A slice of the bottom? Or a figment of our imagination?

I'm not much of an aquascaper, in the "classic" sense.

Like, you could give me a piece of wood and some rocks, and maybe I'll stumble onto something. However, I'll never be able to crank out those artistic, intricate aquascapes the you see on The 'Gram and elsewhere. Nope. Not me. What I tend to do is research wild habitats of my fishes, figure out what makes 'em tick, and then try to replicate the function and form of them in my tanks.

The results are often "unorthodox" in appearance.


Other times, they're a bit more interesting...

Occasionally, even rather attractive.

However, the result was achieved because I attempted to replicate what I saw in the natural habitat which I'm trying to represent. And usually, it's about the "details" I see in the habitat. Trying to recreate the details which fishes seem to be drawn to almost always results in something interesting- and attractive!

There is something enticing, stimulating, and challenging about recreating a literal slice of the bottom, isn't there? Asking yourself why these habitats form, what contributes to the way that they look, and how they support aquatic life forms unlocks a tremendous amount of information that you can use in your work.

Looking at wild aquatic habitats in this fashion provides tremendous inspiration, especially when you look at the "macro view" and isolate some of the details, like how wood falls, how  substrate and leaves accumulate, and where fishes seem to aggregate, in context.

Despite my "aesthetic challenges", I've always taken comfort in the fact that my wood arrangements almost always seem to look better once they're submerged and become part of a whole habitat. In fact, I don't think I've ever owned an aquarium where the wood scape looked "amazing" before it was submerged.

And that has never really bothered me. I don't get all hung up on creating the perfect "wood stack."

I'm far less into "aquascaping" in the traditional sense than I am in representing functional aspects of various natural habitats. And I think it's served me very well. As I've mentioned so often, the "look" of the botanical-style, natural aquarium always seems to come as a result of the function.

What typically happens is that the "lame" wood arrangement that I'll create recruits biofilms, softens up a bit over time. Perhaps, I'll gradually add a few pieces to it, and over time, it becomes something far more interesting and attractive than originally configured. 

However, the "editing" is based upon how the wild habitat that I'm trying to replicate evolves and functions. In many wild habitats, materials aggregate over time. This is interesting. It opens up the possibility of "evolving" your aquarium's appearance over time, as a result of replicating the function.

Have you thought much about how "clogged" with materials some of the natural habitats we intend to imitate in our tanks actually are?

More than you think.

It's kind of interesting to consider, and I've done a little "field work" over the years, as well as some "internet safaris", exploring some of the interesting habitats where our fishes come from, and I've frequently been surprised just how much "stuff" is in the water.

And of course, there is a strange "disconnect" with our hobby tinterpretation of Nature, and what is really out there.  It makes me think about our aquascapes, and how we are seemingly always concerned about having the "appropriate" amount of "negative space"- at least from an artistic perspective.

I mean, from an aquascaping point of view, I suppose that's quite understandable. And, I would imagine that there is a sort of a perception in the hobby that having an aquarium that's not densely-packed with materials is somehow more sustainable, healthier, etc. from a practical management standpoint.

Like, it's easier to maintain an aquarium that's more "open."

Or, is it?

Sure, you can easily get a siphon hose into a more open tank. You can keep detritus in suspension where it can be removed more easily-if that's your thing, of course.

You know my thoughts on "detritus..."

On the other hand, if you've made that "mental shift" to accepting a more natural-looking- and functioning aquarium, the amount of material you have in the tank makes little difference. You simply adjust your husbandry practices and stocking  to accommodate the physical "configuration" of the aquarium and go about your business!

Educating yourself about the realities of natural habitats, rather than strictly modeling our aquariums after other aquariums, can open you up to numerous examples of how these environments foster numerous life forms successfully.

When you take into account the materials that accumulate in smaller streams, igarapes, flooded meadows, and swamps- you know, the habitats we love around here- a surprisingly large amount of botanical materials, ranging from tree branches/trunks to leaves and such, accumulates and takes up a lot of physical space in the aquatic habitat.


Not only do these materials take up water volume and physical space- they serve to direct flow, create other hydrodynamic features, etc. More important, they also accumulate/sequester nutrients and food sources for the organisms which reside in these habitats.

