The art and science of "functional aquascaping"

Have you ever thought about why we 'scape our aquariums the way we do?

I mean, we like to create things that look cool...duh. 

However, if you think about it a bit more deeply for a second...what is the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right? when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come?

Well first off...unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like structure. Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.

Yet, the structure that we are talking about is not just rocks and wood, in the context of aquariums. It can be plants, algae, botanicals.

Think about how fishes act in nature. 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?

Another interesting phenomenon that any fisherman will tell you is that fishes also like to gather under trees. Not only do trees provide a respite from the bright light, they provide an opportunity to grab a meal of insects, fruit, and other materials which might fall from the trees throughout the day. By providing both food and shelter, the overhanging trees provide an interesting place for fishes to hang out.

So, where does this leave us in terms of creating an aquascape for our fishes in the aquarium?

Well, for one thing, we can look to nature to see just what it is that falls into the water! In many wild habitats, it's leaves, seed pods, branches, etc. All sorts of stuff. The innovative South American biotope aquarium of Tai Strietman features dried palm fronds! Soemthing entirely relaistic and appropriate- yet, a natural material we seldom see used in aquascaping. And the effect is as stunning as it is realistic!

And what about how these materials are oriented in the water after they fall? For example, when a tree branch falls into the water, gravity, current, wind, etc influence how it lays on the bottom of the stream. Often times, in shallow streams, the branch extends partially out of the water...kind of like what we do in 'scaping, right? Yet, somehow less "contrived."

As aquarists, we put an amazing amount of time into trying to achieve a perfect placement for wood, when the reality is that, in nature, it's decidedly random. Is there not beauty in "randomness", despite our pursuit of the "golden ratio", etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the Manzanita branch within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

By looking at nature, an aquarium like Neil Whitley's, shown above, effortlessly acheives that balance between design and natural chaos that is so exciting.

Bottom line- maybe we don't need to "stress out" so much in our placement of wood in the aquarium, striving for some artistic interpretation...maybe we'd achieve something altogether different- and cool-if we just sort of randomly "drop" the wood into the tank and go from there...maybe? Could you handle that? 

And ask yourself, honestly- is there not a true beauty in the "randomness" of nature? Isn't this what aquarists like Amano were really trying to stress, rather than preaching the rigid adherence to some "formula" of placement? Can't you see the beauty in replicating as scene like this one, photographed my Mike Tuccinardi in the Rio Negro?

And the idea of randomness can involve some design, of course. Don't believe me? The beautiful Tannin-themed hardscape that Jeff Senske of Aquarium Design Group created earlier this year has an incredible sense of scale, design, and style, yet seems to have achieved that "randomness" that only nature can, via skilled placement of rocks, leaves and botanicals within the hardscape.

Even the most "artisitc" interpretations of wood placement in the aquarium can invlove some natural attributes, as demonstrated capably by master 'scaper Johnny Ciotti in this amazing hardscape he did in my old office at Unique Corals (yeah, reefers would freak out when they saw this "exotic" freshwater tank in my office!). It follows a certain "flow"-like in a natural stream- yet retains a certain degree of "random" beauty at the same time.

With the really great variety of wood available these days to the everyday hobbyist, I'd dare make the almost "heretical" assertion that you can pretty much grab virtually any decent piece, or pieces- of of wood and create an incredibly satisfying, natural-looking scape. "Functional aquascaping" is as satisfying as any other form, IMHO.

And what ideas can we glean from tree roots, which often extend into the water of streams, or become submerged in the wet season? They attract tons of fishes in their virtual "maze" of projecting structures. These provide countless sights for fishes to hide, feed, spawn, etc. Just reproducing a small segment of a submerged "root tangle" as an aquarium subject could have thousands of possible configurations!

The interesting thing about tree roots, from an aquascaping perspective, is that we can very effectively simulate them in the aquarium with a number of the more commonly-available wood types, such as Manzanita. By employing a vertical orientation, as our friend Rich Schram did in his Angelfish aquarium, you can create a very effective simulation of this interesting habitat.

