The Nature of...Nature in our aquariums!

At least a couple of times a month, I'll get hit up on DM or somewhere by a fellow fish geek, asking what I think about how we define a "natural aquarium" or similar labels related to representing natural habitats in our aquariums. Now, this is an interesting- even devisive- topic in discussion forums and FB groups and such, because it seems to bring out everyone's passions.

Like, on one hand, there is a group of people who will tell you that it's simply "folly" to consider anything we do in a glass box "natural"- as they will assert that any functions that occur in an aquarium- from the nitrogen cycle on up to how plants grow- is not "truly natural..." Yeah, I had someone actually tell me that. With a lot of passion, no less...

And it made me think about it, for sure. 

I'm no scientist, but I'm not exactly sure how the nitrogen cycle, in its most basic function, differs in the closed environment of the aquarium from that in Nature. I mean, I suppose the factors which influence it might be different- such as a fixed population of fishes in a given space, versus a "wider ranging" natural habitat with a varying population density- but that seems a bit of a stretch to me...So yeah, I think that's a sort of weird argument...


Recently, I had a discussion with another hobbyist who asked me where I feel my personal and business work falls in the grand scheme of creating "natural" aquariums. It gave me some pause, because I think that we might get too caught up in labeling everything rather than looking at what we do in "the big picture" of the aquarium hobby. With my focus on "functional aesthetics" over almost anything else in this context, it definitely defines me as a bit of an outlier...

And of course, once you resolve the whole "natural" thing, you get to an even more passionate topic:

What constitutes an aquarium that represents a part of nature?

It can just get uglier from there sometimes...

I mean, it's a discussion that I think is worth having, for sure, if for no other reason than for us to come to some sort of a self-awareness about what we're doing. That being said, we can often create a "word salad" of descriptors that may simply be lots of ways of saying the same thing. Yes, I admit that I do cringe on occasion when the description "Nature Aquarium" is given to a tank which, although amazing, has little to do with a specific representation of a natural habitat.

Or, does it?

I think we can literally parse the living shit out of that term, and in the end, we'll end up right back where we started- with 50 different hobbyists arriving at 50 different definitions! I mean, most aquariums DO embrace natural processes and elements, so that keeps this in the mix.

The weird thing- or the GOOD thing, depending upon how you look at stuff- is that we in the hobby really stress out over this stuff; words matter- and people take it really seriously! We do tend to "self-regulate" our hobby, which is good in some areas, and downright annoying in others, right?

When we plan our aquariums, I know that many of us are super disciplined, highly detail-oriented, and attack the "fish list" with diligence and a high degree of "mission focus." Like, every fish added to the tank has to be from the general region that all of the others are from...or that the tank's 'scape is supposed to "represent."

I have always been focused like that- almost to the point of having tanks run empty for months at a time when I couldn't source the specific fishes I wanted...("Yes, Poecilocharax weitzmani IS the ONLY Darter Characin I shall have!") I can be THAT focused! Like, absurdly, impractically focused.

And, I must confess:

I'm not immune to any "temptations" I might encounter along the way to my ultimate goal...

There is always that part of me which falls headlong into that "shiny object syndrome"- you know, something cool catches my eye along the way, and there I am, off on a tangent, researching and considering ways to "modify" my plan...complete with justification ("Well, you know, just because I SAID it's going to be an Asian blackwater stream with Rasbora espie doesn't mean that I can't have a few of those Copella arnoldi in there. I mean, "SPLASHING-FREAKING TETRA- HELLO!")

(Image by Zikamoi, used under CC-BY S.A. 3.0)

Yeah, sad shit like that.

Of course, that's how the classic "community tank", which we've loved for generations, is created, right? The best combination of cool fishes, regardless of origin, which happen to catch our fancy. As long as they are physically compatible, does it really matter? I mean, what's wrong with that, right? 

Really, does every salad we make have ingredients from the same farm to be called a "salad?"

Weak or not, it is that kind of "argument" that would make ME feel better, lol.


I've always felt that inserting the words "themed", "inspired", "type" or "style" after the description of your aquarium gives you a bit of a "let", so to speak. In other words, my home aquarium is a "Southeast Asian-themed", which is far different than a true "biotope" aquarium, which, in hobby parlance, seems to have several classifications. 

Most of these center around the aquarium representation of a very specific niche or locale in Nature, with the requirements being to include organisms that are representative of the specific niche or region....or species, geographic locale, or- what they call in the contest world, an "ecological" aquarium.

I do kind of like that one.

Our friends in the Biotope Aquarium Design contest define an "ecological" aquarium as one in which "...aquatic organisms are selected by similar requirements to environmental conditions, without binding to a certain area or a biotope. For example, an aquarium for the fishes preferring cold water and strong current, or the fishes who need stone shelters and increased content of salts of total and carbonate hardness."

Okay, I can dig that. From my standpoint, it gives you as a hobbyist a lot of creative leeway.

