Yes, I'll admit it...
When it comes to my aquariums, I've always sort of been a serious creature of habit...Like, a ridiculously habitual, "tidally locked", almost inflexible fish geek. Thursday is water exchange day. Sunday is filter sock replacement day. Feeding times are 4PM and 8PM....
Like, it's kind fo weird...but it's how stuff has worked for me for...like, well- forever!
Over the past few years, fortunately, I've broken out of some of these ridiculous scheduled habits. It's always a good time to change it up a bit! I mean, life's too short, right?
I was getting into some serious habits, for no real reason.
And I found that switching things up isn't so bad!
Like, the other day I did a rare Tuesday water exchange on my brackish-water aquarium. (usually, it's Thursday)...And guess what? Everyone did okay. The fish all lived. The tank is intact.
The world didn't stop rotating.
And water exchanges are one of the practices that we perform that I think are perfect examples of rituals which can and should be varied from time to time. I mean, as long as you're exchanging, say "x" percentage of your aquariums' water each month, is the schedule you perform the exchanges on really that critical?
No, it isn't.
And it sort of is better, I think. I mean, think about nature. Rainstorms and weather patterns come at various times during the month, let alone, the week or the day...Nature has a sort of "predictable unpredictability" that I think we as hobbyists should consider switching up schedules on stuff like water exchanges. And we should vary lighting schedules, if only slightly, throughout the year.
Granted, we have personal schedule and viewing times, etc. which dictate some things, but wouldn't it be interesting to see if creating variations in our fishes' environments throughout the year makes a difference in their health and behaviors?
I think so. It's long been known that manipulating photoperiod, temperature, etc. can induce spawning in some species of fishes. It's a sort of "thing" with fishes like killies that you can affect incubation and/or hatching schedules of eggs by varying incubation parameters, agitating them, wetting them and drying them again (in the case of the annuals), etc.
So, why not change top a few things from time to time?
I think we sort of already do this with our botanical additions, removals, and utilizations, right? We knowingly or unknowingly simulate the regular addition and export of plant materials into blackwater habitats, and the impacts on the aquatic environment can vary from time to time.
Just like in nature.
What sort of other factors can you play with in your tanks to gauge impact? The list of possibilities is endless, isn't it? From hardscape to hardware...it's huge.
The whole idea of "breaking pattern" really dovetails nicely with our idea of the "evolving" aquatic environment, doesn't it?
Yeah it does!
Something to think about from time to time!
Stay unpredictable...Stay experimental. Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
I admit it.
I'm not the greatest aquascaper in the world. But I do know what I like a certain look. And that look tends to be the seemingly "disorganized", yet remarkably beautiful flooded forests. I find them utterly fascinating and compelling, not only for the way they look, but for the remarkable aggregation of life there.
In this world of decomposing leaves, submerged logs, twigs, and seed pods, there is a surprising diversity of life forms which call this milieu home. And each one of these organisms has manages to eke out an existence and thrive.
A lot of hobbyists not familiar with our aesthetic tastes will ask what the fascination is with throwing palm fronds and seed pods into our tanks, and I tell them that it's a direct inspiration from nature! Sure, the look is quite different than what has been proffered as "natural" in recent years- but I'd guarantee that, if you donned a snorkel and waded into one of these habitats, you'd understand exactly what we are trying to represent in our aquariums in seconds!
We also happen to like the way it looks, of course!
And yeah, tossing in terrestrial palm leaves and palm fronds is spot-on with this habitat.
Ahh, palm fronds.
They've become one of the most popular botanical items we sell, and for good reason. Not only do they represent this habitat so well- they provide an aesthetic component that is radically different than what has been presented in aquariums over the years. And, as they break down, they function exactly as they do in nature, harboring microorganisms and imparting organic materials into the water.
Mauritia flexuosa, the "Moriche Palm", is a species of palm tree which is found commonly in the flooded forests of Amazonia, and unlike many other trees in this habitat, does not require a dry period in order to survive. Rather, it has adapted to existence in swampy conditions. And in the course of its existence, fronds and other parts of the tree will be blown into the flooded forest floors below by wind and other forces. The materials accumulate, providing food and shelter for the fishes and other organisms which reside there.
(Image by Bernard Dupont, used under CC BY-SA 2.0)
It's a pattern which is not only functional and important to the overall ecosystem- it explains exactly why those of us who like to represent this habitat "throw in" seed pods, plant parts, twigs, etc. into our aquascapes. It is an accurate, if not nuanced- simulation of what occurs in nature.
And of course, nothing is ever wasted in nature.
Fishes commonly feed on the fruits and nuts knocked down from overhanging trees by various animals which reside in the forest canopy, such as birds and monkeys. The primary "fruit-eaters" of the flooded forests are characins and catfishes. Obviously, the larger specimens can consume many fruits whole, whereas the smaller guys we tend to play with will pick at the fruits that cannot fit easily into their smaller mouths.
So, an aquarium simulation of a flooded forest would simply not be complete if it didn't include at least some palm fronds and some nice thin branches to simulate this complex aggregation of materials. And of course- the leaves and seed pods which we find so intriguing are an integral part of this habitat as well.
And of course, these habitats harbor insects- lots of 'em...and the smaller fishes are voracious consumers of them. Insects such as beetles, ants and spiders make up the largest part of the insectivores' diets in this habitat. It's though that these "bugs" end up I the water because of population density in the tree canopy, as well as the action of wind and rain...And the fishes instinctively know this, and accumulate in this habitat in great numbers.
Interestingly, it's been postulated by biologists that smaller fishes are more adept at catching and consuming the small insects that fall into these waters- a good explanation for the abundance of them in this unique habitat. And a good reason to include lots of smaller Tetras in your flooded forest replication!
These compelling habitats, and the botanical components which contribute to them, are an endless source of fascination, education, and inspiration for us. Perhaps the key to understanding their function in the wild is to recreate-to some extent- their appearance and function in our aquariums.
And it's that desire to know, to comprehend- and to appreciate their intricate, if not seemingly random beauty, which keeps us flirting with the flooded forests.
Stay intrigued. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay fasciated...
And Stay Wet.
Over the past three years that we've been in operation at Tannin Aquatics, I've certainly noticed a few "trends", and most of them are pretty cool!
And some of them are kind of "cyclical" in nature. We've seen them before, sort of.
One of the most interesting things I've seen is the philosophical "evolution" of many of our customers and members of our community. Perhaps the most unique aspect of what we do with botanical-style, blackwater aquarium is to allow nature to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Despite a lot of discussion and marketing and such over the past decade or so, I think we somehow "edited" in our minds what a really "natural" aquarium is. I think that, in our effort to foster some natural processes, such as plant growth or whatever, we've pushed things in a direction that actually fought nature a bit.
I almost think that the aquarium world has a sort of cyclical nature, where we jump on the latest technology and trends to help enhance what nature has been doing all along. Nothing wrong with the tech and advancements...it's just that understanding and appreciating the fundamentals of the hobby- and the natural world- can yield the same results.
It just is a lot less sexy and requires...patience.
Yet, I think the pendulum is swinging back a bit. Not "digressing", mind you. Just switching back to a more accepting approach; taking our hands off just a bit. Once again realizing that nature knows best. Understanding that we can use technology to work with nature.
We're realizing that nature has been doing this stuff for billions of years longer than we have, and she has some damn good ideas on how to run things!
Rather than fighting processes like decomposition, formation of detritus, and biological diversity, we seem to be spending much more energy setting the stage for natural processes to occur. And our fishes and other aquatic animals are really benefiting from this.
Once again, just as aquarists did since the dawn of the modern age of fish keeping, we've been thinking of an aquarium as a place to grow stuff- and we're looking at the whole aquarium as a "microcosm" of nature.
A living, breathing, growing entity.
I saw a compressed version of this century-long evolution of freshwater aquaristics during the rise of the reef aquarium hobby, which really started to take off in the mid 1980's. For the longest time, we were happy to just keep a box full of fishes and maybe a few tough invertebrates alive. Then, we evolved up to trying to house them long term. Experiments with new technology and technique resulted in the birth of the modern reef system, with robust filtration, lighting, and studious analysis of water chemistry. The emphasis was on providing a great environment for the corals and inverts, so that they can thrive and reproduce.
Within the past 10 years in the reef hobby, we've went from a doctrine of "You should have undectable nitrates and phosphates in your reef aquarium because natural reefs are virtual nutrient deserts!" to "You need to have a balance between too much and too little." We've come to understand that reef aquariums- like any type of aquarium- are truly biological "microcosms", which encompass a vast array of life forms, including not just fishes, corals, and invertebrates, but macro algae, benthic animals (like worms, copepods, and amphipods), planktonic life, and more.
Reefers came to understand- as freshwater pioneers did generations before- that just because a reef has "undetectable" levels of phosphates and nitrates in the waters surrounding it, our aquariums don't have to run that way. Corals need nutrients and food, and an aquarium is not a natural reef; an open system with uncounted millions of gallons of water passing through it hourly.
And in recent years, with the explosion of gadgets and internet-enabled "hacks", reefkeeping has gone a bit the other way- heading into that "technology can do everything" phase that the freshwater world did decades ago. Needlessly (IMHO) complicating things in order to foster results that can be achieved by embracing natural processes...They simply take longer than if you apply all the gadgets additives, and tech to the process- but nature will find the way to get where she wants to go- with or without all the gadgets we employ.
Guess what? I think that things will swing back again!
And, gaining further understanding of dynamic aquatic habitats, such as the igapo flooded forest floors of South America, serves to enhance the "state of the art" of our segment of the hobby by looking good and hard at nature, not just the next gadget!
