One of the fun things about the aquarium hobby is that we always have the opportunity to find out new things about existing ideas, practices, and fishes. There are certain fishes which we have almost taken for granted in the hobby, yet, which there still seems to be a lot of conflicting information about circulating online and elsewhere.
I sometimes wonder if this is because there is that whole "regurgitation" thing going on- a lot of well-intentioned "information aggregating" about an aquarium topic from individuals with little to no personal experience with an idea, technique, piece of equipment, plant, coral, or fish.
Perhaps this has lead to us becoming weirdly complacent in our understanding of such things? As hard as it is to believe, there are some very common (to the hobby) fishes which fall into this grey area.
My vote for the cutest freshwater fish is definitely the lovable "Bumblebee Goby", Brachygobius doriae. because, well- it's really small ( like maybe 1.5"/ 38mm max), and hops around like its namesake. And it has this little face that's...well, it's cute. And, did I mention? It's small. It's even placed in a small genus, with only nine, occasionally-confused members.
Actually, not occasionally confused- pretty much always confused!
And, the real irony is that the fish which we in the hobby refer to as the "Bumblebee Goby" is Brachygobius doriae; however, "the books" always seem to illustrate and talk about the similar, but exceedingly rare Brachygobius (Hypogymnogobius) xanthozonus. It's super easy to be totally confused about these fish. The collective "Bumblebee Goby" moniker that we as a hobby and industry attach to all of these little bastards doesn't help at all, either!
Don't feel bad. It's not just us hobbyists who are making a confused mess of this stuff. Goby taxonomy is apparently, "...a Category 5 Shit-storm!" as one taxonomy student I reached out to for this piece relayed to me! Love the honesty of college kids!
Now, one of the things I love about this fish is that it's one that we have a completely preconceived notion about, and the "Bumblebee Goby", is like the poster child for "little brackish aquariums."
(The star of our blog...taken by our good friend, Ted Judy! Visit his site- tedsfishroom.com for all sorts of cool stuff!)
And, yeah, it IS found in brackish environments in places like coastal southeast Asia, from the Mae Khlong in Thailand to the Mekong basin (Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam), Malaysia (Peninsular and Sarawak areas), Singapore, Indonesia (Kalimantan, Borneo) and Brunei.
There is one species, Brachygobius xanthomelas, which is, from every source I can access, a true freshwater "specialist"- not believed to inhabit brackish water habitats.
And then there is the confusing and similar B. sabanus, which really looks like B. doriae, and is found in both brackish and freshwater habitats, and...Yeah. I actually think I've kept that species before, having been simply and exasperatingly called "Bumblebee Goby" at the retailer.
According to one source, the two species are extremely similar in appearance and easily confused, with the primary visual difference (to us, not ichthyologists doing scale counts) is that in B. doriae, the majority of the first dorsal fin, and about 2/3 of of the pectoral fin are black. In B. sabanus, the last ray or two of the first dorsal fin are clear, and a small percentage of the pectoral fin is black.
Yeah, try to determine THAT on a 1-inch fish in an established aquarium! I kind of understand why we use the common name to describe all of these little fishes now!
Oh, and supposedly B. sabanus is much smaller than B. doriae... Okay, but seriously....They're both tiny-ass fish!
I'm pretty sure that the fish in my brackish tank is B.sabanus, but I"m not 100% certain...Not that I'm easily confused or anything like that...😆
The real cool thing about our little friends, Brachygobius doriae and Brachygobius sabanus (or whatever the hell they are), is that they may be found in not only "regular" freshwater habitats- but soft, acidic freshwater...like those tannin-stained peat swamps that we've talked about before!
Now, in these peat swamps, they surprisingly tend to be found in waters that are more mildly acidic (like 6.8 and up), but nonetheless, this is an extraordinary range for a fish that has been long ago "typecast" by the aquarium trade as a primarily brackish water fish, wouldn't you say?
Now, most aquarium-available populations of these fish tend to come from pure freshwater, or if we're lucky, brackish. The problem is that we as hobbyists are at the mercy of our suppliers to advise us where they came from. Once you identify what species you actually have, if that's your thing- careful acclimation to your water conditions- whatever those might be- is necessary. Like a lot of small gobies, they tend to not tolerate wildly fluctuating environmental conditions well.
I've kept them in brackish (SG 1.003-1.010) water with a little "tint" and perhaps a slight turbidity to it for many years with great success (and I even had two instances of them laying eggs!). Our concept of the "botanical-style brackish" aquarium is pretty much a perfect fit for these little guys, IMHO...assuming you carefully acclimate them to your conditions.
And being a little fish that tends to hop around on the substrate, it's not a bad idea to learn more about the substrate in the localities where it's found, right? I did a little digging (LOL) in the available scientific information on these fishes and their common habitats, and found that the locations in which they are found tend to have fairly specific types of materials in the substrate.
The substrate itself is typically muddy, sandy, silty and interspersed with leaves, driftwood, and yeah, mangrove roots in the brackish areas. Did you see the "leaves" part? Yeah...kinda what I was thinking. I love the mud part- a theme that we've been talking about aover and over here at Tannin, haven't we?
I've always kept these little guys in "community" settings- that is- a community of their own species. Like, a group of 10-20 specimens. I suppose the this "big community" approach is a bit "unconventional" in aquarium hobby practice, but if you want to see their most natural behaviors, this is the best way, IMHO. They remind me very much of marine Jawfishes, in which there are definite social hierarchies and territorial boundaries and such.
You don't need a huge aquarium to keep them, but wouldn't it be cool to keep a bunch of these tiny guys in say, a 40-50 gallon tank? Yeah...Of course it is! Especially if it's set up correctly! That's a proportionately huge tank for some tiny little fishes, but trust me- it's the ultimate "stage" for these guys!
Of course, careful acclimation and quarantine of newly-received Bumblebee Gobies is really important, because they're little fishes, and are often half-starved upon arrival at the LFS. They do need ample time and attention in order to acclimate to captivity healthily.
And the way you set up the tank; the way it's "scaped", is so important to facilitating their health, happiness, and interesting behaviors! This is where not just relying on aquarium references is important. Look on sites like fishbase.org, and see the "occurrences" of the fish, and research these collection sites...You'll find out a lot about these locales if you "deep dive", and you can find out lots of interesting details about the ecologies of the areas in which they are found in Nature.
The importance of setting up an aquarium with a variety of "micro-niches" (i.e.; rocky areas, empty shells, branches, palm fronds, leaf and botanical accumulations, mangrove roots, etc.) cannot be overstated. Not only does it look cool aesthetically (duh..), it facilitates social behaviors, provides potential food sources, and as well.
Having decomposing leaf litter and sedimented substrates provides the opportunity for these little guys to forage among- important, because it is sometimes a bit of a challenge to get them to feed on prepared foods. I've found, however, that they will typically acclimate to frozen and live brine shrimp, and even Daphnia, over time. The botanical-style aquarium gives you that additional "edge", providing supplemental food sources, as we've discussed many, many times here.
As I have mentioned already, it's great to keep these guys in a group- the larger the better, IMHO! This is why a decent-sized aquarium makes the most sense to me!
Now, one of the things we've learned over the decades is that just because you're small doesn't mean you can't be a bit of a jerk- and these guys are no exception! You'll occasionally get a dominant male that is just such a...well-asshole- that he pretty much can be the "top dog" of his domain of tiny friends, making life sometimes miserable for them.
You need to watch this type of behavior and occasionally intervene to make sure it doesn't get out of hand (and it can, believe it or not...seeing two 3/4" fishes going at it is only partially funny when one of them gets the shit kicked out of him). Again, that's the value, IMHO, of using a much larger aquarium than you'd think that you need for these guys.
(Image by Dirk Golinski, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Perhaps my favorite aspect of these fishes is that many of them ARE truly brackish-water fishes, or at least, brackish-water "friendly", and are truly worthy of their own tank. A group of these small, endearing fishes can be as exciting as any of the larger, flashier fishes which we associated with brackish tanks.
And since we have a better way to do brackish, IMHO, we can leverage this ability with better understanding of the habitats from which these guys come from in Nature, and create truly amazing displays for them!
The frequent frustration many hobbyists encounter when they embark on a brackish water aquarium adventure is a distinct lack of readily-available information on the fishes and and their habitats. And of course, there is a significant challenge to source some of the fishes from these unique habitats...and, indeed, it's often a matter of discerning which fishes indeed come from brackish water habitats!
As we start looking closer and closer at brackish aquariums, we'll start looking more and more closely at the fishes that we could use in our brackish aquariums. This piece was not intended to be a landmark, group-breaking expose' on a pretty well-known fish...
However, I wanted to get you thinking about some of the fishes that you've already heard of, perhaps even taken for granted, while looking at them in the context of the type of environments we're talking about with our botanical-style brackish work.
Of course, we look at some of the common (and rare) fishes that are perfect for what we're doing. The "Bumblebee Goby" (whatever species you might encounter), is one of our enduring, yet surprising faves, for a lot of reasons.
Should you keep this fish? Well, sure, if you're up to the idea of really setting up the correct conditions for the species that you have. They're simply not a super-easy fish that you can just pop into any old tank...They're not difficult, either, but you need to understand your fish and the habitat which they came from in order to really be successful with them, IMHO.
We're thinking of lots of cool ideas to keep these fishes healthy and happy for a long time...and no doubt, you have many of your own! Be sure to share, because we love to hear what you do, too!
Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay "slightly salty..."
And Stay Wet
After a bunch of years playing with botanicals, we've learned a lot of stuff. We've screwed up a lot of stuff, too! Yet, almost every day, we learn some new things that are really exciting and cool
And we get questions. Lots of questions.
A question we get a lot around here is about the "water-softening capability of botanicals", to which I respond almost reflexively, "There is none." Botanicals will not help you soften hard water.
I believe that anyone who tells you this categorically simply does not have the correct facts. Ask them to explain how this process occurs. I'd like to know, 'cause I've found no evidence of this!
Hobbyists really want an inexpensive, "natural", or simple way too soften their water. Using some botanical-based stuff just seems so right, doesn't?
Well, we also get a ton of questions about peat moss...mainly, what it can do in aquariums, and why we don't carry it.
We'll get to that part in a minute.
Let's talk about peat moss in general for a bit. There is a lot discussed about peat's ability to "condition" aquarium water. And, although some of the facts might a bit convoluted, there is some validity to this.
Yes, interestingly, it is known that our old and controversial friend, peat moss, has actually demonstrated some capacity to conduct ion exchange ( a process in which which unwanted dissolved ions in water are exchanged for other ions with a similar charge.) Ions are atoms or molecules containing a total number of electrons that are not equal to the total number of protons. (I know, if you're like me, that made your head start spinning almost instantaneously.😳
Think of it this way: Peat softens water by exchanging humic acids for magnesium and calcium.
It's actually true.
Peat effectively binds calcium and magnesium ions, while simultaneously releasing tannic and other acids into the water. These acids "work" the bicarbonates in the water, reducing the carbonate hardness and pH to some extent.
And it will tint the water, as we all know.
However, you can't just drop some peat into your tank and expect "Instant Amazon." This process requires "active peat filtration" (the water passing over over the peat itself) to make this happen. There's more to this, and we'll touch on that in a minute.
So, what doesn't Tannin offer this stuff?
Well, there is that ethical question about peat being an ecologically non-sustainable product. Now, for decades, aquarium hobbyists used peat moss for the purpose of lowering aquarium pH, creating "tinted" water, enriching planted substrates, and for spawning killies and other fishes. It's easy to use, comes in a few forms, and definitely "works as advertised" when it comes to aquarium use!
Now, in all fairness to us, the bulk of the peat moss harvested worldwide is used in the horticulture field, and aquarium use likely accounts for the tiniest percentage of worldwide peat consumption. Nonetheless, its use for aquariums has been discouraged in recent years as we take on a more environmentally conscious, sustainability mindset. That's cool!
