"Operating our aquariums...Replicating Nature"

One of the real “frontiers” of the aquarium hobby is the practice of “operating” our tanks like the little microcosms that they are.

Attempting to replicate in our aquariums- on a number of levels- the processes and cycles which occur in Nature. We’re talking about things like seasonal weather cycles, water temperature, depth, nutrient levels, pH, current, photoperiod, food “pulsing”, etc.

Historically, hobbyists have been doing things like this to stimulate spawning in a wide variety of fishes over the years. This is really nothing new.

However, incorporating regular environmental manipulation for the routine maintenance of our fishes IS something a bit different. I'm not talking about "working" your tap water to achieve "blackwater" or "brackish" conditions in your aquarium. Rather, I'm suggesting that, once those "baseline" environmental parameters are set, that you "operate" your tank by trying to replicate some of the processes that we mentioned above.

And we're just scratching the surface here!


One easy "operation" that we can perform is the seasonal "pulsing" of leaves into our tanks. It's a process which can relatively easily simulate what occurs in Nature, when you think about it. 

There is a more-or-less continuous "supply" of leaves falling off into the jungles and waterways in these habitats, which is why you'll see leaves at varying stages of decomposition in tropical streams. It's also why leaf litter banks may be almost "permanent" structures within some of these bodies of water!

And, for the fishes and other organisms which live in, around, and above the litter beds, there is a lot of potential food, which does vary somewhat between the "wet" and "dry" seasons and their accompanying water levels. The fishes tend to utilize the abundant mud, detritus, and epiphytic materials which accumulate in the leaf litter as food. During the dry seasons, when water levels are lower, this organic layer compensates for the shortage in other food resources. 

During the higher water periods, there is a much greater amount of allochthonous input (remember that? I mean, on what other hobby-related site do they talk about THAT shit, huh?) from the surrounding terrestrial environment in the form of insects, fruits, and other plant material. I suppose that, in our aquariums, it's pretty much always the "wet season"in that regard, right?

We tend to top off and replace decomposing leaves and botanical more-or-less continuously, allowing materials to decompose and accumulate on top of one another. Very similar to what happens in Nature.

And it makes me wonder...

What if we stopped replacing leaves and even lowered water levels or decreased water exchanges in our tanks to correspond to, for example, the Amazonian dry season (June to December)...And if you consider that many fishes tend to spawn in the "dry" season, concentrating in the shallow waters, could this have implications for spawning our fishes?

I think it might.

In fact, I further proffer that we need to look a lot deeper into the idea of environmental manipulation for the purpose of getting our fishes to be healthier, more colorful. Now I know, the idea is nothing new on a "macro" level- we've been increasing and lowering temps in our aquariums, adjusting lighting levels, and tweaking stuff for a long time in attempts to breed them. That's kind of "Exhibit #1" in making the case that these types of processes work.


Killie keepers have played with this in drying and incubation periods in annual killifish eggs. However, I don't think we've been doing a lot of real hardcore manipulations...like adjusting water levels, increasing nutrient levels (ie; "pulsing" adding leaves and other botanicals), manipulating current, dissolved oxygen, food types, etc. 

I think that there are so many different things that we can play with- and so many nuances that we can investigate and manipulate in our aquariums. What about the pulsing of leaf additions to correspond to the seasonal leaf drop?

I think that this could even add a new nuance to biotope aquarium simulation and the contest scene, such as creating an aquarium which simulates the actual functions- not just the "look"- of  the "Preto da Eva River in Brazil in October", for example...with appropriate environmental conditions, such as water level, amounts of allochthonous material, etc. Show those hardcore contest biotope snobs what a real biotope aquarium is all about! 😆

The possibilities are endless here! And, as always, the aesthetics are a "collateral benefit" of the process.

So much to consider.

Of course, we're doing this stuff for a reason: To create more naturally-functioning, authentic-looking, aquatic displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes and their very existence is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved. To unravel the subtleties of the relationship between them on a deeper level.

Wild tropical aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography and flora of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, and their life cycle. The simple fact of the matter is, when we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a result-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more, we are-to a very real extent-replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.

The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is fundamental. They're part of Nature's "operating system." 


In our little hobby sector, leaves are sort of the "gateway drug", if you will, into our world. Where you go from there depends upon what aspects of the "operating system" you're determined to play with!

The manipulation of other aspects of the aquarium environment, such as temperature, water current, and lighting is every bit as important as the the physical additions of botanical materials and leaves, when it comes to the impact that they have. Even factors such as "filling" a tank with more and more roots and other materials after it's "underway" is another simulation of Nature that we could play with. 

Of course, even when "operating" our tanks, we need to deploy radical amounts of patience in our work.

Botanical-style aquariums typically require more time to evolve. This process can be "expedited" or manipulated a bit, bit to achieve truly meaningful and beneficial results, you just can't rush stuff! 

You can't interrupt it, either.

When you do, as we've learned, results can be, well- "different" than they would be if you allow things to continue on at their own pace. Not necessarily "bad"- just not as good as what's possible if you relax and let Nature run Her course without interruption.

Patience is our guideline. Nature our inspiration. Experience and execution our teachers. We're on a mission...to share the benefits which can be gained by embracing and meeting Nature as She really is.

Give Her a chance. let's let Nature do her thing without interruption.

Trust me. She's awfully good at it.

In the confines of an aquarium, finding a "rhythm" that works for both us and our fishes is the key here. I mean, sure, if you want to really follow global weather patterns and do stepped-up water exchanges and botanical additions and removals to correspond with them, this would be a very cool experiment!

However, for most of us, simply establishing a routine of botanical additions and replenishment is a good idea. Removing them as they decompose, or leaving them in until they completely break down are both practices which form part of the "management"- the operating system- of our aquariums. 


And consistency. 

Working together in a most interesting way.

The more we look at Nature, the more we find that trying to model our aquariums aesthetically and functionally after Her processes is an amazing way to go!

And I think that our fishes will let us know, too...I mean, those "accidental" spawnings aren't really "accidental", right? They're an example of our fishes letting us know that what we've been providing them has been exactly what they needed.

It's worth considering, huh?

Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay persistent. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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