The never-ending nuances of niches!

Like all of you, I must have a thousand aquarium ideas at any one time; 950 of which I'll never get to. Yet, that's kind of part of the fun of all of this...scheming and thinking...and ultimately, doing! 

And one of the things I've played with a lot in recent years is the art of "nuance" in my tanks...

In other words, going deeper than just the superficial or "big picture" of aquarium configuration. I like the idea of creating "niche micro-habitats" within aquariums; locales based around a specific feature within the system, which add an entirely new set of physical parameters to the overall tank.

As someone who's kept so-called "community tanks" forever, I can certainly appreciate the challenge and the allure of keeping multiple fish species together in one aquarium. And I know most of you can, too.

It's interesting to me that in the last decade or so, the hobby concept of a "community aquarium" has sort of evolved from, "A collection of different kinds of cool fishes I like from all over the world, living in one tank"- you know, a "buffet" of fishy favorites, to more of a "curated" collection of fishes that might be found in the same general habitat and location...or even in the exact location...or more specific than that! Stuff as finely nuanced as "wet" or "dry" season!

The idea of playing with niche habitats is nothing new, really. I think the shift really started with the rise in popularity of African Rift Lake cichlids. I mean, sure you could keep fishes from different lakes together, but when we collectively learned that each lake not only harbors different fish species, but offers unique environmental parameters and niches that the resident fishes have evolved to live in (like Lake Tanganyikan shell-dwellers, for example), it became more obvious that some degree of specialization was required.

And then we began in earnest to keep species like Rainbowfishes and killifishes, which had distinct genetic "races" or populations from various locales that would hybridize if mixed, throwing the already muddled taxonomy and genetics of these fishes into an even greater morass of confusion was definitely something to avoid.

And then there are the Apistogramma...Yeah, the South American "version" of  African killies...Just plain trouble, from a speciation standpoint, if you mix males and female of different varieties in the same tank. Again, a situation that requires a certain degree of discipline on our part, right?

Sure, there are like a thousand more examples we could beat the shit out of to make our case, but I think you're getting the idea: Our idea of a "community tank" has sort of evolved with our knowledge of fishes- and I think that's a good thing.

Nowadays, althogh you have "South American"-themed community tanks, "Asian"-themed community tanks, etc., they're more nuanced...Typically centered around regional fishes found in a specific habitat or environmental niche...It's not just, "Hey, that fish is from Thailand...So is THAT one! And THAT ONE, too!"

A shift.

What's most profound about this shift, in my humble opinion, is that it's enabled us to study more closely- and replicate more closely- the unique environments from which our fave fishes hail. And that leads to a greater understanding of both the fishes and their habitats.

And this is where my interest comes in...

It's entirely realistic, comfortable, and simply "normal" for many of the fishes we play with in aquariums to be kept in close quarters with other species. In one field study of forest streams in the Rio Negro in Brazil (you knew I'd go back there, right?), it was noted that there were up to 20 different species present, all living in close proximity to each other, within distinct niches within the habitat. The population density was an astounding 100 individuals per cubic meter!

That's a lot of fishes! And, with a bunch of niches for them to inhabit- a lot of possibilities...

And the takeaway here isn't that you should pack the hell out of your community tank because some stream in the jungle has a lot of fishes living in a small area of space.


The real takeaway is the fact that the study indicated a significant number of species in that relatively small space, living in different niches within the habitat!

This is where things get real interesting, in my opinion, because even in my beloved blackwater streams, you have multiple niches in which fishes live their entire lives, obtain nutrition, protection, and find spawning locations.

The implications for our botanical-style aquariums are manifold...

In our own aquariums, we've seen fishes like Plecos and other catfishes inhabiting and interacting with all sorts of botanical materials, much like they do in the wild.

Taking advantage of physical spaces within the greater habitat.

We've seen fishes like Badis, loaches, even wild Betta species living under a canopy of leaves and other botanicals. A variety of fishes living in all sorts of little niches within the botanical scape, exploiting the cover and foraging opportunities that they offer.

This is very cool.

This is profound.

In our aquariums set up in a more natural style (in both form and function) the fishes are "sorting things out for themselves" and inhabiting the little niches that they would in the wild. We have great information about these environments, photos of the physical structures found within them, and detailed studies on populations inhabiting these niches.

With terrific access to incredible natural materials and a greater understanding the overall chemical and structural makeup of these habitats, we are able to replicate them as never before!

We're creating aquariums that deliberately foster the development of smaller environmental niches within the greater aquarium structure.

I've spoken with hobbyists attempting to create deep leaf litter beds for specialized catfishes and so-called "Darter Characins", tanks with varied, rich substrate composition to accommodate loaches, tangles of roots for Tetras, etc.  

Perhaps most exciting, we're developing more modern interpretations of the "community aquarium", intentionally layering, populating, and optimizing several "microhabitats" within the same tank. 


What new understanding will we gain by creating these deliberate configurations within our aquariums? What newfound successes will we have with previously temperamental fishes? What reproductive secrets will we unlock- all by providing more faithful representations of the communities and micro niches from which they come?

The mind boggles!

In today's hobby, it's no longer "good enough" for many specialty fish enthusiasts to simply toss in a PVC pipe section for a "cave", or a "Texas Holy Rock" as a hiding or spawning locale for that Pleco or cichlid. For the first time, we are seeing hobbyists really utilize botanical materials from specific geographical regions.

Not simply to satisfy a judge in some snobby aquascaping contest, but to determine if there are advantages for our fishes that may be gained by using the actual materials that are found in a specific region!

For many, the idea of replicating more realistically the environmental niches that these fishes inhabit in the wild is more compelling, fascinating, and proving to be more successful than ever before.

We're at a very special time in the aquatic hobby.

A time when information, technology, technique, communication, and creativity are all intersecting, equipping us with all of the tools- both metaphorically and physically-that we need to create aquariums that may surpass anything we've done in the past, in both form and function.

By studying and sharing information and experiences about the unique niche habitats that many of our fishes come from, we're accelerating the pace of these breakthroughs and discoveries, and maybe- just maybe- further reducing our reliance on wild-collection of some species from their fragile ecosystems, preserving them for future generations to enjoy.

Yeah, there are still great "community tanks" to be made! And there are nuances, niches, and ideas to test and explore...These will drive many of the next innovations in the hobby.

Stay thoughtful. Stay innovative. Stay creative. Stay resourceful. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics.

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment