The nature of... "Nature!"

One of the things I am consistently amused by is the appropriation in the hobby of the term "Nature", or "Natural." These terms are often bandied about in our communities, and by aquarium industry brands to describe either an approach or an aesthetic for aquariums. Interestingly, there appears, in some areas, to be a disconnect.

I'm probably as guilty as anyone in using this term, but I think- I believe- that I understand some of the nuances of this descriptor a lot better than many others out there do. (arrogant much, Scott?)

In my opinion, too many people seem to look at Nature with an attitude of, "That's neat, but it's not the 'look' I'm trying to achieve." And, we go about our business, creating cool aquariums that are anything BUT natural-looking, and we ascribe that term "natural" to them generously and often. Cool, but...

It's kind of a weird dichotomy, actually.

I've talked about this before her, and it usually brings up very strong opinions from hobbyists all over the spectrum. And why wouldn't it? 

I mean, on one hand, it's not hard to make the stretch and say that every aquarium embraces parts of Nature, right?

Like, fishes, plants, bacteria, etc. are all "natural" life forms, and we decorate our tanks with stuff like wood and rock (both natural, of course).  So, "natural" applies, huh?  I guess. However, what I fear is that the perception of the general aquarium community, as well as those who might not be familiar with our hobby (and the wild aquatic environments from which our fishes come from), is that they are an "accurate" representation of the natural habitats.

It's a bit sticky, to me.

I mean, there is legitimacy to the claim. The main area where I take issue with the over-use of the term is when we present a specific, highly structured artistic style as an accurate representation of the wild habitats from which our fishes come.

Why is it a "problem?"

IMHO, it's a problem because what happens is that those unfamiliar with this stuff can easily get the impression that fishes come from habitats with perfectly arranged driftwood, rocks, and plants. I know, it seems ludicrous even suggesting it, but there are a lot of people who might be less inclined to be interested in learning about, or even enjoying- or preserving- Nature as it really is.

And I could literally see scenarios where an uninformed individual, who's only seen highly stylized aquaria, visits a wild aquatic habitat, and is not only profoundly disappointed by its appearance, but loses interest in protecting it- or worse let, feels that some sort of "remediation" or intervention is necessary to "bring it back to (our expectations of) what it should really look like."

Yikes. I know, that seems crazy, but it IS a scenario that I believe could happen. People are remarkably open to suggestion, as current world events demonstrate! 

And yeah, we could go crazy parsing the term, "Nature"- likely pissing off half of the  aquarium hobby in the process. (hey, that IS kind of fun to do, though...😆)

So, how do we prevent this from becoming an "issue?"


First, we take no shame in suggesting that our beautiful words of aquatic are inspired by Nature.


We create more aquariums which represent the look and function of natural aquatic habitats as they really appear. This is where the biotope aquarium crowd can really have an impact! And you don'thave to be 100% perfectly accurate, with every twig and leaf being the exact ones found in your target habitat, ether.

"Biotope inspired" can certainly go a long way towards piquing the interest of both aquarists and non-aquarists alike towards appreciating and finding out more about the wild aquatic habitats of the world, no matter what they look like. 

Yet, it's very easy to sort of "reinvent the wheel" attempt to "edit" the way Nature looks, and attempt to configure an aquarium based on factors having less to do with an unfiltered version of Nature and more to do with an artistic interpretation of Nature that is often glorified in the hobby.

Yeah, it is!

Now, take yourself out of the "I'm-gonna-enter-THIS-ONE-in-the-aquascaping-contest-and-place high" mindset for just a second, and put yourself into the mindset of...a fish.

How do they interact with the environments they're found in. Why do they aggregate in certain areas with certain features? What benefits do they gain by associating themselves with them? 

And, most exciting- can we as hobbyists incorporate soem of these features into our aquariums?

Of course we can!

Here are just a few of the many features of streams and rivers that fishes LOVE to congregate in for a little inspiration...

Think about how you might consciously incorporate some of them into your next aquascape!

First off, a few "sweeping generalities."

Fishes tend to live in areas where the food and protection is, as we've talked about previously. Places that provide protection from stronger current and above-and below-water predators. Places where they can create territories, interact, spawn and defend themselves.

Let's examine some interesting ones.

Bends in streams and rivers are particularly interesting places, because the swifter water movement will typically carry food, and the fishes seem to know this. And if theres a tree branch, trunk, or a big rock (or rocks) to break up the flow, there will be a larger congregation of fishes present. So, the conclusion here is that, at least in theory, if you design your scape to have a higher "open water" flow rate, and include some features like rocks and large branches, you'll likely see the fishes hanging in those areas...

