Random, or not?

I'm a big fan of some of the aquatic features that you see in Nature. The seemingly random, unusual, and almost "disorderly" appearance of many aquatic features is really inspiring. I mean, Nature takes all of these random elements, and combines them in amazing ways.

And when you consider that virtually all freshwater fishes come into contact with some botanical materials throughout their existence, it opens your mind to the possibilities. In virtually every body of water, you'll find some sunken branches, tree trunks, leaves, roots, seed pods, etc.- stuff which can create really interesting features to support all sorts of fishes.

And this doesn't require us to do tremendous amount of "aquascaping" in the traditional hobby sense. Rather, it's more about seeing how Nature does it...


Think about this: We as hobbyists spend an enormous amount of energy and effort creating meticulous wood arrangements and rockwork in our aquariums, trying to achieve some sort of perfectly-radioed, artistic layout.

Personally, I'd like to see us apply the same level of dedication to really understanding and replicating the "function" of Nature in relation to its appearance, and embracing the random nature of its structure in our tanks.

When you look at those amazing pictures of the natural aquatic habitats we love so much, you're literally bombarded with the "imperfection" and randomness that is nature. Yet, in all of the "clutter" of an igarape flooded forest, for example, there is a quiet "elegance" to it.

There is a sense that everything is there for a reason- and not simply because it looks good. It IS perfect. Can't we bring this sense to our aquariums? I think we can...simply by meeting nature halfway.

Is there not also beauty in "randomness", despite our near-obsessive pursuit of rules, such as "golden ratio", color aggregating, etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the (insert this year's trendiest wood here) branch within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of Nature, let alone, the natural functionality of "randomness." 

In other words, just because it looks good, it doesn't mean it's what Nature looks like. That's perfectly okay, of course, except when you're blabbing on and on about how your tank is a "beautiful recreation of Nature", as hobbyists tend to do online!

I think it's perfectly okay for hobbyists to simply say that they have created a beautiful, artistic, nature-inspired arrangement in their tanks! A beautiful tank is a beautiful tank- regardless of how you label it. It's that misappropriation of the term "Nature" or "Natural" that drives me crazy.

There's a disconnect, of sorts- and I think it starts with our collective failure as hobbyists to take into account how materials like branches, leaves, twigs, and seed pods arrive in their positions within an aquatic habitat. These factors have a huge influence on the way these habitats form and function.

When you think about how materials "get around" in the wild aquatic habitats, there are a few factors which influence both the accumulation and distribution of them. In many topical streams, the water depth and intensity of the flow changes during periods of rain and runoff, creating significant re-distribution of the materials which accumulate on the bottom, such as branches, leaves, seed pods, and the like.

Larger, more "hefty" materials, such as submerged logs, etc., will tend to move less frequently, and in many instances, they'll remain stationary, providing a physical diversion for water as substrate materials accumulate around them.

Most of the smaller materials, like branches, seed pods, and leaves may tend to move around quite a bit before ultimately settling and accumulating in a specific area-perhaps one with less flow, natural barriers like branches or fallen trees, a different bottom "topography", and other structural aspects, like bends and riffles.

Sometimes, seasonal flooding or overflowing streams run through previously terrestrial habitats, with the water moving materials around considerably. One might say that the "material changes" to the environments created by this movement of materials can have significant implications for fishes. In the wild, they follow the food, often existing in, and subsisting off of what they can find in these areas.

Yeah...They tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", right?

Right there, you can see that there is some predictability and utility in the "random" nature of aquatic habitats. They provide enormous support for life forms at many levels. 

Any random stream in Nature contains inspiration and ideas which we can apply to our aquascapes, without having to overthink it. Sure, even the simple act of placing a piece of wood in our tanks requires someconsideration...

However, it think a lot of it boils down to what we are placing the emphasis on as aquarists. Perhaps it's less about perfect placement of materials for artistic purposes, and more about placing materials to facilitate more natural function and interactions between fishes and their environment.

