In our tinted, botanical-influenced world, it's little surprise that we talk so much about leaves and other botanical materials being added to our aquariums to simulate the materials which accumulate in various natural aquatic habitats.
I mean, when you embark on a botanical-style blackwater aquarium, you have a sense of why exactly the water in the natural habitats you're trying to replicate is tinted...From soils, leaves, wood, and, most profoundly, from botanical materials which fall from...the trees.
Yes, stuff from trees falls into the waters, and is swept by currents downstream, where it influcenss the aquatic ecology. Or, materials from trees fall to the dry forest floor, where they become part of the aquatic environment when the rainy season overflows surrounding streams and inundates what was once a rich, terrestrial habitat.
The understanding and embracing of this information has influenced not only our understanding of the ecology of such systems and their implications for aquarium husbandry, it's provided us with an aesthetic model, for those who wish to replicate their appearance as well. It's a profound and important part of what we do.
Think about it. We don't simply toss leaves, seed pods, etc. into our tanks just to tint the water. We have learned that these materials provide many other "functional benefits", such as fostering biofilms, fungi, crustacean growth, fish hiding and spawning sites, etc.
The one "criticism" I've heard from the occasional (and I mean, occasional) detractor of our practice is that the tank take on a sort of "sloppy" look....or they all look like a collection of leaves and bits of "stuff" accumulating on the bottom. To which we appropriately respond, "Exactly. That's what the natural habitat we are attempting to emulate looks like."
Now, our accepting and embracing of this seemingly disordered, "wabi-sabi"-style aquatic aesthetic is not an excuse to create "sloppiness." Rather, it's an understanding of the aquatic habitat, it's relationship with the terrestrial ecology, and the ephemeral nature of these materials as they inerrant with water.
And of course, as we've shown repeatedly over the past couple of years, there are numerous examples of how talented aquascapers have interpreted this aesthetic to create amazing-looking tanks that are every bit as alluring and engrossing as any "traditional" planted aquarium.
Thinking about how stuff accumulates on the rain forest floor or falls directly into the water from trees is a key component to grasping this concept and aesthetic. Now, it's truly not "rocket science" to think about stuff falling from the trees, but when you contemplate the idea, you begin to think about the "randomness" of the process. Botanical materials like leaves, seed pods and the like fall off trees seasonally, or as a result of wind and weather events, so there is no specific "pattern" of accumulation, except, perhaps that more materials tend to fall off trees during weather events.
Mixing of various materials as a result of being blown around or moved about by current is a simple fact that is inescapable. Although it's been documented that some leaf litter banks have been in place for decades, they are not considered "permanent" features by ecologists. They are subject to the whims of nature- be it from rain, current, or wind, and may vary from season to season, year to year. This is both the charm and magic of these habitats. They are ever- changing, ever-evolving.
And as aquarists, we've made the "mental leap" and have adjusted to the fact that the aesthetics of blackwater, botanical-style aquariums are not permanent", and that this same "evolution" happens in the confines of our tanks. Leaves decompose, botanicals soften and accumulate biofilms and fungal growth, and a small patina of algae may accumulate on our wood. Not to everyone's liking, of course- but understanding this is a key to unlocking many secrets...
It's a sort of recognition that nature "does what it does", and that there is an elegance to this process that we have learned to love, rather than loathe. We understand that this is the real beauty of the natural world.
We've learned that, in order to replicate nature, we need to embrace nature.
And the result has been some real magic so far. Work, like the aquarium above by world-class aquascaper Cory Hopkins, who has absolutely made this "mental shift", is as inspiring as it is beautiful...and pushes the "state of the art" in real natural aquarium design and function to a whole different level!
We're looking forward to seeing a continued progression of the body of work in our blackwater, botanical niche. New approaches, ideas, materials, and knowledge continue to "percolate", evolve, and grow as more and more hobbyists study, scheme and replicate the natural habitats that we have come to love, in their own aquariums.
And it starts with materials which fall...from the trees.
Stay curious. Stay adventurous. Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay passionate...
And Stay Wet.
I've been doing a lot more "fish travel" over the past couple of months- visiting and speaking at local aquarium clubs...getting valuable feedback and interaction with all sorts of hobbyists, business owners, and well-known aquarists. The inspiration for today's little piece comes from talking to a bunch of fellow fish geeks whom I've been chatting with in my travels and have brought up the subject of "experts" and the pursuit of knowledge in the hobby. It caused me to reflect on my personal views of this topic based on my experiences.
("Scott Fellman, aquarium expert" YIKES)
As I've probably mentioned, in the “reef” end of the hobby, my name is pretty well known, as a hobbyist, author, and business owner. I’ve authored a ton of articles and lectured at clubs and events internationally, and at the major hobby conferences (MACNA, etc.) for years. The company I formerly co-owned, Unique Corals, is extremely well regarded in the “reef” world. Often, when I've given talks around the country, I've been occasionally referred to as "EXPERT aquarist Scott Fellman"- YIKES! I kinda feel gross every time I hear that term bandied about. More recently, I hear "blackwater aquarium expert" added to my "title"- and I kind of laugh...It's a pretty serious term.
These recent conversations made me think about what a real "expert" is in the aquarium hobby...and the traits they possess which they won't just tell you about.
As a hardcore aquarium hobbyist, you’re not easily impressed, are you? I mean, there are a lot of “armchair experts” in this hobby. I’ve encountered more than a few in my time. The real “experts” in our hobby are far fewer and far less commonly encountered.
Yet, you do read a lot of wisdom from fish-keeping “experts” that can make a lot of sense; really cutting through the clutter of rehashed “ideas” so prevalent everywhere nowadays. In fact, a real “expert” will not call attention to himself by calling himself an expert.
“Truly “expert” aquarium people seem to lead by actions, not by words.
On the other hand, truly “expert” hobbyists are generally not out to impress anyone.
In fact, there is a good chance that the customer standing next to you at the local fish store, gazing into the mixed cichlid tank, is uber-experienced, with a setup and livestock that could blow you away- but you won’t really even recognize him/her, because he or she does little overtly to call attention to himself/herself.
He has no desire to.
The revelation becomes obvious, however, when he/she asks a question, or comments on something hobby-related, and is glaringly obvious when you see his/her aquarium!. He won’t be out there, loudly espousing the latest theories and regurgitating what you’ve read on every forum in existence. Rather, the truly “expert” hobbyists do things a certain way because it works for them. They often utilize methods or embrace techniques and philosophies that may leave you scratching your head- until you see the success they’ve achieved.
A truly “expert” hobbyists know a little about a lot of things, and maybe a lot about one or two things. As an old college professor of mine once said, “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less…”
So-called “experts” in our field seem to display an array of surprisingly distinguishable traits that are pretty obvious, once you think about it.
One of the first things, you’ll notice when talking to a real “expert” hobbyist is that they have one underlying personality trait: Patience. Yup, they realize that successful aquariums aren’t built in days, weeks, or even months…They take years, and even then, these successful tanks are still considered a “work in progress” by their owners. The true “expert” hobbyist knows that there are no shortcuts to success.