In situations where you're replicating a faster-flowing stream environment, think about creating some little "rock pockets", perhaps on one side of the aquarium, to create areas of calmer water movement. Your fishes will typically orient themselves facing "upstream" to catch any food articles that happen on by. So, from a design perspective, if you want to create a cool rock feature that your fishes will likely gather in, orienting the flow towards it would be a good way to accomplish this in the aquarium. 


Among the richest habitats for fishes in streams and rivers are so-called "drop-offs", in which the bottom contour takes a significant plunge and increase in depth. These are often caused by current over time, or even the accumulation of rocks and fallen trees, which "dam up" the stream a bit. (extra- you see this in Rift Lakes in Africa, too...right? Yeah.) 

Fishes are often found in drop offs in significant numbers, because these spots afford depth (which thwarts the hunting efforts those pesky birds), typically slower water movement, numerous "nooks and crannies" in which to forage, hide, or spawn, and a more restive "dining area" for fishes without strong currents. They are typically found near the base of...tree roots...From a botanical-style aquascaping perspective, replicating this aspect of the underwater habitat gives you a lot of cool opportunities.

If you're saddled with one of those seemingly ridiculously deep tanks, a drop-off could be a perfect subject to replicate. And there are even commercially-made "drop-off" tanks now! Consider how a drop-off style encompasses a couple of different possible niches in the aquarium as it does in Nature!

Overhanging trees and other forms of vegetation are common in jungle/forest areas, as we've discussed many times. Fishes will tend to congregate under these plants for the dimmer lighting, "thermal protection", and food (insects and fruits/seeds) that fall off the trees and shrubs into the water. (allochthonous input- we've talked about that before a few times here!) And of course, if you're talking about a "leaf litter" or botanically-influenced aquascape, a rather dimly-lit, shallow tank could work out well.

And of course, in the areas prone to seasonal inundation, you'll often see trees and shrubs partially submerged, or with their branch or root structures projecting into the water.

Imagine replicating THIS look in an aquarium. Contemplate the behavioral aspects in your fishes that such a feature will foster! And the potential for unique interactions that you simply won't see in more "conventional" setups.

Lots of leaves, small pieces of wood, and seed pods on the substrtae- doing what they do- breaking down-would complete a cool look. For a cool overall scene, you could introduce some riparian plants to simulate the bank as well. A rich habitat with a LOT of opportunities for the creative 'scaper!

Why not create an analogous stream/river feature that is known as an "undercut?" Pretty much the perfect hiding spot for fishes in a stream or river, and undercuts occur where the currents have cut a little cave-like hole in the rock or substrate material near the shore.

Not only does this feature provide protection from birds and other above-water predators, it gives fishes "express access" to deeper water for feeding and escaping in-water predators! And undercuts can be created by other materials, such as branches, logs, etc. 

Trees growing nearby add to the attractiveness of an undercut for a fish (for reasons we just talked about), so subdued lighting would be cool here. You can build up a significant undercut with lots of substrate, rocks, and some wood. Sure, you'd have some reduced water capacity, but the effect could be really cool.

Aquascaping, as we've come to know it in the hobby- is part art, part science, and every bit an interpretation of the natural world. Although we spend enormous amounts of time and energy encouraging you to look at and replicate the form and function of Nature, it is a hobby- and you should do what moves you.

Yeah, in the end, design and build the aquascape that makes you happy, regardless of the "style" or "design theory" that you embrace.

However, if you're trying to create something just a bit different and perhaps a bit more true to Nature, you might want to take a little "field trip" to a nearby stream, river, creek, lake, etc., where fishes and other aquatic animals reside, and observe things from the perspective of how they interact with the features of the environment. 

At the very least, it might open your eyes a bit and give you a different perspective on the way wild aquatic habitats evolve, function, and host fishes.

We should "get outside" and do this once in a while!

I'll guarantee that you'll definitely leave with some inspiration, ideas, and just maybe, a slightly different perspective on aquascaping than you've previously had! You'll notice subtle details which, when applied to an aquarium, could provide an amazingly unique look and function for your fishes!

And in the end, gaining a fresh perspective and new inspiration for your hobby is never a bad thing. 

Call it "Natural." Call it "Inspired by Nature."  It doesn't matter. Really, the description that you use is your call. The important part is that you enjoy the process of educating, exploring, and creating your representation of Nature.

Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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