Getting tangled...

Like all of you, I periodically "edit" my aquariums, to sort of bring them along with me to match up with my current mindset. I kind of enjoy this.

My home blackwater aquarium is no different.

The "theme", if you will, was to create a flooded forest floor- a "meander", if you will, where a few branches accumulated. I've ran it since November in a configuration that has essentially a few large pieces of mangrove root to simulate the larger branches, and an assortment of leaves and botanicals to create the "vibe" that I wanted.

I purposely left a lot of "negative space" in this tank to sort of give a sense of scale to the scape. However, the intention was to gradually evolve the tank to represent a sort of "matrix" of finer branches/roots, with less open space. I've talked about this idea before, and I've started doing this.

One of the things that inspires me to evolve my aquarium is looking at my current tank and seeing which "niches" within it would make a good "starring role." I am a huge fan of creating overhangs and nooks and crannies with wood pieces near the bottom of my aquarium. And, as I might have told you previously, I often ponder the idea of simply doing an aquarium entirely filled with wood and very little in the way of "negative space" (areas not occupied by something) and an almost "reef-like" structure that would be perfect for all sorts of bottom-dwelling, or "near bottom-dwelling" fishes, like dwarf cichlids, loaches, Corydoras and other catfishes, Darter Tetras, etc.

I've always found this an interesting configuration for an aquarium, although my "prejudice" about having lots of open water space for shoaling fishes, like characins, Danios, etc. has wrongly prevented me from trying this.

Now, I've done this sort of thing in a marine tank before- I mean, this was THE WAY we did reef tanks in the 80's and well into the 90's...a "wall of rock"- because it was thought that you needed to use "x" pounds of live rock per gallon for "biofiltration"- and how else do you get 100 lbs of rock in a 50 gallon tank? Yeah.

However, I've long fantasized about doing such a "stack" of wood in a freshwater aquarium!

I remember just railing on such a configuration in reef tanks for years, simply because it was sort of "unimaginative" and a maintenance liability for a reef tank. However, for a freshwater system with a more "porous" structure of wood, I think that not only would it function fine, I know it will look cool. The idea of creating an entire community around such a niche is really cool. There are plenty of examples of this type of structure from nature.

The assembly and function of such a configuration operates much in the manner of any other botanical-oriented aquarium, with perhaps a little greater emphasis on creating structure from the wood to more closely replicate such systems as they appear in the wild; just a real tangle of wood, and accumulations of botanicals and decomposing leaves.

When assembled in conjunction with a nice aggregation of leaves, this configuration  provides a remarkably interesting aquarium with a different sort of aesthetic. 

Obviously, aquariums with dense aggregations of wood/roots have husbandry considerations, such as the need to keep a good flow rate through the "matrix", and the ability to access some of the "nooks and crannies" for routine maintenance tasks, like siphoning, replacing leaves/botanicals, etc.


Yet, I think with the proper equipment and husbandry practices in place, it's not really that difficult to sustain for an indefinite period of time. I mean, we did it with reef tanks for a decade, lol!

(My friend Mark Poletti created a masterful "dense matrix" of live coral in his reef tank...a definite "analog" to our wood-dominated FW hardscapes!)

I think another interesting aspect of a denser wood configuration is the potential to keep little groups of fishes, like my beloved Checkerboard cichlids, behaving naturally in the same tank. Now, I'm no cichlid expert, but I do have a certain love for keeping little "communities" of fishes like Checkerboards together.

I think it could work with fishes like Apistos, too...Even when they start to pair off. I mean, I've done it with notroriously aggressive marine fishes, like Pseudochromis. And from the interesting videos I've seen in the wild (like Ivan Mikolji's stuff!), where you see multiple breeding pairs in dense tangles of roots and wood, I can't help but attempt this at home!

I just started the process of adding more branches to this tank, and I'm already noticing some different social behaviors in my fishes...

So, yeah- perhaps the most interesting aspect of such an aquascaping configuration is to foster natural behaviors and spawning activities among the resident fishes. I would imagine that for "uncontrolled" breeding of many species, the dense wood/botanical matrix would create a very good environment for this. I've already seen very interesting behavior among my Eques Pencilfish (N. eques), which typically would hang in  a sort of loose aggregation just under the water surface in the more "open format" in my tank.

Now, since there is less of this "wide open" space just below the surface, I've noticed that the fish seem to choose their own spots among the wood tangles and sort of hang there- without any apparent desire to "cling together." 

Perhaps just a coincidence, but it's a distinct change.

Very interesting...

And my more active characins, like the Rummynoses, tend to be more "calm" and less "frantically" swimming with less negative space in the tank...they just appear more relaxed and just "comfortable" in a way that has been very different that what I've seen before.

I love the idea of a "community" aspect to such hardscape  configurations.

It is interesting to see lots of young fishes emerge from the wood matrix now and then, settling in and finding their own territories within the aquarium, creating a very realistic replication of the types of behaviors and activities which occur in natural ecological niches.

Yes, I totally know that the idea of "adding a lot of wood" to an aquarium is not some revolutionary aquascaping concept. However, I think the idea of looking at it within the context of creating/fostering an interesting platform for behavior, and configuring a functional representation of a unique ecological niche, as opposed to just some aesthetic variation, could yield some interesting results for those willing to play with the concept. 

With all of the interesting types of wood pieces available to hobbyists nowadays, and the ability to filter, administer good flow into the aquarium, and with the availability of a wide variety of fishes from speciality ecological niches, it has never been easier to play with ideas like this!

And it's always fun to "evolve" your existing aquariums. As we've discusses so many times, the very nature of a botanical-style blackwater aquarium lends itself to "evolving" your tank over time.

We'd love to see and hear about YOUR experiments with evolving your existing tanks, as well as your thoughts with this type of configuration; I'm sure there are a fair number of you who might have played with this already, and it's fun to see what you're up to!

Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay curious.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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