Why Do I Need Aquarium Gravel or Substrate?

Goldfish in a fish tank with green gravel

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Aquarium gravel, or substrate, makes an aquarium more attractive, and it comes in a variety of colors and sizes, from tiny pebbles and sand to large river rocks. However, it also serves several important purposes beyond decoration, though there are some situations in which using a substrate isn't desirable.

What is Aquarium Gravel?

Aquarium gravel, or any other material placed on the bottom of the tank, is referred to as substrate. Beneficial bacteria reside in your aquarium's substrate and break down fish waste, leftover food, and plant debris to keep the water conditions healthy.

Biological Filtration

Perhaps the most important function aquarium gravel serves is as a home for good bacteria that provide biological filtration. The bacteria can live without a comfy gravel bed, but without the additional surface area gravel provides, they might not grow in sufficient quantities to keep the aquarium water safe for your fish.

If the tank is left with a bare bottom, it will be necessary to change the water more often to keep harmful waste from building up. But if the aquarium is heavily stocked with fish, even frequent water changes might not be enough to keep ammonia and nitrite low without adequate substrate for housing the beneficial bacteria that provide biological filtration.

Fish Habitat

Substrate is part of creating a pleasant habitat for your fish. It gives the fish—especially those that like to burrow—places to hide, and it provides enrichment for bottom-dwellers that prefer to forage through the substrate for bits of food. Plus, it helps to reduce reflections within the tank that can stress fish.

Substrate can also be used to improve the chemistry of the water. For instance, if your fish require hard water, limestone gravel or a coral substrate can help you achieve the correct hardness and alkalinity levels.

Moreover, substrate can provide a safe home for fish eggs. Larger-sized substrates allow eggs to drop out of reach of hungry fish that wouldn't hesitate to eat their own offspring. Likewise, the infusoria, or microscopic organisms, that might be harbored in the gravel bed are a good first food for newly hatched fish.

Home for Live Plants

If you have live plants, a substrate is critical and second only to lighting in keeping your plants alive. The proper substrate in planted tanks can ensure your plants root well and have their nutritional needs met.

Laterite and vermiculite are common substrates used in planted aquariums, as they store and release nutrients for the plants. They're usually used in combination with gravel. Furthermore, some aquarium plants with more substantial root systems require extra depth to the substrate, so take that into account when assembling your aquarium.

Aesthetic Appeal

You may not be able to see all the microscopic ways the substrate benefits your fish, but you'll definitely notice how it enhances the aquarium's overall aesthetic appeal. Besides adding a design feature to the tank, substrate traps waste and other materials that otherwise would float through the water. Try having a bare-bottomed tank for even a day, and you'll be amazed at how much "junk" appears on the bottom.

In addition to hiding undesirable materials, substrate shows off what you really want to see: the fish. For instance, a silver fish against bare glass doesn't stand out well. But look at it against a dark substrate, and suddenly all its features pop. Besides making viewing more fun, substrate in a contrasting color to the fish allows you to better observe any health issues or odd behavior in your fish.

When Substrate Isn't Ideal

There occasionally are situations in which substrate isn't necessary or even desirable.

The most common circumstance when you wouldn't use substrate is for a grow-out tank to hatch eggs and raise young fry. Grow-out aquariums must be kept scrupulously clean, requiring frequent water changes and prompt vacuuming of waste. Fry are so tiny that it is often difficult to distinguish them against a gravel substrate. Thus, it's easy to accidentally suck them up when vacuuming the substrate or changing the water.

Hospital tanks also often omit substrate, which can harbor pathogens that might linger and infect the next inhabitant. A bare-bottomed tank is a good way to avoid that possibility. For the same reason, some owners also choose to exclude substrate from quarantine tanks that are used to house newly arrived fish during the initial quarantine period before adding them into the main aquarium.

Finally, some people believe brightly colored gravel can stress fish, possibly because it looks nothing like their natural environment. Stress is a major contributor to a compromised immune system in fish, leaving them susceptible to disease, so you might want to err on the side of caution with a more natural substrate.

Substrate Sources

It is also best to use aquarium gravel that is specifically designed for use in fresh water or saltwater aquariums, rather than getting a substrate found in nature, which could carry parasites or unwanted organisms. Paint from artificially colored gravel can leach into the water, so make sure any product you use is completely non-toxic to fish.