Gorgeous Little Gouramis

Mike Hellweg

Gouramis are incredibly popular aquarium fish. Even after more than 100 years since the first one was introduced in the early days of the hobby, they are still in demand, to the point where some species have been bred into many color variants. These, in turn, have become bread-and-butter fish to aquarium shop owners. 
However, most of the gouramis grow fairly large—4 to 6 inches (10 to 12.5 cm), and sometimes more. While they do well in larger community tanks at those sizes, they are a bit much for the nano tanks that are increasingly kept today. But it may surprise some hobbyists to learn that there is a whole group of smaller, colorful, well-behaved gouramis that are perfectly suited to nano tanks. At just about 2 inches (5 cm), the dwarf gourami is the largest of these little guys, which gives you an idea of how the rest will fit in.

Labyrinths & Bubblenests

As labyrinth fishes, a group that includes the ever-popular bettas, gouramis are specially adapted to their native habitat. They are found in small forest streams, backwaters, oxbow lakes, rice paddies, and roadside ditches, where the water moves slowly, if at all. Sometimes it becomes stagnant, with very little dissolved oxygen. 
Fish in this category have what is known as a labyrinth organ, an accessory breathing adaptation in the back of their gill chamber that allows them to take mouthfuls of air at the surface, extract oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide right back into the atmosphere. This enables them to live in places no other fish can survive. The one drawback to this is that some of the gouramis have become so dependent on having access to the atmosphere that if they can’t reach the surface at least occasionally, they can actually drown. 
Many of the labyrinth species have taken their adaptation to living in nearly stagnant water one step further. The males have special glands on the roof of their mouth that allow them to blow sticky, mucous-covered bubbles into a foamy nest, known as a bubblenest, where they then put their eggs. 
The sticky foam keeps the eggs at the surface where they are exposed to the most oxygen. The young fish even remain hanging from the foam nest for a few days after hatching until they have grown enough that they can seek out food for themselves. From that point on, they are on their own. 

Aquarium Setup and Care


While they are sometimes found in nasty water in the wild, this merely means that they can survive in it, but not necessarily thrive. In our aquariums, we should strive to keep the water clean with regular water changes and filter maintenance. Aim for at least a 25- to 30-percent water change every week to 10 days (not hard at all in a nano tank!), and make sure to maintain your filter according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Slowly bubbling air-driven sponge filters work best for most of the small gouramis. 
While they will do very well, and look fantastic, in brightly lit planted tanks, most species will do equally well in more biotope-correct, low-light blackwater tanks, especially the licorice gouramis. These tanks are filled with leaf litter, sticks, twigs, and similar debris, and only have a few scattered floating plants on the surface. 
All of the fish covered here come from Southeast Asia and the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they need really warm water. Shaded forest streams and roadside ditches are surprisingly cool. Many of these fish can be kept without a heater at room temperature, or with just a small one set to 72°F (22°C) as a backup in case of a chill. 
The only time they need slightly warmer water is when they are thinking about breeding, and even then, decades of breeders and laboratory researchers have found that the optimal water temperature is just 80°F (27°C). The idea that they can’t have cool air above the water or they will get pneumonia and die is a myth. Some labyrinth fish are found as far north as the Korean peninsula, where winters can be anything but tropical. 

Feeding Gouramis

All of the gourami species are predators, seeking out small crustaceans, insects, insect larvae, worms, and other invertebrates. Interestingly, small, terrestrial insects like ants are among their favorite foods. This proclivity toward insects makes most species easy to feed in captivity. They are hardwired to see anything that hits the surface as food, and even wild-caught fish of most species will go for small flakes and tiny pellets right away. 
It is a good idea to supplement their diets with the occasional small live food treat, such as newly hatched brine shrimp, daphnia, or Grindal worms. One food that seems to be very good for them and that they like a lot is freeze-dried Cyclops, a type of small crustacean. Even young fish can eat this right out of the can. 
I feed newly free-swimming fry with what I call “fry soup,” a mixture of infusoria, vinegar eels, green water, and commercial powdered fry food. The fry grow at different speeds, and this mixture provides all of the fry with plenty of food in the size that they need as they grow. By the second week they are able to take newly hatched brine shrimp, and at the same time I start feeding freeze-dried cyclops, which gets them used to taking commercial foods. 
By the end of the first month, most are taking finely ground flakes. Unfortunately, most members of the group known as licorice gouramis never make the switch and will require small live foods like newly hatched brine shrimp, Grindal worms, and microworms for their entire lives. 

