What's the problem with "realism?"

Welcome to the back of my mind.

It's a chaotic, busy, often confusing place. Sometimes, it only takes a comment or observation by a fellow hobbyist to send me into some philosophical ramblings...And today, you're going to have to suffer with me as a result of one such comment.

It got me thinking...and that's often dangerous! 😆

The other day, a fellow hobbyist was observing one of my tanks on Instagram and told me that this particular tank, and several others that I've done, are great examples, of "realism"...Now, it was a compliment, yes- and I was duly flattered. However, it also appeared to be an observation which seemed oddly "off" somehow.

I mean. "realism" is a term from the world of fine art, used to describe artworks which are painted in a realistic almost photographic way. To label an aquarium "realistic" is really an homage to its appearance...an aesthetic appraisal. Now, that's cool, but I think that every aquarium essentially is a microcosm, a little closed ecological system, and is by definition authentic...Real.

So, the "realism" part in this comment seemed to me to refer to its appearance only. An aesthetic statement...That's all good, but the most "shallow" of all appraisals, really. In a strange way, I take that type of appraisal of a tank as almost an insult! Yeah, it's in my own head, but it's like those comments about biotope contest tanks... To me, it implies that it "looks" the part, but doesn't acknowledge that it's a functional, operating ecosystem...

I mean, it makes sense- I get it. The look is what we can see easily and immediately, especially in a picture or a video. The function- which to me is the everything in the types of aquariums we play with-is more difficult to discern; you have to live with such an aquarium to understand, experience, and appreciate this aspect. 

So, that's an example of the bizarre shit in my head!

Now, in the more broad sense, let's think about a truly natural aquarium; one in which appearance is a result of the function. It's the arena that I like to play in. It's not for everyone, and it's a place where there is a lot of room for innovation. Recreating some of the function of natural ecosystems is fascinating to me.

And it creates a very difficult challenge sometimes.

Think about the idea of replicating some types of natural habitats in our aquariums...By replicating, I mean attempting to create a functional version of a specialized natural habitat. Now, there are many who will immediately dismiss this idea as complete folly, because we can't possibly recreate every aspect of an open, natural ecosystem. You know, all of the many chemical, biological, meteorological inputs which affect the formation, form, and function of a specific habitat.

I get that. However, we can recreate many of these inputs, and do so in a way that creates a functional representation of the ecosystem that we wish to portray. Of course, even that is likely down-playing some of the challenges.

Stuff like creating deep leaf litter beds in our tanks is no longer a "no go" thing in the aquarium hobby. We can actually execute them. The big "problem" that kept people from recreating functional leaf litter beds in the aquarium was the hobby mantra of not allowing organic materials to break down in our tanks for fear of "pollution." And of course, the reality is that the whole point of a leaf litter bed is to facilitate the breakdown of leaves, the sequestration of nutrients, and the colonization and reproduction of beneficial organisms (fungi, bacterial biofilms, crustaceans, etc.). 

Not only does the presence of the leaves NOT present s problem, it's a "driver" of the ecological processes that we want. In years past, the recommendation was to siphon out and remove leaves and such as they broke down, which in reality created the very dynamic of "pollution" that hobbyists were desperate to avoid in the first place!

Removing the "fuel" that drives the ecology of the system creates problems for many of the organisms which consume it, depriving them, of their food source, and leading to an incomplete "system" that will struggle to maintain good water quality.

In this case, "realism" is simply a matter of allowing the aquarium ecosystem to do what it does, with minimal intervention/interference on our part. The whole "problem" with keeping leaf litter-based aquariums is one that we as humans created, IMHO.

Leaf litter-based aquariums work.

We've also heard of the problems with attempting to recreate the functional aspects of brackish water ecosystems. Specifically, the deep, mud-and-sediment-rich substrates, decomposing mangrove leaves, and mangroves themselves. All of these things contribute to a closed aquarium ecosystem which has a large quantity of organic material present.

Again, it was a case of taking the "warnings" into account, and sort of analyzing why the hobby was telling us that we shouldn't do this. The reason, once again, was that it embraced a high level of organic materials present in the system. It required an understanding of the basics of aquarium husbandry, and the ability to observe, monitor, and maintain such an aquarium.

And above all, an understanding that the organic material present in the tank was the primary driver of the ecology. Something that I wanted- not feared.

Rich-substrate-based brackish water aquariums work. 

It's a matter of learning the 'rules of the road" and accepting that you need to manage the aquarium in perhaps a different manner than other systems you've played with before.

The idea of recreating the function and processes which occur in seasonally-inundated ecosystems, like flooded forest floors, Pantanal grasslands, and temporal pools is exciting. Replicating the wet/dry seasonal changes is a completely different approach than we've done before. The "Urban Igapo" thing.

Like so many other unusual approaches that we try in the hobby, it requires an understanding of the dynamics of the natural habitat we're trying to replicate, and considering how this can play out in a closed ecosystem.

We learned that the soils of these seasonally inundated areas are other specialized, and that they include a lot of sediment-type materials, which have not been something that we as hobbyists have cared to introduced into the aquarium before. Why? A lot of reasons...not the least of which that they cloud the water for some period of time, and may have different chemical impacts on the water. Again, these were things that we have avoided in the hobby for various reasons.

And, managing a close aquatic ecosystem through a wet and dry cycle has implications for the life forms which will reside in it. You need to monitor and be aware of the physical, chemical, and biological implications of this process. And be open to creating and perfecting new techniques.

Seasonally-inundated aquariums work.

I think the whole "realism" thought which opened this winding little discussion is something that we as hobbyists need to get our heads around. It's more than just the aesthetics. And we also need to understand that, just because trying to recreate a natural habitat requires us to face some stuff that we're not familiar with, or that we've been told is "ill advised", "difficult", or even "dangerous", doesn't make it impossible to do.

It just means that we need to get our heads around some new stuff, and not be afraid to occasionally do stuff that is contrary to aquarium hobby "best practices." NOT to "give the middle finger" to the hobby establishment and try crazy stuff just to be rebellious. Rather, it's to do our best to incorporate new ways to recreate many of the functions of Nature in the closed confines of an aquarium.

There is no problem at all with "realism" in that context!

We've got this!

Move forward.

Stay bold. Stay innovative. Stay excited. Stay studious. Stay enthusiastic...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 








Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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