Editing, iterating, and refining the "functional aesthetics" of our aquariums...

As you all know by now, I'm the first one to preach patience and sticking by your guns over the long term. You know, developing a plan for an aquarium, executing, and evolving it...

Of course, every once in a while, I'll pull off some kind of radical move on an aquarium that's been operating for a while. Just do something different...More than a "tweak"- Maybe, it's what could be defined as a "pivot" or a "directional change."

And it can be radical. And exciting!

Not sure what prompts it. "Scaper's remorse", perhaps? Dismay with the setup? Boredom? Divine inspiration?

Doesn't happen often.

Just every once in a while...

Have you ever done a radical change on an already-established aquarium?

You know, the one that was going to be the Apistogramma biotope tank and it suddenly evolved into a wild livebearer tank, or the African cichlid tank that mutated into a brackish water aquarium?  

Stuff like that?

I was thinking about this the other day when I was doing a water change on one of my blackwater aquariums. I was thinking to myself, "Man, it would be so easy to turn this characin-dominated Amazonina-region-themed tank into a tank into an Asian-themed tank. A few little tweaks, and..."

I almost just went for it...

I think that's what's interesting about botanical-style aquariums. If you're not strictly setting one of these tanks up as a hardcore, biotopic representation, or are using Asian plants and have the urge to switch over to Amazonian fishes- you've got a certain degree of "generic flexibility" that you can work with. 

What causes such rapid shifts in thinking?

Sometimes it's simply thinking about a particular species of fish that does it...Maybe the work of a fellow fish geek. Or seeing a pic from Nature.

Once in a while, such "motivations" inspire me to "edit" or even jump in and complete a wholesale change in plans...And seldom does it involve tearing an entire tank apart. Most of the time, I simply "edit" what I have to "scratch the itch"...

Yeah, "editing" is pretty easy. A little movement of the wood "stack"...A change in the orientation of some botanicals; adding some different ones...shifting substrate around a bit. Stuff like that.


And, when you're "swapping out" one blackwater habitat for another- from a different part of the world, for example- it's not really that difficult. We have that degree of flexibility when it comes to utilizing various botanicals in our aquariums. We have the advantage of being able to re-configure our entire tank and its "mission" with surprisingly minimal effort.

Now, think about it a bit more deeply for just a second...

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?


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? The information that you can garner from such observations and research is amazing!

One of the key takeaways that you can make is that many freshwater fishes like "structure" in their habitats. Unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like certain types of structure- be it rocks, wood, roots, etc.

Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.

And of course, the structure that we are talking about in our aquairums is not just rocks and wood...it's all sorts of botanical materials and leaves that create "microhabitats" in all sorts of places within the aquarium.

We can utilize all of these things to facilitate more natural behaviors from our fishes.

So, yeah-think about how fishes act in Nature.

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.

You know, allochthonous input...

Many fish species take food from what are known as "allochthonous sources" (i.e. food originated from sources outside the aquatic habitat), such as insects, other invertebrates, and plant parts that fall from the nearby trees. Like, remember seeing films of Pacus chowing on fruits that fall in the water?

I've even seen pics of Arowanna leaping out of the water to pluck a frog off of a branch!  By providing both food and shelter, the waters under overhanging trees provide an interesting place for fishes to hang out.

And then, of course, there are terrestrial insects, which form a large part of the diet of many fishes.

Yeah, terrestrial insects are a very important and significant part of the diet of some small characins. In fact, a study of some Hemmigramus species indicated that a whopping 96% of their stomach contents were terrestrial insects, mainly...ants!  This is actually not surprising, when you think about it, because ants are ridiculously abundant in tropical forests, and in particular in the central Amazon basin, where scientific surveys have estimated that they may constitute as much as three-quarters of the biomass of the soil fauna!

In addition to providing a potentially rich source of energy for Characins, ants tend to become vulnerable to predation once in the water, so they are "easy pickings" for tetras! The predominance of ants in the gut content analysis of Hemmigramus, Hypessobrycon, and other tetras may also indicate that these species feed naturally on the surface of the water, given that these insects tend to float and flail away on the surface after falling into the water.