Dwarf Gouramis

Let’s first look at arguably the most widely available of the small gouramis, the dwarf gourami (Trichogaster lalius). They grow to about 2 inches (5 cm), with males a bit larger and females a bit smaller. You can keep them in groups of two or three pairs in well-planted tanks. 
Males will build a huge bubblenest, weaving in plant leaves to make it even stronger. I had one male that built a massive foam nest nearly half the size of the surface of the tank. It remained long after the fry were free-swimming. 
It is a good idea to include floating plants in their tank, and plenty of structure that divides the line of sight in case any particular fish gets a bit testy and starts bullying tankmates. They do well in community tanks with similarly sized, peaceful fish. 
Their wild coloration is metallic blue and rusty red stripes (males) and silver with darker gray stripes (females). Unfortunately, due to a virus, wild-caught fish are very rare in the hobby today. Most are farm-raised color variants that are found in a variety of hues and combinations of blue, red, orange, and yellow.

Honey Dwarf Gouramis


The fish called honey dwarf gouramis are actually a separate species, T. chuna, which is smaller than the dwarf at about 1½ inches (3 cm) fully grown. Care is very similar to the dwarf, and the honey dwarf is also available in several color variants, though I think the wild black-and-orange fish with a bright-yellow edge to the dorsal fin is the most striking. 

Croaking Gouramis


There are currently three species in the genus Trichopsis: the croaking gourami (Trichopsis vittata), Schaller’s croaking gourami (T. schalleri), and the sparkling gourami (T. pumila). Several more species are likely yet to be described, as the so-called croaking gourami is found all over Southeast Asia and is very distinct in different populations, ranging from 2 inches to over 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) in size. Schaller’s croaking gourami grows to about 2 inches (5 cm), and the diminutive sparkling gourami grows to just over an inch (2.5 cm). 
All of these amazing fish are best kept in mixed sex groups of a half-dozen or so, wherein males will often display for and harmlessly spar with one another, as well as exhibit their most striking behavior that gives them their name—they croak, chirp, squeak, and make other sounds that can be heard outside their tank, often across the room. The larger the fish, the louder the sound. Sparkling gouramis have a diminutive chirp that can only be heard occasionally in a very quiet room. 
They are often seen in shops hiding in the back corner of the tank, looking all gray and washed out. But bring a group of them home and keep them in a planted tank with plenty of caves and other cover and they will literally glow. I prefer to keep them in single-species tanks, but they can be kept with small, gentle fish like the smaller rasboras and tetras.
Male croakers build nests about the size of a quarter among floating plants, and male sparkling gouramis seem to prefer to build their dime-sized nests in tangles of plants or even in caves deeper down in the water column. 

Licorice Gouramis


The licorice gouramis are a group of diminutive fishes in the genus Parosphromenus. The males are a bit larger than the females and top out at about 1½ inches (3 cm) or smaller, depending on the species. A few species have been available in the hobby for decades but have not been too popular, since, in dealers’ tanks, they look like little gray- or brown-striped fish that hide in the corner. 
Most species are not used to competition in the wild. They have mostly moved into blackwater habitats that other fish cannot tolerate. This means they don’t have the mechanisms for competing with more active fish and do not do well in community tanks, rather being best suited to single-species tanks. 
Fortunately, this is where they shine. A blackwater nano tank setup with several caves is a perfect place for a group of six to eight licorice gouramis. Simply set up a small tank with a layer of oak or Indian almond leaves on the bottom, some driftwood, and either small flowerpots or coconut husks for caves. 
Don’t mix species. Buy them all at once to be sure you get the same kind. They are hard to differentiate when they are stressed out in a dealer’s tanks, and it is difficult to find more of the same species later on. Even if they’re advertised as the same species, they may not be. 
They prefer still, cooler water, at about 70°F (21°C), and many breeders don’t even use a filter or a heater in their tanks. If you choose this method of keeping them, be sure to do regular large water changes. While they don’t have to be maintained in blackwater, they do best in soft, acidic water. They build small, hidden nests in caves. Some males don’t even construct a nest at all and rely on the ceiling of the cave to keep the eggs together. 
The fry are tiny and seek out microfoods among the leaf litter for the first week, after which they will start eating the same small live foods as do their parents. The adults pretty much ignore the fry, so you can grow them out in the same tank with their parents. 
Be warned: Licorice gouramis can be addicting! You might just wind up with several small tanks filled with different species. 

Hidden Fishkeeping Gems

While the small gouramis might not draw your attention in an aquarium shop, if you bring a group of them home and set them up in their own tank, they will bring you many years of natural beauty and fishkeeping fun. And they may even reward your efforts with fry. 
As a final note, for keeping gouramis or any other types of finned friends: Always remember to take the time to sit back and really watch your fish, take the time to appreciate their colors, shapes, movement, and behaviors. After all, isn’t that why we all got into this wonderful hobby in the first place?