The other direction...

As I've evolved as an aquarist, I seem to have taken a more easygoing approach. Okay, I have an opinion on like everything, but I am overall pretty laid back.

Like, I've found things that work for me, and I've developed an increasing level of disdain for "rules" and dogma in the hobby. I mean, I agree that some hobby things need discipline and detail. However, I think we take it a bit too far in the other direction sometimes. And we've gotten so used to this that I think we might even make assumptions about assumptions!

Case in point...

I was talking to someone last week who was entering his aquarium in a biotope aquarium contest. He was very concerned about having materials that were from a specific habitat in his display. I totally understand, and in the interest of full disclosure, I explained to him that Catappa, Guava, and most definitely Magnolia leaves would not be found in the specific South American biotope he was trying to represent. He proceeded to tell me how this put him in a real quandary, because the leaves might disqualify him if he uses them. Of course, I told him not to use the leaves in his display (I mean, what else could I tell the guy, right?).

He then asked about a couple of different seed pods, one of which does hail from South America, but is also found in other tropical locales around the world. And he felt it would be too "risky" to include them, as well. This painful process went on an on for a while, as he proceeded to analyze every piece he thought would look great in this biotope, only to have to reject one after the other because they were not actual materials found in the precise habitat he was trying to represent in his entry. Good discipline on his part.


After our conversation ended, I reflected a bit. I mean, it was an interesting one. He had to fit a certain set of guidelines for a biotope aquarium, in which authenticity is of paramount importance. I get it. On the other hand, I started thinking about some of his concerns and I kind of had to laugh to myself. I mean, sure, Catappa, Guava, and Magnolia leaves are NOT found in the habitat he was replicating...No argument there. However, once these start to break down a bit and become covered in biofilm, I'm thinking that no one but the most observant botanist or scientifically-trained river traveler would be able to discern exactly what variety they were. One leaf could represent another or another, right?

And further, I was thinking, "Does it truly matter?" I mean, you can't possibly tell me that the judges will know every species of tree which could possibly drop a leaf or seed pod in this Venezuelan stream you're thinking of representing- and discern that these decomposing pieces are NOT them...Oh, and how DOES one legally obtain supplies of fallen leaves from specific Amazonian jungle locales?" (And if you know, let me know, because I've been working on this for years now..!)

Just so you know, my bad attitude had absolutely nothing to do with him spending time chatting and not purchasing $20 worth of stuff from me. Stuff like that doesn't bother me, Mr. "I-look-at -the-long-term-on-everything." mindset. No. Rather, I think it stemmed from my irritation that this guy gave the impression that people are putting out some serious dogma that is not only inhibiting some creative work, but it's seemingly inconsistent. I've seen this before in other "disciplines" within the hobby, and it gave me similar feelings. Endless, tedious "rules" that seemed almost impossibly hard to comply with.. And I was thinking to myself, "how can that be fun?"

I suppose I was missing the point. And who was I to question someone else's contest. But the whole thing seemed a bit "off" to me. Some hobbyists are weird, I know- but this seemed just a bit too weird. I started looking at this and, despite the huge, huge respect I have for serious biotope aquarium enthusiasts, I think some of these people might be taking things in the opposite direction, and becoming too militant about minutiae to the point where they're giving off the wrong impression about what they deem appropriate. I mean, it's important to provide an accurate representation of the habitat you're into. I get that. You want to populate the tank with the correct wild versions of the exact fish species found in the habitat. No problem there. Yet, many who tread in these waters are under the impression that they need to use the exact biotic materials found in the habitat.  I don't think that's what they mean. It's a PR problem. A communication issue, IMHO.

I think my friend might be taking this too far. I think that the idea is to use materials which provide an appropriate and representative assemblage of biotic materials (i.e.; leaves, wood, etc.). I don't think it's to provide the EXACT seed pods, leaves, and soil. I mean, if you can use this stuff, kudos to you. However, I think it's more important to get the fish associations, water conditions, and appropriate habitat representation accurate. 

I mean, I could have been wrong, but I was thinking that this is what was intended. Okay, I was HOPING that this is what was intended. Otherwise, the contest entrants will be limited to the 2 or 3 aquarium-keeping locals who reside on a tributary of the lower Atabapo River, or wherever, and who can grab the right leaves, stones, and substrate materials... Know what I mean? 

To my relief, this was confirmed when I joined one of those super hardcore biotope groups right here on Facebook. They are as hardcore as any fish group on the planet, and dead serious about doing things right. I mean, your aquarium pics have to be approved before you can post. I'm sure that they would understand what is REALLY meant by some of these contest guidelines. Yeah, these people are seriously vigilant about getting the fish mix right, the correct water chemistry/type (i.e.; clearwater/blackwater, etc.), and proper representation of the biotic factors...meaning, if the area you're representing has a bottom covered in leaves and botanical materials, your tank needs to have a substrate covered in leaves and botanical materials!  But that's IT. No explicit "rule" saying that a biotope aquarium has to have every leaf, twig, and speck of sand be a variety of, or hail from materials found in the exact locale. These people get it. It just needs to utilize materials in a way that is representative of the the habitat and locale being represented.

Now, THAT is fun. THAT is challenging. That will help educate and inspire the public while furthering the hobby. That should be an important goal of contests, IMHO.

And THAT is achievable!

So, I love the dedication and enthusiasm, and I think everyone should enjoy the hobby in a manner that pleases them. However, outright dogma in the Be disciplined, have guidelines in contests, whatever. Just don't let it cloud your thinking too much. I think the "bigger picture" is as important, if not more so, than the minutiae. Details matter, but so does the mindset.

Don't go too far in the "other direction", okay?

We need you.

Stay bold. Stay earnest. Stay enthusiastic.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

P.S.- Speaking of contests, some major discussion and announcement FINALLY coming on the 2017 Igapo Challenge!!!!!! ( remember?) Stay tuned! 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

July 22, 2017

Yep- The temptations are many! And the ability to create an exacting biotope, right down to the correct leaves and twigs and such takes an amazing level of discipline! Not that most of us DON’T have it, but…lol And I agree…some plants, etc. “represent” these biotopes so well, and they’re easier for us to obtain!


Garrett Everett
Garrett Everett

July 21, 2017

I faced the same dilemma stocking my SE Asian setup… I mean, fancy bettas don’t really exist in the wild, WCMM probably wouldn’t encounter wild bettas anyway (maybe they’re just passing through?)… I mean, the only species that’s REALLY true to the environment is the kuhli loaches. And plants… I have some stuff from Africa and all across the Americas! But I figure, heck, Asia probably has something that looks and functions similar to anubias or eleocharis, and the fish are happy, so I’ll go with it! Amazonian stuff is much more accessible here, so if I ever do decide to go “pure” on a biotope, I’ll head in that direction.

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