And, like the freshwater world has done, I believe that the reef keeping world will end up "pulling back" a bit from a compete reliance on gadgets and tech, and put more emphasis on learning how natural systems work once again, and how they can be replicated in aquariums.
We can use technology to embrace natural processes...not to fight them, circumvent them, and "supersede" them.
We've begun to understand that it's not all about creating the most scrupulously clean environment possible for the animals under our care- it's about maintaining the best possible dynamic for their overall health, growth, longevity, and hopefully- reproduction. Creating and fostering processes and conditions that create a biological balance within our little (or not so little) glass and acrylic boxes we call "aquariums."
Today's aquarist can appreciate the elegance in the complete aquatic ecosystem, from the most beautiful fish to the lowest bacterial life form, and everything in between. When we strive to understand, embrace, and replicate natural systems in our aquaria, we are truly embarking on a more enlightened way of aquarium keeping.
And guess what? You, with your tank full of leaves, wood, water, and life- are doing just that.
Stay bold. Stay studious. Stay intrigued. Stay diligent. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
Evertone has a list of "stuff" they're going to do...one day. You know, THAT sort of stuff!
A few from my list of "stuff":
Think of an insanely different idea for an aquarium.
Execute on it.
Go against the grain.
Set up a tank with plastic plants, just... well, because.
Challenge the status quo.
Ask everyone why they are doing it that way.
Share your knowledge...As often as you can.
Throw a few pics of your tank out there...No matter what stage it's at!
Write a manufacturer or vendor and tell them you like their product/service.
Add a few of those "grey" Tetras to your next tank.
Fly off to a regional aquarium club gathering- totally across the country.
Perform an extra water exchange this week.
Clean your aquarium heater during the next maintenance session.
Give the sand an extra rinse before you use it in your aquarium.
Raise "feeder guppies" as pets in a tank of their own- just to enjoy them.
Use an ancient piece of aquarium equipment from your "garage collection" in your next tank.
Keep the water brown from the wood in your next "Nature Aquarium"- you might just like it.
Devote an entire tank to the fishes of your childhood: Zebra Danios, Glowlight Tetras, Tiger Barbs, Glass Catfish, etc. (Extra points for the "Diving Dog" ornament!)
Buy some extra towels just for your aquariums next time you're at the store.
Change the settings on your LED fixture today- just because.
Purchase an extra pump, heater, or other potentially failure-prone piece of equipment instead of that rare Pleco this month. You might just thank yourself. Besides, there'll be other Plecos...
Laugh at the absurdity of the coral frag names you see on Facebook.
Find a use for that big, awkward stone you have - you know, the one you acquired with great expectations for the last tank, and never used? Yeah, that one.
Figure out a better way to hide the returns from your Ehiem filter.
Perform the full suite of water tests on your tank, once and for all.
Try raising the fry from that pair of Apistos that spawns every other week in your community tank.
Learn what the scientific names of your fishes mean.
Label all of the equipment below your aquarium, in case something fails while your out-of-town and the person taking care of the tank needs to know what's what.
Look at some pictures of wild aquatic habitats for inspiration for your next aquascape, instead of the winning IAPLC entry.
Buy your tolerant spouse/partner/sibling/roommate/tenant a little gift for living with your geeky obsession.
Approach a world-famous aquarium hobbyist with a question. You'll be pleasantly surprised with an answer!
Forgo the "ensuite" bathroom and add the fish room of your dreams instead! You know- the one with floor drains...Yeah, really!
Support your local fish store!
Make a cool "jungle" tank with all of those plant clippings that you can't give away to other hobbyists. Make it a BIG tank, too!
Try creating an aquarium that pushes your skills to the limit. Dance with fear!
Donate to Freshwater Life Project, Project PIABA or some other fish-related conservation group.. Because it matters.
Forget "Iwagumi" today- just throw some rocks together in a way that pleases YOU.
Do a presentation at your local fish club.
Purchase a small refrigerator just for your live food cultures and frozen foods. Your housemates will love you for it!
Take the time to explain to the guy on Facebook who challenges you why you did "it" that way.
Take care of the hobbyist who's struggling. Go to her house and scrape the algae with her.
Compliment someone when they share pics of their beautiful aquarium on the club forum, social media, etc.
Offer honest criticism when asked. If you don't like it, say so, and explain why.
Try something instead of #3 gravel in all of your fishroom tanks!
Change the membranes on your R.O. unit this weekend.
Make sure every one of the 36 Cardinal Tetras you purchase for the big living room display aquarium have all of their fins this time!
Buy the more expensive activated carbon.
Give away the grand prize you win at the next fish club raffle to the guy who just lost his job.
Make your next aquarium more simple.
Get the 40-cube pack of frozen bloodworms this time.
Make sure to invest in a nice power strip for your next aquarium.
Spend an extra 10 minutes each day just looking at your aquariums.
