The Natural Aquarium

GaryE

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The natural aquarium doesn't exist. Indoors, unless you have enormous space and lots of money, it can't happen. It's an idea that fell away in the 1970s, and is making a comeback because we want to believe in things that are convenient to us. Say what we want to hear, and we'll buy it.

The version from 50 years ago said you could balance wastes from fish with the needs of plants. Many aquarists spent years trying to achieve that balance. We learned there were problems.

Now, if you've made it this far, you can smell a rant on the wind. Have a look, if you will...

Aquarists like to have lots of fish. Pass one 2 inch fish per 10 gallons in a no water change system, and it's game over. A 55 gallon with half a dozen killies, tetras or other small fish will hold in pretty well with just top offs. You'll not see fish often, but you will see plants. However, the plants will deplete the minerals in the water, and bottles of ferts aren't natural.

The bread and butter fish of the hobby are the tough guys. They can take abuse. Most of the fish modern youtubers are looking back to have a secret life. It revolves around rain.

During the dry periods of the year, small rivers, streams and creeks stop flowing and become chains of slowly evaporating ponds. Fish become very concentrated in very poor conditions, and if they hadn't evolved mechanisms to hang on until rains bring better times, they would be extinct. The lazy or wishful aquarist plays on this. My tanks in the balanced aquarium era were like this. The fish did stay alive, waiting for me to bring the monsoon type water changes so they could breed and feed in the good times. Regretfully, I had bought into a wishful myth, and those fish never got their break.
I thought 2 or 3 year old cardinals were a success. Now I know that 7 to 9 years of life is an easily achievable goal for them.

A lot of the more difficult fish are not difficult. They come from habitats that don't dry up, and need year round high quality living conditions. That to me is fair enough. They deserve that. But in the no water change, balanced aquarium era, we looked at those fish as disease magnets, or impossible fish to keep. Some even said it wasn't ethical to try to keep them. It wasn't ethical, if we tried to keep them in our sluggish, polluted tanks (but the water was clear!). They've proven to be easy to keep if we put our minds to it, in the water change era.

I never test my water for the nitrogen cycle. It's important, but because I change 30% plus every week in community tanks, I know what's happening. I have plants in all my tanks, rooted in the substrate, floating, or on the tank. This means if I catch a cold, have a lot of extra work to do or travel, my tanks can go 2, and sometimes 3 weeks with no changes, as long as I get back the routine right away once the busy time has passed. In my soft tapwater, those plants do nothing to help with oodinium velvet parasites, which thrive in unchanged water. Many aquarists don't even know about these tiny killers - a major issue widely talked about 40 or 50 years ago. Every pet store back then had shelves of velvet treatments, as well as cures for fin rot and body fungus. We struggled with those things. Why don't modern aquarists know about them? The recent hobby, with its water changing habits, largely took care of them.

We've recently gone through the test kit goggles era, where every issue, including obvious diseases, seemed explained by a test kit. I think the pendulum has swung away from that. We're getting back to the inconvenient observation of fish, with all the questions it raises, combined with test kits and hopefully, a growing understanding of water. If we go to the other extreme, and resurrect the balanced aquarium myths, we haven't moved forward. Progress doesn't exist, and forward movement is a temporary thing, it seems. The mistaken practices of the past always come back around. Let's not welcome them simply because they're what we want to hear.

Man, I sincerely wish I could enjoy my hobby without water changes. A dog that never had to pee when I was busy, and vegetable that grow in the snow would also be nice.
 
You need Father Fish. YouTube him, and it will solve your dilemma. Just pack your tanks full of dirt and let nature take its course LOL. The time you save on water changes can be spent on your wife or exercise etc.
 
Father Fish is a key part of the problem to me. There is a lot of magical thinking in the balanced aquarium myths. We do like our gurus in this hobby.
 
The natural aquarium doesn't exist. Indoors, unless you have enormous space and lots of money, it can't happen. It's an idea that fell away in the 1970s, and is making a comeback because we want to believe in things that are convenient to us. Say what we want to hear, and we'll buy it.

The version from 50 years ago said you could balance wastes from fish with the needs of plants. Many aquarists spent years trying to achieve that balance. We learned there were problems.

Now, if you've made it this far, you can smell a rant on the wind. Have a look, if you will...

Aquarists like to have lots of fish. Pass one 2 inch fish per 10 gallons in a no water change system, and it's game over. A 55 gallon with half a dozen killies, tetras or other small fish will hold in pretty well with just top offs. You'll not see fish often, but you will see plants. However, the plants will deplete the minerals in the water, and bottles of ferts aren't natural.

The bread and butter fish of the hobby are the tough guys. They can take abuse. Most of the fish modern youtubers are looking back to have a secret life. It revolves around rain.

During the dry periods of the year, small rivers, streams and creeks stop flowing and become chains of slowly evaporating ponds. Fish become very concentrated in very poor conditions, and if they hadn't evolved mechanisms to hang on until rains bring better times, they would be extinct. The lazy or wishful aquarist plays on this. My tanks in the balanced aquarium era were like this. The fish did stay alive, waiting for me to bring the monsoon type water changes so they could breed and feed in the good times. Regretfully, I had bought into a wishful myth, and those fish never got their break.
I thought 2 or 3 year old cardinals were a success. Now I know that 7 to 9 years of life is an easily achievable goal for them.

A lot of the more difficult fish are not difficult. They come from habitats that don't dry up, and need year round high quality living conditions. That to me is fair enough. They deserve that. But in the no water change, balanced aquarium era, we looked at those fish as disease magnets, or impossible fish to keep. Some even said it wasn't ethical to try to keep them. It wasn't ethical, if we tried to keep them in our sluggish, polluted tanks (but the water was clear!). They've proven to be easy to keep if we put our minds to it, in the water change era.

I never test my water for the nitrogen cycle. It's important, but because I change 30% plus every week in community tanks, I know what's happening. I have plants in all my tanks, rooted in the substrate, floating, or on the tank. This means if I catch a cold, have a lot of extra work to do or travel, my tanks can go 2, and sometimes 3 weeks with no changes, as long as I get back the routine right away once the busy time has passed. In my soft tapwater, those plants do nothing to help with oodinium velvet parasites, which thrive in unchanged water. Many aquarists don't even know about these tiny killers - a major issue widely talked about 40 or 50 years ago. Every pet store back then had shelves of velvet treatments, as well as cures for fin rot and body fungus. We struggled with those things. Why don't modern aquarists know about them? The recent hobby, with its water changing habits, largely took care of them.

We've recently gone through the test kit goggles era, where every issue, including obvious diseases, seemed explained by a test kit. I think the pendulum has swung away from that. We're getting back to the inconvenient observation of fish, with all the questions it raises, combined with test kits and hopefully, a growing understanding of water. If we go to the other extreme, and resurrect the balanced aquarium myths, we haven't moved forward. Progress doesn't exist, and forward movement is a temporary thing, it seems. The mistaken practices of the past always come back around. Let's not welcome them simply because they're what we want to hear.

Man, I sincerely wish I could enjoy my hobby without water changes. A dog that never had to pee when I was busy, and vegetable that grow in the snow would also be nice.
Reminds me of biosphere 1 and 2 experiments outside of Tucson. Total failure.
 
Hello Gary. The subject of natural or "terraphyte" tanks is a personal favorite. The only drawback in bringing up this subject is, there just isn't enough time or room on a forum to talk about it. The "terraphyte" tank is out there. It requires no water changes, ever. It just takes a little planning and a commitment to maintaining it.

10
 
You need Father Fish. YouTube him, and it will solve your dilemma. Just pack your tanks full of dirt and let nature take its course LOL. The time you save on water changes can be spent on your wife or exercise etc.
No water changes isn't natural. Nature does constant massive water changes. Fresh water flows through rivers and streams into lakes and oceans.
 
Father Fish is a key part of the problem to me. There is a lot of magical thinking in the balanced aquarium myths. We do like our gurus in this hobby.
Some of the things he recommends are sensible enough. Heavily plants tanks, great! Light feeding, good idea. Deep substrate, ok I guess. But then adding it up to no water changes ruins the whole thing. It goes back to your OP. Our aquariums are only a superficial replica of nature. They are not natural and you cannot make them natural. Because nature is not an enclosed system and an aquarium is. That's not to say we can't give our fish a good quality of life. But that takes work. And water changes are a part of it.
 
I'm sure there are fish that spend their lives in one puddle, with no water exchange... I think in the aquarium, or nature trades, they call these seasonal fish, because they only live for one season, or mated, lay eggs in the mud, or burry themselves in the mud, until fresh water comes... & I'm sure some fish overcome they're natural constraints, in aquariums... but I think I was reading on some Killi Fish, that they still only live for just a couple years in aquariums, even with proper water changes... it's how they evolved

I want my tanks to "look" natural, no purple gravel, & neon colored plants... but I understand, particularly with river fish, I can't change a "natural" amount of water, no matter how the tank was set up...

I know the direction this thread was taking, & 20 years ago, I had tanks with terrestrial plants rooted in the tanks, & tried for a while just replacing evaporation, with good success on some fish, species depending, and as listed above, probably with shorter lifespans, but my best results were doing at least enough water changes to draw several gallon jugs of vacuum from the gravel, that went to our regular house plants... it seems like having houseplants, & aquariums are perfect sister hobby's, as vacuum water does incredible things for regular houseplants... changing water is work, but when you can use it as a benefit, for another hobby, it makes it less painful...

& BTW... I'm not a fan of deep substrates... I've seen too many bacteria pockets in deep stagnant substrates long term... I am a fan of under gravel filters, if not using sand... but I don't like any substrate that is not on an under gravel filter plate, to be much over an inch deep...
 
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I'm sure there are fish that spend their lives in one puddle, with no water exchange... I think in the aquarium, or nature trades, they call these seasonal fish, because they only live for one season, or mated, lay eggs in the mud, or burry themselves in the mud, until fresh water comes... & I'm sure some fish overcome they're natural constraints, in aquariums... but I think I was reading on some Killi Fish, that they still only live for just a couple years in aquariums, even with proper water changes... it's how they evolved

I want my tanks to "look" natural, no purple gravel, & neon colored plants... but I understand, particularly with river fish, I can't change a "natural" amount of water, no matter how the tank was set up...

I know the direction this thread was taking, & 20 years ago, I had tanks with terrestrial plants rooted in the tanks, & tried for a while just replacing evaporation, with good success on some fish, species depending, and as listed above, probably with shorter lifespans, but my best results were doing at least enough water changes to draw several gallon jugs of vacuum from the gravel, that went to our regular house plants... it seems like having houseplants, & aquariums are perfect sister hobby's, as vacuum water does incredible things for regular houseplants... changing water is work, but when you can use it as a benefit, for another hobby, it makes it less painful...
I have a housemate who recently started using my used tank water for her plants. She can't believe how much the plants are benefiting. I'm pondering doing one of those aquariums that has terrestrial plants growing out of it.
 
Hello. The idea sounds unnatural, I agree. But, if I might add something. It's unnatural to keep my pets indoors all the time, but if I didn't their quality of life wouldn't be as good. So naturally, I keep them indoors. I'm just saying if one uses natural means to filter the water, uses the natural abilities of the fish and uses a natural process, like thermodynamics to produce a specific kind of water, you can combine all these to develop an enclosed environment that requires no water changes.

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I don't particularly agree with the FF method. But he does create certain conditions for it. Heavily planted, deep substrates, light feeding. So I understand some of the thinking to it. What I really don't like to see is people who don't understand that and just tell people that they don't need to change water at all. As if someone who has 2 inches of gravel for substrate and plastic plants has the same conditions.
 
