"Geographic transgressions" and other forgivable sins...

I'm not immune to any "temptations" I might encounter along the way to my ultimate goals, who it comes to aquairums, believe me...

There is always that part of me which falls headlong into that "shiny object syndrome"- you know something cool catches my eye along the way, and there I am, off on a tangent, researching and considering ways to "modify" my plan...complete with justification when something cool becomes available ("Well, you know, just because I SAID it's going to be an Asian blackwater stream with Rasbora espie doesn't mean that I can't have a few of those Copella arnoldi in there. I mean, "SPLASHING-FREAKING TETRA- HELLO!" )

(Image by Zikamoi, used under CC-BY S.A. 3.0)

Now, the reality is that I almost never actually DO it...For some reason, I consider such things "geographic transgressions", and have for years denied myself the opportunity to grab some cool fishes because of my pathetic, rigid adherence to some unwritten rule that I created for myself!

The reality is, these types of diverse stocking plans have been a staple of the hobby for generations.

Yeah, that's how the classic "community tank", which we've loved for decades, is created, right? The best combination of cool fishes, regardless of origin, which happen to catch our fancy? As long as they are physically compatible, does it really matter? I mean, nothing is wrong with that, right? I mean, does every salad we make have ingredients from the same farm?

Weak or not, it is that kind of "argument" that would make ME feel better, lol.



But I'd have such guilt if I actually did something about it.

As I stare at my "Southeast Asian-inspired" blackwater aquarium(which I'm getting really bored of, BTW), with fishes that are "regionally" accurate, but likely would never be found together in Nature, I can't help but reflect on my philosophies on "theme" and such, and the occasional "tangents" I'd take.

In past years, I would often further justify these tangents which lead to a "broader", geographically absurd array of fishes with almost-logical thoughts like, "Well, that little tetra from Colombia looks an awful lot like some of those random Rasbora you see in Asian streams...I mean..."

Yes, I would justify these decisions to myself just like that. 

Again, however, these were all theoretical...I almost never actually executed on them!

Over the years, I became even more focused, of course... I'd go to the other extreme at times. I'd tell myself that, unless every fish in the tank, regardless of the fact that it's from the same region, is wild caught, then one could make an argument that this is "off plan."

Stupid shit like that.

Well, somehow, anyways! I mean, a South American Tetra bred on an Asian fish farm, from stock that's been there like 28 generations...hmm...how do you quantify that?

Yeah, like that is a good argument/"guilt diminisher."  Absurd. LOL

And the sad truth is that, unless you're one of those people who is absolutely obsessed with complete authenticity, or is entering into one of those ultra-regulated, carefully-scrutinized biotope aquarium contests, it likely doesn't matter all that much, right? Having generally "geographically proximate" fishes in the same tank, has always been a "standard" for me personally. Like, somehow, I'm totally comfortable with THAT!

I've always felt that the fishes that are from the same general region- even if not from the exact locale or ecological niche-will probably not interact all that much differently than they would if they were some other random species from their habitat...right?  I mean, a Dachshund and a Golden Retriever are both dogs, and...

Um, yeah. You can argue this one as much as you want, I suppose.


Sure, if you're like me, you'll carry with you that personal "mark of shame" and yeah- some feelings of guilt- for as long as you own the tank, or perhaps until your overwhelming horror at having made this "geographic transgression" finally takes you down and forces you to remove the "offending"  fishes into a tank of their own (hopefully with more "geographically-appropriate" tankmates , of course).

It's kind of...ridiculous...

Or is it? 

It likely is.

I'm sure that it is.

I mean, It's one thing to keep fishes from various blackwater habitats in say, Brazil. It's quite another to keep fishes from Brazil with fishes from, let's say- Borneo- together in the same tank!

On the other hand, are fishes from different parts of the world that physiologically dissimilar?

I mean, sure, fishes evolved over eons to take on specific characteristics that were likely adaptations to specific environmental conditions they'd encounter. Although I've often wondered wether or not the chemical and ecological characteristics of a blackwater stream with a pH of 4.8 in Borneo is THAT much different, at least generally speaking, than an Amazonian igarape with the same pH.

