Big ideas, small fish- and smaller aquariums..the "Nano Renaissance" is here!

What is it lately with all of these cool tiny fish coming into the hobby?

Seems like every time I turn around, a friend is telling me about some new tiny Tetra, Rasbora, or Apisto. 

I think it's one of the coolest developments in years...and it dovetails very nicely with the idea of creating speciality tanks for fishes that would otherwise be sort of "lost" in a larger tank. And what's even more cool with these little fishes, besides the fact that you can keep 'em in smaller tanks, is that you can create, without too much expense, equipment, and effort- interesting little "niche" tanks, representing very specific habitats. 

This is not only fun from a hobby perspective, but it's a huge development for aquarium "science" in general. Think about it: If you could keep a group of cool little fishes in say, a 5-gallon aquarium, set up to replicate a seldom-created micro-niche, like an Asian peat swamp for Rasbora, wild Bettas, or gouramis, or an African "mud pool" for killies, with little "infrastructure" investment, minimal expense, small "footprint",  and short "build time", you could work with a lot of different little fishes that might otherwise not get the attention and study that they deserve from the hobby. And in the process, you can help unlock some really cool insights into these fishes and their habitats- all while doing something very creative and inspiring for others!

What would be some examples of tanks you could do, "nano", that would be a much larger, more all-consuming comittment if done "at scale", as they say? Well- here are a few of the ideas in my head:

*The aforementioned "African mud hole"- Think about it...many annual killies (and non-annuals as well), hail from pools of water that are often little more than temporary ruts in muddy roads, or larger puddles from torrential rains.

Essentially, they consist of muddy/leafy bottoms, relatively turbid water, and nothing in the way of aquatic plants. I could foresee this biotope being replicated in a shallow, wide aquarium with a dark substrate of mixed fine sand (perhaps a fine version of one of the aquatic plant soils comes to mind), maybe even some peat and/or pond/potting soils (properly prepared. of course). Toss in a few assorted leaves and small botanicals for contrast and texture, use a sponge filter with the aeration turned really low, or even a small outside power filter, and BOOM! African mud hole killie habitat! Hello, Fundulopanchax, Nothobranchius, etc....! Extra points if you do a riparium setup!

 Mangrove root habitat (Mangal)- Oh sure, this idea has been kicked around in the hobby for years, and you'll occasionally see a marine or brackish enthusiast incorporate a few mangrove seedlings into a marine tank or maybe a brackish tank, but we rarely see attempt to replicate the fascinating habitat that is found where the mangrove roots meet the substrate. This is a remarkably diverse and fascinating niche, with all sorts of possibilities for a freshwater, brackish, or even marine nano tank. 

In a small tank, this habitat could be replicated without necessarily having to utilize live mangrove propugules. One could use some various branching pieces of wood, like Mopani, "generic" driftwood, or even some darker pieces of cholla (although you'd want to "encrust it with algae or plants to hide its decidedly "non-mangrove" look...). I'd focus on the "below water" part, although you could easily do a sort of riparium type setup.

I tried this a number of years ago (albeit poorly) with a tank set up impulsively one late sleepless night, to sort of do a "proof of concept" with it

I think you could arrange the wood in such a way as to recreate that interesting tangle...way better than in my feeble, caffeine-fueled effort above.

This kind of leads me to another "tangent" habitat that would be cool to play with on a nano scale...

*Submerged tree branch (worldwide)- I mean, you could put this in Asia, Africa, or South America easily...What you'd focus on in a nano is a "closeup", rather than the whole scene- of a submerged tree branch or log and the fascinating mix of life that inhabits it. You don't need a huge tank to focus on this.  You can go with a tons of  different fishes, all sorts of plants, and numerous aquascaping possibilities..

Like, focus on ONE branch..or one part of one branch...that's something we don't see often enough, as we love to create the "whole scene"...and in a tank less than 40 liters, you don't have a lot of real estate to work with, so why not chose one killer piece of wood, lots of leaves, botanicals, and appropriate plants, and select some small fishes that would really be nice to highlight in such an environment. Could you imagine a nano devoted solely to say, an Otocinuculus "micro-niche?"

Focusing so tightly is utterly appropriate for a small tank, especially when working with small fishes that would simply be "lost in the shuffle"- being minor "components" of a larger display.

Rocky swift-water stream habitat for darter characins- Oh YES! There are some really cool little guys that spend their entire existence hopping around on boulders, stones, and rocks in relatively fast-moving Amazonian waters...

Think about smooth round stones covered with biofilm/algae, maybe a scattering of plants/moss, and maybe a few little botanicals for good measure...gravel/sand on the bottom...Again, focusing on a tiny segment- not trying to create the whole scene...

Like so many things we do in aquarium keeping, the possibilities are endless when we apply our imagination, ideas, talents, and a little inspiration from nature to the mix.

Keep dreaming big...and perhaps- executing small.

Stay creative. Stay adventurous...Stay cutting edge.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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