Microcosms, representations, functionality, and education...Positive mental shifts from the "botanical revolution..."

It's kind of neat to hear from many of you in our community discussing your aquariums in terms of "microcosms" of life. This is something that, while not exactly "new,' is gaining greater prominence. Making that mindset shift back towards that old aquarium hobby adage that an aquarium is essentially little closed ecosystem, subject to the influences of Nature on a small scale.

An acceptance of both the function and appearance of Nature is, surprisingly, a big leap for many hobbyists to make. This is profoundly different than the more popular point of view that a "natural" aquarium is a highly contrived, aesthetics-first elegantly aquascaped aquarium dominated by aquatic plants. A realization that there is more to the concept of a functional aquarium than just plants. Other natural materials are equally important.

And of course, the idea of aquariums inspired by, or representing Nature doesn't mean that every single plant, twig, rock, etc. found in a given habitat you're recreating must be included in order to complete your aquarium. That type of ultra-hardcore authenticity is the realm of the serious biotope aquarium enthusiasts- the guys who enter those contests where they model very specific biotope. You know, like the ones that they name: "Shallow stream off of the Tano River, 3 km north of Sunyani, Ghana." Stuff like that.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. However, I can't help but laugh at the criticisms levied by contest judges against biotope aquariums in these contests because they're using "the wrong grade of sand" or whatever, to properly represent that environment, when the substrate is clearly dominated by European Beech leaves or Alder Cones from North America, or whatever. It's just a bit...well, amusing to me. 

I'm personally more interested in the overall "look" and atmosphere (and "functionality") of the habitat from an aquarium perspective, and that's what we've built Tannin around. I realize that there are specialized habitats where the "authentic" materials, like rocks or substrates, can make a difference in the function (like African Rift Lakes, Peat Swamps, Soda Lakes, etc.), but for the bulk of our replications, I think that having materials which represent those found in the habitats we're interested is a more than adequate approach.

Key word here being "represent"- and perhaps more thoughtfully or faithfully than we've done in the past, with as much emphasis on function as on the aesthetics.

Many of the items we use in aquairums, for example, Catappa leaves, may not be found in the specific habitat we're trying to replicate, but they effectively represent the leaves found in the streams and rivers we're interested in modeling our aquariums after. (The irony is that the Indian Almond tree has been transplanted to tropical regions worldwide, for better or for worse-so it actually may end up being more "biotopically correct" than you might think in some areas!)

Replication versus Representation...

One of the things we enjoy most here at Tannin is offering materials that help you recreate your own representations of all sorts of aquatic habitats. We have worked hard to source materials which help you create some cool looks and some of the "functionality' of wild aquatic habitats.  I know that many of you have asked for leaves and pods and such from specific regions, and we hear you. We've been on that for a few years now; never as easy as it seems to be!  

We're working our global suppliers constantly to find "real deal" materials from various tropical regions of the world, consistent with sustainability, economic viability for our suppliers, and import regulations.  It's a slow process, fraught with challenges, but kind of fun! Some items are heavily regulated for export by their native countries, and getting them out is next to impossible (as it should be!). There may be ecological impacts from removing some of these materials from the natural environment, even though they are "fallen and dead"-and we must respect that.

Many times, we've had to get creative.

In the case of Estuary, for example, some the items we sourced were recommendations from aquatic biologists who specialize in brackish water ecology. They gave me some tips about what (more readily available) materials would serve as suitable representations of some of the things found in these habitats, because, once again, they are typically not available in any type of quantity or frequency.

Sometimes, however, unexpected circumstances led to us getting exactly what we wanted! In at least a couple of cases (stories to follow at a later time), we were told by government officials that we were actually doing them and the local environment a favor taking some of these items out of their territory, as they were invasive in nature and they didn't want them there! Talk about a "win-win" situation!

And when you think about it, even the most ardent biotope fanatics "push it" just a bit. I mean, how do you know 100% that the rock or wood that you're using is actually from that specific river proximate to Yasuni National Park in Peru? Can you even obtain it from there? Likely not. Do the judges of these contests really know that? Probably. Isn't there some leeway in judging this based on the understanding that some of this stuff simply isn't available (you can't collect from a national park, right?), and that "facsimile" materials have to be used?

I think so.

I think all of these people get it.

However, to the hardcore hobbyists who ply their trade in the world of 99.999% authenticity- you people amaze me. As someone who is dedicating his life and business  to helping offer materials for hobbyists to replicate the natural environment, you have my complete respect. If you get excited because you actually found a twig from, say, the Apoquitaua River in Brazil- much RESPECT! I get you.

I think the fact that we're seeing more and more hobbyists making efforts to learn about the natural habitats of our fishes on a "macro" level is amazing. A real game changer, IMHO. Understanding the surrounding environment of the aquatic habitats that  we want to replicate is hugely important, not only to our knowledge base as aquarists, but to understand the uniqueness of these habitats and the urgent need to protect and preserve them.

With more and more attention being paid the overall environments from which our fishes come-not just the water, but the surrounding areas of the habitat, we as hobbyists will be able to call even more attention to the need to learn about and protect them when we create aquariums based on more specific habitats.

The old adage about "we protect what we love" is definitely true here!

Creativity, energy, and ingenuity are all necessary "equipment" for the lover of biotope-style (notice I said "style?") aquariums. It's a fascinating, lifelong pursuit, and the rewards of educating others, learning for ourselves, and sharing what we know are amazingly satisfying.

And, if somewhere along the way, we end up breeding a few fishes, developing some new techniques, and "moving the needle" of aquarium keeping forward just a bit, it doesn't get any better than that! 

Until next time...

Stay excited. Stay enthusiastic. Stay fascinated. Stay inspired. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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