And I suppose, if it follows the sort of way the aquarium hobby is treated by the media and environmental groups when it comes to related issues, such as fish collection and such (just read up on the Hawaii fish collection ban for more on that stuff) . In general, we're the easiest target- the "low-hanging fruit", without any real significant "lobby" or industry advocacy for this kind of stuff, so it's natural that we'd be a target.
And of course, we need to self-regulate a bit. And we largely do.
Okay, so, what exactly IS peat moss...and why the controversy about its use?
"Peat moss" is the collective name given to mosses from the genus Sphagnum, which contains almost 400 species! Peat comes from bogs, which are one of the four main types of wetlands recognized by ecologists. It's generally decomposed moss that accumulates in these bogs, which is then commercially harvested. This material been used extensively in agriculture, because it excels at retaining water: Peat plants may hold 16–26 times as much water as their dry weight, depending on the species!
Over the years, there has been a lot written about the sustainability, or lack thereof- of harvesting peat moss. It's sort of a "poster child" for the management of precious natural resources, and there are environmental consequences to removing this material from the bogs where it accumulates.
(Image by Boreal. Used under CC-BY SA 3.0)
It's been estimated by scientists that peatlands store a third of the world's soil carbon, and their harvesting and use releases carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas driving climate change.
Although degraded peat deposits have often been restored by blocking water drainage sources, throwing in Sphagnum seeds, and covering them with a water-retaining mulch, it's not that simple a story. Yes, restoring peatlands does help soils by improving water-holding capability; however, the bacterial respiration caused by the decomposition of the mulch and other organics in the restored deposits continues to release C02.
According to some studies, it can take several years for the photosynthetic rate of the new peat deposit to beat the "respiratory rate", meaning that there is a net loss of carbon into the atmosphere during this period of time, which unfortunately contributes to the production of greenhouse gasses.
(Photo by Ed Blodnick)
Now, there are two sides to every story, and there are a lot of great efforts being made to harvest peat in what most would agree to be a sustainable manner. Canada supplies up to 80% of the peat moss consumed in North America, and the peat industry there has put in significant effort to create what they feel is a sustainable resource.
According to industry studies, Canada contains 294 million acres- or approximately 25% of the entire world’s peatlands! The Canadian horticultural peat industry operates on less than 55,000 acres of these peat bogs nationwide. According to the industry, the amount of peat moss harvested from Canadian peat bogs every year is nearly 60 times less than the total annual accumulation of new peat moss.
That sure sounds like they're doing something right, doesn't it?
I think so!
Being good stewards of a precious resource like tropical fishes, we can appreciate efforts made to conduct business in a manner that respects the environment.
So where does that leave us?
Well, to be quite honest, I go back and forth. I told myself for a long time that if Tannin offered peat products, they'd definitely be from Canadian sources, because the industry there makes a significant overall effort to manage the peatlands.
Okay, we've kind of covered the ethics here, and we have sort of validated the hobby's "worst-kept-secret" that peat can soften water.
However, is it efficient?
Um, not in my humble opinion.
Being the curious, and occasionally reckless fish geek that I am, I played around with this idea once, to try to see if this does, indeed work.
And, well, it does sort of work.
It took a shitload of peat and a fair amount of time to reduce my Los Angeles tap water, with hardness exceeding ~240ppm and ph of 8.4 down to "workable parameters" of 6.4ph and a hardness level of around 40ppm. How much are we talking? It took a full 2-cubic-foot bag of peat, added to a 30-gallon plastic trash can, filled with with my tap water, over 8 days in order to achieve these parameters.
So, yeah. The idea does work. However....
By comparison, my SpectraPure 4 stage RO/DI unit cranks out 80+ gallons of zero TDS, zero carbonate hardness water in a day. Now, one could argue that the rejection rate of RO/DI makes it less efficient- but hell, I water my garden with the reject water! And yeah, a unit like mine retails for around $300 plus USD, more than a 2-cubic foot bag of peat, but the long-term, consistent efficiency, ecological "friendliness", and reliability is pretty obvious to me.
All in all, for maximum efficiency, consistency, and control, just invest in an RO/DI unit and you'll create soft water with little effort and no mess.
Yeah, it IS a bit pricy to purchase an RO/DI unit, but well worth it, IMHO.
But yes, you CAN soften water with peat to some extent if you're put to it, have the means to do it, and test. I've long ago lost that thrill that some people get from these types of "money-saving DIY" methods. To me, I simply decided to forgo other indulgences, save my money for a while, and invest in the RO/DI unit and call it a day.
You should, too.
Are there alternatives to peat moss?
However, they don't offer some of the "capabilities" (ie; the ion-exchange thing") as peat, but they do tint the water, impart some tannins and humic substances into water, and offer similar soil/substrate-enhancing properties. For example, our "Fundo Tropical" and "Substrato Fino" are coconut-based, and are derived from the processing of coconuts for other uses.
Since most coconut harvesting is done by hand, large-scale use of fula-guzzling, exhaust-emitting tractors and such is limited. And growing coconuts doesn't require pesticides or herbicides. And our coconut-based products come from smaller, family-owned operations, not large commercial farms which often raze coastal mangrove thickets in order to grow more coconuts, and have little regard for that precious ecosystem.
It's not perfect, but the environmental impact of both of these products is substantially and demonstrably better, in my opinion, than peat. ("Yeah, but if they're shipped via airplane or deisel-fueled boat or truck..?" Okay, right...but we're talking about the production side here, so...😂 )
And of course, this discussion on sustainability dovetails nicely with the general discussion on botanicals in general. Like, how sustainable is the selection of stuff we offer?
It's not perfect. We're trying, though.
I spent quite a few years developing direct contacts with the producers of the botanical materials that we offer. Most of these suppliers are family-owned businesses in areas like Southeast Asia or India. These businesses generally grow the materials for other purposes, like fruit production, furniture manufacturing, etc. Much of the material is a sort of "by-product" from other uses.
Many of these operations are not just gathering materials from wild habitats; rather, they are harvested by hand from their own farms and land. And what's really cool is that, once you're "in" with these people, they'll often refer you to their friends or extended family who do similar work. These referrals have led to us developing some of our most trusted suppliers for cool stuff. And it's good for them, too, providing income and employment for the local communities.
The ones which collect stuff from the wild are generally doing this with proper supervision/permits on government-managed forest lands, or under the auspices of local agricultural/ ecological authorities and programs. I've dropped a few suppliers and products because I was pretty certain that they were not procured in a sound manner.
I'll continue to do this.
Yes, it will result in the disappearance of some products from our lineup temporarily, or even permanently, but it's important for us to do our part when we can.
Of course, it's not a perfect system.
Even though our supplies are often more limited than we'd like, more expensive than stuff offered by upstart competitors, and can be subject to disruption for a variety of reasons, we've always felt it best to do business this way, as opposed to hitting up large importers of stuff intended for other uses (construction, home decor, etc.), like many of our erstwhile competitors do. In addition to being of questionably sustainable origin, some of this stuff is treated with varnishes and preservatives (because it's intended for other uses), which would have deadly consequences for fishes in aquariums.( I know, because we test and use everything that we sell, and we've been burned in the past!)
Yeah, it's tedious and pricy at times. We pay more for our stuff, which, unfortunately, is reflected in our retail pricing. Yet, I think over the past 6 years we've done things pretty well. Not absolutely flawlessly, but pretty damn well!
I'm okay doing business this way. Again, it's far from perfect, shockingly inefficient at times, and there are still some efforts I'd like to see being made by some of our suppliers to be even more ecologically friendly.
However, supporting these small, often family-owned operations has been a much more gratifying approach for many reasons. They tend to be more responsive to our customers' needs, resourceful at what they do, and it's nice to know that our dollars (and yours) go into the hands of these businesses directly, supporting their livelihoods and that of their employees. And, being on a first-name basis with the owners is very cool! It's really been fun actually FaceTiming some of these people while they're processing/harvesting/gathering the very materials they're getting together for us!
We'll keep refining this process, even if it means eliminating a substantial portion of our offerings over time as we source more sustainable/ethical substitutes. We'll keep looking for viable alternatives and innovative offerings whenever we can.
So, back to the "peat thing."
I don't think that we're likely to be offering peat any time soon. Again, there are some sustainable operations out there. However, we just feel that this is a product which most hobbyists can procure themselves, or use the many cool alternatives available. There are just too many ethical considerations that we believe are best addressed by the individual.
It's neat stuff. Amazing stuff, actually. It works "as advertised", but the "baggage" that it carries with it seems a bit too "heavy" for us to want to contend with.
Besides, there are so many other interesting things for us to play with in our botanical world; we'd best spend our time looking for and creating some new and exciting things.
It's what we do.
It's what will keep moving the hobby forward.
And it's what you expect from us!
Glad to have you along for the ride.
Stay thoughtful. Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay innovative...
And Stay Wet.
If you're a geek like me, you're always on the lookout for unusual ecological niches to recreate in your aquariums. And Nature doesn't disappoint! She's got a whole array of crazy-cool habitats which we as aquarists can appreciate and attempt to replicate in our tanks.
In places like the rain forest streams of Amazonia, biologists have observed floating leaf litter beds which hold together for quite a long time- almost becoming known "features" in the aquatic "topography" of the igarapes and streams of the region!
So imagine, if you will, a "classic" submerged leaf litter bed in Amazonia, composed of a variety of leaves, branches, twigs, seed pods, and other botanical materials...Yet, floating on the water surface; extending as much as a few feet under the water! What you get is a fairly deep layer of plant materials colonized by fishes and other creatures, which forage on the macro invertebrate life found in these complex assemblages.
Biologists call this an "ephemeral" habitat, as it is transitory or temporary as it slowly breaks apart-despite the fact that it might be years before this occurs.
Okay, so it slowly breaks apart over time.
This is cool.
And often, these floating or partially submerged leaf litter banks either accumulate among the branches of overhanging vegetation during the high-water season, gradually floating downstream, or they stay anchored in place by fallen tree trunks and other large materials, ultimately forming a more "traditional" submerged leaf litter bed as they sink.
Think about the possibilities to replicate these floating leaf litter beds in aquariums!
I found this to be an amazingly interesting niche! Reminds me of the Sargassum "forests" of the Caribbean and Tropical West Atlantic! Literal "floating feasts" for the animals which reside there! This is another potentially irresistible ecological niche for us to play with, right?
Oh- and many fish species associate with these floating litter banks for the entire wet season!
And one of the reasons they stay put is because their food sources are there, too! In fact, a species of "water bug", Weberiella rhomboides, is found almost exclusively in these floating banks, attracting large numbers of insectivorous fishes, like characins, catfishes, knife fishes, and others.
Yeah, it's a virtual "who's who" of blackwater, leaf-litter-zone dwellers, some of which are very familiar to us as hobbyists- for example, characins like Hemmigramus species, Moenkhausia species, the killifish Rivulus ornatus, and of course, cichlids, including a number of Apistogramma, Crenicichla, Hypselecara, and the much-loved Mesonauta festivus, to name a few. Can you imagine how this could make a very interesting theme for an aquarium?
Yeah, I can...as you'd imagine!
You'd want a fairly shallow, wide aquarium, and probably would filter it with an outside power filter or canister filter with the return positioned in such a way as to minimally disturb the surface. With minimal preparation (ie; cleaning them with a light boil, but not trying to saturate them to the point of the materials sinking right to the bottom), a lot of this stuff would sort of float for a while before sinking to the bottom.
You'd essentially be creating a diverse assemblage of botanicals, just like you would if you were doing a "conventional" leaf-litter display (I love that- I just called this stuff a "conventional leaf litter display"- look how far we've come...). And of course, Nature offers no shortage of inspiring leaf-litter habitats to examine!
Now, eventually, some of this stuff would sink, or be trapped below the floating "matrix", and you'd end up with materials on the bottom...okay...cool! It would transition naturally to a more "conventional" botanicals-on-the-bottom display. So this is essentially an "ephemeral display"- transitioning from a "floating leaf litter bed" to a submerged leaf-litter aquarium!
How freakin' cool is that?
Of course, you could probably keep it going by replacing the leaves and such as you would anyways, right? And as the wood becomes submerged, you'd "let it do it's thing", and/or replace/add new pieces.
A sort of actively-managed botanical-style tank...sort of like any other botanical-style tank- but with a twist...er, a float.
Stay creative. Stay inspired. Stay thoughtful. Stay observant. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
Is there such thing as a "finished" aquarium?
I think not.
Yet, the aquarium hobby- a good percentage of it- is obsessed with the concept of "finished."
Part of the pleasure is working with Nature; being challenged by Her.. adjusting, pivoting, waiting. And that's what makes stuff fun! There is no "finished." I mean, when there is nothing more to do but change water, tweak a few gadgets, and feed, is that "finished?" I don't think so.
Have you EVER gotten a tank to that stage? Where you're simply observing it and nothing else? What's that like?
Because I've never been there.
It doesn't exist, IMHO.
An aquatic display is not a static entity, and will continue to encompass life, death, and everything in between for as long as it's in existence.
Does it ever reach "finished?" Does Nature? Of course not! Rather, it's continuous evolution, in which there might be some competition between fishes, plants, or corals that results in one or more species dominating all of the rest. Maybe. Or, perhaps diversity continues to win, with lots of different life forms eaking out an existence in your artificial microcosm, just as they have managed to do for eons in Nature?
We don't have all of the answers.
And that's okay. However, we should enjoy those times when our tanks are doing their thing...evolving...
Which is... every single day.
Yet, there is an apparent disconnect in the general aquarium hobby. A desire to get to "finished"- whatever that actually IS- as quickly and easily as possible. Like, why are we in such a goddam rush? What's the point of trying to quickly get through all of the amazing stages of aquarium development, en route to some strange and seemingly enigmatic destination called "finished?"
I was wondering if it had to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is? I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a home improvement project, meal preparation, or algebra test, I can see how "finished" would take on a greater significance!
But an aquarium..? I mean, that's supposed to be a fun thing!
And the journey- the evolution of the aquarium- is a big portion of the fun.
Yet, I see tons of queries on forums and on Facebook groups, etc., asking about such-and-such-a technique to accelerate or circumvent the "cycling" phase of a new aquarium. Some people will spend all sorts of money and try just about anything in order to get to some more advanced phase of their aquariums' existence as soon as possible!
In the botanical-style aquarium world, we talk so much about the need to be patient, and to just enjoy your tank wherever it may be on its"evolutionary path." This is sort of fundamental to what we do. If you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" or somehow "farther along", becomes much less important.
Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process.
Since the very nature of utilizing materials such as leaves and botanicals will result in them gradually decomposing in water, and not only changing in appearance, but influencing the water chemistry and physical environment of the aquarium to a varying degree, we as lovers of botanical-style aquariums view every aquarium as an evolving entity.
And, as an evolving entity, a botanical-style aquarium requires some understanding and patience, and the passage of time...
You can't rush this process and expect good results.
As I've mentioned before, when I am establishing a new aquarium, I'm doing my best to facilitate the growth of the microbiome.
A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)
Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent.
You may not see the organisms which comprise your aquarium's microbiome- at least, not all of them. However, you can rest assured that they are present in almost every aquarium...Especially our natural, botanical-style aquariums.
It's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist. In this little blog, we can't possibly cover every aspect of this- but we can touch on a few points that are really fascinating and impactful.
Many of us are even moving beyond just the pretty look of the botanical-style aquarium, and moving into a deeper stage of understanding how our aquariums function as miniature ecosystems.
Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating and remaining in our systems. We understand that they act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.
When you understand- really understand- this concept, a whole new world opens up to you. Shortcuts and ways to "accelerate" the development of your aquarium have little value to you, because they literally deny you the opportunity to watch your tank evolve.
Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I think that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping!
It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep.
They're a key part of the functionality.
I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome-Just like what Nature does.
It works exactly the same in an aquarium...If we let Nature do her work without excessive intervention.
Just be patient. Really patient.
I guess it's tough to be patient sometimes, but I'm really having trouble grasping exactly what the problem is with this approach.
Sure, it takes an obscene amount of patience to wait for our tanks to settle in, establish themselves, and be "just right" for fishes.
So, just let your aquarium settle in for a while- many weeks, if you can- to develop this community of organisms to assist you. Observe what's occurring in your "empty" tank...When you see all of the decomposition, the fungal growth, etc, you can be certain that SOMETHING is going on there. Your tank is coming alive.
I'm telling you, I have just as much fun looking at my "empty" tanks as I do my long-established, fully-stocked ones!
Worrying about the nitrogen cycling process is really kind of foolish, in my opinion. Trying to conceive ways to circumvent natural processes is absurd...Again, ask yourself why this is necessary. Is it because you want to have your tank all ready for "the 'gram?" Because you want to join the "cool kids?"
Resist this hesitation. Enjoy the process. Understand that the nitrogen cycle is not just a "phase"- it's a process- an ongoing one that will function along as your aquairum is in operation. As long as you don't mess with it, or attempt to "circumvent" it. Stop viewing the initial "break-in" or establishment of an aquarium as some sort of barrier be broken on route to something more "interesting."
Ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate…arghhh! Chemistry. Science. Black and White. Yikes.
Why add chemicals and such to try to speed up this process?
Why not just add organisms to build to your microbiome?
You can add bacteria, however. In fact, this is where our bacterial inoculant, "Culture", can excel. It is comprised of the hardy, incredibly versatile Purple Non-Sulphur Bacteria (PNSB), Rhodopseudomonas palustris.
Like nitrifying bacteria, PNSB metabolize ammonium and nitrite and nitrate. And they're not just important to the nitrogen cycle. They're also capable of aerobic organoheterotrophy - a process of removing dissolved organics from the water column- just like other microbes!
PNSB are useful for their ability to carry out a particularly unusual mode of metabolism: anaerobic photoheterotrophy. In this process, they consume organic wastes while inhabiting moderately illuminated and poorly oxygenated microhabitats (patches of detritus, leaf litter beds, shallow depths of substrate, deeper pores of expanded clay media, etc.).
By competing with other anaerobes and sulfate-reducing bacteria for food, these voracious "sludge-eaters" significantly reduce the production of toxic byproducts such as methane and hydrogen sulfide. Most important- they form a key component of your aquarium's microbiome.
So, yeah, I love these guys as a key part of our little aquarium ecosystems.
Small organisms do HUGE things in our tanks.
It’s important to understand that your best allies in the cause of establishing a new aquarium are bacteria and fungi, as we’ve talked about repeatedly.
Bacteria will arrive in your aquarium naturally through a number of means- on leaves and seed pods, in substrate (particularly if you’re using material from an established one), wood, etc. The nitrifying bacteria that we admire so much are present in almost every aquatic system- even a brand new aquarium. However, there simply aren’t enough of them in a new aquarium to process the waste produced by a significant fish population. And of course, to grow the population of these beneficial bacteria, you need to supply then with their major energy source- ammonia.
So, what does it mean?
During the so-called cycling process, ammonia levels will build and then suddenly decline as the nitrite-forming bacteria multiply in the system. Because nitrate-forming bacteria don't appear until nitrite is available in sufficient quantities to sustain them, nitrite levels climb dramatically as the ammonia is converted, and keep rising as the constantly-available ammonia is converted to nitrite. Once the nitrate-forming bacteria multiply in sufficient numbers, nitrite levels decrease dramatically, nitrate levels rise, and the tank is considered “fully cycled.”
(A schematic of the nitrogen cycle by one of my favorite mentors, the late, great Bob Fenner!)
So, in summary, you could correctly label your system “fully cycled” as soon as nitrates are detectible (if they are, right?), and when ammonia and nitrite levels are undetectable. This usually takes anywhere from 10 days to as many as 4-6 weeks, depending on a number of factors. Hint- in tanks with a lot of botanical materials in them, this process occurs very quickly.
Again, what's the rush? You still have your cool, nicely-'scaped tank, filled with botanicals and such, and a developing microbiome. A lot to look at and enjoy...even before fishes arrive in the picture!
Confession: I can't remember the last time I tested for ammonia or nitrite in a new tank. Why? Because the enjoyment of my tank is not predicated upon "getting through" this initial cycle and getting fishes in there as quickly as possible!
So, for arguments sake, let's say you've been dutifully monitoring ammonia and nitrite for the first few weeks in your tank, You saw a little peak and now it's all "clear" to add fishes. We have at least, for purposes of this discussion, established what we mean in aquarium vernacular by the term “fully cycled.”
I mean, is your tank ready to stock with a ton of fishes. Is it"done?" Or is it just on a continuing evolutionary path- one which will result in changes over time, incremental changes in the ecosystem you've established- but one which will keep right on evolving slowly until you either get overzealous with cleaning one day and decimate it, or decide to tear down the tank for some reason.
Yes, the evolution of your aquarium is a slow, continuous process. There is no "finish line"- so we need not impose one on ourselves.
In my opinion, the aquarium hobby has created this artificial barrier about the establishment of aquariums. Yes, we have correctly emphasized the importance of establishing the nitrogen cycle in our tanks. However, we have also made it a "barrier" to be broken at all costs, so that we can...do...what?
Add fishes? Sure. But is that the "ultimate" part of establishing an aquairum? Or just one of many enjoyable milestones along the way?
I suggest that you embrace this period of time when your tank is "finding its way" ecologically, and just enjoy the process. Enjoy watching the life forms establish themselves in your little ecosystem. Celebrate the explosion of life which occurs in all new aquariums. Don't take shortcuts to try to circumvent this process. To do so not only risks failure- it denies you a front row seat to one of Nature's true wonders.
Yes, it's a slow, continuous process- an "endless dance"- one that should savored at every opportunity!
Stay patient. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay educated...
And Stay Wet.
Lately, I've been sharing a lot of pics of some of our more esoteric, unconventional aquariums on our social media feeds.
Interestingly, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; like, almost every response is kind of "Cool, I love that!" or, "I really want to do a tank like that!" These responses are so different from what we would see a few years back, when the typical response to a pic like that was literally, "That tank looks dirty." or (my fave) "Is that the before shot of a re-scape?"
Yet, there is still some concern, hesitation- or whatever you want to call it, about setting up an aquarium with a huge amount of leaves and seed pods and stuff. I totally understand why; Adding all sorts of biological material to an aquarium requires a population of organisms in place to process it.
We've talked extensively about what happens in Nature (and in our tanks, really) when leaves and botanicals are added to water. However, no amount of me explaining that a community of life forms will process them (if you let them) will make some people feel comfortable about the idea.
The biggest mental shift that we have to make in this hobby specialty is to understand that the leaves, seed pods, etc. are not just aquascaping "set pieces", put in play to achieve a "look." Rather, that they are a functional part of the aquarium's environment, hosting a myriad of life forms which drive the ecology of the tank. In essence, they're part of the "operating system" that is essential for successful long-term function of the botanical-style aquarium.
It's tough to get this point across sometimes. We're so immediately attracted to the look of these aquariums that we can easily lose sight of the fact that the look is the by-product of the function. I receive so many emails and DM's from hobbyists new to the botanical "game", asking if they should "scrape off" the "gunk" that is showing up on their leaves and seed pods that I think this is a real "thing" that we as a community need to discuss again and again and again.
The idea is NOT to remove this stuff. It's NOT to siphon out the decomposing materials. It's about letting Nature take some of the control. It's about understanding what these things are, and when they mean to your aquarium's ecosystem.
The interactions between water and land are something we've thought about and discussed fairly often here in "The Tint", and it's a topic which continues to hold my fascination. A lot of the research I did before I started my brackish water aquarium centered upon this land/water interaction and the flora and fauna that exist there.