Purchase 5 Gouramis instead of 7, and let them grow bigger!
Order a few more things from us to get free shipping! (sorry, couldn't resist)
Leave the tank lights on a bit longer tonight.
Just move that piece of driftwood a couple inches (centimeters) to the left...
Take a "sick day" from work to play with your fish! You only live once.
Culture microworms and wingless fruit flies.
Let that Rotala, Polygonum, Sword, or other plant break the water's surface.
Share a disaster story with fellow fish geeks. Because it might just spare someone the same agony.
Be generous for no reason- give away 250 killifish eggs to fellow fish geeks this month.
Help the local hobbyist who asks for it on the local club forum. You might just make a new friend.
And Stay Wet.
Maybe it's me.
I have this thing about creating what I feel is a good start to my blackwater, botanical-style aquariums, then reaching a point where I leave them to "evolve." It's like a fundamental practice of mine- perhaps even a "cornerstone" of the work I do.
There is a point when you're like, "Oh, I really like this hardscape"- and you set in your initial botanicals...and then you sort of just "walk away" and let it evolve for a bit.
I call this "reaching the point."
A "jumping-off" stage, where our initial work is done, and nature takes over for a while, breaking down the botanicals, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling. This is where Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.
And of course, once stuff starts "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an observer from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a cool phase of actively managing (and by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "interfering!") the aquarium.
Making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to.
A lot of people may disagree, but I personally feel that THIS phase is the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole process!
A phase when you interact with your aquarium on a very different level; a place where you get to play a role in the direction your 'scape is going, without constantly interrupting the natural progression taking place within the little microcosm you created!
Sure, you might add fishes, move a few things around from time to time; maybe even replace some botanicals, or add to them...But no "wholesale remodeling" occurs. Patience, as always.
Let it evolve...
When you reach "the point."
Today's insanely simple thought.
Stay patient. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay inspired...
And Stay Wet.
As you know by now, I sort of obsess over the way the natural habitats of our fishes function, as both a physical environment and food resource. And nowhere do we see these two characteristics come together as completely and elegantly as in the litter beds of tropical streams.
In areas like Amazonia, these litter beds comprise a significant percentage of the natural aquatic ecosystems, and are home to a surprisingly diverse and dynamic population of fishes. They not only use the leaf litter and accumulated botanical materials in these beds as a shelter from predators, they incorparate it and the materials/organisms within it as a food source.
In one study I encountered, the primary consumers (ie; fishes!) were found to take mainly detritus and fungi -two sources of food that we have in abundance in aquariums-and it was concluded by the researchers that the so-called allochthonous inputs were the main source of energy and nutrients for the ecosystem itself.
So, what are the implications for leaf litter in our aquariums? I think that they're similar. We have decomposing leaves and other botanical materials, which serve as "fuel" for the growth of fungi and microorganisms...which, in turn, provide supplemental food for our fishes.
Now, in the aquarium, we've long vilified detritus as a destroyer of water quality; an impediment to successful aquariums. And the reality is that, in a well-managed aquarium, "detritus" is an essential food source for many organisms and plants. Like anything else in a closed system, if it's not allowed to accumulate unchecked, I personally believe its benefits for the animals we keep far outweigh any perceived disadvantages of having it present.
And fungi? Well, fungi are always in our systems...We may not notice them all the time, but they're there. We often see them when we're "aging" or "curing" wood for use in our aquascapes. Most hobbyists are revolted by them; they're kind of an affront to our aesthetic senses! And yet, as outlined in many scientific studies of the natural habitats of our fishes, they're an invaluable component of the food chain!
Again, it's a real mental shift that we as hobbyists have to make. Sure, there will always be a lot of people that don't like the look of brown water, decomposing leaves, biofilms and fungi in their aquariums. It's a radically different look than what we've come to accept an aquarium "should" look like for the better part of the century.
And I certainly cannot fault anyone for not enjoying the aesthetics of our aquariums...It's not for everyone. However, an interesting observation I've made over the years by both "uninitiated" hobbyists and non-hobbyists upon seeing a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium for the first time is an amazing appreciation for "how natural" they look. Iv'e heard this over and over an over again!
I am excited that so many hobbyists are jumping I and realizing the functional and aesthetic value of leaf litter and botanicals in their aquariums. I'm particularly excited to see more and more fishes which are found in- or spend a significant part of their lives in- leaf litter, such as my faves, Crenuchus spilurus, the "Sailfin Tetra!"
Another class of fishes which we are able to really study as never before in the aquarium is the so-called "Darter Characins." Many (not all) species are ecologically adapted to life in leaf litter beds, where they forage for detritus, fungi, insect larvae, and microorganisms which reside there. In years past, when these fishes were available to the hobby, we had to spend a lot of effort to get them to eat prepared foods.
