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    Species: Corydoras - an deal community tank inhabitant

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    Species: Kribensis - a tendency to be aggressive only when breeding.

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    Species: Siamese Fighter - the wrong tank mates will make mince meat of these fins.

  • Species: Tiger Barbs - long finned tank mates won't stand a chance.

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    Species: Cherry Barbs - another ideal fish for the community tank

The Contented Community

By Kathy Jinkings

When browsing through the tanks, plants, décor, and of course the fish on display at the local shop, we tend to choose things that we think will look good - that will create a display that we want to live within our homes. Often we forget that the tank is home to the creatures that we place in it, and may forget to consider what they might consider to be a desirable residence.

There do, of course, have to be compromises. Most fish would prefer a tank in which every surface was thick with algae, where plants run rampant and light is at a minimum, where they can feed without exposing themselves to view, and preferably with as many tasty tank mates as possible. This is not the vision that the fishkeeper usually aspires to when deciding to set up a tank.

The highest priority for the fish is feeling safe; if this cannot be achieved then the fish will be sad and lacklustre specimens who will live short lives, and provide little in the way of an attractive display for their owner. The main barrier to being safe is the possibility of being eaten - the fish don't know that they live in a safe cosy tank, and from their point of view a predator could swim along any minute. Décor and plants give the fish somewhere within easy reach that they could hide if danger threatened. If you watch tiddlers in a river on a sunny day, they will quite happily browse about the bottom in view while they are near the bank and the plants, but rarely venture into the open areas. Giving your fish an adequate number of places to hide won't mean that they do so continually, but will give them the confidence to swim around the tank. It is not necessary to trim the plants every time there is a bit of growth - the fish won't appreciate the topiary look, but will enjoy a good thicket that they can hide in. While it is possible that sometimes you might look at your tank and not actually see any fish, they will be healthier, happier, and therefore prettier. After all, would you like to be watched twenty-four hours a day? Or do you prefer to draw the curtains sometimes?

As for the algae, although it must be kept under control, and cleaning the front glass is a necessity, some patches are not necessarily a bad thing. Personally I find rocks look better for a little algae, and the fuzzy carpets provide a place where micro organisms can flourish, which your fish will enjoy picking over.

Of course, if they can actually see a potential predator, then they will cower in the plants constantly. From the fishy point of view, if its mouth is big enough, then sooner or later it is likely to try to fit you in it. Even if the fishkeeper knows that the fish in question is a gentle giant who wouldn't eat anything more wriggly than a lettuce leaf, the fish don't. Although some discrepancy in fish sizes is unavoidable, you should choose fish that fit at least roughly into the same size bracket.

The temperaments of your chosen fish also need to be considered. There used to be a web site, which will remain nameless this time, which featured an aquarium set-up feature. You could choose fish from the list, which then appeared in your 'electronic tank', until you exceeded the number of 'fish inches' the tank could support, when you couldn't choose any more. At this point the site suggested you print the list of your fish and aquarium requirements, which you could take to the shop as your 'shopping list'. Leaving aside the horrors of buying your new tank and a full stocking of fish on the same day, ignoring the fact that many of the fish had totally different requirements for water chemistry, the final glaring fault was that you could produce a shopping list of fish that could be relied on to bully, batter, and eat each other. My assembled tank included discus, paradise fish, guppies, a Siamese fighter and a gang of tiger barbs. Paradise fish are solitary, tough as old boots, and vicious as a chained rat. Tiger barbs are shoaling fish whose life is a constant battle for supremacy in the pecking order. Both of these two would leave a Siamese fighter a finless wreck within a day, and the beautiful finny guppies wouldn't fair much better. The discus are specialised fish that are best kept in a species tank - the others would reduce them to nervous wrecks, except for the guppies who would be small enough to be eaten. My money would probably be on the paradise fish as the sole occupant in a few months time. This is an extreme example, but fish do have very different characters and behaviour which needs to be considered. For a first tank, it is easiest if you choose small to medium, exclusively gentle and peaceful fish. Guppies, platies, small tetras, cherry barbs, Corydoras - all these fish are very plentiful in the aquarium shop, and they are so popular because they don't dedicate themselves to warfare. Nonetheless, even peaceful species do occasionally produce a rogue, and if you get one take it straight back to the shop. He won't get any better, and your tank will be far better off without him.

If you must choose a slightly more aggressive species, or one that is aggressive sometimes (like Kribs, who are fine except when they are spawning) then you can minimise the effect. If there is one peaceful fish in a tank of thugs, he won't stand a chance, but if there is one thug and ten peaceful ones, the odds are that it won't always be the same individual who gets in the way of trouble. The eruption of arguments can be further reduced by allowing plenty of space for the fish, and providing lots of plants and rocks to break up the line of sight. Fish like Kribs become aggressive because they feel insecure - when you have a family of tiny fry, even a gentle little tetra is a lethal threat to your offspring, and needs to be dealt with accordingly, but if there is enough room for the family to take over half the tank for a while, then all will be well.

Some African Rift Valley cichlid tanks thrive because all the fish are equally aggressive, and are actually overstocked. The idea behind this is that no single individual bears the brunt - aggressors are constantly distracted by other fish. However this sort of tank is not the best type for the beginner.

Activity levels are also a consideration. Both dwarf gouramis (if kept as single fish) and Odessa barbs are peaceful and beautiful, but have very different opinions of what constitutes relaxing activity. When I mistakenly teamed these two early in my fishkeeping career, the poor gourami spent most of his time being bowled over - while swimming along in his peaceful sedate glide, the barbs would jet past leaving him staggering in the slipstream. Some fish appreciate a busy, active life, and lots of current in the aquarium, while others are the pipe-and-slippers brigade who like things quiet and peaceful. The two groups do not make good flatmates!

While most responsible beginners consider the water chemistry of their tank, maturing the filters, and providing suitable food, sometimes tanks are filled with little thought to what it will be like to actually live there. Fish are extremely prone to stress, and unhappy fish will be sick fish. A little thought providing a happy and safe environment for your fishes will be amply rewarded by healthy shining fish that are unafraid to swim around the tank and be seen more often than not!

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