I promise that I won't get into the intimate details of biofilm and fungal growth again! However, I want to stress that these are the organisms that you want! In fact, the whole point of a botanical-style approach is to recruit a population of microorganisms to support the aquarium ecosystem that you've created.
This is a dynamic, fascinating process- part of why we find the idea of a natural, botanical-style system so compelling.
Many of the organisms- from microbes to micro crustaceans to fungi- are almost never seen except by the most observant and keen-eyed hobbyist...but they're there- doing what they've done for eons. They work slowly and methodically over weeks and months, converting the botanical material into forms that are more readily assimilated by themselves and other aquatic organisms.
When I start a botanical-style aquarium, I goin knowing that's going to be a while before I see the first fishes swimming around in there. The idea is- always- to create the "microbiome" and "jump start" the ecology of the aquarium before adding any higher organisms to the tank.
Part of the process is creating a rich substrate, as we've touched upon previously. To me, the substrate is where all the action is! A lot goes on down there, all of which benefits the aquarium in many ways: Chemically, biologically, and physically.
I almost always use (okay, this is going to sound like a sales pitch for "NatureBase" sedimented substrates...so be it...) sedimented substrates, either exclusively, or as a significant percentage of- my "standard go-to" substrates (Usually CaribSea "Sunset Gold" or "Torpedo Beach" sand), along with small leaves, or bits of leaves, and some of the tiniest "Bits and Pieces" (roots and twigs)- the really small ones that you guys complain about when we send them, btw😆.
This process literally "spikes" the substrate with all sorts of beneficial life forms, and enables fungal growth and bacterial biofilms to really get going early on. A lot of hobbyists will ask me how my 2 to 3 day old tanks look so "broken in"-I tell them that it's because of this process.
Life flourishes very quickly- if you let it!
Now, the idea of mixing in bits of leaves and other materials which can decompose into the substrate flat-out scares the shit out of many hobbyists. I get it. We've been told to keep squeaky-clean substrates for generations. However, I think that's in the context of feeding, stocking, and general maintenance. There is a difference when the whole goal of deliberately adding stuff to the substrates is to facilitate a growth in beneficial microfauna populations!
In my experience, and in the reported experiences from numerous fellow aquarists who stock and allow botanical materials tp break down in and on their aquariums' substrates, undetectable nitrate and phosphate levels are typical for this kind of system. When combined with good overall husbandry, it makes for incredibly stable systems.
And then there's that who part about running an aquarium without fishes for a period of time. This is tough for a lot of people. I think the tolerance for this- the patience- is an absolute by-product of my approach to reef aquarium keeping. It's sort of like "fishes cycling", but with the added goal and collateral benefit of helping develop the aquarium's ecology simultaneously.
By the time the fishes are added to the new tank, it's a stable, well-developed little ecosystem. Sure, it will continue to evolve over time, and you need to add fishes slowly and engage in all of the usual new-tank protocols and husbandry details, but it's surprisingly easy to do.
The hard part is being patient.
Making that mental shift which allows you to wait a month before adding fishes is challenging for many. Yet, during that time, you're able to watch a progression of life forms developing and flourishing, and the whole ecosystem literally coming alive.
There is something incredibly gratifying about this process.
Always remember, the aquarium itself is an ecosystem of sorts, with various inputs, trophic levels, and export mechanisms. When we set up our aquariums from "day one" to evolve as functional ecosystems, rather than just for pure aesthetics, a whole new world opens up!
Replicating the function of Nature creates some unorthodox aesthetics. However, the beauty in the details of these wild habitats is readily apparent when we make the effort to understand them on a deeper level.
And the whole "It starts at the Bottom!" mantra that I keep preaching here is really important! Just tell yourself over and over again that substrate is not just a "thing" you toss on the bottom of the tank, or some strictly decorative product. Rather, it's a habitat- a place where the extraordinary organisms which comprise the microbiome of our aquariums- reside and multiply.
Now, one thing that's unique about the botanical-style approach is that we tend to accept the idea of decomposing materials accumulating in and among the substrates within our aquariums.
We understand that botanical materials in the substrate act, to a certain extent, as "fuel" for the micro and macrofauna which reside in the aquarium, and that they perform this function as long as they are present in the system.
So, yeah, in summary- the aquarium substrate itself- just liek in Nature- plays a huge role in the function of a botanical-style aquarium. We can create a "facility" with substrate materials which provides not only unique aesthetics- it provides priceless benefits: Production of supplemental nutrition for our fishes, and nutrient processing via a self-generating population of creatures that compliment, indeed, create the biodiversity in our systems on a more-or-less continuous basis.
True "functional aesthetics!"
Are you ready to start a new tank? Can you wait a bit before adding fishes? Are you "mentally shifted?"
I'll bet that you are!
Stay motivated. Stay inspired. Stay observant. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
As you know, I"m about as huge a fan of mangroves as anyone you'll meet in the aquarium hobby. These are amazing plants, adaptable, hardy, and incredibly important to th eecosystems in which they are found. There are a few major factors which appear to limit the distribution of mangroves in Nature: Climate, salt water, tidal fluctuation and soil type.
There are more that 50 species of mangroves found throughout the world. Mangroves thrive in oxygen-deprived sediments which would certainly spell doom for most plants. They have evolved certain morphological and physiological responses, which allow them to survive in these harsh conditions.
Mangroves employ a sort of "internal ionic regulation." The Red Mangrove, Rhizophora mangle, (the most common one we encounter in the aquarium hobby) is known to botanists as a "salt excluder", which separates freshwater at the root surface by creating a type of non-metabolic "filtration system."
The process of transpiration (exhalation of water vapor) at the leaf surface creates negative pressure in the xylem (the vascular tissue in plants that conducts water and dissolved nutrients upward from the root ). This causes a type of "reverse osmosis" to occur at the root surface. The salt concentration of xylem sap in the Red Mangrove has been found to be about 1/70th of the salinity of surrounding seawater, but this is l0 times higher than in normal plants!
The Red Mangrove stores and disposes of excess salt in the leaves and fruit. (Which is one reason why we spray the leaves down regularly, which helps avoid salt buildup on their surfaces).
Yeah, mangroves are incredibly adaptable.
I've kept them for decades in all sorts of aquariums: Reefs, brackish, freshwater, and oh, yeah, blackwater.
Perhaps that last one took you by surprise? Maybe not. However, a lot of hobbyists aren't aware that some mangroves ARE found in freshwater habitats in the wild, particularly in parts of Southeast Asia.
The predominant species found in freshwater habitats is Barringtonia acutangula. It's definitely one you will not likely see in the aquarium hobby. You might not know that mangroves do not require saltwater to survive. In fact, most mangroves are capable of growing in freshwater habitats, although most do not in the wild because of competition from other plants. However, some species DO need salt to grow and complete their life cycle.
Here are mangroves growing in a soft, acidic "blackwater" situation in Southeast Asia.
Mangroves are "halophytes" (salt tolerant plants), which maintain sufficient fresh water inside their cells and tissues to maintain metabolic function against a higher osmotic pressure in the exterior root environment, which can vary between freshwater and up to three times seawater salt concentration!
Mangroves have evolved some remarkable survival techniques, including a specialized reproductive strategy, in which seeds don't go through a "dormant" phase, and are viviparous, germinating while still attached to the parent plant. These seedlings (known as "propagules") are buoyant, photosynthetically capable, and are often transported in tidal and ocean currents, sometimes over significant distances.
Mangrove trees are able to withstand remarkable tidal changes, from partially submerged to completely exposed, then back to partially submerged again, all in the course of a day!
Mangroves are part of a highly diverse ecosystem. The productivity of mangrove habitats is important for supporting food webs. The productivity of mangrove forests can be equivalent to the most productive terrestrial forests!
Mangroves are perfectly suited for their role as producers, and host enormous amounts of life within and among their structure. Because mangrove forests (sometimes called "mangals") are typically mud or peat-based systems, prop roots provide the hard substrate essential for settlement by many sessile organisms. This is also evident in the aquarium.
Mangrove ecosystems are dynamic, highly complex, not well-understood habitats. Mangrove forests have been described as detritus-based ecosystems- something I find both compelling and exciting as a hobbyist! This has had profound impact on my utilization of mangroves in natural aquariums.
Our representation of them in the aquarium, while certainly more limited than Nature in terms of function, can still provide a very interesting, productive habitat for a variety of fishes and other organisms, with unique benefits seldom embraced in the hobby.
Fungi and bacteria in brackish and saltwater mangrove ecosystems help facilitate the decomposition of mangrove material, just like in their pure freshwater counterparts. Interestingly, in scientific surveys, it's been determined that bacterial counts are generally higher on attached mangrove leaves than they are on freshly-fallen leaf litter.
This is fascinating to me, because ecologists feel that attached, undamaged mangrove leaves don't release much tannin, which, as we know might have some anti-bacterial properties. However, it's also been found that materials like humic acid, which are abundant in the mangroves, stimulate phytoplankton growth there.
The leaves of mangroves, as they break down, become subject to both leaching of the compounds in their tissues, as well as microbial breakdown. Compounds like potassium and carbohydrates are commonly leached quickly, followed by tannins. Fungi are the "first responders" to leaf drop in mangrove communities, followed by bacteria, which serve to break don't the leaves further.
Now, again, we'll often hear arguments that keeping a tree in an aquarium is kind of crazy. I admit, a full-grown, 30-foot tall mangrove tree is virtually impossible to keep in a home aquarium.
However, these trees grow incredibly slowly, reaching "houseplant-like" sizes after a year or more in captivity. And, with frequent pruning, you'll see that they can be maintained in almost a "bonsai-like" size, several feet tall, indefinitely- all the while putting down the extensive, intricate root systems that they are so famous for.
Keeping mangroves in the aquairum is about husbandry and perspective as much as anything else...And accepting the fact that the mangroves and the leaves which they drop are part of the ecology of an aquarium, and that they will behave as all terrestrial materials do when submerged:
They'll break down and decompose, imparting their internally bound-up compounds into the water.
And of course, that leads to so much more:
They'll form the basis of a surprisingly complex food chain, which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.
When you think of mangroves not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense.
As a kid, I think one of the most memorable sights in my first aquarium, complete with blue gravel and plastic plants, was my group of 8 Zebra Danios (Danio rerio) racing at high speed around the tank in a furious fashion, as if they had to get somewhere in a big freaking hurry...only to reverse course, and do it all again. I've never forgotten how much I liked the Zebras- or almost every other Danio species kept in the aquarium.
Yeah, this fish has been known to science- and the aquairum hobby- for a very long time. It was first described by Francis Hamilton, a surgeon with the British East India Company, stationed in West Bengal in the early 19th Century. He published "An Account of the Fishes Found in the River Ganges and its Branches" in 1822, in which he described this fish and 9 other Danio species.
The more I researched this fish beyond the usual aquarium hobby stuff, the more remarkable stuff I found. Like, there are no less than 13 scientifically recognized wild strains of this fish!
And there's more cool stuff you can find in the scientific literature:
For example, ichthyologists feel that this fish, "...appears to be primarily an annual species in the wild, the spawning season starting just before the onset of the monsoon.." And, "Spawning is induced by temperature and commences at the onset of the monsoon season. Food availability also acts as cue for breeding." (Source - Fishbase)
And about this "annual" thing. Sure, in the aquairum, they can live 4-5 years. However, in the wild, length- frequency analysis by researchers demonstrated two distinct "age classes" during the summer months, 0 to one year, and 1 year...indicating that the main period of rapid growth in these guys takes place during the monsoon months (June-September), a period of high temperatures (up to 34 °C) and food availability. Spinal curvature- a sign of old age in captive fishes, was not found in wild-caught specimens, leading researchers that the fishes expire well before this malady can occur.
SImple, boring, "beginner's fish" my ASS! The Zebra Danio is is increasingly being used by researchers as a model for studying genetic effects in vertebrate development. Zebra Danios are able to regenerate their heart, nervous tissues, retina, hearing tissues, and fins!
