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Issue: January 2015

10 Fish That Every Hobbyist Should Try (Full Article)

Author: Radek Bednarczuk


Photographer: Radek Bednarczuk
A dedicated fishkeeper presents his list of the species of fish that every hobbyist should keep at least once in his/her life.

There’s an occupational hazard of sorts that can strike aquarium hobbyists after a few years of keeping the same types of fish we’ve always kept, where we risk finding ourselves in a rut. This affliction has certainly caught up with me from time to time. A good antidote to this kind of fishkeeping burnout is to seek out and keep some different species that will rekindle your interest in the aquatic world and remind you why you got into this hobby in the first place. Hopefully the (admittedly subjective) list below will help cure any temporary feelings of aquaristic boredom you may be experiencing.

If you are the type of aquarist who has always kept only one genus or even species of fish, or if you prefer just a single biotope (e.g., Amazonian, African Rift Lake, or Southeast Asian), you may call yourself a “monothematic” fish-keeper. It’s like eating the same type of food all your life, or spending all your holidays at the same place. I know people who are like that, and they like it. Sometimes, however, it may be worthwhile to try something new. Another biotope, species, or genus can be like a breath of fresh air, enriching out hobby and contributing to it. Of course, narrow specialization can also be useful to the hobby. Such fish specialists can become experts, indispensible and invaluable sources of knowledge, information, and experience. Still, even for the experts, it is useful to be open to new experiences. And so, following is my list of those fish that—in my opinion—every hobbyist should keep at least once in his lifetime.

1. Livebearers: Easy to Keep, Easy to Breed, Easy on the Eyes

Almost every one of us started in the hobby with one of the popular livebearers, the guppies and swordtails and platies and mollies. In my case it was a pair of swordtails, which I kept at the age of seven. The popular livebearers are easy to breed (the young are born fully formed, hence the name) and maintain, and the coloring of many a guppy male can be downright dazzling. In a word—if you have never kept livebearers (although I doubt it) buy a few and enjoy their beauty.

2. The Eartheaters: Fish with a Taste for the Substrate

On the whole, I have a fondness for cichlids, and especially the eartheaters. My adventure with this group began with a Satanoperca species, and since then I have had most of them in my aquaria. If you have never kept them, I’m happy to report that they are very interesting fish, and very diverse with regard to color, shape, and size, as well as the environmental conditions in which they live. They use various interesting reproductive strategies, and you get a curious mode of feeding thrown in as a bonus—true to their name, these fish take the substrate into their mouths and sift it through their gills, leaving the best bits behind. The Amazon ecosystem still hides many secrets from the biologists, so we can expect them to discover more species as yet undescribed. However, do take care; if you try the eartheaters, you may end up addicted right to the end of your fish-keeping days!

3. Discus: Demanding, but Colorful, Interesting, and Rewarding

These majestic members of the family Cichlidae require a considerable outlay of time and—to be honest—a little bit of an investment. Tanks that are spacious, high, warm, and over-filtered are the key to their comfortable existence. There are enough color variations of discus (genus Symphysodon) species and variants out there to make your head spin. Some hobbyists prefer their natural coloration and choose the wild fish; others seem to enjoy gaudier, brighter colors and complex patterns. One thing is sure: Inducing discus to breed and raising the fry (young discus feed on the parents’ skin secretions) is something of a challenge, especially in the case of wild fish.

Many years ago I took up this challenge and tried to raise young discus at home, literally from the egg, without any help from the parents. My duties began at dawn and ended before midnight, and yet after a few weeks of diligent care I had only a handful of fry from a few hundred eggs. After this experience I told myself never again—I will leave it to the parents, or professional breeders, who have food similar in composition to that produced by the adult fish. Discus can give a lot of satisfaction, but they will also teach you humility, responsibility, and orderliness.

4. Loricariids and Corydoras: Algae Eaters and “Bottom Cleaners”

There is a plethora of species of the catfish family Loricariidae, generally known collectively as the suckermouth catfishes because of the structure of their mouths, which allows them to fasten onto smooth surfaces and to rasp algae off aquarium walls and the leaves of plants. These fish are often (mistakenly) considered to be little more than the clean-up crew, additions to the main attractions. However, I know people who concentrate on the breeding of rare species, and they have beautifully arranged tanks swarming with interesting “L-numbered” pleco species, the letter “L” and a succeeding number assigned to as-yet-undescribed/identified loricariid species. I must say, these “L-number fish” can look very impressive and interesting. Because some rare loricariids are valuable, it could be a lucrative endeavor to breed them. Yet even the more common and less expensive of the smaller suckermouths, such as the various Otocinclus, Ancistrus, and Loricaria species, are interesting and tank-worthy themselves. Of the Corydoras species (family Callichthyidae), it’s hard to say much more by way of praise than has already been said. Peaceful, hardy, useful, interesting, mostly easy to breed and raise, widely available, inexpensive, some even obtainable in both normal and albino forms—these fish are well loved in the hobby, and for good reason. These bewhiskered little babies are real charmers with their comical looks and habits, and any hobbyist with an appreciation of the personality of his tank residents will soon regard them with affection and realize their old reputation for being just “bottom cleaners” and “scavengers” was way off the mark.

