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In The Eye Of The Beholder

If you ask someone to imagine an aquarium, they usually imagine it full of pretty fish - rather like the typical dentist's waiting room tank. Neon tetras feature largely, angel fish, guppies - or sometimes some fat goldfish with pretty tails. Most beginners start out with something of this nature too (although the Angelfish will cause problems with the guppies). All the fish known as 'bread-and-butter fish' to the aquarium trade are reasonably nice to look at, and usually friendly community-dwellers.

There is, however, a large contingent of fish that certainly don't meet that criterion. They range from the tedious to the hideous in appearance, but many have devoted aquarists who feel that life is somehow lacking without at least one in their tanks.

Chief among these must be the giant gouramy, Osphronemus goramy. When young, this is not exactly a beautiful fish, but it is at least inoffensive. It is brownish or silvery with banding on the flanks. As it grows older and larger (up to well over two feet) its youthful looks fade rapidly. The eyes become grossly protuberant, looking, to me at any rate, as though a swift bang on the aquarium glass might send them popping out to tumble to the bottom of the tank, and the fish becomes a uniform grey colour although there are various albino versions, which are variations on a theme of white/pink/orange. In aquaria, moreover, the fish has a habit of damaging its face. Most examples seen in zoos or public aquaria have battered lumpy mouths and lips, like a boxer who didn't just go one fight too many, but several dozen too many. The only advantage the adult has over the juvenile is that it becomes more placid with age, and whereas the youngsters are rather pugnacious the adults are good community fish if you happen to have a community that involved flooding your living room. So why the attraction? These are popular as 'pet fish' - they will come and press their battered faces to the glass to watch what you are doing, and actually show an interest in their owners. Nearly every one of these you find in a private aquarist's collection will have a name, and their owners will tell you that they have distinct personalities. They have been described as the most intelligent fish available to the aquarist. They are very hardy, and as vegetarians their large mouths can be filled at a reasonable cost with koi pellets and fresh fruit and vegetables (which makes a heavy load on a filter on the way out again). Still, unless you have a lot of space to devote to a single fish and don't mind that it is never going to be a beauty, then the little juveniles are best left in the shop.

Another large 'personality' fish is the Oscar, Astronotus ocellatus, which are large cichlids. Some are quite attractive, while others are really nothing to write home about - these are extremely variable fish. The basic body colour is a brownish grey, but decorated with blotches which range from a slightly different brownish-grey to a vivid orange. At the base of the tail is the ocellus of their Latin name - a black blotch with a vivid orange edge at the base of the tail. Albino Oscars are also available, which have a ground colour of pink with orange blotches. For a cichlid, the Oscar is not a particularly aggressive example, and can be kept in a large cichlid community. It does grow to about a foot and a half though, so it needs to be a very large community! They are quite slow growers, but will eventually attain full size - don't be tempted to think you can make do with a small tank for long. Like the giant gouramy, these also tend to acquire names, and are often described as having distinct personalities and responding to their owners.

My own favourite ugly fish is a goby, the Dragon or Violet goby, Gobioides broussonnetii (not to be confused with the Dragon goby Rhinogobius wui, who is about two inches long and very cute). The violet goby grows to about two feet and is snakelike in appearance, with long very short dorsal and anal fins running down into its tail. The most striking feature if this fish is that it is a bright and luminous purple all over. Violet describes to this fish in the way that the sun could be called a bit yellow. Its second most noticeable characteristic is a face that looks as though it ran into a brick wall at speed - the fish equivalent of a Pekinese. They have an unpleasant reputation as carnivores that will eat whatever fits into their rather wide mouths. The ones I kept, however, belied this reputation, living peacefully with a group of small fish and avidly devouring a high protein carnivore flake food (although they did have a great partiality for frozen bloodworm). They are easy to keep fish, but do need a reasonably soft substrate - they like to bury themselves, and if kept in sharp gravel will rip their smooth unscaled sides to pieces. Apart from this consideration, I have no hesitation in recommending them for a reasonably large tank, and personally find their pug faces rather endearing.

So far we have dealt with some of the monsters of the fish world, mainly made unsuitable by their size. The world is full of small brown fish - most aquarists sooner or later end up with a representative of one of these in their aquariums, and wonder periodically why on earth they bought it. For some obscure reason these seem far hardier than the fish that you actually wanted - I have a completely unidentified representative of the 'small brown' group which got put into a bag with some tetras. It seemed a bit of a cheek to take a fish back to the shop that I'd never paid for, and it was only small... the tetras are long gone, but the small brown fish continues to thrive. I suspect he may be immortal.

One of the 'small brown fish' who is often chosen deliberately is the South American or Amazon Leaf fish, Monocirrhus polyacanthus. This has its adherents because of its interest - it is one of the finest examples of camouflage available to the fish keeper, and at only just over two inches is a reasonable size for an aquarium. Like most South American fishes, it does prefer softer water but is quite hardy if you manage to obtain a specimen in good health. Unfortunately many of those offered for sale are already diseased or stressed, and can be very short-lived. The very characteristic that draws its adherents however, its amazing camouflage, makes it a total non-starter for most aquarists. Put quite simply, the leaf fish looks exactly like a dead leaf - not what most people want on display in their living room. In a tank with some real dead leaves, it is actually quite hard to spot the fish. Any small tankmates will also have the same difficulty, so it probably comes as a great shock to them when what looks like a very small pointy mouth (the 'stalk' end of the leaf) suddenly opens into a huge gaping maw. Leaf fishes are voracious predators, whose excellent disguise enables them to make a good living from unsuspecting passers-by. However, before taking one home you need to ask just how long you are going to remain fascinated by the fact that you are the proud owner of a fish-eating dead leaf.

Goldfish are, on the whole, placid and pretty fish that make a good show in an aquarium and are easy to keep. Although even their most ardent fans can't honestly describe them as over-endowed with intelligence or personality, nearly every fish keeper has fond memories of a goldfish, and for many people it is the fish that introduced them to the hobby in the first place. There are goldfish to suit everyone - long slim 'fish shaped' ones, including the popular Comet, that are fast and active swimmers, little round ones with trailing fins, and some with truly weird and wonderful body modifications. This is a fish where beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Personally I find the little round Ranchus, with their fat wiggle as they move through the water, to be thoroughly endearing, but some find their round body shape, lack of dorsal fin, and strange cauliflower-like head growth to be unattractive. But in the ranks of strange-looking goldfish, the Ranchu is by no means the strangest. The Bubble-eye is also a round-bodied fish with no dorsal fin, but instead of the cauliflower growth the Bubble-eye is ornamented by two large, wobbling fluid-filled sacs, one under each eye. The fish require a serious commitment to providing a safe environment, as the sacs are as delicate as they look, and can easily be damaged or popped. They will grow back, but never to the same degree. The Celestial is another strange little fish. It has to be remembered that goldfish were originally kept in large bowls rather than aquaria - most goldfish are intended to be viewed from the top rather than the sides. The Celestial takes this one step further, being a fish designed to continually look towards the top. The eyes are displaced so that the socket bulges outwards and the eye sits on the top of this bulge, gazing up towards the top of the tank. Short of swimming upside-down, celestial goldfish can never look in any other direction. They do seem to find their food without problems, and have their adherents who consider them to be particularly beautiful, but to me they have always seemed rather sad and distorted little fish that can never look around at the world they live in.

These fishes are just some of those that I personally find to be rather lacking in appeal. However, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and every aquarist has his own (often diametrically opposed) list of fish that he cannot understand anyone wanting to keep. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that the immense variety of fish is such that everyone will find their own special favourites, as well as their own list of 'who on earth would want that....

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


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