In the aquarium, a larger volume of say, driftwood, rocks, and botanicals will not only impart the oft-mentioned "chemical" affects into the water, they will similarly channel flow, create territories, and offer areas of visual interest. Functional aesthetics.

Well-managed aquariums which are densely-packed with wood and botanical materials can create surprisingly dynamic, ever-evolving displays.


This is perfectly analogous to the seasonal evolutions of underwater landscapes in Nature, as waters recede after the rainy season, leaving a more densely-packed assemblage of materials in a given area.

To get a better perspective on this, look at the rain forest floor in tropical regions, such as Amazonia. After all, this is what is left during the dry season, and gives you some idea of the eventual "topography" of the underwater landscape when the rains return. 

Rain performs the dual function of diluting organics, while transporting more nutrient and materials across the ecosystem. What happens in many of the regions of Amazonia, for example- is the evolution of our most compelling environmental niches. The water levels in the rivers rise significantly. often several meters, and the once dry forest floor fills with water from the torrential rain and overflowing rivers and streams.

The Igapos are formed. 

Flooded forest floors. Yeah, I talk about this habitat incessantly. I'm obsessed by it.

The formerly terrestrial environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and spawning areas.

It's not just the igapo that receive regular "deliveries" of terrestrial materials!

Many bodies of water which meander through jungles and rain forests are constantly being "restocked" with leaves, seed pods, branches, and other botanical materials from the surrounding vegetation- some of which are knocked into the water by weather, wind, animal activity, etc. Depending upon the velocity of the water, its depth, etc., they may aggregate right where they fall, or be gradually re-distributed downstream by the current.

I can't tell you how amazing this type of habitat is to replicate in the aquarium! It challenges our aesthetic tastes, our skills at managing closed systems, and our ability to understand the benefits of having all of this stuff present in our tanks.

Now, I'm not telling you that you should fill your tanks to the rim with wood, seed pods, leaves, and rocks (although it sounds like a cool idea, doesn't it? LOL). I AM suggesting that you look into the physical structure of these habitats, and consider interesting functionally aesthetic impacts that  you can create with a more "dense" scape. Attempt to understand the function and benefits to your fishes created by such a configuration. 


We've already touched on some of the benefits above; analogous to those found in the natural habitats they attempt to represent, and this is increasingly obvious to all of us who play with botanical-style aquariums.

Now, the one of the immediate "downsides" most hobbyists who are unfamiliar with our practices and philosophies on aquarium management will jump on is, "Hey, more 'stuff' in the water means...less water volume...you can't have as many fishes in your tank."Absolutely. Sure. On the other hand, lower population densities of fishes could actually serve to create a more visually engaging display!

Not only will there be functional and environmental benefits as a result of lower fish populations- you'll probably find some aesthetic ones, as well. And the ability to study "niche" fishes and their habitat preferences is pretty damn interesting, IMHO!

And a rather densely-packed tank isn't exactly a new concept in the aquarium hobby.

I remember back in the 1980's through the early 2000's, in the earlier days of the modern reef aquarium craze, we were obsessed with the concept of "live rock" as a "filter medium", and the prevailing wisdom was that you needed "x" amount of rock per given volume of water in a reef tank...

And it was quite a bit...Of course, the best way to achieve this "recommended quantity" was to create a literal "wall of rock", something that I have railed on personally for years in my writings and presentations.

It looked pretty crazy. However, it defined he aesthetics of the reef aquarium for a generation of hobbyists. And it did work, despite some limitations unique to the reef side of the hobby (ie; flow and ability to access, etc.)

So, yeah, I'd be a bit hypocritical if I was  suggesting a "wall of botanicals" and such; however, I think it would be interesting to play with higher densities of wood and botanicals in some displays. To encourage areas of interest. Yes, fascinating details which encourage the observer to really study the aquarium in a more focused way.

Nature offers the model:

In Nature, all of the botanical material- fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such create the biological "operating system" for the aquatic environment.  Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to multiply, feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans reproduce rapidly.  Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..new areas to spawn.

Life flourishes.

