We talk a lot about "microhabitats" in Nature; little areas of tropical habitats where unique physical, environmental and biological characteristics converge based on a set of factors found in the locale. As aquarists, observing, studying, and understanding the specifics of microhabitats is a fascinating and compelling part of the hobby, because it can give us inspiration to replicate the form and function of them in our tanks!
We spend a lot of time discussing and considering the various components and interactions of water and terrestrial habitats, such as the igarape and the surrounding igapo and varzea flooded forests, and the Pantanal- those amazing inundated meadows found in Brazil. These environments are fascinating, because they are examples of what happens when temporary situations (ie; floods) affect the "topography" of terrestrial habitats. Our pages and posts feature amazing pics by David Sobry, Mike Tuccinardi, and Tai Strietman- all who observe Nature with a hobbyist's eye!
Ecologically, the productivity and diversity of these habitats make them perfect subjects for replication in our aquariums. Not only do they offer unique aesthetics- they offer really cool opportunities to see how they can function in a closed system like an aquarium! When fishes are kept in a representation of a habitat which mimics its form and function, enormous potential for discoveries and success present themselves!
Look at the way rocks, soil and branches come together in flooded forests to form interesting physical spaces that fishes utilize for protection, foraging, and reproduction.
By replicating the complex look and physical attributes of these features, including rich substrate, roots of various thickness, and leaves, we offer our fishes all sorts of potential microhabitats. In the aquarium, we tend to focus on the "macro" level- creating a nice wood stack, perhaps incorporating some rock- but we seldom see the whole picture allowed to come together in a more natural way.
This was what inspired me in the latest iteration of my home "planted" blackwater aquarium. The interaction between the terrestrial elements and the aquatic ones. Allowing terrestrial leaves to accumulate naturally among the "tree root structure" we have created fosters this more natural-functioning environment. As these leaves begin to soften and ultimately break down, they will foster microbial growth, biofilms, and fungal growths- all of which will provide supplemental foods for the resident fishes...just like what happens in Nature.
Facilitating these processes- allowing the materials to accumulate naturally and break down "in situ" is a key component of replicating and supporting these microhabitats in our aquariums. The typical aquarium hardscape- artistic and beautiful as it might be, generally replicates the most superficial aesthetic aspects of such habitats, and tends to overlook their function- and the reasons why such habitats form.
When I see such beautiful aquascapes, I'm almost always thinking to myself, "Damn, they're sooo close to being gable to create something really natural here!" If I had one of these tanks, it would literally take every bit of resistance I can offer to avoid tossing in some leaves and botanicals into the nooks and crannies that are formed where substrate, stones, and roots meet. Purely aesthetic 'scapes to me are like "missed opportunities" to me to learn more about these fascinating microhabitats!
So my plea to you- my fellow natural-style aquarium lovers- is to consider the function of microhabitats; how fishes can live in them, derive protection, food, and utilize them as spawning locations from them. Sure, you may not like to pile on the leaves and botanicals into your woodwork. You might not want to see all of that stuff breaking down in the nooks and crannies...
However, don't automatically dismiss the idea...You can always remove these materials if they offend your aesthetic sensibilities. I only ask that you give the idea a try...a good, serious look at the elegance and function of these amazing ecological niches...
The niches where substrate, stones, and roots meet.
Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.