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Aquascaping & Decor


December 13, 2018 | By Oliver Lucanus

A biotope aquarium is one that presents a community of fish, invertebrates and plants that occur naturally together. This is a very general and wide definition, because a biotope aquarium can, in fact, represent a set of species from very different habitats. For example, a biotope can be “Southeast Asia”, thus leaving open to interpretation the country, river and lake the species is selected from.

The same can be said of “India”, restricting the biotope species list to those found only in India. Furthermore, a “Western Ghats” biotope restricts the species offering unique to this specific mountain range, or down to a certain mountain stream found within the Western Ghats region.

The choice of habitat is up to the keeper, but the concept of choosing species that actually occur together in close proximity to each other in nature has many advantages.

The first fishkeepers to realize that the biotope concept made sense were Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika cichlid fans, who usually stick to keeping fish from only one lake together. Malawi keepers then separate those fish that dwell on sand (Utaka) or rocks (Mbuna) because of the different dietary and territorial needs of these two groups.

To set up a biotope aquarium, you should start with some simply parameters. A country is perhaps too general, but a river system is a generally nice idea. Leave some space in your definition to allow you the choice of the nicest species. I would start by finding a key species that you would like to keep, and then finding other fish that occur in the same region or same habitat.

Information is not always easy to find, but traveling aquarists have a fair amount of videos and photos on the Internet that can help you come up with a nice set of fish occurring together in nature. Taking it one step further, the plants and even invertebrates can also match the natural habitat of these fish, and create a small slice of what the home of the fishes would look like in nature.


As an example, let’s look at a 40 gallon aquarium that contains a set of species found in Colombia’s Vichada Region – a clear water stream that you can reference from Fluval’s Colombia Expedition in 2013. Our key species will be the Cardinal Tetra.

From our expedition video, we can gather the following information: the 40 gallon aquarium should have a fine sand substrate, a few flattened and rounded rocks, driftwood, branches & marginal vegetation, and Eleocharis grasses.

Other fish occurring in the Vichada region are rummy nose tetras, Dicrossus filamentous (checkerboard cichlids), Apistogramma (dwarf cichlids), Nannostomus (pencil fish), Hemiodus (hockeystick tetras), Ancistrus (Bristlenose catfish) and Farlowella (stick catfish).

This set of small fish live peacefully together and make for an interesting community that will not outgrow a small aquarium. Likewise, a 100 gallon aquarium from the same habitat could house the larger species: Satanoperca daemon (demon eartheater), Hypselecara coryphaenoides (chocolate cichlid), Mesonauta insignis (festivum cichlid), Semaprochilodus taeniurus (flagtail characin), Leporinus (rocket fish), Heros severus (severum cichlid) and Hypostomus. This larger set of fish would not tolerate the plants, but the other decorations would be the same.

The easiest biotope aquariums are those with rift lake cichlids, because a number of books show the habitat in great detail. With some internet research and proper planning, a biotope habitat can be set up for any species. Few of our aquarium fish live alone, and putting them in a community with fish occurring from the same habitat makes not only an interesting challenge, but also a great educational experience. The habitats of our aquarium fish face unstoppable threats: deforestation, mining, farming, urban development, oil and gas production, etc.

Don’t be too restrictive with your choice of habitat – the idea is to provide conditions similar to what your key species would find in nature. But if you happen to like a certain type of fish over another, substitute where necessary. Choose less species in larger groups to make the community more interesting. Above all, have fun with the concept and don’ be afraid to make a few tweaks here and there so you can really come up with something unique.

To get you started, I’ve come up with some species lists and loose definitions for some of the most popular aquarium fish habitats:


  • 10x Procatopus or Epiplatys (killifish)
  • 10x Phenacogrammus or Micralestes (congo tetras)
  • 6x Pantodon buchholzi (butterfly fish)
  • 6x Small Synodontis species (upside down catfish)
  • 2x Pelvicachromis pulcher (kribensis cichlid) or other Pelvicachromis


  • Anubias nana
  • Bolbitis heudelotti
  • Nymphea lotus
  • Vallisneria spec. or Crinum spec.


  • 20x Puntius tetrazona (tiger barb) or other Asian barb
  • 20x Botia sidthimunki or other small Botia (loach)
  • 20x Pangio kuhlii (kuhli loach)
  • 15x Danio spec. (giant Danio or other Danio species)
  • 6x Trichogaster leeri (pearl gourami) or other gourami species
  • 5x Crossocheilus latius or other (Siamese algae eater)


  • Microsorium pteropus (java fern)
  • Cryptocoryne spec.
  • Vesicularia spec. (java moss)
  • Hygrophila polysperma


20x Xiphophorus helleri (green swordtail)

  • 20x Poecilia velifera (sailfin molly)
  • 4x Amatitlana nanolutea (yellow convict cichlid or any other small convict species)
  • 4x Herotilapia multispinosa (lemon cichlid)


  • Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), whose leaves are immersed and will not be damaged by the cichlids.


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