper" Tetras, dwarf cichlids, and catfishes. They're perhaps one of the only characins which we can say has a real individual "personality!"
Yes, my photos suck. And yes, I am geeked out about this fish. And, yes...you need to try them. And yes, if you do, I'll hit you up for better pics! 😍
If you're looking for that "it" fish that will really make your botanical-style aquarium "pop"- adding a real presence and interest to the habitat you've created- give some real consideration to this wonderful fish- if you can find it!
Trust me, having the "Guardian of The Spring" in your aquarium is worth the wait! Your leaf litter aquarium needs this fish!
Yes, we all have that one fish. It's what keeps us passionate about the hobby; keeps us going. Keeps us dreaming, striving, searching.
Stay diligent. Stay resourceful. Stay passionate. Stay relentless...
And Stay Wet.
I can't help but laugh at my own title for this quick one today.
I laugh, because when I first started Tannin, I received a fair amount of raised eyebrows from my friends in the reef keeping community who found it hard to believe that I was giving up my "power spot" in the splashy coral propagation market to start a new venture that sold... "twigs and nuts" (sic).
Now at first, you'd be inclined to agree; the coral world is filled with colorful, high-priced frags and a willing market of people willing to gobble up as many as you can cut, grow, and...photoshop (okay, that's kind of mean, as all reputable coral propagators/vendors don't photoshop their pics, but hey...).
And the world I was entering?
Well, there was no "world"- I mean, not really. No one ever really decided to create an entire company around dark, "dirty" (not MY word!) blackwater aquariums- let alone, almost exclusively offering botanical materials to create and manage them. I kind of had to break out the machete and clear my way through the metaphoric virgin forest...There was no model here. Looking back, I can see how it was a bit funny to some... I mean, well- yeah.
That being said, I'm happy to see so many hobbyists playing with our "twigs and nuts."
Let's think for just a second, about the "twigs"- the stems and branches that we love so much in our aquascaping. Those of us who obsessively study images of the wild tropical habitats we love so much can't help but note that many of the bodies of water which we model our aquariums after are replete with tree branches and stems. Since many of these habitats are ephemeral in nature, they are only filled up with water part of the year. The remainder of the time, they're essentially dry forest floors.
And what accumulates on dry forest floors?
Branches, stems, and other materials from trees and shrubs. When the waters return, these formerly terrestrial materials become an integral part of the (now) aquatic environment. This is a really, really important thing to think of when we aquascape or contemplate who we will use botanical materials like the aforementioned stems and branches. They impact both function and aesthetics of an aquarium...Yes, what we call "functional aesthetics" rears its head again!
There is no real rhyme or reason as to what stuff orients itself the way it does. I mean, branches fall off the trees, a process initiated by either rain or wind, and just land "wherever." Which means that we as hobbyists would be perfectly okay just sort of tossing materials in and walking away! Now, I know this is actually aquascaping heresy- Not one serious 'scaper would ever do that...right?
I'm not so sure why they wouldn't.
I mean, what's wrong with sort of randomly scattering stems, twigs, and branches in your aquascape? It's a near-perfect replication of what happens in nature. Now, I realize that a glass or acrylic box of water is NOT nature, and there are things like "scale" and "ratio" and all of that "gobbldeygook" that hardcore 'scaping snobs will hit you over the head with...
But nature doesn't give a f*^%# about some competition aquascaper's "rules"- and nature is pretty damn inspiring, right? There is a beauty in the brutal reality of randomness. I mean, sure, the position of stones in an "Iwagumi" is beautiful...but it's hardly what I'd describe as "natural."
Which begs the question: Who really cares? Do what you like! Okay, I"m coming around full circle here. The point is that we probably ascribe a bit too much into trying to achieve some completely artistic, perfectly proportioned placement of materials like twigs and branches, and could do a lot worse than literally dropping materials into our tanks (taking into account their size of course).
Okay, I'm rambling on and on and probably digging a larger and deeper hole for myself with a lot of people...But hey- agitating is part of what we do here. We have to think beyond just the obvious, safe stuff now and then, right?
I think so.
Enjoy nature. Savor the utter randomness of "twigs and nuts"- see how your fishes respond. Enjoy the mystery of "exploring" your own tank...and contemplate the natural processes which nature uses to "place" them.
Stay open minded. Stay original. Stay contemplative. Stay unrestrained by convention. Stay curious...
And Stay Wet.
Have you felt a palpable change in our world?
I have. We're all sort of "travelers" along this path of discovery...
The idea of blackwater aquariums, with their tinted color and mysterious aesthetic is hardly "new" to the hobby world. No one really "invented" this. No one was the person who said, "We should all through leaves and seed pods in our tanks..." It just sort of...evolved.
However, it seems to me that in the past few years, we're starting to see the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium move from "freak side show" to a broader, more mainstream acceptance within the hobby- pulling in people from all sorts of disciplines.
Something palpable. Something that calls us.
I've been at this botanical-influenced aquarium thing for about 18 now in "personal practice"; however, at a little over three years old, we're just getting underway with inspiring and motivating hobbyists to "play with pods" via Tannin Aquatics.