I mean, sure there are probably some subtle flora/fauna/geology differences which impact the chemical composition on a level we as hobbyists are not able to distinguish, but are they THAT much different?

I wonder...Not that you ever would (for obvious reasons), but if you transplanted, say, a Rasbora from a stream in Southeast Asia to a jungle stream in the rainforests of Brazil, or a Nanostomus to a Sarawak jungle stream- could the fish adapt?

I mean, they may have slightly different food sources or ways of finding them, but could the fish adapt? Is this any different than the "coping" that wild-caught fishes have to do when captured and placed in most home aquariums? You know, strange food, different environmental parameters from their wild homes, and unknown, unnatural companions?

I recently had a discussion with one of my best aquairum friends, Jake Adams of Reefbuilders. Jake and I were talking about my new Reef aquairum, and I was sharing with him my intense guilt about wanting to keep a bunch of Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto), one of my fave all-time fishes, in my Indo-Pacific Reef tank. The "problem" in my mind was that the Royal Gramma, gorgeous though it may be, is native to the Tropical Weast Atlantic and Caribbean.

"And Jake, in his infinite wisdom borne of a lifetime of high-level reef keeping, was like, "Dude- just keep them. They're gorgeous..."

And it dawned on me- that was the 100% correct answer (I've found over the years that Jake is right like, ohh- 100% of the time on reef stuff, BTW). There would be absolutely no harm in keeping this gorgeous fish with all of my Pacific corals. It meets every criteria for a perfect reef tank inhabited itant, with the tiny exception that it comes from the Atlantic, and 95% of all corals we keep in reef tanks come from the Indo Pacific.

Like, why the hell do I stress over this? Who cares? The absurdity of my geographic "prejudices" and arguments melts away when I subject my selection to simple questions:

Can the fish live among Pacific corals? Is there some physio-chmeical difference between water in the Indo Pacific and the Tropical West Atlantic? Um, no...Seawater is seawater. Other than perhaps minor density variations, there are few major chemical differences between seawater in various parts of the world.

Of course, with freshwater fishes, environmental conditions are super varied, and one could ask tougher questions when considering placing, say, African fishes in a South American-inspired environment:

Is there a sort of "stress" that would arise under all of these conditions? Could these "subtle" stresses be the reason why so many fishes are elusive for long periods of time in the hobby, when it comes to spawning them?

I ponder this in the context of our botanical-method aquariums; our focus on more natural looking- and functioning systems...

Yet, I think again that blackwater conditions, for example, are fairly similar (gulp) in different parts of the world, and I have a hunch that fishes which come from Southeast Asian blackwater habitats can do just fine in South American-inspired blackwater habitats...

It's about the water's chemical characteristics and physical environment, more than anything else, right? 

Could it be why we are seeing more and more success with blackwater fishes being kept in more realistic habitats and environmental conditions? Could the humic substances, tannins, and other compounds exuded by botanical materials be the "something in the water" which bridges at least part of that gap between wild habitat and aquarium?

The idea of using materials like leaves, seed pods, stems, etc.- which to a great extent mimics both the form and function of the wild habitats from which our fishes hail at least gives us the ability to fully explore the concept.

I mean, one could even take the argument about geographic suitability to our game. We could ponder if a Cariniana legalis seed pod from Brazil in our Asian-themed tank would somehow be detrimental to our fishes- or perhaps not as physiologically beneficial- as a more geographically appropriate Sterculia pod from Thailand.

We could.

Yet, wouldn't that literally be like "splitting hairs?"

I mean, where does it end? And what benefit or detriment would we be experiencing as a result of our decision to include/exclude a specific botanical, wood, substrate, or other material in our 100% authentic "geographic-focused aquarium?"

A lot of you ask about what botanical materials to use for specific types of fishes or their habitats. It's a good question, and one which has a bunch of different answers, actually. Now, many of you ask about botanicals from specific geographic regions, because you're looking to create a "Southeast Asian" or "Amazonian", or "West African"- themed tank.