When you check out the “expert” hobbyist’s tank, odd are that you won’t see it equipped with the very latest gadgetry that you read about on line. Rather, it will generally be equipped with high-quality, high performance gear from reputable manufacturers…and many times, it won’t even be the latest model. That’s because a lot of expert hobbyists understand one truth: Get the best equipment you can afford, maintain it well, and utilize it to its full potential before you swap it out for the next brand-spanking-new gadget. That’s not to say that the “expert” only uses last year’s gear and never upgrades or doesn’t have “gear head” tendencies. What it does mean is that the expert hobbyist understands that the equipment he/she selects can do certain things for his/her aquarium, and sees no reason to change up just because this year’s model has an additional novel feature…Unless the feature solves some issue that the expert has been grappling with.
Most “expert” hobbyists stick to the basics- and stick to them well…We’re talking water changes, careful stocking, environmental control, etc. They are generally not running off on tangents just because they read that "...someone in France is using _______ to make their Plecos grow better." They’ll study the problem, and make gradual changes as necessary to achieve the desired result. You just won’t see them rush off, headless, in a frantic attempt to solve some problem by looking for the instant miracle.
You’ll find that almost every “expert” hobbyist will avoid shopping for the “trendy named” fishes like the plague. You’ll rarely see him/her namedropping and bragging about the pint-sized fry of that hot Mbuna or Rainbowfish species. Rather, you’ll hear them go on and on about the fish that he or she likes, and find out that the reason it’s in his/her tank is because he or she loves the fish! It’s the way things should be in the reef side of the hobby, too- keep certain corals because you like them- not because everyone will think that you’re cool because you paid $600 for a 1/2” specimen of some “trendy” new species (that, in reality, is probably available from multiple vendors that just haven't identified the darned thing yet and don't realize that they have this month’s “flavor of the month.”). No one is really that impressed. Well, know one who understands the hobby, anyways. Expert hobbyists just know that money doesn’t buy happiness, success, or “street creed” in the aquarium scene. It just buys…stuff.
The real “expert” hobbyist makes it a point to understand the needs of each fish or plant before it ends up in his or her tank. Sure, they will make mistake along the way, but most “expert” hobbyists will seldom make the same mistake twice- especially if it cost the lives of some treasured livestock. A simple, short, sweet lesson that is always appreciated.
The real “expert” realizes that “stuff” just happens in aquarium keeping…Egg clutches develop fungus, or Plants have “anomalous” growth-arresting conditions…Equipment fails, accidents happen with additives, et., etc., etc.- He or she knows that you need to insure yourself against loss with backup parts, redundancies in your system design, and with fry of prized specimens “vetted out” to other hobbyist- just in case the unthinkable happens.
In a similar vein, the real power of “paying it forward” becomes obvious in situations like that, believe me. Ever noticed that when something disastrous happens to a generous “expert” hobbyist that fellow reefers come out of the woodwork to help? It’s not just because the hobbyist is well known- it’s because he or she has taken the time to cultivate relationships and friendships with other hobbyists- to nurture them and assist with their developing hobby. The realization that we don’t exist in a vacuum has helped more than one hobbyist move from rank beginner to “expert”, believe me.
The “expert” hobbyist also knows that just being consistent and steadfast in maintenance and husbandry can make up for a lot of mistakes- and that you will make a lot of mistakes in aquarium keeping. It’s inevitable. The “expert” learns from mistakes, rather than quits because of them.
In the end, the “expert” hobbyist has an array of skills honed from years of experience in the aquarium keeping game- the product of numerous successes, jarring failures, and lessons learned by getting his or her hands wet. In short, an “expert” hobbyist is a hobbyist who has done far more than he or she has talked about, and who continues to push forward the boundaries of modern aquarium keeping.
Today's very brief, and hopefully, very useful-to-remember lesson.
Until next time...
As the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium "movement" begins to gain some momentum and starts inspiring aquarists from all sorts of "disciplines", it's interesting to see that we've begun to see an interest in habitats from other parts of the world besides just South America.
Now, don't get me wrong- I'm a huge fan of the South American blackwater habitats...What is there NOT to like about Rio Negro tributaries, igarapes, morichals, igapos, etc? I mean, these are some of the most compelling and interesting habitats in the world, with a rich variety of life, niches, and aesthetics that could keep you busy for a lifetime trying to duplicate.
Yet, it's been pointed out to me by more than one member of our community that we don't see quite as many Asian (and African- but that's another discussion for another blog!) blackwater biotope-inspired tanks out there. Now, we have featured some of these types of tanks over the past year or so, but you are correct, they have been a bit under-represented.
Notice my choice of the words "have been?"
I think that we are beginning to see a noticeable "uptick" in the number of tanks inspired by Asian habitats.
We've seen a big surge in the popularity of wild Betta species and lesser-known Gouramis. Having the experience in playing with Tetras and other South American blackwater fishes has given ideas and let's face it- a confidence boost- to many hobbyists who have been keeping the compelling Asian fishes for years, and were looking for something a bit different for them.
The fact is, the wild Asian habitats offer a lot of interesting fishes.
And they offer some unique aesthetic looks. Remember the Asian peat swamps we talked about before? These are fascinating and endangered habitats, with unique aesthetics- really darkly tinted water, heavily botanical-enriched substrates, and often....PLANTS!
Yes, the Asian blackwater habitats often contain terrific plants, like various Cryptocoryne, Bucephelandra, etc. And many of these plants do very well in aquarium designed to meet their requirements.
The reality is that Asian blackwater habitats are every bit as fascinating, challenging, and beautiful as their South American counterparts. With lots of smaller, interesting fishes inhabiting these regions and niches, you've got the makings of some very interesting aquarium displays!
The variety of materials which come from Asia and can be incorporated into a blackwater, Asian-themed aquarium is significant!
And the potential for creating amazing-looking displays is huge!
What interesting breakthroughs in maintaining and breeding some of the unique fishes from these compelling habitats will be made when more of us venture towards Asia? Will we see a surge in interest in brackish water, botanical-style aquariums, representing the fantastic habitats in these regions?
What lessons will we learn about the delicate Blackwater habitats that we can apply to our aquarium work? What previously under-appreciated fishes will become new favorites?
With all of the knowledge we're gaining on blackwater aquariums, it's been an exciting ride so far- and we're really eager to see what direction we head in as we turn towards Asia!
Stay excited. Stay fascinated. Stay motivated...
And Stay Wet.
We all work pretty hard to make our aquariums look like the ones in our dreams, don't we?
You know- with amazing fish, a killer hardscape, and that special “something” that makes it look like a real “slice of the bottom” in our own home! We pour our hearts and souls into these things...We invest small fortunes (or in some cases, LARGE ones!), and tons of time, in the hope that our tanks meet our lofty ambitions.
Then, why do we still do stuff that totally sabotages our dream tank?
Huh? "You being negative again, Fellman? Stirring up another hornet’s nest, aren’t ya’?"
But I can’t tell you how many potentially amazing tanks that I’ve seen literally stymied by some bad habits that can easily be broken once the fish geek identifies, owns, and changes them. So, really- this calling out of our bad habits is actually a positive... Let's make this constructive!
