Looking a bit more closely...

One of the things that we love most about botanical-style aquariums is the way that they encourage us to observe little details- things that we might otherwise overlook in the aquarium. And by observing those details, we actually see the 'bigger picture" in a very different way.

As aquatic hobbyists, we do have an eye for details, don't we?

Once of the things that I’ve sort of arrived at over the years in my aquarium “career”- probably from my reef keeping side, is a love of creating “microhabitats” within a given system for a variety of fishes. In other words, creating little features and areas within the aquarium which provide some of those specialized niches that they need for their well-being.

This seems at first to be a “no brainer”, but in real world practice, it’s not as easy as you think, right?

For example, we always knew that you need to provide places to retreat to for fishes like Plecos, knifefishes, and even many dwarf cichlids. However, when we start talking about features like leaf litter/botanical beds, we're introducing another dimension- a physical locale in which fishes can both forage and reside.  

We've taken what was normally just sort of "there"- a substrate sand or gravel, and suddenly turned it into a valuable and dynamic niche for both these fishes and others which we might not have considered keeping at first!

With very simple modifications to our existing aquariums (like adding a few well-thought-out places for our fishes to retreat into, or "microhabitats" like botanical or leaf litter beds), we can create and make available an entirely new area of the tank for our fishes to utilize as they would in Nature.

A real no brainer.

Fishes taking advantage of a niches you can create in your system is super important. Not exactly novel, but often overlooked. The kinds of "niches" you offer can have profound positive impact on the lives of your fishes. And the reality is that, even if we don't intentionally create them, we will see these little microhabitats in our botanical-style aquariums.

The concept really got me thinking about how we stock our tanks…

I mean, it’s beyond simply placing a fish into our aquarium…It’s about viewing where your aquarium is in it's evolution at the time that you choose to add a fish to your selection- and then, stocking accordingly.


What I mean is that, as we've discussed before here, it's work considering how "established" a tank is. How diverse the microfauna population is. How stable the water chemistry is. Stuff which we might think about now and then, but which can take a more "front and center" role in our aquairums.

And, even though our systems are artificial in nature, they are little closed microcosms, with distinct “micro-niches” within them-often evolving over time. For example, even a high-light/high flow river tank has SOME areas where the flow is lower, the light less intense…perhaps an area where (gasp!) some detritus or food collects…where sand gets blown into..whatever.

Regardless, these are areas that you can take advantage of by utilizing them fly selecting fishes or plants that would do well under the conditions provided. 

At almost any stage in an aquarium’s life, there are little niches and evolving environmental changes within the system that you can use to your advantage by “planting” aquascaping props (seed pods, leaves, wood, etc.) appropriate for the given niche.

It even goes beyond planned aesthetics (ie; “That piece of wood would look awesome there!”) and, much like happens in the natural environment- plants grow and fishes gather where conditions are appropriate. Fishes take opportunities to live among the debris on newly-inundated forest floors...

Reminds me of the little weeds that just seem to pop up out of the cracks in the sidewalk pavement…you can’t help but admire the craftiness and tenacity of life. If you do, you'll find many times that, not only has the weed utilized this little niche- so has a small "ecosystem" of other plants and insects.

It's quite amazing, actually.

It's a process which continuously occurs in natural aquatic habitats…and our aquariums.

Don’t just look for the prime viewing spot for your fish acquisition. Look for the “cracks in the pavement", in your tanks, too. Those little details- those unique places where fishes can hide, forage among, and spawn...

Your fishes certainly will.

Keep looking at things just a bit more closely, okay? There are a lot of unique things to see out there in Nature, and in our own tanks.

Today’s ridiculously simple, yet quite possibly overlooked idea.

Stay excited. Stay innovative. Stay observant. Stay engaged...

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

September 14, 2020

HI Joshua,

Yes, you hit it on the head Even small spaces with little “details” can create territories for their fishes.

I maintained a group of Ps. cyanodorsalis in my mangrove brackish aquarium, and I had a nice layer of leaf litter (mangrove) in the tank, and they did splendidly! And you’re correct, you could load up on the leaf litter in this tank while it’s cycling without fishes…The safest way to go “all in” on botanicals in a tank, IMHO!


Joshua E Morgan
Joshua E Morgan

September 14, 2020

Cool! I remember when I had my 5 gallon Parosphromenus ‘sentang’ tank, I had multiple males (my original male and several of his grown sons born in that setup) claiming territories and retaining their courtship colors in that tank. Clearly there was ample cover between the leaf litter and plants for them to set up little territories, even in such a comparatively small space.

Speaking of leaf litter…I have an empty 10 gallon lying around, and I am thinking of doing one of two things with it; A, a saltwater macroalgae tank with a colony of Pseudomugil cyanodorsalis, or B, a strict blackwater tank with licorice gouramies (exact species TBD…they are not easy to find, so I would have to work with what I got). If I went the latter route, could I add several inches of leaf litter during the cycling period? I understand that one is not normally supposed to add that many botanicals at once, but since there would be no fish or other animals during the cycling period I was assuming I could get away with it.

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