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  • Species: Acanthurus sohal

  • Species: Brain Corals

  • Species: Clean-up-crew tank

  • Species: Euxiphipops xanthometopon

  • Species: Melanotaenia parkinsoni

  • Species: Neolamprologus leleupi

  • Species: Physignathus

  • Species: Pogona

  • Species: Puntius stoliczkanus

  • Species: Shop floor

  • Species: SPS corals

  • Species: Sturisoma aureum

  • Species: Tateurndina ocellicauda

Store visit: Living Reef Aquatics near Dartford

Living Reef Aquatics specialises in tropical fish, marines, reptiles and amphibians. It’s a big store well worth making an expedition out to. Although the name might suggest a store dedicated to the marine side of the hobby, the freshwater side was pretty well represented as well, with a mix of community fish alongside more demanding or unusual things like discus, shrimps and catfish. We were impressed by the clean tanks and the way livestock was carefully arranged into different areas that made browsing that bit easier. Dennerle aquatic plant kit was strongly featured, which should appeal to those into Amano and Dutch style planted tanks, and there were some nice aquatic plants on sale (though sadly there were also a few non-aquatic species in with them, like Chamaedorea and Fittonia spp., something we wish good aquarium shops would an effort to avoid).

Living Reef Aquatics is at 125 Dartford Road not far from the A2 and M25. There’s some parking in front of the shop as well as off-street parking in the surrounding area. Shoppers coming by public transport will find the store equidistant between Crayford and Dartford railway stations, the first of which is in Travelcard Zone 6. Bus routes 96 and 428 stop on Dartford Road close to the store.

Tropical fish

The selection of tropical fish on sale at Living Reef Aquatics was very broad, though focused towards the popular bread-and-butter species rather than oddballs or specialist fish. We saw, for example, the lovely small barb Puntius stoliczkanus, a species that only gets to about 5 cm in length, doesn’t normally bother its tankmates, and looks lovely in a group of six or more specimens darting about a shady, well-planted aquarium. But there were some interesting fish well worth mentioning. Among the most eye-catching fish was the Parkinson Rainbowfish (Melanotaenia parkinsoni), a schooling species from New Guinea that does well in moderately hard, around neutral to slightly basic water conditions. Like most rainbowfish this species doesn’t acquire its full colouration until fully mature, at which point that males have broad patches of orange across their flanks and fins. Females are essentially silvery. For best results keep in groups with at least as many females as males, and as with any schooling fish don’t keep fewer than six. Given good conditions this is a hardy, long-lived species. Maximum length is around 15 cm, and a long tank with plenty of space for swimming is essential.

Though Neon Tetras (Paracheirodon innesi) are hardly rare, albino Neon Tetras are something a bit different. These were on sale at Living Reef Aquatics as ‘Diamond’ Neon Tetras, a name normally applied to another artificial form. In any case, the albino Neons here have pinkish-white rather than silvery bodies, and pink rather than blue-black eyes. Maintenance is identical to that of common Neons, though as with albino varieties of other fish, these are a little more delicate. As with common Neons, the keys to success are soft water, slightly acidic pH, and low to middling water temperature; aim for 2-10 degrees dH, pH 6-7, and a temperature of 22-25 degrees C. These are social fish that must be kept in a group of at least six specimens, and ideally twice that number or more. They mix with common Neons just fine, so there’s nothing to stop you keeping a mixed school that contains some of both kind.

Among the cichlids we saw at Living Reef Aquatics was the Lemon Cichlid (Neolamprologus leleupi), a near-dwarf cichlid that works well in Lake Tanganyika communities. Males get to about 10 cm long, females a little less. Both sexes are yellow in colour, but the precise shade varies widely, some fish being lemon yellow, others more orangey, and there are also variations in the black and/or blue markings to be seen on the face and fins. Their bright colours and fairly mild personalities have ensured the success of this species over the years. Like other species of Neolamprologus they are territorial and carnivorous, so that needs to be considered when choosing tankmates. Most aquarists choose to buy a small group of them and then allow them to pair off. Unless the tank is very large, it’s usually easiest to remove surplus specimens. Mated pairs are usually easy to spot and given good conditions these fish breed readily, both parents helping to defend the cave they will use for spawning.