Here are just a few of the most obvious examples of this kind of stuff, in no particular order:
Moving stuff around needlessly-
“The Madagascar Lace Plant is just did not ‘look right’, so I moved it from the middle of the main rock structure to the top of the driftwood area on the other side. It still looked a bit off, so a few days later, I relocated it to the area on the other side of the tank where there is more flow. It still wasn’t looking good, so I decided it would be best to place it closer to the front to get more light. Yesterday, the plant started losing tissue. I knew there was something wrong with it…”
This happens so often you can’t believe it. I’ve seen hobbyists with even the best intentions kill plants, corals, and even fishes despite making every effort to attempt to make them "happy…" The sad reality is that most plants, corals, and fishes will do better if you don’t mess with them once they’re situated in their new home. We all know this. Obviously, there are situations (like a "bullied" fish) where a move is imperative...However, for the most part, sometimes the best thing is to do...nothing. I mean, think about the last time YOU moved? It pretty much totally sucks, right? And your plants, corals, and fishes don't have much say in the matter in this case, do they?
Now, I’m all for placing a plant or coral or sessile invertebrate in the most optimum location, perhaps a bit hidden or partially shaded, and then moving it gradually to acclimate to light- but wholesale moving of a plant on a semi-regular basis is just not a happy thing. For one thing, handling a plant, coral, or invert- no matter how careful we are- always increases the risk of damaging it, or stressing it out to the point where it is left vulnerable to diseases, etc. And, of course, every time you move a plant, coral, or invertebrate- no matter how subtle- you are forcing it to adapt to a slightly different environmental situation. Remember, corals- and to a great extent, plants- come from reefs, streams and lakes- some of the more stable environments on earth- and aren’t super evolved to deal with frequent change all that well. Sure, they’re not fragile flowers, but, when you consider what they go through from the dealer’s tank (or propagation facility) to home aquarium, It’s a miracle that they even survive, let alone thrive and grow. So why add to the stress that they endure by constantly messing with them? Let's vow to leave them alone...at least for a while!
“Tweaking” just because 'everyone' is doing it- “XYZ is dosing __________, and his tank looks awesome, so I’m going to start dosing it, too.”
Don't be a joiner...this is a killer, IMHO. Sure, on the surface, this seems innocuous enough- you see a hobbyist who you admire, and who’s tank looks great. You hear that he uses __________, so it makes sense, at least at first glance-that you’d want to use it , too. The problem is, you don’t know the circumstances under which he’s dosing the stuff, the parameters before and after he started dosing it, and dozens of other factors that contributed to his success with the product. In fact, you don’t really know for sure if the stuff in question was a contributing factor to his success! The important thing is to not add anything that you don’t have a demonstrated need for. As the great aquatic author John Tullock wrote, “Test- then tweak.”
Here’s one we see in the reef side of the hobby all the time- I am sure that there is a freshwater analog here: Constantly switching salt brands because one is on sale- “Salt is salt, more or less…And this one is 20% off this week!”
Another one of those seemingly innocent moves that every reefer makes from time to time. I get it. The hobby is expensive, and we need to look for ways to save. In my opinion, “saving” money by constantly switching the brand of salt that you use for your reef is not one of them. The reality is, every salt is NOT the same. Many are based on natural sea water, but have proprietary “enhancements” and such to give them an extra edge of their competitors. The reality is that there is no generally accepted “industry standard” for synthetic sea salt mixes. Many actually vary in formulation from batch to batch. Some don’t even have the very trace elements that they claim to contain! (Another story for another time...)
High quality synthetic sea salt is really difficult to make in general, and making it absolutely the same on a consistent basis is incredibly difficult! When you switch from brand to brand, you're exposing your corals and fishes to variations (some subtle, some not so subtle) in the chemical composition of their water every time you use the stuff. Variations require the corals and fishes to adapt to them. Adaptable as they may be, forcing corals to accept this on a regular basis is really subjecting them to undue stress, IMHO. And I suspect that the same may hold true for freshwater plant foods, etc...Do yourself, your tank, and the manufacturers a favor- show some “brand loyalty!”
Adding new fishes and plants to your tank without quarantining them- “My LFS holds his livestock for two weeks before he sells it. I’m good…etc., etc., etc."
Along with the time-honored tradition of water changes, this practice seems to encounter tremendous resistance from many hobbyists. Man, I know I sound like the proverbial “broken record”, but if I had a dollar (or even a Euro!) for every time I heard about a hobbyist wiping out his entire tank because he or she introduced a disease to an otherwise healthy aquarium, I wouldn’t be slinging botanicals for a living, for sure! It’s pretty much a fact that hobbyists are, by and large, good natured, trusting people. It’s also a sad truth that this trust, coupled with typical human laziness, can get us into big trouble. In this day and age, you simply can’t expect everyone else to do your quarantine for you. The LFS or online vendor deals with hundreds of specimens a month, maybe even thousands- and despite the desire to do so- generally cannot possibly provide an effective quarantine for every animal that comes out of his or her tanks, even with the best of intentions. It’s just not economically feasible.
It’s a process that is best done by the hobbyist, in his/her own home, under conditions that can be monitored. It goes with the territory of being a fish geek. And this is not a difficult process, as outlined here and elsewhere dozens of times before. However, inspection and quarantine of every animal that goes into your aquarium is not only your responsibility- it’s your obligation. Really. So if you get nothing else out of this piece, just embrace some form of quarantine for your newly-acquired animals. You won’t regret it.
Pandering to the masses- “I’m gonna do a 300 gal, with the full on “Hyperdose 2000” CO2 system, “UltraPar 4000” lights, “Astrotek 1000” controller, and I’m only gonna stock my tank with L264’s from insanelyhotplecos.net.”
Okay, I get it. You want to build a tank with the best of the best. One for the ages. A system that will be the envy of everyone on the forums. You want to impress everyone with your skill, budget, and financial savvy. Look, there is nothing wrong with building the very best tank that you can afford. Nothing. The problem is that you need to ask yourself if you’re building this mega tank for yourself- for the love of the hobby- or to impress everyone on the forums. Really, this sounds like I’m being kind of a jerk, but think about it for a minute. We spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars/euro on this hobby, right? So we need to be very sure at all times that we are approaching it from a healthy mental perspective.
Build that dream tank because it makes you happy- gives you the best possible experience…Not because it will make a great “build thread” and gain you accolades from the hobby masses. Trust me, I’ve seen dozens of really well-intentioned hobbyists buy into the “groupthink” mentality and build expensive mega-tanks just to “buy into” some perceived “cool” group on the forums- only to have their tank fail, and to mentally “flame out” ultimately, because they really didn’t have the skill, experience, and let’s be honest- desire- to see the mega-tank to completion. Some of the best tanks I’ve ever seen were small, simple projects, conceived and run with passion, love, and commitment to the craft- not for the purpose of gaining acceptance form the cool kids. Please- be you!