This fish has got a lot going on!
And the amazing thing about this fish is that it's probably THE most bulletproof species you can keep. In fact, I recall reading somewhere that it's "tolerated temperature range" based on wild type localities is from 76.2 – 101.5°F (24.6 – 38.6°C). I mean, if THAT isn't a broad range, nothing is! And it tolerates water with a pH from 6.0-8.0.
Yeah, these guys are hardly what you'd call "fussy" fish!
Its diet, based on gut content analysis, consists primarily of zooplankton and insects. The usual stuff, right? Well, it also revealed that the fishes consume filamentous algae, terrestrial insects (including small spiders) detritus, sand, and mud! No wonder this fish is considered easy...it literally eats anything! It feeds at the surface and in the substrate.
And you know me- once I hear that kind of stuff, I get these weird ideas like, "What if we mimic the conditions of the natural habitat of the fish? Would they do better? IS there an advantage somewhere?"
I think like this for so many fishes, as if to shun the fact that 90% of what we keep in the aquarium these days has never seen a stream, pond, or river...😆
It's just..I don't know..irresistible to me to think about this kind of stuff! Taking the most common of common aquarium fishes and giving them "throwback" conditions; seeing if it somehow "awakens" something locked into their genetic code over eons...something...
I mean, it's kind of silly, I suppose...there are so many other things to do in the hobby...yet I can't help but wonder if we can learn something from replicating some aspects of their long-forgotten wild habitats...
And, in regards to the Zebra Danio, what's interesting to me is the habitats in which these fish are found. One of the habitats is known as a "beel", which, according to Wikipedia, is "...a lake-like wetland with static water (as opposed to moving water in rivers and canals.)"
In one study of the locations in which these were found, out of 26 reported occurrences, 14 were in ponds, 3 were in ditches connected to rice paddies, or in the rice paddies themselves, and 9 were canals or small rivulets adjacent to larger rivers.
Typically, these fishes are found in Northern India, and this area is subjected to seasonal rainfall between the months of June and September due to the summer Monsoon, and the water levels and characteristics vary considerably at different times of the year. They are often found in inundated rice paddies and marginal pools/ditches adjacent to them, with silty, kind of turbid water with very little movement. During the dry times of the year, they spend their time in calm, shaded areas of streams, with rocky or gravel-strewn substrates.
This is interesting, because it reminds me a bit of the Amazon igarape, although instead of rain forest, you've got rice paddies...
An excerpt from a paper I found online about this species describes the unique habitats in which they are found:
"(The Zebra Danio) appears to be a floodplain rather than a true riverine species.They are most commonly encountered in shallow ponds and standing water bodies, often connected to rice cultivation. This association with rice cultivation may relate to the use of fertilisers which may promote the growth of zooplankton, a major component of the zebrafish diet (Spence et al.) Spence et al. (2006) found no zebrafish either in rivers or temporary creeks that opened during the monsoon season.
Where zebrafish are found in streams and rivers, these typically have a low flow regime and zebrafish tend to be found at the margins (McClure et al. 2006). Observations of their vertical distribution indicated that they occupy the whole of the water column and occur as frequently in open water as amongst aquatic vegetation (Spence et al. 2006a)."
So, yeah, this whole "fast-moving stream" idea we in the hobby have about these fishes seems far less common than good old-fashioned rice paddies and shallow, more still bodies of water! The Zebra seems to inhabit a world of marginal plants, turbidity, silty substrates, and lots of food.
And, I've been playing with rice seeds, silted substrates, and turbid water lately! Hmmm...
So, my simple thought is...this fish seems to hang out in what we as hobbyists would think of us "less desirable" conditions for much of the year- the silty rice paddies and their adjacent ditches...And only spends the dry season in the more permanent, less turbid streams. Why would this be? Is there some advantage? Like food, better substrates for breeding, protection? Why the turbid water? What does it bring to the fishes?
Would there be an advantage to keeping a fish like the Zebra in different conditions different times of the year, as in nature? Or simply in a tank representing one of the two habitats it's found in. Would you WANT or NEED to? I mean, the fish has been a captive-bred staple of the hobby for almost a century...but I can't help but wonder why these fishes live the way they do in the wild. What advantages do these habitats hold for the fish?
Would you get different behaviors, colors, health, spawning out of the fish by doing this "seasonal transition"..? Using a very fine sand substrate, maybe mixed in with some mud or something similar to replicate the rice paddies, with pump returns very gently angled at the bottom to simulate turbidity?
This just might have been the most ever discussed in a hobby context about the obscure habitats and characteristics of one of the most pervasive fishes in the aquarium hobby.
Again, why, you ask?
My answer? I just think it could be kind of cool. Weird, but cool.
Am I the only one who imagines weird stuff like this? Maybe?
On second thought- don't answer that!
I know, the fish is bred by the billion in fish farms all over the world, as are many much sexier, domesticated strains of its relatives...but wouldn't it be interesting to see what happens when you "repatriate" these "common" fishes to an uncommon execution of their natural habitats?
I think it would be. In fact, I'm certain that it would be! It's a fave hobby tangent of mine. I think that we'll do a periodic series, where we look at the wild habitats of the hobby's most common fishes..."Off The Grid."
Yes, the whole purpose of this piece is to encourage you to go "off the grid" with common fishes. Research them not in the hobby literature, and delve into some scholarly research about them instead. The insights you gather may not always be remarkable, but you might uncover just enough about the so-called "common fish" swimming at the LFS that you just might want to tackle them with a whole new approach!
Yes, your friends will think that your nuts. But that's the fun part of this, right?
What fish will YOU go "off the grid" with?
Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay brave. Stay educated...
And Stay Wet.
A big thought about our botanical-style aquariums:
The aquarium-or, more specifically- the botanical materials which comprise the botanical-style aquarium "infrastructure" acts as a biological "filter system."
In other words, the botanical materials present in our systems provide enormous surface area upon which beneficial bacterial biofilms and fungal growths can colonize. These life forms utilize the organic compounds present in the water as a nutritional source.
Oh, the part about the biofilms and fungal growths sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Let's talk about our buddies, the biofilms, just a bit more. One more time. Because nothing seems as contrary to many hobbyists than to sing the praises of these gooey-looking strands of bacterial goodness!
Structurally, biofilms are surprisingly strong structures, which offer their colonial members "on-board" nutritional sources, exchange of metabolites, protection, and cellular communication. They form extremely rapidly on just about any hard surface that is submerged in water.
When I see aquarium work in which biofilms are considered a "nuisance", and suggestions that it can be eliminated by "reducing nutrients" in the aquarium, I usually cringe. Mainly, because no matter what you do, biofilms are ubiquitous, and always present in our aquariums. We may not see the famous long, stringy "snot" of our nightmares, but the reality is that they're present in our tanks regardless.
The other reality is that biofilms are something that we as aquarists typically fear because of the way they look. In and of themselves, biofilms are not harmful to our fishes. They function not only as a means to sequester and process nutrients ( a "filter" of sorts?), they also represent a beneficial food source for fishes.
Now, look, I can see rare scenarios where massive amounts of biofilms (relative to the water volume of the aquarium) can consume significant quantities of oxygen and be problematic for the fishes which reside in your tank. These explosions in biofilm growth are usually the result of adding too much botanical material too quickly to the aquarium. They're excaserbated by insufficient oxygenation/circulation within the aquarium.
These are very unusual circumstances, resulting from a combination of missteps by the aquarist.
Typically, however, biofilms are far more beneficial that they are reven emotely detrimental to our aquariums.
Nutrients in the water column, even when in low concentrations, are delivered to the biofilm through the complex system of water channels, where they are adsorbed into the biofilm matrix, where they become available to the individual cells. Some biologists feel that this efficient method of gathering energy might be a major evolutionary advantage for biofilms which live in particularly in turbulent ecosystems, like streams, (or aquariums, right?) with significant flow, where nutrient concentrations are typically lower and quite widely dispersed.
Biofilms have been used successfully in water/wastewater treatment for well over 100 years! In such filtration systems the filter medium (typically, sand) offers a tremendous amount of surface area for the microbes to attach to, and to feed upon the organic material in the water being treated. The formation of biofilms upon the "media" consume the undesirable organics in the water, effectively "filtering" it!
Biofilm acts as an adsorbent layer, in which organic materials and other nutrients are concentrated from the water column. As you might suspect, higher nutrient concentrations tend to produce biofilms that are thicker and denser than those grown in low nutrient concentrations.
Those biofilms which grow in higher flow environments, like streams, rivers, or areas exposed to wave action, tend to be denser in their morphology. These biofilms tend to form long, stringy filaments or "streamers",which point in the direction of the flow. These biofilms are characterized by characteristic known as "viscoelasticity." This means that they are flexible, and stretch out significantly in higher flow rate environments, and contract once again when the velocity of the flow is reduced.
Okay, that's probably way more than you want to know about the physiology of biofilms! Regardless, it's important for us as botanical-style aquarists to have at least a rudimentary understanding of these often misunderstood, incredibly useful, and entirely under-appreciated life forms.
And the whole idea of facilitating a microbiome in our aquariums is predicated upon supplying a quantity of botanical materials- specifically, leaf litter, for the beneficial organisms to colonize and begin the decomposition process. An interesting study I found by Mehering, et. al (2014) on the nutrient sequestration caused by leaf litter yielded this interesting little passage:
"During leaf litter decomposition, microbial biomass and accumulated inorganic materials immobilize and retain nutrients, and therefore, both biotic and abiotic drivers may influence detrital nutrient content."
The study determined that leaves such as oak "immobilized" nitrogen. Generally thinking, it is thought that leaf litter acts as a "sink" for nutrients over time in aquatic ecosystems.
Oh, and one more thing about leaves and their resulting detritus in tropical streams: Ecologists strongly believe that microbial colonized detritus is a more palatable and nutritious food source for detritivores than uncolonized dead leaves. The microbial growth which occurs on the leaves and their resulting detritus increases the nutritional quality of leaf detritus, because the microbial biomass on the leaves is more digestible than the leaves themselves (because of lignin, etc.).
Okay, great. I've just talked about decomposing leaves and stuff for like the 11,000th time in "The Tint"; so...where does this leave us, in terms of how we want to run our aquariums?
1) Add a significant amount of leaf litter, twigs, and botanicals to your aquarium as part of the substrate.
2) Allow biofilms and fungal growths to proliferate.
3) Feed your fishes well. It's actually "feeding the aquarium!"
4) Don't go crazy siphoning out every bit of detritus.
Let's look at each of these points in a bit more detail.
First, make liberal use of leaf litter in your aquarium. I'd build up a layer anywhere from 1"-4" of leaves. Yeah, I know- that's a lot of leaves. Initially, you'll have a big old layer of leaves, recruiting biofilms and fungal growths on their surfaces. Ultimately, it will decompose, creating a sort of "mulch" on the bottom of your aquarium, rich in detritus, providing an excellent place for your fishes to forage among.
Allow a fair amount of indirect circulation over the top of your leaf litter bed. This will ensure oxygenation, and allow the organisms within the litter bed to receive an influx of water (and thus, the dissolved organics they utilize). Sure, some of the leaves might blow around from time to time- just like what happens in Nature. It's no big deal- really!
The idea of allowing biofilms and fungal growths to colonize your leaves and botanicals, and to proliferate upon them simply needs to be accepted as fundamental to botanical-style aquarium keeping. These organisms, which comprise the biome of our aquariums, are the most important "components" of the ecosystems which our aquariums are.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least touch on the idea of feeding your aquarium. Think about it: When you feed your fishes, you are effectively feeding all of the other life forms which comprise this microbiome. You're "feeding the aquarium." When fishes consume and eliminate the food, they're releasing not only dissolved organic wastes, but fecal materials, which are likely not fully digested. The nutritional value of partially digested food cannot be understated. Many of the organisms which live within the botanical bed and the resulting detritus will assimilate them.