Although it seems a bit premature, and perhaps even self-serving to label the idea as a "movement" within the hobby, a number of fellow fish geeks have pointed out to me that they feel this is what's starting to happen; that this is what we have. I mean, you can sort of "feel" it. A lot of new energy, new ideas, and new exposure for this area previously labeled as a "novelty." A lot of cool people are doing some inspiring, amazing work with botanical-influenced aquariums.
We're looking beyond the everyday...
Okay, we will tentatively call it a "movement"- at least for the sake of discussion amongst ourselves, okay?
Already, we've noticed some interesting "trends" emerging among the growing number of hobbyists who are working with these types of tanks. These represent not only interesting developments in style and aesthetic, they demonstrate the level of open-mindedness and experimentation that's becoming so wonderfully and increasingly common in the hobby today.
First off, we're seeing hobbyists going beyond yesterday's "blackwater tanks look dirty" mindset, and embracing the aesthetic for what it is: A very natural-appearing "vibe" that replicates conditions found in certain natural environments around the world.
And with this acceptance of the "look" and ephemeral nature of botanicals in aquairums, a definite "mental shift" has occurred. This to me is most significant and important. Many hobbyists who have previously bought into the prevailing "brown is dirty" mindset are giving blackwater, botanical-influenced tanks a try, rather than flat-out dismissing the idea and (in our opinion) antiquated notions pushed around on the web that these aquariums are difficult to manage, unstable, and otherwise simply "fringe" novelties, rather than a legitimate specialty within the hobby.
We're also seeing a growing body of science-backed evidence that humic substances, a key component of "blackwater" have significant health benefits for fishes, and may be among the most important factors which contribute to their health in both the wild and in captivity.
This revelation backs up what many aquarists who dabbled with catappa leaves and bark and other stuff in botanical-influenced aquariums, particularly Betta breeders in Southeast Asia, have asserted for years. In particular, it's thought that these compounds, derived from botanicals, have anti-fungal and anti-parastic properties, and offer protection against oxidative DNA damage and from physiological stressors. With these health benefits now more clearly understood, there are more reasons than ever to appreciate the role that an environment which accumulates these humic substances can play in overall fish health.
Although the health benefits to fishes are fascinating and actually somewhat of a "game changer", like many hobbyists, my interests lie with the creation of aquarium that present a more natural-looking, functional aesthetic AS WELL as providing the physiological benefits as a sort of "collateral" bonus! And I think we're seeing a lot of hobbyists "getting their feet wet", trying a few leaves and/or botanicals almost tentatively in an aquascape, then "scaling up" to a full-blown, botanical-influenced "blackwater" aquarium.
And with it, not only are we seeing an explosion of new ideas and enthusiasm, we're seeing hobbyists enjoying a sort of "freedom of expression" in their aquascaping that, in some quarters has been lacking for so long, as we rigidly adhered to some "imposed rules" from a variety of sources. These "rules" were, in my opinion, stifling experimentation and individuality, resulting in a dearth of aquascapes, particularly in the international competitions, which looked almost "uniform" in appearance, with a trend towards creating an "underwater diorama", as one friend put it, instead of a miniature "slice of the bottom" as many have desired.
Look, I'm not implying that blackwater, botanical-influenced tanks are the "savior of the hobby", or even "the way forward." However, I am implying that seeing a diversity of hobbyists embrace what has been labeled by some as a radical departure from the "typical" style of aquarium (or previously little more than a "fringe sideshow") -and studying and utilizing the idea as a springboard for success with fishes- and as a form of creative expression- is creating a bit of "movement" in an area that was becoming increasingly one directional. It's nice to see new aquariums taking their cues from nature, instead of from the latest competition winner!
We see tanks set up specifically to create blackwater conditions for breeding. These are typically more "utilitarian" than purposefully aesthetically conceived, yet have a charm of their own. For example, Betta and Apisto keepers, who are creating botanical-influenced tanks for the sole purpose of providing more appropriate conditions for their fishes to spawn and grow in. And, they do just happen to look pretty cool...
We're seeing aquariums set up in a more "thematic" style- down with a high sense of design- a direct pedigree of the "Nature Style" aquarium, yet with a "blackwater/botanical twist." This has led to the creation of some amazing-looking aquariums that have turned a lot of heads in the planted tank/hardscape/"nature aquarium" community, in both "whitewater" and "blackwater" styles. Many hobbyists have taken us in exciting new directions, and countless others not even in the blackwater game yet will create works that will help further forge this style.
By adding a new look to a much-loved aesthetic, we're seeing a whole new group of very talented hobbyists creating gorgeous, aspirational aquariums simply by incorporating botanicals into the mix- with blackwater or otherwise.
What's really cool is that we are starting to see more and more planted blackwater/botanical-influenced tanks, an area that has previously been shunned by many, with the rationale that plants cannot work in such environments.
Look for a lot more cool developments on this front!
Perhaps even more exciting is that we're seeing more and more really cool "biotope-style" aquariums, with blackwater and botanicals as the pivotal components. Now, we've addressed before that there is a difference between the 100% true-to-every-stick-and-stone "biotope" aquarium, which seeks to replicate every detail of a specific locale, and a "biotope-type" aquarium, which simply presents an interpretation of a general environment.