Well, there you have a rundown of some of the most common pitfalls that I’ve seen fellow hobbyists put themselves into. Remember, running an aquarium is a difficult enough endeavor without us making things harder on ourselves. We are all quite capable of creating and managing fantastic aquariums. Although caring for animals is a very serious responsibility, we need to stay focused on the fact that this is a hobby- and to not take the whole thing it too seriously. Do what’s right for the animals and plants that you keep, and go with your instincts, and don’t fall for the easy way, or the way that "everyone else is doing it."
Be yourself, share with others, and stay engaged in the art and science of the aquarium hobby. And be sure to "get out of your own way" if you need to!
Today’s cautionary tale of bad habits, dangerous thinking, and unsustainable practices- and how to break them. I know you have some more examples to discuss...let's here them, so everyone may benefit!
Stay bold. Stay thoughtful. Stay cautious. Stay fiercely independent...
And Stay Wet
One of the things that has been hardest for me to accept, in both life and in my "fishy career" is...compromise.
I used to sort of HATE that word.
Yes, that's always been a point of contention for me. In the hobby, for the longest time, I always saw it for its negative aspects: Having to compromise getting that fish I'd been drooling over for years, which I finally accept achieves too large a size and could be aggressive or even predatory in the small tank I'm working with...Or the desire to keep plants in the tank with the fish that occasionally digs. Or, compromising the size of the aquarium, the location, or even the the "theme" (Oh, I guess you can't have Danios in that West African-themed tank and be true to the biotope, huh?").
"You can't have that, but you can have these instead" is a refrain heard at the local fish store over and over again, when the eager neophyte really wants to keep a dozen Celestial Pearl Danios in that 20 gallon tank with those sexy African Rift Lake cichlids and is (correctly) counseled to accept the limitations of his or her aquarium.
Stuff like that.
Compromise. For the best, of course. But a compromise nonetheless. However, is that always a bad thing?
And I've come to realize that, sometimes, you accept and make these so-called "compromises", and end up with something totally, unexpectedly cool. The initial disappointment of, "Damn, I really, REALLY wanted that group of 'Rio Nanay' Angels, but the reality is that I my tank can only accommodate a group of Dicrossus instead isn't such a bad one, when you look at it objectively, right?"
With botanical-style blackwater aquariums, we initially dismissed the idea of planted tanks with a variety of aquatic plants, because we felt that the conditions (both chemically and light intensity) wouldn't work for them. And of course, after a little research from members of our community, it turns out that, with a little compromise, not only can you keep the "expected" plants, like Cryptocoryne, in these types of tanks- you can actually keep many aquatic plants if you compensate with lighting, fertilization, etc.
You can't have it all...but you can have MOST of it. Usually!
I think it's fun to discuss concepts and application for botanicals and blackwater aquariums with hobbyists who are trying a wide range of things. In the past few days alone, I've talked about this kind of aquarium with child breeders, Raimbowfish enthusiasts, planted tank guys, and killifish fans. They question. They research. They learn the ins and outs and the potential compromises they might have to make to go with a blackwater system for their application. And it's pretty exciting!
Compromise has such a feeling of "finality" about it, but the reality is that, in our hobby, compromising can often yield exciting results, unexpected benefits, and occasionally, breakthroughs. Sometimes, it's as simple as not being able to accommodate that one larger tank, and ending up with two, or even three smaller ones (in reality, is that EVEN a compromise for a fish geek?). Or not being able to afford or obtain the one prized specimen of Apisto or whatever, and ending up with another species that you not only fall in love with, but learn to spawn, rear, and foster breakthroughs with. Or thinking you were going be trying one type of aquascape, only to be "forced" into compromising a bit due to budget, space or time restrictions...only to end up with something amazing you never thought about before.
It happens. A lot.
The reality is that being flexible, adventurous, and being willing to accept new ideas and approaches on perhaps a smaller scale or under a different set of circumstances is really one of the best traits that you can have as a hobbyist. Compromising some aspects of an idea has, on so many occasions in my fishy "career", enabled me to accomplish stuff I never thought possible, with benefits, enjoyment, and opportunities that I could never have imagined previously.
It's all really a matter of perspective. Think about it. What "compromises" have you made, only to come to realize that they were not compromises at all?
So, the next time you face the realization that you need to "compromise" some aspect of your fishy plan- don't immediately think the worst. Consider the possibilities, the advantages, and the enjoyment that can come with "tweaking" your plans a bit. Open your mind. Meet yourself where you are. It's a pretty cool place to be in the hobby.
Yeah, you can't always have it all. But you sure can enjoy it all.
Stay Bold. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay adventurous...
And Stay Wet.
It's 3:00AM local time, and my plane doesn't leave for three more hours...and I can't fall back asleep...Yeah. literally "Sleepless in Seattle", as the cliche goes!
I'm coming off of a very nice speaking engagement last night in Seattle, Washington, at the Greater Seattle Aquarium Society. Amazing group with tons of talent! I also got to visit what is arguably one of the best aquarium shops in the United States, Aquarium Zen, which specializes in "Nature Aquarium" setups and just generally celebrates the joy of aquascaping. It's owner, Steve Waldron, is a super nice guy and just "gets it" when it comes to this stuff! Truly a "must see" if you're up this way!
His store really celebrates the art of aquascaping and keeping what most of us would call "smaller aquariums"- and does it with style and skill in a way few others have before, iMHO. Get's you excited and motivated and energized...And funny, wouldn't you know it- I had a fellow hobbyist later that evening approach me tell me about her tank and sort of "apologize" that her tank wasn't "large" and that she didn't keep "big fish."
That was sad... Totally unnecessary...And it's not the first time I've heard this kind of thing. Like, what's wrong with keeping small fishes and modest-sized aquariums? Where does this stuff come from?
I Like small fishes. In fact, I like the really small fishes. I prefer them, favor them...enjoy them.
Big fishes are cool, but- well, they're BIG. AND they eat and poop a lot. And they need large physical spaces; otherwise, most tanks are the equivalent of you or I spending the rest of our lives in our (comfortable) living room. I mean, great, you have satellite TV, snacks, a comfy couch...but after a while, those four walls start to close in a bit, right? Well, in my warped mind, that's how I see it.
It's not like bigger is better. At least, not always.
And, I'm kind of militant about it, actually. I remember in my custom aquarium installation days, I used to hate it when a customer would build, say, a 500-600 gallon aquarium, and then want to stock it with BIG fishes, like full-size Triggerfishes, Morays, large Angels, and Tangs. Oh, and sharks. I have no idea what it is about keeping a shark in a relatively large- but not large enough aquarium that appeals to people. Quite frankly, I'm not so sure what it is about keeping sharks in general in an aquarium that appeals to people....that's another thing for another time.
Anyhow, my observations of the general public and a good segment of the aquarium-keeping community seems to indicate that a lot of people just figure, "I have a really large tank. Now I can keep some large fishes in there!" I never understood that. I mean, in theory, you could keep larger, more metabolic-waste-producing fishes in a larger tank- of course. Yet, then you have this group of really big fishes that can make a big mess, grow even larger, and ultimately end up with the same issue that many of us face- not having a large enough aquarium for all of the fishes you want to keep.