The "allochthonous inputs" of tropical streams are really fascinating to me, for the reason that these are some of the easiest food items in many fishes's diets for us to replicate as naturally as possible. We've discussed before that some popular aquarium food items like Blood Worms represent an excellent, highly "realistic" representation of the insect larvae that fishes from these habitats consume.

Perhaps most interesting to us botanical-style aquarium people are epiphytes. These are organisms which grow on the surface of plants, branches, or other substrates and derive their nutrients from the surrounding environment. They are important in the nutrient cycling and uptake in both Nature and the aquarium, adding to the biodiversity, and serving as an important food source for many species of fishes.

In the case of our aquatic habitats, like streams, ponds, and inundated forests, epiphytes are abundant, and many fishes will spend large amounts of time foraging the biocover on tree trunks, branches, leaves, and other botanical materials. Although most animals use leaves and tree branches for shelter and not directly as a food item, grazing on this epiphytic growth is very important.

Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.

And the resulting detritus produced by the "processed" and decomposing pant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential factor in the food webs of these habitats.

If you observe the behavior of many of your fishes in the aquarium, such as characins, cyprinids, Loricarids, and others, you'll see that in between feedings, they'll spend an awful lot of time picking at "stuff" on the bottom of the tank. In a botanical style aquarium, this is a pretty common occurrence, and I believe an important benefit of this type of system. 

I am of the opinion that a botanical-style aquarium, complete with its decomposing leaves and seed pods, can serve not only as a "structural habitat", but also as a sort of "buffet" for many fishes- even those who's primary food sources are known to be things like insects and worms and such. Detritus and the organisms within it can provide an excellent supplemental food source for our fishes!

It's well known that in many habitats, like inundated forests, etc., fishes will adjust their feeding strategies to utilize the available food sources at different times of the year, such as the "dry season", etc. And it's also known that many fish fry feed actively on bacteria and fungi in these habitats...so I suggest one again that a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium could be an excellent sort of "nursery" for many fish species! 

So, where does this leave us in terms of creating and/or editing an aquascape for our fishes in the aquarium?

Well, for one thing, we can look to Nature to see just what it is, "material-wise" that falls into the water. In many wild habitats, it's leaves, seed pods, branches, etc. All sorts of stuff. 

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."

As aquarists, we put an amazing amount of time into trying to achieve a perfect placement for wood, when the reality is that, in Nature, it's decidedly random. Is there not beauty in "randomness", despite our pursuit of the "golden ratio", etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the Manzanita branch or whatever within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

Bottom line- maybe we don't need to "stress out" so much in our placement of wood 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 ask yourself, honestly- is there not a true beauty in the "randomness" of nature? Isn't this what aquarists like Amano were really trying to stress, rather than preaching the rigid adherence to some "formula" of placement? Can't you see the beauty in replicating as scene like this one, photographed my Mike Tuccinardi in the Rio Negro?

So, bringing it back to the idea of "editing" our own work, it's remarkable how simply re-evaluating your tank in the context of "functional aesthetics" can give you  new ideas, inspiration, and purpose.

And in the end...It's all about what we love as hobbyists. That ability to justify a change of heart, lol! Yes, I've had times when I just woke up and turned a tank on end into something totally different...And it almost always starts (in my weird world) with me thinking about Nature and how to better replicate it in my aquarium.

This quick "edits" and pivots are pretty fun...But I suppose they're almost a "shock-trauma" of sorts...One minute, your tank's all about leaf litter and "Spider Wood", the next minute your tank is filled with Mopani wood and Palm fronds....


And it's kind of fun, too...Just doing different stuff on the spur of the moment once in a while...I actually love that sort of thing. It prompts a sort of spontaneous creativity that is a distinct departure from our uber-patient typical selves, right?

On the other hand, the best way to go is simply to set up another tank, right? Of course, that assumes a few things, doesn't it? 😂

And of course, that's how "Multiple Tank Syndrome" starts...

A dangerous though, huh?

Stay spontaneous. Stay patient. Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay inspired...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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