Nature's got this thing down!

I think we can all relate to this:

As a lifelong hobbyist, I've personally been through periods of time when I couldn't devote as much time  to my beloved fish tanks...Yet I always had one- fresh, salt, or otherwise. It's just not "home" unless you hear the reassuring popping of bubbles, whirring of pumps, and see the beautiful reflections caused by the interplay of light and moving water. These are some of the "joys" of being a fish geek, right? (Not to mention, the spills, frozen food, the collection of "fish stuff" in the garage, etc.)

Of course, there were a number of times over the decades that, for one reason or another, I simply let the tanks "run themselves", save an occasional water change or filter media cleaning, and of course, regular feeding (that consisted of tossing in a few flakes or pellets, or whatever was on hand at the time).

A particularly fond memory of this type of "practice" comes from my Senior year in high school, when I was seriously into breeding killies (in addition to keeping saltwater, cichlids, tetras, and of course, the usual high school pursuits of girls, sports, and socializing). As a junior AKA member, I obtained a group of killies- Epiplatys annulatus, and was determined to breed them.

Of course, they have always had a reputation for being a bit of a challenge, requiring careful care, feeding, and a fair measure of patience. As a busy kid, I had little patience (although more than the average high school guy- after all, I was a fish geek!), and less time-so I was delighted to learn that some hobbyists found that these fishes were able to do okay in "permanent" and "natural" setups (fish geek code for "set and forget", IMHO)- granted with a smaller production of fry... So of course, this was a perfect fish for my busy lifestyle at the time!


I set up 1 pair and a few extra females in a 5- gallon tank, planted with Water Sprite, Hygrophila, and Rotala. Given moderate light from a small fixture, and a sponge filter providing filtration/circulation, this tank looked good and ran just fine with little intervention on my part. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit that I would sometimes go a week or more without so much as looking at the tank long enough to toss some food in there!

One day (I think it was during Spring Break), I took the time to really stare into the tank, to see what was going on...Sure enough, upon close examination, I saw several tiny fry and juveniles flitting in and among the Rotala! I was elated! Rather than panic and start hatching brine shrimp, I made the very "mature and level-headed" decision to simply...leave them alone, as I had been doing for months. I resisted the temptation to net them out, power feed them, and otherwise intervene. I reasoned that I could hardly do better than what they were apparently being provided by nature, as they have done successfully for...well, eons! I ultimately ended up with a pretty stable population of around 12-15 individuals, in a tank I "maintained" for around 3-4 years. Ironically, the difficulties started when I had the time to really get into "taking care" of the fishes, and took more initiative and control of the breeding. I ultimately slowly lost the entire colony.


But a valuable lesson. Sometimes, what we would classify as "benign neglect" is actually the best thing we could do..the closest imitation to nature that we can offer fishes in captive environments! 

Now, I'm not suggesting that you abandon all care of your fishes, but I am suggesting that you reconsider the way that you might care for some of the more demanding varieties (from a breeding aspect, anyways). Sometimes it's best to simply "monitor" and not intervene so much. Hard to do for us 'hands on" fish geeks- particularly for a hardcore reefer like myself- but it often times works far better than our efforts to take "control" of the situation, IMHO.

I was reminded this years later when I went into the office of my former business partner at Unique Corals, to feed his fishes while was out of town for the month. He and I both had freshwater tanks at UC, because they represented a nice change from the 16,000 gallons of saltwater we had in our facility...And, they were a bit more forgiving with our healthy travel schedules. I had a plant-less blackwater "hardscape", and he opted for a planted tank, CO2 and all that stuff. 

Of course, with the craziness of schedules and running businesses, sometimes we couldn't maintain our tanks as "steadfastly" as we'd have liked. This was certainly the case with Joe's tank. When I popped my head in one day, the tank was just packed with plants...And the fishes were healthy, active, and solid. His Angelfish had paired off, and at least one young pair had a small clutch of eggs!

It was just another reminder to me that there is more than one way to keep an aquarium and have fishes reproduce. I saw this again more recently on in my friend Dave's "Jungle Tank" in his home. Now, he's a rock-solid, ultra-DIY, high-tech-loving, super-talented reefer (and he has a coral propagation facility in his backyard!)- but he keeps this freshwater tank packed full of plants and assorted livebearers...just does water changes and the occasional (I mean occasional) thinning of plants- and that's it! 

And it's an amazing tank! I could stare at it for hours...

There's something to be said for this sort of "style" of tank...It's a more modern, slightly more equipped, slightly differently-executed homage to the "Leden Style" planted tanks of the early 20th century; a way to create a densely-planted, intricate underwater world which leaves the system largely to it's own devices, with minimal human intervention. Although the true  earliest "Leden Style" tanks didn't have pumps and filters and such...

The "common element" in the tanks I referred to in this piece was a reasonably manageable fish population, fertile substrate, adequate lighting- and an outrageous amount and variety of plants!  Set up for success. Plants- of course, were the common denominator among these tanks.

And in these days of intricately-planned, tightly-executed "high-tech/high concept" planted aquariums, it's fun to see what happens when they're left largely to their own devices...Yes, most serious "competition" aquascapers would have a mental breakdown upon seeing this ind of thing, yet, there is something oddly refreshing about this idea: Plants not in perfectly-manicured form, with occasional bits of algae and awkward, untended growth...

Kind of like what happens in nature, actually. 

I think you could perhaps even envision viewing such an aquarium much like the abandoned lot down the street, which is filled with patches of weeds. Perhaps unattractive and disorderly upon first glance (at least to the uninitiated!), yet oddly compelling and even beautiful in its own way upon, closer examination. And there is an odd sort of "aesthetic" going on there...

I'm not suggesting to abandon husbandry and care protocols in favor of neglect. I'm not suggesting that we look at our aquariums as patches of weeds and accept Entirely mediocre aesthetics as "natural." What I AM suggesting is that sometimes, closed systems regulate themselves a bit with minimal intervention on our part. Plants and animals whose needs are being met will thrive and come to dominate the closed ecosystem, for better or worse, just like in nature. We could allow the plants to grow in a manner that they "want" to. We could allow some biofilm; some decomposition...Some more accurate representation of what occurs in nature...

In fact, one could probably make the argument that- at least on a superficial level- the "benignly neglected" aquarium- or more precisely- the "judiciously-manicured" aquarium- may be the closest imitation of nature that we can present!

With botanical-style, blackwater aquariums, the emphasis has been much more on the overall "scene" than on a specific component. And long-term functionality, in terms of creating a stable, biologically active and diverse system, has been the next big step we've taken after merely creating workable blackwater, botanical-style aquariums.

Plants, "active substrates", "cryptic zones", refugia, and deep leaf litter beds are becoming more and more a part of our scene, and it would be interesting to see how a "benignly-neglected" BWB-Style system fares over time! Something akin to what we see in nature.

Although I certainly wouldn't advocate running a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium, devoid of plants, in this fashion, there are aspects of it that I find intriguing. The main thing I find is that the concept of creating our own "flooded forest"- including a rich, perhaps "dirted" substrate and a mix of leaves, botanicals, and terrestrial/marginal/aquatic plants is another logical step to embrace as we continue to push the boundaries to create truly "natural style" aquariums!

Yeah, nature's got this thing down!

Stay open-minded. Stay focused. Stay determined.Stay on top of things...or not!

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment