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Adventures in Sudan and Zambia



Lake Mweru, Zambia. Photograph by Béla Nagy.

In the June 2013 issue, Béla Nagy writes about his adventures collecting in Africa. Two of the tougher places to collect were Sudan and Zambia, and he recalls his experiences there.

By Béla Nagy

Sudan: The Only Thing You Need Is Patience

Many years ago, large parts of Africa were what people would call terra incognita, unknown land. Today, much of the land is well known, but one of the few exceptions is the relatively unexplored Nuba Mountains region of Sudan.

It is prudent to always pay attention to the counsel of those who have been in Africa, and one common piece of advice is to allow plenty of time and exercise patience. This is especially important in Sudan.

After my arrival in that country for a collecting trip in 2010, the local agency I was dealing with began the complicated administrative tasks to provide us with the necessary permits. In the end, some members of our group were denied. We had also not been granted permission to visit some areas where there was potential for Nothobranchius habitats. Therefore, we had to take a risk and visit those regions without permits. We felt very lucky because, most of the time, we were allowed to pass through the countless military checkpoints smoothly and quickly and reach our planned destinations. This may have also been due to our local driver, who prayed to the celestial beings before each control point.

Sudan is vast, and one should allow plenty of time to get from one place to another. The poor road conditions seem to conspire against you in being able to reach the destination. We headed to the breathtakingly beautiful Nuba Mountains. Sudan achieved independence only in 1956, but since then, flirtations with democracy and military coups have been regular features of the Sudanese political landscape. Color-coded markings along the roads indicate the degree of risk of land mines. Few roads traverse these mountains, and many villages are accessible only by ancient footpaths or tracks. The absence of suitable accommodation in the Nuba Mountains made our tents a worthwhile investment. Although spent cartridges and scorpions were our standard companions wherever we pitched camp, we did not feel unsafe while traveling around the country.

We collected N. virgatus and N. nubaensis at several locations. The records of the localities of Nothobranchius species in central Sudan today indicate disjunctive and sporadic distributions of the species. Most of the known locations are in the foothills of the Nuba Mountains and have, presently, no obvious links. However, the Greek historian Herodotus noted that the 100 days of annual Nile floods occurred at the time of the summer solstice when no rain fell in Egypt, and he correctly interpreted the cause as heavy precipitation in the headwaters region of the Nile during that time of year. The highly fluctuating water levels of the Nile and the earlier presence of the ancient mega-lake provided more continuous and permanent connections between the presently known populations of Nothobranchius species in that area.

At the end of the day, the trip had been safe and collecting was a success, but it was at a time just before the planned elections in the country. A few months later, a new state was born when Southern Sudan reached independence after 21 years of bloody infighting. Tens of thousands of people had fled the violence.

Even after the countries separated, the security situation remained very unstable around the new boundary between the two parts of the former Sudan. Fighting, aerial bombing, and gunfire were frequently reported from the region along the new border and from the vicinity of Kadugli. We stayed in that city overnight and collected one population of Nothobranchius just outside of the city. A considerable part of our route led us in close proximity to the new border. Hopefully, the situation will soon be stabilized and allow further field trips into the region.

Discoveries in the Footsteps of Livingstone: Zambia

Zambia is a country one dreams about when thinking of visiting Africa—mesmerizing landscapes encompassing the very best of African wilderness, an astonishing diversity of wildlife, and people with genuine friendliness and warmth. Zambia is a landlocked country at the northern edge of the region referred to as Southern Africa, at quite some distance from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Most of the country is part of the high undulating plateau that forms the backbone of the African continent. Several Nothobranchius habitats are known from Zambia, among others N. symoensi, a true beauty, which we have found at five localities.

In the foyer of the British Royal Geographical Society in London are some very interesting relics that greet the visitor. In the elegantly furnished lobby is a time-worn, carefully guarded treasure—the cap worn by Dr. David Livingstone when he traveled in the heart of Africa. The cap seems to embody the courage, tenacity, and determination of the original wearer. Livingstone was the pre-eminent missionary explorer of the Victorian era who criss-crossed Africa between 1841 and 1873, including much of what is now known as Zambia.

The area around Lake Mweru, which Livingstone discovered, was one of the major objectives on our collecting trip to Zambia in 2012. The Lushiba Marsh at the northern end of the lake had not been extensively investigated and, as Nothobranchius species are known from other drainage systems in the vicinity, it seemed likely to me that we might find a Nothobranchius species inhabiting the Lushiba Marsh. The drainage system in this particular area has been isolated from that of adjacent regions for a long time, so we speculated that any Nothobranchius inhabiting the marsh might well constitute an unknown species. However, the marsh is relatively difficult to access, and that is probably the reason for the lack of extensive ichthyological surveys in the area. It took quite some time for us to reach Chienge, a village at the edge of the Lushiba Marsh, but our efforts were quickly rewarded when the first site we stopped at yielded a new species of Nothobranchius.

We spent the evening at a new guesthouse in Chienge, with splendid views of Lake Mweru. The new state of the guesthouse did not mean it was of perfect quality, and there was no running water for the ablution facilities. On the other hand, we had delicious dinner prepared from the catch of the day from the lake. This wonderful dinner was in strong contrast to the meals of the previous few days that consisted almost exclusively of fritas, a kind of local fried cake that we could usually buy on the roadside. While fritas were quite tasty, the main problem was that quite a bit of sand found its way into the ingredients, and we had to eat them carefully. The peaceful dinner was also in contrast to the night we spent at another guesthouse the previous day, where the somewhat drunken local owner wanted to force us to go with him to the local night club, which we could only avoid after a lot of negotiation.

Discovering new fish species frequently requires dedication, and there may be many difficulties that one has to overcome, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

Posted May 22nd, 2013.

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Keeping South American Annual Killifish

Photograph by Mike Jacobs.

By Charles Nunziata

There are several explanations of why most hobbyists are not aware of South American annuals and many have not seen one alive. First is their absence from consumer outlets and the relative lack of coverage in hobby communications. In addition, there is a widespread perception that all killifish have a short lifespan. Although this is not true of non-annual killifish, it is true of the annuals, and that fact alone is often a deal-breaker for some hobbyists. Lastly, killifish are considered to be difficult to breed and maintain, but this is not accurate.

General maintenance is not overly demanding, requiring only regular water changes and the provision of high-quality foods. Most annual killifishes can withstand large temperature variations, but as in most other fish, thermal shocks should be avoided. Mid-range hardness and temperatures in the 70s are ideal. Temperatures lower than 70 slow activity, and above 80 will accelerate aging. They do not thrive in poor water conditions and will not develop properly if undernourished, but any experienced aquarist to whom good aquarium practices are second nature will have no difficulty maintaining these species.

South American annuals tend to occupy all areas of a tank, are moderately active, and with some exceptions, are not aggressive to other killie or non-killie species. Rather, their color and finnage often invite aggression from other species. Non-aggressive species that are not overly active can safely be kept with most annual species. However, it is the practice of most killifish hobbyists to maintain South American annuals in species-only tanks, and better success can be expected if that method can be adopted. Tanks as small as 2½ gallons are sufficient for a few of the smaller species, and 5- or 10-gallon tanks are ample for all but the largest. Feeding is likewise straightforward. Live and frozen foods of all kinds and, with training, freeze-dried bloodworms and similar-quality foods will be readily taken.

The major difference between South American annual killifish and other hobby species is the time it takes for the embryos to develop. The eggs of non-annual fishes incubate and hatch within days or weeks, while annual eggs take months to develop and may well hatch after their parents are gone. The months-long uncertainty associated with not knowing whether a spawning has been successful is not compatible with everyone’s personality and is often the root of the idea that breeding these fishes is difficult. Killie-keepers have to be a patient lot.

For more information on breeding annual killies and what species are available, see my article in the June 2013 issue.

Posted May 22nd, 2013.

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Disease and Uaru

Photograph by Radek Bednarczuk.

Radek Bednarczuk

In the June 2013 issue, Radek Bednarczuk reviews the care requirments for uaru. An important point to consider is how to prevent, and if necessary treat, disease in these cichlids.

Uaru amphiacanthoides is not as susceptible to HITH (hole in the head disease) as its cousin U. fernandezyepezi. However, it is better to be safe than sorry and take preventive measures immediately whenever the first symptoms of the disease are observed. The measures in question include frequent water changes, using water of the same chemical and physical parameters, and the addition of liquid vitamins to their dry food.

Because of all the quarrels and fights, the weakest members of the group will often show frayed fins and abrasions on the flanks, where infection, usually fungal, might easily set in. These cichlids are also sensitive to sudden drops in temperature (caused, for instance, by a faulty heater), which can increase their vulnerability to an ich outbreak.

I need to mention one important issue at this point. The skin of this species exudes a lot of mucus, so fully grown fish, measuring a few dozen centimeters in length, should not be transported crowded in small bags over large distances, for it can have tragic consequences.

Posted May 17th, 2013.

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Frogs in the Garden Pond: A Frog Friendly Pond Can Protect This Vulnerable Amphibian

Photograph by Steve McWilliam/Shutterstock.

Iggy Tavares

Springtime is heralded by the sound of croaking frogs coming from the garden pond. In London, where nowadays winters are relatively mild, the European common frogs, Rana temporaria, somewhat similar in appearance and life history to American leopard and green frogs, Rana pipiens complex and Rana clamitans can appear in the pond as early as mid-February.


Male frogs tend to arrive at the pond before the gravid females. A frenzy of activity ensues when the females arrive as males try to grab a female partner, mounting her and enveloping her in a spawning clasp (amplexus). A large female lays a few thousand eggs, which are fertilized by the male while on her back. The eggs initially sink but rise again as their protective jelly coating absorbs water. When spawning is complete, the adult frogs play no further part in the development of their young, and they are left to the elements.

From Embryos to Tadpoles

The black eggs develop into long, black, sliver-like embryos that at hatching have the head hardly discernible from the body. These tadpoles feed primarily on algae but also take any decaying matter such as is found in all ponds. The tadpoles breathe through external gills to start with, but as they grow the gills are covered by a fleshy operculum and become internal.

Photograph by Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.

Frog tadpoles develop their hind legs first, and sometimes weeks after front legs appear. The tail is slowly absorbed and shortens as the tadpole starts changing color and configuration of its mouth form and takes the form of a tiny frog. Froglets have to leave the water as their diet changes to small insects and other tiny prey.

Photograph by Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.

