Another place and time...

As I think about the next aquariums I'm going to create, I find myself most interested not so much in a specific locale, as I am a "time." In other words, the season. 

And all of the unique environmental dynamics and aesthetics which accompany it.

An aquarium which represents a time as much as it does a place. And evolves from there over an extended period of time.

When you think about it, this type of approach is quite interesting. Consider the differences in forest floors, grasslands, and even streams themselves at different times of the year. Varying water levels, chemical composition, temperatures, and even the types and quantities of terrestrial materials, plants, sediments, and rocks present will have a huge impact on the aquatic environment.

With such dynamic habitats to replicate in our aquarium, it seems to me that we should spend a lot more time exploring the way these habitats look and function at various times of the year. With influxes of terrestrial materials and pulses of water, there are a lot of variables in the environmental conditions from season to season, and the impact on the life forms which inhabit these niches is significant and interesting.

We should be recreating the conditions and the "function" of these habitats in our aquariums, to the best of our capabilities, as there is no doubt so much to learn from them.

Even the most basic variations in an aquarium habitat, such as the water level or temperature, are known to trigger reactions and behaviors such as spawning in many fishes. We've known this for some time, and breeders have done this sort of manipulation in controlled breeding tanks for generations. What are we not incorporating these changes- or at least, setting up aquariums to replicate various seasons- as a regular part of our hobby?

Well, some hobbyists are trying to capture the look, which they often do splendidly- but I wonder if they are actually attempting to recreate some of the dynamic conditions- the function- of these habitats- and managing them long-term in their aquariums. I hear very little of this, to be honest. And, with such a growing interest in biotope aquariums, and talented aquarists attempting them, it often leaves me scratching my head as to why this is not so.

The environmental data from many of the wild habitats we obsess over is readily available if you depart from the usual hobby articles and deep dive into research papers which are abundant online (Google Scholar, Research Gate, and many other places, for example).  Sure, it might be more esoteric, "dry" reading- but once you get into this stuff, you'll find a treasure trove of information you can assimilate into your hobby. Most of these papers give not only location date, but the time of year, and detailed environmental conditions such as redox, light intensity (as PAR) and water movement that go beyond just pH and water temp.

The sort of genesis of this piece was based on a DM discussion I had with a member of our community, who questioned why I don't seem to speak more highly of, and (in particular) embrace the "culture" of some of those biotope aquarium contests. He felt that they were "right up my alley", and that it would be a natural for me to essentially sing their praises...and it was accompanied with some "constructive criticism" about why he thinks we should be more active with them than we are.

And he had some interesting points, but overlooked some fundamental ones that have sort of helped me formulate my position on such contests. Like, I'll just come out and say it...The attitude surrounding many of these contests just makes me want to vomit. Really. The work is great. Most of the people who enter and run them are wonderful and talented. Yet, there is a weird vibe, IMHO, which permeates them and simply turns me off. There. I said it. That's why I'm not running into the arms of these contests 24/7. I'm simply being brutally honest with you, as I have so many times here.

And sure, there is much good that comes out of these contests...but I think that there is substantial room for improvement.

Now, I realize that some of the biotope aquarium contests have entries which will be titled "Rio______, small tributary in November", or what not. And they are typically fabulous work, done with care and talent. They look great! And the aquarium is typically a nice representation of the habitat in question, accompanied by a tortuously detailed description of the wild habitat (written in that same "obligatory" fashion as those college term papers I used to dread...) And the 'scape is supposed to conform to some strict classification for the type of biotope the aquarium is purported to represent, which I suppose is cool. 

I guess. 

Hey, maybe that's another reason why I don't like these contests? They're like a flashback to everything I hated about school, lol.

All of this effort is great, and shows tremendous research and dedication. I applaud anyone who enters one of these draconian contests (yeah, I'm in full-on rant mode now) because they certainly do emphasize a bit of understanding of the habitats our fishes come from. I praise the contest organizers for that. Yet, for all of the emphasis on "XYZ River in October", does the aquarium represent just the look, or is there an attempt to represent the function of the habitat?