Both have their merits, supporters, and philosophies, and are both fascinating. However, what's really exciting to me as that we've already seen aquariums that have a distinctly natural "look" to them, with less "intentional design" and more embrace of the natural processes which happen when materials like leaves and botanicals begin to soften and break down.
This "transitional" or "ephemeral"-style of escaping is the virtual embodiment of Amano's "wabi-sabi" aquatic aesthetic, and is winning over many new followers.
What I hope we never see in this "movement" are "rules" and rigid, close-minded thinking. Sure, nature may restrict us to what we can and cannot utilize or work with in the botanical environment, and there are some "best practices" in terms of husbandry of botanical systems, but we don't need to impose a dogmatic set of artificial principles to define and control the self-expression of others.
Nature calls all the shots here. She defines what works. She defines how stuff looks and functions. She'll correct you if you break one of her rules, and reward you when you embrace them. Listen to her. Follow her lead. Study her feedback.
We simply need to enjoy what we're doing, share with others, and feel free to create as we desire. If we happen inspire and motivate others along the way, that's a beautiful thing. We can try all sorts of stuff; play with aesthetics.
We can hope mimic aspects of nature from the outset, with amazing aquascapes and such.
But it doesn't have to be strictly by design. Nature will do some of the heavy lifting for us, effortlessly creating via her processes aquatic microcosms as breathtaking as any "diorama" could ever hope to be.
If we allow her to do her work.
Okay, so I'm probably a bit more "attuned" to all of the goings on in our little niche than many others, simply because "my head is in it" all day.
However, I'm definitely not jaded, nor am I asserting that we've "invented" some incredible thing here.
What I am thinking is that the relentless exposure of some new and different-looking aquariums, thanks to many of you- is creating a new excitement, fostering a slightly different aquatic aesthetic- and promoting more interest in understanding some of the natural processes that influence both our fishes and the environments in which they live.
We are privileged to have a front-row seat to this evolving hobby speciality (okay, you can call it a movement!), and most important, are honored to be a part of the growing global community of fascinating, creative, courageous, and engaged hobbyists who are forging a dynamic new path in this amazing hobby that we all love so much.
Thanks for embarking on the journey. Forge ahead.
Stay fascinated. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay relentless...
And Stay Wet.
Every once in a while, I actually receive a question about how to make the water in your aquarium....darker. Like, people actually want their water to be more deeply tinted. In fact, I'll occasionally field emails from people who are kind of bummed out that some of the pods they placed into their tanks aren't helping them achieve the rich, dark tint they want!
I mean, this is were we're at now! 🤓
These are actually fun questions that I really never envisioned that people would actually ask when we started Tannin over 3 years ago. And it makes sense, right? So many of you have made the "mental shift" that embraces the dark water, the biofilms, etc. that it goes without saying that we want to do things that keep things "tinted!"
Now, it's important know that, although almost anything botanical you immerse in water will release some tannins which can tint the water, some materials are better at it than others! For example, many of the "tougher" botanicals, such as "Savu Pods", "Jungle Pods", and the like won't get you that nice dark color you want. Sure, they will release some tannins and humic substances (perhaps more than some "clearwater-centric" hobbyists might like), but the coloration will likely be less than what you had in mind. They're more about the aesthetics they bring based on their unique appearance.
To really get the "tint", you'd want to use botanical materials which more easily seem to release the tannins we want. What are some of the top "tinting" botanicals we offer? Well, in no particular order, here are a few faves:
*Catappa Bark- Absolutely my top favorite botanical for serious color!
*Coco Curls- These botanicals (perhaps by virtue of their fibrous structure?) realize a lot of color I not the water quickly!
"Rio Fruta"- Derived from the Nypa Palm, this botanical has a surprisingly large amount of tannins and imparts an almost reddish color to the water!
"Mariposa Pods"- Another cool palm-derived product, when steeped or boiled, these release a significant amount of tint and look really great in a leaf litter bed...Oh, and they're really durable, too!
Sure, there are a lot of others that can do the trick, but those are some of my favorite "go-to's" in this game. I didn't even touch on the substrate-oriented stuff, huh?
Now, like in every other aspect of the hobby, there are, dare I say..."Shortcuts" or "hacks" (gulp) to get the tint you like. Yes, you know my disdain for shortcuts, but I'd be remiss if I failed to mention the ultimate one- wood! Yeah, many of the types of wood that we use in our aquarium release significant amounts of tannins. I mean, this is the source of so many desperate calls for help in those planted tank forums ("Help! How do I get rid of the tannins that are making my water brown!")...Our favorite wood types? Mangrove, Malaysian, and the big surprise- "Spider Wood!"
So, yeah, embracing wood to help tint the water is one of the few shortcuts we can comfortably get behind!
That's todays very quick and hardly comprehensive run-down on some of our fave ways to help keep your tank "in the dark!"
What are YOUR faves and tricks to get "The Tint?"
