Life in the litter beds

It would hardly be a stretch to state that we're about as geeked-out about  leaf litter habitats, and creating aquariums that replicate this unique habitat. And of course, when you're creating such a habitat in your aquarium, it makes sense that you'd want to give a lot of thought to how to do this first. I know that we've talked about it before, but there's so much interest in this idea that I just HAD to bring it up once again!

First off, a quick review. As you recall, leaf litter beds are found throughout tropical rivers, streams, flooded forest floors, and other watercourses around the world, from South America, to Asia, and Africa, to name just a few regions. They are remarkably productive habitats, because they offer not only shelter for their inhabitants, but food items, an area to reproduce, and function as a "nursery" of sorts for larval fishes to shelter and feed in. They are among the most productive environments in the wild.

Leaf litter comes from a variety of trees in the rainforests of the tropical world. There is a near constant leaf drop occurring, which continuously “refreshes” the supply. In monsoonal climates, large quantities of leaves will drop during the dry season, and many will find their way into streams which run through the rain forest. In other habitats, such as the igapo forests of Amazonia,, the leaves fall onto the forest floor and accumulate, and are seasonally-inundated during the rainy season, creating an extremely diverse and compelling environment that we love so much around here!


The leaf litter in an igapo when inundated can be as much as 3 feet (1 meter) or more deep, with a huge amount of surface area available to bacteria (which create biofilms) and are often home to surprisingly large populations of fishes like Apistogramma, which use the shelter and “on-board” food offered by these habitats- to their advantage. And they’re vital to some of the small Elacocharax and other “Darter Tetras” which live almost exclusively in these niche habitats. Oh, and shrimp, too! 

Suffice it to say, the leaf litter bed is a surprisingly dynamic, and one might even say "rich" little benthic biotope, contained within the otherwise "impoverished" waters. And, as we've discussed before on these pages, it should come as no surprise that a large and surprisingly diverse assemblage of fishes make their homes within and closely adjacent to, these litter beds. These are little "food oasis" in areas otherwise relatively devoid of food.

The fishes are not there just to look at the pretty leaves!

I'm obsessed with leaf litter in the wild and in the aquarium. I think it's because it's literally an oasis of life. Compelling, diverse, and productive.

Many tropical rivers and streams are characterized by large quantities of leaf litter and decaying botanicals on the bottom, with typically clear (but tinted) water. As discussed many times in this column, leaf litter is used as shelter, spawning ground, feeding area, and in some instances, as supplemental food itself. This is a highly productive habitat in nature that also just happens to look really cool in our aquariums, performing exactly the same function!

And fish population density is often correlated with the availability of food resources- and, as we've discussed many times here, leaf litter beds are highly productive food resources! 

In wild habitats, there have been many instances where researchers have counted literally hundreds of fishes per square foot inhabiting the matrix of botanical materials on the bottom of stream beds, which consists primarily of leaf litter.  As dead leaves are broken down by bacterial and fungal action, they develop biofilms and associated populations of microorganisms ("infusoria", etc.) that are an ideal food source for larval fishes.

When you take into account that blackwater environments typically have relatively small populations of planktonic organisms that fish can consume, it makes sense that the productive leaf litter zones are so attractive to fishes!  That being said, leaf litter beds are most amicable to a diversity of life forms These life forms, both planktonic and insect, tend to feed off of the leaf litter itself, as well as fungi and bacteria present in them as they decompose.

The leaf litter bed is a surprisingly dynamic, and one might even say "rich" little benthic biotope, contained within the otherwise "impoverished" waters. And, as we've discussed before on these pages, it should come as no surprise that a large and surprisingly diverse assemblage of fishes make their homes within and closely adjacent to, these litter beds. These are little "food oasis" in areas otherwise relatively devoid of food.

Can we replicate this "food production" concept in our aquariums?

Yeah, we can!

