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What’s Wrong with Colored Gravel, Plastic Plants, and Bubbling Divers? Nothing!

A tank with herbivorous fish decorated with artificial plants. Photograph by Jeremy Demas.

By David E. Boruchowitz

There is a bit of snobbery in the hobby regarding action ornaments, plastic plants, and colored gravel. Some seasoned aquarists look down their noses at the use of such artificiality, but many people, particularly but not exclusively beginners and youngsters, love a neon substrate with fluorescent plantings and burping treasure chests.

The snobbery is unwarranted, and even a bit hypocritical. How so? Well, often the aquarist decrying fake plants uses lengths of PVC pipe as refuges in breeding tanks. Or, the disparager of colored gravel relies on bare-bottom tanks for raising fry. Obviously, plastic pipe and glass substrate do not occur in any natural fish habitat any more than purple gravel and silver Amazon swordplants.

So, what’s the explanation?

Some hobbyists entertain that there are two types of tanks: display and utility. Utility setups use only the bare essentials and are not intended to be decorative. Display tanks are ornamental, and they try to replicate a natural fish habitat. This black and white distinction does not hold up, however, and I have seen both lushly planted breeding tanks and bare bottom display tanks. I’ve even seen an entire fish house of a very serious breeder that has at least one ceramic castle in every single aquarium. There are no hard and fast rules. In addition, “natural” setups are mostly anything but.

Plastic plants and driftwood decorate this goldfish setup. Photograph by Jeremy Demas.

Usually display tanks are not really representative of any natural habitat. Most hobbyists only want a pretty aquascape and do not try to create an actual representation, and even many of the biotope systems expressly intended to be accurate replications of a specific habitat fail to really make the mark. There is nothing at all wrong with any aquarium decor that is safe for the fish, whether it pretends to be natural or not, whether it is collected in the wild or created in a factory. Unwarranted snobbery aside, however, there is a basis for the observable fact that the majority of seasoned aquarists prefer gravel that is not dyed over its garish counterpart, live plants over plastic or silk ones, and rocks and driftwood over divers, skulls, and toxic waste barrels.

Most often—but certainly not always—the deeper one gets into fishkeeping, the more one’s primary appreciation is of fish and their natural ecology. We look at our fish as marvels of nature, and we want our aquaria to display them that way. Yes, I am among those who prefer a more natural decor, but I also have bare bottom tanks with PVC tubes. I also use plastic plants as fry refuges in breeding tanks and have no aversion to ceramic or resin decorations if they serve some purpose in one of my setups and I have them on hand.

So, what’s wrong with colored gravel, plastic plants, and bubbling divers? Nothing! Go with whatever floats your sunken, bubbling boat.

Posted May 8th, 2015.

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Sneaking Success

Neolamprologus pulcher. Photograph from TFH Archives.

By David E. Boruchowitz

Cichlids demonstrate extremely sophisticated reproductive strategies. One of the least common involves cooperative breeding in groups or colonies. Lake Tanganyikan Neolamprologus pulcher breed en masse, with the entire colony rising as one to fend off predators, and with non breeding individuals participating in the care and protection of the offspring.

Aquarists have long known about this behavior, which is more obvious in the wild, where hundreds of fish are involved, but which translates in captivity into breeding groups that avoid the typical predation on the fry by non parental adults in the same tank.

A new study reveals that about 10 percent of the fry produced in these colonies are sired by subordinate males, and that those males are more diligent in protecting the young.

This is reminiscent of the situation in several Xiphophorus swordtails, where smaller, inconspicuous males rely on sneaking rather than courtship to father a small percentage of fry. In both cases subordinate males father a small but significant number of offspring, though in the case of the swordtails it is a matter of genetic castes among the males, not just one of dominance.

Posted October 13th, 2011.

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Possible Kraken Discovered

By David E. Boruchowitz

The cephalopod believed to have killed ichthyosaurs arranged their vertebral disks in linear patterns in such a way that it resembled the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. Photograph by Mark McMenamin.

During the Triassic bus-sized ichthyosaurs (marine reptiles) filled the niche occupied by predatory whales today. They were considered top predators until a paleontologist studying fossils in Nevada proposed a startling explanation for the ordered placement of ichthyosaur bones—a giant cephalopod ate the 45-foot reptiles.

Like the mythical kraken, this gargantuan octopus-like creature would have been an intelligent predator, able to drown or otherwise kill full-grown ichthyosaur. Of course, being a soft-bodied invertebrate, it would not be likely to have left fossils, so its careful arrangement of its prey’s bones may be the only record we’ll ever have of it.

Posted October 11th, 2011.

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World’s Longest Aquarium

The world's longest aquarium. Photograph by NTD Television.

By David E. Boruchowitz

How does a 110-foot aquarium sound to you? Well, one went on display last week at a fish expo in Taipei, Taiwan. With a volume of close to 7000 gallons, the setup houses hundreds of fish, mostly cichlids. The decor of the aquarium focuses on dozens of well-known Taiwanese landmarks, and the design is meant to evoke various Chinese artistic styles.

Several of the details provided in the news account make me wonder what is meant. For example, the tank is composed of seven sections that are connected with “a curved tank displaying waterfalls.” The video gives us a glimpse of these connecting tanks, but it isn’t possible to determine if they have waterfall backgrounds, incorporate overflows for the sections on either side of it, or represent waterfalls in some other way. Also, the tank boasts “tempered glass with an extra explosion-proof layer,” whatever that is!

Mysteries aside, it appears to be a great display, and the seven sections enable them to include a great variety of types of fish that otherwise could not be kept together. Those of you with 12- or 15-foot tanks, this gives you something to strive for, and the rest of us can just dream bigger…


Posted October 3rd, 2011.

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NASA’s Salt of the Earth

A global map of salinity across the world's oceans. Image by NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech.

By David E. Boruchowitz

NASA’s Aquarius instrument has mapped the oceans of the planet from orbit, providing an accurate representation of salinity across the globe. You can read about it here:

And you can view or download the map from NASA at:

In viewing the map, keep in mind that the entire scale runs only from a salinity of 30 to one of 40, so although the differences depicted are significant, it is still the case that the chemical makeup of seawater is much the same everywhere, in sharp contrast to the chemistry of different freshwater environments.

It is especially fascinating to see the visual representation of the dilution effects well out to sea of large rivers like the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Ganges, as well as the influence of heavy terrestrial rainfall in the Northern Pacific.

Posted September 23rd, 2011.

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