The "physical/structural" aspect of aquascaping...

Our art of creating natural-style botanical-influenced aquariums is constantly evolving, with new techniques and applications for botanical materials being worked out by hobbyists worldwide daily. As more and more hobbyists utilize the abundance of materials that Nature offers to create unique aquariums, the collective "body of work" and "best practices" of our craft move right along with it. 

Now, curiously- the one thing that hasn't noticeably "evolved" during the time we've been playing with this stuff is...our fishes! I mean...they kind of do what they've done for eons in their aquatic habitats, right? They are remarkably adaptable creatures, particularly when it comes to their physical surroundings.

Yeah, let's face it; pretty much no matter how we 'scape a tank, our fishes will ultimately adapt to it. They are really good at it...They'll find the places they are comfortable hiding in. The places they like to forage, sleep and spawn. 

It's what fishes do. It's what they've done for eons.

And as aquarists, what we've done for a century or so is try to create optimum conditions for the fishes we keep. This, of course, encompasses both the chemical and "physical/structural" environment. We've talked a lot about the chemical environment, vis a vs our botanical-style blackwater systems. You've heard me bandy about the term "functional aesthetics" many times before. Today, let's just think for a few moments about the "physical/structural" environment we create for our fishes, the role that it plays in their lifestyles, and why.

And of course, how to apply this knowledge to our aquarium practices!

When we're planning an aquascape, we spend an enormous amount of time selecting the right materials: Rocks, wood, botanicals, etc., to get the right "feel" to our 'scape. This is, for many of us- a most enjoyable and interesting phase of an aquarium build, for sure! 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.

Yup. Think like a fish for just a second. 

I mean, sure, I'll bet that fishes like living in those insanely cool 'scapes you see in all of the contests; however, those are mainly designed and constructed for the pleasure of humans, right? They're designed for our tastes. Specifically, for human "judges", who evaluate a design-based on a set of specific criteria, which only my extreme levels of self-restraint and tact and decorum keep me from criticizing in a "scorched earth" fashion, I might add.  I mean, "Iwagumi" looks really cool, but I'd hazard a guess that you won't find many of these "submerged Stonhenge" features in the natural streams and rivers of the world.

I'm just gonna go out on a limb and make that speculation...

What would be a better approach to more "natural" aquascaping? How about considering just how the fishes will actually live in and interact with the aquascape you create? 

My suggestion on how to pull this off effectively?

Again: Think like a fish a bit more.


It might be kind of fun-and educational- to think about where your fishes are found in the natural streams, lakes, flooded forests, and rivers they come from...and "work backwards." I mean, fisherman have been doing this for eons...why not fish hobbyists?

Makes a lot of sense, right?

Yeah, I think so!

Let's look at some of the features in natural bodies of water where fishes are commonly found...this might give you some insight into how to incorporate them into an aquascape. We can kick off this process with a very cursory look at rivers and streams, where a good chunk of the fishes we keep in aquariums seem to come from. 

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

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 an 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!

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!

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.

You should "get outside" and do this once in a while! 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! So, "thinking like a fish" isn't such a bad idea, is it?

Stay curious. Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay inquisitive. Stay bold. Stay objective. Stay focused...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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