These are cool inquiries, because it demonstrates that we've reached a phase in the botanical method world of trying to recreate aspects of specific geographic/ecological niches in our tanks. I love that we are all applying our love of botanical materials for specific reasons in our aquariums. Of course, I think that most of us-present company, specifically- need to relax a little bit when it comes to our selections, and not get too uptight about it!

Now, if you're really hardcore about every botanical being strictly from the region in which your fishes are found, make use of the (okay, admittedly long-winded) descriptions on our website product pages. For each botanical, we'll list the geographic origin. Some botanicals are very specific to one country (ie; Brazil), whereas some will simply be listed from "South America", because they are not necessarily limited to one country in the region.

Now, the important thing to know is that many of the botanicals we offer are found in various parts of the world, and can sort of "represent" materials found in specific geographic environments. Some are "circumtropical", or come from plants which have been transplanted by man throughout the world. Most of our items, however, fall into that category we've often referred to (rather unprofessionally, I must confess) as "generic tropical"- stuff that represents the materials you might find in tropical aquatic ecosystems around the world.


We've kind of made that argument that, once leaves are submerged and starting to break down and such, one would be hard-pressed to make the call and state firmly that a given item somehow looks out of place from a geographic standpoint (unless, of course, one happens to be a botanist!). Now, again, it's always been my personal opinion that you can utilize whatever items you want in virtually any situation, because even an Asian botanical perfectly represents a botanical item from say, Africa or South America...especially once it's "down and wet..."

In other words, the cool-looking Cariniana pod from the previously-discussed Cariniana legalis tree of South America would be perfectly at home in an Amazonian-themed aquarium. It would also be perfectly acceptable in a Southeast Asian or African-themed tank, as it resembles some of the botanical materials that are found in the aquatic habitats of these regions. It likely performs some of the same "functions" as analogous materials actually found within the Southeast Asian region.

"Generic Tropical."

Yet, some self-appointed "guardians" of biotope aquarium keeping have a complete shit fit if something isn't exactly from the region or niche the aquarium being presented in their contest purports to represent.

Yet, I've seen dozens of biotope aquariums in big competitions representing very specific Asian or South American habitats, with substrates covered in Beech or Oak leaf litter from Europe or North America, and no one- judges included- batted an eyelash, so...

I'm just sayin'.

IMHO, we shouldn't get too bent out of shape about this stuff. 


And, to make things even more interesting, let's ponder for just a moment exactly "how" botanical materials which are found in tropical waters actually get there in the first place!

The reality is that most of the materials which accumulate on the substrate or elsewhere in the aquatic habitats we try to recreate either were there to begin with before the water arrived (as in the case of the flooded igapo forest floors of South America), or fell into the water from overhanging vegetation, or were swept up by flooding, wind, or other natural events.

There is really not some set model for how these materials arrive into aquatic habitats. And, to be objective, I have to proffer that many of the materials that we offer for this purpose are from trees and shrubs often not found directly in the path of water.

Maybe they're from areas nearby.

Some are from mountainous regions or plains which don't have bodies of water in the vicinity that they're found. Again, they are selected for inclusion in our offerings because they have an appearance or characteristics which represent those of materials that we've seen floating around in, or at the bottom of,  various aquatic habitats.

"Generic tropical."

Don't stress over it. Enjoy it. Incorporate the function and aesthetics from materials which represent those found in our favorite tropical aquatic habitats, wherever they might be. Learn about the habitat, and how materials accumulate in the waters- and how they influence the fishes that live in them.

And add whatever fishes you love, regardless of what part of the world they come from. These "geographic transgressions" are entirely forgivable, lol.

Oh, and your aquarium will look cool, too. Trust me.

And finally, circling back- don't be like me, creating self-imposed "embargos" on keeping various groups of fishes together in  your tank, despite the fact that these otherwise perfectly compatible fishes come from different parts of the world.


Life is too short- and the hobby too much fun- to retract yourself like I have. Just enjoy your fishes- regardless of what continent they're found in, and what kind of tank you choose to enjoy them in!

These "sins" are perfectly forgivable, trust me.

Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay dedicated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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