The South American Silver Arowana
Author: Tobias Lim Koon Li
Although not as striking as its Asian cousins, the South American silver arowana is full of personality and looks stunning when allowed to develop to its full potential.
Curious Silver Arowanas
One of the most sought-after fish in the world is the Asian arowana (although it is illegal in many parts of the United States). It comes in a spectrum of colors: blue, red, violet, green, gold, and even a fusion of these colors. It is easy to see the appeal. In the Asian market, the red, gold, and, more recently, blue varieties are highly desired. This is largely due to the socio-cultural attachments to these colors, which are often associated with notions of prosperity, health, and luck.
Furthermore, arowanas share similarities in physical appearance to ancient dragons of mythology and legend. In Chinese folklore, dragons are known to be majestic, wise, and protective beings. In a similar context, an Asian arowana (particularly of the gold or red variety) is said to bring immense luck and prosperity to the entire family, particularly to the business aspect.
In addition, when an arowana dies in a household for any reason, it is often seen as a noble sacrifice that takes away any bad luck or misfortune that would otherwise have befallen that family. Whether you believe it or not, it is a soothing idea that extinguishes the negative stigma associated with death. It allows owners to focus on the positive of their faithful pet's noble sacrifice. In a world defined by negativity, I choose to embrace any positivity I can muster, no matter how far-fetched or fanciful that belief may be.
A Popular Misconception
There are other types of arowanas out there, but they are not as popular as the Asian arowana. With an elongated body, lack of coloration, and lower price tag, many enthusiasts view the South American silver arowana as the common “ugly duckling” of the arowanas.
I am ashamed to admit that I used to be one of the many who did not see the appeal in keeping South American silver arowanas. I was engulfed in the hype and craze that surrounds red or golden Asian arowanas. These costly fish are beautiful to look at, and everybody wants them. What's not to love? I wanted nothing to do with silver arowanas as long as I had my Asian arowanas. In a childish and naÏve manner, I led myself to believe that a silver arowana would somewhat tarnish my abundant collection of fish, as it can be seen as a mongrel—a pariah, even. But in just a few months, my whole outlook on arowanas and fishkeeping would be altered forever.
In the midst of surfing YouTube for fish videos, I came across a video of a public aquarium in Beijing, China. I was blown away by the sheer magnificence and impact of the setup. In this giant glass tank were hundreds of fully grown silver arowanas patrolling the top of the aquarium. Never before in my fishkeeping experience have I witnessed such a majestic sight. The silver beasts extended their wings in unison and glided effortlessly through the exhibit. The video turned out to be even more amazing when the handlers threw food into the exhibit. In the blink of an eye, all the grace in the tank was replaced with feral hunger and panic as fish jumped over fish fighting for every scrap of food. It was an unbelievable experience watching such graceful animals attack their food so aggressively. At that moment I was hooked.
I knew it would be an honor to keep such amazing animals, especially if I were given the opportunity to rescue some that had outgrown their tanks (a common occurrence for these fish). Just like that, all my prejudice disappeared. This marked the start of my wonderful journey into the world of the South American silver arowana.
Rescuing Big Momma
I will never forget my first silver arowana experience. It was late 2005 when my uncle came to me for fish advice. He was having trouble with his baby silver arowana because she would continuously jump in her 4-foot tank. Unfortunately, this resulted in torn fins and broken scales. Furthermore, she lost her appetite and refused to swim, settling instead for sleeping at the bottom of the tank.
Although still a relatively inexperienced fishkeeper, I knew that these were all serious problems. All arowanas are famous for continuously swimming in any decently sized enclosure. Furthermore, they have voracious appetites that must be controlled by limiting their food intake. But it was the continuous jumping that immediately told me the tank was simply too small for this majestic beast.
Inadequate enclosures cause constant stress and fear on the fish, and this was probably the very reason she refused to eat. Silver arowanas are the largest of all arowanas, growing over 4 feet in length, so they require the largest enclosures compared to the other types of Asian and African arowanas. My uncle simply did not have the space or facilities to house his 2-foot arowana any longer. Immediately, I pounced on the opportunity to adopt his beautiful fish, which I named Big Momma.
Big Momma in the Pond
Big Momma did not always live up to her name. When I first rescued her seven years ago, she resembled a skinny eel. She had barely eaten for months and was in bad shape. I immediately released her into my 4,000-gallon pond. She was so skinny that I had genuine fear my catfish would try to eat her. Luckily, this fear never came to fruition.
With a new lease on life, Big Momma soared into her new home and never looked back. She was constantly on the move and was actively hunting after only 10 minutes of being released. I decided to throw in a few pellets, curious as to how she would react. In a ravenous rage, she pounced on the inanimate pellets like they had a life of their own. I was in shock and awe, as new fish in new surroundings usually do not eat for days until they acclimate. I was convinced that Big Momma was thrilled to be in her new home and had readily accepted her new life. With a balanced diet of fish, shrimp, and pellets, Big Momma quickly put on a lot of size, transforming into one of the largest fish in my pond. Following Big Momma’s successful rehabilitation, I continued to rescue more silver arowanas for my pond.
Graceful and Aggressive
In Malaysia, I am currently housing four silver arowanas, one green arowana, and one Australian jardini. While all my fish hold a special place in my heart, my silver arowanas definitely steal the show. They are the most graceful, the most aggressive feeders, and the most human friendly. They regularly stalk me in the hopes of a meaty snack while allowing me to pet them. They are also the largest and most physically imposing type of arowana, making them stand head and shoulders above the rest.
