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Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost
With all our modern technology, we can now control nearly every aspect of the environment in our tanks with comparative ease. We can purify our water, harden it, soften it, add trace elements… we can control filtration to a degree that produces tanks cleaner than most rivers, we can adjust the temperature, change the lights – there’s a piece of equipment to do anything and everything. If you’ve got enough money, these days you can even buy a reef tank that more or less runs itself – you plumb it in and then sit back and watch the fish. This must be a good thing for all those fishkeepers with busy lives, and certainly for the large numbers of little fish who would otherwise have been casualties, but it does mean that many fishkeepers don’t actually know that much about what is going on in their tanks and why, which is a shame.

China and Japan have been keeping fish in bowls and ponds for centuries (which is why goldfish look nicest from the top – they were never meant to be looked at through the sides of a glass tank) but the practice of keeping fish in see-through ‘aquaria’ is much more recent. To become feasible it needed a hardy fish who would survive against all the odds – who didn’t mind the occasional chill, would brush off oxygen-depleted water, and not make too much of a fuss about filthy water (just cos you can’t see the dirt doesn’t mean it’s not almost neat poison – ammonia is invisible). In 1665 such a fish arrived in London, where the famous diarist Samuel Pepys recorded seeing "a fine rarity, of fishes kept in a glass of water, that will live so forever, and finely marked they are, being foreign". This was the paradise fish, Macropodus opercularis.

Firstly it must be emphasised that in this day and age, when we know much more about the needs of fishes and have the means to easily provide them, there is no reason the paradise fish should not get as much care and consideration as any other animal you choose to take into your home. However, if you are looking for a beginner’s fish that will be tolerant of mistakes, the paradise fish is still without equal.

They are extremely attractive. The males are dark red, with slate blue metallic vertical stripes and bright red fins, with a variable degree of black markings. Their fins are longer than those of the slightly duller, but still attractive, females. They grow to between three and four inches, and prefer water between 16C and 26C, making them suitable for both temperate and tropical tanks. A pH anywhere between six and eight is acceptable. In the wild they are from Asian waters, where they colonise backwaters of rivers, ditches, irrigation channels and paddy fields. They are able to thrive in almost stagnant bodies of water by their ability to breathe atmospheric air. As members of the group of anabantids (along with the popular Siamese fighting fish) they have a labyrinth organ, a folded mass of tissue which serves as a ‘lung’. Indeed, newly hatched paradise fish must be able to reach the surface and take in atmospheric air, or they will drown.

In the aquarium they are both easy and interesting to spawn. Provided he can find a reasonably calm area of water out of the way of the filter currents, the male will start to build a bubble nest. Taking in air at the surface he blows out mucous coated bubbles through his gills, until a mound of bubbles forms which can be a couple of inches high and several inches across. Bits of floating plant may be used, or just bubbles. Bubbles are not a very durable medium, and the male performs constant maintenance, adding new bubbles, chasing off unwelcome visitors, and showing off as much as possible in the hope that a potential bride will come to inspect his construction. Assuming that a suitable female is in the vicinity, eventually the pair couple, curling around one another and sinking slowly through the water as the eggs are produced. This will be repeated for hours, until the nest is full of hundreds of eggs. After a couple of days, the tails of the (miniscule) fry will be seen hanging down. If this is in a spawning tank, now is the time to remove the male before he realises that the new fry might be good to eat. If in a community tank, the whole nest can be lifted out in a bowl and transferred carefully to a rearing tank. The rearing tank needs shallow water, very little water movement, and the top covered with clingfilm (with some small holes). This latter is to ensure that the air above the water is warm and humid, so that when the little fry rise for their first breath of air they don’t get a cold shock. At this time filtration is unnecessary, but you do need to include an air line with the hose pinched to just allow a tiny trickle of bubbles through. This is to break the surface tension of the water, otherwise the little fish will not be able to break through to breathe. Once hatched they eat tiny foods rapaciously, and grow quickly.
So, given that paradise fish are beautiful, easy to keep and easy to breed, why hasn’t every aquarist got one? Unfortunately, the paradise fish is one of the most unpleasant and aggressive fish around, and in a community tank will rapidly turn it into a zone of hell for all the tankmates. They can be kept with larger, robust fish, particularly those with no trailing fins that can be neatly amputated. Either keep a male alone, or with two or three females, and provide lots of hiding places for them. Male paradise fish are not keen on rejection, and if the female is not ready to mate he may well kill her unless she can get away and hide. If there are two or three, then the odds of one of them being receptive are greater, as well as there being more targets to divert his attention from each other.

The female fish are not all that down-trodden, however, and are quite capable of their own malevolence. I once owned a remarkable rarity – a male paradise fish who was not only beautiful, but gentle and placid as well as being an ardent nest builder. Since these seemed admirable characteristics, I purchased a female for him in the hope of propagating them. At first all was well – he redoubled his nest building activities, and as the mound of bubbles grew the female showed more and more interest, as well as fattening nicely with eggs. One evening she was showing particular interest, and I went to bed feeling confident that the next morning there would be a nest full of eggs. Sadly, the next day it became apparent why gentle paradise fish don’t happen often. For whatever reason, she had killed him by morning.

This article has been kindly provided by Kathy Jinkings and cannot be reproduced without her permission.

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