If you recall, last year, we constructed an aquarium in which the entire "structure" consisted of about a 1.5" (3.81cm) bed of Live Oak leaf litter, a few Oak twigs...and that was it. A fine sprinkling of sand (like .25"/0.635cm) covered the very bottom of the aquarium.
I selected the  Live Oak leaf litter because it is one of the more "diverse" leaf products we work with- it contains bits of other terrestrial soils, dried mosses, small twigs, and even other types of small leaves. This makes it a very fertile "media" upon which to build an active, dynamic aquatic ecosystem in the aquarium. You could just as easily use Red Mangrove, Jackfruit, etc. 

And this aquarium ran incredibly successfully! 

Like, super successfully...and easy.

And it was interesting  too, from an aquarium function perspective. There was virtually no traditional "cycle time"-curiously. And even more interesting, the tank stayed super "clean" in appearance. It did recruit some visible biofilm on the leaf surfaces, although it never really "bloomed" significantly after the first few weeks, and waned on its own in less than a month.


I ran this aquarium as a sort of "proof of concept" tank, so I let the litter to sit for a number of weeks without fishes, seeding it with a cup of decomposed leaf litter/botanicals from a different tank, some pure Paramecium cultures, some Daphnia, and some black worms to sort of "kick start" the micro/macro fauna population. I let it "run in" for about 3 weeks before adding fishes.

My goal was quite bold: To run an aquarium without any supplemental feeding of the resident fishes.

I populated the tank carefully, with 18 "Green Neon Tetras" (Paracheirodon simulans) as the sole occupants. I selected these fish because: a) they are small fishes with little production of waste, and b) they are efficient "micropredators" of small life forms, including the aforementioned Paramecium, biofilms, fungal growths, etc.


So, from day one, I didn't feed anything to these fishes. Rather, I let them do what they've done for eons in Nature- forage among leaf litter for their sustenance. 


And it worked fabulously. (if I say so, myself!)

I started with 18 young, healthy specimens , and when I ended the experiment some 6 months later, I had 18 more mature, healthy specimens- just as fat (if not, MORE so) than when they were added! And, at around three months into the experiment, they spawned! I personally take that as a measure of success!


Of course, despite my successful experiments In this "no-supplemental-feeding" realm, I have no illusions that the idea of just tossing fishes into an aquarium and letting them fend for themselves is some panacea and "ultimate" way to keep fishes.  Nope. And, I did perform routine weekly water exchanges and regular filter cleanings (I used an Ehiem 2211).

Nothing crazy there, really. And certainly not anything that would even qualify as "benign neglect", either. There was definitely not anything close to that. Interestingly, there was no detectible nitrate and phosphate in this aquarium during the entire operational lifespan of the system.

Other than no supplemental feeding, there was little more to distinguish this approach from more "traditionally-run" systems. However, I think it helps prove, to some extent, that there is a "low-maintenance, low food-input" aquarium approach for keeping certain small fishes which is viable.
Of course, that means setting the system up correctly from day one to function in this fashion.

Much like in Nature, if properly conceived and populated with an initial population of live food sources, I believe that an aquarium can be configured to create a productive, biologically-sustainable system, requiring little to no supplemental food input on the part of the aquarist to function successfully for extended periods of time.

Of course, it is significantly different than a natural, fully-open system in many ways. And this is not a "revolutionary" statement or pronunciation, or some "breakthrough" in the art of aquarium keeping.


It is just an idea that- like so many we encourage here- replicates some aspects of natural aquatic systems. With responsible management and continued experimentation, I really see no reason why this concept couldn't be done on a larger scale with the same great success. 

My next iteration of this experiment will be to apply this idea to a tank with a significantly deeper leaf litter bed- something like 3"-4" (7.62cm-10.16cm), to see if there are different possible outcomes with a greater leaf biomass. I am very curious to see if a deeper leaf litter bed functions similarly to the shallow type if regular maintenance is employed. 

I suspect there will be not much difference in "performance."

There's so much to learn from these sorts of fun experiments...both about the natural leaf litter beds of the world, and the ability to recreate their function in our aquariums...Let's see some more work in this cool little speciality sector of the botanical-style aquarium!

Stay creative. Stay curious. Stay Excited. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response

Joanne McLean
Joanne McLean

August 22, 2021

Just started 10g with pond mud leaf litter some biosand with oak and almond leaves. No fish but thinking white cloud and silver tip tetras and Cory catfish. Few of each.

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