The continuous evolution of aquatic habitats: In Nature and the aquarium...

Some of the most amazing comments we receive after sharing underwater pics of the wild habitats of Amazonia and elsewhere are from hobbyists who, at first, thought that some of these pics were from someones' aquarium! In a few instances, some of the close ups of botanical-themed aquaria are virtually indistinguishable from wild scenes!

That says a lot. 

What an incredible dynamic!

Blurring the lines between nature and the aquarium, at the very least, from an aesthetic sense- and in many aspects, from a "functional" sense, proves just how far today's hobbyists have damn good you are at what you do. And how much more you can do when you turn to nature as an inspiration, and embrace it for what it is.

I'm not telling you to turn your back on the modern popular aquascaping scene; to disregard or dismiss the brilliant work being done by aquascapers around the world, to develop a sense of superiority or snobbery, and conclude that everyone who loves this stuff is a sheep...


Not at all.

I'm simply the guy who's passing along the gentle reminder from nature that we have this great source of inspiration that really works! Rejoice in the fact that nature offers an endless variety of beauty, abundance, and challenge- and that it's all there, free for us to interpret it as we like. It's not all perfect "rule of thirds" or flawless layouts and such.

Some of us just happen to like things bit more "natural" than others...

Blur the lines.

And, part and parcel in this philosophy is the practice of evolving your aquarium in ways that you may not have initially envisioned. 


Okay, let's say that you're kind of over your Southeast Asian Cryptocoryne biotope, and ready to head  out to South America. So, rather than tearing up the entire tank, removing all of the plants, the hardscape, the leaves and botanicals, and the substrate, you opt to remove say, only the plants and perhaps the driftwood/rocks from the tank; exchange a good quantity of the water. 

You leave the botanicals and substrate intact and move on from there...

Woooah! Crazy! You're a fucking rebel...

I know. I know. This isn't exactly earth-shattering. 

Yet, in our world of the botanical-style aquarium, the idea of leaving the substrate and leaf litter/botanical "bed" intact as you "remodel" isn't exactly a crazy one. And conceptually, it's sort of replicates what occurs in Nature, doesn't it?

Most underwater habitats emerge, accumulate, populate, evolve...and change.


Yeah, think about this for just a second...

As we almost constantly discuss, habitats like flooded forests, meadows, vernal pools, igarape, and swollen streams tend to encompass terrestrial habitats, or go through phases where they are terrestrial habitats for a good part of the year. Or, perhaps they're different types of aquatic habitats at different times of the year.

In these wild habitats, the leaves, branches, soils, and other botanical materials remain "in place", or are added to by dynamic, seasonal processes like current, weather, and cyclical leaf drop from trees. For the most part, the soil, branches, and a fair amount of the more "durable" seed pods and such remain present during both phases.

The formerly terrestrial physical environment is now transformed into an earthy, twisted, incredibly rich aquatic habitat, which fishes have evolved over eons to live in and utilize for food, protection, and complex, protected spawning areas. 

I cannot stress how insanely cool and important it is to recognize this dynamic and its impact on fishes. We've talked about this endlessly here- but each time I think about and play with the idea, my mind goes crazy with inspiration! 

All of the botanical material-shrubs, grasses, fallen leaves, branches, seed pods, and such, is suddenly submerged; often, currents re-distribute the leaves and seed pods and branches into little pockets and "stands", affecting the (now underwater) "topography" of the landscape.

Leaves begin to accumulate. Detritus settles.

Soils dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans multiply rapidly.  Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding areas to spawn.

Life flourishes.

The habitat has evolved- transformed by unstoppable, constant natural processes.


When you remove much of the hardscape, plants, etc. from the aquarium as you "evolve" it into something else-some other idea- yet leave the substrate, some of the hardscape, leaves, etc. intact, you're essentially mimicking this process in a most realistic way. In fact, in an absolutely natural way, really.

Sure, a "makeover" of an aquarium can be a seriously disruptive event.

On the other hand, if you take the mindset that this is a "transformation" of sorts, and act accordingly, it becomes more of an evolutionary process.

Okay, I might just be torturing this simple idea to death- I admit this point that I'm probably not adding much more to the "recipe" here; likely simply being redundant and even a bit vague...However, I think we need to think about how interesting and indeed, transformative this simple practice is.

And yeah, I'll concede that we probably don't have every answer on the processes which govern this stuff.

For example:

The most common question I get when it comes to taking out a fair amount of this material and then "continuing" the tank is, "Will it cycle again?"

And the answer is...It could.

On the other hand, here is my personal experience:

Remember, I keep a sort of diary of most of my aquarium work. I have for over three decades (gulp...). Just random scanning my "diary", I see that I have executed this practice dozens of times in all types of aquariums, ranging from simple planted aquariums to hardscape-only tanks, to botanical-style, blackwater and brackish aquariums, to reef tanks.

Not once- as in never- have I personally experienced any increase in ammonia and nitrite, indicative of a new "cycle."


Now, this doesn't mean that I guarantee a perfect, "cycle-free" process for you.  I'd be a complete asshole if I asserted that.

On the other hand, by leaving the bulk of the substrate material intact, and continuing to provide "fuel" for the extant biotia by leaving in and adding to the botanicals present in the aquarium, this makes a lot of sense.

I personally think our botanical-style systems, with their diverse and dynamic biology, rebound quickly. Much like the natural systems they purport to represent.

Sure, I have in place a mindset and husbandry practices that assure success with this idea.

Personally, I don't think that botanical-style aquarium are ever "finished." They simply continue to evolve over extended periods of time, just like the wild habitats that we attempt to replicate in our tanks do...

The continuous change, development, and evolution of aquatic habitats is a fascinating, compelling area to study- and to replicate in our aquaria. I'm convinced more than ever that the secrets that we learn by fostering and accepting Nature's processes and dynamics are the absolute key to everything that we do in the aquarium.

They're by no means difficult to learn- if we give Nature the chance, observe closely, and don't attempt to "polish out" or "edit" every aspect of Nature that we find a challenge to our aesthetic sensibilities...

Push yourself.

Embrace  all of the dynamics that Nature can bring. Push yourself beyond the traditional "comfort zones" that the aquarium hobby has imposed on us for generations. Break free. 

Blur the lines...

Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay challenged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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