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  • Species: Banggai cardinal

  • Species: Blood shrimp

  • Species: Cardisom armatum

  • Species: Clea helena

  • Species: Crayfish

  • Species: Hemiloricaria

  • Species: Neocaridina

  • Species: Osphronemus

  • Species: Mbu Puffer

  • Species: Zebra mantis

Visiting the Aquatic Design Centre, London

The Aquatic Design Centre on Great Portland Street is really two businesses in one. Apart from the retail store, of which more will be said shortly, the Aquatic Design Centre also installs and maintains ponds and aquaria. Their client list is impressive, including household names like the BBC, Carphone Warehouse and Morgan Stanley. Even the most casual visitor to the shop will quickly notice that the accent on many of the tanks is not just to sell fish but to sell the whole idea of keeping fish in the first place. The basement area in particular is filled with stylishly designed marine and freshwater aquaria.

In terms of retail space, the Aquatic Design Centre is middling in size but surprisingly well stocked with fish for even the more demanding aquarist. African cichlids, goldfish and marines are represented particularly strongly, and there are also good displays of livebearers, catfish, community tropicals and plants. The selection of freshwater invertebrates is exceptional, invariably including a good selection of algae shrimps, fan shrimps, long-arm shrimps, crayfish, apple snails and nerites. Perhaps reflecting the store's bias towards large, exhibition-quality aquaria, you're also likely to see fishes other stores don't carry, like giant gouramis, mbu puffers and blood parrot hybrid cichlids.

As you'd imagine for an aquarium shop in Central London, the easiest way to visit is via public transport. The Aquatic Design Centre is a few minutes walk south along Great Portland Street from the Great Portland Street tube station on the Circle and Metropolitan lines.

Jumbo Marines

Marine fish are a very strong part of the store's trade. The diversity is impressive, spanning coral frags right the way up to juvenile specimens of big predators. In other words, there's livestock here for both reef tanks and fish-only aquaria.

Among the species suitable for fish-only aquaria were a variety of large pufferfish including the dog-faced puffer Arothron hispidus. This pufferfish gets to about 30 cm in length under aquarium conditions, but despite its large adult size it is comparatively peaceful and can be kept with other robust fish of similar size.

What makes this species so good for big marine aquaria is that it combines a striking appearance with a very friendly personality; aquarists who keep Arothron species often refer to them as being puppy-like, and there's certainly some truth to that. Arothron puffers will spend most of their time in full view, either begging for food or exploring their aquarium. As with any other pufferfish, they need to be kept in a spacious system with lots of rocks and ornaments so that they can satisfy their natural curiosity. In the wild these puffers are found in both brackish and marine habitats, and unsurprisingly have proven to be hardy and long-lived when kept in aquaria of appropriate size.

Triggerfish have always been popular with aquarists looking for spectacular specimens for fish-only systems. Although almost always hardy and easily adapted to aquarium life, triggerfish tend to be territorial and often rather aggressive: there are plenty of reports of large triggerfish biting divers who approach their nests too closely. Most species will eat invertebrates of every type making them unsuitable for the reef tank. But they can work very well in jumbo communities when kept with other robust species.

On our visit to the Aquatic Design Centre several triggers were on view, including clown triggers and rectangulus triggers. At up to 50 cm in length the clown triggerfish Balistoides conspicillum is one of the largest triggerfish routinely kept by aquarists, but it does have the most extraordinary colouration. The body is basically chocolate brown but with large white patches scattered across the lower half; there is also a bright yellow band around the mouth and coffee coloured squiggles across the back. An exceptionally aggressive species, it is best kept alone.

The rectangulus trigger Rhinecanthus rectangulus is smaller the clown triggerfish, usually getting to between 20-30 cm in captivity. It is one of the more mellow triggerfish, though far from peaceful. Triggerfish generally are very variable in personality, some species being quite tolerant, while others are downright nasty. This certainly holds true for all Rhinecanthus species, but more often than not it can be kept in large community tanks with robust species such as "punchy" damselfish like domino damsels and sergeant majors.

Also on view were juvenile emperor snappers. Snappers are, without exception, boisterous predatory fish so these fish definitely aren't for the average community tank. When small they are tolerant of one another, and their bright red and white bands make sure that these lively little fish catch the eye. But beware that this is a big, territorial fish when mature, easily getting to more than 60 cm in length. Definitely one for the giant aquarium only!

Reef Tanks

There's a very decent selection of coral frags as well as larger invertebrates on display in the basement. The invertebrates run the range from anemones through to crustaceans of all types, including some very nice blood shrimps and a superb example of the zebra mantis shrimp Lysiosquillina maculata.

Mantis shrimps aren't reef safe by any means, being effective predators on small fish and invertebrates, but they are very rewarding pets nonetheless. Most species are hardy, adaptable, and surprisingly easy to train. Lysiosquillina maculata is one of the "spearer" species that feeds primarily on fish and gets to a maximum length of 40 cm, making it among the largest of all mantis shrimps. In common with other mantis shrimps it needs an aquarium with some sand for digging and a suitable burrow, for example a PVC tube. The biology of this species is interesting. Males and females live together in burrows, with the male doing most of the hunting.

The selection of reef-safe fish is probably unrivalled in Central London. Because there are several reef tanks already set up in the tank installation showroom part of the store, it's easy to get some idea of what all the different fish might look like once taken home to your reef tank. It's often the case that small reef fish especially lose their colours when kept in small display tanks and only regain their proper colours once settled into a proper reef tank.