Now, we could go on and on about this topic; there is SO much to discuss. However, let's just agree that feeding our fishes is another critical activity which provides not only for our fishes' well-being, but for the other life forms which create the ecology of the aquarium.
And, let's be clear about another thing: Detritus, the nemesis of many aquarists- is NOT our enemy. We've talked about this for several years now, and I cannot stress it enough: To remove every bit of detritus in our tanks is to deprive someone, somewhere along the food chain in our tanks, their nutritional source. And when you do that, imbalances occur...You know, the kinds which cause "nuisance algae" and those "anomalous tank crashes."
The definition of this stuff, as accepted in the aquarium hobby, is kind of sketchy in this regard; not flattering at the very least:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material."
Shit, that's just bad branding.
The reality is that this not a "bad" thing. Detritus, like biofilms and fungi, is flat-out misunderstood in the hobby.
Could there be some "upside" to this stuff?
Of course there is.
I mean, even in the above the definition, there is the part about being "colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize..."
It's being processed. Utilized. What do these microorganisms do? They eat it...They render it inert. And in the process, they contribute to the biological diversity and arguably even the stability of the system. Some of them are utilized as food by other creatures. Important in a closed system, I should think.
This is really important. It's part of the biological operating system of our botanical-style aquariums. I cannot stress this enough.
Now, I realize that the idea of embracing this stuff- and allowing it to accumulate, or even be present in your system- goes against virtually everything we've been indoctrinated to believe in about aquarium husbandry. Pretty much every article you see on this stuff is about its "dangers", and how to get it out of your tank. I'll say it again- I think we've been looking at detritus the wrong way for a very long time in the aquarium hobby, perceiving it as an "enemy" to be feared, as opposed to the "biological catalyst" it really is!
In essence, it's organically rich particulate material that provides sustenance, and indeed, life to many organisms which, in turn, directly benefit our aquariums.
We've pushed this narrative many times here, and I still think we need to encourage hobbyists to embrace it more.
Okay, I'll admit that detritus, as we see it, may not be the most attractive thing to look at in our tanks. I'll give you that. It literally looks like a pile of shit! However, what we're talking about allowing to accumulate isn't just fish poop and uneaten food. It's broken-down materials- the end product of biological processing. And, yeah, a wide variety of organisms have become adapted to eat or utilize detritus.
There is, of course, a distinction.
One is the result of poor husbandry, and of course, is not something we'd want to accumulate in our aquariums. The other is a more nuanced definition.
As we talk about so much around here- just because something looks a certain way doesn't mean that it alwaysa bad thing, right?
What does it mean? Take into consideration why we add botanicals to our tanks in the first place. Now, you don't have to have huge piles of the stuff littering your sandy substrate. However, you could have some accumulating here and there among the botanicals and leaves, where it may not offend your aesthetic senses, and still contribute to the overall aquatic ecosystem you've created.
If you're one of those hobbyists who allows your leaves and other botanicals to break down completely into the tank, what really happens? Do you see a decline in water quality in a well-maintained system? A noticeable uptick in nitrate or other signs? Does anyone ever do water tests to confirm the "detritus is dangerous" theory, or do we simply rely on what "they" say in the books and hobby forums?
Is there ever a situation, a place, or a circumstance where leaving the detritus "in play" is actually a benefit, as opposed to a problem?
I think so. Like, almost always.
Yes, I know, we're talking about a closed ecosystem here, which doesn't have all of the millions of minute inputs and exports and nuances that Nature does, but structurally and functionally, we have some of them at the highest levels (ie; water going in and coming out, food sources being added, stuff being exported, etc.).
There is so much more to this stuff than to simply buy in unflinchingly to overly-generalized statements like, "detritus is bad."
The following statement may hurt a few sensitive people. Consider it some "tough love" today:
If you're not a complete incompetent at basic aquarium husbandry, you won't have any issues with detritus being present in your aquarium.
Don't neglect regular water exchanges.
Don't fail to maintain your equipment.
Don't ignore what's happening in your tank.
This is truly not "rocket science." It's "Aquarium Keeping 101."
And it all comes full circle when we talk about "filtration" in our aquariums.
People often ask me, "What filter do you use use in a botanical-style aquarium?" My answer is usually that it just doesn't matter. You can use any type of filter. The reality is that, if allowed to evolve and grow unfettered, the aquarium itself- all of it- becomes the "filter."
You can embrace this philosophy regardless of the type of filter that you employ.
My sumps and integrated filter compartments in my A.I.O. tanks are essentially empty.
I may occasionally employ some activated carbon in small amounts, or throw some "Shade" sachets in there if I am feeling it- but that's it. The way I see it- these areas, in a botanical-style aquarium, simply provide more water volume, more gas exchange; a place for bacterial attachment (surface area), and perhaps an area for botanical debris to settle out. Maybe I'll remove them, if only to prevent them from slowing down the flow rate of my return pumps.
But that's it.
A lot of people are initially surprised by this. However, when you look at it in the broader context of botanical style aquariums as miniature ecosystems, it all really makes sense, doesn't it? The work of these microorganisms and other life forms takes place throughout the aquarium.
I admit, there was a time when I was really fanatical about making sure every single bit of detritus and fish poop and all that stuff was out of my tanks. About undetectable nitrate. I was especially like that in my earlier days of reef keeping, when it was thought that cleanliness was the shit!
It wasn't until years into my reef keeping work, and especially in my coral propagation work, that I begin to understand the value of food, and the role the it plays in aquatic ecosystems as a whole. And that "food" means different things to different aquatic organisms. The idea of scrubbing and removing every single trace of what we saw as "bad stuff" from our grow-out raceways essentially deprived the corals and supporting organisms of an important natural food source.
We'd fanatically skim and remove everything, only to find out that...our corals didn't look all that good. We'd compensate by feeding more heavily, only to continue to remove any traces of dissolved organics from the water...
It was a constant struggle- the metaphorical "hamster wheel"- between keeping things "clinically clean" and feeding our animals. We were super proud of our spotless water. We had a big screen when you came into our facility showing the parameters in each raceway. Which begged the question: Were we interested in creating sterile water, or growing corals?
Eventually, it got through my thick skull that aquariums- just like the wild habitats they represent-are not spotless environments, and that they depend on multiple inputs of food, to feed the biome at all levels. This meant that scrubbing the living shit (literally) out of our aquariums was denying the very biotia which comprised our aquariums their most basic needs.
That little "unlock" changed everything for me.
Suddenly, it all made sense.
This has carried over into the botanical-style aquarium concept: It's a system that literally relies on the biological material present in the system to facilitate food production, nutrient assimilation, and reproduction of life forms at various trophic levels.
It's changed everything about how I look at aquarium management and the creation of functional closed aquatic ecosystems.
It's really put the word "natural" back into the aquarium keeping parlance for me. The idea of creating a multi-tiered ecosystem, which provides a lot of the requirements needed to operate successfully with just a few basic maintenance practices, the passage of time, a lot of patience, and careful observation.
It means adopting a different outlook, accepting a different, yet very beautiful aesthetic. It's about listening to Nature instead of the asshole on Instagram with the flashy, gadget-driven tank. It's not always fun at first for some, and it initially seems like you're somehow doing things wrong.
It's about faith. Faith in Mother Nature, who's been doing this stuff for eons.
It's about nuance.
It's about looking at things a bit different that we've been "programmed" to do in the aquarium hobby for so long. It's about not being afraid to question the reasons why we do things a certain way in the hobby, and to seek ways to evolve and change practices for the benefits of our fishes.
It takes time to grasp this stuff. However, as with so many things that we talk about here, it's not revolutionary...it's simply an evolution in thinking about how we conceive, set up, and manage our aquariums.
Sure, the aquairum is a "filter" of sorts, if you want to label it as such. However, it's so much more: A small, evolving ecosystem, relying on natural processes to bring it to life.
Wrap you head around that.
It might just change everything in the hobby for you.
Stay open-minded. Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
I'm not much of an aquascaper, in the "classic" sense.
Like, you could give me a piece of wood and some rocks, and maybe I'll stumble onto something. However, I'll never be able to crank out those artistic, intricate aquascapes the you see on The 'Gram and elsewhere. Nope. Not me. What I tend to do is research wild habitats of my fishes, figure out what makes 'em tick, and then try to replicate the function and form of them in my tanks.
The results are often "unorthodox" in appearance.
Other times, they're a bit more interesting...
Occasionally, even rather attractive.
However, the result was achieved because I attempted to replicate what I saw in the natural habitat which I'm trying to represent. And usually, it's about the "details" I see in the habitat. Trying to recreate the details which fishes seem to be drawn to almost always results in something interesting- and attractive!
There is something enticing, stimulating, and challenging about recreating a literal slice of the bottom, isn't there? Asking yourself why these habitats form, what contributes to the way that they look, and how they support aquatic life forms unlocks a tremendous amount of information that you can use in your work.
Looking at wild aquatic habitats in this fashion provides tremendous inspiration, especially when you look at the "macro view" and isolate some of the details, like how wood falls, how substrate and leaves accumulate, and where fishes seem to aggregate, in context.
Despite my "aesthetic challenges", I've always taken comfort in the fact that my wood arrangements almost always seem to look better once they're submerged and become part of a whole habitat. In fact, I don't think I've ever owned an aquarium where the wood scape looked "amazing" before it was submerged.
And that has never really bothered me. I don't get all hung up on creating the perfect "wood stack."
I'm far less into "aquascaping" in the traditional sense than I am in representing functional aspects of various natural habitats. And I think it's served me very well. As I've mentioned so often, the "look" of the botanical-style, natural aquarium always seems to come as a result of the function.
What typically happens is that the "lame" wood arrangement that I'll create recruits biofilms, softens up a bit over time. Perhaps, I'll gradually add a few pieces to it, and over time, it becomes something far more interesting and attractive than originally configured.
However, the "editing" is based upon how the wild habitat that I'm trying to replicate evolves and functions. In many wild habitats, materials aggregate over time. This is interesting. It opens up the possibility of "evolving" your aquarium's appearance over time, as a result of replicating the function.
Have you thought much about how "clogged" with materials some of the natural habitats we intend to imitate in our tanks actually are?
More than you think.
It's kind of interesting to consider, and I've done a little "field work" over the years, as well as some "internet safaris", exploring some of the interesting habitats where our fishes come from, and I've frequently been surprised just how much "stuff" is in the water.
And of course, there is a strange "disconnect" with our hobby tinterpretation of Nature, and what is really out there. It makes me think about our aquascapes, and how we are seemingly always concerned about having the "appropriate" amount of "negative space"- at least from an artistic perspective.
I mean, from an aquascaping point of view, I suppose that's quite understandable. And, I would imagine that there is a sort of a perception in the hobby that having an aquarium that's not densely-packed with materials is somehow more sustainable, healthier, etc. from a practical management standpoint.
Like, it's easier to maintain an aquarium that's more "open."
Or, is it?
Sure, you can easily get a siphon hose into a more open tank. You can keep detritus in suspension where it can be removed more easily-if that's your thing, of course.
You know my thoughts on "detritus..."
On the other hand, if you've made that "mental shift" to accepting a more natural-looking- and functioning aquarium, the amount of material you have in the tank makes little difference. You simply adjust your husbandry practices and stocking to accommodate the physical "configuration" of the aquarium and go about your business!
Educating yourself about the realities of natural habitats, rather than strictly modeling our aquariums after other aquariums, can open you up to numerous examples of how these environments foster numerous life forms successfully.
When you take into account the materials that accumulate in smaller streams, igarapes, flooded meadows, and swamps- you know, the habitats we love around here- a surprisingly large amount of botanical materials, ranging from tree branches/trunks to leaves and such, accumulates and takes up a lot of physical space in the aquatic habitat.
Not only do these materials take up water volume and physical space- they serve to direct flow, create other hydrodynamic features, etc. More important, they also accumulate/sequester nutrients and food sources for the organisms which reside in these habitats.