Stay innovative. Stay engrossed. Stay excited. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
As we continue on out third year of existence as a brand, and we've seen a lot of amazing work from our community...and we've heard and seen all sorts of unique ways to "deploy" them in our tanks. Each technique results in interesting effects and potential benefits. And of course, each one has it's pros and cons, in the eyes of the hobbyist.
Let's take a very quick look at the most popular methods for utilizing botanicals in your aquariums!
You can add the botanicals directly to your aquariums.
Of course, this is the clear fave and most popular (and visible!) way to add botanicals into your tank! With their unique aesthetics and "structural-functional" benefits as discussed here many times, the opportunity to create attractive, interesting, and beneficial aquascapes featuring botanicals is irresistible to many of us!
Of course, not everyone likes the look of botanicals (oh, the horror!) and the idea of them recruiting biofilms and decomposing in their aquariums. Yet, a lot of you want the benefits of the humic substances and the look of tinted water created by tannins. What to do? Well, there are actually a few methods!
First, you could employ the botanicals by placing some of the more "reactive" ones, like Alder Cones, Catappa Bark, leaves, etc. into a mesh filter bag, and locating it in either a canister filter, outside power filter, or simply passively in the tank, sump or filter compartment (in the case of those "all-in-one" style tanks), where water can flow through the bag.
This type of "deployment" of botanicals is really useful in situations where you have a lot of tanks to "tint" and simply want to keep things simple and clean. Breeders, for example may want the aforementioned and often-discussed environmental benefits of blackwater, without the hassle.
Another great way to play with botanicals where their direct presence in the tank is not desired is to employ a "reactor"- which his essentially a vessel, typically constructed of acrylic, which directs water into the until to pass over the media contained inside. Many of the dedicated reactors employ small pumps to keep the media in motion (we call it "fluidization"- as in "fluidized reactor'). And the "media", in our instance, would be leaves, cones, or other botanicals which react with the water.
Super planted-tank/aquascaping nerds also might like this type of botanical application, because 1) You guys love keeping a clean aesthetic, and 2) You guys like gadgets, like "drop checkers", CO2 infusers, "Lilly Pipes", etc. This makes you a prime candidate for the aforementioned fluidized reactors, which you can use externally from the aquarium. And of course, that makes it easy to access them for cleaning or to take them off line as desired.
I think- actually, I KNOW- that these last two applications are really fantastic and filled with lots of potential for real progress. That being said, there are a couple of more "advanced" applications that you might want to consider.
The first would be to employ a "refugium" of sorts...
Now, the idea of a "refugium" is not at all new to the reef aquarium world, although you see less of them these days than you did in the early 2000's..a shame, because their benefits are numerous. Yet the idea has been little discussed in the context of freshwater, other than a scant mention or two in Discus discussion groups that I've stumbled on. Essentially, a refugium is a dedicated space (typically a vessel separate from the aquarium), which performs multiple functions to support the display aquarium it's associated with.
These include nutrient processing via plant or macro algae growth, or organisms such as worms, copepods, etc. which consume uneaten food and act upon organics (nutrient export). A refugium, as its name implies, provides a "safe haven" for life forms which would otherwise be consumed by the resident fishes in the display aquarium. And, these animals will often reproduce, and some of them are swept into the main aquarium, providing a natural food source. Typically, a reef refugium employs live rock and sand, as well as macro algae. Being essentially another aquarium, a refugium also adds to the stability of your display by adding overall capacity to the system, and can provide additional circulation and oxygenation.
Now, in a blackwater, botanical-style system, I can think of a number of cool uses for a refugium, playing on the theme above, but thinking it through a bit further. For instance, you could throw all of your pods, leaves, and other stuff into the refugium, and let them do their thing, influencing the environment in the main aquarium.
You could also use it for keeping some specialty fishes which might otherwise be lost in the main display. For example, if you like small "Darter Characins" which live among the leaves, and would be lost or in danger in your 120-gallon cichlid display, a refugium could provide the perfect place for you to keep them. Or to keep Neocaridina shrimp, which would otherwise be a part of someone's meal plan...
And the whole "food culture" idea utilizing a refugium is awesome to me! I mean, you could grow Daphnia, copepods, worms...all sorts of aquatic crustaceans that are tasty supplements to your fish's diets. And, with an abundance of botanical materials present, they will reproduce rapidly.
And then there is that idea of "deep botanical beds" in the aquarium...
How about some more investigation into how substrates, perhaps consisting of shallow levels of very coarse pebbles and finer sand, interspersed with a deeper bed of a few types of botanicals and leaves- or just "all botanical" aggregations- the so-called "deep botanical beds" function? Besides perhaps putting to rest long held hobby concerns about the "dangers of detritus", what else could experimenting with such substrates unlock? Well, a sort of "cadence", for one thing.
We know from experience that adding a lot of material to any tank at one time is a recipe for problems. In fact, virtually every bad outcome (and we have only seen/heard of a very few) we know of has been caused by adding a lot of material all at once to an established system. It seems that, even when building a deep botanical bed, you need to do it slowly. We know a few things, for sure- many of these materials will recruit fungal growth and biofilms. Many aquatic creatures, from shrimp to Plecos, will actively forage among such an aggregation of materials.
Oh, the ideas...And those are just a few of them. And we're considering offering products that support these different applications of botanicals; we'd love to hear more about your experiments, interests, and needs in this area!
What methods are YOU interested in exploring to "deploy" botanicals in your tanks?
Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay innovative. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
Ever get this urge to- well, sort of speak your mind, or whatever?
That's kind of where I'm at today. It's not that it's bad or anything...just rather..blunt. As you might imagine, I receive a lot of questions about a lot of different things. And many of them require some introspection and thought. Others require me to do some research.
Still others make me draw on my experience and rather slanted opinion, and simply share those thoughts I've had about the hobby from a lifetime in it. Some of them are pretty direct. Almost "tough love" sorta. And, yeah. There is just no sugar-coating some of this stuff. I’m gonna tell it like it is. Some of the questions I receive simply require a direct answer.
Here are some of my favorites:
If it’s dying- get it out of the tank…Yeah- that sounds bad, and it almost sounds like I’m endorsing a “euthanasia”of sorts.. I’m not. I admit, however, that it does sound harsh. I’m not endorsing “terminating” sick fishes…I AM endorsing the idea of getting them out of the display aquarium to a treatment tank…fast! Before they can infect others, if that’s possible.
NEWS FLASH: A sick fish won’t “spontaneously cure itself” without some intervention on your part…”wishing” things will get better doesn’t work. Trust me. I’ve tried. You need to be decisive and move aggressively to curtail the problem. It doesn’t rule out compassion. It just means you need to be decisive. I credit this decisiveness to my years spent in the coral farming game. When you grow corals in a propagation system, if you have a struggling frag that might have flatworms, "red bugs", or some other pest/disease, you simply can't risk letting it take down other frags. That’s your business, right there. And its the same in a display freshwater tank, IMHO. Remove sick or dying fishes and plants immediately. You HAVE to. ’The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one…” (OMG did I just quote Mr. Spock from Star Trek? Yeah, I did.)
Keep some “negative space” in the rock and wood work your tank. Not just for aquascaping…I mean, yes, you should have some open space not covered by rocks and wood. Why? For several reasons. One, it gives your plants a chance to spread out and grow. Second, it DOES have a good aesthetic thing going for it…We all like to allow our eyes a place to rest from the busy “fruit-stand” appearance of a typical packed aquarium.
Let’s be honest, even with all of the emphasis on artistic, competition-oriented aquascapes, you still see plenty of tanks so packed with plants that the fish can hardly turn around. I mean, the fishes are the afterthought. It’s like “tiring” to look at, IMHO. And finally, having some extra space gives you room to…expand your collection! Yeah, that’s right..I said it! You can have some room for future impulse buys! A salute to consumerism (and of course, a tip of the hat to my fellow aquatic vendors!).
Ditch really bad ideas…quickly. Yup, kind of like the Facebook corporate mantra of “move fast and break things”, I think it’s time we tell ourselves to let stuff that doesn’t work go. Life it too short. I am not saying to disregard patience (Heaven knows, I’ve written a crapload about that over the past few years right in this forum). All I’m saying is that you need to let go of ideas that simply aren’t working out, taxing time, energy, money, space, and “mind power.” Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all…But better to let something that was failing die a quick death than to have it function as a “black hole” of your hobby energy (and budget!). Harsh words coming from me, but they’re true. If it doesn’t work- Kill it. KILL IT!
Seek advice and counsel from other hobbyists, but don’t talk anyone’s word as THE ultimate. Because the reality is, there is plenty to learn in this hobby from a lot of people. There are people out there in “Aquarium-Keeping Land” doing stuff you never even heard of, and maybe they are having great results. Does that mean you should listen to everything they say and try to replicate their efforts, or embrace all of their philosophies without question? Of course not. No way. Take everything- from everyone in this hobby- even me-with a grain of salt. Learn to evaluate aquarium-keeping strategies in the context of, “Will this work for ME?” Far better than to just blindly follow ANYONE.
If you want something on your tank done right…do it…the right way? Yeah. Doesn’t matter if you’re the guy doing it, or if you hire someone else. Just make sure it’s done correctly. Forget ego or pride. Even the thought of saving “a few dollars (or pounds or Euro) by doing it yourself when you simply don’t have the time, skill, interest, or knowledge is, IMHO sort of problematic. Trial and error is educational in this hobby, but only to a point. I’m not saying don’t push yourself or acquire new skills. I’m just saying not to make your “learning curve” part of your new “dream tank” build! The money you think you’ll save by doing it yourself when you’re ill-prepared is often absorbed quickly when you end up having someone re-do it for you the second time. FACT.
I’ve seen so many people put time and effort into aquatic projects that were not only doomed to fail, but they simply couldn’t work by virtue of design, function, skill, or even budget. This sort of dovetails with my third point about killing bad ideas…Okay, it’s an addendum, really: If you’re not going to do something the right way, just don’t bother. Really. It sounds negative and kind of not-so-nice, I know- but you’ll be much happier in the long run, trust me. "Half-assed" is just stupid.
