Vivarium "cross-training" and the fish geek...A new "jumping off point?"

As I often do, I contemplate ways of setting up our botanical-style blackwater and brackish aquariums in different ways. I tend to focus on that concept of "functional aesthetics", which we've talked about a lot on these pages.

It's the idea of creating an aquascape that is not only good-looking and interesting, but one which provides environmental enrichment and ecological advantages for its resident fish population.

Not too long ago, I was scrolling though our Instagram feed, and, as I often do, I was inspired by the wonderful work being done by our friend Paulie Dema of Vivariums in The Mist in New York ( Instagram: vivariums_in_the_mist). As his company name implies, they specialize in creating pretty amazing habitats and enclosures for frogs/herps. These are incredibly beautiful, complex, and well-thought-out scapes, which, in my opinion, are the very essence of "functional (aqua)scaping! 

In the case of frog enclosures, there are many considerations that the hobbyists must think about when building them. First, you need to provide a hardscape of wood, soil, and other materials (they use some foam along with the natural  materials, like wood and stone) to hold together the "superstructure" of the jungle simulation they're creating. The concept of "bioactive" scapes is of supreme importance to frog enthusiasts, as the enclosure not only has to look good, it needs to be a functional representation of a jungle/rainforest biotope. 

"Bioactive" enclosures attempt to replicate many aspects of the rain forest floor; specifically, the soils and associates biotia. In the case of a vivarium, creatures like Ispods and other detritivores are incorporated to help break down wastes and return nutrients to the "forest floor." This not only allows healthy growth of plants, but allows extremely long-term function for these unique habitats (up to 10 years or even more in some instances). 

These hobbyists literally are doing what we do in aquairums- attempting to replicate the "functional aesthetics" of a natural habitat. Now, we may not be able to incorporate some of the organisms (ie; terrestrial isopods like "Springtails" and such) into fully aquatic displays. Of course, we have aquatic analogs, right?

And it's obvious that we can integrate many of the other biological aspects/concepts of these systems into our aquariums. It's kind of the "terrestrial analog" to the type of work that we do! After all, we incorporate terrestrial materials into our aquatic displays and have for's all about a point of view, I think.

And frog/herp enthusiasts love decaying leaves and botanicals as much as we do! If they were into fishes, you KNOW they'd be working with blackwater/brackish, botanical-style aquariums! How could you not want to study some of their technique? 🤓

And the process takes time and patience, as you might expect- just like what we do-yet the results are well worth it. We're familiar with this concept, aren't we? Vivarium enthusiasts respect not only the composition and "construction" of these habitats- they very much embrace their complex biological function. When the soils and plants and water features (often little waterfalls and such) are completed, these are some of the most engaging 'scapes of any kind that you'll ever encounter.

Oh, and botanicals and leaf litter.... 😍 Yeah.

And, of course, for us fish geeks- there are many lessons to be learned from our frog/herp enthusiast friends that we can benefit from. Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways for me from studying these builds is a realization that what these guys are doing is literally building, from the ground up, a forest floor! 

With my obsession about seasonally inundated forest floor habitats for our tropical fishes, it becomes quite obvious why I'm so enamoured with them, right? There's a lot to "unpack" and incorporate into focused, fully aquatic displays, IMHO. 

By studying what these guys do and incorporating similar techniques and concepts into our pure aquatic builds (be they full-on aquariums or paludariums), I think we could come up with some truly incredible-looking and functioning displays which could, quite literally, break new ground for our fishkeeping work!

You could easily incorporate many of the things we've already talked about- careful selection of hardscape materials and aquatic /terrestrial soil combinations, riparian or true aquatic plants, botanically-enriched substrates, leaves, seed pods, palm fronds, etc., and create a remarkably realistic "dry" forest which you simply and literally "add water" to for an extremely accurate representation of nature.

The idea of building an aquarium as you would a vivarium and flooding it may not be some breakthrough concept; however, I think there is enough inspiration and ideation there to motivate aquarium hobbyists to contemplate this. I mean, a flooded forest floor aquarium is best created by building the damn forest floor first, as opposed to filling a tank with water and working "backwards", right? 

I think so! 

And doing some studying of the rain forests in the geographic area that you're interested in replicating is never a bad thing, right? These dynamic, often threatened environments are critical to the health of our planet, and I could hardly imagine a more useful way for a fish geek to learn more about their place in our aquariums than to attempt to replicate some aspects of it in an aquascape, right?

Approaching an aquarium from this different angle by "cross-training" with frog/herp enthusiasts' techniques is a very solid approach. The crossover potential is there, as is a pretty good understanding of how these features can be recreated in captivity. A merging of the two hobby specialties and further developing techniques that draw from both disciplines is exciting and beneficial for the hobby.

Where water meets land has always been a very special place..A literal jumping off spot into the aquatic world. In this case, it would be a starting point on another evolution in the art and science of botanical-style, blackwater aquariums.

Time to flex those creative 'scaping muscles and look at things from a slightly different angle.

Who's in?

Stay inspired. Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay curious. Stay resourceful...

And Stay Wet. (or partially dry, as necessary!


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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