Please visit our Sponsors

Related FAQs: Biotopic presentations Faux CoralsFaux RockBase Rock

Related Articles: Marine Aquascaping, Fishwatcher's Guides

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

Biotopes: Thematic Arrangements

Bob Fenner

I need lots of bottom space... sandy

Do you remember the "Find The Hidden..." puzzle in Highlights For Children Magazine; or the more modern Where's Waldo books? Their popularity reminds me of the predominant taste in decorating marine systems; bizarre, mysterious, hidden.

A "counter" movement is that of biotopic presentations. Biotopes are efforts to bring together organisms that would be found in the same area, within an artificial habitat that's intended to be something like their 'real' home.

Huh? Different Environments?

As the saying goes, "The closer you look, the more there is to see". There are many types and sub-types of shallow marine habitats; cold-cooler-tropical, surface-shallow-deeper, brightly to barely lit & dark, surgey to almost dead calm, over/in soft sand, rock, rubble, on a patch reef or mud flat... all with specific mixes of life.

Approaching a biotopic community may (and should) focus of more than just whether the livestock gets along okay; it answers the question, "Do they live in close association with each other in their native habitats?" With a "yes".


Where do you get particular information on what a biotope really is like, and what lives there? Help can be had from many sources. The best comes from a combination of study and actual on-site visits

Good standard reference works and their bibliographies give notes on the normal habitats of marine organisms; as do articles in worthwhile pet-fish magazines. 

Arty, coffee table picture books about the world's oceans, especially reefs, are a gold mine. Wide-angle nature photographs offer an enormous amount of useful information. What life do you see; where is it at? How much light, circulation, rock and coral cover...?

Two Examples:

Eelgrass with plastic Vallisneria as Phyllospadix (surf-grass) and/or Zostera (eel-grass) in the background with realistic replicas of freshwater broad sag. (genus Sagittaria) in the foreground to pass as turtle-grass (Thalassia). If your polyethylene facsimiles are too "twisted" in shape, they can be straightened by soaking them in water heated on the stove.

Throw in some real or simulated Siderastrea, Porites, et al. coral skeletons and voila (!), a Caribbean shallow water environment.

Swamp In A Tank: For everything but the bug-bites, Tom Baugh (cited in the last Section) and Julian Sprung (1995) give advice on making phony and live mangrove set-ups. Yep, you can grow your own, or use their remnants for a realistic, make that real near-reef experience.

Dangers of Not Going Biotopic:

Some of these are obvious; they are the general questions of compatibility in mixing any two specimens. The most problems I've seen come in dealing with stinging-celled animals. All sorts of corals and anemones (and relatives) do not easily tolerate each other's proximity, sometimes even just presence in the same system.

If you spend any time in the hobby, you'll hear horror stories of sea anemones eating seahorses that were pushed around by too much circulation. Why we're they in the same tank? Or Clownfishes and other damsels getting stung and snacked on by Atlantic anemones. Most octopus, sharks, large crustaceans need their own specialized set-ups...

The only real danger of setting up biotopes is "going broke" from becoming an avid pursuer of knowledge, enjoyment and travel. Oh, and maybe divorce; if your spouse doesn't share your keen interests. Happily, mine does.


Though behaviorally many a mix and match can be made with livestock from hither and yon that never would meet in the oceans; and most fishes and invertebrates don't seem to mind a burping clam, red flower or treasure chest with or sans plastic skeleton, your livestock and I'd rather have the 'real' thing. "Slice of the wild" displays are well worth the effort.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Coletti, Ted. 1998. Habitat tanks; like biotope tanks, but different. AFM 9/98.

De Bernardo, James P. 1979. Aquascaping: (a series of articles with many good ideas, freshwater, brackish and marine) in FAMA 2/79 onward.

Hemdal, Jay. 1988. Marine biotopes as a theme for home aquariums. FAMA 10/88.

Sprung, Julian. 1995. Magnificent mangroves; you can actually grow mangroves in the comfort of your own aquarium. AFM 12/95.


Become a Sponsor Features:
Daily FAQs FW Daily FAQs SW Pix of the Day FW Pix of the Day New On WWM
Helpful Links Hobbyist Forum Calendars Admin Index Cover Images
Featured Sponsors: