You've got the look. What about the function?

One of the things that I find sort of interesting to contemplate is the fact that, when you think about it- virtually all freshwater fishes come into contact with some botanical materials throughout their existence. In virtually every body of water, you'll find some sunken branches, tree trunks, leaves, roots, seed pods, etc.

It's something that fishes are completely familiar with. They've adapted over eons to co-exist with and utilize these materials as hiding places, areas to forage, and sites to spawn. Literally, a part of their daily existence.

And when you think about it from such a standpoint, you can ask yourself another basic question about our hobby: What is the purpose of an aquascape in the aquarium...besides just aesthetics? Well, it's to provide fishes with a comfortable environment that makes them feel "at home", right? when was the last time you really looked into where your fishes live- or should I say, "how they live" - in the habitats from which they come?

Well first off...unless you're talking about large, ocean going fishes, or fishes that live in enormous schools, like herring or smelt- fishes like structure. Structure provides a lot of things- namely protection, shade, food, and spawning/nesting areas.

Yet, the structure that we are talking about is not just rocks and wood, in the context of aquariums. It can be plants, algae, twigs, pebbles, and botanicals.

Think about how fishes act in Nature.

They tend to be attracted to areas where food supplies are relatively abundant, requiring little expenditure of energy in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. Insects, crustaceans, and yeah- tiny fishes- tend to congregate and live around floating plants, masses of algae, and fallen botanical items (seed pods, leaves, etc.), so it's only natural that our subject fishes would be attracted to these areas...I mean, who wouldn't want to have easy access to the "buffet line", and the protection that it affords, right?

Another interesting phenomenon that any fisherman will tell you is that fishes also like to gather under trees. Not only do trees provide a respite from the bright light, they provide an opportunity to grab a meal of insects, fruit, and other materials which might fall from the trees throughout the day. By providing both food and shelter, the overhanging trees and plants provide an interesting place for fishes to hang out.

So, where does this leave us in terms of creating an aquascape for our fishes in the aquarium? Can we create systems which have both unique aesthetics and impressive function by using botanicals and other materials? How can we adapt this idea?

Well, for one thing, we can look to Nature to see just what it is that falls into the water! In many wild habitats, it's leaves, seed pods, branches, etc. All sorts of stuff. And what about how these materials are oriented in the water after they fall?

For example, when a tree branch falls into the water, gravity, current, wind, etc influence how it lays on the bottom of the stream. Often times, in shallow streams, the branch extends partially out of the water...kind of like what we do in 'scaping, right? Yet, somehow less "contrived."

As aquarists, we put an amazing amount of time into trying to achieve a perfect placement for wood, when the reality is that, in Nature, it's decidedly random. Is there not beauty in "randomness", despite our pursuit of the "Golden Ratio", etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of wood and stones within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

When you think about how materials "get around" in the wild aquatic habitats, there are a few factors which influence both the accumulation and distribution of them. In many topical streams, the water depth and intensity of the flow changes during periods of rain and runoff, creating significant re-distribution of the materials which accumulate on the bottom, such as leaves, seed pods, and the like.

Larger, more "hefty" materials, such as submerged logs, etc., will tend to move less frequently, and in many instances, they'll remain stationary, providing a physical diversion for water as substrate materials accumulate around them.

A "dam", of sorts, if you will.

And this creates known structures within streams in areas like Amazonia, which are known to have existed for many years. Semi-permanent aquatic features within the streams, which influence not only the physical and chemical environment, but the very habits, distribution, and abundance of the fishes which reside there.

Most of the small materials, like branches, seed pods, and leaves may tend to move around quite a bit before ultimately settling and accumulating in a specific area. One might say that the "material changes" created by this movement of materials can have significant implications for fishes. In the wild, they follow the food, often existing in, and subsisting off of what they can find in these areas.

Now, in the case of our aquariums, this "redistribution" of material can create interesting opportunities to not only switch up the aesthetics of our tanks, but to provide new and unique little physical areas for many of the fishes we keep. So-called "microhabitats" that facilitate interesting behaviors and habits in our fishes, while supporting their grazing and spawning activities.

And, as you suspect, the benthic microfauna which our fishes tend to feed on also are affected by this phenomenon. They go where their food sources are, too. And as mentioned above, the fishes tend to "follow the food", making this a case of the fishes learning (?) to adapt to a changing environment.

And perhaps...maybe...the idea of fishes sort of having to constantly adjust to a changing physical (note I didn't say "chemical") environment could be some sort of "trigger", hidden deep in their genetic code, that perhaps stimulates overall health, immunity or spawning?

Something in their "programing" that says, "You're at home..." Triggering specific adaptations and behaviors?

I find this possibility utterly fascinating, because we can perhaps learn more about our fishes' behaviors and what it might be that triggers them-in the comfort of their own aquariums.

And of course, we can create really interesting physical and chemical environments  for them simply by adding botanicals to our aquariums and allowing them to "do their own thing", redistributing throughout the aquarium as they decompose and move about as we change water or conduct maintenance activities, or add new pieces from time to time.

Again, much like Nature.

The interaction between the terrestrial elements and the aquatic ones is really interesting, because it presents unique opportunity to observe how these familiar (to the fishes) combinations of materials foster these behaviors in the aquarium. It's something that we already have some "practice" with in our world, right?

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. 

Taking a more "functional" approach to creating our aquariums and their  aquascapes is something that I think we need to spend more "mental capital" on. 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 able 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!

The real "blurring of the lines" between Nature and aquarium is already underway. We've come pretty far, challenging ourselves as a community, and now we're definitely ready for a move to the "next level" of natural, botanical-style aquariums. Aquariums that, by virtue of the unique materials they utilize and the habitats they try to replicate, look and function in a radically different manner than those we've worked with before.



The canvas is blank.

Simple iterations to aquascaping configurations we've played with for decades can unlock many potential breakthroughs. And it all starts with embracing the concept of functional aesthetics when we create our aquariums.   

By providing functionally aesthetic aquariums, we're really setting the stage for what I really feel will be the ultimate evolution of aquarium keeping:  Creating aquariums which replicate, as realistically as possible, the look and function of the habitats that we are fascinated by.

It's a fun and fascinating journey, that will not only yield greater understanding of our fishes, but of the precious and fascinating environments from which they come. And a greater appreciation for the functions and vulnerabilities of these wild ecosystems means that we'll be in a better position than ever as aquarists to call attention to the perils that they face.

And when we inspire non-aquarists to understand and learn more about this stuff- the planet wins.

Take the time to go beyond the sexy look.

Because you'll find that the function is every bit as fascinating and inspiring as those unique aesthetics. 

Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay inquisitive. Stay diligent. Stay patient. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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