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Visiting Maidenhead Aquatics@ St Albans

The branch of Maidenhead Aquatics at St Albans is one of the biggest in the chain, and is up to the usual high standards fishkeepers expect from the company. Alongside an excellent range of freshwater and marine livestock there is a very large dry goods sales area offering everything from fish food to complete aquarium set-ups. Outside there is a pond section with coldwater fish and pond plants.
The store is located on the North Orbital Road (A414) just west of the junction with the London Road. There's ample car parking space, shared with a coffee shop and a large pet store. Shoppers come by public transportation will have a bit of a trek though, with the store being a good 20 minutes walk away from the nearest train station, Park Street on the St Albans Abbey line from Watford Junction. More convenient for travellers from London is the slightly more distant St. Albans City station is on the Thameslink line.

Marine Fish

On our visit there was an excellent range of marine fish including some lovely large species for fish-only systems as well as all the popular species for use in reef tanks.

The star of the show was perhaps the aptly-named bigeye, Pristigenys alta. These reclusive, nocturnal predators are subtropical in distribution and so need a fairly cool (around 18-22 degrees C) aquarium with rocky caves to hide in. They are photophobic, meaning they get stressed when kept in brightly lit conditions. Bigeyes are solitary predators that feed on small fish and a variety of invertebrates (including small echinoderms, but not sessile invertebrates) and are therefore only suitable for fish-only or FOWLR systems. Aquarium specimens can be difficult to feed and prefer live foods such as river shrimps. Once acclimated to aquarium life, they can be trained to take frozen foods and chopped seafood. Getting up to 30 cm in length, this fish would make an outstanding addition to a community of large, non-aggressive subtropical to low-end tropical species.

Also on display were some a couple of Arothron pufferfish, Arothron hispidus and Arothron nigropunctatus. These are both big puffers, likely to reach 25-30 cm in length even under aquarium conditions. But they are big characters too, famous for their intelligence and outgoing personality. So while they are completely unsuitable for the reef tank, in the fish-only system these fish are winners. They are incredibly hardy fish; Arothron hispidus for example naturally occurs in estuaries when young and juveniles can live for many months perfectly well in freshwater conditions! Both species are tolerant of tankmates, provided they are no overcrowded, and will work well with large angelfish, the less aggressive triggers, lionfish, etc.

Good examples of many popular reef tank species were on show, including various tangs, Anthias, damsels and clownfish. Less often seen but welcome reef-safe species included the foxface, Siganus vulpinus. Like its close relatives the tangs, the foxface is omnivorous and eats algae as well as small invertebrates, and will need to have green food on offer at all times. Sushi nori attached to the glass using a lettuce clip works great for this. Although generally a good reef tank resident, if hungry it may nibble on small polyps.

Firefish were on display too. Firefish are small (around 6-10 cm) goby-like fish that live in groups, hovering above their caves or burrows. There are several species in the trade, but the one on display was Nemateleotris decora, also known as purple firefish. Keep at least two of these fishes, and provide them with rocky rubble sufficient for them to build themselves a nice home. They will spend most of their time oriented at a peculiar angle, hovering into a strong water current. Wild fish feed on plankton, but they quickly learn to take all sorts of small frozen and dried foods. They are notorious jumpers, so keep the tank securely covered!

Marine Invertebrates

A large section of the livestock display area is given over to marine invertebrates, particularly corals and polyps. Compared with the more difficult hard corals and anemones, button polyps and mushroom polyps especially are resilient (by marine invertebrate standards at least) and make a good investment for aquarists starting out in the reef tank side of the hobby. They are also comparatively inexpensive, and if looked after well will quickly multiply themselves, colonising the living rock around them.

Some nice blood shrimps, Lysmata debelius, were on display alongside the featherduster worms. Blood shrimps are look great in any reef tank, though they do tend to be a rather shy. Like all cleaner shrimps they can be territorial, so shouldn't be overcrowded. Blood shrimps are ideally kept in small groups, and may be available in matched pairs. Also like other shrimps they are distinctly opportunistic as far as food goes, and can eat smaller shrimps and fish. They are otherwise hardy and easy to maintain.

Community Fish

The store have a very impressive range of Australian and New Guinean rainbowfish. These fish have much to offer the aquarist in Southeast England, being ideally suited to hard water conditions as well as hardy and colourful. Most species get to between 8 and 15 cm in length, making them very versatile in terms of potential tankmates. They are not predatory, and mix well with community fish of all types as well as non-predatory cichlids and catfish.

One very nice species on sale was the Lake Tebera rainbowfish Melanotaenia herbertaxelrodi. In common with rainbowfish species generally, juveniles are rather drab silvery fish, but once settled in and fully grown, these fish are very beautiful, mature males being bright yellow with a long black stripe along the midline of the fish and orange-red unpaired fins. Maximum size is about 10 cm. Keep in mixed sex groups of at least 6 specimens to see these fish at their best.

The banded gourami Colisa fasciata is another welcome sight ideally suited to the hobbyist looking for a peaceful, attractively marked gourami. Unlike the more commonly seen dwarf gourami Colisa lalia, the banded gourami is hardy and not affected by the Dwarf Gourami Iridovirus, making it a far better investment. Many dwarf gouramis are infected with this viral disease, as many as 22% according to one scientific estimate. Banded gouramis are a slightly bigger than dwarf gouramis, the males getting to 10 cm, the females a little less. Males have stronger colouration than the females, but the difference isn't nearly so striking as with dwarf gouramis. Colours may be subdued in the brightly lit retail tanks, but when settled in the mature fish are very handsome and will live for many years.

Pencilfish make excellent additions to the small species community tank. They are extremely placid fish, so shouldn't be mixed with active barbs or tetras, but they work great with neons, hatchetfish, Corydoras and other docile species. They are also ideal fish for the planted aquarium. Two species on sale were Nannostomus trifasciatus and Nannostomus unifasciata, both lovely little brightly coloured fish.

Catfish

In terms of catfish, it was the loricariids that really stole the show. L-numbers included the green plec L200 (Baryancistrus demantoides) and Hypancistrus L333. Other worthy additions to the collection of catfish fans would include the giant whiptail Sturisoma barbatum or the twig catfish Farlowella, but the specimens of Lamontichthys filamentosus on offer were real show-stoppers.

Like most other whiptails, Lamontichthys filamentosus appreciate fast-flowing, not too warm (22-24 degrees C) conditions but are otherwise quite hardy despite their delicate appearance. They are omnivores and enjoy a diet containing algae wafers and small invertebrates such as bloodworms. Like many other whiptails they are slow feeders and will not do well if forced to cohabit with other catfish or loaches. Keep them as a group in their own system with midwater species that like similar water conditions, such as danios. Both sexes sport dramatic extensions to their dorsal and pectoral fins, so must be kept away from nippy tankmates.

Another catfish on view included Platydoras costatus, known as the humbug or raphael catfish. This armoured catfish is very nocturnal, but is hardy and easily maintained. It is gregarious though, so keep a small group. Maximum size is about 15 cm under aquarium conditions, though potentially up to 20 cm, and when fully grown these fish are more than capable of eating small tankmates such as neons and guppies. They prefer invertebrate prey though, including snails.

The South American bumblebee catfish Pseudopimelodus zungaro and the clown synodontis Synodontis decorus were two other notable catfish on sale. Pseudopimelodus zungaro gets to about 20 cm in length and is another nocturnal predator. While hardy and easily maintained across a range of water chemistry conditions, like most pimelodids it is incredibly predatory and well able to eat surprisingly large tankmates. Keep only with fish at least two-thirds its size.
Synodontis decorus is a semi-aggressive catfish from the Congo Basin. It is very hardy and easily maintained, but does get rather large, at least 25 cm under aquarium conditions. But its attractive colouration barely fades as it matures, so it remains a very nice addition to the large community tank. Avoid anything nippy though, as its long fins are easily damaged. Not particularly predatory, but will almost certainly eat very small fish given the chance.

Specialist Fish

Unlike many other aquarium shops, the freshwater section is divided into different zones with water adapted to cater to the needs of different types of fish. The community section contains water matching the local conditions which are hard and alkaline. There is also a soft water section for things like discus and stingrays and a brackish section for brackish water fish. A large section is dedicated to Rift Valley cichlids.

Arguably among the most difficult of all the labyrinth fish to maintain is the aptly-named frail gourami, Ctenops nobilis. These subtropical mountain stream fish need clean, fast-flowing water with lots of oxygen and moderate temperature to do well. They are mouthbrooders, but only rarely bred in captivity because of the difficulty most hobbyists have keeping them alive for more than a few weeks. They are very handsome fish though, and for the aquarist with the resources to set up an aquarium just for them they would make a very interesting and rewarding challenge.

