Purpose and Types of Aquarium Substrate

Japanese Rice Fish
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With rare exception, aquariums are set up with some sort of substrate covering the tank bottom. The substrate is available in a variety of colors and materials, giving aquarium owners a wide range of options when setting up an aquarium. Because the substrate isn't as easy to change as other elements in the aquarium, it's wise to spend some time choosing the type and color of the substrate before setting up the tank.

What is aquarium substrate?

Aquarium substrate refers to the material used to cover the bottom of an aquarium tank. While it's sometimes chosen just for aesthetic purposes, choosing the right substrate for your specific needs can positively affect the quality of the water, environment, and influence the well-being of creatures within the aquarium.

Purpose of Substrate

The substrate serves several purposes. Some are key to a healthy habitat, while others are merely aesthetic. It provides color to enhance the theme of the aquarium, such as bright colors to go with a castle or mermaid theme for children's aquariums, to a more natural brown gravel to go with the decor of driftwood and live plants. Gravel also acts as a site for beneficial bacteria to grow that break down the waste products produced by the fish.

Bacteria Medium

The substrate serves a role in the nitrogen cycle by acting as a medium in which beneficial bacteria colonize and grow. Although the substrate is not the only host for these important bacteria, it is where a significant number of them reside. In addition to supporting bacterial colonies, the substrate is also a medium for live plants to take root and draw nutrients. Special substrates are available that provide key nutrients for use in aquariums with live plants.

Fish Habitat

Substrate creates a more natural habitat for the fish, and it's particularly important for fish that like to burrow. Bottom-dwelling species enjoy rooting in the substrate for tidbits of food that have fallen there. The substrate can also make fish feel safer, as it does not reflect images of the other fish in the tank, like glass can. The mottled color of the substrate also helps the fish to feel safe. Some species of fish scatter their eggs on the bottom of the tank. If the tank bottom is bare, the eggs are clearly visible and more likely to be consumed by adult fish. A mottled substrate will help make the eggs less noticeable. If the substrate is large enough, some eggs will fall in between the open spaces and be protected.


Substrate contributes to the overall aesthetic appeal of an aquarium. When combined with plants, rocks, driftwood, and other decor, substrate helps create a visual landscape that is pleasing to the eye and provides a calming effect. A well-crafted aquarium is known to have a positive health benefit to those who gaze at it. Choosing a substrate color that complements your fish can help highlight their colors.

Child looking at fish in a home aquarium
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Substrate Materials

Substrate is available in a wide range of materials, but most aquarium owners choose standard gravel commonly sold at pet shops. Gravel comes in a variety of sizes, colors, and even shapes. Sand is probably the next most-used type of substrate. Fish that enjoy burrowing are particularly fond of sand substrate. Another common substrate is crushed coral, which has the effect of raising the pH and increasing the buffering capacity of the water. African cichlids, for example, need gravel that is high in calcium known as argonate to help regulate the pH of their tank.

Large river rock is sometimes used by itself or with gravel beneath it. The rock is attractive and makes for a natural setting. Marbles, on the other hand, are far from natural. However, they are often used when breeding egg-scattering species of fish. The eggs will fall between the marbles and out of reach of the adult fish, who would otherwise enjoy eating the tasty freshly laid eggs. Marbles are also used in Betta fish bowls, allowing for ease of maintenance.

If live plants are kept in the aquarium, it is common to use laterite or vermiculite as a substrate. These materials can store and release important nutrients for the live plants. They are usually used as a lower layer of the substrate and are covered with a layer of gravel.

Substrate Quantity

The substrate is generally filled to a depth of approximately 2 inches. Additional depth may be warranted when there are live plants that produce a robust root system and need the extra depth. When using sand, the depth usually is a bit less, between 1 and 1 1/2 inches. More than that can cause anaerobic zones in the gravel that are problematic. This is also true of gravel substrate that is filled too deeply.

Substrate Color

Color is a topic that often gives rise to heated discussions. Some feel strongly that substrate color should mimic natural habitats, while others choose a substrate color based on personal preference, including bright pink, neon blue, fire engine red, and a host of other colors. Clearly, those are not natural colors that fish experience in the wild, but it isn't going to directly harm the aquarium inhabitants.

If you do a good job of caring for the fish, the color of the substrate is a minor issue. Most fish are quite adaptable, and if kept in a well-maintained tank with proper water conditions and good food, they will do fine regardless of the substrate color.

Substrate Maintenance

Whatever choice of substrate you select for your aquarium, it is important to periodically remove the wastes that may accumulate in the substrate. The easiest way to do this is to use a special aquarium gravel vacuum that will suck up the debris from the substrate without removing the substrate itself. These are available at your local fish store and should be used about once or twice a month when doing the partial water change in your aquarium.

Article Sources
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