Why not keep MORE small fishes...lots of 'em- in an environment that provides more than enough physical space, creates an interesting environment for them, and that they won't outgrow? Like, ever. I mean, can you imagine how many Axelrodia riesei or Tucanoichthys tucano you can keep in a 500-gallon aquarium? Umm, I dunno- a shitload of 'em, maybe? Of course, the immediate counterargument we'll hear is, "Do you know how much it would cost to purchase 250 Tucanoichthys tucano?" And my smart-ass counterargument is, "If you can afford to purchase, outfit , and run a 500-gallon aquarium, you can afford to spend $12USD a piece on some 1/2" fish!"
(Gee...I wonder why I don't do much in the way of "tank build consulting" anymore?)
And I've not yet had my first cup of coffee today!
And, of course, one of the most common "pro-nano" arguments is equally as dumb, IMHO. As you know, it typically goes like, "Well, the smaller aquarium allows the fishes to be closer to their food, and for you to observe them more easily."
Honestly, I can discuss the absurdities of that assertion, but it just will raise my blood pressure. We can do better than use those lame excuses as a rationale for keeping little tanks.
I love nano tanks. I think they're cool, fun, practical, economical; purposeful..and I suppose you COULD make the argument about keeping track of tiny fishes and having them be closer to their food...but man, it's sort of funny to me. There's a lot of ways to feed tiny fishes in larger aquariums, IMHO. Really. And if you look hard enough, you'll see little guys in that monster tank. Really. Hell, we find them in streams, so why can't we find those Ember Tetras in a 300-gallon tank?
What about the fact that you can use nano's as a "testbed" for dozens of really crazy ideas...deep botanical beds, "100% Mini Mariposa Pod substrates", a huge ball of Water Sprite and nothing else, crushed leaf litter substrates, Catappa Bark "forests"- yeah...all sorts of zany stuff that's too expensive/time-consuming/experimental to do in a 50-100 gallon tank!
Now, I have nothing against large aquariums. In fact, the smallest saltwater aquarium I've kept in the past ten years is 150 gallons- freshwater, 50 gallons. So, before I blast the whole institution of "Bigger Aquariums Are Better", and piss off everyone who owns a deluxe aquarium, let's clap up the advantages of larger aquariums.
Oh, what's a "large aquarium", anyways? As far as this fish geek is concerned, a "large "aquarium is anything over 100 gallons (400 L). Or you could look at it from a more practical standpoint: "large" is any size of aquarium that will result in chiropractic bills if less than three people attempt to lift it. "Large" is any aquarium that will result in weather patterns forming in your living room as a result of the moisture. "Large" is....well- you get the picture.
Alright, I'll give you this: larger aquariums aquariums do offer a more stable environment. Larger water volumes retain temperature better (acting as heat sinks), hold more oxygen, maintain chemical balance longer, and dilute metabolic waste easier, by virtue of volume (provided the aquarium is not overcrowded, and that common-sense husbandry techniques are employed, of course).
Within reason, larger volumes of water (especially with tanks of greater surface area dimensions) allow you to keep greater numbers of fishes, or, gulp, larger specimens. Of course, why do you HAVE to keep huge fishes just because you have a large tank? I'm not getting this, still. Of course, common sense must prevail, too. Ive met a few hobbyists who's ego was even larger than their tank...and just because you have a large tank doesn't make you "cool" or successful... If your fishy "career" includes a legacy of mismanaged, overcrowded 10, 20, and 50 gallon tanks, ending in disaster, there's a really good chance that you'll repeat the same thing with your 200 gallon aquarium. In other words, if you suck, you're just buying more time with a large tank. It may take a little longer (and cost a lot more), but it happens.
Of course, larger aquariums DO provide more space to develop dramatic aquascaping schemes. You can utilize those huge pieces of driftwood that look absurd in smaller aquariums. You could actually build up a 6 inch botanical bed and still have room for water and livestock!
Yep- big tanks are pretty cool. They're also expensive to purchase. And they're a bit tougher to work with. And they cost more to operate. And they take longer to stock. Although, I know plenty of people with 20-40 gallon "high tech" planted aquairums that spend more on them than I did on a few 75-100 gallon reef tanks I've set up over the years!
It's easy to fantasize about the huge aquarium that you're going to build when you win the lottery. It's quite another to actually set it up if you're of more modest means. In reality, it's usually necessary to compromise somewhat based on budget, space, time, etc.
Remember, despite what you might see and hear from time to time, having a large aquarium does not brand you as a "success" in our hobby, any more than maintaining a smaller system brands you as a novice. It's not like you crossed over some imaginary barrier and arrived as a "serious" hobbyist. Success in the hobby is about creating and maintaining a vibrant, healthy aquarium, regardless of size, for the long term growth and prosperity of its inhabitants.
Yes, large aquariums are impressive; well, fro ma size standpoint, at least. I've seen plenty of large aquariums that were downright unremarkable (in fact, I've set up a few, myself). I mean, they really sucked to the point where you wouldn't want them if they were given to you. Really. Many hobbyists set up huge systems as the "next phase" in their aquarium career, and some end in disappointment- or even disaster. If you're not able to master the art and science of aquarium keeping with a small system, a large tank will likely not be any different for you. Think before you leap.
Large aquariums can be visually arresting, beneficial to their inhabitants, and just generally add a new dimension of fun to your hobby. However, the time, money and commitment to maintain them are a serious consideration. Keeping a large aquarium is not an endeavor that you enter into lightly.
For many hobbyists, a more modest-sized aquarium allows them to enjoy their hobby-as well as their life. Being forced to become a "tank slave" to your monster-sized aquarium may not lead to long-term hobby happiness. On the other hand, smaller aquariums do require discipline and self-control in order to keep them properly stocked and correctly maintained. The margins for error are proportionately smaller than in larger aquariums. Be aware of this, and enjoy your aquarium accordingly.
Regardless of the size of the system that you create, think "outside the box" when planning your system. Pleeeeze!
In the end- it's your call as to how you want to proceed in your hobby. Don't buy into the latest trends or fads. Just go with what will work for you. It's not the size that makes your aquarium special. It's the skill, dedication and imagination of the hobbyist that gets the job done. Creating and maintaining an aquarium that brings pleasure and enjoyment to you is the true measure of success in this hobby.
And my bad attitude is not helpful...
But it's fun to kind of piss everyone off now and again...seriously.
Keeps things interesting, huh? Or annoying, depending upon how you look at it, I suppose. Maybe I'll try to catch a few more zzz's right now and...
Stay on edge. Stay innovative. Stay honest with your feelings...
And Stay Wet.
Have you ever thought about an aquarium as a sort of "evolving organism?"
I mean, when you consider that it involves an inception, growth, and death, it's very much a microcosm of nature. An evolving, changing emerging little system, with subtle interactions and daily changes to it's "operating system" as it grows.
A dance if you will.
As a hobbyist, you help this little microcosm along by making adjustments, tweaks, deviations, if necessary, along the way. All of these require observation, analysis, and action. Decisions, made by interpreting what you see every day and then taking actions (or not) as warranted.
