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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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Keeping Altolamprologus Species

Altolamprologus compressiceps. Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir.

By Chad Christensen

Altolamprologus calvus and A. compressiceps hail from Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. The genus Altolamprologus is limited to these two species. They belong to the family Cichlidae, which has an astounding number of described species worldwide, with many still undescribed and countless varieties and subspecies.

A Complicated History

A. compressiceps was originally described as Lamprologus compressiceps in 1898 by Boulenger. Originally thought to be only one species, it was observed by Pierre Brichard on a 1975 collecting trip that there were some variations in collected “compressiceps.” In 1977, after placing two fish of equal length in a collecting bucket, Brichard realized that he was dealing with two distinct body shapes. He provided Poll with a sufficient supply of speciments and further analysis revealed several more differences which supported the creation of a second closely related species, calvus, in 1978 by Poll. The Latin word “calvus,” meaning bald, was a suitable species name, because, when compared to compressiceps, the calvus lacked scales on the upper portions of the head.

The genus Lamprologus was revised by J. Colombe and R. Allgayer, though Poll later rejected two of three genera and created and redefined the Lamprologus genus. At that time he also erected the genus Altolamprologus for calvus and compressiceps. Most other Lamprologus species ended up lumped into the grab-bag genus Neolamprologus. Dr. Paul Loiselle notes that both studies focus on superficial characteristics and he, and many others, see little value in adopting the name conventions proposed in these destabilizing nomenclature studies until modern methods can verify their validity.

Genus break up and reclassification is a constant game and has been the cause of more than one stern discussion. Remember the ongoing Cichlasoma reclassifications? All the hobbyist can do is be aware of the proposed changes, accepting them gracefully, and realize that a particular fish by any other name is still a fish…the same fish.

Altolamprologus Basics

A. calvus and A. compressiceps share the same basic body shape. They have high bodies and are quite laterally compressed, hence the original species designation of compressiceps. This lateral compression greatly enhances the ability to pick invertebrates and other edibles from the tiniest crevice. Also documented in this genus is the ability to rotate the eyeballs to a nearly 90° angle with the normal plane, allowing these fish to slowly scrutinize the crevices where they might encounter their next meal.

The compressed body shape not only enhances the ability to forage, but permits defensive concealment. Fitting into small crevices is advantageous in avoiding predation. When these fish lodge themselves in these small places, they tense their bodies in such a manner that spiny fins and scales lock them into place and it is nearly impossible for a predator to pull them backwards out of their cover. When confronted by an aggressor, a similar defense is often invoked in open water. The fish turns sideways and curls away from the bite of the aggressor, thus providing a less vital, scale-flared flank as a target. This is apparent in the aquarium when an over enthusiastic male bullies a smaller female.

The two species can usually be distinguished from each other with very little scrutiny. A. compressiceps has a noticeably higher neck/back when compared to A. calvus. A. compressiceps also has a more upturned mouth, giving their head a shorter, meaner, more pug-like appearance. Both calvus and compressiceps come in a variety of flavors. The color variety depends on the geographical location from which they were collected.

A. calvus (pictured) features a shorter neck than A. compressiceps. Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir.

It should be noted that calvus and compressiceps do inhabit the same areas and, to my knowledge, no naturally occurring hybridization has been reported or theorized, though this will occur in the extremely unnatural environment of the aquarium. Some color varieties and geographical varieties of A. calvus include the blacks from Cape Chipimbi, Zambia, and from Zaire (now Congo). Yellows come from various Zambian locations, including Nangu Island, Nkamba Bay, and Chilange Rocks, and whites come from Cape Chaitika, Zambia. Some varieties of A. compressiceps include oranges/golds from Cape Chaitika, Zambia and Kigoma, Tanzania, red-fin varieties from Tanzania, and four gold head varities from Malasa Island, Tanzania, Kalambo, Muzi, Tanzania, and the rarer Mutondwe Island, Zambia, which is the only described compressiceps variety to exhibit blue in the fins.

Altolamprologus species come in a number of different color varieties. Photograph by Mark Smith.

Both species have a maximum size of a little over 6 inches for males and 4 inches for females. One noteworthy exception is the dwarf Altolamprologus—one from Sumba Bay, Zambia, and another from Mbita Island, Zambia. These fish may reach only about 3 inches in adult males with the females smaller still.

The species of Altolamprologus, like many other Tanganyikan species, are slow to sexually mature, and they are also an extremely slow-growing fish. Fry of a captive spawn may only reach 5/8 inch in three month’s time 2 inches in a year, and it may take as long as two to three years for the fish to sexually mature, depending on conditions. With this said, it should be no surprise that there is a large difference in price between small fry, larger fry, young adults, and breeding adults. A faster growth rate will be noticed with high quality, a varied diet, and plenty of water changes.

Keeping Altolamprologus Species

Aquarium requirements for Altolamprologus spp. are not unlike those of other Tanganyikan fishes. The extremely hard, alkaline waters of Lake Tanganyika should be simulated in the aquarium. Some people will have local tap water that will suffice, while people from other areas may require chemical manipulation with additives to bolster the mineral content and pH values. The pH of an aquarium housing Tanganyikan species should always be above 7.5, but preferred pH values are between 7.8 and 8.6. It should be noted that ammonia is far more lethal the higher the pH, so great care should be given to providing exceptional biological filtration and regular water changes must be performed.

While hardness is a less critical parameter than pH, achieving water with a medium hardness value or harder is a reasonable goal. Being as Lake Tanganyika is actually so hard that it precipitates calcium, fusing the bounders of the rocky shoreline together, the hobbyist would be hard pressed to provide water that is too hard. Also, the extra hardness provides protection from pH drift and crashes. One important thing to remember is these species are extremely sensitive to chlorine and chloramines, so a suitable dechloraminator should be used.

Lake Tanganyikan cichlids come from exceedingly hard water and therefore require at least medium-hard water in the aquarium. Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir.