These fishes are becoming more and more available all the time, and with a growing worldwide interest in the blackwater, leaf-litter habitats from which many species hail, I can see interest only increasing, and potential husbandry- and spawning- breakthroughs occurring regularly!
And with more aquarists expressing interest in studying and replicating these unique habitats, we are seeing a greater variety of botanical-style aquariums, which are actually designed around fishes which come from them.
And we've been playing with leaf litter in our brackish-water systems, too. And the creatures which reside in these habitats display remarkably different behaviors in a replication of the habitat than we see them display in non-botanical-style aquariums.
It's a big, wide-open field for experimentation and breakthrough. And so many opportunities to express our creativity and skills, I can only imagine an entire "sub-speciality" of leaf litter-centric aquariums cropping up over the next few years!
So, what happens in the leaf litter beds of Amazonia, for example...may not stay in the leaf litter beds!
Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.
As I work more and more with botanicals (Now, some decade and half on), I've learned a lot, screwed up more, and have realized just how much there still is to learn about using them in our aquariums.
One of the cool lessons I've learned is that, in many cases, the old adage about "less is more" is a valuable one. Over the years, my taste in botanical-style aquariums has evolved to where my latest 'scapes will typically have a selection of no more than 2-3, and sometimes only 1 botanical type- and they hit my aesthetic objectives perfectly!
It's not like this is some aquascaping revelation or anything. It's just a realization I came to by working with tanks in the small-to medium-size range. There are many instances where it makes sense to have more of less stuff than to have less of more stuff!
I've noticed that I'm still achieving the "vibe" I want out my aquariums, even with fewer selections in each scape. In my last two scapes, for example, I've used just larger quantities of two or three types of botanicals in each, in addition to the wood, and quite frankly, I have enjoyed the "richness" of these scapes immensely.
Now, this might seem a bit at odds with some natural habitats, and it could be. The igapo flooded forests that I admire so much usually have a lot of different materials accumulating upon the substrate, as they are simply an aggregation of what is on the forest floor during the "dry" period- a result of a variety of vegetation growing in the surrounding forest.
Now a typical stream might also have a lot of different materials accumulating on the substrate, as it pics up materials as it wanders through the jungle, yet many of these will "fall out" and re-distribute as a result of currents, etc. So, in our aquascaping, we might chose to represent just a segment of a particular habitat, and adjust the quantity and variety of botanical materials accordingly.
And then, there are those little pools, or "meanders" in water courses, in which you'll typically see aggregations of a large quantity of material, but not a lot of different types of material. Again, this is a function of current and wind distributing and re-distributing materials across the stream. And of course, where rocks or fallen trees occur, or where the waters recede, the accumulation is even more pronounced.
As you can see, there is a lot of natural "precedent" for varying the quantity and variety of botanicals which you utilize to create your aquascape. This gives you enormous flexibility and opportunities for creative expression!
Recently, we've collaborated with my good friend, the extremely talented aquascaper/photographer, Johnny Ciotti, to create some amazing aquaecapes, some of which will be available for purchase on our website! Being an artist, Johnny has a very good sense of design, scale, and composition.
His aquascapes manage to utilize every botanical to its fullest, because he tends to refrain from throwing "everything but the kitchen sink" into his botanical work. Each component seems to make sense and stand as a part of a "whole", without looking excessive in any way.
On the other hand, Johnny will be the first to tell you that, if the situation and aesthetic result desired calls for it, you should absolutely utilize as many different botanical materials as necessary to fulfill your objective. That, I think, is part of the real "magic" in aquascaping...
There is an extreme elegance that may be achieved by embracing a "less is more" mindset, and the great 'scapers, such as Jeff Senske from Aquarium Design Group, just seem to be able to instinctively apply this concept.
Another great 'scaper, Cory Hopkins, also manages to utilize larger quantities of fewer materials when the situation dictates, producing extraordinarily "rich" scapes with incredible depth and "fullness."
Regardless of if you're trying to create a more biopic presentation, or something that is entirely "artistic"- or even a fusion of the two, the idea of using appropriate amounts of restrain makes for some incredibly satisfying work!
Regardless of the way you work, there is no real "right" or "wrong" in this game! It's really about doing what pleases you, meets your goals, and is enjoyable. The big takeaway here is that you don't have to load up your aquariums with tons of materials in order to achieve a rich, fulfilling botanical-style aquarium aquascape.
Stay creative. Stay inspired. Stay curious. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.
Have you ever noticed that there are certain things we simply don't like to do as hobbyists?
Like, waiting for stuff. We love "hacks" and shortcuts.
Impatience is, I suppose, part of being human, but in the aquarium hobby, it occasionally drives us to do things that, although are probably no big deal- can become a sort of "barometer" for other things which might be of questionable value or risk. ("Well, nothing bad happened when I did THAT, so...") Or, they can cumulatively become a "big deal", to the detriment of our tanks.
One of the things that I have an issue with in our little hobby sector is the desire by many "tinters" to make use of the water in which the initial preparation of our botanicals takes place in as a form of "blackwater tea" or "blackwater extract."