You're doing this already, and probably haven't given it any thought. I mean, it's what we do as hobbyists, right? We're pretty good at it!
Every day, it seem like you have to go through dozens of "if then" scenarios on the fly: "Okay, if the water is a bit cloudy, it might be the extra fertilizer I administered to the plants; need to scale back..." Or, "The pH is drifting too far to the south. Maybe I have too many leaves in there...?" It could even be something as simple as, "The fishes look pretty hungry today. I wonder if those Apistos are guarding eggs?"
It's important to question what's happening in our aquariums. However, it's equally as important to not "freak out" over every little change; to see the "doom and gloom" in every scenario- to affect rapid interventions at every turn of events. Changes and happenings in our aquariums are often not necessarily for the worse- or even for the better, for that matter...they're just...evolutions. The aquarium will make a lot of "course corrections" on its own, with little intervention on our part, as it evolves over time.
Sure, if you're trying to breed fish, or some such experiment, it's a different matter, and actively intervening in the processes you see may make the difference between success and failure of your project. I get that. And I do it. too. However, when we're talking about a display aquarium- one set up purely for observing and enjoying..perhaps it's best to engage in the fine art of "active monitoring."
Let me explain.
When we think about our aquariums over the long term, they will evolve in many ways, much like a natural river or stream, without much intervention on our part. As water flow decreases, plants might grow differently. As the substrate begins to take on a "life of its own", with more life forms growing in its matrix, fishes will forage for supplemental food items in it. As wood softens, releasing more tannins into the water, it darkens. Leaves and botanicals start to decompose, enriching the environment with humic acids, tannins, and other organic materials, further spurring plant growth, etc. Algae, although often dreaded, grow based on the available nutrients, waxing and waning. Hopefully, you'll strike a balance between too much and too little. Or better yet- an understanding as to why they appear, and what it really means to your tank.
All part of a little "dance", that, although important to monitor, is not necessarily something that we as hobbyists have to intervene in. We do quite a bit when we simply perform our regular water exchanges, filter media replacements/cleanings, and occasional plant trimmings. So why not simply enjoy what's happening in your aquarium as it evolves? I know that I perennially overthink stuff, instead of merely enjoying it. "Active monitoring" is a great way to run a tank, IMHO. You do the necessary functions to keep things stable and consistent, and little more. Just observe; enjoy.
It's okay to think and postulate about everything we see in our tank. However, often times, it's equally as okay to simply accept it, and see what happens. (and I'm not talking about stuff that needs to be dealt with at once- such as disease outbreaks or filter system malfunctions, etc.)
Since I began dabbling with botanical-influenced aquariums, I am far less stressed out about stuff like the biofilms, bits of leaves accumulating on the substrate, and even those periodic algae blooms. I'm not put off that much by the appearance of biofilms on my leaves. As long as the fish are healthy and happy, the environmental parameters stable, and the tank presentable, I don't let myself worry about everything as much. Understanding that these things are natural, explainable, and often, temporary "reactions" to things going on in our closed aquatic environments has made the process of aquarium keeping over the long haul much more enjoyable to me.
Watching a display aquarium evolve and sort of "find itself" naturally over time is proving to be one of the most enjoyable discoveries I've made in the hobby in decades. By simply following established maintenance routines, and monitoring what's occurring in the tank, as opposed to constantly trying to "pre-empt" problems, I've had more stability, more growth...more success than ever before. Accepting that there is most definitely a "dance" in our aquariums, and becoming an "active monitor" instead of an "active intervener" has added a new and rewarding aspect to my love of the hobby.
In summary...don't stop the dance. Don't interfere with it...Just watch, learn, and keep doing what you're doing.
Today's simple thought.
Stay engaged. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay enthusiastic...
And Stay Wet.
I've brought up this topic before, but I can't help but wonder...
Hobbyists who create "community tanks" are always advised by "the books" or "experts", or whomever to include some "scavengers" in their fish mix to help "consume uneaten food and algae." Now, on the surface, this seems just fine and appropriate and sound, but when you think about who fishes feed in nature, with most being largely "opportunistic" or "constant grazers", it's not too much of a stretch to think, "Well, doesn't every fish sort of 'scavenge' at some point during it's day?"
Why do we need "dedicated" scavengers?
Oh, sure, if you have a tank which only contains Marble Hatchetfishes, which exclusively feed from the surface and have those upturned mouths to back it up- okay, someone has to pick up the pieces (literally) which fall to the bottom, otherwise you'll be in there daily siphoning out uneaten food. That beings said, how many hobbyists have a 100% exclusively Hatchetfish tank, lol?
Maybe a better example would be a dedicated breeding tank, where you keep some small Corys our whatever, to consume "uneaten food" that your baby guppies or Platys, etc. would miss. I suppose I can see the benefit...but you're doing water changes anyways, so you can siphon any of these "uneaten food" away just as easily when you're in there daily, right? Maybe?
Well, getting back to this concept that the role of "scavenger" is kind of an artificial construct of aquarium keeping...Sure, some fishes are better "equipped" for the role of finding uneaten food or algae, but really, most fish could do at least some of the job. Sure, the little Otocinculus are little algae eating machines, and consume just this and really nothing else...to the point where if you have too many of them in a tank without sufficient algal growth, they're going to start dropping like flies. And yet, in nature, they're found in larger groups, and we know they tend to do better in this social structure in the aquarium as well...yet the paradox exists that if you have 25 of them, they're likely to tear up all the avialble food in weeks and simply starve...
What to do? Well, you could have smaller groups, of course.
And you could stock your aquarium with other fishes that are not "rat-holed" into the role of "scavenger" or "algae eater"...fishes which are omnivorous or herbivores, and display "grazing behaviors"- you know, like some Mbuna and certain characins, etc. Now sure, I'm not suggesting to stock your aquarium with "Zebras" and "Labs" or whatever to use as "algae eaters"- that's ridiculous. What I am suggesting is that you can sort of "exploit" the fact that many fishes will feed on multiple food resources in the wild, depending upon what's available seasonally.
And, as we've all seen, fish will eat just about anything in the absence of other foods... The horror-like scenarios of Tetras or Danios that we've all seen, picking at the dead body of a fallen tank mate in the LFS, although incredibly disturbing for most of us, are just an example of this kind of adaptation...In nature, nothing seems to go to waste. Now, sure- there are fishes which perhaps "specialize" in consuming dead fishes or whatever, but they'll eat other stuff, too.
I've seen many cases where a tank full of characins like Pencilfishes, for example, begin picking at algal growth on rocks and wood throughout the day as part of their "routine." And If you find yourself out of town for a period of time, unable to feed them daily, you'll often return to fishes which seem just as fat as when you left them. What are they doing? They're consuming the foods that are available to them. They're taking advantage of what is in their environment. Although not significant consumers of algae and biofilms and such, many fishes will consume these items when their preferred foods are not available.
Even the dreaded "detritus" is food for many, many fishes.
Do we really need to add fishes into our community setups for the exclusive role of "scavenger" or "algae eater", or could we simply stock our aquariums with the fishes we love and understand that they will be resourceful, consuming what is available as it's available...Like they've done in nature for eons? And can't we just feed carefully and remove the excess, if any accumulates?
