Transforming the "biotope aquarium"

The idea of a biotope aquarium is well discussed and understood in the aquarium hobby. The generally accepted definition of the term, in aquarium parlance, is pretty straightforward:

A biotope is an area of uniform environmental conditions providing a living place for a specific assemblage of plants and animals. Biotope is almost synonymous with the term habitat, which is more commonly used in English-speaking countries. ... The word biotope, literally translated, means an "area where life lives".

Okay, that's pretty good. Can't really dispute that one, huh?

Now, it seems to me that there are always these discussions that ensue when the winners of contests are announced, or when someone presents their "biotope aquarium" to others in a forum, club meeting, etc. People feel angered, slighted, vindicated, or whatever- depending upon what side of the debate they fall on, and feel compelled to heap their opinions and attitudes into the mix.

We get really worked up; really pissy about this shit. I admit, though- It's kind of fun to watch from afar, actually. It does show the level of passion and commitment to the "art and science" that our hobby community has.

At the end of the day, though,  I think that everyone can and should put aside their interpretive differences and come to an agreement that just about any aquarium intended to replicate- on some level- a specific wild habitat, ecological niche, or area where a certain fish or fishes are found- is hugely important.

Why? Because it calls attention to the habitats and environments themselves. It creates a starting point for discussion, research, debate...It raises awareness of the challenges that many habitats face with the encroachment of man's activities. It most certainly makes us appreciate the fragility of life- the genius of nature, and the incredible diversity and beauty of our home planet.

That's really not up for argument, IMHO.

Even the most poorly executed (by "contest standards", anyways) "biotope" aquarium helps the uninitiated public (or even the hobby community, for that matter) to become just a bit more enlightened about Nature. It might just stimulate someone, somewhere to ask themselves, "Is that what it's like in The Atabapo?"

And maybe- just maybe- they'll open up the iPad and do a little reading on the habitat that was being discussed...Maybe they'll take a crack at creating a representation of this habitat themselves. Maybe they will research and find and donate to an organization out there that is working to protect it. 

It's all good, IMHO.

Now, back to where I stand...

A lot of you have asked me how I would apply a different way of thinking to the biotope-inspired approach. Before I get into it, let's just wrap up our discussion on what I feel is the current state of biotope aquariums. (Or, as one of my aquairum buddies so aptly suggested, "Part 750 of Scott Fellman's Masterclass on how to be an Aquarium Hobby Assohole..."

I have no issue with any of those standards for a biotope aquarium contests and such. They are all logical and well thought out. Where I take issue- like so many things in this hobby- is with attitudes. I mean, I've seen people "call out" others because one of the leaves or whatever in a "Rio____ biotope aquarium" is not endemic to the region, or whatever. Okay, I get your thinking, but really...

Even with the contest winners, you can take this attitude and nitpick to the "nth degree":

I mean, what about the substrate? Is it absolutely Rio Negro region "podzol" from the Andes? Is every species of wood used in the tank form the surrounding varzea forest? Is every freaking bacteria, fungi, Paramecium, copepod, etc. the exact species that comes from the region being represented?

Huh? Is it? 

Can these armchair critics really discern the decomposing leaf of Hevea brasiliensis, Swietenia macrophylla, or Euterpe precatoria from Catappa, Guava, Jackfruit, Apple, Oak, etc? I mean, seriously? And, if someone cannot source these specific Amazonian leaves (NEWS FLASH" You typically can't), does that invalidate the aquarium from consideration as a "biotope aquarium?"

Does it even matter? C'mon! We have to get real and stop mentally masturbating each other about some perfection that few could appreciate, let alone discern. To me, "biotope-inspired" is good enough! Well, that's just ME, but...

Whew, I AM getting worked up here, lol.

Let's think about this from a "slightly different perspective." 😆

I'd rather focus on the "operational/functional" aspects of a biotope aquarium. The real "white space" in this area of hobby! Looking beyond the "conventional" approach to biotope aquariums and considering how we can replicate natural functions. How we can create an aquarium which is designed to replicate, as realistically as possible, many of the physical aspects which drive the function of a natural aquatic ecosystem?

To me, that's even more exciting and potentially beneficial than simply replicating the look of the system and the aggregating of species belonging to a specific environmental niche or geographic local as we do in the "conventional" approach to biotope aquariums. (Shit, is it just ME who's starting to hate that fucking term already?)