The Frog-Friendly Pond

The ideal pond for frogs should be as large as possible, since larger bodies of water are more likely to develop into ecologically balanced, stable systems. An important feature of the pond is that it is stepped at the edges so the pond margins are as little as 6 to 12 inches in depth, which the middle is at least 3 feet deep.

Photograph by Karin Jaehne/Shutterstock.


The edges of the pond should be planted with both marginal plans and submersed plants. Suitable marginal plants at this latitude include Mentha aquatic (water mint), Caltha palustris (marsh marigold) and Typha minima (dwarf cattail). Submersed plants are also very important in these shallow areas and could include flora such as Myosotis scorpioides (water forget-me-not) water starworts (Callitriche spp.) and Canadian pondweed (Elodea canadensis).

General cover could also be provided by floating plants such as Hydrocharis (aptly named frogbit) and Azolla caroliniana (fairy moss) as well as water lilies (miniature forms such as Nymphaea odorata minor and N. pygmaea alba or larger types such as N. odorata alba).


The pond, depending on size, could house a few goldfish, though generally fishes will eat or bother frog eggs and tadpoles. The important thing is not to overstock the pond with fish.

The shallow planted edges of the pond are important initially as they provide calling and egg-laying sites for the frogs. Later tadpoles develop into froglets, they tend to remain in shallow water for a time before emerging from the water to the land, often all at once. During this vulnerable period before they leave the water, a well-planted shallow area provides cover from predators such as birds. Another important function of the shallow area is to enable to froglets to leave the pond easily.

Frogs spend the majority of their six-year natural lifespan out of water, though they remain near the home pond. Hence pond surroundings are almost as important as the pond itself for the survival of frogs in the garden. Part of the pond border should have fairly dense vegetation and perhaps a compost heap nearby to provide damp cover for the frogs and their prey. Here the frogs will be able to find their natural foods such as insects, pillbugs, spiders, and slugs. You should consider maintaining this part of the garden organically, without the use of insecticides and herbicides. Another way of encouraging frogs to stay in the garden is to provide areas nearby with piles of old wood or stones under which frogs can hibernate during winter.

Frogs in Danger

In Britain, Rana temporaria (as well as other frogs and toads) is disappearing from the countryside because of loss of habitat. As small farms surrounded by hedgerows and the customary ponds give way to huge monoculture farms devoid of ditches, wetland areas, and small ponds, all the small wild animals lose habitat and often disappear. Use of chemicals to maintain these new farming methods have proved equally destructive. Moreover, effluents from farms running into ponds, streams, and rivers have often killed both fishes and other aquatic creatures.

Frogs tend to return to the same breeding pond year after year, usually where they were born. Froglets leave the water and can move some distance in the two or more years they take to reach sexual maturity before they feel the urge to return to “their” pond to spawn. The frog’s journey to the pond can be a perilous trip these days. Apart from natural predators that frogs have to avoid, including birds such as herons, owls, and magpies plus grass snakes (Natrix natrix) in warmer weather, the frogs might have to run the gauntlet to cross roads, where they are run over by cars.

As people have become more interested in the plight of frogs, conservation groups are able to instigate the laying of culvers under roads that are used by a large number of frogs and toads on their yearly migration from hibernation places to spawning sites.

Pond Protection

The suburban garden pond is one way of ensuring the survival of the common frog in Britain. But even here the frog is under attack, although mainly from natural predation, starting from the egg all the way to the adult. Eggs are at risk from the time they are laid. For a start, all the eggs might not have been fertilized and will therefore not develop at all and will start to fungus. The fungus might spread to fertilized eggs, killing them. The eggs are to a large extent reasonably safe from fishes because in early spring fishes are not fully active.

Once the eggs hatch, the tadpoles are open to predation by fishes as well as by other pond inhabitants such as dragonfly nymphs and water beetles, but sufficient numbers of tadpoles should survive each year, provided the pond is reasonably well planted and not overcrowded with fish. The tadpoles develop into froglets that have to leave the water to spend the next couple of years on land. If the pond is steep-sided, this could provide an impossible task, resulting in the froglets drowning.

Once on land, froglets make a tasty snack for European blackbirds and grass snakes. They are also in danger from manmade hazards in the form of poisons such as insecticides and slug pellets used to control garden pests, which in fact are food to frogs; when contaminated prey end up in their stomachs the result is a slow painful death.

Froglets tend to be out and about at night but might still be about in the morning in the wet grass, where they are in danger not only from cats and dogs but also from enthusiastic gardeners with a lawn mower. Today a variety of predators from owls to herons and badgers to foxes have also moved to suburbia, where they will happily take a frog it they catch one. This is the natural order of things and is beneficial in the long term as it usually removes weak or sickly animals. However, if your garden is frog-friendly, sufficient numbers should survive each year to start a new generation each spring.


Frogs add a lot of interest to the garden pond. The whole family is able to watch the natural cycle of metamorphosis spawning to egg to tadpole to frog. Frogs in the garden pond are a sure sign that you have a well balanced natural habitat in your garden. Usually there is no need to introduce frogs to a new garden pond – frogs from surrounding areas should make their way to the new pond themselves, provided the pond offers a suitable habitat and the garden is not surrounded by impenetrable fences. However, you could introduce a small amount of frog spawn to the pond in spring. (Beware local and national laws that may prohibit collecting frog eggs or moving them about from one locality to another; never introduce a foreign frog into a pond).

Only a very small proportion of tadpoles and froglets survive each year, the vast majority ending up as an important food source for all the varied inhabitants that go to make up a lively, interesting garden. By having a healthy, frog-friendly pond in your garden, you will be doing your small part to ensure the survival of the frog.

Posted April 19th, 2013.

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When I Found A New Mosquitofish Without Knowing It

Ronny Lundkvist

Photographs by the author

This tiny brook at Jhuguañaró, Paraguay was where the author collected speckled mosquitofish.

The speckled mosquitofish (Phalloceros caudimaculatus) was one of the earliest livebearers in our hobby. It was described in 1868 as Girardinus caudimaculatus by Hensel. Later the name was changed to Phalloceros caudimaculatus by Eigenmann in 1907.

It was originally described from southeastern Brazil and its range is in eastern Brazil from the Rio de Janeiro along the coast down to Uruguay and Rio de La Plata.  It is also present in Paraguay.

The male reaches a length of approximately 3 cm (1 inch) and the female can grow up to 6 cm (2¼ inches).

A male (bottom) and female (top) Phalloceros harpagos from Jhuguañaró.

It is not a tropical species and is best kept at 18° to 24°C (64° to 75°F). However, it can withstand being kept for periods in both lower and higher temperatures. When kept at high temperatures all year around, I have found that it does not do well.

Otherwise it seems easy to keep and it takes both dried and, of course, live foods.

Earlier at least two subspecies were available in Europe: the golden tail spotted livebearer (P. caudimaculatus auratus) and the golden spotted livebearer (Phalloceros caudimaculatus reticulatus auratus). These are seldom seen nowadays.

The same concerns the original speckled mosquitofish.

A Trip to Find the Speckled Mosquitofish

In November 1995, which is early summer in the southern hemisphere, I went to Paraguay in order to look for livebearers, among other fishes. I had expected to find five livebearing species, but I only found three. One of these was of course the common guppy, which may have been released by some aquarist. The other two were the speckled mosquitofish and the rare Phallotorynus victoriae. Information concerning the distribution of the latter was very scarce in 1995 as I wrote in my March 2004 TFH article.

I went to a friend´s country estate at Jhuguañaró close to Guarambaré and 25 km (15½ miles) southeast of Asunción, the capital, in order to look for fish. Narcissus, who was a tenant close by, told me that there were tiny fish in a small brook emanating from a well in the forest. I brought the net and went to the so called Selva de los Monos, the Monkey Forest, where a kind of shy monkey, called kadjara by the local people, lived. The monkeys used to have the insolence to throw their excrements at intruders. Either they were having a siesta or showed respect for a foreign aquarist, as they did not bother me. After many hardships in the marshes we finally arrived at the brook where I found the longed-for speckled mosquitofish. The water temperature was 23°C (73°F), dH 2, and pH 7.6. The bottom consisted of gravel and stones. Plants were absent in the water.

Returning to Paraguay

As the fishing was successful, I returned to Jhuguañaró in November 1996 in order to look for these livebearers once more. My arrival was preceded by a period of heavy rain storms.

After a toilsome walk through the Monkey Forest we finally came to a torrent that the year before just had been a small brook. Masses of sand had filled the cavities where the fishes used to hide. There were no speckled mosquitofish.

I came back some days later, as the tenant Narcissus suggested that we should go deeper into the forest. I knew what was to be expected—mud to the ankles, thorns at the height of the knees, branches in the face and, moreover, mosquitoes en masse. Repellent did not help, as I transpired enormously. My guide showed me herbs that the local population used as medicine since time immemorial, from remedies against heartburn to diarrhea, but nothing against mosquito bites.

Suddenly I saw two monkeys at the top of a tree. It must have been an omen, as we did not walk far until we found a small well. I saw something at the surface and quickly I grabbed the net. There it was the speckled mosquitofish. The water temperature was only 22°C (71°F) with a pH 6.9, but the air temperature was 33°C (91°F). The species seems to prefer small brooks and wells in the shade—otherwise known as slow flowing, cool water—at least in the places where I found it.

A New Discovery

I brought back specimens of the speckled mosquitofish both in 1995 and 1996. As the coloration differed from that of the original description, I sent some specimens to the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm where they labeled them as Phalloceros species NRM 338 11.

I had the species for some years, but I think I kept it too warm. They did not do well. It is hard to have a winter season in the tank when you live in an apartment with central heating. The temperature in your apartment depends to some extent on that of your neighbors. Perhaps it should be kept outdoors in the summer, if you live in the temperate climate zone. Formerly, when aquarists had problems with the temperature being too low, the environment was more favorable to the speckled mosquitofish.

However, the most interesting thing about my catch is that it later showed up to be a new species. In 2008 Paulo Lucinda of Brazil, published an accurate revision of the genus Phalloceros. He described 21 new species belonging to the genus. Among these species we find Phalloceros harpagos. He analyzed a lot of specimens when describing the species, including NRM 338 11—the specimens that I sent to the museum already in 1995.

So watch up when you have found something new and put it in the tank!  Who knows, perhaps you have tankmates waiting for description.

Works Cited

Lucinda, Paulo, H. F. (2008). “Systematics and biogeography of the genus Phalloceros Eigenmann 1907, with the description of twenty-one new species.” Neotropical Ichthyologi, 6 (2): 113-158, 2008.