Catfish connoisseurs visiting Living Reef Aquatics will want to look over the Corydoras, loricariids and Synodontis species on sale. Among the species we were pleased to see were Corydoras pygmaeus, Synodontis ocellifer, Rineloricaria fallax, and Sturisoma aureum. This latter species is known as the Giant Whiptail though it is in fact more closely related to the Twig Catfishes (Farlowella spp.). It does best kept a little on the cool side, 25 degrees C being towards the top-end of its temperature range. It’s a beautiful fish with lovely mottled-brown colouration and a twig-like shape and a very long tail. While not as hard to keep alive as Farlowella, the Giant Whiptail does need good care, and that means good water quality, water chemistry that is not too hard, and a mixed diet including both meaty foods and suitable green foods such as algae wafers, spinach and cucumber.

Livestock suitable for small tanks was well represented, including a variety of shrimps, snails and tiny fish. Among our favourite fish for small aquaria is the Peacock Goby (Tateurndina ocellicauda). This New Guinean species thrives in soft to moderately hard water with an around-neutral pH. Like many gobies it is a fussy feeder, so forget about keeping this fish on flake foods! But given suitable live or wet-frozen foods this goby is quite easy to keep, and its colouration is exceptional. Males and females are both very pretty, and can be difficult to tell apart because of this, but males tend to have a clearly more hump-shaped head than the females. Pairs will do well in tanks as small as 35 litres, and get along fine with cherry shrimps, ember tetras, and other small animals.

Marine fish

We saw a good range of marine fish species on our visit to Living Reef Aquatics, mostly species that would work well in either reef or community tanks, and few species that be classed as difficult to keep. In fact most of the fish on sale were small species popular with aquarists keeping reef tanks: yellow tangs, clownfish, dottybacks, gobies, hawkfish, non-aggressive damselfish and so on.

One of the most striking of the larger community fish on sale was a good-sized Sohal Tang (Acanthurus sohal). This species comes from the Red Sea rather than Southeast Asia, and like other Red Sea fish it does prefer water temperatures towards the high end of the range, not less than 25 C and ideally a degree or two above that. The warmer water is, the less oxygen it contains, so vigorous circulation and top-notch filtration are important. But apart from these minor issues, this is a remarkably hardy surgeonfish. Maximum length in aquaria is between 30 to 40 cm, which limits their usage to large tanks with capacities in the thousands rather than hundreds of litres. But these are stunning, outgoing fish that settle down well, and this has ensured their popularity over the years. They’re best kept as ‘top dogs’ in large community systems or FOWLR aquaria, where they will mix fine with clownfish, chromis, wrasse, sleeper gobies, snowflake morays and so on. Other surgeonfish are likely to be bullied, so it’s best not to add them to a system containing a Sohal Tang. Angelfish are a mixed bag, and will be compatible only if their territorial ambitions don’t bump into those of the Sohal Tang; so while dwarf angels might be okay, those larger angelfish that also expect to be top dog are going to have problems getting along with the Sohal Tang. For the same reason it’s best not to mix them with pufferfish and triggerfish, though as with angelfish, this will depend on the species being kept, their age and temperament, and the size of the aquarium.

While the Sohal Tang is a good, if demanding, aquarium species, the angelfish of the genus Euxiphipops are much more difficult to keep. On our visit to Living Reef Aquatics we spotted a lovely Blue Face Angelfish (Euxiphipops xanthometopon). This species is notoriously ‘touchy’ so care needs to be taken when settling it into its home. It goes without saying that quarantining the fish before adding it to your display tank is highly recommended. As a group Euxiphipops respond poorly to medications, so external parasites should be treated using hyposalinity rather than formalin and/or copper, and that means it’s best to treat them in a quarantine tank than in a display aquarium. Also watch that the fish is eating before forcing it to compete with tankmates. Euxiphipops are omnivorous and will benefit from being offered vitamin-enhanced foods and greens such as sushi nori and spinach.