Now, while on the surface, there is nothing inherently "wrong" with the idea, I think that in our case, we need to consider exactly why we boil/soak our botanicals before using them in the aquarium to begin with.
I discard the "tea" that results from the initial preparation of botanicals- and I recommend that you do, too. Here's why:
As I have mentioned many times before, the purpose of the initial "boil and soak" is to release some of the pollutants (dust, dirt, etc.) bound up in the outer tissues of the botanicals. It's also to "soften" the leaves/botanicals that you're using to help them absorb water and sink more easily. As a result, a lot of organic materials, in addition tannins and humic substances are released.
So, why would you want a concentrated "tea" of dirt, surface pollutants, and other organics in your aquarium as a "blackwater extract?" And how much do you need? I mean, what is the "concentration" of desirable materials in the tea relative to the water? I mean, it's not an easy, quick, clean thing to figure, right?
There is so much we don't know.
A lot of hobbyists tell me they are concerned about "wasting" the concentrated tannins from the prep water. Trust me, the leaves and botanicals will continue to release the tannins and humic substances (with much less pollutants!) throughout their "useful lifetimes" when submerged, so you need not worry about discarding the initial water that they were prepared in.
It's kind analogous to adding the "skimmate" (the nasty concentrated organics removed by your protein skimmer via foam fractionation in your marine aquarium) back into your aquarium because you don't want to lose the tiny amount of valuable salt or some trace elements that are removed via this process.
Is it worth polluting your aquarium for this?
I certainly don't think so!
Do a lot of hobbyists do this and get away with this? Sure. Am I being overly conservative? No doubt. In nature, don't leaves, wood, and seed pods just fall into the water? Of course.
However, in most cases, nature has the benefit of dissolution from thousands of gallons/litres of water, right? It's an open system, for the most part, with important and export processes far superior and efficient to anything we can hope to do in the confines of our aquariums!
Okay, I think I beat that horse up pretty good!
If you want to use the water from the "secondary soak", I'd feel a lot better about that..The bulk of the surface pollutants will have been released at that point. Better yet is the process of adding some (prepared) leaves/botanicals to the containers holding the makeup water that you use in your water exchanges. The materials will steep over time, adding tannins and humic substances to the water.
How much to use?
Well, that's the million dollar question.
Who knows? It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best.
You need to kind of go with your instinct. Go slowly. Evaluate the appearance of your water, the behaviors of the fishes...the pH, alkalinity, TDS, nitrate, phosphate, or other parameters that you like to test for. It's really a matter of experimentation.
I'm a much bigger fan of "tinting" the water based on the materials in the aquarium. The botanicals will release their "contents" at a pace dictated by their environment. Of course, you can still add too many, too fast, as we've mentioned numerous times. It's all about developing your own practices based on what works for you.. In other words, incorporating them in your tank and evaluating their impact on your specific situation. It's hardly an exact science. Much more of an "art" or "best guess" thing than a science..at least right now.
And the "tea" thing?
If you're doing it and you're happy with the results, I can't argue with that. I can only tell you that I personally wouldn't do it that way. At least, not without trying to control as many variables as possible.
But then again, I'm the guy telling you to toss in leaves and botanicals in your aquarium...and not really giving you "x" amount per gallon or whatever...just telling you to "go slowly, observe and test."
Yeah, there is so much we need to learn...So much that we still don't know; and we are operating on pure "gut instinct."
And perhaps that's not such a bad thing.
Keep studying. Keep experimenting. Keep tweaking. Keep observing.
Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay consistent. Stay on top of things...
And Stay Wet.
As we get deeper and deeper into this game...learning more about botanical-style aquariums as a community, and trying more advanced and interesting ideas, it's more important than ever to remember a few of the most basic "tenants" of our craft.
What better time than now- at this cusp of explosive growth in our hobby sector- to review these things yet again! For those of you who already "know" this stuff, at best it's a reminder...For those who are still new to the game- seeing a little summary of this stuff could be the "unlock" you need to achieve your goals!
None of this is revolutionary stuff; however, based on the many questions we receive that seem to revolve around some of these ideas, I've summarized a few of the key items we need to get into our minds...In no particular order, of course!
Prep is PRIMARY: Yes, we say it over and over again- it's really important to utilize some form of preparation for any botanical materials you add into your tank. Preparation, in most cases, consists of rinsing, boiling/steeping, and soaking in freshwater before adding them. Now, materials like leaves and such require varying degrees of this (I used to be hardcore about boiling the crap out of everything, when the reality is that. steep in boiling water will do. Why boil or steep? Two reasons: First is that boiling helps "sterilize" to some extent the external tissues of the botanicals, and serves to release any surface contaminants (ie; dirt and dust) present. Second is that the water will soften the external layers of the botanicals' structure, allowing them to admit more water and saturate and sink more quickly.