I think we could.
Just a quick thought.
Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.
"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." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)
It's one of our most commonly used aquarium terms...and one which, well, quite frankly, sends shivers down the spine of many aquarium hobbyists. And judging from that definition, it sounds like something you absolutely want to avoid having in your system at all costs. I mean, "dead organisms" and "fecal material" is not everyone's idea of a good time, ya know?
Yet, when you really think about it, "detritus" is an important part of the aquatic ecosystem, providing "fuel" for microorganisms and fungi at the base of the food chain in tropical streams. In fact, in natural blackwater systems, the food inputs into the water are channeled by decomposers, like fungi, which act upon leaves and other organic materials in the water to break them down.
And the leaf litter "community" of fishes, insects, fungi, and microorganisms is really important to these systems, as it assimilates terrestrial material into the blackwater aquatic system, and acts to reduce the loss of nutrients to the forest which would inevitably occur if all the material which fell into the streams was washed downstream!
That sounds all well and good and grandiose, but what are the implications of these processes- and the resultant detritus- for the closed aquarium system?
Well first off, let's admit that the stuff just doesn't look that nice to most of us, and that's partially why the recommendation for a good part of the century or so we've kept aquariums is to siphon it the hell out! And that's good advice from an aesthetic standpoint- and for that matter, from a husbandry standpoint, as well. Excessive amounts of accumulating waste materials can lead to increased phosphate, nitrate, and other problems, including blooms of nuisance algae. Emphasis on the word "excessive" here...(which begs the question, "What is "excessive" in this context, anyways?)
Most hobbyists don't have the time, inclination, or optimized system set up to take advantage of a small accumulation of this stuff. However, with the importance of detritus in creating food webs in wild leaf litter communities, which we are now replicating in aquariums, could there actually be some benefit to allowing a little of this stuff to accumulate? Or at least, not "freaking out" and removing every single microgram of detritus as soon as it appears?
I think so. Really.
Is this another one of those long-held "aquarium truisms" that, for 90% of what we do is absolutely the correct way to manage our tanks, but which, for a small percentage of aquarists with the means, curiosity and inclination to experiment, could actually prove detrimental in some way?
Okay, I know that now a bunch of you are thinking, "This guy IS nuts. Letting detritus accumulate in an aquarium is bad news. A recipe for problems- or worse. And not only that, he has no idea of the implications of what he's suggesting."
Well, as far as the first part of your thought- Yeah, I could be a bit "crazy." On the other hand, I think I do have some idea of the implications of what I'm postulating here. First off, remember, I'm not suggesting that everyone throw away their siphons and just allow shit (literally!) to accumulate in their aquarium substrate in the interest of creating a "food web."
What I am curious about is if there is some benefit in a botanical, blackwater system, of encouraging a bit more fungal and microbial growth, utilizing, among other things, the organic detritus that inevitably is produced in a well-managed. well-populated aquarium. I mean, if you're doing water changes and removing uneaten food, dead fishes, aquatic plant leaves, etc., you're already significantly reducing the "food inputs" available to the organisms on the low end of the food chain, right? In a typical aquarium, well-maintained with regular water changes and removal of detritus, our fishes are almost 100% dependent upon us to provide food, right?
There's usually very little for them to forage on in most aquariums, other than the occasional algal film (assuming they're herbivorous) or particle of uneaten food. Creating militant, "near sterility" in our aquariums, which do at least superficially resemble true ecosystems, might actually be detrimental in some way, right? I mean, you're removing one component of a natural cycle and replacing it with a high-octane, "shotgun approach" substitute of just taking everything out.
Can it be said that this actually Creates, perhaps (?) an unnecessary "dependency" of sorts on this human intervention, right? At the very least, are we actually making the management of aquariums more challenging by sort of "fighting" nature, and simply not thinking this through all the way? Doesn't nature, if left to her own devices, tend to keep excesses of all sorts more-or-less in check?
I'm not suggesting to abandon all husbandry practices, of course. Just suggesting we think about the "hows and whys" just a bit more...perhaps with a different viewpoint.
So, perhaps- maybe- Is there just some merit in the idea of leaving a bit of detritus in the system- say, in the leaf litter bed, to help "fuel" the fungal and microorganism growth that forms the basis of our little ecosystems? I mean, think of some possible benefits to our aquariums. Having a more complete assortment of fungi and microorganisms could lead ultimately to a more stable, more efficient aquarium, right?
If you're not wiping out a percentage of the ecosystem's primary decomposers and food sources weekly with ultra-intense maintenance, wouldn't there perhaps be some advantages? And don't a lot of young fishes consume "infusoria" as a part of their initial diet? Wouldn't it make sense to have larger populations of some of these organisms available to our fishes at all times in the aquarium to supplement our artificial diets? Could the fry-rearing system of the future be a tank with a big bed of decomposing leaf litter and a terrestrial soil substrate?
At some future point, perhaps we will have more commonly available laboratory pure cultures of aquatic insects and crustaceans which help break down leaves, botanicals, and organic detritus into more manageable forms for the fungi and bacteria to further process. Perhaps the basis of a more complete "food chain" in our aquariums? The concept of a freshwater refugium once again rears its head! Seems like I talk about this every other week, huh? It's something we've toyed with in reef aquariums for some time now, and the benefits have been quite tangible.
In a similar, perhaps more relatable vein- here's a question: Why do we add fertilizers to grow aquatic plants? Is it because closed systems simply tend to be deficient in the substances plants use for growth, or that we tend to dilute/reduce them through some excess intervention...or? Okay, I Might be reaching with that one.... Here's a better question:
Why are very "rich" substrates (and "dirted tanks") proving to be so beneficial for many plants, yet we would never think of using soil, etc. as a substrate for aquariums that don't cater specifically to plants...or should we?
Is there some advantage to allowing our aquariums to harbor a greater diversity and population of life forms, in order to have a more complete "functional capability?" Is this the road to an out-of-control over-populated closed system? DO we dare experiment? Or, is it simply more advantageous to buy that new, high-powered canister filter that holds six liters of carbon, and create pristine, "drinking-water quality" conditions in the tank and call it a day?
Okay, my ignorance is undoubtedly showing through, but I think these are interesting questions to ponder as we debate the merits of managing botanical systems just a bit differently, perhaps? I don't have the answers, but there is some benefit in asking the questions, right? Would love for some of our fans who are trained biologists or chemists to chew on this stuff a bit more. In context, I think there is as much to be learned by simply pondering the questions as there might be by changing our practices and methods.
As usual, my little rambling discussion leads to more questions than answers. However, some of these questions- which address some of the most fundamental, long-held beliefs and practices in aquarium-keeping, might help us make not only more "mental shifts", but true breakthroughs as we rediscovery the utility of the elegant, yet "complex simplicity" that nature has engineered over the eons.
Embracing- not fighting- nature in a more complete sense just might be "the next big breakthrough" in aquarium keeping.
Ask those questions. Look for those answers. Dare to question. Conduct those experiments.
Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay persistent. Stay confident.