Much easier to maintain is Tetraodon leiurus, one of the Southeast Asian puffers sold as target puffers within the aquarium trade. Getting to about 15 cm in length and noted for its aggressive personality, this isn't a community species by any means. But like most puffers it is an intelligent, curious animal that can make an excellent pet when kept on its own. Water chemistry is of no importance, but water quality is critically important. All puffers are sensitive to nitrite and ammonia, and should never be kept in immature aquaria. Other freshwater puffers on display included the freshwater species known as dwarf puffers (Carinotetraodon travancoricus), red-tail puffers (Carinotetraodon irrubesco), giant puffers (Tetraodon mbu) and South American puffers (Colomesus asellus), as well as the brackish water species Tetraodon fluviatilis.

Not often seen these days is the big characin Semaprochilodus insignis. On sale were juveniles only 3-4 cm in length, barely hinting at the 25 cm monsters these fish will grow to under aquarium conditions. They are superb additions to the jumbo community tank, being peaceful and brilliantly coloured. Mature adults are silver with red pelvic fins and a very distinctive tail fin marked with parallel black and white stripes. A characteristic of this fish is its mouth, which is equipped with sucking lips a lot like those of kissing gouramis. A pronounced herbivore, this fish rasps away at algae as well as eating soft plant foods of all types. A perfect addition to a system containing arowanas, stingrays, plecs and other big but harmless fish.

Brackish Water Fish

The brackish water selection included lots of popular species including the common and West African monos, Monodactylus argenteus and Monodactylus sebae. These lovely fish look somewhat like common angelfish in shape, particularly the West African mono but they are far more active and boisterous. They work well in groups, and the two species can be mixed freely. Twos and threes are sometimes unstable, the biggest fish become a bully, but when kept as five or more specimens they are generally peaceful if aggressive at feeding time. Monos are hardy and easy to keep in either brackish or saltwater conditions. Maximum size in the aquarium is around 15 cm.
Also present was the lovely Colombian shark catfish Sciades seemanni. Getting to about 25 cm or so in aquaria, these predatory but otherwise docile catfish must be kept in groups of at least three specimens. They are restless swimmers, and really do look and behave like small sharks. While basically hardy they can be difficult to settle down, and should be acclimated to brackish water conditions (at least SG 1.005) immediately after purchase. Once settled they are greedy feeders that will take all types of food including catfish pellets, though chopped seafood and crustaceans such as krill are favourites.
Mudskippers were on sale, the species offered being some type of Periophthalmus, possibly Periophthalmus argentilineatus but certainly not the very aggressive Periophthalmus barbarus at least. Mudskippers are hardy and easily maintained if kept in the right sort of environment, essentially a brackish water vivarium. They spend hardly any time underwater, so the aquarist will need to build a nice land area from sand and bogwood for them to explore. They are notorious escape artists! Feeding is unproblematic, with small terrestrial insects being particularly favoured but flake and all sorts of frozen foods readily accepted. Kept well they become very tame, and are naturally alert and curious animals that are lots of fun to watch.

Freshwater Invertebrates

The selection of freshwater invertebrates on sale was especially good. There were lots of interesting snails including something called a yellow helmet snail with a big (around 3-4 cm) conical shell. Also on sale were nerites, listed as Neritina turrita. These attractive snails are not large but eat algae without harming plants. Moreover, they don't breed in aquaria, so aren't a problem in that regard. They are hardy and easily maintained, but short lived, most specimens lasting about a year or so. Fish seem to ignore them.

Crustaceans made a good showing too. Atyopsis gabonensis is an African fan shrimp that gets to a fairly substantial size (around 10 cm) but is not in the least predatory. Indeed, it is easily damaged by large fish so should be kept with docile tankmates such as tetras. It is primarily a filter feeders, though it will also take small food items from the substrate. Like most shrimps it is sensitive to poor water quality. Atyopsis gabonensis is somewhat territorial among its own kind when kept in small numbers.

An interesting amphibious crab offered as Paratelphusa martensis, but this name appears to be spurious. But it can be assumed that this crab is potentially predatory so best kept in its own vivarium. These crabs had the classic flattened legs of swimming crabs, and certainly seemed to be very active and capable swimmers. Water chemistry is likely not critical though hard, alkaline water usually suits crabs best. It is unknown whether the addition of salt is required for long term care, though adding a small amount (SG 1.002-1.003) is unlikely to do any harm to true freshwater species. Crabs are invariably omnivores that thrive on a mixed diet of plant foods such as soft fruit as well as small pieces of fish, mussel or prawn.

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