How to Create Your Own Biotope Aquarium

Every aquarist’s goal is to provide their fish with the perfect conditions in which to thrive and create a beautiful aquarium that’s pleasing to the viewer. In recent years, the trend has moved toward creating biotope aquariums.
So, what is a biotope aquarium, and how do you create one?

What is a Biotope Aquarium?

All fish species are happiest when kept in an environment that closely mimics that of their natural habitat, and that’s what a biotope aquarium is all about.

In a biotope setup, the natural conditions of a particular region are as closely replicated as possible, including:

● Fish species
● Invertebrates
● Plants
● Lighting
● Water parameters
● Temperature
● Substrate
● The topography of the habitat, i.e., rocks, tangled roots, submerged branches, etc.

Setting up and maintaining a biotope is challenging, largely because the environments are extremely sensitive and unique to a specific area. There are also regions within regions. For example, Lake Tanganyika contains three distinct biotopes:

  1. Shell beds where empty snail shells have accumulated across the floor of various bays.
  2. Rocky areas around the shoreline and underwater reef habitats.
  3. Open water spaces where the substrate is sandy, and there are few hiding places.

Each of those biotopes is home to a different set of fish that are adapted to thrive in that specific area of the lake. So, if you want to create a Lake Tanganyika biotope aquarium, you need to focus on one precise region of the lake, its geography, and the species that live there.

Everything in the setup must live in harmony, just as it does in nature. That said, although difficult to create and manage, biotope aquariums are unique, beautiful, and well worth the effort.

Different Forms of Biotope

A biotope doesn’t need to be restricted to a purely aquatic setup. For example, you can take inspiration from semi-aquatic habitats and create a riparium or a paludarium where plants, amphibians, and even reptiles can feature, as well as fish.

Biotope Aquarium
Biotope Aquarium

How to Create a Biotope Aquarium

What Size Aquarium do you Need?

The size of the biotope aquarium you build will depend, to some extent, on the specific setting you choose to recreate. For example, a 10-gallon tank isn’t large enough to house an Australian tropical reef but would be perfect for a snapshot of an Amazon rainforest river.

How to Design Your Biotope Aquarium

When designing your biotope aquarium, you need to keep in mind that you want to recreate a specific setting that’s found in nature.

Where to start?

The easiest way to get started is to decide what particular fish species you most want to exhibit as the star of the show in your biotope. Then, you need to carry out lots of research to find out where that fish comes from, what its natural habitat is like, and what creatures and plant life the fish shares its world with.

Research Resources

Although books and online resources are undoubtedly a helpful source of information, the best place to begin your research is at the zoo or public aquarium. Here you can see the fish in a professionally designed biotope exhibit that you can replicate on a smaller scale.

Take plenty of notes so that you know what plants, fish, invertebrates, and natural features occur in the area that interests you. That will give you a clear idea of the practicalities and costs involved in recreating that habitat on a smaller scale.

Choose a Focal Point

Now that you have a blueprint for your home biotope aquarium, you can begin to build it.

Begin by choosing a single focal point and build a hardscape around that. For example, you could begin by taking a piece of architecturally attractive spider wood to represent a submerged root in an Amazon rainforest river setting.
Once you have your main feature, gather together other items to replicate the habitat. Start with the substrate. Some areas have coarse, gravelly substate, whereas others have soft sand or mud. There’s often a layer of leaf litter on the river bottom in densely forested areas, helping to create a blackwater habitat, and you can mimic that by using dried almond leaves.

Add pebbles, driftwood, rocky overhangs, and any other features that are found in your chosen habitat. To keep things authentic, try to obtain the exact rockwork and wood that’s specific to the location.

Biotope Aquarium
Biotope Aquarium


The same principle applies to planting your biotope. Seek out the exact species of plants that grow together in the natural habitat and use them in your home aquarium. More research is needed here to find out the size and spread of the plants when full-grown, their growth rates, nutritional requirements, etc.
Be careful when choosing plants for your biotope, as some species naturally grow immersed and will decay and die when fully submerged in an aquarium.

Where to Find Resources for Your Biotope

Finding what you need to create your biotope is part of the fun and pretty straightforward.

There are lots of fish stores, garden and pond centers, and online resources that can supply you with what you need. Even unusual region-specific plants and fish species can be sourced through online dealers.

Although it may be tempting to take items from nature to add to your aquarium, it’s best not to go down that route. Some regions have strict laws governing what you can take from rivers and the seashore, and you also run the risk of importing parasites or diseases into your new tank.

Choosing Fish

Although there may be many fish species that live in the area you want to recreate and share the same water parameters, they may not necessarily all get along together.

So, again, much research is needed to make sure that you pick fish species that are compatible both in terms of temperament and where they live in the water column. Try to choose fish that are peaceful, non-territorial, and dwell in different parts of the tank so that everyone has enough space to be comfortable.

Biotope Aquarium
Biotope Aquarium

Water parameters

Accurately replicating the water parameters of the biotope is essential for the health and wellbeing of the life within it.

A good quality filtration system is crucial to manage the levels of ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates in the water, together with weekly or bi-weekly partial water changes. To keep the water at the correct temperature, you’ll need a heater and a thermometer for monitoring purposes. Also, you must use a pH meter or a water testing kit to check the water conditions every few days, as stability of the water conditions within the habitat is crucial.

In Conclusion

The key to a successful biotope aquarium is carrying out exhaustive research into the biotope environment you want to recreate, build your habitat, and stock it accordingly.

Creating a biotope aquarium is a challenging and detailed project that takes a lot of research and careful management to ensure that the habitat suits the fish, plants, and other creatures that you have chosen to live there.

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