And Stay Wet.
It seems that everywhere we turn, there is a growing interest in adding "twigs and nuts" to our aquariums, with more and more aquarists considering (and actually creating!) a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium. This idea, formerly a sort of "side show" novelty, is rapidly moving into the mainstream of aquarium technique, and lots of interesting developments are happening.
This is really cool!
Of course, whenever you see something becoming an emerging "trend" (Gulp! I HATE that word when used in the context of an aquarium topic!), you will see hobbyists making incorrect assumptions, having general misconceptions, and occasionally, unintentionally spreading wrong information about stuff. It's often a function of the fact that some of this stuff has been either misunderstood or under-appreciated for some long that we've simply not really considered the dynamics involved in this context.
Totally understandable, really.
And of course, being one of the leading proponents (and arguably, one of the more visible ones!) of this type of aquarium keeping, we have an obligation to the hobby community to provide correct information and clarification whenever possible, and to advise when we think something that's bandied about might be incorrect. One of the best ways to "keep it real" and address this kind of stuff is simply to tell it like it is!
Here are a few topics that we've seen discussed recently which, in our opinion, need to be clarified and thought through a bit before making conclusions. Obviously there are many more topics, and we could probably write a column on each one of these!
Yet, here's a start; the beginning of a dialogue which might provide some clarity on some important aspects of the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium:
1) Botanicals cannot soften hard water. This is one of the more persistent misconceptions floating around. It started decades ago, with hobbyists thinking that leaves could do it, and it's continued right up until the present. Now, it's thought that materials such as peat moss act to some extent as a sort of "ion exchange resin, removing some minerals from the water and replacing them with humic acids, and perhaps this is where the idea that "all botanicals" can influence water chemistry accordingly arises. Botanical items (leaves, wood, seed pods, cones, etc.) do contain tannins and humic substances, and if used in sufficient quantities, can certainly lower the pH somewhat in water which is low in carbonate hardness.
However, these botanicals themselves simply cannot measurably lower the hardness of your water. That needs to be accomplished by a process ion exchange (such as reverse osmosis/deionization). If you start with hard, alkaline source water (which contains lots of dissolved minerals), the botanicals will essentially do nothing to remove them. Soft water is water that contains low levels of dissolved minerals, and as such, has lower ability to absorb acid substances, which will accumulate and lower the pH. That's why the effectiveness of botanicals in lowering pH can be significant in soft water.
2) Don't let the tint fool you. Remember, the visual color change imparted to the water via the aforementioned tannins is not an indication that you have soft, acidic water. In the absence of chemical filtration media such as activated carbon, which remove coloring agents from the water, the tint will be most evident as these materials enter the water. However, don't forget that you can still have very hard, alkaline water and have some color. Just look at your municipality's annual water report...they actually mention visual tint" in their assays. So I guess one could call tint a "vanity metric" (to steal a marketing term) in that it's really an observation of cosmetic appearance versus a manifestation of functionality.
3) There is no "recipe" for how many botanical materials will accomplish a given affect within your aquarium water. Yep, we've mentioned this dozens of times, and it warrants repeating. Although we can make crude estimates based on personal experiences with regard to how many leaves (for example) it took to lower our pH from ___ to ___ in water with little to no general hardness, it's both unrealistic and misleading for anyone to suggest specific numbers of various botanicals can give you a specific effect.
If for no other reason than the fact there are countless variables in everyone's aquarium and water, and that the botanicals themselves, being natural materials, may have varying levels of pH-affecting tannins and such in a given sized leaf (as one example), we just can't quantify this. You need to start off with what seems to be a reasonable number of materials and test your water regularly to determine the impact on your aquarium. All changes need to be done slowly and carefully.
4) The creation of food webs is interesting, but is not spontaneous or even a "given" when utilizing botanical materials in your tank. Sure, we spend a lot of time talking about the concept of creating a system which facilitates the growth of significant quantities of organisms (such as microorganisms, fungi, small crustaceans, worms, and aquatic insects), but the reality is that just throwing in leaves and seed pods isn't the whole story. Sure, as they decompose, they'll fuel some microbial growth, and generate biofilms and fungi. However, you'd likely need to "inoculate" your system with small crustaceans like Daphnia, Cyclops, Gammarus, etc. in order to have more complex and diverse food sources available to your fishes. And you'd need to do this prior to adding fishes (which will consume them rapidly!), or in the confines of a separate "refugium" installed solely for the purpose of cultivating these life forms.
5) Botanicals will not give your aquarium a permanent, stable hardscape! Nope, by their very nature, these materials begin to break down as soon as they hit the water, so the "clock is ticking" as they say! Now, some materials (the more durable seed pods, etc.) will last longer than say, leaves, which break down in a matter of weeks. However, the vast majority of botanicals all begin to decompose and physically change appearance over time. And this is a cool thing, really...this is exactly what happens in nature. These materials create what could best be referred to as an "ephemeral" hardscape. One which might well be anchored by permanent pieces like rocks and driftwood, but is accented by the changing condition of the botanicals.
We like to refer to this as an "evolving" aquascape, and I think that's pretty accurate. And it reflects both the charm and attraction of the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium. Unlike many "traditional" aquascaping approaches, a significant part of the appearance of the tank is driven almost solely by nature, and as such, will change as materials break down, are moved about, and/or covered with biofilms and algae. This is exactly what happens in the wild, and is why we say that operating this type of aquarium requires a distinct "mental shift!" Now, you can of course, keep your aquascape looking pretty close to the way it started out if you regularly remove, clean, or replace the botanicals. However, this level of "intervention" may not appeal to everyone!
6) Botanical-style aquariums are not set and forget systems. Look, you're talking about a tank with (typically) soft, acidic water, a fish population, and a large quantity of materials which are breaking down. This number of variables requires regular observation and management on the part of you, the aquarist. Now, I personally have never had a "crash", or seen rapidly rising nitrate levels in an actively managed blackwater, botanical-style aquarium, but the reality is that you're going to have to get your hands wet.
Over time, these tanks seem to reach a sort of "equilibrium", where you won't see significant parameter swings or changes. The bacterial population adjusts to the amount of materials in the tank, provided you don't continuously add stuff or make sudden, abrupt changes in procedure. However, like in any system, this is largely because of the work of the aquarist to keep things humming along. These tanks are no more inherently unstable or "dangerous" (something we've heard in the past about blackwater/botanical-style tanks) than any other system. You just need to understand the dynamic, accept the limitations of a given tank, and to not expect to simply "sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight" as they say. Stay consistent, involved, observant, and above all, patient, and you'll be just fine.
Sure, I could probably go on and on and cover all sorts of different, rather arcane topics within this context, but I think we've addressed the most important and common ones. And hopefully, this provides a contextual framework for you to explore and discuss more about the design, construction, and management of botanical-style blackwater aquariums.
It's an exciting, evolving are of the hobby, breaking out of the shadows of misconception and obscurity. This takes time. It takes patience. It takes understanding...and lots of sharing of information.
Yeah, we really need to talk!
Are you up for it?
Stay involved. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay diligent.
And Stay Wet.