When people think of a fish tank, they often think first of the fish, but the habitat in which the fish are paced is just as important. Designing a habitat for your fish and other aquarium animals is called aquascaping, and, as the name suggests, it is a lot like landscaping -- just underwater.
A Natural Aquascape
While it once was common to decorate an aquarium with plastic shipwrecks, bubbling divers, and ceramic or resin models of everything from castles to mountains, many modern aquarists choose to create a natural aquascape. A natural aquascape mimics the environment in which the animals live in the wild, and live rock is the most common aquascaping material. One advantage to live rock is that it serves not only as decoration, but it also acts as a biologicsl filter for the aquarium.
Most saltwater fish tanks housing only fish are called FOWLER tanks (fish-only-with-live-rock). The live rock in a FOWLER tank serves as filtration, as it is colonized by denitrifying bacteria, as well as decoration. Rather than creating a wall of rock along the back of the aquarium, try creating distinct environments or micro-habitats. For example, you could create a pillar on one side of the tank surrounded by open sand. On the other side of the tank, you could create a large rock structure with a cave and overhang. Creating micro-habitats in your aquarium provides aesthetic appeal for you and a more natural environment for your fishes.
Reef Tank Aquascaping
In a reef tank, where you also will keep corals and other invertebrates, aquascaping means providing a structure on which to grow coral intentionally. As such, it is important to plan for the size and growth rate of the corals you intend to keep. It also is necessary to provide surfaces at various depths, as different corals have different requirements in terms of light intensity. Finally, it may be useful to have some isolated structures in the aquarium where corals that spread rapidly can be contained. Keep in mind, a reef aquarium's aquascape will evolve as the corals grow.
Building an Easy-to-Maintain Aquascape
One problem aquarists have when aquascaping is they create an aquascape that is difficult to maintain, especially in a reef aquarium. When designing an aquascape, think about how you will create water flow throughout the entire aquarium so as not to allow detritus to accumulate in hard-to-reach locations. Also, think about how difficult it will be to retrieve a tool or coral fragment dropped onto the tank's substrate. Allowing enough room to reach into the tank and access as much of the aquascape as possible will help immensely in terms of maintenance.
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Ret Talbot is an award-winning writer and photographer, as well as a lifelong freshwater and marine aquarist. He is the author of "Banggai Cardinalfish; A Guide to Captive Care, Breeding & Natural History" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Saltwater Aquariums." He is also a senior editor at "CORAL Magazine," the world's leading reef and marine aquarium magazine.