We make those "mental shifts" and accept the dark water, the accumulation of leaves and botanicals, the apparent "randomness" of their presence. We study the natural habitats from which they come, not just for the way they look- but for WHY they look that way, and for how the impacts of the surrounding environments influence them in multiple ways.

It goes beyond just finding that perfect-looking branch or bunch of leaves to capture a "look." We've already got that down. We can go further...

Sure, embracing some different aesthetics can seem a bit- well, intimidating at first, but if you force yourself beyond just the basic hobby-oriented mindset out there on these topics, there is a whole world of stuff you can experience and learn about!

And the information you can gain from this process just might have an amazing impact on your aquarium practice; that might just lead to some remarkable breakthroughs that will forever change the hobby!

There is a tremendous amount of academic material out there for those willing to "deep dive" into this. And a tremendous amount to unravel and apply to our aquarium practices! We're literally just scratching the surface. We're making the shifts to accept the true randomness of Nature as it is.  We are establishing and nurturing the art of "functional aesthetics."

I suppose that there are occasional smirks and giggles from some corners of the hobby when they initially see our tanks, with some thinking, "Really? They toss in a few leaves and they think that the resulting sloppiness is "natural", or some evolved aquascaping technique or something?"

Funny thing is that, in reality, it IS a sort of evolution, isn't it?

I mean, sure, on the surface, this doesn't seem like much: "Toss botanical materials in aquariums. See what happens." It's not like no one ever did this before. And to make it seem more complicated than it is- to develop or quantify "technique" for it (a true act of human nature, I suppose) is probably a bit humorous. 

On the other hand, most of us already know that it's not just to create a cool-looking tank. It's not purely about aesthetics. The aesthetics are a "by-product" of the function we push for. And, another thing We don't embrace the  dark, often turbid water, substrates covered in decomposing leaves and twigs, and the appearance of biofilms and fungal growths on driftwood because it allows us to be more "relaxed" in the care of our tanks, or because we think we're so much smarter than the underwater-diorama-loving, hype-mongering competition aquascaping crowd.

Well, maybe we are? 😆

Look, we are doing this for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, natural-functioning 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. 

Wild tropical aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography, flora, and weather of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, and their life cycle. It may appear to be a completely random process, but the reality is that it's surprisingly predictable, often tied into seasonal flood pulses and meteorological cycles.

It's something that we can recreate, to a certain extent- in our aquariums.

And, think about this: 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 terrestrial botanical materials such as leaves, seed pods, and twigs in these aquatic habitats is fundamental to both these wild aquatic habitats, and to the aquariums we create to replicate them.



An aquarium is not just a glass or plastic box filled with water, sand, plants, wood, leaves, seed pods, and fishes.

It's not just a disconnected, clinical, static display containing a collection of aquatic materials.

It's a microcosm.

A vibrant, dynamic, interconnected ecosystem, influenced by the materials and life forms-seen and unseen- within it, as well as the external influences which surround it. 

An aquarium features, life, death, and everything in between.

It pulses with the cycle of life, beholden only to the rules of Nature, and perhaps, to us- the human caretakers who created it.

But mainly, to Nature.

The processes of life which occur within the microcosm we create are indifferent to our desires, our plans, or our aspirations for it. Sure, as humans, we can influence the processes which occur within the aquarium- but the outcome- the result- is based solely upon Nature's response.

In the botanical-method aquarium, we embrace the randomness and unusual aesthetic which submerged terrestrial materials impart to the aquatic environment. We often do our best to establish a sense of order, proportion, and design, but the reality is that Nature, in Her infinite wisdom borne of eons of existence, takes control.

We have two choices: We can resist Nature's advances, attempt to circumvent or thwart her processes, such as decomposition, growth, or evolution.

Or, we can scrape away "unsightly" fungal growth and biocover on rocks and wood, remove detritus, algae, replace our leaves, and trim our plants to look neat and orderly.

Or, we can embrace Her seemingly random, relentless march, and reap the benefits of Her wisdom.

Stay thoughtful. Stay resourceful. Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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