"Authentic Nature?"

It's pretty cool to see so many hobbyists playing with botanical materials in their aquariums; trying out new aesthetics and making "mental shifts" to accept Nature in all of her unedited glory. We have, for the first time (in my opinion, anyways...) seen large numbers of hobbyists not only acknowledging that Nature is an imperfect, often "dirty-looking" or even "chaotic" place, not at all obligated to meet our aesthetic expectations.

It's made us discuss what we have previously interpreted as "authentic" interpretations of Nature in years past...an evolution of sorts, in our thinking.

Finding the true beauty in this "unedited" interpretation of Nature in our aquariums involves making some mental shifts and adjusting our aesthetic expectations. This is a quantum shift, IMHO, as it compels us to find beauty in things that we previously might have overlooked as "dirty", unkempt", "sloppy", or just plain "ugly."

We're appreciating not only the looks, but the functions which natural materials foster.

And, since our goal is to utilize these natural materials to represent, on some level, those found in the wild habitats where our fishes come from, I have this expression that I use when describing the use of a lot of botanicals for aquascaping: "Generic tropical." 

By "Generic Tropical", I mean utilizing natural materials from certain parts of the world to represent those in other parts of the world. Like, "generically..."

OK, I admit that it's actually a pretty lame descriptor, but if you think about it for just a bit, there is a certain kind of logic to it. I mean, many materials- leaves, seed pods, etc. do have that sort of "generic" look to them which would make them represent almost any type of tropical plant once submerged in the aquarium.


Well, one of my favorites is Texas Live Oak leaf litter. These diminutive leaves  and their accompanying terrestrial materials could pretty much pass for a wide assortment of leaves and leaf litter from the trees of anything you'd find in the tropical jungle or rainforest pretty much anywhere in the world where water and foliage might meet.


Now, unlike some of the more "obviously Northern Hemisphere-looking" (LOL) Oak leaves, Beech, etc. these leaves can look decidedly "tropical."  (I know, you're saying, "Fellman- WHAT exactly does "looking tropical" mean?")For that matter, other leaves, like Magnolia, have that same sort of je ne sais quoi about them which  can sort of make them pass for the fallen leaves of a typical jungle tree once submerged and covered over with biofilm and fungal growth. 

I mean, an astute botanist might be able to make a distinction upon close examination, but the typical "armchair aquarist" likely won't have the knowledge to make a positive ID.

And then, there are those seed pods...

For the most part, almost of the botanicals which we collectively refer to as "seed pods" (often, the "follicle" or fruit of a tree, to be technically accurate) in our collection are from various tropical locales; the ones that come from North America or other more temperate climes are either super "representative" of materials that you might find in the tropics, or are utilized for strictly more utilitarian purposes.

Case in point: The Alder Cone. 

I mean, no one is going to look at an Alder Cone and think to themselves, "Borneo, man!" Nope.  Not gonna happen.

On the other hand, some people really don't care, because they like the looks and aren't bothered by their decidedly "non-tropical" look. Others use them strictly for functional purposes- like fish breeders and shrimp hobbyists, who value these little "tint grenades" (Alder, Birch, and Casuarina) for what they are- compact "tannin delivery vehicles" and "biofilm propagation substrates!"


And of course, there are materials which sort of fill multiple categories, earning our other engineered descriptor of "functional aesthetics."  We just discussed this idea recently, so I won't go overkill here, but what we mean by this term is materials which look good and happen to provide something else- like a place for fishes to hide or spawn- or a supplemental food source- or even a significant substrate upon which biofilms can propagate and shrimp can feed on, like the Latifolia Pod.

Botanicals like our most popular one, the Carinana Pod, fall into this category, as they not only are a very authentic-looking and decidedly tropical botanical that you might...might- find in the flooded forests of South America (or, they effectively represent something else that you might find there), they provide a function (a hiding spot or breeding cave) for fishes like Apistogramma.

Yeah, I can't tell you how many pics we've received from our community over the past three years showing an Apistogramma cutely hunkered down in one of these pods!

And then there are materials which I just call "whimsically functional"- stuff which absolutely has no chance of being found in the habitats from which our fishes come and don't really provide anything that accurately "represents" a particular item you'd likely find in these habitats.

For example, Cholla Wood. It's the skeleton of a cactus found in the deserts of the Southwestern United States- not exactly a "Mecca" for tropical fish habitats!

Now, Cholla has become a sort of "industry standard" for shrimp keepers and lovers of aquatic mosses.  Aquatic mosses are easy to affix to the many-faceted branches, and shrimp like grazing on the biofilms which Cholla recruits.

But, yeah, it resembles nothing that you'd ever find in a tropical aquatic habitat.

Now, there is really nothing inherently "wrong" about using materials which aren't found in the natural habitats of our fishes. If we are honest with ourselves, that category applies to the majority of materials which we regularly utilize in aquascaping, right?

And that's not a problem, IMHO. We've been playing with stuff like this for generations in the hobby. 

I mean, sure, if you are a hardcore biotope aquarium enthusiast, and are entering a tank into one of those contests where extreme authenticity is valued, you need to take that into account. We provide- and will continue to do some deep dives and give more origin and species information about our botanicals than you're likely to find almost anywhere else, as far as we know- so you can make informed decisions relative to your biotope aquarium.

That being said, I think we as hobbyists need to chill just a bit about the level of authenticity demanded by many of the biotope contests out there. We get really worked up; really pissy about this shit.

It's kind of fun to watch from afar, actually.

Now, it does show the level of passion and commitment to the "art and science" that our hobby community has- which is great.

I have no issue with many of those standards for a biotope aquarium. They are all logical and well thought out. Where I take issue- like so many things in this hobby- is with attitudes. I mean, I've had people "call out" others because one of the leaves or what not in a "Rio____ biotope aquarium" is "not endemic to the region", or whatever.

Okay, I get your thinking, but really...

Can these armchair critics really discern the decomposing leaf of Hevea brasiliensis, Swietenia macrophylla, or Euterpe precatoria from Catappa, Guava, Jackfruit, Apple, Oak, etc? Especially after they've been submerged for a few weeks? I mean, seriously? Oh, and just because a botanical or leave or twig comes from ________, that doesn't necessarily mean that you'd find it in the water in those regions...

And, if someone cannot source these specific Amazonian leaves (news flash- you CAN'T at the moment because of restrictions on their export...thankfully), for example- does that invalidate the aquarium from consideration as a  serious "biotope aquarium?"

It really shouldn't, IMHO. Am I missing the point here? I don't think so...

At the end of the day, I think that everyone can and should put aside their "interpretive differences" and come to an agreement that just about any aquarium intended to replicate on some level, a specific wild habitat, ecological niche, or area where a certain fish or fishes are found- is hugely important.


Because it calls attention to the habitats and environments themselves. It creates a starting point for discussion, research, debate...It raises awareness of the challenges that many habitats face with the encroachment of man's activities. It most certainly makes us appreciate the fragility of life- the genius of nature, and the incredible diversity and beauty of our home planet.

We all want to represent- as accurately and faithfully as possible- the biotopic niches that we're into. And that is incredibly cool! However, when we get caught up in semantics and petty arguments for the sake of...well, for the sake of "being right"- who does this help?

No one.

Who does it hurt?

Well, doesn't this kind of criticism hurt those who are in a unique position to use their aquarium hobby talents to maybe, MAYBE reach a few non-hobbyists with their beautiful tank...perhaps raising awareness of the plight of that Borneo peat swamp or African flood plain, for example? Does such criticism discourage them from trying again in the future and sharing their work with the world?

Yeah. I think it does. And that sucks.

We need to lose the attitude on this topic.

It starts with "labels" we assign to our work. 

I think many aquariums can be accurately labeled "biotope-inspired" or "biotope-style" aquarium and be a very reasonable representation of a specific aquatic habitat. I think a lot of the cool work our community does is at that level. There is nothing wrong with that at all.

We want to inspire and facilitate good work in this hobby area and others.

So, the idea of "authenticity" in our aquarium representations of Nature- although important- isn't nearly as important as the underlying message such aquariums convey-

That the world is filled with amazing beauty, and that our aquariums are just another window to that world. Filled with every bit as much wonder as the wild habitats that they represent.

Stay resourceful. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay devoted. Stay excited...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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