A marriage of convenience?

One of the great developments in the botanical-style aquarium world has been the awareness that everyone's work has brought to tangential areas of interest, like the ecology of wild habitats where our fishes come from. 

The idea of biotope aquariums is well-covered territory in the hobby. I really don't need to discuss the whole concept with you. However, the idea of 'biotope" or "biotope-inspired" aquariums should be, in my humble opinion, more than just trying to capture the look of a habitat. IMHO, the very finest biotope-inspired systems foster the function as much as the aesthetics.

And, when we approach recreating some of these habitats from a "function forward" approach, as opposed to just trying to recreate the look, not only do you create interesting "operational parameters", you get many unusual benefits as well- some of which are analogous to those which the natural environment offers to the organisms which reside there. And of course, the aesthetics often look substantially different than what you get when you just go "diorama mode."

We have discussed many aspects of these unique habitats and how we as aquarists can replicate aspects of them to create unique and highly functional aquariums for the fishes that we keep.

SPOILER ALERT: You can have a great looking, almost "artistic" aquascape and still embrace and mimic natural functions.

Yeah, we've talked a lot about them, and we've seen many of you go on to successfully recreate some of them. And they are as beautiful as they are functional. And the "functional" aspect is, in my opinion, as compelling- if not, even more so- than the mere sexy aesthetics of these habitats. Just thinking about the dynamics, fish adaptations, and components of these systems can really get your creative juices flowing!

I suppose that we can look at the use of botanicals in our aquariums from two approaches, really:

*Purely aesthetic

*Purely functional

That sounds right; however, I think that the two go hand in hand.

A "marriage of convenience", if you will.


In the case of botanicals, you can't ever lose sight of the fact that you're adding a piece of natural material into your closed ecosystem. These materials WILL impact water chemistry, biological activity...oh, and the "structure" of your aquascape.

I have coined (well, I like to arrogantly THINK that I coined it-perhaps I simply appropriated it from somewhere; not certain...) the term "functional aesthetics" to describe this dichotomy. That is: This stuff gives your tank a certain look (in terms of visual "hardscape" and the color it imparts to the water), while impacting the TDS, pH, etc.

And this idea is not really new, in terms of tangible affects of adding "stuff" to our tanks. I mean, every time we add a piece of wood to our aquarium, there is some leaching of tannins and other compounds into the water. Lovers of "crystal-clear, blue-white water" may do everything in their power to neutralize the impact immediately via activated carbon or other chemical filtration media, but the fact is, there is an impact caused by these materials.

We're seeing more and more hobbyists embrace this concept\, and I think it's doing more than just making a statement or inspiring others. It's helping to open up minds, opinions, and call some attention to the unique wild habitats of our aquarium fishes- some of which face grave threats from man's interventions. This is perhaps the ultimate benefit of embracing the idea of more naturally-functioning and appearing aquariums- "biotope" and otherwise.

Rather than inspiring hobbyists to simply mimic other people's tanks, they help call attention to the natural habitats themselves, and encourage aquarists to find out more about them; how they work, what is happening in them, etc. And if that encourages some people to set up a botanical-style aquarium-despite their initial "aversion" to the "unconventional" aesthetic- it's a victory not only for the hobby- but for Nature as well.

The idea of "function first" aquariums, with the cool aesthetics as a great "dividend"of this approach, is, in my opinion, a fundamental shift in aquarium keeping.

And when you drill down on it, what exactly is the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right?

Exactly...so when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come?

Well first off...unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- most fishes like structure. Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.

Yet, the structure that we are talking about is not just rocks and wood, in the context of aquariums. It can be plants, wood, rocks, or botanicals.

Think about how fishes behave  in Nature.

For one thing, they tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", right?

Another interesting phenomenon that any fisherman will tell you is that fishes also like to gather under trees. Not only do trees provide a respite from the bright light, they provide an opportunity to grab a meal of insects, fruit, and other materials which might fall from the trees throughout the day. By providing both food and shelter, the overhanging trees provide an interesting place for fishes to hang out.

And of course, what comes from trees? Botanical materials, branches, etc. As these materials fall from the trees, they become apart of the aquatic environment, imparting not only nutrients, tannins, and lignin to the environment, they act as a "substrate" for the growth of fungal threads, biofilms, etc.

And what about how these materials are oriented in the water after they fall? For example, when a tree branch falls into the water, gravity, current, wind, etc influence how it lays on the bottom of the stream. Often times, in shallow streams, the branch extends partially out of the water...kind of like what we do in 'scaping, right? Yet, somehow less "contrived."

When you embrace a sort of "function first" approach 'scaping your tank, it becomes way easier to accept the unique looks! Maybe we don't need to "stress out" so much in our placement of wood and other "hardscape" materials in the aquarium, striving for some "artistic" interpretation...maybe we'd achieve something altogether different- and cool-if we just sort of randomly "drop" the wood into the tank and go from there...maybe?

Could you handle that? 

And what ideas can we glean from tree roots, which often extend into the water of streams, or become submerged in the wet season? They attract tons of fishes in their virtual "maze" of projecting structures. These provide countless sights for fishes to hide, feed, spawn, etc. Just reproducing a small segment of a submerged "root tangle" as an aquarium subject could have thousands of possible configurations!

The interesting thing about tree roots, from an aquascaping perspective, is that we can very effectively simulate them in the aquarium with a number of the more commonly-available wood types.

By happenstance, these formerly terrestrial features become important and unique underwater microhabitats that fishes can exploit for food, protection, and spawning sites.

Roots and tree trunks form structures which foster the accumulation of fallen botanical materials, which gradually break down and continue to impact the underwater environment.

Facilitating these processes- allowing the materials to accumulate naturally and break down "in situ" is a key component of replicating and supporting these functional microhabitats in our aquariums. The typical aquarium hardscape- artistic and beautiful as it might be, generally replicates the most superficial aesthetic aspects of such habitats, and tends to overlook their function- and the reasons why such habitats form in the first place in Nature.

In an aquarium set up to take advantage of these materials and their function, the leaves and botanicals begin to soften and ultimately break down, they will foster microbial growth, biofilms, and fungal growths- all of which will provide supplemental foods for the resident fishes...just like what happens in Nature. 

The marriage of form and function is not just a thing that we take lightly here...It's literally the basis of the botanical-style aquarium concept. We embrace the ephemeral; the change which occurs in our aquarium environment over time. We facilitate the development of a dynamic, ecologically diverse habitat for our fishes.

It just happens to look cool, too!

Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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