The thought of wood as a primary feature in an aquarium is as old as the art of aquscaping. However, with a fresh, objective look at the way wood is situated in natural waterways, we can creating extremely satisfying, surprisingly realistic simulations with relative ease. James Sheen, Tannin's "Ambassador" in the UK, utilized an interesting orientation of wood, and combined it with plants to create a "drool-worthy" scene that I keep staring at over and over.

 The concept of incorporating plants into natural-looking wood-dominant 'scapes is nothing new at all. However, circling back to the "randomness" thing, I think that the idea of letting plants kind of "do their thing" within the wood matrix is something few aquascapers will generally do. Rightfully so, they've embraced a certain "order" to the incorporation of plants in their hardscapes. However, observing once again about what really occurs in nature, and you begin to notice that plants sort of exploit niches in the wood structure and surrounding area which makes their survival easier. This is not always the orderly, strictly placed, and carefully organized manner that we see in every competition 'scape. Rather, it's an appearance based upon the necessity of survival, which has its own beauty, if we'd look at it for what it is.

Our office aquarium will never win a design award; however, we think the placement of the aquatic plants- and the act of letting them grow "as they damn well please" creates a far, far more natural-looking composition than you'd think.

The other consideration with driftwood in our aquascapes is perhaps even more important than anything else, in my opinion: The "recruitment" of organisms (algae, biofilms, plants, etc.) in, on, and among the matrix of wood structures we create, and the "integration" of the wood into other "soft components" of the aquascape- leaves and botanicals. This is an area that has been worked on by hobbyists rather infrequently over the years- mainly by biotope-lovers. However, embracing the "mental shift" we've talekd about so much here- allowing the growth of beneficial biocover, decomposition, tinted water, etc.- is, in our opinion, the "portal" to unlocking the many secrets of nature in the aquarium.

The extraordinary amount of vibrance associated with the natural growth on wood underwater is an astounding revelation. However, our aesthetic sensibilities in the hobby have typically leaned towards a more "sterile", antispetic interpretation of nature, sans algae, biofilm, etc., and these naturally-occuring  phenomenon have typically been shunned. However, a growing number of hobbyists worldwide have began to recognize the aesthetic and functional beauty of these natural occurances, and the realism and intricate beauty of nature is starting to eat away at the old "sterile aquascape" mindset just a bit!

And before you naysayers scoff and assert that the emerging "New Botanical"-style blackwater aquarium is simply an "excuse for laziness", as one detractor communicated to me not too long ago, I encourage you once again to look at nature and see what the world underwater really looks like. There is a reason for the diversity and success of the life forms in these bodies of water. What is it? The parallels between the realistic beauty of the aquarium by our friend Reid at Monsterfish Studio in Hong Kong and the natural habitat in Amazonia shot by Mike Tuccinardi below are hard to deny. Hobbyists are on to something here!

Perhaps the best part of taking a fresh look at the way the world underwater really looks is that we gain a greater appreciation for the stunning diversity of nature, and the urgent need to educate non-hobbyists and protect these invaluable resources. The knowledge that we as aquarium hobbyists gain by researching, replicating, and maintaining systems that are a more realistic representation of nature is priceless. Unlocking the secrets of fish interactions, composition of the population, and parameters of the environment itself is key to spawning and maintaining numerous species of fishes, so that future generations may enjoy them in the wild. With man's impact encroaching more and more into nature, as captured below in the pic by Sumer Tiwari, the urgency to understand these habitats while they are still relatively intact is palpable.

What is truly exciting and encouraging  is that, with every new aquarium that our growing global community creates, the "state of the art" and knowledge of technique, husbandry, and long-term sustainability of botanical-style aquariums grows. It's truly an "open source" collaboration of hobbyists, in which everyone's contribution is both welcome and appreciated- not to mention- indispensable! 

So, be sure to venture out into the local stream, creek, or lake. Seek out pictures of the natural habitats of our fishes, and study them with the same zeal that you do this year's aquascaping champions' works. Ask yourself "why" the environments look the way they do. Formulate new ways to replicate them, and to create sustainable aquarium habitats for the fishes that we treasure so much.

Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay unique. 

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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