The vanishing peat swamps of southeast asia...replicate before its too late!

We spend a lot of time talking about how to replicate blackwater environments on these pages (Well, duh- our name is Tannin Aquatics, right?), specifically, South America. Of course, "SA" is not the only rich blackwater environment with amazing fishes and biotopes to replicate in the tropical world. For example, Southeast Asia is home to the interesting "Peat Swamps", fascinating and surprisingly diverse in their ecology.

These swamps are important to the local ecology in that they absorb excess rainwater, which keeps rivers from flooding. They are being lost at an astounding rate, as human activity encroaches- and with them, the fascinating fishes- both known and yet discovered- which call these swamps home.  

For example, in the Malaysian Peninsula, it's been estimated that only about 10-20% of the original peat swamps remain. To add to the concern we have, many of the fishes found in these swamps are known to inhabit only certain swamps!

In the well-studied North Salangor Peat Swamp Forest area, it's been estimated that there are about 48 species there, 8 of which have been described to science only within the last couple of decades, and 6 of which are known only from this area. And that's not entirely unique...that's just one example of many!  


Many of the fishes from these unique environments are classified by science as stenotopic- able to adapt only to a narrow range of environmental conditions. It's been estimated that stenotopic species represent about 18% of the total fish fauna in Malaysia- so to lose these environments would be to lose a significant number of unique fishes!

(Betta livida, another rarity form the Peat Swamps of Malaysia)

One wonders how many of these environments may be lost before some of these fishes are even discovered! Fortunately, there are some governmental agencies in these regions that are making some effort to preserve these unique biotopes before they are lost forever.

To replicate one of these environments in our home aquarium is not only fascinating, it could one day represent the only "sanctuary" for many species endemic to these unique swamps.

Some well known hobby  anabantoid species, such as the "Licorice Gourami", Parosphromenus anjunganensis and Parosphromenus ornaticauda, hail from these biotopes, as well as many Barb species, such as the beautiful  Puntius rhomboocellatus.

Conservation issues aside, these environments are very interesting, and would be fun and educational to replicate in the aquarium.

So, how would we do this?

Depending upon the species you're wanting to keep, you could probably utilize a relatively small aquarium (like 20 US gallons, or even less) to create a very tightly controlled, cohesive environment. I'd look for a shallow, wide "footprint" for such an aquarium. Even a "frag tank" used in reef keeping would make a fine "swamp!" I could imagine all of the cool aquascaping we could do with such a tank!

Well, obviously, the "tricks of the trade" include utilizing botanical materials to recreate the unique substrate foreign in these swamps- decomposing leaves and such. Now, I'm not one for using peat in our aquariums whenever possible, but this could be one exception where I would consider using some to supplement other materials, to create a more realistic substrate. For example, one could mix some peat with a clay-based planted aquarium substrate, along with some Catappa leaves, and perhaps our "Fundo Tropical coconut-based substrate material- to create an interesting, if not somewhat faithful facsimile of the natural substrates found in these swamps.

I don't presume to be an expert on planted aquariums, but I do know that some species, such as Cryptocoryne, are found extensively in these environments, and would be the natural and easy choice for plants in such an aquarium. 

Lighting could be subdued, to enhance the swamp-like atmosphere, so you could use LED or T5 with ease. Interesting effects could be created with spot lighting. Filtration would be best accomplished with a canister or external power filter, as water movement is minimal in these swamps. Plus, with a mix of rather buoyant substrate materials, you'd probably want to limit the heavy flow to keep them from blowing all over your tank!

I'd plant fairly densely, and intersperse lots of botanicals, such as our palm-derived "Rio Fruta", and "Mariposa Pods", which add that special "something"- and tint- to your tank!

Perhaps you'd even want to include some palm fronds, as our friend Tai Streitman has used to great affect in his gorgeous Amazonian biotope aquarium that we'll be featuring soon! Tai tells me that he removes them after a period of time submerged, airs them out to dry, and uses them again and again! Very cool- and very environmentally friendly!

The maintenance of this aquarium would be no different than any of the Amazonian biotopes that we discuss so frequently here. Common sense water quality management, and regular water changes would go a long way towards maintaining a healthy environment for your little swamp!

Fishes, as mentioned above, encompass a large number of species known to the hobby, some fairly common, and others quite rare. This is a great chance to acquire some firsthand knowledge- as well as some rare fishes- for your collection! And even the rare fishes can be sourced with some effort. There is a tremendous interest in wild Betta species in the hobby, so with a little research and networking, it wouldn't be all that difficult to procure some cool specimens for your tank! For example, my fave, Betta coccina, is fairly easy to obtain from breeders, and would be entirely appropriate in such a display!

The vanishing Southeast Asian Peat Swamps offer us as aquarists a unique opportunity not only to stretch our creative "muscles"- they create a discussion point- an educational tool- with which we can share a small representation of an environment that may not be with us all that much longer. As hobbyists, it's both our joy and our responsibility to share these amazing environments with fellow hobbyists, nature lovers, and the general public. Does it have to be 100% biotopically accurate to convey this message? Some people will tell you that, but I don't think so.

 A well-thought-out aquarium could serve as a valuable tool to teach about the need to conserve these endangered ecosystems. A starting point for more detailed research.  Sharing our work and knowledge of them could lead to a greater understanding, appreciation, and perhaps- a chance to help preserve some of the inhabitant of these environments for future generations to enjoy.

Stay optimistic. Stay enthusiastic. Keep sharing and educating...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics









Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

June 09, 2020

Hey there! Thanks for the kind words…There are a lot of resources out there beyond the aquarium world; some are a bit technical or more academic, but they give a good background. Some you may have to sign up to read, but worth it…Here are links to a few:

Hope these help!



Bernard Nulty
Bernard Nulty

June 05, 2020

Hi Scott all the way from Ireland here.

Been a fan of the blogs and podcasts for a while now as I’ve always had a keen interest in trying to make the best home for my fish and aquatic inhabitants. I’m taking my first proper foray into a ‘’close to’’ biotope representation of the Thai/Malaysian peat swamps. Want to try to create a decent attempt at an environment for banded loaches, some type of rasbora and a betta imbellis pair.

I wonder if you might be able to help with some references or reading material to help me on my way? Appreciate you are busy so if you haven’t time it’s no big deal I’ll continue to search myself.

Thanks for the inspiration and Keep doing what you’re doing!


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