Stay with me here.

Perhaps the best way to replicate these aspects of natural aquatic systems is to replicate the factors which facilitate their function. So, for example, let's look at our fave habitats, the flooded forests of Amazonia or the grasslands of The Pantanal.

To create a system that truly embraces this idea in both form and function, you'd start the system as a terrestrial habitat. In other words, rather than setting up an aquarium right from the start, you'd be setting up what amounts to a terrarium. Soil/sand, terrestrial plants and grasses, leaves, seed pods, and "fallen trees/branches" on the "forest floor."


You'd run this system as a terrestrial display for some extended period of time- perhaps several weeks or even months, if you can handle it- and then you'd "flood" the terrestrial habitat, turning it into an aquatic one. Now, I'm not talking about one of our "Urban Igapo" nano-sized tanks here- I"m talking about a full-sized aquarium this time.  

This is different in both scale and dynamic. After the "inundation", it's likely that many of the plants and grasses will either go dormant or simply die, adding other nutrient load in the aquarium.

A microbiome of organisms which can live in the aquatic environment needs to arise to process the high level of nutrients in the aquarium. Some terrestrial organisms (perhaps you were keeping frogs?) need to be removed and re-housed.

The very process of creating and populating the system during this transitional phase from terrestrial to aquatic is a complex, fascinating, and not entirely well-understood one, at least in the aquarium hobby. In fact, it's essentially a virtually unknown one. We simply haven't created all that many systems which evolve from terrestrial to aquatic.

Sure, we've created terrariums, paludariums, etc. But this is different. Rather than capturing a "moment in time", we're talking about recreating the process of transformation from one habitat to another.

Psychologically, it would be challenging!

I mean, here you've been essentially running a "garden" for several months, enjoying it and meeting the challenges which arise, only to embark several months later on a process which essentially destroys what you've created, forcing you to start anew with an entirely different environment, and contend with all of its associated challenges (the nitrogen cycle, nutrient control, etc.)

Modeling the process. 

Personally, I find this type of approach irresistible. Not only do you get to enjoy all sorts of different aspects of Nature- you get to learn some new stuff, acquire new skills, and make observations on processes that, although common in Nature, were previously unrecorded in the aquarium hobby. 


You'll draw on all of your aquarium-related skills to manage this transformation. You'll deal with a different aesthetic- I mean, flooding an established, planted terrestrial habitat filled with soils and plants will create a turbid, no doubt chaotic-looking aquascape, at least initially. 


This is absolutely analogous to what we see in Nature, by the way.

One key to making this interesting from an aquascaping perspective is to create a hardscape of wood, rocks, seed pods, etc. during the terrestrial phase that will please you when it’s submerged.

You'll need to observe very carefully. You'll need to be tolerant of stuff like turbidity, biofilms, algae, decomposition- many of the "skills"we've developed as botanical-style aquarists.You need to accept that what you're seeing in front of you today will not be the way it will look in 4 months, or even 4 weeks.

You'll need incredible patience, along with flexibility and an "even keel.”

We have a lot of the "chops" we'll need for this approach already! They simply need to be applied and coupled with an eagerness to try something new, and to help pioneer and create the “methodology”, and with the understanding that things may not always go exactly like we expect they should.

For me, this would likely be a "one way trip", going from terrestrial to aquatic. Of course, much like we've done with our "Urban Igapo" approach, this could be a terrestrial==>aquatic==>terrestrial "round trip" if you want! That's the beauty of this. You could do a complete 365 day dynamic, matching the actual wet season/dry season cycles of the habitat you're modeling. Absolutely. 

The beauty is that, even within our approach to "transformational biotope-inspired" functional ecosystems, you CAN take some "artistic liberties" and do YOU. I mean, at the end of the day, it's a hobby, not a PhD thesis project, right?

Yeah. Plenty of room for creativity, even when pushing the state of the art of the hobby!

There are so many other ecosystems which can work with this approach! Floodplain lakes, streams, swamps, mud holes...I could go on and on and on. The inspiration for progressive aquariums is only limited to the many hundreds of thousands of examples which Nature Herself has created all over the planet.

It's out there. It's up to us as hobbyists to "bring it home." What's next for you?

Stay inspired. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay patient. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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