The Banggai Cardinal Fish Pterapogon kauderni was one of the species in stock that immediately caught the eye. These spectacular fish have a silver body with bold black vertical bands, their fins are huge relative to their body size, making them seem even more flamboyant. Banggai Cardinals are paternal mouthbrooders and comparatively easy to breed. Wild fish live in large schools, and they certainly work well kept this way in aquaria. But in small numbers they can sometimes be aggressive, so unless you can maintain them as a group of six or more, try to obtain a mated pair. Two such fish will be perfectly content on their own in a quiet aquarium, and with luck will start breeding.

Although not as easy as rearing guppies, by marine fish standards these fish are comparatively straightforward to breed. The males incubate the eggs for about a month, after which point the fry will need to be removed and reared with small live foods. As is well known by now, the wild populations are under severe pressure from over-collection, having been on the CITES Endangered list of species since 2007. So if you're shopping for these fish, always check that they're tank-bred specimens. Besides taking the pressure off the wild populations, tank-bred fish are much easier to look after as well, being already acclimated to aquarium life and frozen foods.

Giant Freshwater Fish

Showpiece freshwater fish species make up a significant part of the stock on display, including things like arowanas, giant gouramis, stingrays, and giant pufferfish. The giant gourami Osphronemus goramy for example isn't often traded because its maximum size of 60 cm is far larger than most home aquarists can hope to accommodate. But that aside this is a robust, comparatively easy-going fish that works well in jumbo community systems alongside other big but non-aggressive species. Wild fish are very omnivorous and eat a good deal of plant matter, so it's important to give these fish a varied diet containing lots of greens.

Also on display were a tank full of cigar sharks, Leptobarbus hoevenii. These are big, omnivorous cyprinids that must be kept in schools. As their streamlined body shape might suggest, these are fast, open water fish that tend to be exceptionally skittish under aquarium conditions. When alarmed they will jump or throw themselves into the glass. Consequently they should only be kept in spacious surroundings, certainly nothing less than 750 litres/200 gallons. Apart from that these aren't especially demanding fish, and do well in a mixed diet containing green foods like peas and blanched lettuce alongside chopped seafood and pellets.

Cichlids and catfish

As well as marines, the basement contains a large section devoted to cichlids. African cichlids are particularly well represented, including numerous species of Aulonocara, Pseudotropheus, Neolamprologus, Lamprologus, and Tropheus. Dotted about in these tanks are suitable catfish for African cichlid aquaria as well, such as Synodontis multipunctatus. African cichlids, particularly mbuna, always look good in large display aquaria, and that no doubt explains their strong appearance at the Aquatic Design Centre. But they also make great subjects for hobbyists in Southern England where the water is very hard and alkaline.

South American cichlids were also on view, including Apistogramma, discus and angelfish. Again, there are plenty of catfish suitable for South American cichlid tanks too. Particularly nice were the whiptail cats, likely Hemiloricaria lanceolata or Hemiloricaria parva. Whiptail cats are gregarious though territorial when breeding, and when kept in groups will spend a lot of time jostling with each other over the best hiding places. No harm is done, and in fact keeping them this way adds a lot to the pleasure of owning them. Whiptail cats typically come from relatively open, sandy areas where they forage about under the leaf litter for worms, insect larvae and other small prey. They don't eat much algae, though algae wafers will be appreciated. Maximum size varies, but is typically 7-12 cm depending on the species.

Also on view was the lovely rusty plec Hypostomus L077. This medium sized (up to 30 cm) species is a curious species with uncertain affinities, being in some ways more like a Panaque than a typical Hypostomus. In particular it has the robust rather than streamlined body of Panaque and also has the Panaque-like spoon-shaped teeth. Quite probably it is rather more herbivorous than the other Hypostomus and the aquarist should take care to provide this species with a diet rich in green foods such as courgette and blanched curly lettuce. It would be sensible to put some bogwood in the tank too, in case this species eats and digests wood, as is the case with Panaque.

Freshwater Invertebrates

One reason the author likes visiting the Aquatic Design Centre is the diversity of freshwater invertebrates. The snail-eating snail Clea helena is an infrequently kept snail species with much to recommend it. It isn't terribly big, the shell only being about 2 cm in length but nicely coloured with spiral bands of yellow and brown. But it is fun to watch as it ploughs through the sand or hunts for prey. As its common name suggests, it’s a species that feeds on other snails, and when kept in reasonable numbers can help to control pest snail species.

Other snails on sale included various nerite snails, apparently Neritina natalensis and Septaria porcellana. Nerites feed on green algae and never damage live plants, making them useful additions to the planted aquarium. They don't breed readily (if at all) under aquarium conditions, so won't become a nuisance. About the only downside to nerite snails is that they can be comparatively short lived, in part because most of the freshwater species at least come from cool mountain streams and so demand well oxygenated, spotlessly clean water to do well.

Crustaceans were well represented, including cherry shrimps, Amano shrimps, crayfish and various amphibious crabs. The most dramatic of these is doubtless the rainbow crab Cardisoma armatum, a large species with a purple body and bright red legs. They are not difficult to keep, though it should be remembered that they are terrestrial animals for the most part so should be kept in a tank that is primarily land with only a small area set aside for bathing. Rainbow crabs cannot be combined with fish, and are in fact very skilled predators that will eat one another given half a chance. As well as meaty foods, they enjoy plant foods as well, particularly soft fruit.

Plants and decor

There's a small but well stocked plant section including most of the popular aquarium plants. Apart from a few non-aquatic species like Dracaena spp. that shouldn't be there at all in this author's opinion, most of the species present were well chosen and in good condition. Some are sold as bunches, others in pots. Of particular note were the large Java ferns and Crinum plants, ideal species for quickly decorating jumbo community tanks with robust fish that might damage more delicate plant varieties.

In keeping with its aquarium design business, there's an excellent range of decorative materials including many different types of rock, sands of all types (and colours!) and lots of bogwood. Artificial decorative materials were on display too, including scenic backgrounds and plastic plants.

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