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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 August 24th, 2011.

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A Catastrophe Averted

Arowana. Photograph by Andrzej Zabawski.

by David E. Boruchowitz

One evening recently I was sitting in the family room with a couple of my kids, watching a movie. Before dinner I had changed water in my 450 and left the hose in the tank, having simply closed the nozzle. All of a sudden my son said, “That fish is dying…no, it’s dead!”

One of the arowanas was drifting vertically in the current. And then we saw that practically all the fish in the tank were in severe distress. A quick diagnostic revealed that the hose nozzle was just barely open, putting out a tiny but steady spurt. The water level had slowly risen over several hours, and now water was just starting to drip out of the acrylic tank’s top access holes. A quirk of my house’s plumbing is that when I leave a drizzle coming out of the hose, it is hot, even though the full stream is 80°F. So, the tank was very warm, about 90° or more, and the surface was flush against the plastic top, leaving no air-water interface. Those two facts resulted in rapid and extreme oxygen deprivation.

I quickly got to work while my daughter starting wiping up the overflow on the floor. I opened the drain valve and dropped the water level about 8 inches, low enough that the return jets were furiously churning the surface. Then I grabbed the arowana. It wasn’t breathing. Neither was the other one. I alternately took one, held open its mouth, and walked it back and forth at the surface, forcing oxygen-rich water over the gills. Soon they started breathing on their own, and the other fish in the tank started to swim more normally.

In 20 minutes the crisis had passed, with no fish losses.

PHEW!

Needless to say, I now do not leave the hose in the tank, whether it’s turned off tightly or not, but this event brought into focus both how precarious the balance in an aquarium can be and how resilient most fishes are. Minutes—perhaps seconds—later, and there would have been a very different outcome, with a total loss a good possibility. Although I’ve seen the same type of thing many times in my decades in the hobby, it was still amazing to see all of these stricken fish bounce back to full health in such a short time. That’s why I resuscitate ALL fish. Rug jerky jumpers, apparent shipping DOAs, battered losers—all fish get a chance in my tanks. Every once in a while a miracle recovery occurs.

Posted August 19th, 2011.

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The Driftwood

By David E. Boruchowitz

David's 450-gallon tank.

When I give presentations at clubs or conventions, my favorite part is always the question-and-answer segment. I really enjoy touching base with hobbyists, hearing their concerns and bouncing ideas back and forth. Since I mentioned my 450-gallon setup in my May 2010 editorial http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/201005/#pg11, many people have asked me about it, so I thought I’d start off the blog with a report about this tank and the story of The Driftwood.

At the American Cichlid Association Convention last year in Milwaukee I wanted a gigantic piece of driftwood that was for sale for the tank. Since the herbivorous fish precluded any plants, I needed an impressive centerpiece, and this wood was perfect! At more than 5 feet long, it was hardly going to fit in my carry on, so I gave up. However, the astute saleswoman went and asked Ray “Kingfish” Lucas if he would truck it back to New York State for me. Kingfish quickly agreed, I bought it, and we loaded it into the back of his truck. He lives only a couple hours from me, so we agreed we’d find a mutually available time for me to drive up and get it.

Well, we started playing date tag—his proposed date was no good for me, my proposed date was no good for him, and so on. Finally he said he’d take it with him on a trip to a show in New Jersey, and I could pick it up along the way. Well, that didn’t work, either, so he wound up hauling it back home. This went on for months.

Finally, in October we both went to the Potomac Valley Aquarium Society Catfish Convention in Virginia, and at long last I got my driftwood, which had traveled from Milwaukee to Buffalo, then to New Jersey, then back to Buffalo, then to Virginia, and only then finally back to my place.

Much thanks to Ray for his generosity and patience!

I love the wood, and so do the fish. My large Burmese cat Mystus leucophasis lives in one furrow in the wood, and various other fishes make their homes in or under it. The Ancistrus sp.  (bristlenose pleco) graze it, and two catfish schools, one of Pimelodus pictus and one of Horabagrus brachysoma (sun cats)share the cavern made by a large concavity on the right end.

The other inhabitants include two arowanas Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, a large school of tinfoil barbs Barbonymus altus, a smaller school of one of the silver dollar species, and several species of Central and South American cichlids.

Posted August 16th, 2011.