In the aquarium, a larger volume of say, driftwood, rocks, and botanicals will not only impart the oft-mentioned "chemical" affects into the water, they will similarly channel flow, create territories, and offer areas of visual interest. Functional aesthetics.
Well-managed aquariums which are densely-packed with wood and botanical materials can create surprisingly dynamic, ever-evolving displays.
This is perfectly analogous to the seasonal evolutions of underwater landscapes in Nature, as waters recede after the rainy season, leaving a more densely-packed assemblage of materials in a given area.
To get a better perspective on this, look at the rain forest floor in tropical regions, such as Amazonia. After all, this is what is left during the dry season, and gives you some idea of the eventual "topography" of the underwater landscape when the rains return.
Rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia, for example- is the evolution of our most compelling environmental niches. The water levels in the rivers rise significantly. often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams.
The Igapos are formed.
Flooded forest floors. Yeah, I talk about this habitat incessantly. I'm obsessed by it.
The formerly terrestrial environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and spawning areas.
It's not just the igapo that receive regular "deliveries" of terrestrial materials!
Many bodies of water which meander through jungles and rain forests are constantly being "restocked" with leaves, seed pods, branches, and other botanical materials from the surrounding vegetation- some of which are knocked into the water by weather, wind, animal activity, etc. Depending upon the velocity of the water, its depth, etc., they may aggregate right where they fall, or be gradually re-distributed downstream by the current.
I can't tell you how amazing this type of habitat is to replicate in the aquarium! It challenges our aesthetic tastes, our skills at managing closed systems, and our ability to understand the benefits of having all of this stuff present in our tanks.
Now, I'm not telling you that you should fill your tanks to the rim with wood, seed pods, leaves, and rocks (although it sounds like a cool idea, doesn't it? LOL). I AM suggesting that you look into the physical structure of these habitats, and consider interesting functionally aesthetic impacts that you can create with a more "dense" scape. Attempt to understand the function and benefits to your fishes created by such a configuration.
We've already touched on some of the benefits above; analogous to those found in the natural habitats they attempt to represent, and this is increasingly obvious to all of us who play with botanical-style aquariums.
Now, the one of the immediate "downsides" most hobbyists who are unfamiliar with our practices and philosophies on aquarium management will jump on is, "Hey, more 'stuff' in the water means...less water volume...you can't have as many fishes in your tank."Absolutely. Sure. On the other hand, lower population densities of fishes could actually serve to create a more visually engaging display!
Not only will there be functional and environmental benefits as a result of lower fish populations- you'll probably find some aesthetic ones, as well. And the ability to study "niche" fishes and their habitat preferences is pretty damn interesting, IMHO!
And a rather densely-packed tank isn't exactly a new concept in the aquarium hobby.
I remember back in the 1980's through the early 2000's, in the earlier days of the modern reef aquarium craze, we were obsessed with the concept of "live rock" as a "filter medium", and the prevailing wisdom was that you needed "x" amount of rock per given volume of water in a reef tank...
And it was quite a bit...Of course, the best way to achieve this "recommended quantity" was to create a literal "wall of rock", something that I have railed on personally for years in my writings and presentations.
It looked pretty crazy. However, it defined he aesthetics of the reef aquarium for a generation of hobbyists. And it did work, despite some limitations unique to the reef side of the hobby (ie; flow and ability to access, etc.)
So, yeah, I'd be a bit hypocritical if I was suggesting a "wall of botanicals" and such; however, I think it would be interesting to play with higher densities of wood and botanicals in some displays. To encourage areas of interest. Yes, fascinating details which encourage the observer to really study the aquarium in a more focused way.
Nature offers the model:
In Nature, all of the botanical material- fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such create the biological "operating system" for the aquatic environment. Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to multiply, feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans reproduce rapidly. Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.
Fishes and other aquatic organisms are able to make use of all of the physical materials deposited into their environment.
Let's get back to the "practical" aspects again, vis a vis our aquairums.
There are some keys to maintaining aquarium filled with materials like decomposing leaves and botanicals. We know this by now; it's become part of our "best practices..." You definitely need to do regular maintenance. You don't want to overstock...I mean, common sense stuff. However, in a tank filled with considerable organic material, "slight overstocking" and poor general husbandry can be problematic.
It's about husbandry and perspective...
And it's about accepting the fact that the leaves and other natural materials are part of the ecology of the tank, and that they will behave as terrestrial materials do when submerged:
They'll break down and decompose. They'll form the basis of a surpassingly complex food chain, which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.
When you think of the botanical materials not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense. And the more material that is present in the system, the greater the "fuel" available for microbial growth to "power" the system.
And when we add/remove/supplement more leaves and botanicals, and allow others to fully break down in our tanks, we are perfectly replicating the natural processes which occur in streams and rivers around the world.
Think about the materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and how they actually end up in them, and it makes you think about this in a very different context. A more "holistic" context that can make your experience that much more rewarding. Botanicals should be viewed as "consumables" in our hobby- much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- they simply don't last indefinitely.
And the biofilms and algal growths which appear on our leaves and botanicals-just as they do in the wild habitats we mimic- provide not only a degree of "biological functionality" for our systems, but an evolving aesthetic as well.
Embrace these things- don't fear them.
Understand that the real "designer" of our botanical-style aquaecapes is Mother Nature herself.
We just set the stage.
So- set the stage, and enjoy the random, compelling, and ever-evolving work of art that is the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium. Started by you. Evolved with the steady hand of Nature.
Look, I adore minimalist stuff...abosolutely. However, I'd think it would be interesting (and entirely authentic to Nature) to play with a more complex, "heavy-handed" scape once in a while. Not just for their interesting aesthetics, mind you.
Where it gets really interesting is in a larger aquarium, with a population of smaller fishes dwelling in such a 'scape. For example, imagine the allure of a tank, heavily "choked" with thin wood branches, some larger seed pods, bark, and leaves.
By selecting smaller fishes like Tetras, Apsitos, Boraras, Guaramis, Badis, Corydoras, etc., you could maximize the impact by having a fairly high number of fishes in an aquascape that offers a lot less open area, encouraging the fishes to engage in more natural behaviors, like swimming through, and foraging among the dense wood and botanical areas.
If you stock with fishes like Elachocharax, for example- that are known to inhabit more densely packed areas of streams and such, or very specific areas like leaf litter zones, you can create a very unique and engaging display in which the fishes won't be immediately evident to the observer.
As with the "jungle" planted tanks I adore so much, the densely stocked botanical-style aquarium encourages the observer to take the time to "linger" and "discover" the fishes flitting in and out of the hardscape...
Like in any botanical aquarium, a more densely-packed one will require thoughtful, but not excessive maintenance. You'll simply need to feed carefully, stock thoughtfully, and adhere to the typical tenants of aquarium keeping. There is very little that is actually more difficult to manage about this type of tank than any other, when you understand its dynamics.
And a more densely packed one will find its way, like any other natural, botanical-style aquarium, developing over time into an intriguing, engaging display that will become a constantly-evolving, highly engaging, and oddly refreshing aquarium.
The appeal of this interesting aesthetic, and the practical benefits may or may not be immediately obvious to you. However, I encourage you to consider an aquatic habitat such as this as a subject for your next project.
The good news is that, if you find that you aesthetically prefer a more "open" scape, you can simply remove wood, botanicals, etc., until you hit the aesthetic that appeals to you.
And even that, in itself is not unlike the natural processes of current, tidal movements, etc. which "re-arrange" the natural ecosystems all the time!
In the end, turning once again to the incredible, almost infinite "portfolio" of inspiration which Nature provides seems to always provide will steer you in the right direction. If you look at enough natural aquatic systems, you'll no doubt be struck by some habitat that speaks to you, motivates you to replicate it in some way...and to share your work with others.
With the precious natural environments subject to so many dangerous external forces and perils, perhaps one of the most significant steps we can take to help preserve them is to help others appreciate them by modeling an aquarium after them.
And that may mean embracing more unorthodox aesthetics.
Look at, and consider exactly what it is that makes these wild habitats so successful. You will likely find that so much of what makes these ecosystems operate so successfully starts with the bottom!
Yeah, that means the substrate, and the accompanying "topography" of the benthic habitat.
Stream and river bottom composition is affected by things like regional weather, current, geology, the surrounding dry lands, and a host of other factors- all of which could make planning your next aquarium even more interesting if you take them into consideration!
We've touched on these in some recent posts, and we'll definitely dive deeper in upcoming blogs. There's more to this habitat than just the accumulation of leaves and such.
It's pretty interesting...
If we focus on shallow tributaries of streams and flooded forest floors, it's important to note that the volume of water entering the stream helps, in part, to determine the amount and size of sediment particles, leaves, beaches, seed pods, and the like that can be carried along, and thus comprise the substrate and it's contours.
The mixing of materials not only looks interesting- it's a reflection of the diversity and vibrancy of the underwater environment.
One of the things you notice in the images above of natural underwater substrates is that they're usually anything but squeaky-clean, ultra-white sand. Rather, they're often sediment-filled, covered with stringy fungal growths, biofilms, and even a spot or two of algae. There is a fair amount of detritus accumulating in the substrate materials. And, as you know, detritus is not the enemy that we've made it out to be. Rather, it's a source of food for many aquatic animals, helping to literally "power" the ecosystem in which they are present.
This is something we can-and should- absolutely replicate in our aquariums. Don't be afraid of sediments and even detritus accumulating on top of your leaves and botanicals...it's exactly what you see in Nature, and our fishes are ecologically adapted to such habitats.
In Nature, the composition of bottom materials and the depth of the channel are always changing in response to the flow in a given stream, affecting the composition and ecology in many ways. Some of these changes are actually the result of the fishes "working them."
In the words of our friend, author Mike Tuccinardi:
"One of the things that is most striking when you spend time below the water’s surface in this sort of environment is that the fish aren’t just passive inhabitants—they’re actively involved with their habitat, interacting in a very particular way. Apistogramma species aren’t just hanging out, they’re fighting turf wars among piles of dense leaf litter, even making their own piles by moving leaves and other bits of detritus to the center of their territories.
Suckermouth catfish, whether Farlowella or Ancistrus, are actively exploring recently-submerged branches and roots, looking for a rich patch of biofilm or algae to feast on. Eartheaters and many other species of cichlids—even Severums, Angelfish, and Discus—are patrolling the bottom, taking big mouthfuls of sand and organic material to sift out any tasty morsels. It’s a big, organic mess, literally made up of various botanicals and these fish are having a field day in it."
These dynamic habitats are not difficult to replicate in the aquarium. We need to understand that they play a functional and aesthetic role in the overall aquarium, as we've touched on many times here. Realizing that placing leaves and botanical materials on the bottom of the aquarium is not simply making an aesthetic statement.
Rather, it's an homage to the function of the dynamic habitats we love so much. Yet, there is plenty of room for creativity, of course.
The natural beauty of recreating these "slices of the bottom" in our aquariums, embracing function over simple aesthetics, may just motivate aquarists and non-aquarists alike to take a greater interest in helping preserve and protect these precious natural ecosystems.
And that's the biggest "win" of all!
Remember, replicating natural aquatic habitats in form and function is really not a "style" or trend in the aquarium world.
Nature isn't exactly a "fad" or trend-follower, right? She's been doing this stuff for eons. We're just sort of "catching up"- and beginning to study, contemplate, and appreciate what happens when form meets function in the aquarium.
It just happens to look kind of cool.
And that's pretty exciting, isn't it?
I think that it is.
Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay dedicated. Stay observant. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
As you know, we've spent the better part of the past 6 years talking about every aspect of the botanical-style aquarium that we can think of. We've talked about techniques, approaches, ideas, etc. And we've spent a lot of time sharing information about wild aquatic habitats that we might be interested in replicating in both form and function.