Note: The fish in the pictures originate from the same site as those that I sent to the museum. It is highly improbable that the very limited habitat where I collected the fish should hold more than one Phalloceros species.

Posted April 12th, 2013.

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Some Salariine Blennies in the Aquarium Trade


The lawnmower blenny (Salarias fasciatus). Photograph by Scott Michael.

In the April 2013 issue, Scott Michael described some outstanding reef residents with reknowned algae eating abilities, the lawnmower blennies. If the article has inspired you to acquire some, here is Scott’s list of lawnmower blennies that are available in the aquarium trade.

By Scott Michael

The whitespotted blenny (Salarias alboguttatus) is a smaller species (3½ inches) than S. fasciatus, that is grayish overall with numerous white spots on the head. There are seven or eight bars on the body and unbranched cirri over each eye. It is found from the Philippines to Samoa, south to the Great Barrier Reef, where it occurs on lagoon patch reefs and fringing coastal reefs at depths of 3 to at least 13 feet. The whitespotted blenny occurs singly and rasps microalgae off hard substrates. This smaller Salarias spp. is less of a threat toward other blennies and trophic competitors than larger members of the genus. You can keep more than one individual in tanks as small as 100 gallons.

Seram blenny (S. ceramensis). Photograph by Scott Michael.

The Seram blenny (S. ceramensis) is a larger species (it reaches 6 inches) that ranges from Sumatra east to the Solomon Islands, north to the Philippines, and possibly south to the Great Barrier Reef. It occurs on coastal reefs and lagoon patch reefs at depths of 3 to at least 100 feet. The Seram blenny is found among rubble and/or macroalgae and is often found on silty reefs. Its husbandry requirements are very similar to other larger members of the genus (see S. fasciatus below). Its greater bulk makes it a greater threat toward other fishes, and, therefore, care must be taken when selecting tankmates (especially other herbivores). Keep one per tank unless you can acquire a pair or your tank is very large (180 gallons or more). S. ceramensis is not as common in the aquarium trade as S. fasciatus.

The Seram blenny is very similar to the more common S. fasciatus. It differs in having a dark chest and belly and a large dark blotch near the pectoral fin. S. ceramensis also has 15 pectoral fin rays, while S. fasciatus has 14. The obscure blenny (S. obscurus) is another large member of the genus (it reaches a length of 5 inches) that is known only from the western Philippines. It is dark overall with light gray mottling on the snout and the back of the head.

The jeweled or lawnmower blenny (S. fasciatus). Photograph by Scott Michael.

The jeweled or lawnmower blenny (S. fasciatus) attains a length of 5½ inches and ranges from the Red Sea and East Africa east to Samoa, north to the Ryukyu Islands, south to the Great Barrier Reef and New Caledonia. S. fasciatus has eight irregular bars (with white spots on each bar) that have white ovals on the lighter interspaces. There are also wavy lines on the front of the body.

The jeweled blenny is found on fringing reefs, lagoon patch reefs, reef flats, and outer reef faces at depths of less than 3.3 to 26 feet. It has also been reported from estuarine habitats. It is often found among coral rubble with associated macroalgae growth. It feeds by rasping microalgae off hard substrates. The jeweled blenny will attack other blennies (especially smaller or similar-sized individuals) that enter its territory. It will also chase other grazers, especially smaller damselfishes.

A resident S. fasciatus will not tolerate another blenny in its territory. If a tank is large enough, subordinate confamilials may be able to avoid an aggressive jeweled blenny. But if space is limited, a newly added blenny or smaller individual is likely to be harassed to death. While S. fasciatus is infrequently aggressive toward non-related species in the wild, they may pick on heterospecifics in the aquarium. They have been known to attack smaller fish species (e.g., smaller hawkfishes, juvenile anemonefishes, firefishes, and dartfishes) and odd-shaped species that are not adept swimmers (e.g., seahorses, pipefishes, boxfishes). If you want to keep it with smaller fishes (especially those that are substrate bound) add these fishes before the blenny and/or keep them in a larger tank.

The starry blenny (S. ramosus) has become much more abundant in the aquarium trade. that the head and body of this attractive species are covered with tiny white spots. The spots are larger and fewer in smaller specimens. This species also has highly branched cirri over each eye. S. ramosus reaches 5½ inches and is found from the Philippines south to northwestern Australia. This attractive blenny is found on fringing reefs and protected patch reefs. It has also been reported from estuaries. It occurs at depths of 5 to at least 50 feet. The starry blenny rests and feeds among coral rubble and macroalgae. As with others in the genus, it rasps hard substrates with its comb-like dentition. It usually occurs singly, although it is occasionally seen in small groups.

S. ramosus has only recently been entering the aquarium trade. Keep one per tank, and be aware that it might quarrel with other members of the genus. While it is a very handsome fish, it can wreak havoc in the reef tank. It has been known to nip at tridacnid clam mantles and large-polyped stony corals. It has also been known to pester motile invertebrates (e.g., shrimps and serpent stars).

Posted March 21st, 2013.

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Beware Toxic Invertebrates


Photograph by Kippy Spilker/Shutterstock.

By Bob Fenner

In the March 2012 issue, Bob Fenner offers his recommendations to create a compatible mix of livestock together for a nano tank. A major concern is including species that won’t chemically harm the tank.

