The "Terrestrial Approach": A different sort of start?

If you think a bout it, the typical aquarium startup is to add some sand, add some wood, maybe plants, and...BOOM! Aquarium.

Okay, here is more to it than that; however, it's interesting to me that little consideration is played to the idea of starting an aquarium in a more functional way...Like, yeah, the basic essential tasks are pretty straightforward, yet the idea of creating a functional ecosystem from the ground up is almost a bit of an afterthought, IMHO. It seems to take a back seat to the "structural" aspects.

SO, I thought a lot about ways to start up a new botanical-style aquarium. And I think it for of dovetails nicely with my philosophies, and my experiences with my "Urban Igapo" setups. I think it's important to set up an aquarium-particularly a botanical-style aquarium- by taking a "terrestrial approach."


Well, this kind of builds upon a lot of the things we've talked about here.

One underlying theme is that aquatic environments are profoundly influenced by- or even formed by- the terrestrial habitats which surround them. Sure, the flooded forest floors, subjected to seasonal inundation from overflowing rivers and streams are the "classic" example. However, there are other influences, some less directly obvious, yet every bit as important.

For example, as we've discussed repeatedly here, soils and geology in general are very influential on the surrounding aquatic habitats. We know that blackwater environments are created partially from the surrounding soils, rich in fulvic and humic acids, as well as the rock strata from which the source waters flow (like, I the Andes, for example).

Remember our little foray into soils and how they influence aquatic habitats? 

Perhaps it's time for a refresher...😱

In general, blackwaters originate from sandy soils.

High concentrations of humic acids in the water are thought to occur in drainages with what scientists call "podzol" sandy soils from which minerals have been leached. That last part is interesting, and helps explain in part the absence of minerals in blackwater.

Blackwater rivers, like the Rio Negro, for example, originate in areas which are characterized by the presence of the aforementioned podzols.

Podzols are soils with whitish-grey color, bleached by organic acids. They typically occur in humid areas like the Rio Negro and in the northern upper Amazon Basin. And the Rio Negro and other blackwater rivers, which drain the pre-Cambrian "Guiana and Brazilian shields" of geology, can in part attribute the dark color of their waters to high concentrations of dissolved humic and fulvic acids!

Although they are the most infertile soils in Amazonia, much of the nutrients are extracted from the abundant plant growth that takes place in the very top soil layers, as virtually no plant roots are observed in the mineral soil itself.

One study concluded that the Rio Negro is a blackwater river in large part because the very low nutrient concentrations of the soils that drain into it have arisen as a result of "several cycles of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation." In other words, there's not a whole lot of minerals and nutrients left in the soils to dissolve into the water to any meaningful extent!

Okay, that's a pretty roundabout way of re-explaining that various soils contribute to the water chemistry of the aquatic habitats which cover them. So, what are the implications for us as aquarists?

For one thing, perhaps your next botanical-style aquarium needs to have more of a "terrestrial influence" from day one.

In other words, incorporate some soil or other materials into your substrate. Yeah, I know, it's the part where you trash me again for teasing about our "Nature Base" sedimented substrates, long overdue...they're coming! Yet, that's what I'm getting at here: Set up your aquarium with some other materials besides just clean while sand.

We'll help you with that, promise.

And, while you're at it, how about throwing in some botanical materials into the mix, like leaves- intact or crushed, to "kick start" the biological processes? I'm a huge fan of the radically weird, highly variable, and utterly "dirty" Live Oak Leaf Litter. IMHO, it contains a lot of what you need to accomplish this. Oh, and it will help tint the water, too!
So, yeah, I'm thinking that many different botanical-style aquariums should be set up almost as if you're going to do a vivarium or even a little planted terrarium.
Like, full-on terrestrial habitats.


I'd spray them down for a week or two, get the leaves all moist and perhaps even starting to decompose a bit. Essentially, prep the substrate for life. Creating and facilitating the biological relationship between the aquatic and terrestrial environments.


These interdependencies are really complicated- and really interesting!

And it just goes to show you that some of the things we could do in our aquariums (such as utilizing alternative substrate materials, botanicals, and perhaps even submersion-tolerant terrestrial plants) are strongly reminiscent of what happens in the wild. 

We know this, because we see their impact on natural aquatic systems all the time, don't we? Every flooded forest, inundated Terre Firme grassland, every overflowing stream- provides a perfect example for us to study.

The land influences the water.

Each component of the terrestrial habitat has some unique impact on the aquatic habitat. Not really difficult to grasp, when you think about it in the context of stuff we know and love in other areas of life.

The "Urban Igapo" idea we've been pushing here for well over two years now is just one way to play with this stuff and study these unique interdependencies. 

Sure, we typically don't maintain completely "open" systems, but I wonder just how much of the ecology of these fascinating habitats we can replicate in our tanks-and what potential benefits may be realized?

That's my continuing challenge to our community... We'll be talking a lot more about this in coming months.

This is the most superficial look at this idea, but the point is to look at the influences of the land and how they affect aquatic habitats, and try to replicate them and their processes.

It's easy to do...

Just look around.

Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay thoughtful. Stay motivated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

September 27, 2020

Thanks! I think the idea could use a bit more development- or, really, a bit more people to try it…The benefits will ultimately be very obvious to those who do, IMHO!



September 26, 2020

Great thoughts here. Really enjoyed the article!

Leave a comment