Water temperatures between 76° and 80°F are the best, with 78° proving to be safe medium. Temperatures above 84° are often fatal. The higher the temperature, the more important it is that the water be saturated with oxygen. As the temperature approaches the 84° mark, the fish can and will suffocate if the water is not 100 percent saturated with oxygen. Tanganyikans tolerate temperatures that are too low better than they do ones that are too high. Aquariums will lose heat through evaporation, so they tend to remain several degrees cooler than the room temperature if no other means of heat are provided (heaters, submersed pumps, etc.). If the aquarium is situated in a room that will remain higher than about 85° for any amount of time, such as a non-air conditioned room or a garage in the summer, action should be taken. One way to aid evaporation and help prevent the tank from overheating is to provide extra water circulation with airstones or have a fan blowing across the surface of the water. Opening up the aquarium hood will aid evaporation, although it’s risky with species with that are known to jump. A. calvus and A. compressiceps are not known to be jumpers, except in possibly extreme cases of interspecies aggression or, of course, when being chased by a net.

Most all types of flake foods are accepted. A varied diet will help keep the fish healthy and condition them for breeding. Meat should be added to the diet—live or frozen brine shrimp, as well as bloodworms, are greedily accepted. Live or frozen baby brine shrimp and crushed flake foods are suitable for fry.

Substrate choices are the usual fare of gravel or sand. Crushed coral is another option which helps to raise and stabilize the water’s pH. If gravel is used, a natural brown or darker color is preferred to give a more natural environment. Sand also makes a wonderfully natural substrate. No matter what substrate is used, it should not be deeper than about one inch because without water circulation, the substrate will harbor anaerobic bacteria. An effort should be made to mix up the substrate after siphoning detritus off its surface during weekly water changes. While plants are not a natural part of these species’ biotope, both live and imitation plants may be employed at the hobbyists’ discretion.

In small aquariums (20 longs or 29-gallon), these fish are best kept in pairs or trios, although many can be grown to sexual maturity together. Once fish begin to breed, male conspecific aggression escalates to the point that all subdominant males must be removed for their own safety. In a fairly large aquarium (75 to 135 gallons), more than one male can sometimes be kept successfully. With any size aquarium, having a variety of caves of rockwork is the key to success. Males are fairly hard on the fames so, room permitting, more than one female should be kept with the male. A 40-gallon breeder or a 55-gallon tank will house a male and several females, as well as the desirable addition of dither and/or target fish.

The importance of having a variety of caves, rockwork, and shells cannot be stressed enough. These fish are shy and skittish. Having more hiding places available will make them feel secure and you will actually see them out and about more than if you had less hiding places. Knowing a safe haven is close by makes them much bolder.

Having plenty of Caves, rock work, and shells will reduce aggression in the aquarium and make the inhabitants bolder. Photograph by Mark Smith.

Spawning Altolamprologus Species

Providing a variety of caves also gives the females a better chance of avoiding unwanted advancements by the males. Again, this is where having more than one female is a help—it divides the male’s aggression between more fish so no one fish is relentlessly harassed. Shells should be provided for the females to spawn in, though they are not required. Females will also spawn in caves, but shells are often used due to the convenience for the hobbyist.

Using an appropriately sized shell is important: If the shell is too small, the female can’t fit into it but it’s too big the female can fit too far into it. If the female gets too far into the shell, she may become stuck and also, the hobbyist doesn’t know when the shell is occupied since the fish enters far enough into the shell that no part of the fish is visible.

Another problem with having too large of a shell has to do with spawning itself. The male may also try to enter the shell, which may not allow the female the much deserved break from aggression. If the male does not enter, and the shell is large enough to allow the female deep access, the male may be unable to fertilize the eggs, since the males often simply release their milt near the shell entrance and both fish fan it in towards the deposited eggs. Even if the eggs do get properly fertilized, there is still the risk that they will perish. The clutch of eggs needs constant circulation of clean, aerated water, which the female usually supplies by fanning the eggs. If the eggs are deposited too far into the shell, well away from the opening, the female may be unable to provide the required circulation, despite her best efforts.

The best size shell is one that the female’s caudal fin is visible when she is nestled as far in the shell as she chooses to go. This lets the male easily fertilize the eggs while she still is, for the most part, out of reach of his aggression. Unlike in a larger shell, she can block the opening with her body to guard the eggs and fry. The clutch is close enough to the shell opening that the female can fan a respectable amount of fresh water across them, and the hobbyist can rest assured that he or she knows where the fish is located at a glance.

That being said, a properly set up aquarium should provide more cover than only shells. Shells will be used for shelter if nothing else is available, but males and females alike prefer a cave of some type for non-breeding shelter. This also makes it easier for the hobbyist to know when spawning has occurred, since a female will only be in the shell if she is guarding a clutch. At least one cave should be provided for each fish and, in addition to that, one shell per female. Males will spawn with any females that are ready, and if enough suitable spawning sites are provided, there will often be more than one female guarding fry at a time. The last reason that shells can be considered the best spawning site is a selfish one for the hobbyist: Shells are an easy vessel from which to gather fry. After females have been in their shell for eight to twelve days, the fry can be harvested for transport to a small grow out tank.

Raising the Fry

When gathering the fry from the shell, care should be taken not to let the fry be out of the water any more than can be helped. One of the easiest ways to remove the fry is to prepare a container with water from the aquarium from which the fry are being removed. A clear specimen container works well for this and has the added benefit that it can be hung on the aquarium, preferably on the inside. Grasp the shell and hold it at or near the water’s surface over the container. Rotate the shell in the proper direction to flush out the water. More than likely, the female will remain in the shell, but this is a minor inconvenience since the fry will flow past her and out into the container. To decrease a mother’s physical stress, however, one should attempt to capture the shell while the female is away. After each flushing the shell should be immediately dunked into the container, allowing the shell to refill with water. Rotate the shell to let the air out if necessary. Again, the shell should be raised to just above the surface and flushed. This can be repeated until no more fry flow from the shell.