Oh, and in defense of some product lines: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard aquarists tell me that “(Insert product here) doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. It sucks.” Upon further investigation, it turns out that the aquarist was using the product, but either not in the correct manner, or using it without other components of what was intended to be an integrated system. If you’re using a regimen or system that needs to have multiple components or systems working together, use them! You can’t expect a complete result out of a partial effort.
Okay...that's pretty much enough for now. A whole lot of "directness" at one time!
I told you this might not be easy to take, but I think there are a few pearls of wisdom there for you from my lifetime of fish keeping…and mistakes!
Stay diligent. Stay curious. Stay consistent. Stay alert. Stay honest...
And Stay Wet.
Have you ever considered that an aquarium is, at best, a facsimile of a natural system? I mean, at the very least, we are getting pretty good at making our tanks look like many of the natural systems that we admire...but it goes even deeper than that- and we may not even consider how we in the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium community take it to another level.
It seems like we talk a lot here about the idea of "food webs" and "holistic" aquariums, but I think that's an important pair of concepts to think about. For decades, the aquarium hobby has been about establishing a tank by allowing the benefcial bacteria to colonize the filter and substrate, so that they can perpetuate the nitrogen cycle.
We all more-or-less get that.
However, I think where we tend to differ from the masses in the hobby in our botanical-style approach is that we are replicating- wether we know it or not- another part of the dynamic tropical ecosystems: Some aspects of the "food web." Now, I say "aspects of", because it's awfully difficult- perhaps even impossible- in the confines of a closed system to have a completely self-sustaining cycle of food production without some external inputs.
But that's perfectly okay...Because what we do in our botanical-style aquarium
"practice" is almost exactly like what happens in a natural flooded forest or jungle stream: External sources (weather, etc.) deposit leaf litter and plant material into the system, spurring the growth of organisms which break it down, as well as depositing food.
Just like in nature...sort of.
At the very base of these food chains are the decomposing fungi. They help soften and begin to break down the leaves which are deposited into the water. These, in turn, are fed upon by chironomids (you know, Blood Worms!) and other small organisms, which colonize the litter.
Fishes are usually a little late to the party, but they show up in surprising numbers in these high diversity, low biomass systems. And these systems, just like our aquariums- are constantly changing and evolving, both in terms of their physical structure and the population of fauna. And they are, much like many aquariums, somewhat ephemeral, with more-or-less limited life spans.
An interesting passage in a paper by P.A. Henderson mentions the dynamics of fish populations and the structure of the leaf litter systems themselves in Amazonia:
Just like in nature.
As we delve deeper into the world of blackwater aquariums, I think it becomes more and more important for us to understand the wild blackwater habitats of the world.
Specifically, how they form, and what their physical characteristics are. It's easy for us to just "cliche' it" and say that blackwater is water "...which has a low pH caused by dissolved organic materials and looks the color of tea." You know, the standard line used for decades. Not untrue, but not really all that helpful in understanding exactly what it is, IMHO.
And more important, understanding why it has these characteristics.
Well, it starts with the study of rocks...Geology.
I should first start of by freely admitting that I sort of- well, dozed through the limited number of geology classes I took in high school and college, and never knew that the time I spent in those classes drawing pictures on the back of my notebooks would ever come back to haunt me decades later, when I'd have to re-familiarize myself with all of this stuff! So, my understanding is limited, but I'll convey what I DO know to you here...
Blackwaters in areas like Amazonia (one of our fave locales, of course!) drain from an area known to geologists as the "Precambrian Guiana Shield", which is comprised of sediments include quartz, sandstone, shales, and conglomerates, stemming from near the formation of the earth some 4.6 billion years ago. As a result of lots of geological activity over the eons, a soil type, consisting of whitish sands called podzol is formed.
Podzols typically derive from quartz-rich sands, sandstone, and other sedimentary materials in areas of high precipitation. (Hmm, like The Amazon!). Typically, Podzols are lousy for growing stuff, because they are sandy, have little moisture, and even less nutrients! A process called podzolization (of course, right? WTF else would you call it?) occurs where decomposition of organic matter is inhibited. Numerous microbes and plants consume some of the nitrogen, and while eaten by other organisms, convey what's left to the even lower-lying forest habitats.
The Amazonian blackwater rivers are largely depleted in nutrients, having passed through the lowland forest soils as groundwater, from which weathering has already occurred. As a result, layers of acidic organics build up. With these rather acidic conditions, a deficiency of nutrients further slows down the decomposition of organics. So, yeah- lousy soil for growing stuff...But guess, what? They form the basis of the substrate in pretty much any Amazonian aquatic habitat!
And the water which flows over this soil is what we call "blackwater", which achieves it's unique color from a really high content of dissolved full and humic substances- poor in nutrients and electrolytes. It's characterized by having sodium as one of it's major cations (ions with fewer electrons than protons, giving them a positive charge), which means it has low alkalinity. Typically, the pH and electrical conductivity values are less than 5.0 and 25 μS cm–1, respectively (pretty freakin' low!).
So, to make a very long story short, the physical charachteristics of blackwater habitats are influenced as much by the geology as anything else! That is to say, all of the dissolved humic substances which give these bodies of water their unique look are "enabled" by the geological properties of the region. And from the "trace element perspective (the reefer in me), only Fe, B, Sr, Pb and Se present consistent concentration variabilities to influence the chemistry of these waters...Like, this water has very low concentrations of trace elements.
Now, this is probably more than you will ever care to know about how sand works in your fave blackwater habitats, but I think it's important to understand that it's all kind of related. In fact, it makes it a lot easier to understand how blackwater systems came to exist and function when you consider this "big picture" stuff!
And of course, we're a lot more interested in the "decaying vegetation" (you know, the leaves, twigs, seed pods...stuff like that!) which influences the waters. And, if we're really into creating realistic substrates, can't help but think that we'd have to source a podzol-type material to use as the base...And I am not aware of a commercial product that is podzol based which is available in the hobby as an aquarium substrate (entrepreneurs- here's one for you!)...Shit, I just give away some of my best ideas, huh?
Until such time as a substrate like that becomes available, I'll keep using the available aquarium substrates which don't impact pH and alkalinity as the literal "base" for my blackwater aquariums. The reality is that just having an awareness of what goes on in the natural aquatic habitats we love gives us a nice "leg up" on this stuff. You're obviously not going to use a strongly buffering substrate like aragonite or whatever to do the job in your low pH and alkalinity blackwater aquarium, right?
And then there is that question about utilizing rocks in your "igapo" aquascape...Why don't you find rocks in these habitats?
As you know from my long-winded description above, I'm no expert-or even a novice- on geology or geochemistry, or anything in that subject area, for that matter....However, based on my research into this stuff, as related above, it goes without saying that these are hardly conditions under which rocks as we know them could form. Oh, sure, you might find the random rock in the igapo that was washed down from the Andes or some other high-country locale in these forests, but it's a pretty safe bet that it did not evolve there. This also helps to explain why the blackwater habitats are generally low in inorganic nutrients and minerals, right?
So...if you're really, really hardcore into replicating an igapo, you'd probably want to exclude rocks- especially if you're entering one of those biotope aquarium contests, astute judges would (rightfully) nail you on scoring for falling back on your natural inclinations as an aquascaper and toss some in.
I personally, of course, would be a bit more forgiving, but you won't find rocks in my igapo tank!
So much to consider in our tinted world, isn't there? Especially when it comes to rocks, sand, and the stuff it influences...
A little "deep-diving"into these seemingly obscure topics can sometimes give us some clues that can influence our aquarium practice.
Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay informed. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet.
As we all know, nothing lasts forever.
And it's especially true with our botanicals.
Those of us who play with botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquariums find out in the earliest stages that each aquariu moves at its own pace. Each one establishes itself, evolves, and matures differently than any other one. There is a real "pace", a process- to what occurs when they are utilized in our aquariums.
And a good part of it is dictated by the natural degradation, change, and decomposition of the materials we utilize in our tanks. From the minute you prepare a leaf, seed pod, stem, or other botanical for use in the aquarium, it begins to soften and break down. It's definitely the embodiment of "ephemeral."
The processes of hot water steeping, boiling, or prolonged soaking start to soften the tissues of the leaves or seed pods, release bound-up surface pollutants, and begin the gradual, inevitable, and irreversible process of breaking them down, at a pace, which nature determines.
As botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (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 botanicals, 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.
Others last a much longer time.
Knowing when to replace or add to them is sort of a subjective call, at least initially. Once you get used to working with them in your aquariums, you may be able to notice pH increases, TDS changes, or other environmental/water chem indicators/phenomena which can clue you in that it's time to replace them.
On the other hand, many types of seed pods and other botanicals 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. As much of an instinct and "art" as it is a "science."
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, and what is considered "normal" for the system!), 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.
Yeah, I know- it's hardly the precise, scientific, "boiler plate" advice some of us might like, but that's the reality of this kind of tank at this point in time. 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, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium. However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional elements" into your regimen as well!
And you need to keep yourself in check, too. 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.
A foundational, important thing to understand.
I see some new botanical vendors getting into this game lately (which is cool), and they're just sort of "peddling the look" without even discussing the very real biological/functional considerations that come with working with botanicals in an aquarium. It worries me a bit. I love competition. Anyone can sell you some leaves and such, but there's more to this than sexy pics of botanical stuff.
I guess that will still fall on Tannin Aquatics to keep top of mind those additional considerations! We need to discuss the practice as much as we need to share the cool pics. We'll continue to do both.
Yes, we'll happily continue to oblige.🤔
Botanical-style aquariums embody the art of observation and study. Much like managing any type of aquarium, the successful botanical-style aquarium is 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 assimilate the bioload and 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, I worry that as the idea-the look- become more popular, people will jump into the game without understanding that there is a consideration for everything we do- each item we add...and that it influences and affects our fishes' lives.
The real the key here is that pace- and an understanding that the materials that we add need to be added-and replaced- at a pace that makes sense for your specific system. An understanding that you'll have a front row seat to the natural processes of decomposition, transformation, decay...and accepting that they are part of the beauty of this style of aquarium, just like they are in nature, where water is seldom crystal clear and the surroundings perfectly arranged.
