No place like home....

As we evolve in the hobby of studying, embracing, and replicating the natural habitats of our fishes, it's been very interesting to see that there are many different approaches we as hobbyists are taking to this process. Some of us are extremely hardcore adherents to the art and science of biotopic aquarium design, whereas many others are working the less-demanding "biotope-inspired" angle. Still others are just into cool-looking tanks. Some are a beautiful combination of both!

And it's all great!

What is neat to see- regardless of what approach you take personally to the design of your aquariums- has been the interest in examining the wild habitats of your subject fishes, and attempting to replicate aspects of them in your tanks. The benefits to your fishes have been both significant and documented, and the more we have been looking towards the wild habitats for our inspiration, the more and more we have unlocked about the secrets of the fishes which reside there. And, perhaps even more important, we've obtained a greater appreciation and understanding about the processes which occur in these habitats, and for the need to preserve and protect them from destruction.

The idea of biotope aquariums is nothing new. The idea of creating representation of our fishes' natural habitats is as old as the aquarium hobby itself. However, the art and science of replicating these systems on both a functional and "aesthetic" basis, while attempting to foster some of the natural processes and benefits- is a more recent evolution. For the first time, we're seeing active conversations on replicating functional "food webs", incorporating more natural substrate materials, and examining things like seasonal environmental manipulation in a quest to unlock the secrets of our treasured fishes. It's a super exciting time!

With the launch of Tannin Live! and our growing selection of wild-collected South American and Asian fishes, we're able to obtain precious data and imagery from the wild habitats from which our fishes come. Mike Tuccinardi, our "curator-at-large", has personally visited many of these habitats, and has more than just a basic familiarity with them and the fisherfolk who work there. This gives us- and YOU- the hobbyist- a huge advantage if you're looking to replicate the habitats form which your fish come.

Today I thought it would be fun to look at some of the pics Mike has taken for us in the wild habitats of some of the fishes we offer at Tannin Live! Not only will you appreciate their natural beauty, but you'll get some ideas about how to construct your next aquarium to more accurately represent some of the aesthetic AND functional aspects of their habitats. We will get into the specific "numbers" from these habitats in a future piece, but today we'll just give you some eye candy to get started!

From the Amazon near Leticia, Colombia, we obtain our "fan favorite" Amazon Otocinculus (Otocinculus macrospilus). These beloved little fishes come from actively-flowing streams, filled with rocks, wood, and bordered by riparian vegetation. 

As you can see, the water does take on that brownish cast from decomposing vegetation and substrate, but it also has a real tangle of living plant roots at the water's edge. Many of the fishes are collected from this niche, and you might find it interesting to replicate such a habitat with some roots and larger botanical materials...Perhaps, if you're really  adventurous and creative, you'd want to play with some marginal plants and try to represent the edges of these streams, where these guys and other interesting fishes are often found!

As you can see, it's a bit of work to catch these diminutive fishes, even in the relatively shallow water! And, while we're on the subject...I personally see really shallow water an interesting inspiration for creating some unique aquariums...

And speaking about inspiration, for the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium enthusiast, it's hard to find a fish from a more inspiring habitat than the Cardinal Tetra! Ours come from the Orinoco, and are known to be extremely hardy and adaptable. They are found in both clearwater and (the more commonly-encountered) blackwater habitats. Both are fascinating to replicate in the aquarium, and it's interesting to get a look at the "real deal" locales where these guys are collected for some "functional aquascaping" ideas now and then, isn't it?

The pic above depicts the classic blackwater habitat from the Orinoco, where our Cardinals come from. All of the elements are in play here- the surrounding forest vegetation, roots extending into the water, soft light-colored sand substrate, an aggregation of leaves and botanical materials, and the compelling pieces of tree branches. Oh, and that water! I love this pic because it shows an interesting location with all of the elements we associate with the fishes, but like everything nature does, no one component seems to dominate. Rather, the ecology of the habitat is a collective, with each component contributing to the function, water chemistry, and structural-physical attributes which influence the health, habits, and behavior of these most popular fishes!

