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Start Right With Fish

The following article has been kindly provided by the Calypso Ichthyological Archive.


Some helpful tips when starting with tropical freshwater fishes


Freshwater tropical fish, as their name suggests, originate in freshwater rivers and lakes in the warmer parts of the world, particularly in South America and Central Africa.

There are literally tens of thousands of species of freshwater tropical fish, with new ones being discovered almost every day. With such a vast variety of fish, each living in its own particular environment, it's easy to see why fish keepers are never lost for new areas to study and new challenges to enjoy.

Fish Names

All fishes are classified by the 'binomial system' (two names). First there is the family or generic name -which should always be written with an initial capital letter. This is followed by the species name - which should always all be written in lower case letters, (both names ideally all in italics.)

Thus Barbus tetrazona and Barbus oligolepis are two different species within the genus, Barbus. Most fish do, however, also have an easier common name. Barbus tetrazona, for example, is commonly known as the Tiger Barb or Sumatra Barb

There are over twenty families of commonly kept freshwater tropical fish and within each family there can be thousands of species - often living in widely differing environments. The family Cichlidae (Cichlids), for example, are thought to have over 1,000 different species existing in the great African lakes alone.

The main families

Whilst there are over 20 families of freshwater tropicaIs, most fish of interest to the aquarist are members of one of the following eight families;

Family Anabantidae

Anabantoids are generally distinguished by the fact that they have a ‘labyrinth chamber', a special organ, which enables them to breath atmospheric air which they must have in order to survive. Native to the waters of South East Asia and Africa, most of the family have 'feelers' - modified ventral fins - which they use to detect food in murky waters. Most also create a 'bubble nest' for spawning. Examples of the family include Gouramis, Siamese Fighting Fish and The Paradise Fish.

Family Callichthyidae

Better known as catfish - probably the most popular tropical fish amongst hobbyists. Whilst most are hardy, adaptable bottom feeders they require occasional gulps of air to help supplement their gills. Catfish are also nocturnal and do best in a subdued light. Corydoras, one of the most popular aquarium species, have a bony plate along the side of their body. Other catfish have suckered mouths which enable them to fix onto rocks in the wild, which they use to graze algae from the side of the aquarium glass.

Family Characidae

Characins are one of the largest families of freshwater fish, originating from Africa, and North and South America. All Characins have teeth but are without barbels or whiskers. Many also have a small extra adipose fin on the top rear of their body. Because of their schooling habit Characins, such as Tetras, are often kept in numbers in single species tanks.

Family Cichlidae

Most Cichlids are carnivorous and territorial and have a reputation for being aggressive. Many species are, however, very popular and ideal for the aquarium. The family occurs naturally throughout North and South America and throughout most of Africa especially in the great lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika.

Family Cobitidae

Known commonly as loaches, this is a family of bottom dwelling fish. Their mouths have feelers to help locate food and their bodies often have defensive erectile spines. They are widely found in Asia, Europe and in parts of Africa.

Family Cyprinidae

Although a large family of fishes,Cyprinids, which include Barbs, Rasboras, Danios and Minnows, generally have barbs which allow them to sort food from the bottom. The family also includes cold water species such as Goldfish as well as those who need the warm tropical waters.

Family Cyprinodontidae

Found in Africa, North and South America and Asia this is the family of Killifishes or Egg Laying Toothcarps. As they are sometimes predatorial on smaller fishes, care must be taken when introducing them into a community tank. They prefer slightly acidic water.

Family Poeciliidae

This is the family of the Live Bearing Tooth Carps - small fishes such as Guppies, Platies, Mollies and Swordtails. As the name implies this family produce live young which are capable of swimming and feeding just after birth.

Choosing your Fish

There are two main areas which you need to consider. First there is a limit to the number of fish your aquarium can sustain without putting pressure on the oxygen levels in the water and the level of pollution which fish create. You must also remember that fish grow and, as they do, will put even more pressure on their environment. The best advice is always to start off with just a few fish and add more over a period of several months. As a rough guide allow about 20 inches of fish combined body length for each square foot of surface water. For a tank 3ft long x 1 ft (3sq.ft.) wide you should not exceed 60 inches of fish.

The second consideration is the habitat of fish. In their natural habitat fish lead very different lives and these natural habits will show themselves in your aquarium. In a community tank you might, therefore, wish to have fish which live and feed at all levels - top feeders such as Mollies, mid water feeders such as Barbs and fish which live and feed on the bottom of the tank, such as Catfish.

Buying Your Fish

Buy locally if possible. Long journeys and a fall in water temperature on the way home can easily stress your fish. Should you later have problems it is also much easier to resolve them if your fish supplier is near by.

Choose an aquatic retailer with good stocks and a wide variety of fish - they are more likely to have specialist knowledge. Check that the fish have been properly quarantined before sale. Disease often takes a few weeks to show and a fish not quarantined can easily introduce diseases which infect all your fish.

Look at the fish carefully. Check if they are swimming peacefully and not rubbing themselves against the tank glass - often a sign of infestation.

Introducing fish, to your tank

You should, of course, only introduce fish into water which is mature and free of chlorine. Also check on water temperature.

Before you let the fish free, float the opened plastic bags on the surface of the tank for about 20 minutes to equalise the water temperature and reduce the stress on the fish. Fish which are just introduced into a new tank may be nervous and hide away. Leave them for a few hours to get used to their new surroundings. After that time give them a few Tropical Fish Flakes. Apart from being highly nutritious, foods are also made to be highly palatable to all tropical fish and this will encourage them to feed and settle down. Ask the retailer as many questions as you can muster. Do the fish like alkaline or acid water? Are they compatible with the other fish you are thinking of buying? Do they have any special habitat needs such as caves? How large do theygrow? Most specialist aquatic retailers are very knowledgeable and are always happy to give advice.

Feeding the Fish

To stay healthy, fish need a range of nutrients. The best and easiest way of providing these is in a complete balanced diet such as flaked Fish Foods.


Tropical Fish Flakes-A special blend of flakes to satisfy the nutritional requirements of all freshwater tropical community fish.

Specialist foods for freshwater tropical fish:
Carnivore Flakes - Contains higher levels of the necessary proteins required by carnivorous fish, such as some Cichlids.

Herbivore Flakes - Ideal for fish that can utilise a higher proportion of algae or vegetable matter in their diet, especially Guppies, Mollies and Platies.

Fry Food-A high protein food finely ground and balanced for rapid growth of new-born fish or 'fry'.

Growth Food- Small nutritious flakes containing extra protein, suitable for growing fish that have progressed from the fry stage.

Tablet Food - Made from Tropical Flakes compressed into tablet form. Can be fed to larger fish, or to bottom feeders such as Catfish. The tablet can be pressed onto the inside of the aquarium, which brings the fish into view when they feed.

The Calypso Group

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