To really get down and dirty and sort out the fact that said river or tributary might have more turbidity in October, due to runoff from it's mother stream, or from a rivulet running through the forest. And this results in more algal growth, lower pH, or whatever. Stuff that not only influences the wild habitat, but has an impact on the creation and management of the aquarium as well. Over the longer term. 

That's where the real magic lies, IMHO.

I mean, for all of the pretentiousness of the judging and accompanying criticism entrants receive (yeah, I think there is some), many of these contests simply fall back on the look of the biotope. You almost never hear about why there is more turbidity in the water in that habitat in certain times of the year, why the substrate has more silt or soil in it during the Summer, or whatever. And even less about how the aquarist actually manages said aquarium over the long haul.

Damn, I keep saying that, huh?

Okay, so I'm being a bit hard on the contest culture, I know. And almost any time anyone offers a personal opinion on this stuff, the defenders and haters come "a-callin'. This little "side rant" isn't really about hate or jealousy or what not. That's not the intent. You asked, and I'm explaining why I feel the way I do about soem of this stuff. And offering alternatives and suggestions. I don't "hate" them. The reality is that I greatly admire what they do-the talented work of the entrants, the efforts of the organizers, and more important, the emphasis on education they try to bring to the table. That's hugely important and cannot be understated.

Calling attention to the wonders of Nature is a big deal.

I suppose my problem with them is (liek so many things in the hobby), a dislike for attitudes.

As usual, I have great disdain for the pretentiousness and attitudes that often accompany these things, because I feel that they actually discourage some talented people from sharing their work with the world. And I think that so much effort is spent explaining why an entrant has to fall its on a specific category and such that we tend to see these become (again, in MY opinion) little more than very highly researched, well-presented aquascaping contests, with a tremendous attention to the look and conformity to some rules above all else.

Nothing wrong with that, if you represent it as such. Or, if you're into that sort of stuff.

I'd simply like to see more emphasis placed on maintaining and managing of these systems over a longer period of time- not just that they have the correct twigs and rocks when the photo is taken or the video is made. How about a more detailed description of how the system runs, the challenges of representing it,etc.?

Functional aesthetics.

Yes. here I go again, right?

Okay, I'm done "critiquing" these contests. They're cool...just not for me, I guess.

Rather than to unproductively trash contests, I just want to push us as hobbyists in general to go a little further to study the real dynamics of the wild habitats. To see them as more than simple "snapshots" in time, and more of a dynamic, ever-evolving system which can be managed over a long period of time, reflecting seasonal variations I the environment. 

Yeah, I feel that we, as aquarists, can do a lot more to study and interpret the seasonal changes and variations which occur in wild aquatic habitats, in our tanks. We have the means to research, the equipment to use, and the fishes and natural materials to work with.

I think that part of the reason why we haven't seen a lot of these types of aquariums in the past is that they not only defy the pervasive sense of aquarium "aesthetic", but their "form and function" go against the grain in terms of what has been proffered as the "correct and healthy" way to run an aquarium for most of the century. And actively managing a tank like this is more difficult than "diorama- ing" it.

I mean, a lot of botanical materials decaying in an aquarium creates water quality management challenges that we as aquarists have to accept and meet. It's more than just a look. The art of maintaining a dynamic system over the long term, embracing, replicating, and managing the seasonal environmental variations is to me, a fascinating and challenging hobby endeavor. There is so much we really don't know about this, vis a vis aquariums- simply because we haven't approached it liek this very much over the years.

I've learned a ton from playing with my "Urban Igapo" tanks- enjoying the "seasonal" changes, environmental changes, and biological diversity that they bring.

And yeah- they look cool, too.

We can, and should do more in this area. Rather than just managing our tanks as "static" representations of an aquatic habitat, it might be a lot more interesting to run your aquarium on a more dynamic level- truly taking it to another place and time.

And if you want to enter it in a contest? Do it. Crush it.

And really emphasize the art of aquarium keeping, too- and how you manage your tank during these "seasonal changes." Not only will you educate fellow hobbyists (which has always been a great thing about these contests)- you'll challenge them to approach the art of aquarium keeping from a slightly different angle.

THAT seems like a winner to me.

Stay bold. Stay unique. Stay studious. Stay rebellious. Stay considerate. Stay collegial...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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