Some space to create a nice representation without getting too bogged down in the minutiae of what twig or leaf is endemic to the region that you're representing. You can feel free to be a bit "creative", while still bringing the "flavor" of a specific niche or locale. 

Therefore, my "Southeast Asian-Themed" tank, or "Brackish Water Mangal-Inspired" system gives me the "permission" to keep together fishes which, although compatible, would likely never co-habitatate in nature. I get the "vibe" I want, create environmental conditions appropriate for each of the fishes that I want to keep, and just enjoy it.

Okay, did I just say "permission?" Yeah, I think I did...and that's sort of bizarre, too. Is there some "international hobby regulating committee" that I need "approval" from here? It's like I'm buying into that warped mindset...drinking the proverbial "Kool-ade" that the hobby is serving up.

Damn, WTF, right? That's a whole separate issue for another time, I think.

And my aquarium?

Well, sure, it's NOT a strict, biotopically exact representation of a mangal "in the Sarawak region of Borneo during the Spring", or something as specific as that. Nope. Rather, it's about creating an aquarium which is more-or-less "representative" of the broad environmental niches found in a given region.

I do like that.

And you can't really discount the fact that when you're researching the environment, the parameters, and the organisms which reside in given habitat when assembling our systems, regardless of how we approach them or what label we apply to them, we are still acquiring valuable information that can benefit many others in the hobby.

So, it doesn't matter if you take a very strict, almost militant approach to creating an aquarium, or more of an artistic, creative approach...The benefits for the hobby, the animals, and the natural environment are essentially the same. It still inspires; gets people thinking and talking.

I mean, in the end, it's all about having fun.

And it's about educating ourselves and others about locations, animals, and habitats that they may never get a chance to visit in person- and to bring attention to and discussion about the risks and perils they face as man continues to encroach on them.

That's huge.

Now, couldn't we make an argument that virtually any aquarium checks some of those boxes?


I mean, how much "detail" we want go into is a big factor. One could mix tropical fishes as diverse as Guppies, Tetras, and Dwarf cichlids and, I suppose, make some sort of stretch that they are "all from tropical locales" and therefore "represent" a "tropical environment." We've more-or-less done that with the traditional "community aquarium" for generations.

And that's okay.

Now, we can't fool ourselves, of course, if we are playing with such nomenclature. This type of aquarium represents Nature in the same manner as a vase full of flowers represents the fields in which they grow wild. But hey, I suppose it's a start...

Where am I going with this?

I suppose that I'm simply contributing to the clutter, disagreement, and confusion on the subject to some extent.

Well, in some areas, at least.

Yet, I've tried to do our part in the context of what we offer here at Tannin.

As you are now likely aware, we have gone to great efforts recently to educate our community about the origins of the botanical materials that we offer, and have even written detailed blogs on many of our botanicals, to give you as much detail possible on each one.

This gives you more information about our botanical materials, which can help you make more informed decisions about what to include in your aquariums- be they hardcore biotope, regional representational, "ecological", or whatever the hell you want to call them!

And I cannot stress it enough:

It's really important to enjoy aquariums the way YOU want to. That being said, however, I feel equally strong that it's important to learn about the biological interactions and functions of the habitats we attempt to replicate on some level in our aquariums. Understanding why the habitats that our fishes come from are the way they are- how they formed, etc., adds another, important level to understanding the fishes themselves.

And understanding the function of natural aquatic systems holds the key to understanding how to recreate, on many levels, the optimum aquarium habitats for our fishes, so that they may live healthy, normal lifespans, thrive, and maybe even reproduce under our care. You can call your tank a "biotope", "biotype", "theme"- whatever you want to...but every aquatic system is governed by the laws of Nature, and there is no real way around that. (even if you are of the opinion that "natural" processes don't occur in aquariums, lol)

You can't fight Nature.

I mean, you can try to defy her...For a while, at least. Mix incompatible species. "Force fit" wild fishes to adapt to your "tap water" conditions. Skip regular maintenance and husbandry routines. And then, just as sure as the water returns with the daily tide, She'll come back and spank you.

Yeah, it's foolish to do this.

Besides, why would you want to? I mean, part of the fun is seeing our fishes live in beautiful aquariums which represent the environments from which they come in the wild.

And guess what? You can call them whatever you want to. Just enjoy them. Learn from them. Share your knowledge and discoveries.

Stay resourceful. Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay engaged. Stay intrigued. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

September 20, 2019

I suppose it’s really all about what you love, more than even “what you call it”, right? When you find your “thing”, it’s so much more enjoyable- regardless of what the world labels it! Keep enjoying it and “doing YOU!” That way, you can never really go wrong!

Cal X Darling
Cal X Darling

September 19, 2019

I agree with you on the ecological aquariums, while my insta name is “Aquatopes” it’s come to my attention that I do create more ecological/region based aquariums than actual Biotopes. For the longest time I had the idea in my head that Biotopes are the only way to go. After reading this I feel better that the ecological aquarium is a thing!

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