From an aquarist's standpoint, it's easy to see why these fishes have captured the imagination of so many hobbyists, and have influenced the design of many botanical-style blackwater aquariums! I know that my latest system was directly influenced by this confluence of elements that are the backbone of these fascinating habitats. SO much there to work with!

When it comes to mimicry and camouflage, perhaps one of the undisputed champions of the aquatic world is the Farlowella "Twig Catfish", Farlowella vittata! This comical and much-loved fish is a perfect resident of a well-researched botanical-style aquarium, replete with wood, leaves, and other botanical materials. It's color and physical shape make it absolutely compelling...and its wonderful adaptation to its habitat make it (unbeknownst to it, of course!) one of the more useful educational tools to introduce the uninitiated into the wonderful world of tropical fishes!

As you might suspect, the wild habitat of these interesting fish is melange of driftwood, roots, and tangled branches, covered in algae and biofilms. These shy and somewhat reclusive fishes use their unique camouflage to their advantage, grazing away on the algal films while maintaining near-perfect mimicry to stay difficult to detect to would-be predators ( I'm thinking birds, maybe?).

As you can see n the pic above, such a habitat would be pretty easy to replicate, with a significant quantity of driftwood pieces and root tangles incorporated into your aquarium design. Palm fronds and other larger botanical items (I'm thinking of stuff like "Ceu Fruta", etc.) and the requisite leaves would form a perfectly natural-looking display, encouraging the grazing behavior of the fish while offering them security. Of course, letting the biofilms and algae accumulate on your wood stack is par for the course here! As well-indoctrinated "Tinter's", we've all let the fear and loathing aspect of these natural life forms go a long time ago- and what an advantage this newfound love for "films" will give your "sticks!"

Those of you who follow my ramblings regularly here and elsewhere are no doubt aware of my near-obsession with the Diptail Pencilfish, Nanostomus eques. I have been in love with this comical, cryptic-looking, yet personable little fish for decades! It's literally the most perfect fish for a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium there is, in my opinion! Everything about it encapsulates what I love about the hobby. And an aquarium designed to replicate its dark and compelling natural habitat is about as cool as it gets, in my (not-so-humble) opinion!

Ours hail from the flooded forest areas of the Orinoco, and are great subjects as "stars" of your botanical-style blackwater aquarium! if you study Mike's pic of the habitat from where ours are collected, you'll see a lot of the usual elements that we've come to expect when discussing these fish and others that reside in flooded forests.

In addition to the botanical materials, branches, and root tangles, did you notice the floating/partially sunken leaf bed? I dod! This is an interesting niche we've talked about before. Sometimes "ephemeral", lasting only short periods of time before breaking up and being washed away with rains and currents- and sometimes lasting for years- these leaf beds are really fascinating environments, seldom replicated in the aquarium! One can only think of the possibilities to replicate this one: Lower water flow, a ton of leaves (not necessarily boiled into submission; rather, soaked to clean 'em up a bit, then tossed in to the tank-regardless of their "buoyancy status"-to form an aggregation of materials in which your Pencils and other small fishes will aggregate and shelter. Talk about a unique "structurally functional botanical aquascape! Try THIS one for an entry into your next biotope aquarium contest!

There are so many unique ecological niches that we can experiment with when contemplating what to try next in our hobby! Part of the fun for me is selecting the environment I want to play with, then figuring out what fishes live there. Other hobbyists take the reverse approach, looking at specific fishes and attempting to replicate their natural habitats...The good news is that there are no real "rules" as tho how to approach this. The main prerequisite, in my opinion, is to consider the needs of the fishes that you want to keep and think about how they live in their natural ecological niches. Even though the fishes we keep are largely adaptable and accepting of many of the conditions we supply them with, including the physical aquascape of the reality, there truly IS no place like home!

Stay fascinated. Stay resourceful. Stay creative. Stay relentless...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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