Nature IS the best designer...

I was talking to a customer the other day, who was plannning an exciting new aquarium. She was a bit torn about the direction she wanted to take. She was really focused on an aquarium that was a lot like "_______________'s tank from the IAPLC contest",  with it's careful, disciplined arrangement of wood and plants, yet she had this nagging urge to do something that she felt would be more "in touch with what nature is like" (her words). She was leaning towards creating some sort of natural-themed tank, and was thinking of incorporating some botanicals into the mix. She was thinking of a biotope tank, specifically trying to draw cues from Australia or New Guinea for a cool collection of Rainbow fishes. Yet, she was concerned about the need to accumulate all of the "correct" materials so that "people" would think she was "being completely accurate."

Red flag.

Was she creating for herself- or for the masses? Or for contest judges? 

"Most people believe that by studying and implementing the patterns of others, that they will succeed. But it is your unique passion that creates the patterns." -Matty Dorey

After a bit of conversation, I drew out from her that she just wanted to do something that would be "more or less" biotopic in nature, but  a display that she could enjoy. A more relaxed, generalized interpretation of the habitats from which her fishes came from.

Ahh, that's a more solid direction.

As you know, we're big fans of biotope aquariums, and biotope-themed aquariums. Is there a difference between the two, by the way? Well, in our opinion, yes. A "biotope" aquarium attempts to replicate a very specific location, paying very close attention to even the smallest details, such as the type of plants, rocks, substrate, etc,- making sure that they are the same materials found in the biotope being replicated. This is the realm of the contest aquarium, where entries are judged on these most pertinent criteria. I have the utmost in admiration and respect for aquarists who venture down this highly disciplined path of aquarium design. I love seeing the amazing contest entries!

Yet, that's a contest.

"Biotope-themed" aquariums is the realm where I personally operate. I enjoy creating more "superficial" simulations of given environmental niches or habitats in the aquarium, with more attention paid towards recreating the overall "look and feel"of the subject location. The fishes are typically those found in the same general area or habitat, but it may not be that specific. Like, "South American characins" or "Apistogramma species"- you know, kind of broad in scope.The materials used in the aquascape would approximate those found in the habitat I'm interested in. I could totally live with that.  A contest purist would no doubt scoff at this type of tank, but to many hobbyists, it's a serious "upgrade" from the more traditional aquarium, which is an assortment of fishes, plants, and materials from all over the world.

Two widely divergent approaches to the same general idea- to replicate, in some form, a natural habitat from which our aquarium fishes come from. Both gather inspiration from the best "designer" out there- nature. And both, if executed well, can serve the same purposes: Giving some insight into the habitats from which our aquarium fishes come from, and an appreciation for them-as well as providing satisfaction, beauty and enjoyment for the owner and visitors to the aquarium alike. Having "more-or-less" natural type conditions in the aquarium offers us another important insight- the opportunity to observe natural social behaviors, reactions to the physical environment, colors, and spawning behaviors in our fishes.

It's true, the leaf litter style tanks that we play with and talk about so much on these pages are not perfect reproductions of say, Amazon igarapes, becuase they might contain leaves from areas like Southeast Asia, India, and even North America/Europe, but they simulate the appearance, form, and function of these dynamic environments. The "function" part is pretty cool, in my opinion, because, from an "operational" standpoint, I imagine that your Amazonian fishes won't really notice, care, or pay mind to the fact that the leaves they're swimming over happen to be those of an Asian Psidium guajava (Guava) or Magnolia grandiflora form the Southeastern U.S. as opposed to those of the Ceiba samauma tree, which dominates the region. The fishes engage in the same behaviors regardless.

Oh, sure, if you broke down the analytical chemistry in Amazonian blackwater, versus say, suburban Los Angeles blackwater, you'd undoubtedly see some differences due, at least in part to the fact that you're using some different leaves than those found in your target habitat, but from the functional perspective, the leaves you're using in your carefully prepared water in your 240L aquarium are probably doing the same thing that the native leaves do in Igarapé do Costa, Brazil. 

And it works, because you're modeling your aquarium after nature- or at least, taking more cues from the natural habitats of your fishes than you are from say, last month's "Tank of The Month" in "Fish Geek Online Magazine" or whatever. Otherwise, aquariums fall into a pattern of just being "derivative", following a strict "design guide" because that's the prevailing "style" of the moment. This is something that's important to look at objectively. As is the fact that a tank should be enjoyable to YOU.

Ideally, in my opinion, inspiration should come from multiple sources, including of course, the work done by other aquarists- but definitely also including some studies of photos of the natural underwater environments you seek to recreate in your aquariums. This type of natural inspiration is not just for biotope contest's for everyone who keeps an aquarium. 

We should look at nature for all of the little details it offers. We should question why things look the way they do, and postulate on what processes led to a habitat looking and functioning the way it does- and why/how fishes came to inhabit it and thrive within it. This can really help us in our quest to create beautiful and interesting displays!

And, there is a lot to be said about drawing inspiration from an "artist" that's been at it for several billion years, isn't there?

So many cues from nature can be interpreted for use in our aquaria, offering a form and function that is as impressive as it is beautiful.

The idea of turning to nature for inspiration is as old as aquarium keeping itself; however, in recent years, we seem to have moved a bit away from that, drawing more inspiration from other aquarist's work. Again, this is wonderful, and a great thing- symbolic of the interconnected global hobby we're in. However, with so much emphasis on replicating the fine work of other hobbyists, it's nice to gain a fresh perspective from nature one in a while, incorporating it into our "toolbox" of ideas- in our own way, to create something that we enjoy-something that is truly unique, and which gives us a real "slice of the bottom" as well.

The hobby is old. The natural world is older. And far more vast. And filled with inspiration for those who simply look for it. Your ideas for your next tank are as close as the world outside your door.

Take a step through your eyes. And breath it in.

Nature IS the best designer.

Stay inspired. Stay observant. Stay creative.

And stay wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

November 09, 2016

Hey, Bret- thanks for the ind words! Really glad you’re enjoying the blogs. We have a lot of fun writing them, and love the feedback and suggestions we receive from our customers/fans. As we all learn more and more about utilizing botanicals in aquariums, it’s a great opportunity for everyone to share their experiences- good and bad-so that we can advance the state of the art that much more! We look forward to helping you create that cool Apisto tank; just let us know if you have any questions!


November 08, 2016

Just wanted to take a moment to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs since I discovered your site. I recently moved and am about to start up my 48g tank and am going to do an Amazon “themed” tank for Apisogrammas (my favorite fish). I can’t wait to use some of the items I see in your catalog and draw some inspiration from what I’ve read here.

Great blog, keep it up!


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