Fishes and other aquatic organisms are able to make use of all of the physical materials deposited into their environment.

It works.

Let's get back to the "practical" aspects again, vis a vis our aquairums.

There are some keys to maintaining aquarium filled with materials like decomposing leaves and botanicals. We know this by now; it's become part of our "best practices..." You definitely need to do regular maintenance. You don't want to overstock...I mean, common sense stuff. However, in a tank filled with considerable organic material, "slight overstocking" and poor general husbandry can be problematic. 

It's about husbandry and perspective...

And it's about accepting the fact that the leaves and other natural materials are part of the ecology of the tank, and that they will behave as terrestrial materials do when submerged:

They'll break down and decompose. They'll form the basis of a surpassingly complex food chain, which includes bacterial biofilms, fungi, and minute crustaceans. Each one of these life forms supporting, to some extent, those above...including our fishes.


When you think of the botanical materials not so much as "hardscape props", but as dynamic biological components of a closed microcosm, it all makes a bit more sense. And the more material that is present in the system, the greater the "fuel" available for microbial growth to "power" the system.

And when we add/remove/supplement more leaves and botanicals, and allow others to fully break down in our tanks, we are perfectly replicating the natural processes which occur in streams and rivers around the world. 

Think about the materials which accumulate in natural aquatic habitats, and how they actually end up in them, and it makes you think about this in a very different context. A more "holistic" context that can make your experience that much more rewarding. Botanicals should be viewed as "consumables" in our hobby- much like activated carbon, filter pads, etc.- they simply don't last indefinitely.

And the biofilms and algal growths which appear on our leaves and botanicals-just as they do in the wild habitats we mimic- provide not only a degree of "biological functionality" for our systems, but an evolving aesthetic as well.

Embrace these things- don't fear them.

Understand that the real "designer" of our botanical-style aquaecapes is Mother Nature herself.

We just set the stage.

So- set the stage, and enjoy the random, compelling, and ever-evolving work of art that is the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium. Started by you. Evolved with the steady hand of Nature.

Look, I adore minimalist stuff...abosolutely. However, I'd think it would be interesting (and entirely authentic to Nature) to play with a more complex, "heavy-handed" scape once in a while. Not just for their interesting aesthetics, mind you.


Where it gets really interesting is in a larger aquarium, with a population of smaller fishes dwelling in such a 'scape. For example, imagine the allure of a tank, heavily "choked" with thin wood branches, some larger seed pods, bark, and leaves.

By selecting smaller fishes like Tetras, Apsitos, Boraras, Guaramis, Badis, Corydoras, etc., you could maximize the impact by having a fairly high number of fishes in an aquascape that offers a lot less open area, encouraging the fishes to engage in more natural behaviors, like swimming through, and foraging among the dense wood and botanical areas.

If you stock with fishes like Elachocharax, for example- that are known to inhabit more densely packed areas of streams and such, or very specific areas like leaf litter zones, you can create a very unique and engaging display in which the fishes won't be immediately evident to the observer.

As with the "jungle" planted tanks I adore so much, the densely stocked botanical-style aquarium encourages the observer to take the time to "linger" and "discover" the fishes flitting in and out of the hardscape...

Like in any botanical aquarium, a more densely-packed one will require thoughtful, but not excessive maintenance. You'll simply need to feed carefully, stock thoughtfully, and adhere to the typical tenants of aquarium keeping. There is very little that is actually more difficult to manage about this type of tank than any other, when you understand its dynamics.

And a more densely packed one will find its way, like any other natural, botanical-style aquarium, developing over time into an intriguing, engaging display that will become a constantly-evolving, highly engaging, and oddly refreshing aquarium.

The appeal of this interesting aesthetic, and the practical benefits may or may not be immediately obvious to you. However, I encourage you to consider an aquatic habitat such as this as a subject for your next project.

The good news is that, if you find that you aesthetically prefer a more "open" scape, you can simply remove wood, botanicals, etc., until you hit the aesthetic that appeals to you.

And even that, in itself is not unlike the natural processes of current, tidal movements, etc. which "re-arrange" the natural ecosystems all the time!

In the end, turning once again to the incredible, almost infinite "portfolio" of inspiration which Nature provides seems to always provide will steer you in the right direction. If you look at enough natural aquatic systems, you'll no doubt be struck by some habitat that speaks to you, motivates you to replicate it in some way...and to share your work with others.

With the precious natural environments subject to so many dangerous external forces and perils, perhaps one of the most significant steps we can take to help preserve them is to help others appreciate them by modeling an aquarium after them.

And that may mean embracing more unorthodox aesthetics.

Look at, and consider exactly what it is that makes these wild habitats so successful. You will likely find that so much of what makes these ecosystems operate so successfully starts with the bottom!

Yeah, that means the substrate, and the accompanying "topography" of the benthic habitat.

Stream and river bottom composition is affected by things like regional weather, current, geology, the surrounding dry lands, and a host of other factors- all of which could make planning your next aquarium even more interesting if you take them into consideration!

We've touched on these in some recent posts, and we'll definitely dive deeper in upcoming blogs. There's more to this habitat than just the accumulation of leaves and such.

It's pretty interesting...

If we focus on shallow tributaries of streams and flooded forest floors, it's important to note that the volume of water entering the stream helps, in part, to determine the amount and size of sediment particles, leaves, beaches, seed pods, and the like that can be carried along, and thus comprise the substrate and it's contours.

The mixing of materials not only looks interesting- it's a reflection of the diversity and vibrancy of the underwater environment.

One of the things you notice in the images above of natural underwater substrates is that they're usually anything but squeaky-clean, ultra-white sand. Rather, they're often sediment-filled, covered with stringy fungal growths, biofilms, and even a spot or two of algae. There is a fair amount of detritus accumulating in the substrate materials. And, as you know, detritus is not the enemy that we've made it out to be. Rather, it's a source of food for many aquatic animals, helping to literally "power" the ecosystem in which they are present.

This is something we can-and should- absolutely replicate in our aquariums. Don't be afraid of sediments and even detritus accumulating on top of your leaves and botanicals...it's exactly what you see in Nature, and our fishes are ecologically adapted to such habitats.

In Nature, the composition of bottom materials and the depth of the channel are always changing in response to the flow in a given stream, affecting the composition and ecology in many ways. Some of these changes are actually the result of the fishes "working them."

 In the words of our friend, author Mike Tuccinardi:

"One of the things that is most striking when you spend time below the water’s surface in this sort of environment is that the fish aren’t just passive inhabitants—they’re actively involved with their habitat, interacting in a very particular way. Apistogramma species aren’t just hanging out, they’re fighting turf wars among piles of dense leaf litter, even making their own piles by moving leaves and other bits of detritus to the center of their territories.

Suckermouth catfish, whether Farlowella or Ancistrus, are actively exploring recently-submerged branches and roots, looking for a rich patch of biofilm or algae to feast on. Eartheaters and many other species of cichlids—even Severums, Angelfish, and Discus—are patrolling the bottom, taking big mouthfuls of sand and organic material to sift out any tasty morsels. It’s a big, organic mess, literally made up of various botanicals and these fish are having a field day in it."

These dynamic habitats are not difficult to replicate in the aquarium. We need to understand that they play a functional and aesthetic role in the overall aquarium, as we've touched on many times here. Realizing that placing leaves and botanical materials on the bottom of the aquarium is not simply making an aesthetic statement.

Rather, it's an homage to the function of the dynamic habitats we love so much. Yet, there is plenty of room for creativity, of course.

The natural beauty of recreating these "slices of the bottom" in our aquariums, embracing function over simple aesthetics, may just motivate aquarists and non-aquarists alike to take a greater interest in helping preserve and protect these precious natural ecosystems.

And that's the biggest "win" of all! 

Remember, replicating natural aquatic habitats in form and function is really not a "style" or trend in the aquarium world.

Nature isn't exactly a "fad" or trend-follower, right? She's been doing this stuff for eons. We're just sort of "catching up"- and beginning to study, contemplate, and appreciate what happens when form meets function in the aquarium.

It just happens to look kind of cool.

And that's pretty exciting, isn't it?

I think that it is.

Stay engaged. Stay curious. Stay dedicated. Stay observant. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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