The usual suspects? A simple case study for doing "common" in an "uncommon" way!

Periodically, I receive "I would love to hear your thoughts about this..." kind of emails from our readers/listeners, and almost all of them are really good! Sometimes, they touch on some ideas which really get me riled up. (maybe that's the intent, lol?)

Here's one that has come up a few times lately:

There is some perception that, as a group, we seem to think that we somehow have to create our aquariums for the most exotic, unique, and otherwise "Instagram-sexy" fishes in order for our work to be taken seriously by all the "cool kids." 

Well, this generated a huge WTF?! from me!

Like, is this really a thing?

Apparently, it is...Because no less than 4 different hobbyists brought this one to my the last 2 months alone!

And, doing a bit of research, I did see some evidence of this mindset percolating out there online.

So, what's my take on this?

Well, rather than giving the hobby culture an apparently well-deserved whack upside the head, let's try to be a bit more positive and think about some cool tanks that you could do for so-called "common" fishes.

I'll start with the most "common" fish you can get- the beloved Zebra Danio, Danio rerio.

As a kid, I think one of the most memorable sights in my first aquarium, complete with blue gravel and plastic plants, was my group of 8 Zebra Danios  (Danio rerio) racing at high speed around the tank in a furious fashion, as if they had to get somewhere in a big freaking hurry...only to reverse course, and do it all again. I've never forgotten how much I liked the Zebras- or almost every other Danio species kept in the aquarium. 

And the amazing thing about this fish is that it's probably THE most bulletproof species you can keep. In fact, I recall reading somewhere that it's "tolerated temperature range" based on wild type localities is from 76.2 – 101.5°F (24.6 – 38.6°C). I mean, if THAT isn't a broad range, nothing is! And it tolerates water with a pH from 6.0-8.0.

Yeah, these guys are hardly what you'd call "fussy" fish!

And you know me- once I hear that, I get these weird ideas like, "What if we mimic the conditions of the natural habitat of the fish? Would they do better? IS there an advantage somewhere?" I think like this for so many fishes, as if to shun the fact that 90% of what we keep in the aquarium these days has never seen a stream, pond, or river...

It's just..I don't know..irresistible to me to think about this kind of stuff! Taking the most common of common aquarium fishes and giving them "throwback" conditions; seeing if it somehow "awakens" something locked into their genetic code over eons...something...

I mean, it's kind of silly, I suppose...there are so many other things to do in the hobby...yet I can't help but wonder if we can learn something from replicating some aspects of their long-forgotten wild habitats...

And, in regards to the Zebra Danio, what's interesting to me is the habitats in which these fish are found. Typically, these fishes are found in Northern India, and this area is subjected to seasonal rainfall between the months of June and September due to the summer Monsoon, and the water levels and characteristics vary considerably at different times of the year. They are often found in inundated rice paddies and marginal pools, with silty, kind of turbid water with very little movement. During the dry times of the year, they spend their time in calm, shaded areas of streams, with rocky substrates. 

This is interesting, because it reminds me a bit of the Amazon igarape, although instead of rain forest, you've got rice paddies...

And, I've been playing with rice seeds, silted substrates, and turbid water lately! Hmmm...

So, my simple thought is...this fish seems to hang out in what we as hobbyists would think of us "less desirable" conditions for much of the year- the silty rice paddies...And only spends the dry season in the more permanent, less turbid streams. Why would this be? Is there some advantage? Like food, better substrates for breeding, protection? Why the turbid water? What does it bring to the fishes?

Would there be an advantage to keeping a fish like the Zebra in different conditions different times of the year, as in nature? Or simply in a tank representing one of the two habitats it's found in. Would you WANT or NEED to? I mean, the fish has been a captive-bred staple of the hobby for almost a century...but I can't help but wonder why these fishes live the way they do in the wild. What advantages do these habitats hold for the fish?

Would you get different behaviors, colors, health, spawning out of the fish by doing this "seasonal transition"..? Using a very fine sand substrate, maybe mixed in with some mud or something similar to replicate the rice paddies, with pump returns very gently angled at the bottom to simulate turbidity?


Again, why, you ask?

My answer? I just think it could be kind of cool. Weird, but cool.

Am I the only one who imagines weird stuff like this? Maybe?

On second thought- don't answer that!

I know, the fish is bred by the billion in fish farms all over the world, as are many much sexier, domesticated strains of its relatives...but wouldn't it be interesting to see what happens when you "repatriate" these "common" fishes to an uncommon execution of their natural habitats? 

I think it would be. In fact, I'm certain that it would be!

Obviously, this isn't limited to the humble Zebra Danio.

You create unique habitats for a huge variety of readily-available fishes. Think about faves like the Harlequin Rasbora, Trigonostigma heteromorpha which is often kept in planted tanks. yet when was the last time you saw it as the "alpha fish" in a system designed to replicate its preferred natural habitat? 

 (dimly lit peat forest swamps, small tinted jungle tributaries filled with leaf litter, or Cryptocoryne-choked streams)? 


I played with this approach for just such species- the ubiquitous Neon Tetra, and found it not only rewarding and fascinating, but highly engaging for other hobbyists, too. Oh, and they spawned, as well!. You can really go to town with some of these types of habitats...even with a "Pantanal-type" simulation, in which I used a mix of terrestrial grasses, weeds, and even some dead pieces of roots to recreate the look, richness, and the function of this unique habitat.

It's an altogether "unconventional" aesthetic, and a most counter-intuitive aquarium, rich, sediment-laden, tinted and turbid. A relatively high-nutrient tank...One in which the fishes utterly thrived! Yeah, the most "pedestrian" fishes.


The ongoing experimentation, the mental shifts that we've asked you to make, the "norms" of botanical-style aquarium "practice" that we've pushed here for a few years- all will come together to make these types of experiments unique and enjoyable to a wide variety of hobbyists! 

You simply don't need to have the most exotic fishes around in a tank to create excitement... You can create excitement about the entire ecosystems from which these "common fishes" originate.

"Common." In an "uncommon" way.

Stay excited. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay creative. Stay innovative. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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