There are likely more cases of life in the shallow seas having chemical and physical communication than not. Particularly where reef life is sedentary, slow moving, or stuck in place (versus fishes which are able to swim away) organisms have various mechanisms to keep their turf. Some of these interactions are of more than academic interest to us as aquarists. Bad mixes will begin warring with each other, even to the extent of poisoning others and causing the collapse of the entire system. A prime example are the animals collectively called “corals” by most hobbyists, which can and do sting, poison, and attempt to eat each other competitively. However the cnidarians don’t have a monopoly on such subterfuge. Most all colorful, slow or non-moving sea life, including algae, nudibranchs, several sea cucumbers, and many others have something that prevents their displacement or consumption. Here are just a few examples:

Caulerpa is a genus of macroalgae that has been used in refugiums for the purpose of nutrient export. When carefully maintained, the algae can be beneficial. However, this genus can be toxic if grown too fast in too high a quantity, in the absence of decent filtration and maintenance. Its species are not to be trusted in small volumes.

Tube anemones are bad “shedders” of stinging material, and should be kept with only organisms it is known to live with while causing no harm in the wild. Within the pet-fish trade worldwide the most common species offered is Cerianthus membranaceus from the Philippines, but all are too toxic to mix in a community setting.

Nudibranchs are known to be toxic, but one in particular is especially dangerous in a community setup. Phyllodesmium hyalinum is a solar powered nudibrach, as it contains zooxanthellae. It can can take out a small system if it dies and dissolves without detection.

Photograph by Iliuta Goean/Shutterstock.

The Australian sea apple (Paracucumaria tricolor) is generally imported from the Philippines and Indonesia. It’s a killer that I’ve seen take entire systems with it eviscerating or otherwise falling apart.


Posted February 27th, 2013.

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Bringing ‘Em Back Alive

By R. Shane Linder

Photographs by the author

From the March 2013 Issue

Of all the fishes that I have maintained over the years, it is not hard to decide which were my favorites. My favorite fishes have always been anything that I have collected from the wild myself! From madtoms in Virginia, to mollies in Florida, to Ancistrus in Venezuela, I have always had a special appreciation for those fishes that I actually went out, caught, and brought back alive to my fishroom. Collecting your own aquarium fish creates a bond between the aquarist and the fish because the aquarist knows the fish in a way that one can never know a fish brought from a store. You know where the fish came from, what its habitat looks like, what other species share the same habitat, and how to replicate all of this in a true to life biotope. So if you are ready to bring ‘em back alive, here are all of the instructions that you will need. This article covers planning, equipment, collecting techniques, transportation, and adjusting fish to captive conditions based on my experiences from Maryland to Ecuador, and a few places between.


The first step is always deciding where to collect, and planning begins with a good map of the area. What specific creek, pond, or river do you want to reach? Are there any roads that allow access to the area? Is the area private property? How far will you have to walk to get to the location? All of these are important questions that must be answered before you pack a single net.

Sadly, you also need to determine if the water is too polluted for collecting. Follow the creek or river upstream on the map. Are there any major towns along its course? If there are, there is a good chance that the water will be polluted. Always look for collecting locations upstream of population centers. If the area is bordered by private property, always get permission before collecting. I have found that the majority of landowners are usually happy to let you collect on their own property as long as you ask first.

Alternatively, you may decide to travel to some exotic locale with a professional tour company. In this case you are lucky, as they will take care of most of the logistics. However, do not stop reading here even if you plan to utilize a professional company, because these companies specialize in tours, not catching fish, and catching fish is decidedly your goal. Once you have decided where to collect, it is time to get the equipment together.

Personal Equipment

For safety’s sake, the most important thing you can do is take along a friend. When collecting, the more people the merrier, especially if you should get your vehicle stuck or someone should become injured. If you are collecting in an area where there is cellular coverage, I also highly recommend bringing along a cell phone.

Dress appropriately for the climate and always pack an extra set of clothes. More often than not, you will fall in the water or need to swim in order to collect in a certain area. A nice set of dry clothes for the ride home, especially if it is a long drive, is very important. A clean, dry towel also always comes in handy, as does a good hat to protect your head and neck from the sun. The final and most important clothing item is shoes. Sandals are fine for some environments, but I prefer something that protects the entire foot and ankle and cannot be pulled from your feet in thick mud. The two best options are a pair of thick-soled neoprene reef booties or an old pair of high-top canvas tennis shoes. Whatever you choose, it should stay firmly attached and protect the foot and ankle from sharp sticks, rocks, and broken glass, and hold up through repeated soakings.

Also, do not forget to bring along an extra pair of dry shoes or sandals for the ride home. Lastly, pack plenty of sunscreen, bug repellant, food, and drinking water. Bug spray is key because while mosquitoes may not kill you, they can make you very miserable.

Collecting Equipment

Large seine nets will require two or more people to operate them.

A good seine net is the single most important piece of collecting equipment. A 4-foot by 4-foot seine is ideal for individual use, but larger seines require two or more people to operate. The seine should be firmly attached to two wooden poles (known as brails) for ease of use. Also bring a large and small dip net. Dip netting with a large net is a good technique in heavy aquatic vegetation while the small, aquarium-size dip net is used to sort the catch in the field. Wire minnow traps, available from most sporting goods stores, are another great tool, especially if they can be left out for a few hours, or even better, overnight. Cast or throw nets work very well over stone or sand substrates, especially in deep water. However, they can be rather expensive and require hours of practice to be thrown correctly. One final piece of collecting equipment not to be overlooked is a small, ultra-light fishing pole. Special barbless hooks are widely available, or the hobbyist can file the barbs from hooks and small lures. A small fishing pole is the best method for collecting medium and large size sunfish, bass, cichlids, piranhas, and many catfishes. The small wound caused by the hook heals quickly and I have never seen a fish collected this way come down with an infection from the wound.

Small, barbless hooks can be used to collect fish such as piranhas.


Upon arrival at the collecting site, take some time to observe the general environment. Walk along the water and make some observations of the fish. Where are the fish and what species can you see? These observations will affect what equipment you decide to use as well as where in the habitat you will catch the most fishes. Fish watching itself, as aquarists well know, is entertaining, and I have spent hours watching schools of Corydoras dart about a crystal clear stream. In Miami, Florida I once observed a pair of Oscars in the pond behind my hotel defend their school of fry against a large red terror and several sunfish. This was not exactly a natural scene, since only the sunfish (maybe) were native, but it was still very fascinating.

Take some pictures of the habitat before wetting your nets, because once collecting starts, the water will turn brown with disturbed sediment. Also, record the water conditions before disturbing the environment. You can take measurements of the temperature, pH, hardness, and other properties on site, or you can take a sample of the water home in a clean glass jar for later chemical analysis. Be sure to take several temperature readings in still and fast-flowing water as well as in areas exposed to the sun and covered with shade. Carefully record the water’s color, substrate composition, aquatic vegetation, and ambient light. All of these will be important in reconstructing a suitable biotope in an aquarium and fleshing out your journal entries.

Record the environmental conditions before collecting anything.

Collecting Techniques

The key areas to be focused on for collecting are the banks, open areas, riffles and currents, structure, and leaf litter.

Banks are best collected with seine nets. Stretch the net parallel to the bank and use your hands and feet to splash around in the cordoned off area. Fleeing fish will then swim right into the pocket created by the seine. This method is very useful for many cichlids and sunfish.

Collect by the banks by stretching out the net over them.

Open areas are best collected by running the largest sized seine possible through the water and towards a bank. As the fish reach the bank, they will turn around and flee back into the net. This is the best method for collecting tetras and minnows.

Riffles and currents are the homes of many interesting fish and are collected by kick seining. Place the seine across the riffle and set it firmly in place. The kickers then enter the water 8 to 10 feet above the net and work their way towards the net, kicking and turning over rocks and gravel. In the United States, this method works great for darters and sculpins, while in South America it is great for collecting loricariids.

“Structure” refers to large rocks and driftwood snags. These areas are difficult to collect from, but produce very interesting fishes. Ideally, the piece of structure should be surrounded by the seine and then lifted out of the water. If the object is too large, surround it with the net and then send someone inside the net to poke and prod around the structure in order to scare away the fish into the waiting net.

Finally, do not forget to collect in the leaf litter. With a large dipnet or small seine, simply scoop up a pile of leaves and then rummage through them to see what you have captured. In South America this method is the best for Apistogramma, banjo catfish, Otocinclus, and many other wonderful small aquarium fishes.

One last point: Never forget to ask the locals how they catch fish. The best guide in the world is a 12-year-old boy, because he knows how to catch anything that flies, crawls, or swims within a mile of his home. I have had this fact proven to me over and over again. Once, while collecting in the Rio Guarico, Venezuela, I was having rotten luck and not catching much of anything. Two boys were watching me and asked what I was trying to capture. I explained that I was after corronchos (plecos) and they replied they would catch me all that I wanted. Both boys took turns diving down to the bottom of the river and grabbing handfuls of leaf litter. With every sortie they brought up large Rineloricaria and Loricariichthys. In 20 minutes I had more fish than I could carry!


The chief danger when collecting is not poisonous snakes or piranhas but the water itself. Far more people drown every year than are shocked by electric eels or stung by freshwater stingrays. Stay keenly aware of both the water’s depth and current. While collecting with my wife once, in the Venezuelan Ilanos, she was swept away by the current. Luckily she did not let go of the seine’s brail and I was able to swim to shore and then use the seine as a life preserver to pull her back in. I teased her about being my “catch of the day,” but the river’s lesson was not lost on us.

I have never seined up a snake, but I once looked up from a net of mollies in Florida to see a large water moccasin a few feet away from me daring me to come a little closer. I have also had some minor panic attacks when caimans hidden on the bank have jumped into the water near me. My friend Julian “Jools” Dignall actually caught a caiman in his hoop net once while collecting Corydoras. (Rumor has it that Jools released a startled yell, dropped the net, and was back on shore all in less than one second flat.)

Besides the water, especially in the tropics, dehydration and sunburn are the other main enemies. Luckily these are easily kept under control provided the collector has packed lots of water and sunscreen. Minor cuts and bruises are the norm from slipping on rocks and running into submerged structure. Wear these bruises, scratches, and scars with pride. They are the marks of a true collector and make great visuals when relating your fish collecting stories.

Care and Transport

Perhaps more difficult than collecting the fish is getting them home in good shape. While collecting I prefer to carry along a 5-gallon bucket to place the fish in. The bucket should have a tight-fitting lid perforated with holes. Do not forget to change the water in the bucket every 15 to 20 minutes, especially in the tropics. At the end of the day, the fish should be sorted and photographed or videotaped. A small one- or 2-gallon tank is ideal for sorting and photography. Fish always look their best immediately after capture, and this is the ideal time to photograph them.

Sorting can be the most difficult time, because everyone’s natural inclination is to want to keep more fish than they can properly house. Think about this very carefully and then return excess fishes to their point of capture.

For transportation home, one-gallon clear plastic water bottles with a wide mouth are the ideal containers. Plastic bags are fine for a trip home from the fish store, but plastic bottles cannot be crushed or punctured, and the water in them can be changed with ease. The water bottles must be kept in a sturdy ice chest. The ice chest should hold four to six one-gallon bottles, one of which should hold frozen water. Fill a one-gallon jug with drinking water the night before collecting and freeze it solid. This frozen bottle will serve to keep the ice chest cool throughout the day and will provide cold drinking water as it melts. In the summer months, or in the tropics, the most important aspect of getting the fish home safely is keeping their temperature stable. Just be sure to lift the lid of the chest every hour so the fish do not get too cold. Keep the ice chest in the vehicle, not in the trunk, and out of direct sunlight. If it is a long way home from the collecting site, I would highly recommend the use of a commercial product designed to detoxify ammonia.

Home Again, Home Again

Once the fish are home, place them in a small glass tank and check them over for obvious wounds, diseases, or parasites that will need to be treated. Many commercial collectors dose their entire catch with strong medications “just in case.” I am not necessarily in favor of these treatments, as, especially with delicate fish, it can do more harm than good. The only prophylactic treatment I am in favor of is a short dip in full strength sea water (or fresh water for marine fishes), which will remove most parasites. All of the catch should then be placed in quarantine and carefully monitored for three to four weeks. The quarantine tank must have a very secure cover, as the fish, not yet understanding the boundaries of their new environment, will be very prone to jumping out. Do not feed your new acquisitions for the first three days, because with a healthy appetite they will more readily accept normal aquarium foods.

Once the quarantine period is over, it is time to move your new charges to their permanent homes. I promise that at this point, even if your new charges are nothing more than Gambusia mosquito fish from a nearby ditch, you will see them in a whole new light. You did not buy these fish, you went to their habitat, caught them with your bare hands, and brought ‘em back alive.

Oh yes, also by now your sunburn will have faded and scratches healed, and you’ll probably already be studying the map, and planning your next expedition. It’s an addictive hobby.

Posted February 22nd, 2013.

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Obtaining Carnivorous Plants

Utricularia graminifolia. Photograph by Kris Weinhold.

By Joshua Wiegert

Carnivorous plants are not likely to be found in the majority of your local fish stores. Obtaining these species can be somewhat difficult. If you’re either fortunate enough to live in an area where they occur naturally or unfortunate enough to find them invasively, they can be collected. Beware that in some regions these plants are protected—check with your local department of wildlife before collecting any plants from the wild.

Bladderworts may become invasive pest species in some bodies of water. As such, bladderworts—or any aquatic plant, for that matter—should never be transported between bodies of water, nor released into the wild. Also note that collecting in the wild greatly limits your selection.

Several online retailers specialize in the sales of carnivorous plants. I recently toured CarnivorousPlantNursery.Com nursery and Michael was extremely helpful with obtaining specimens to photograph for my article in the March 2013 issue . You may have to specify that what you’re purchasing is for an aquarium, or you will get a terrestrial form.

Many of the amphibious bladderworts can be encouraged to form aquatic stems simply by placing the pot, full of peat moss, into a shallow pan of water. Given a few weeks, the bladderwort will send stems out through the holes in the bottom of the pot. These will develop into the aquatic form.

Posted February 15th, 2013.

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A 10-Gallon Coral Garden

Photograph by Sabine Penisson.

By Sabine Penisson

The March 2013 issue features a 10-gallon reef tank that has been in operation for 3½ years. It is lit with a homemade LED fixture and has a hang-on-the-back filter filled with a mini pocket of activated carbon and filter floss. A 10 percent water change is conducted twice a week and the floss is also changed twice weekly.

In terms of livestock, the tank only features seven fish: one Okinawa goby (Gobiodon okinawae), a pair of greenbanded gobies (Elacatinus multifasciatus), one bluestripe pipefish (Doryrhamphus excisus), a ring-eye pygmy goby (Trimma benjamini), one blackbelly goby (Eviota nigriventris), and shrimp goby (Stonogobiops yasha). The  shrimp goby lives with two shrimp (Alpheus randalli) partners. The fish are camera shy but gluttonous! The tank holds an anemone crab (Neopetrolisthes oshimai)who has chosen the large and chubby Trachyphyllia geoffroyi to live in.

The reef is strongly large-polp stony coral oriented.Several morphs of AcanthastreaMicromussa, and Caulastrea take most of the space, but photosynthetic Caribbean gorgonians, a piece of Euphyllia paraencora, and various nicely colored softies complete the setting. It is a rich and mature nano tank, which has never had any major issues, and is filled with lively and sympathetic creatures!

For more on setting up a successful coral garden of your own, check out this month’s “Going Nano” column.

Posted February 7th, 2013.

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