The aquarium as an Ecosystem: An old idea that somehow always seems new..

Over the century and a half or so in which the "modern" aquarium hobby has been around, the idea of an aquarium as a miniature ecosystem has long been suggested. It's certainly a valid one, which is as hard to dispute as it is to fathom why it always seems to be this "amazing new concept" to some every time it's mentioned in the aquarium world.

I think it's because we've been a bit too insular at times in our hobby work. it's like it hasn't dawned on us that this idea is kind of fundamental to our aquariums.

Ecosystems are fascinating dynamics which embrace life and death, reproduction and predation, and growth and decomposition. The tiniest, least sophisticated of organisms, and larger, more complex ones. Aquariums are the epitome of this. The definition of an ecosystem is "a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment."

An aquarium ecosystem is set of interdependencies; in other words, it has different organisms living in it that interact and depend on each other. They can’t survive without the ecosystem. If any part of the system fails, the whole thing fails. The mythical, yet sort of half-grounded-in-truth hobby nightmare of the "tank crash" is typically caused by a failure at some level, within the ecosystem.

Of course, as aquarium industry vendors, manufacturers, and thought leaders, us humans love to apply descriptors to the type of aquarium approach we favor: You know, "botanical-style aquarium", "biotope aquarium", "Nature Aquarium", "reef aquarium"... all somewhat different in their orientation, yet all essentially the same:

A collection of interdependent organisms existing together in a closed system.

Every aquarium that we set up is an ecosystem.

In fact, it's almost unavoidable. 

And yeah, some approaches do facilitate the development and maintenance of an ecosystem better than others.

They're all ecosystems.

Planted aquariums and botanical-style aquariums are systems which, at their very foundation, are configured to recruit, develop, grow and multiply microorganisms and other life forms to form the basis of the system.

The botanical-style aquarium depends upon botanical materials to impact the environment. I think it's an approach which does an even better job than most at creating an ecosystem.

This type of aquarium embraces a microbiome of life forms at all levels and of all sizes, ranging from our fishes, to small crustaceans, worms, and countless microorganisms. These little guys, the bacteria and Paramecium, Daphina and the like, comprise what is known as the "microbiome" of our aquariums.

A "microbiome", by definition, is defined as "...a community of microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses) that inhabit a particular environment." (according to Merriam-Webster)

Now, sure, every aquarium has a microbiome to a certain extent:

We have the beneficial bacteria which facilitate the nitrogen cycle, and play an indespensible role in the function of our little worlds. The botanical-style aquarium is no different; in fact, this is where I start wondering...It's the place where my basic high school and college elective-course biology falls away, and you get into more complex aspects of aquatic ecology in aquariums.

Yet, it's important to at least understand this concept as it can relate to aquariums. It's worth doing a bit of research and pondering. It'll educate you, challenge you, and make you a better overall aquarist.

So much of this process-and our understanding- starts with...botanicals. 

With botanicals breaking down in the aquarium as a result of the growth of fungi and microorganisms, I can't help but wonder if they perform, to some extent, a role in the management-or enhancement-of the nitrogen cycle.

Yeah, you understand the nitrogen cycle, right?

Okay, I know that you do.

If you really understand how it works, you won't try to beat it; circumvent it.

Aquarium hobbyists have (by and large) collectively spent the better part of the century trying to create "workarounds" or "hacks", or to work on ways to circumvent what we perceive as "unattractive", "uninteresting", or "detrimental." And I have a theory that many of these things- these processes- that we try to "edit", "polish", or skip altogether, are often the most important and foundational aspects of botanical-style aquarium keeping!

It's why we literally pound it into your head over and over here that you not only shouldn't try to circumvent these processes and occurrences- you should embrace them and attempt to understand exactly what they mean for the fishes that we keep. They're a key part of the functionality.

Now, I've had a sort of approach to creating and managing botanical-style aquariums that has drawn from a lifetime of experience in my other aquarium hobby  "disciplines", such as reef keeping, breeding killifish and other more "conventional" hobby  areas of interest. And my approach has always been a bit of an extension of the stuff I've learned in those areas.

I've always been fanatical about NOT taking shortcuts in the hobby. In fact, I've probably avoided shortcuts- to the point of making things more difficult for myself at times! Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome- a little closed ecosystem, which requires us to support the organisms which comprise it at every level.

Just like what Nature does.

The aquarium is 

Staring at natural aquatic habitats and trying to understand how they formed, why the formed, and what factors influence their ecology keep me constantly inspired. Studying the igapo of South America has given me real inspiration and ideas to try in order to create more unique, highly functional aquarium systems.

Aquariums which are more than just aesthetic representations of these wild habitats. They're functional ecosystems, representative of the habitats in multiple ways.

So, we shouldn't be surprised at all by the idea that every aquarium can and should be viewed as a closed which mimics the wild ecosystems on a level which we've previously not considered.

Yet, when hobbyists create a botanical-style aquarium for the first time, we see this incredible excitement about the "life" in the system...excitement 

I wonder if it's because we have been so indoctrinated to the idea that we need to scrub and polish out all of that undesirable stuff that, when we finally embrace the botanical-style aquarium philosophy of "let it be", that the amazing burst of life and the responses of our fishes to their environment is truly astonishing. It's so different than what we're used to.

The front row seat that we as botanical-style aquarium lovers have is quite unique in the aquarium hobby. Creating the aquarium with the intention of assembling a full-tilt, functional ecosystem is tremendous.

No other hobby speciality is poised to study, appreciate, and embrace the vast diversity and process of Nature like we are in the aquarium world. It's incredibly exciting and humbling to realize that the mental shifts that our community has taken- going beyond just the aesthetics- and really working with Nature, as opposed to fighting Her- will likely yield some of the most important breakthroughs in the history of the aquarium hobby.

Yeah, the idea of an aquarium as an ecosystem is not new...But the idea of embracing the "ecosystem" part of the equation is

Stay fascinated. Stay studious. Stay excited. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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October 24, 2023

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