@sharkweek178 ... the only disadvantage ( & I'm sure something could be worked out ) is most easily putting terrestrial plants in an aquarium, "generally" means an open topped aquarium... I think I only have 1-2 tanks, out of close to a dozen, that do not have terrestrial plants growing out of the tank... & I have one tank that is covered, yet has terrestrial plants... by running a piece of plate glass over the whole tank, except about 2 inches in the back, ( enough space for a pair of Tidal 75's, & 2 hang on pots... ) allows me to have a covered tank with terrestrial plants... I feed through the filter openings
 
@sharkweek178 ... the only disadvantage ( & I'm sure something could be worked out ) is most easily putting terrestrial plants in an aquarium, "generally" means an open topped aquarium... I think I only have 1-2 tanks, out of close to a dozen, that do not have terrestrial plants growing out of the tank... & I have one tank that is covered, yet has terrestrial plants... by running a piece of plate glass over the whole tank, except about 2 inches in the back, ( enough space for a pair of Tidal 75's, & 2 hang on pots... ) allows me to have a covered tank with terrestrial plants... I feed through the filter openings
I use the Aqueon glass lids. They have a strip of vinyl along the back that you can cut to make room for filters and other equipment. I've seen holders for sale specifically for the purpose of growing plants from an aquarium. It would just be a matter of just making another cut in the vinyl.
 
I think the recurring natural-tank movement comes from simple laziness, on the one hand, and a reaction against uptight, heavily-controlled, ultra-high-tech Iwagumi setups on the other. Some see "natural" as synonymous with "maintenance-free." There is no such thing. But many of us long for simplicity and a connection to nature in this hobby, and that is attainable. Perhaps the key word is "connection." We have to connect with our environments, not set them up and then ignore them.

I always appreciate how @GaryE advocates for both appropriate tank maintenance and a controlled work level that keeps it enjoyable.

To me, a "natural tank" is one in which the plants and substrate do the filtering, fish food and poo are the only fertilizers, and the physical and chemical conditions approach the fish's natural environment as closely as practical. That means I have to provide some of the things that nature provides: An ongoing supply of fresh water, food, water movement, and light. The last could be provided naturally by setting my tank by a window, but the others I have to do myself. There's just no way around that.
 
The fish that live in puddles... I have an Aphyosemion killie that I caught in a maybe 30 inch by 18 inch puddle that was under a foot deep.That was the habitat for about 40 fish of varying ages. But there was a waterfall a few meters away, and the puddle probably turned over all its water every 30 minutes or so. It was nature's water change system.

Annual killies are caught in puddles as they dry up. But the puddles, after the rains, often cover acres of land and are waist deep. That's when they're hatched, as the puddles fill. I always thought annual fish lived in the puddles, til I started seeing photos from collectors.

I have covers on all my tanks that get any sunlight, except my paludarium. The plants sit on top, the roots enter the water, and some go into the substrate. It's a really old trick, and a great supplement to water changes and filtration. A supplement. I use peace lilies the most, but vining pothos, snake plants (excellent with roots in box filters), 'Chinese' evergreen, and others work well. It's fun.

We found puddles in Africa last summer. Almost none had fish, but there were cool bugs. We found one, a round muddy pond about 5 metres across. We caught three Epiplatys singa killies in it. All had most of their fins eaten off my white cottony fungus. That filthy pond was a deathpit. The day we left, it started raining on our plane as it stopped in Cameroon, a few hundred km north, and you could see the seasonal rains and water changes were on their way. I hope some of the fish trapped there survived the 3 or 4 days before nature sent help.

The streams and creeks were fast moving, constant turnover bodies. So, if a natural aquarium worked, would it be natural? In Gabon, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, the southern US and Canada, I have never encountered large numbers of fish in water that wasn't moving, either with lake currents, or in directional flow streams etc. I wonder if the very idea of the closed system aquarium is based on nature at any level?
 

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