Now, there are a lot of hobbyists who use botanicals who do next to no prep on anything, and never have a problem. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, "You know, in the Amazon, seed pods don't get cleaned before they fall into the water..." I wouldn't be selling "twigs and nuts" for a living! My simple response? "Your aquarium is not the goddam Amazon." Just adding botanicals in a "clean" state adds to the bio load that your aquarium's bacterial population (and fishes!) need to contend with, so why make it more stressful by adding "dirty" stuff to save 30 minutes or so of prep time? A closed system has only so much ability to adjust to and absorb an increasing bioload.
Please make use of our ever-evolving, yet pretty comprehensive "Aquatic Botanical Preparation" section on our website! It has comments on prep for every item we offer, and I do go back in and edit it regularly to reflect our evolving "best practices!"
Go S-L-O-W-L-Y: If there is one "rule" that you need to follow, and should never break- the "go slow" run is it. As alluded to above- you are adding materials which add organics- bioload- into your aquarium. It is entirely possible to "nuke" your tank and stress or kill your fishes if you dump the entire contents of your "Vibrante Morichal" or "Geo Pack" or whatever, into your established aquarium at one time. The CO2 levels can increase, you could see an ammonia spike, or any number of bad things can happen if you do this- none of them good. I mean, it's common sense- adding a lot of ANYTHING into an aquarium quickly can have an adverse effect on the resident life forms.
What is the rush? We talk about the joy of watching our aquariums "evolve" to some extent...It's a slow process that nature dictates as it hs for eons. There are no shortcuts in this game. No real "hacks" or magic formula that you can use to cut to the "head of the line" and have a "finished" tank in a week...or even a month- or 6 months, for that matter. Enjoy every step of the process as much as you enjoy what you think will be the "end goal", and this type of aquarium will captivate you like few others can...
Bring on the gooey stuff: Yes, it's almost inevitable that, when you add these materials to your aquarium, you'll see some fungal growth and biofilms. Now, we've written extensively about biofilms in this blog, and the good and bad and simple realities of them. Bottom line is that they may look nasty, but they are some of nature's most elegant organisms. Their presence in your aquarium is completely natural and normal. Many fishes and invertebrates can utilize them for a supplemental food source.
Sure, these are not exactly what we've envisioned when we think of an awesome-looking aquarium- in fact, I'd argue that the (IMHO) oddly-named "Nature Aquarium" idea which is so popular, just eschews things like decomposition. biofilms, etc. altogether in favor of a more "contrived" look that, although stunningly gorgeous and remarkable, has more in common with a garden than a wild habitat.
We have to look at underwater videos and pics of natural habitats, such as the Amazon region and elsewhere- for inspiration. Natural habitats are just filled with biofilms, fungal growth, decomposing leaves and such- anything but the highly conceptual "nature aquarium" that we've come to accept as the ultimate in aquascaping.
Free your mind. Enjoy the beauty of nature as it really is. Enjoy the processes which occur and celebrate your tank at every phase. And yeah, the larger bursts of biofilms and fungus and such are a "stage" your aquarium will go through. Typically, the major growths of this stuff subsides over time...Sure, you could remove it if it just becomes too disturbing..or you could admire it for what it is. "Mental shift."
No such thing as "set and forget": Like almost any aquarium, botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquariums require attention, management, and maintenance. Water exchanges are important, like they are in any aquarium, providing the same benefits. Water testing is important, particularly in situations where you're starting out with soft, acidic water, as the impact of botanicals is far more significant in this environment.
Besides, actively-managing any aquarium gives you the opportunity to observe and intervene if necessary. Partnering with nature, as opposed to fighting against it, is a real key to a successful botanical-style aquarium. The opportunities to study the dynamic natural processes which occur in these types of environment are limitless, and the chance for lasting, important hobby discoveries and breakthroughs is huge!
It's an evolution- NOT a revolution: The blackwater, botanical-style aquarium is an amazing sector of the hobby, in which we're learning new stuff each and every day. By incorporating nature's beautiful botanical materials, letting her "do her thing" in our tanks, while employing the century-old concepts of aquarium management, we're embracing this... This is a natural extension- a development- of many years of aquatic practice.
Yeah, an evolution.
Make the mental shifts. Manage expectations. Learn the concepts. Contribute to the body of knowledge. Share.
Stay humble. Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay on course...
And Stay Wet.
If you know me well, you kind of figured by now that I obsess over strange details of our fishes' dietary preferences, habitats, and behaviors relative to their environment.
And as a dedicated blackwater/botanical-style aquarium enthusiast, I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how we as hobbyists can "outfit" our aquariums to provide feeding opportunities similar to those encountered in the fishes' wild habitats.
