Less is more? Musings on more "dense" aquascapes...

Have you thought much about how "clogged" with materials some of the natural habitats we intend to imitate in our tanks are?

It's kind of interesting...I've don a littele "field work" over the years, as well as some "internet safaris", exploring some of the interesting blackwater biotope where our fishes come from, and I've frequently been surprised just how much "stuff" is in the water.

And it made me think about our aquaecapes, and how we are always concerned (and I should say, rightfully so) about having the "appropriate" amount of "negative space"- at least from an artistic perspective. 

However, when you take into account the materials that accumulate in smaller streams, igarapes, and swamps, a surprisingly large amount of botanical materials, ranging from tree branches/trunks to leaves and such, accumulates and takes up space.

Not only do these items take up water volume- they serve to direct flow, create other hydrodynamic features, etc. In the aquarium, a larger volume of say, driftwood, rocks, and botanicals will not only impart the oft-mentioned chemical affects into the water, they will similarly channel flow, create territories, and offer areas of visual interest. This is no doubt analogous to the seasonal evolutions of underwater landscapes in nature, as waters recede after the rainy season, leaving a more densely-packed assemblage of materials in a given area.

For more inspiration, look at the rain forest floor in tropical regions, such as Amazonia. After all, this is what is left during the dry season, and gives you some idea of the eventual "topography" of the underwater landscape when the rains return. 

Now, I'm not telling you that you should fill your tanks to the rim with wood, seed pods, leaves, and rocks (sounds like a thinly veiled marketing campaign, doesn't it?). I AM suggesting that you look into the interesting aesthetic and physical affects you can create with a more "dense" scape.

Now, the immediate "downside" most hobbyists will jump on is, "Hey, more 'stuff' in the water means...less water volume." Absolutely. On the other hand, lower densities of fishes could actually serve to create a more visually engaging display! Not only will there be environmental benefits as a result of lower fish populations- you'll probably find some aesthetic ones, as well.

Now, I remember back in the 1980's through the early 2000's, in the reef aquarium hobby, people were obsessed with the concept of "live rock" as a "filter medium", and the prevailing wisdom was that you needed "x" amount of rock per given volume of water in a reef tank...and it was quite a bit...and the best way to achieve it was to create a literal "wall of rock", something that I have railed on personally for years in my writings and presentations. It looks pretty crazy.

So, I'm not suggesting a "wall of botanicals" and such; however, I think it would be interesting to play with higher volumes of wood and botanicals in some displays.

Some of my favorite aquariums of late are the "jungle style" tanks you see, with the plants just growing like mad everywhere. Hardcore aquascapers no doubt cringe at the sight of one of these seemingly random, densely-packed plantscapes, but I can't help but see the allure to them. My favorite part about an intricate, densely planted tank is that you have to look a little harder to find the fishes...It's more inviting to contemplate and spend time in front of a tank with a more dense aquascape.

Look, I adore minimalist stuff...abosolutely. However, I'd think it would be interesting (and entirely authentic to nature) to play with a more complex, "heavy-handed" scape once in a while.


Where it gets really interesting is in a larger aquarium, with a population of smaller fishes dwelling in such a 'scape. For example, imagine the allure of a tank, heavily "choked" with thin wood branches (Manzanita or "Spider Wood" are what I'm thinking), perhaps a few plants, some larger seed pods, and a fairly dense "population" of leaves.

By selecting smaller fishes like Tetras, Apsitos, Boraras, Guaramis, Badis, Corydoras, etc., you could maximize the impact by having a fairly high number of fishes in an aquascape that offers a lot less open area, encouraging the fishes to engage in more natural behaviors, like swimming through, and foraging among the dense wood and botanical areas.

If you stock with fishes like Elachocharax, for example- that are known to inhabit more densely packed areas of streams and such, or very specific areas like leaf litter zones, you can create a very unique and engaging display in which the fishes won't be immediately evident to the observer. As with the "jungle" tanks, this encourages the observer to take the time to "linger" and "discover" the fishes flitting in and out of the hardscape...

Like in any botanical aquarium, a more densely packed one will require thoughtful, but not excessive maintenance. You'll simply need to feed carefully, stock thoughtfully, and adhere to the typical tenants of aquarium keeping. 

Like in any other display, a more densely packed one will find its way, developing over time into an intriguing, engaging display that will become a constantly-evolving, highly engaging, and oddly refreshing aquarium.

The appeal of this interesting aesthetic may or may not be immediately obvious to you. However, I encourage you to consider an aquascape like this for your next project. The good news is that, if you find that you prefer a more "open" scape, you can simply remove wood, botanicals, etc., until you hit the aesthetic that appeals to you. And that, in itself is not unlike the processes of current, tidal movements, etc. which "re-arrange" the natural ecosystems all the time!

In the end, turning once again to the incredible, almost infinite "portfolio" of inspiration which nature provides seems to always provide will steer you in the right direction. If you look at enough natural aquatic systems, you'll no doubt be struck by some habitat that speaks to you, motivates you to replicate it in some way...and to share your work with others.

With the precious natural environments subject to many external forces, perhaps one of the most significant steps we can take to help preserve them is to help others appreciate them by modeling an aquarium after them. The natural beauty of an unusual aquarium may just motivate non-aquarists to take a greater interest in helping preserve and protect these precious natural ecosystems.

Until next time. Stay inspired. Stay adventurous. Stay unique.

And Stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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