5. Crenicichla: The Pikes of South America

They can be big or small, and they can be characterized in general by their pike-like, elongated body shape and predatory behavior. But their innate intelligence, the characteristic twinkle in the eye, and—as is to be expected in the case of cichlids—interesting reproduction patterns are the main qualities recommending the Crenicichla species. Another point in their favor is the large number of species and interesting color variations, which is one reason I return to them, over and over again, as one does to a good book or a favorite wine.

6. Betta splendens: A Labyrinth Fish with Style

Is there anyone who has never seen a male Betta splendens in his flowing fins and his fabulous colors? Popularly called the betta and always more widely available than other members of the genus that have periodically entered the hobby, Betta splendens is also called the Siamese fighting fish because of the combativeness of adult males in the presence of another male. In Asian countries they are pitted against each other in spectacular fights; this “sport” is unfortunately reminiscent of the cruel practice of cockfighting and naturally involves gambling —the onlookers will bet on which male will win (though, thankfully, contrary to popular belief, the loser is not killed in the “ring”). Another interesting feature of these fish is a special labyrinth organ that allows them to breathe atmospheric oxygen to supplement the oxygen they take in via their gills.

As such, bettas will occasionally swim up to the surface to gulp air. It is worth noting that they are considered obligatory air-breathers—that is, they will die if denied access to air. A big attraction of bettas, in addition to their large number of tail types, colors, and patterns, is their interesting reproduction strategy. The male builds a nest of bubbles at the surface of the water and deposits the eggs in it after a spectacular courtship of and spawning with the (relatively less colorful and elaborately finned) female.

7. Dwarf Cichlids: Miniature Jewels of South America

Yes, cichlids again—this time the smallest ones, wonderfully colorful and very interesting to keep and breed. Thousands of articles and scores of books have been written about the dwarf cichlids of South America, including such fascinating and colorful fish such as those in the species Apistogramma and Mikrogeophagus. When it comes to choosing a dwarf cichlid you will be spoiled for choice, and new species and color varieties are being discovered all the time. In a word—once you get hooked on them, you’re lost. Another selling point for these miniature marvels is the fact that you don’t need huge tanks to house them.

8. Tropheus: Icons of Lake Tanganyika

The freshwater aquarium hobby would be much poorer without the cichlids of the African lakes. Everyone knows about the Tropheus species, but not everybody has kept them. To avoid trouble, best begin by checking the parameters of your tap water. If it is hard, then go ahead. If not, the water will have to be modified, but that is neither costly nor difficult. A large tank is a must—and naturally you will need to acquire a large group of these interesting fish.

9. Killifish: A Riot of Colors with Fascinating Reproduction

A few undisputed good points of this group of fish are their small size (no need for huge tanks), amazing colors (some say that certain killifish are the most colorful of all in the freshwater hobby), and their interesting reproduction strategies. Furthermore, many species do not require heated tanks, and the large number of species should satisfy even the most finicky aquarist. Interestingly, the eggs of certain species can be kept for conveniently long periods in moist peat (a phenomenon called diapause, a delay in the development of the embryo).

10. Piranhas: Fish with Sharp Teeth

The various fish species known as piranhas have always been controversial, probably because they have been—and will continue to be—cast as gangs of aquatic bad guys in Hollywood movies. And they are indeed capable of rendering a pig, a horse, and maybe even a hippo to a bony residue in relatively short order. If you ask a non-hobbyist about what fish he can name, the piranhas will rank pretty high right after goldfish and guppies; you might even be asked if you have them in your aquarium. Anyone who has ever kept these carnivorous fish knows that huge, over- filtered tanks are required to maintain them in good condition. Interestingly, here in Europe piranhas are often found in the offices of top executives, although recently in at least some areas they seem to have been replaced by arowanas. Apparently in some macho circles they have been accepted as a symbol of strength, power, and social standing. The piranhas are not among the most interesting or all-around desirable of aquarium species, but you can come across some small and comparatively inexpensive young piranhas occasionally if you’re looking to branch out into fish you haven’t kept before. (Whether those piranhas, young or old, are being offered for sale legally is a separate question altogether—you’d better check that out for yourself and make sure before purchase!)

Just Scratching the Surface

I confess I had to leave out many interesting fish in compiling this list, and to be entirely frank, even what is covered above is a is merely a brief glance at the attributes and keeping needs of the fish involved. Unless you already know a lot about what you have to provide for any of these fish, make sure you do due diligence before making any purchase, as even the most common and inexpensive of the fish here have special needs that should be met—both for your enjoyment of the hobby and for the good of the fish. And again, even though my final list features 10 categories, there could easily have been 100 or more!

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