Corals and invertebrates

One of the unique things we liked about Living Reef Aquatics was the huge but nicely organised selection of corals and polyps. There were literally hundreds of them from small frags to mature colonies, most of them placed in themed tanks with their names and prices clearly visible. There was one tank for open brain corals, one for SPS corals, one for mushroom polyps, and so on. Arranged this way browsing is a pleasure, making it easy to compare the shape and colours of one particular coral against another of the same basic type. Of course it should be borne in mind that at least some corals and polyps adjust their colours depending on their environment, so the fact an open brain coral has a certain colour in the shop doesn’t mean it’ll keep that colour once moved to your aquarium.

Any particular favourites? Among the hard corals, we do rate Trachyphyllia spp. open brain corals as probably the best hard corals for the home aquarium. Compared to other hard coral types they are hardy and adaptable. They are free-living corals that should be placed on open sandy areas some distance away from aggressive and/or fast-growing corals and polyps. They dislike very strong water currents so shouldn’t be put too close the filter outlets. Lighting should be fairly bright rather than very bright, and care should be taken when exposing these corals to changes in light intensity. But in other regards these are quite easy to keep, and the range of colours available makes them very versatile corals as well.

Another nice thing about Living Reef Aquatics is the good selection of what are often called ‘clean-up crew’, the small crustaceans, snails and echinoderms that move around the aquarium eating up leftover fish food. Among the critters we spotted in the clean-up crew tanks were mithrax crabs, sally-lightfoot crabs, blue-legged hermit crabs, peppermint shrimps, cerith snails, nassarius snails, sand-sifting starfish and sea hares. Most of these animals are low-maintenance aquarium residents, but it’s worth adding a couple of comments about the sand-sifting starfish and the sea hares. Both of these need a suitable source of food to do well. Sand-sifting starfish naturally feed on animals living in the sand, and in doing so they cause major problems where a deep sand bed is being used as part of an aquarium’s water quality management. Sand-sifting starfish can easily starve to death if ignored, so some supplemental feeding will be necessary, without which the mortality rate of these starfish is extremely high. Sea hares are first-rate algae eaters, but even in big aquaria they quickly eat all the green algae available. Again, some supplemental source of food will be necessary for long-term success.

Reptiles

Alongside its aquarium hobby business, Living Reef Aquatics also specialises in reptiles and amphibians. Medium-sized lizards are particularly popular at the moment, and we were pleased to see not just the animals on sale but also the necessary hardware: UV lamps, basking lamps, vivaria, dietary supplements, and so on. As attractive as reptiles can be, it should always be borne in mind that they’re quite expensive animals to maintain, particularly in the UK where heating and provision of UV-B light is essential.

Among our favourite reptiles are the Bearded Dragons (Pogona spp.). Of all the lizards traded, these are the ones that do best as pets, and if handled gentle from a young age they become very tame, to the degree many specimens seem to quite enjoy being handled. They are sociable lizards that should be kept in groups rather than singly, though males can be snappy towards each other. We were pleased to see Living Reef Aquatics had good-sized specimens on sale because very young ‘beardies’ can be a bit delicate. Basic care is straightforward, these lizards needing a fairly large vivarium with a hot basking spot (35 degrees C), UV-B lighting, and a diet that contains both meaty and green foods.

Another lizard that adapts well to captivity is the Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus). As you’d expect from its name this is a semi-aquatic species that requires a bathing pool inside its enclosure. Fairly high humidity is also important, but the bathing pool and daily spraying should take care of this. Do make sure that the tank is ventilated though, because still, damp air can allow mould to develop inside the tank, and that in turn will make the lizard prone to disease. Water Dragons are omnivores, so a mixed diet of meaty foods and greens will be necessary.


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