The "Biotope Aquarium Conundrum": Splitting hairs, raising awareness, and coming to a consensus...

A little while back, I had a member of our community ask if I cared to comment on what I thought about the idea of "biotope" aquariums. Specifically, what I thought the definition of a "biotope aquarium" should be, and how I feel our aquatic botanicals would fit into the currently accepted definition of "biotope aquarium" - and how this plays into the bonging narrative on this surprisingly controversial hobby topic. (lol- the stuff which stresses us, right?)

Of course, being the every-wary fish geek and aquatic entrepreneur...I sensed...a trap! And of course, being opinionated and transparent with my feelings, I felt compelled to at least throw my thoughts out there.

I mean, he asked, right?


This kind of question/discussion/debate is one of those ones where there is no "right" or "wrong" answer, really. It's the kind that gets you to take a stand that is guaranteed to tick off at least 50% of the hobby community no matter how you answer it. I mean, one could argue that there are some strict "definitions" as laid out by....Um, well...

Okay, as laid out by those who oversee contests and such, maybe?

I mean, to go against the prevailing thought in this area is not particularly advantageous, nor is it really necessary. I mean, if you look at the strict definition of the word "biotope", according to Wikipedia (as good a source as any, IMHO) it's this:

A biotope is an area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals. Biotope is almost synonymous with the term habitat, which is more commonly used in English-speaking countries. ... The word biotope, literally translated, means an "area where life lives".

Okay, that's pretty good. 

So, by that definition, translated into the aquarium world, a biotope is anywhere you have a set of environmental conditions (physical, chemical, etc.) for a specific fish or group of fishes. This can be regional, ecological, etc.

Seems straightforward enough to me. 

So why does everyone have such a freakin' COW whenever the discussion turns to what constitutes a "biotope aquarium?" I mean, it's pretty straightforward there. Now, you can split hairs and get seriously hardcore about it, like they do in some contests.

The Biotope Aquarium Design Contest does a really great job of defining what they feel a biotope aquarium is, and what criteria they use to evaluate such displays. They even discuss the species, geographic, and ecological categorization of "biotope" aquariums, and provide a pretty good "track to run on" for anyone who wants to enter their contest and be evaluated under those criteria.

That being said, there are always the discussions that ensue when the winners of contests are announced, or when someone presents their "biotope aquarium" to others in a forum, club meeting, etc. People feel angered, slighted, vindicated, or whatever- depending upon what side of the debate they fall on.

We get really worked up; really pissy about this shit. It's kind of fun to watch from afar, actually. It shows the level of passion and commitment to the "art and science" that our hobby community has. At the end of the day, I think that everyone can and should put aside their interpretive differences and come to an agreement that just about any aquarium intended to replicate- on some level- a specific wild habitat, ecological niche, or area where a certain fish or fishes are found- is hugely important. Why? Because it calls attention to the habitats and environments themselves. It creates a starting point for discussion, research, debate...It raises awareness of the challenges that many habitats face with the encroachment of man's activities. It most certainly makes us appreciate the fragility of life- the genius of nature, and the incredible diversity and beauty of our home planet.

That's really not up for argument, IMHO.

Even the most poorly executed (by "contest" standards", anyways) "biotope" aquarium helps the uninitiated public (or even the hobby community, for that matter) to become just a tad more enlightened about nature. It might just stimulate someone, somewhere to ask themselves, "Is that what it's like in The Atabapo?" And maybe, just maybe, they'll open up the iPad and do a little reading on the habitat that was being discussed...Maybe they'll take a crack at creating a representation of this habitat themselves. Maybe they will research and find and donate to an organization out there that is working to protect it. 

It's all good, IMHO.

Now, back to where I stand...

Sure, I have no issue with any of those standards for a biotope aquarium. They are all logical and well thought out. Where I take issue- like so many things in this hobby- is with attitudes. I mean, I've had people "call out" others because one of the leaves or whatever in a "Rio____ biotope aquarium" is not endemic to the region, or whatever. Okay, I get your thinking, but really...

Even with the contest winners, you can take this attitude and nitpick to the "nth degree":

I mean, what about the substrate? Is it absolutely Rio Negro region "podzol" from the Andes? Is every species of wood used in the tank form the surrounding varzea forest? Is every freaking bacteria, fungi, Paramecium, etc. the exact species that comes from the region being represented?

Huh? Is it? 


Can these armchair critics really discern the decomposing leaf of Hevea brasiliensis, Swietenia macrophylla, or Euterpe precatoria from Catappa, Guava, Jackfruit, Apple, Oak, etc? I mean, seriously? And, if someone cannot source these specific Amazonian leaves, does that invalidate the aquarium from consideration as a "biotope aquarium?"

Does it even matter?

Whew, I AM getting worked up here, lol.

Again, it's the self-righteous attitudes surrounding these kinds of things that drive me crazy...

The point of my rant is that I think we all want the same thing. We all want to represent. as accurately and faithfully as possible, the biopic niches we're into. And that is incredibly cool! But when we get caught up in semantics and petty arguments for the sake of...well, for the sake of "being right"- who does this help? Who does it hurt? Doesn't this kind of criticism hurt those who are in a unique position to use their aquarium hobby talents to maybe, MAYBE reach a few non-hobbyists with their beautiful tank...perhaps raising awareness of the plight of that Borneo peat swamp or African flood plain? Does it discourage them from trying again in the future and sharing their work with the world?

Yeah. I think it does. And that sucks.

We need to lose the attitude on this topic.

I think many aquariums can be accurately labeled "biotope-inspired" or "biotope-style" aquarium. I think a lot of the cool work our community does is at that level. There is nothing wrong with that at all.

I mean, sure, one could say I'm a bit biased because I own a company which offers natural materials from around the world to enable hobbyists to replicate -at least on some level- the aesthetics- and more important- some of the function- of various aquatic habitats from around the world, and that I want to justify offering stuff that merely "represents" the materials found in the ______ region.

I'll give you that.

And yeah, my orientation- my personal passion- the passion which led me to found Tannin Aquatics- was to curate, love, and offer my fellow hobbyists the natural materials they can use to create inspiring and compelling natural-style aquariums. To what level of authenticity we all aspire to is the choice of each one of us as individuals.

Now, the problem is, you "can't always get what you want."

Much as I'd love to offer the leaves of the Hevea basiliensis or whatever, some materials aren't always-or ever- available. One could even make the argument that collecting some items would damage the very habitats that they come from. Some governments forbid or severely restrict the export of certain botanical materials- even fallen, dried leaves. Many of the materials we source are only available because they are a bi-product of agriculture or other domestic activities-many of which are (fortunately), sustainable and eco-sensitive. For example, many of our leaves and pods are from family farms, which grow fruit or utilize the leaves or seed pods for other purposes as well.

We are constantly researching new stuff and testing it and adding it to our collection. Look forward to some entirely new leaves and botanicals from Tannin in 2018! (shameless plug- couldn't resist!)

Okay, I clarified my position on the topic, and hopefully, answered this guy's question in one fell swoop! (and probably ticked off some people too.) YES! That's what I call a complete day...

Oh, I'm digressing just a bit here...

Anyways, the point is that we sometimes have to understand, in our haste to judge or criticize the work of others as being "inaccurate", that they are attempting to represent, as much as possible, a specific habitat with the materials available to them. 

And they're doing an amazing job for the most part.

Sure, if you want to judge things on the basis of being absolutely 100% faithful to the flora and fauna of a specific habitat or geographic region, a lot of these tanks will "fall short." On the other hand, if you want to accept them as representations of certain habitats- most are spectacularly accurate and compelling in every way- inspiring, educating, and provoking discussion about the  habitat they attempt to represent.

Total win.

Now, I have no negative feelings at all towards those who want 100% (or somewhere approaching that number) accuracy for the aquariums they work with. We should always try to pursue our own version of "perfection." To that end, we've embarked on an effort to curate very regionally-biotopically-accurate collections of botanicals for hobbyists interested in extremely authentic replications.

I've been fortunate enough to have done some work with Chris Englezou, who has an extraordinary level of commitment to studying, replicating, and preserving precious aquatic habitats worldwide. I've learned a ton from his dedication to accuracy, and his commitment to this most worthy cause. His blogs are AMAZING, and if you're even slightly interested in biotope-style aquariums, they are a MUST read!

Starting in January, we'll be releasing some specially researched and curated botanical packs in our  upcoming"Biotope by Tannin Aquatics" section. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of  these packs will benefit Chris' charity, The Freshwater Life Project. 

Exciting, compelling, and educational. 

Those words can-and should-apply to most any aquarium or aquatic display we create. And they do, for the most part. So, regardless of what we label it "biotope aquarium", "natural-style aquarium", "biotope-inspired", etc.- our collective love for and commitment to the craft of creating inspiring aquariums is almost a constant; a "given."

Yeah, we're all THAT good. 

Sometimes, I like to kick the aquarium communitiy in its ass. Sometimes, I like to give it a big hug, send some props its way. 

Today, I think we did both.

It's honest. It's emotional. It's heartfelt. It's how I feel.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nor should you.

Stay bold. Stay committed. Stay kind to each other. Stay curious. Stay passionate...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

December 23, 2017

Ohh…interesting question, Melissa!

I think that, frustrating though it is…you have been on the right path. The way I see it, you have two possible approaches:

1) Find out on or other ichthyological sites where the “type specimens” used to describe the species to science were collected, and model your biotope after that locale.

2) Choose your favorite “invasive” locale and model your tank after that! Although probably not quite as satisfying, it’s sort of “correct” in that, well- the fish is found there. And perhaps showcasing the divers fishes that it’s found with and the possibly odd juxtaposition that causes could serve as a sort of learning tool to show how invasive fishes can affect a wide variety of aquatic populations…

So, there are some options if you take the “when life gives you lemons” approach! Good luck!



December 22, 2017

Great article. I’ve recently gotten interested in the “biotope” kind of setup, and I’ve actually only been in the hobby a little over a year now. The problem I’ve run into is, what do you do when you’ve got a fish that is an invasive species, and is basically everywhere. I have Weather Loaches, and I started trying to research because I wanted to try to replicate their native habitat… that’s where I run into a problem. They have a very large area of “native” habitat, and then they spread like herpes! So now I don’t know what plants to add, and what other fish to put in with them, to make some semblance of a biotope. How do you even research that? I’ve tried google searching so many various terms.. I’m just stuck. Any ideas on what I could do to narrow down my options a bit?

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