However, I think we haven't spent as much time as we should talking about how botanicals "behave" in wild aquatic habitats. Much of this stuff has implications for those of us who are interested in replicating these habitats in our aquariums. So, let's dive in a bit more on this topic today!
Among the trees of the flooded forests, after the fruits mature (which occurs at high water levels), seeds will fall into the water and may float on the surface or be submerged for a number of weeks. Ecologists believe that the seed production of the trees coincides with the flood pulses, which facilitates their dispersal by water movement, and by the actions of fish.
Interestingly, scientists postulate that these floating or sinking seeds, which germinate and establish seedlings after the flood waters recede, do very well, sprouting and establishing themselves quickly, and are not severely affected by waterlogging in most species.
So, within their cycle of life, the trees take advantage of the water as part of their ecological adaptation. Trees in these areas have developed specialized morphologies, such as advantageous roots, butress systems and stilt roots.
In a lot of wild aquatic habitats where leaf litter and other allochthonous materials accumulate, there are a number of factors which control the density, size, and type of materials which are deposited in streams and such. The flow rate of the water within these habitats determines a lot of things, such as the size of the leaves and other botanical materials and where in the stream they are deposited.
I often wonder how much the fallen leaves and seed pods impact the water chemistry in a given stream, pond, or section of an Amazonian flooded forest. I know that studies have been done in which ecologists have measured dissolved oxygen and conductivity, as well as pH. However, those readings only give us so much information.
We hear a lot of discussion about blackwater habitats among hobbyists, and the implications for our aquariums. And part of the game here is understanding what it is that makes this a blackwater river system to begin with. We often hear that blackwater is "low in nutrients."
What exactly does this mean?
One study concluded that the Rio Negro is a blackwater river in large part because the very low nutrient concentrations of the soils that drain into it have arisen as a result of "several cycles of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation." In other words, there's not a whole lot of minerals and nutrients left in the soils to dissolve into the water to any meaningful extent!
Black-waters, drain from older rocks in areas like the Negro river, result from dissolved fulvic and humic substances, present small amounts of suspended sediment, lower pH (4.0 to 6.0) and dissolved elements. Yes, highly leached tropical environments where most of the soluble elements are quickly removed by heavy rainfall.
Perhaps...another reason (besides the previously cited limitation of light penetration) why aquatic plants are rather scare in these waters? It would appear that the bulk of the nutrients found in these blackwaters are likely dissolved into the aquatic environment by decomposing botanical materials, such as leaves, branches, etc.
Why does that sound familiar?
Besides the color, of course, the defining characteristics of blackwater rivers are pH values in the range of 4-5, low electrical conductivity, and minimal mineral content. Dissolved minerals, such as Ca, Mg, K, and Na are negligible. And with these low amounts of dissolved minerals come unique challenges for the animals who reside in these systems.
How do fishes survive and thrive in these rather extreme habitats?
It's long been known that fishes are well adapted to their natural habitats, particularly the more extreme ones. And this was borne out in a recent study of the Cardinal Tetra. Lab results suggest that humic substances protect cardinal tetras in the soft, acidic water in which they resides by preventing excessive sodium loss and stimulating calcium uptake to ensure proper homeostasis.
This is pretty extraordinary, as the humic substances found in the water actually enable the fishes to survive in this highly acidic water which is devoid of much mineral content typically needed for fishes to survive!
And of course, botanicals, leaves, and wood typically have an abundance of these humic substances, right? They are useful for more than just an interesting and unique aesthetic effect! There is a lot of room for research about influencing the overall environment in our aquariums here! I think we've barely scratched the surface of the potential for utilizing botanicals in our aquariums.
This is another one of those foundational aspects of the natural style of aquarium that we espouse. The understanding that processes like decomposition and physical transformation of the materials that we utilize our tanks are normal, expected, and beautiful things requires us to make mental shifts.
Botanical materials don't have nearly as much impact on the water parameters (other than say, conductivity and dissolved oxygen) as the soils do. These waters have high concentrations of humic and fulvic acids derived from sandy "hydromorphic podsols" prevalent in the region. However, these allochthonous materials have huge impact on the ecology of these systems!
Leaf litter, as one might suspect, is of huge importance in these ecosystems. Especially in smaller tributaries. In one study which I came across, it was concluded that, "The smaller the stream, the more dependent the biota is on leaf litter habitats and allocthonous energy derived directly or indirectly from the forest." (Kemenes and Forsberg)
From the same study, it was concluded that the substrate of the aquatic habitat had significant influence on the feeding habits of the fishes which resided in them:
"The biomass of allocthonous insectivore increased in channels with a higher percentage of sandy bottom substrate. Detritivorous insectivore biomass, in contrast, increased significantly in channels with a higher percentage of leaf substrate. General insectivores tended to increase in streams with higher proportions of leafy substrate, too.
Whats the implication for us as hobbyists? Well, for one thing, we can set up the benthic environment in our tanks to represent the appropriate environment for the fishes which we want to keep in them. Simple as that!
t's as much about function as anything else. And, about pushing into some new directions. The unorthodox aesthetics of these unusual aquariums we play with just happen to be an interesting "by-product" of theirfunction.
I personally think that almost every botanical-style aquarium can benefit from the presence of leaves. As we've discussed numerous times, leaves are the "operating system" of many natural habitats (ecology-wise), and perform a similar role in the aquarium.
The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is fundamental. Leaves and other botanicals are extremely pervasive in almost every type of aquatic habitat.
In the tropical species of trees, the leaf drop is important to the surrounding environment. The nutrients are typically bound up in the leaves, so a regular release of leaves by the trees helps replenish the minerals and nutrients which are typically depleted from eons of leaching into the surrounding forests.
Now, interestingly enough, most tropical forest trees are classified as "evergreens", and don't have a specific seasonal leaf drop like the "deciduous" trees than many of us are more familiar with do...Rather, they replace their leaves gradually throughout the year as the leaves age and subsequently fall off the trees.
The implication here?
There is a more-or-less continuous "supply" of leaves falling off into the jungles and waterways in these habitats, which is why you'll see leaves at varying stages of decomposition in tropical streams. It's also why leaf litter banks may be almost "permanent" structures within some of these bodies of water!
Our botanical-style aquariums are not "set-and-forget" systems, and require basic maintenance (water exchanges, regular water testing, filter media replacement/cleaning), like any other aquarium. They do have one unique "requirement" as part of their ongoing maintenance which other types of aquariums seem to nothave: The "topping off" of botanicals as they break down.
The "topping off" of botanicals in your tank accomplishes a number of things: first, it creates a certain degree of environmental continuity- keeping things consistent from a "botanical capacity" standpoint. Over time, you have the opportunity to establish a "baseline" of water parameters, knowing how many of what to add to keep things more-or-less consistent, which could make the regular "topping off" of botanicals a bit more of a "science" in addition to an "art."
In addition, it keeps a consistent aesthetic "vibe" in your aquarium. Consistent, in that you can keep the sort of "look" you have, while making subtle- or even less-than-subtle "enhancements" as desired.
And, of course, "topping off" botanicals helps keeps you more intimately "in touch" with your aquarium, much in the same way a planted tank enthusiast would by trimming plants, or a reefer while making frags. When you're actively involved in the "operation" of your aquarium, you simply notice more. You can also learn more; appreciate the subtle, yet obvious changes which arise on an almost daily basis in our botanical-style aquariums.
I dare say that one of the things I enjoy doing most with my blackwater, botanical-style aquariums (besides just observing them, of course) is to "top off" the botanical supply from time to time. I feel that it not only gives me a sense of "actively participating" in the aquarium- it provides a sense that you're doing something nature has done for eons; something very "primal" and essential. Even the prep process is engaging.
Think about the materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and how they actually end up in them, and it makes you think about this in a very different context. A more "holistic" context that can make your experience that much more rewarding. Botanicals should be viewed as "consumables" in our hobby- much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- they simply don't last indefinitely.
Many seed pods and similar botanicals contain a substance known as lignin. Lignin is defined as a group of organic polymers which are essentially the structural materials which support the tissues of vascular plants. They are common in bark, wood, and yeah- seed pods, providing protection from rotting and structural rigidity.
In other words, they make seed pods kinda tough.
Yet, not permanent.
That being said, they are typically broken down by fungi and bacteria in aquatic environments. Inputs of terrestrial materials like leaf litter and seed pods into aquatic habitats can leach dissolved organic carbon (DOC), rich in lignin and cellulose. Factors like light intensity, mineral hardness, and the composition of the aforementioned bacterial /fungal community all affect the degree to which this material is broken down into its constituent parts in this environment.
Hmm...something we've kind of known for a while, right?
So, lignin is a major component of the "stuff" that's leached into our aquatic environments, along with that other big "player"- tannin.
Tannins, according to chemists, are a group of "astringent biomolecules" that bind to and precipitate proteins and other organic compounds. They're in almost every plant around, and are thought to play a role in protecting the plants from predation and potentially aid in their growth. As you might imagine, they are super-abundant in...leaves. In fact, it's thought that tannins comprise as much as 50% of the dry weight of leaves!
And of course, tannins in leaves, wood, soils, and plant materials tend to be highly water soluble, creating our beloved blackwater as they decompose. As the tannins leach into the water, they create that transparent, yet darkly-stained water we love so much!
In simplified terms, blackwater tends to occur when the rate of "carbon fixation" (photosynthesis) and its partial decay to soluble organic acids exceeds its rate of complete decay to carbon dioxide (oxidation).
Chew on that for a bit...Try to really wrap your head around it...
And sometimes, the research you do on these topics can unlock some interesting tangential information which can be applied to our work in aquairums...
Interesting tidbit of information from science: For those of you weirdos who like using wood, leaves and such in your aquariums, but hate the brown water (yeah, there are a few of you)- you can add baking soda to the water that you soak your wood and such in to accelerate the leaching process, as more alkaline solutions tend to draw out tannic acid from wood than pH neutral or acidic water does. Or you can simply keep using your 8.4 pH tap water!
"ARMCHAIR SPECULATION": This might be a good answer to why some people can't get the super dark tint they want for the long term...If you have more alkaline water, those tannins are more quickly pulled out. So you might get an initial burst, but the color won't last all that long...
I think just having a bit more than a superficial understanding of the way botanicals and other materials interact with the aquatic environment, and how we can embrace and replicate these systems in our own aquariums is really important to the hobby. The real message here is to not be afraid of learning about seemingly complex chemical and biological nuances of blackwater systems, and to apply some of this knowledge to our aquatic practice.
It can seem a bit intimidating at first, perhaps even a bit contrarian to "conventional aquarium practice", but if you force yourself beyond just the basic hobby-oriented material out there on these topics (hint once again: There aren't many!), there is literally a whole world of stuff you can learn about!
It starts by simply looking at Nature as an overall inspiration...
Wondering why the aquatic habitats we're looking at appear the way they do, and what processes create them. And rather than editing out the "undesirable" (by mainstream aquarium hobby standards) elements, we embrace as many of the elements as possible, try to figure out what benefits they bring, and how we can recreate them functionally in our closed aquarium systems.
There are no "flaws" in Nature's work, because Nature doesn't seek to satisfy observers. It seeks to evolve and change and grow. It looks the way it does because it's the sum total of the processes which occur to foster life and evolution.
We as hobbyists need to evolve and change and grow, ourselves.
We need to let go of our long-held beliefs about what truly is considered "beautiful." We need to study and understand the elegant way Nature does things- and just why natural aquatic habitats look the way they do. To look at things in context. To understand what kinds of outside influences, pressures, and threats these habitats face.
And, when we attempt replicate these functions in our aquariums, we're helping to grow this unique segment of the aquarium hobby.
Please make that effort to continue to educate yourself and get really smart about this stuff...And share what you learn on your journey- all of it- the good and the occasional bad. It helps grow the hobby, foster a viable movement, and helps your fellow hobbyists!
Stay studious. Stay thoughtful. Stay inquisitive. Stay creative. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.