At this age, the fry still have the sticky area on their heads which allows them to stick to the cave or shell walls and one will notice as they are flushed out into the container that many of the fry are also stuck to each other in little masses. This also makes fry removal a bit harder, but it is helpful to shake the shell, with some water in it, between dunks to free the fry from the shell wall. One could wait and let the fry develop another four to six days into free-swimming fry, but then the hobbyist runs the risk that the fry will swim out of the shell or be flushed out during a water change—been there, done that. Once removed from the safety of the shell, the miniscule fry can easily fall prey to other aquarium inhabitants, perhaps even to dad. While the fry-eating propensities of parental Altolamprologus spp. have been greatly exaggerated, it should be realized that every fish is different and some fish may graze on their offspring. As a friend once told me, the fish don’t read the books, so experimentation would be the only way to discover each fish’s parental abilities.

There is no doubt that some spawns will be lost before the parents settle down and become better parents, but this is often true for many other species. Most hobbyists will not be willing to risk losing the fry to overly predacious parents and will want to remove the fry before they are free swimming. While I currently follow this line of thinking, I must say that watching a pair of Altolamprologus with a tank full of offspring can be very interesting.

To this regard, I can give an account of a wild-caught pair of A. calvus that I kept many years ago. Fry were allowed to grow to nearly ¾ inch before the parents were removed and no cannibalism was detected. I observed, however, that the movement of the fry on the substrate would elicit an immediate predatory reaction from the adults until the fry was recognized as a son or daughter rather than a tasty little invertebrate hors d’oeuvre, at which time the fry’s life was spared.

If a pair is kept alone, there is the risk of the pair bond breaking down due to over aggression. Again, this is where it is beneficial to have several females to one male. An alternative is to use some type of target fish. Target fish will also double as dither fish, giving the Altolamprologus an added sense of security and keeping them far more active and visible. Species that prefer the upper portions of the water column are preferred since there will be no direct competition for territory. There are many species that would be suitable, including various danios, rainbowfish, and larger varieties of killifish. For the Tanganyikan purist, Lamprichthys tanganicanus killifish would be a good choice. An equally appropriate choice would be a group of Cyprichromis or Paracyprichromis. No matter what species are selected, ensure that they are large enough or quick enough to avoid becoming a meal.

Get Your Own Altolamprologus Tank

Species of the genus Altolamprologus are a real joy in the aquarium and easy to keep. They make a great species tank, but do equally well in a community situation. The unique body shape and interesting behavior make it well worth the effort to acquire and keep them. The only hard part is deciding which one geographical color variety you like the best. Well, okay maybe just two tanks with different varieties. Do I hear three?

Posted August 24th, 2012.

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5 Fantastic Aquarium Plants

By Rhonda Wilson

For the 60th anniversary issue of TFH, I thought it would be fun to do a list of my top aquatic plants. Of course, I had to decide what sort of top list it would be. In the end, after considering various choices, I decided to include all the options. I chose a mix of plants, some because of their ease of growth, some from their popularity among aquarists now and over time, and some of the ones most likely to be found in the shops. I thought I would do a top-10 list but decided that I had 15 plants I wanted to include, and since it’s all kind of an arbitrary list, that’s what I ended up with. For space considerations, I could only list the top 10 in the magazine, but here are my remaining five favorite aquarium plants.

11. Java Fern

Java fern. Photograph by Mark Smith.

An easy plant to grow for most aquarists and a general all-around favorite, Java fern can tolerate a good range of water conditions and lighting levels. I did have some trouble with them in the water in Phoenix, but they did well with additional CO2. I know most people can grow it with ease in most tap water. Since I recently moved, I’ll be trying it again in my new water. There are several different, very attractive varieties of this fern that can often be found in good pet stores along with the original type of fern. Java fern is particularly well suited to be tied to wood in the aquarium.

12. Cryptocoryne wendtii

Cryptocoryne wendtii. Photograph by Rhonda Wilson.

Cryptocoryne wendtii is a wonderful crypt that comes in a variety of colors and is often available as a potted plant in chain and locally owned aquarium stores. The plants are medium in height and can be used as taller plants in very small tanks and midground ones in moderately sized aquariums. Cryptocoryne can be slow growing but over time easily cover and take over an entire aquarium, with little plants spreading under the substrate. It is also easily propagated from cuttings.

13. Rotala rotundifolia

Rotala rotundifolia. Photograph by Bryce Millar.

Rotala rotundifolia is of the few red plants that will grow under less-than-ideal conditions. The color can range from yellow to pink to peach to red depending on the conditions and lighting it’s grown under. Rotala seems to be happy in a range of conditions and will even tolerate moderate lighting. It does much better with higher light levels and generally gets more red in the leaves under better conditions and lighting. Under optimal conditions, it will send branches across the ground to spread the plant.

14. Guppy Grass (Najas spp.)

Guppy grass. Photograph by Rhonda Wilson.

Guppy grass (Najas spp.) is a long-time aquarium favorite, though it’s not usually found in the stores but is traded regularly at most aquarium clubs. It grows quite rapidly in most conditions and makes for a great plant for hiding fry, which is why it became popular among guppy breeders, hence the name “guppy grass.” The major issue with guppy grass in a mixed planted aquarium is that it grows very rapidly and breaks apart quite easily. Each little node is quite happy to start making a new plant, so it’s very easy to end up with these in places in the aquarium where they’re not really wanted.

15. Bacopa monnieri

Bacopa monnieri. Photograph by Rhonda Wilson.

Bacopa monnieri is a stemmed plant that is very interesting in its structure, with a strong, thick stem and leaf. It looks like a type of succulent. Bacopa not only grows well in the aquarium but is happy to grow right out of the tank where it freely blooms with small white to violet flowers. I’ve gotten to the point where I usually just plant these at the back of the tank and let them go ahead and grow out. They can drape down the sides of the aquarium and be quite attractive if allowed to grow that way.

Pick Your Own

This is just a brief review of some of the aquarium plants that have been the most popular and easiest to grow over the history of the hobby. There are many more plants available, along with undiscovered ones that may become favorites in the future. Be sure to comment and let us know which plants are your favorite for the aquarium!

Posted July 27th, 2012.