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Saltwater Planted Tanks

By David E. Boruchowitz

One Facebook reader asks about an article on planted marine tanks, using macroalgae. I have been interested in this topic for some time and have some experience with the topic myself. Although I didn’t originally plan it, I have a 33-long marine setup full of macro. I have ocellaris clowns, a few damsels, cardinals, and a dwarf angel. They all enjoy browsing through and lurking in the seaweed thickets. The aquascape changes constantly, as the various Caulerpa sends out runners and battle each other for territory. When the Chaetomorpha gets too thick, I pull some out. I enjoy the tank so much that I’m contemplating setting up a larger system planned around macro plantings from the start.

We would love submissions about planted saltwater tanks. And to learn more about one type of macroalgae that is often used in planted setups, keep your eye out for our July 2010 issue!

Posted May 3rd, 2010.

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Fishrooms

By David E. Boruchowitz

I was recently invited to visit the extremely hospitable Missouri Aquarium Society (MASI—missouriaquariumsociety.com), and most of one day was spent visiting members’ fishrooms—always a favorite part of any club visit. With all the fishrooms I have seen, I have never seen two the same. In fact, it’s hard to think of two that are even similar to each other. The basic reason for this is that there are so many facets of the aquarium hobby and so many different ways of succeeding in each of those different facets that every fishroom, every collection, every hobbyist is unique. Sometimes an aquarist’s collection isn’t even in a fishroom but is instead contained in one or more display tanks in his or her home. It is impossible to pigeonhole aquarium hobbyists!

Consider the killifish hobby. The stereotype killie fishroom is closet-sized, crammed with tiny, dark aquaria, their bottoms covered in peat moss. However, in all my visits to fishrooms, I’ve never seen one like that. In fact, one of the brightest, most spacious rooms I’ve visited was stocked entirely with killies. And many less specialized fishrooms include several tanks of killies. In fact, if you’ve yet to experience the beauty and fascinating behaviors of these “speciality” fishes, you may want to give them a try. You could just wind up giving them a permanent place in your collection. Many species that are generally considered specialty fish are, in fact, better described simply as special. I’m willing to bet that one tank or a whole room full, your collection reflects varied interests—maybe extremely varied interests.

That is why our stated mission at TFH is to cover all aspects of the hobby so that everyone can find material relevant to his or her interests. The June 2010 issue is an especially good example of our varied coverage, with a special focus on killies in honor of American Killifish Association Convention but also articles on a trip to the Peruvian Amazon, the affect of lighting on fish behavior, and algae-eating marine fishes. Check it out to get some ideas for your very own fishroom!

Posted April 27th, 2010.

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Ethology

By David E. Boruchowitz

Editor-in-Chief of Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

The articles in our magazine often evoke an emotional response from me, but it is rarely envy. This time, however, it is. I was a student of ethology (the biological study of behavior) long before I knew what it was. In college, when I learned its name and began to study it officially, there were only a few people in the relatively new field, and one of them was a giant—Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian scientist often called the father of modern ethology. He was something of a living legend at that time, and a couple of years later he received the Nobel Prize in medicine. I was a psych major when I discovered ethology, and the contrast was blatant. While psychologists sometimes study animal behavior and ethologists often study animal behavior, they couldn’t be more different. Psychology is a clinical science, centered in the laboratory, studying elements of behavior in isolation; ethology is a hands-on, in-the-field science that observes, records, and interprets behaviors holistically.

Most aquarists are amateur ethologists. Very few of us put cichlids through mazes or train guppies in water-filled Skinner boxes, yet almost all of us observe our fish under conditions as natural as we can make them—and a considerable number go the extra mile to observe them in their native habitats. Konrad Lorenz is perhaps best known for his pioneering work on imprinting in waterfowl, and the mention of his name still brings up my memories of films of the man squat-walking across a field or swimming across a lake with a line of goslings in tow. But his contributions to the field were legion and encompassed studies of animals of all types. The foundations of observation and analysis he established are well applied in the study of fish behavior, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, you will probably enjoy his non-scholarly but very informative book King Solomon’s Ring.

So of what am I envious? In the May 2010 issue article “Color Wars: Reef Fish and Aggression,” we have an article by Valerio Zupo; someone who, with impetuousness and not a little bravado, met Lorenz and was able to discuss the riotous colors of reef fishes with him. Wow!

Posted April 9th, 2010.

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