This contributes to the fact that Big Momma is one of my most famous fish, garnering thousands of views on my Youtube channel,“MyAquaticDiary.” She is famous for being one of the largest silver arowanas in private captivity, measuring over 120 cm (50 inches) long with a girth to match. She is the tamest fish in the pond, allowing me to pet and hand feed her with ease. Considering my former reluctance to keep silver arowanas, it is poetic justice that one would win her way into the center of my heart.
Keeping Silver Arowanas
Big Momma’s success story educated me vastly about how to grow a healthy and happy silver arowana. The most important factor is the size of the enclosure. Due to their immense size, large ponds are the best alternatives (other than the wild) to house one of these majestic animals. This theory developed when I first chose to grow out green, jardini, and other silver arowanas in a fish tank. Even in my 9-foot tank, the arowanas were marginally active and picky eaters. They were easily spooked and had the tendency to hurt themselves against the tank cover.
Eventually, I transferred all of my arowanas into my 13,000-gallon pond. Immediate differences were clear: The fish were a lot more active, ate voraciously, and were less skittish. In fact, I am proud to note that all my arowanas are human tame, able to be petted and hand fed. There is no doubt in my mind that these immediate results would have been impossible if not for the move to the fish pond.
Against the Current
Another crucial observation was the fact that my silver asrowanas loved to swim against the current produced by the filtration pumps, much like a water treadmill. After researching this phenomenon, I discovered that the water flow created by the current pushes oxygenated water into their gills, allowing for more aerobic respiration. Furthermore, perpetual motion against the current allows the arowana to constantly exercise. This increases metabolism, improves digestion, and therefore encourages healthy muscle growth.
An important factor to note when keeping silver arowanas is their jumping tendencies. Like any arowana, silvers are notorious for jumping out of their tanks. In the Amazonian river basins, silver arowanas leap 4 feet out of the water’s surface to catch their prey on overhanging leaves and branches. It is natural to assume that arowanas are born to jump.
Unfortunately, this amazing characteristic does not bode well for the average aquarist. At the slightest hint of food or fear, arowanas are known to leap out of aquariums, resulting in serious internal injuries or even death. It is of utmost importance to cover your arowana enclosures with weighted objects to prevent such accidents from occurring.
Based on my years of experience keeping these fish, the two main reasons arowanas jump are stress and food. A common cause of stress is when a fish outgrows its tank. In confined spaces, arowanas feel trapped. Their first instinct is to jump for freedom. In order to reduce the probability of this occurring, it is vital to provide ample space and surroundings for your pet silver arowana.
Silver arowanas are the largest of all the arowana species. Therefore, they tend to require much larger enclosures than their Asian counterparts. In my experience, ponds make the best enclosures for silver arowanas to thrive because they replicate their natural surroundings. Another technique I have successfully employed is conditioning arowanas to eat food that will not attract a leap to the surface. In the wild, arowanas are known to leap mostly for insects and small lizards. By conditioning my arowanas to eat mostly pellets, fish meat, and prawns, they are not tempted by their usual prey.
Drop Eye and Silver Arowanas
A significant concern when keeping silver arowanas is a common condition called drop-eye. This condition occurs mostly in farm-bred silver arowanas found in fish shops and involves a layer of fat developing at the top of the eye, giving the eyes a drooping appearance.
There are three main theories on the cause of this common condition. The first blames rampant inbreeding of the species to meet the demands of the aquarium trade. Inbreeding often results in genetic deformities, one of which is allegedly the drop-eye condition. The second train of thought concerns the artificial diet we feed our arowanas, which has a high fat content. This is mostly the case with live goldfish and frogs . Due to an increase in fat, arowanas then develop an extra pocket of fat around their eyes, resulting in the drop-eye condition. The third explanation is that arowanas in artificial glass tanks are unnaturally (since they are surface feeders) forced to look down constantly for food and at their reflection. This atypical mode of living has resulted in the deformity known as drop-eye.
While all three theories seem plausible, there is no concrete scientific evidence to suggest that any one is more correct than the other. Contrary to popular belief, an arowana can live a full and complete life even after it has contracted this condition. While there are surgical and therapeutic methods to fix this condition, the risks may far outweigh the potential solutions.
An Unsung Beauty
Overall, I feel blessed and lucky to have had the pleasure of keeping such an amazing species of fish. There is no substitute for the feeling I get after a successful hand feeding or brushing their armor-like scales against my palms. The level of human interaction these fish exhibit is equaled by no other fish (or species of arowana) that I have experienced. While proud parents aren’t supposed to show preference toward their children, it is hard to hide my preference for these underrated beasts.
As noted above, silver arowanas are definitely not for every aquarist. They require a substantial enclosure for life coupled with many years of commitment (often over 50 years given the right conditions). But if you happen to be one of the few with the means of keeping this species of fish, an experience you will cherish for a lifetime awaits discovery. More often than not, you may also be able to rescue a fish that has outgrown its current home, adding to the richness of your potential silver arowana experience.
While it may be easy to recognize the beauty that everyone sees, we struggle to see the beauty that others don't. These fish singlehandedly taught me this important life lesson. It is my only hope that many of you will experience some of the amazing silver arowana memories forever etched in my thoughts. Much like the tale of the ugly duckling, my South American silver arowana truly grew up to be a magnificent swan.
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