There is a "big picture" in Nature- vast habitats, filled with life; encompassing a myriad of intricate locales and ecological relationships.
And then, there is the 'small picture"- the very niches which form the vast aquatic habitats of the world. They're fascinating.
We talk a lot here about "microhabitats" in Nature; little areas of tropical habitats where unique physical, environmental and biological characteristics converge based on a set of factors found in the locale.
The mind-blowing diversity of Nature is comprised of millions of these little "scenes", all of which are the result of various factors coming together.
As aquarists, observing, studying, and understanding the specifics of microhabitats is a fascinating and compelling part of the hobby, because it can give us inspiration to replicate the form and function of them in our tanks!
We spend a lot of time discussing and considering the various components and interactions of water and terrestrial habitats, such as the igarape and the surrounding igapo and varzea flooded forests, and the Pantanal- those amazing inundated meadows found in Brazil.
These environments are fascinating, because they are examples of what happens when temporary situations (ie; floods) affect the "topography" of terrestrial habitats. Our pages and posts feature amazing pics by David Sobry, Mike Tuccinardi, and Tai Strietman- all who observe Nature with a hobbyist's eye!
Ecologically, the productivity and diversity of these habitats make them perfect subjects for replication in our aquariums. Not only do they offer unique aesthetics- they offer really cool opportunities to see how they can function in a closed system like an aquarium!
When fishes are kept in a representation of a habitat which mimics its form and function, enormous potential for discoveries and success present themselves! Behaviors are different. Feeding patterns are different.
The whole "vibe" is different.
Look at the way rocks, soil and branches come together in flooded forests, meadows, and rivulets to form interesting physical spaces that fishes utilize for protection, foraging, and reproduction.
By replicating the complex look and physical attributes of these features, including rich substrate, roots of various thickness, and leaves, we offer our fishes all sorts of potential microhabitats. In the aquarium, we tend to focus on the "macro" level- creating a nice wood stack, perhaps incorporating some rock- but we seldom see the whole picture allowed to come together in a more natural way.
This was what inspired me in a recent iteration of one of my office "igapo-inspired" blackwater aquarium. The interaction between the terrestrial elements and the aquatic ones. Allowing terrestrial leaves to accumulate naturally among the "dormant terrestrial plant and root structure" we created fostered this more natural looking, more natural-functioning environment.
As these leaves began to soften and ultimately break down, they encouraged microbial growth, biofilms, and fungal growths- all of which provided food for the resident fishes. No supplemental feeding was provided, and the fishes thrived.
..Just like what happens in Nature when these elements combine. There is something alluring to interpreting this in the aquarium.
Facilitating these processes- allowing the materials to accumulate naturally and break down "in situ" is a key component of replicating and supporting these microhabitats in our aquariums. It's a leap of faith- a bit of a stretch- sort of counter-intuitive over most of what we do in the hobby.
The typical aquarium hardscape- artistic and beautiful as it might be, generally replicates the most superficial aesthetic aspects of such habitats, and tends to overlook their function- and the reasons why such habitats form. In some cases, it's almost "sterile"- and I suppose there is a certain beauty to that, too.
Yet I urge you to go further in the other direction now and again.
When I see such beautiful aquascapes, I'm almost always thinking to myself, "Damn, they're sooo close to being gable to create something really natural here!"
If I had one of these tanks now, it would literally take every bit of resistance I can offer to avoid tossing in some leaves and botanicals into the nooks and crannies that are formed where substrate, stones, dormant terrestrial plants, and roots meet. Purely aesthetic 'scapes to me are like "missed opportunities" to learn more about these fascinating microhabitats!
So my plea to you- my fellow natural-style aquarium lovers- is to consider the function of microhabitats; what they formed, how fishes can live in them, derive protection, food, and utilize them as spawning locations from them.
Sure, you may not like to pile on the leaves and botanicals into your woodwork. You might not want to see all of that sediment, biofilms, and stuff breaking down in the nooks and crannies...
I get it.
However, don't automatically dismiss the idea out of hand, either ...
You can always remove these materials if they offend your aesthetic sensibilities. I only ask that you give the idea a try...a good, serious look at the elegance and function of these amazing ecological niches...
The "microhabitats" where substrate, leaves, and roots meet create amazing opportunities to create unique, functionally aesthetic aquariums.
Think about it.
Stay thoughtful. creative. Stay studious. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.