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Stocking a Nano Tank

By David Bell

In the June 2012 issue of TFH, I described how I started in the world of nano aquariums. A huge part of my careful planning was identifying what animals I wanted and developing a stocking list.

My must-have fish was a mystery wrasse. I also wished to keep a mix of a few very colorful and smaller fishes such as the secretive fairy or flasher wrasses, demure damsels or percula complex clowns, cardinals, small basslets or grammas, blennies or gobies, and perhaps others to observe their interesting behaviors. I developed the system around those wants. I have basically stuck with my original intention of housing a fish population that averages an adult size of about 3 inches or less. Also, I have always been interested in maintaining a tank exclusively full of hardy and vibrant corallimorpharians, zoanthids and some of the octocorals, as well as a few of the hardier stony corals such as members of the families Faviidae and Mussidae.

Then the challenge came in stocking the aquarium with the right mix of species and number of individuals. I did not plan to have any individuals which would later be moved to a larger tank because they grew too large or acted too aggressively. (However, I do have a seasoned tank already prepared which has come in handy in emergency situations, although it should not be absolutely necessary if the tank is planned correctly.) Ultimately though, I intend to combine this nano reef with one or two other smaller reef systems into a large reef system.

I wound up with this list to begin with.


1 Starry Blenny (Salarias ramosus)

1 Talbot’s Damsel (Chrysiptera talboti)

1 Percula Clownfish (Amphiprion percula)

1 Royal Gramma (Gramma loreto)

1 Tricolor Fairy Wrasse (Cirrhilabrus lubbocki)

1 Mystery Wrasse (Pseudocheilinus ocellatus)


Zoanthids of 14 varieties

Octocorals: Kenya Tree Coral (Capnella imbricata) and Clove Polyps (Clavularia spp.)

Corallimorpharians: Discosoma spp., Rhodactis indosinensis, and Ricordea florida

Duncan Coral (Duncanopsammia axifuga)

Green Plate Coral (Fungia spp.)

Candy Cane Coral (Caulastrea spp.)

Green/Pink Brain Coral (Trachyphyllia spp.)

Green Brain Coral (Acanthastrea spp.)

Red/Dark Red Brain Coral (Acanthastrea spp.)

Pink/Orange Brain Coral (Acanthastrea spp.)

Green/Cream Brain Coral (Favia spp.)

Bright Green Brain Coral (Favites spp.)

Turquoise Brain Coral (Favites spp.)

Red/Blue Micromussa Coral (Micromussa amakusensis)

Multicolored Button Coral (Scolymia spp.)

Red/Orange Button Coral (Lobophyllia spp.)

Other Invertebrates

5 Turbo Snails (Nerita funiculata)

5 Red-legged Hermit Crabs (Clibinarius digueta)

5 Nassarius Snails (Nassarius spp.)

1 Blue Tuxedo Urchin (Mespilia globulus)

Be sure to check out the July 2012 issue of TFH to find out about the progress of these animals, how to overcome challenges presented by nano tanks, and see how it all turned out.

Photograph by David Bell.

Posted May 17th, 2012.

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The Pearl Danio

The pearl danio. Photograph by Tony Terceira.

By Jennifer Wilkinson

Pearl danios (Danio albolineatus) are pretty little fish that are found in the streams and rivers of Southeast Asia: Burma, Thailand, Sumatra, and the Malayan peninsula. Although most of the ones that we see today are bred in captivity in large fish farms or, occasionally, from hobbyists who spawned the fish.
In the right lighting, these are very beautiful fish; they shimmer and glow with a bluish tinge. I noticed that in some pet shops, they just look like a plain gray fish. When mature, the females are quite a bit larger than the males, however the males are the more colorful of the two. They can reach a size of 2½ inches in length.

Keeping Pearl Danios

I purchased five half-grown fish from a pet store and placed them into a 33-gallon community aquarium. First of all, they should have been placed into a quarantine aquarium before being added to my community, however I was very lucky that these fish were very healthy and did not come down with anything. The aquarium contained several pieces of driftwood and some live plants. It also housed two Ancistrus catfish, twelve Corydoras of two different varieties, and two other kinds of danios. The parameters of this aquarium were a temperature of 78°F, pH 7.2, and the water was fairly soft. Water changes of 30 to 50 percent were done twice a week, or anytime that I over fed.
To condition these fish for spawning, they were fed frozen bloodworms, frozen and live adult brine shrimp, and several different varieties of flakes. These pearl danios were always the first in there to grab the food before any of the others had a chance. One has to make sure that enough food is offered so that everyone gets fed.
These fish do not really school, but they do spend most of their time in the top quarter of the aquarium. They would occasionally be found in other areas of the aquarium, but that was usually when they were chasing food. Unlike other danio species that I have kept, the pearl danio is a very hyper fish; it doesn’t ever seem to slow down.


Pearl danios usually breed over fine-leaved plants, however with my fish, it didn’t seem to matter if plants were available or not. In one of my spawns Java moss was available, however for other spawns it was not. It is quite difficult to tell when these fish are actually breeding because they are so hyper all the time. When they are breeding, they dart around quickly, the male beside the female, and they will slow down—not really stop over the plants or whatever else they are breeding over—and release the eggs. The eggs fall to the bottom and will be eaten if they are not hidden or the parents removed right away.
When breeding action was noticed in the 33-gallon community aquarium, the five fish were moved to a prepared 10-gallon breeding aquarium. This aquarium had a 5-gallon black undergravel filter plate that was held down with aquarium-safe rocks. The rocks had to be placed over the holes where the up lift tubes normally are so these breeding fish could not get underneath and eat all the eggs after the spawning took place. A large clump of Java moss was also placed in beside the filter plate. The water level was down to about half of the aquarium’s volume. The temperature was 78°, pH 7.2, and the water was soft. No filtration was used, only an air stone on very low.
The five adult pearl danios were left in the 10-gallon for two days, then they were moved back to the 33-gallon community aquarium. When the filter plate was removed, the bottom of this aquarium was covered in tiny, clear eggs. These eggs are not sticky, so if some were on the filter plate they would just fall to the bottom. It took three days for all to hatch and another three days for them to become free swimming.

Feeding the Fry

As soon as the fry are free swimming they must be fed. The first food for these very tiny fry was artificial plankton rotifers, and it was fed in small quantities. Some hobbyists just sprinkle it on the top of the water, however I take a very small amount and mix it with water from the aquarium, then pour it in gently so as not to disturb the fry very much. I also do a water change every three days before I add it again. The water changes must be done with a small hand siphon in a very gentle manner so as not to pull out all of the fry. If the fry are accidentally pulled out, they can be put back in with a plastic eye dropper. It is impossible to use a net because these fry are really tiny.
With each water change, a little extra water was added so that the aquarium was full when the fry were big enough to take the flow of a filter. At about three weeks of age they were introduced to baby brine shrimp. At this point most could eat it, and those that couldn’t didn’t survive long. With baby brine shrimp being fed daily, water changes had to be done every night. Baby brine shrimp pollutes the aquarium water very quickly. Shortly after, an outside power filter of the appropriate size to fit the aquarium was added. It was set on the lowest setting, and a sponge was added to the intake tube so none of the tiny fry would get pulled in.
There were so many fry in this spawn that they were moved into a bare 66-gallon aquarium to finish growing out. Most pet stores are happy to take this fish off your hands, however I did run into a few that said they could not sell these fish because they had no color, and therefore they didn’t want them.


Since the first spawn, I have tried some different things when raising these fish. On one occasion I thought it would be interesting to breed and raise two kinds of danios in the same aquarium at the same time, but no, this does not mean cross breeding.
The breeding aquarium was set up the same way as the one mentioned above. Then D. albolineatus were added. They were left for two days, then put back into their community aquarium. I then added two pairs of leopard danios to the breeding aquarium. They were removed the next morning.
When I removed the filter plate the bottom was covered with tiny little eggs—they were literally everywhere. It took all the eggs between one and three days to hatch. This was a good indication that I had eggs from both kinds of danios. It took another four days before all were free swimming. After about a week there was a definite difference: one showed a line along the length of the body and the other fish were a beige color. At this point I wasn’t sure which ones were which. The beige color ones turned out to be the leopard danios, while the ones with the glowing line turned out the be the pearl danios. The leopard danios seemed to grow slightly faster than the pearls. Perhaps that is because the pearl danios are much more hyper, but I’m not sure.
This was quite an enjoyable experiment and quite educational as well.
On another occasion, my cories were breeding up a storm, and there were no aquariums left to raise these eggs, so I moved some of them into the 10-gallon that already contained week-old pearl danio fry. To my surprise, this actually worked! I thought that the cory eggs would fungus because the rotifers were being fed. Instead I ended up with several cory fry. Of course, with so many fry in this 10-gallon aquarium, they had to be moved to larger quarters sooner than normal. It was a good thing that some of the other fish that I was raising were ready to find new homes.
It is not a good thing to over stock the fry aquariums, after all, we are striving for strong, healthy fish. We definitely do not want to see stunted fish. In this case, I knew that the other fish would be finding new homes soon, or I would not have tried raising the cories and so many danios at all.

Try Pearl Danios

The pearl danios are a very pretty community fish that do not seem to bother any of other inhabitants. I have housed them in several different communities now and have never had a problem with any of them. The lighting has to be right or they may just look like a dull, gray fish. Remember that they will spend most of their time in the top quarter of the aquarium. The fry that were raised started breeding when they were seven months old. I kept my original five pearl danios for over two years before I gave them away. I did keep some of the fry though.

Posted May 11th, 2012.

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Where to Put Your Aquarium

Carefully evaluate the location where you want to put an aquarium before putting it there. Photograph by Leslie R. Morris.

By Leslie R. Morris

After 10 years of experience with my 55-gallon aquarium, I have learned two lessons. Lesson 1: Do not buy an aquarium that is deeper than your arm is long. Lesson 2: Except for a piano, an aquarium is the heaviest object in your home. Even new refrigerators are not very heavy compared to an aquarium.

Since water weighs about 8.35 pounds per gallon, a 55-gallon aquarium weighs 459 pounds plus the glass, rocks, and the stand. It is well over 500 pounds, or a quarter of a ton. A 125-gallon aquarium weighs over a half ton—more than 1,000 pounds.

Homes and apartments, as I learned to my dismay, are not built to support the load of a typical larger aquarium.

Builders call the dirt on which the house rests the “grade.” If your house has no basement, and the builder pours the cement floor on the dirt, it is “on grade.” If there is a basement that has a cement floor, that floor is “below grade.” If your aquarium rests on the flooring that rests on the cement, you need not worry about its weight.

When you place the aquarium on a wooden floor that is laid on wooden joists, you must be careful.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Usually, builders place stairs against a wall. My condominium’s stairs were built with railings placed on both sides. I placed the aquarium against the stairs. It was aesthetically pleasing, it did not sacrifice too much space in the room and it offered easy access to the top and back of the aquarium from the steps through the railings. However, in a few months, I noticed that the stairs were pulling loose from the floor above; I did not realize that the aquarium was the cause, but it finally dawned on me. A steel jack, installed in the basement below the center of the aquarium, solved the problem.

Where Should You Install an Aquarium?

The best place to install an aquarium is on the cement floor in the basement. Equally good is the cement first floor if you have no basement.

A house is a big wooden box that is usually designed and built by carpenters— not engineers. The strongest areas are the corners. The weakest areas are the centers of the rooms. Windows and doors subtract from a wall’s strength. Place your aquarium in a corner. If not in a corner, place it against a wall. Often, there is a steel beam in the basement equidistant from two outside walls. Site your aquarium on the floor above the beam. I wanted to place my aquarium the long way above the beam. My significant other did not want the aquarium cutting the room in half, so it straddles the beam. Every few months I check the ceiling above the aquarium to check for any separation of the walls from the ceiling. If I see any, I will install a couple of jacks in the basement.

If you use an engineer or an engineer to build your new home, tell them about the aquarium and they will build in the necessary supports.

Never Install an Aquarium Here?

I met someone who wanted to install an aquarium at the edge of the loft overlooking the living room. It is a great concept, but unless there is a steel beam supporting the edge of the loft, I predict failure.


I recently saw an ad for a large, round aquarium designed for the center of a room. It scared me. If you install an aquarium in the center of a room, install one or two jacks in the basement directly under the aquarium. Floor jacks retail for about $35.00.

The second floor of a home is a chancy place for a larger aquarium. If it is against the outside wall, it is probably okay. Apartment buildings are usually built stronger than homes. Beware of the teenager who wants several tanks in his bedroom.


Since moving an aquarium even a few feet, requires that you empty the tank and completely restart of the biological cycle, consider the initial placement of your aquarium. You do not want to relocate it.

Check the floor below for supporting beams.

Consider placing supporting jacks in the basement under the aquarium.

Monthly, check walls and ceilings for signs of separation or sagging.

Before installing your third large aquarium, consult an engineer or an architect.

Posted March 16th, 2012.

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Propagating Brain Corals

By Phil Hunt

In his April 2012 article “Great Minds: Keeping Brain Corals in the Reef Aquarium,” Phil Hunt reviews various types of brain corals and the care requirements they have in an aquarium setting. If you are already keeping them successfully, then you might be interested in propagating your brains.

Propagating faviid brain corals is, in theory, relatively simple: Each coral consists of many polyps, and cutting pieces from mother colonies should enable small colonies to be grown on. This needs sharp tools, but if done with care can work well. Once cut, faviid frags, and the mother colony, should be placed in strong water currents and good lighting with excellent water quality. This is to minimize the chances of infections or tissue recession starting from the areas of mechanical damage caused by the cutting process.

Another method that can be used is to carefully break away pieces from the very edge of the colony; when faviid corals are growing well, the skeleton in these areas is often very thin and it is easy to snap pieces off. These fragments can then be attached to pieces of rock and grown on, under good conditions they will fuse onto the substrate quickly. Alternatively, the mother colony can be allowed to extend onto an adjacent rock, then carefully broken away to leave a new small colony behind.

Propagating LPS brain corals can be much easier or much more difficult, depending on the coral in question. Lobophyllia with phaceloid skeletons are very easy to propagate: Individual columns can be broken out of the colony, with no harm done to either the frag or the rest of the coral, due to the lack of damage to soft tissues. For Trachyphyllia, Symphyllia, and those Lobophyllia with more solid skeletons, things are much more difficult. While some hobbyists have successfully propagated such corals by simply cutting up the colonies, cutting through skeleton and soft tissue alike, just like propagating faviid corals, this is a risky procedure that can lead to the loss of the whole colony. Occasionally, corals that have recovered from tissue recession will have areas of tissue isolated by areas of bare skeleton, and these can be divided into new colonies.

Photograph by Phil Hunt.

Posted March 9th, 2012.

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Bag Water: To Dump or Not to Dump?

Jay F. Hemdal

In the March and April 2012 issues of TFH I discussed basic and advanced acclimation techniques. One question that I did not address, but one that commonly comes up in discussions, is whether or not to dump the bag water into the fish tank. Since I was a child, I was always taught never allow any of a fish’s transport water to enter the aquarium during acclimation. The idea that this shipping water is polluted with both organic wastes and fish parasites is common knowledge to everyone, isn’t it? Knowing this to be true, I parroted that advice to thousands of people during my subsequent career in the pet trade and public aquariums. I never thought much about it, it became dogma for me.

What is the truth though? Certainly, animals produce waste, and while they are contained in a shipping bag, these wastes do build up. However, the amount the fish produces is relative to the shipping time, and if they had been in the operating aquarium for that same time, they would have produced the same amount of waste, yet the biological filter would have dealt with it in short order. If the addition this shipping water, with even an extra day’s build-up of wastes would harm the aquarium, then that system has much bigger problems with its biological filtration system that needs to be corrected.

What about the potential for disease introduction? Since the fish is being moved into the tank, it will be carrying any parasites with it anyway, so this is not as big of an issue as one might think. There is one theory though, that promotes the idea that during shipping, many parasites may become dislodged from their host fish, and that by adding shipping water to the tank you are in effect, adding extra parasites. The issue with this is that it has not been microscopically substantiated, nor is there any proof that such dislodged parasites can return and reinfect fish. Finally, if the fish had an infection, it is impossible that all parasites were dislodged into the shipping water, so the fish will still need to be medicated.

There are only two valid concerns regarding not adding shipping water to the aquarium: First, if the fish had been shipped with chemicals added to the water (including copper, methylene blue, or antibiotics) and secondly, the possibility that the water contains higher than normal levels of heterotrophic bacteria. Neither of these are major issues, especially since the first step of the acclimation process outlined here is to remove most of the original shipping water before the process begins.

Go ahead and let the small original volume of shipping water to return to the aquarium. You can then recover all of the tank water you added during additions, plus it is easier to just slide the fish out of the plastic bag. Most of us have had this happen: you struggle to net a fish out of the shipping bag, and you fumble for it as the fish flips out and hits the floor. Fish can be injured by net frames or caught in the net material itself. Some aquarists advocate transferring the fish by hand, but don’t try that with a rabbitfish or some other venomous species! Human hands are not adept at holding struggling fish, so in the end, it may be best to just tip the bag over and slide them out, water and all!

Photograph by AISPIX/Shutterstock


Posted March 2nd, 2012.

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The Yungas

International explorer Heiko Bleher traveled to the Yungas in Bolivia in search of freshwater fish.

By Heiko Bleher

photographs by the author

It was a lovely day in Sarlat, which to me is the most beautiful city of France, in the Dordogne. Sitting in this beautiful old mansion just outside of the city limits, surrounded by greens, plants, trees, and bonsais I was having lunch with Jacques Géry and his wife Georgie. She had served pate du foi gras entier, the whole duck liver, and a delicious red wine, while Jacques was telling me about Nathan Everett Pearson, the student of the famous German/American Ichthyologist  Karl H. Eigenmann (1863–1927), one of the most talented and well respected men in the ichthyological world—the very same which applies to Jacques Géry. Jacques asked me why I had not been to the Yungas on the eastern slope of the Andes in Bolivia. There is very interesting research to be done there. Pearson alone, on the Mulford Expedition of 1921–1922, collected 6775 specimens, of which Characiformes (his lifetime speciality) represented about 50 percent of the collection and 77 of the total of 155 species, there. He found 25 new species and 2 new genera, most of them never seen alive until today.

This tiny characoid was (to me) something special. Less than an inch long, with the brightest golden color and a jet black stripe below the golden stripe all the way into the tail fin, this is a miniature tiny jewel.

Naturally that made me very curious, especially because I collected in Bolivia several times, but never in that region he mentioned. The only other person who did report of some field work in that region was Perugia, who published in Genova, Italy, in 1897 about the collection of 200 specimens Professor Luigi Balzani (Gymnogeophagus balzanii) found in Bolivia. They represented 37 species, out of which 5 came from the Marmoré and 32 from the Beni, in the Yungas. Haseman also collected in Bolivia, but only in the Marmoré/Guaporé region, not in the Yungas or the eastern slopes.

Actually I was very interested in seeing some of those new genera and species in vivo, especially after I researched and found out that no one has ever photographed and much less collected any of those species alive.

The only real predators were members of the wolffish family in a small pond.

Next thing I knew, I was on a plane from Milan to São Paulo and on to La Paz, the highest capital city of the world, which brings back childhood memories. My mother and I took a two-year expedition to South America when I was a child.

The Mulford Expedition

The Mulford Expedition of 1921–1922 was organized by Henry Hurd Rusby to explore the Amazon Valley from the headwaters of the Quime River in Bolivia to the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil. Dr. Rusby, then 70 years old, was a well-known explorer, a professor at Colombia University, and a member of the New York Botanical Garden staff. Funding was obtained from the H. K. Mulford Company. To assist him in collecting and handling plant specimens, Rusby hired Dr. Orland E. White, of Broclyn Botanical Garden.

The expedition started by crossing the high Andes on a mountain trail, passing through the Bolivian Yungas, down the Bopi River by balsa raft, and to the jungle town of Rurrenabaque by way of the Beni River. They searched the Beni savannas for a lake that was rumored to have an outlet to the Beni River. There was no such outlet, so they backtracked to Rurrenabaque. Along the way, five of the eight expedition members departed for reasons that vary from disillusionment to illness. That was in the first year. The remaining members traveled to Manaus in central Brazil, up the Rio Negro, to the Uaupes River, and finally to the Tiquie River where they were blocked by waterfalls and rapids and had to turn around. After a second full year of wandering, the expedition came apart when the final member was left to recover from poisoning in Manaus.


Rurrenabaque was the site of the expedition’s longest stop and the collection point for many specimens. Today it functions as a staging ground for eco-travelers in search of wildlife and adventure. It is a spectacular sight to enter Rurrenabaque by boat from upriver. The narrow gorge is now the grand entrance to Madidi National Park. Rurrenabaque is larger today, but the housing has probably not changed dramatically since the Mulford Expedition.

The expedition started in Rurrenabaque, an area that includes mountains in addition to two other ecosystems.

Rurrenabaque is at the intersection of three major ecosystems—the mountains, the rainforests, and the pampas. The result of this blending is a remarkably high diversity of wildlife, as revealed in the variety of animals collected during their long stay there.


The cries of red howler monkeys were heard every morning.

Every morning, red howler monkeys  made deep, guttural howls and, at sundown, hoatzins (a bizarre bird whose young have clawed wings), squawked in loud bunches along the waterside. The raucous chatter of macaws and parrots periodically penetrated the constant drill of cicadas. A jewel-like dung beetle, in particular, captured my attention. Its beautiful exterior seemed inconsistent with the job it performs in the rainforest animals. We also saw capybaras (a large rodent), a bright green parrot snake, toucans, and delicate butterflies.

The Bolivian government to establish Madidi National Park in 1995. The park is home to 85 percent of the bird species in Bolivia (11 percent of all the bird species in the world), 75 percent of Bolivian mammal species, and 40 percent of Bolivian reptile species. Endangered jaguars, giant otters, spectacled bears, and black caiman all roam within its forests. But, Madidi is not only important because of the rich biodiversity it protects within its borders, but because it is now part of a series of protected areas that stretch across international lines and an eclectic variety of habitats. Madidi, like other protected areas in the Amazon, will survive only if the people who live in and around the park have an incentive to keep it protected.

At the end of the road behind Alto Madidi I was lucky and found this tiny blue shiny tetra.

A proposed dam across the Beni at the entrance of Madidi National Park would flood Chalalan Lodge and surrounding rainforests. The proposal seems to be on hold for now, but there are road projects in the works and two companies hold concessions to search for and extract hydrocarbons within the park’s boundaries.

Posted February 17th, 2012.

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Overconfidence in the Tropical Fish Hobbyist


Skin flukes (Gyrodactylus spp.). Photograph by Craig Adams.

By Craig Adams

“I am God’s gift to koi,” my client began, “or so I thought, until this year.” We were standing at the edge of this gentleman’s pond in late June, who was having unexplained losses and was frustrated in his effort to keep his population of koi healthy. He ultimately lost about half of his large collection before the situation was brought under control. My client has had a 20,000-gallon pond for 20 years with a beautiful collection of koi, many of which were spawned in that very pond. Being a very advanced hobbyist, he even has an 8,000-gallon tropical tank in his yard in western Washingtonthat includes an amazing assortment of large tankbusters, such as Arapaima gigas, redtail catfish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus), and Colossoma macropomum. He understands water quality, nutrition, and many of the intricacies of husbandry that allow him to be an ultra-successful hobbyist. The koi spawned and raised in his pond were like his children, so thinning their population to an appropriate level was difficult for him to do. Eventually, it caught up with him.

White Noise

Overconfidence can sometimes be damaging because it clouds our judgment and prevents us from seeing what is in front of us. This happened to me recently at home as well. My wife and I were trying to transition our baby girl from sleeping in a cradle in our bedroom to sleeping in the crib in her room. We started the transition by having her nap in the new crib during the day. We ran into trouble, however, because she seemed to be more aware of the everyday sounds around her and had trouble sleeping.

My wife thought that adding some white noise to her surroundings might help to drown out the other noises and let her sleep. Some people use the vacuum cleaner for white noise. There is even a white-noise machine on the market that sounds a bit like the static we used to get from the television in the pre-cable days when we could not get reception. That seemed like a colossal waste of resources to me. It did not take me long to come up with the perfect white-noise generator. I grabbed an empty 20-gallon tank from the workshop next to my fishroom and set it up in the baby’s room. Naturally, this gave me a great excuse to buy some new fish to stock it.

We do not have a large selection of local fish stores in our area, at least for freshwater fish. Since this was an emergency (I certainly could not generate white noise with an aquarium that was devoid of fish), I headed to the local outlet of a nationwide distributor. I chose two of my all-time favorites: angelfish and Corydoras catfish. My wife selected a small school of each species, a plastic sea turtle, and an artificial Amazon sword plant. We were now prepared to convert our baby’s nursery into a white-noise paradise. She would no longer be jolted awake by cars honking, dogs barking, or me tiptoeing down the carpeted hallway while holding my breath.

Once we got them home, the cories quickly began exploring their surroundings and rooting through the sand substrate looking for food. The angelfish established their pecking order and chose spots along the plant and plastic turtle while keeping a keen eye out for the bits of food that magically appeared on the water’s surface a couple of times a day. This was, for all practical purposes, an Amazonian biotope setup from the plastic sea-turtle region of South America. Ahh, fishkeeping nirvana.


Unfortunately, all was not as it seemed—I lost an angelfish on the following day. This is not unusual with a new batch of fish. Just the act of netting fish and transporting them to a new tank can cause stress, elevated cortisol levels, and subsequent reduced immunity. Transport losses are expected to a certain degree, but never welcome. Did I quarantine these fish? No. This was a new setup, but the filter was already mature since I pulled the foam insert from another tank I already had running. I was therefore treating the entire system as a quarantine tank. I would not have thought of putting these fish directly into any of my other tanks that already had fish in them.

Over the course of the next few days, I slowly lost fish, both cories and angelfish. My wife chided me a bit since the big fish doctor was losing fish in his own daughter’s room. I tested the water on a daily basis, as should be done on all new tanks. The filter was functional, and I never recorded ammonia or nitrite spikes. I chalked the losses up to ongoing stress following the move from the store. One afternoon after changing a diaper, I was watching the fish with my daughter. By finally paying close attention, I could see that one of the angelfish was hanging back a little while the others were actively feeding. I decided that enough was enough. I got some of my equipment and performed a skinscraping on that fish—what I found shocked me.


I was dealing with one of the worst Gyrodactylus infestations I had seen for a long time. These are sometimes called skin flukes. There is a similar fluke, Dactylogyrus, which is also known as a gill fluke. They have different life cycles and can be found on the skin or the gills. Gyrodactylus flukes are viviparous (livebearing) while Dactylogyrus flukes are oviparous and have eggs that settle on the substrate to hatch prior to attaching to a host. Gyrodactylids attach to a fish with large anchors present in the opisthaptor (attachment organ). They are quite prolific, and in warm conditions, a population of flukes can double in 24 hours.

Once attached, they scrape mucus and epithelial cells from the host. This leads to irritation, excessive mucus production, secondary infections, and even respiratory distress if they are on the gills. They can quickly kill fish. One easy way to tell if the fluke is a gyrodactylid or a dactylogyrid is to look for the presence of an embryo in the fluke. The hooks on the embryo are often visible. These are microscopic parasites, so you will not see them with the naked eye. Excessive mucus on a fish is a clue, but it is not enough to make a diagnosis of a fluke infestation. Both of these are monogeneans—they do not require an intermediate host as part of their lifecycle. Digeneans, in contrast, are flukes that do require an intermediate host, such as a snail or a worm.


Well, once I had a diagnosis, I felt a little foolish. I had been operating under the false assumption that the problem was just stress related. Stress certainly could have played a role, but ignoring the problem would not make it go away. I added 2.5 ppt pickling salt (sodium chloride without anticaking agents) and 15 ppm formalin every other day with 50-percent water changes on the off days for three treatments. The salt was added to help reduce the osmotic stress that the fish were experiencing. Formalin is an aqueous solution of formaldehyde gas. As you can imagine, it is a dangerous substance to deal with if not handled properly. I happened to have some on hand since it is an approved medication for some food-fish diseases, so I decided to use it.

Most of you will not have it at home, and you would not know where to get it if you needed it. There is, however, a much safer alternative called praziquantel, which is a medication used to treat tapeworms and other parasites. There is a good chance that if you have a dog or a cat, your veterinarian has used it on your pet. Many of my fish patients live in ponds, and treatment with praziquantel can be very costly when such a large volume is needed, but treating an aquarium (even a large one) can be done for a reasonable price, usually less than the cost of replacing all the livestock.


Like a contractor with a home that has an unfinished basement or a painter with psychedelic wallpaper from 1970, the fish vet can have losses in his own tank. Once we step back, analyze the problem, and determine what is going on, the proper treatment becomes less of a mystery. Wait-and-see is not usually the best course of action. Most veterinarians could diagnose a fluke infestation in a fish whether they know it or not, but few veterinarians will travel to your house to make the diagnosis (although a growing number of us will). If you have a very sick or freshly dead fish and suspect flukes, you can put it into a bag for the veterinarian to look at in the office. Once you have a diagnosis, a treatment plan can be arranged to try and save the rest of the fish in your system.

Just adding one of these new fish to any of my existing aquariums could have led to the death of many of the fish already in my collection. That would not look good for a fish doctor. Always remember to quarantine. Your fish will thank you for quarantining, and they may even start to refer to you as “God’s gift to fish”!

Posted January 23rd, 2012.

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