A few of my favorite fishes, such as the awesome Crenuhus spilurus, the "Sailfin Tetra", have broad dietary preferences. It's been observed that the fish feed freely during daylight hours, and grab most of their food as it falls though the water column. What do they eat? Well, this is interesting to me: A lot of particulate matter that sinks; specifically, stuff like fruits, terrestrial insects, and very young tadpoles made uo the bulk of the stomach contents in a recent (2016) study of this fish.So, yeah, a typical consumer of...allochthonous materials (stuff which comes from the environment surrounding the aquatic habitat)!
Now, we've talked extensively in several blog posts over the past couple of years about the idea of allochthonous input (literally, food from the sky, lol) and how it impacts the feeding habits of many fishes, as well as their social and behavioral habits, and what could loosely be referred to as their "migratory patterns." It's long been known that fishes which inhabit the flooded forest floors (igapo) of Amazonia, for example, tend to literally "follow the food" and move into new areas where greater feeding opportunities exist, and will even adjust their dietary preferences seasonally to accommodate the available foods.
In this instance, it typically means areas of the forest where overhanging vegetation offers falling peices of fruit, seeds, nuts, plant parts, and the occasional clumsy insect, like an ant, which falls from the branches of said vegetation. So, here is where the idea gets interesting to me: Wouldn't it make a lot of sense to create a biotope-style aquarium which not only represents the appearance of the habitat, but also replicates, to a certain extent, the function of it?
Of course it would! (Surely, you wouldn't have expected any other answer from me, right?)
In this case, the "function" being the presence of allochthonous materials! Well, yeah. we've just described our botanical-style aquariums in (pardon the expression) a nutshell! Our tanks are replete with lots of terrestrial plant material (ie; botanicals, leaves, and wood), upon which our fishes and other aquatic animals will forage and even consume them directly over time.
I asked myself which materials would most realistically represent some of these items, and sort of came up with a list of my personal favorites. Now, obviously, you can utilize other stuff- and in terms of actual foods, you might even want to experiment with little appropriately-sized bits of fruit for fishes to consume directly! (back to that shortly)
Here are the botanicals that I think would best serve to represent some of the allochthonous materials we see in these forests:
Sure, I could go on and on and pretty much cite every botanical we offer as a sort of analog to these materials, making this blog little more than a blatant "infomercial" for our stuff, but you get the idea!
So, yeah, you could add an assortment of these and/or other materials to your tank, with the sole intention of utilizing them to represent the materials which fall off the trees and are directly consumed by some fishes and shrimp. Because of their physical structure, these selections tend to soften up fairly quickly after submersion, and are also pretty good at "recruiting" biofilms, which serve as a significant supplemental food source for a variety of fishes.
Now, back to my idea of using fruit in your fishes' diets. I'll summarize quickly in one sentence:
It makes sense.
Anyone who has read scholarly articles on the gut-contents of many of our fave fishes has noticed that during large portions of the year, fruits and seeds comprise a significant part of their diets! Utilizing appropriate fruits like finely-chopped açaí berries, blueberries, strawberries, Passion Fruit, and bananas to represent the fruits of the forest, is something I've played with for a long time with my Tetras and other characins. Believe it or not, they'll actually consume these foods directly, and I've also used flax seed and chia seeds for this purpose as well.
Passion Fruit ( Image by fir0002 Used under GFDL 1.2)
Many of these will represent the fruits of the Amazon rain forest, such as Camu Camu, Cupuaçu, Passion Fruit, aguaje (fruit of the Mauritia Plam), If you search health food stores and speciality fruit/produce vendors, you might find fresh or packaged versions of some of these unique fruits, or you could use the more commonly available substitutes mentioned above.
Cupuaçu Fruit (Image by BjoemS Used under CC BY-SA 2.0)
And of course, there is a very good commercially-prepared food option available, too!
Look, I'm well aware that I'm not the first to propose this "concept", and I'll receive a half a dozen references to some prepared brands of food specifically developed to represent this- so I'll just cut to the chase: One food really stands out to me: "Igapo Explorer" by Repashy -it is an amazing idea and a great way to bring the specialized diets of many of our favorite fishes to the aquarium. Every serious characin lover should try this stuff!
Although we don't carry much in the way of "dry goods" on our site, this food has had us re-thinking the idea for some time. Should we? If you're up for a little prep time in the kitchen, I think that it's an extremely valuable supplemental food which can be a real "game changer" for all sorts of fishes which originate form our beloved igapo habitat!
I could imagine changing up the diet of your fishes seasonally, along with ideas like environmental manipulations and "power dosing" botanicals into the aquarium to represent the "high water" season, to see how this impacts behavior, health, and spawning activities of your fishes from this habitat. We have the technology. We have the knowledge...and we have the food!
What's holding you back? Go for it!
I'd like to hear some of your ideas about creating aquariums based on the feeding ha bits of your fishes- a cool concept that I think deserves- and will receive- more attention and work as we move forward.
Stay curious. Stay innovative. Stay experimental. Stay Bold.
And Stay Wet.