Those of us who have been maintaining these types of tanks for some time now really get this, understand the way water and botanicals interact..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. Many of them are grounded in basic husbandry and the ability to keep control of our human instincts to be impatient or make rash adjustments. It's a mindset shift. 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.
4) Observe your aquarium continuously.
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. It makes little sense, in the closed confines of an aquarium, to just toss something in without at least cleaning it. Number 2 is all about the pace...the real "secret sauce", if you will, which sort of sets up everything else. There is simply no need to rush this process.
And, 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, a reef aquarium, or cultivating a backyard 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. It embraces patience, and the ephemeral nature of things.
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.
The "ephemeral pace", if you will. A slow, beautiful journey into the wonders of nature.
And it's all held together by you- the aquarist, applying as much emotion and instinct as you do procedure- all done in the proper time...at the right pace.
All the while, understanding that nature will follow her path- with minimal intervention on our part- just as she's done for eons.
Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay calm. Stay diligent. Stay measured...
And Stay Wet.
I’m often surprised during conversations with some hobbyists who are thoroughly convinced that it’s important and beneficial to the aquarium hobby to have adapted fishes to our captive conditions, even to breed under them, rather than attempting to accommodate their needs by recreating, at least to some extent, the environmental parameters from the habitats from which they come.
In other words, fishes which, for eons have evolved to inhabit soft, acid waters are being “acclimated” to, and even bred under hard, alkaline tap water conditions. We often don't consider their "origin stories" and what they can teach us.
Sure, fishes can accommodate our needs...
On one hand, I can certainly see how this can be beneficial to the industry. I mean, not everyone wants to invest in RO/DI units and steeping source water in leaves and such just to keep their Neon Tetras happy. More fishes are sold because, well- it's easier to keep them under "tap water" conditions. More fishes=More people=More business.
Yeah, I get that.
The "con" to me is that when we evolve fishes to conditions which work for US, not only might we be affecting the health of the fishes over the long-term (I'm not talking about a few dozen, or even a few hundred generations here), it's my opinion that we find ourselves giving less appreciation and consideration to the wild habitats from which they come. Less attention to these environments, some of which are critically endangered by human activities, means less effort to conserve them. Not out of any malevolent intent, mind you...It's just that, when we don't consider the habitats, we don't think about them as much. "Out of sight, out of mind..."
I am the first guy in favor of captive bred fishes and propagated corals. It's super important and vital to the future of the hobby and to the natural environment. However, I also think understanding where they come from and why they come from specific environmental conditions is equally important- and interesting. The last thing I'd want to see is the sort of cliched' mindset that we apply to food: "Where do those carrots come from? The supermarket!"
How long will this work before something gives?
The idea of "repatriating" fishes which come from soft, acidic blackwater habitats from our "tap water" conditions back into the water in which they have evolved, and learning how to manage the overall captive environment is by no means new or revolutionary. Lots of fish keepers have done this for decades. It's just that the hobby has sort of taken a collective mindset of "it's easier/quicker for US" to adapt them to the conditions we can most easily offer them. Just because they can "acclimate" to wildly different conditions than they have evolved to live under doesn't mean that they should.
I mean, it's not about us. Right? The consistently successful serious breeders have understood this for a long time, and we all should, IMHO. As we’ve demonstrated in our community, it's not at all impossible to provide such conditions as a matter of practice…
Pat yourselves on the back. You're a bit different than the masses. You study the "origin stories" of your fishes. It’s a lesson learned early in the “modern era” of fishkeeping, some 100-odd years back, which has enabled landlocked hobbyists in frigid climates to be able to successfully keep delicate tropical fishes from exotic locales in their living room. It’s what has enabled an entire industry of dedicated professional fish breeders and coral propagators to grow enough fishes and corals to someday meet the demands of the entire market, perhaps making it unnecessary to exclusively harvest from wild habitats.
It’s what’s enabled even the neophyte hobbyist to be able to enjoy the wonders of the tropical streams, rivers, and oceans in his/her first aquarium.
We don't have to do this "cold turkey", all at once, forcing radical change on the entire culture and technique of the aquarium world. And responsibly-collected/managed collection of wild fishes not only can continue to help indigenous populations manage their resources and benefit from them without damaging them. And then, we as hobbyists can learn more and more about he environments from which the fishes come from and make it part of our "routine" to replicate them more closely.
And it's not about making sure that every stick, leaf, and rock is from the exact place every fish we keep comes from..No. It's about studying, introducing, sharing, and celebrating the wonders of nature. Replicating some of the factors that we can, even if it's a bit different and challenging at first. It's about demonstrating to others how different and amazing things can be when we adopt a different mindset, learn more about the world, and the needs of our fishes.
Accommodating the organisms we want to keep. NOT the other way around. A valuable lesson that the entire aquarium community could learn from. And it’s just “the way we do stuff” around here. The cost of admission. It's kind of what we like to do.
However, that's the kind of stubbornness I can get behind!
Stay stubborn. Stay inquisitive. Stay dedicated. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.