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Wholesale Tropicals: An Aladdin’s Cave of Tropical Fish
29 November 2006
Though Wholesale Tropicals isn’t the biggest aquarium shop in Britain, it is consistently placed among the best them. The family-run store is tucked away on the Bethnal Green Road; a few minutes ride on the Number 8 bus from Liverpool Street. For the first time visitor, the shop’s small frontage might seem unprepossessing, but once you’re inside, you’ll understand what all the fuss is about: even shops two or three times the size would be hard-pressed to offer the range of species available here. Wholesale Tropicals offers not just the bread and butter stuff like guppies, neons, and angelfish, but also has an amazing selection of the more unusual fish from giant South American catfish through to tiny gobies. Wholesale Tropicals is one of the few places where you can regularly procure the more unusual livebearers and killifish, making it a bit of a Mecca for aquarists interested in these fascinating but often hard to come by fish.
As well as tropical fish, there is usually a good variety of coldwater fish, reptiles (particularly turtles), amphibians, and freshwater invertebrates such as shrimps and apple snails. Veteran fishkeepers may remember when Wholesale Tropicals was divided between a small ground floor showroom and a larger basement filled with tanks. Since it’s refurbishment a few years ago, the store is now divided into the livestock area filling most of the greatly expanded ground floor level and the upstairs hardware showroom featuring tanks of all sizes. Wholesale Tropicals regularly maintains their stocklist on the Tropical Fish Finder web site and has recently begun supplying fishes by mail order, making their impressive variety of species available to more aquarists than ever before. Incidentally, despite the name, Wholesale Tropicals is retail only.
The “liquid limestone” water of Southern England might not be ideal for tetras and discus, but it’s perfect for the cichlids of Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria. Among the best of them are the Malawian peacock cichlids of the genus Aulonocara. These are moderately sized fish, typically around 15 cm when fully-grown, do well in aquaria and are not particularly aggressive towards one another or other tankmates. In fact, they can be easily bullied by more aggressive cichlids such as mbuna. Invariably, the females are fairly drab, silvery fish with dark vertical bands, but the males have extraordinarily vivid colours when mature. The yellow peacock, Aulonocara baenschi, is one species currently in stock at Wholesale Tropicals. Males of this species are brilliant yellow in colour with a shiny blue face and small blue spots on the flanks and fins. Despite their exotic appearance, these fish aren’t difficult to keep provided water quality is kept good and they are provided with food rich in algae and crustaceans (both these are needed for the fish to keep their colours).
One thing that puts Wholesale Tropicals apart from many other retailers is that their range of African cichlids goes beyond the Great Lakes and includes species from regions such as West Africa and Madagascar that tend to be overlooked by many hobbyists. Among the Madagascan species in stock are Ptychochromis grandidieri and Ptychochromoides katria. Ptychochromis grandidieri is an unusual fresh- and brackish water species that gets to about 20 cm in length and is characterised by a horizontal series of dark blotches along the flanks just above the midline of the fish. Females and immature males are silvery, while mature males become much darker. Ptychochromoides katria is smaller, around 15 cm in length, and has two thick dark bands running vertically across the flanks. Madagascan cichlids are rare in the hobby and endangered in the wild, making them particularly worthwhile subjects for fishkeepers with an interest in cichlid breeding and conservation.
For the dwarf cichlid enthusiast, a rarely seen but very worthwhile little fish is Nanochromis transvestitus. Both sexes are strikingly coloured, being pinkish-green in colour with a series of dark vertical bands crossing the head and body. The females are even prettier than the males, with a broad rose-coloured region across the belly and dark grey and white vertical stripes on the tail fin and the back halves of the dorsal and anal fins. Although not especially difficult to keep, they do need soft water and plenty of oxygen, and should be kept in an aquarium with a sandy substrate and lots of caves and other hiding places. These lovely fish work well in the right community tank. For best results, choose midwater fish from the same fast-water environment, such as danios or African glass catfish (Etropiellus debauwi, another relatively uncommon species that Wholesale Tropicals regularly has in stock).
Labyrinth fish: gouramis and bettas
It’s easy to imagine that the only labyrinth fish on sale are dwarf gouramis and Siamese fighting fish, but Wholesale Tropicals regularly keeps a variety of the more unusual, but very desirable, species in stock. Their variety of Betta species can be a real eye-opener for the aquarist unfamiliar with the diversity of that genus. Betta smaragdina, known as the green betta, despite the fact that its basic colour is dark red. Overlying this red background is a brilliant emerald green sheen that is most pronounced on males but certainly not absent from the females. Male green bettas will fight among themselves, but in a large tank with plenty of hiding places it is possible to keep multiple males in one aquarium; otherwise, keep just one male with one or more females. Because they don’t have the extra-long fins of the fancy Siamese fighters usually offered for sale, green bettas generally do well in quiet community tanks. Also in stock are Betta imbellis, the peaceful betta, and Betta foerschi, the mouthbrooding chameleon betta.
Among the less frequently seen gouramis is Colisa labiosa, the thick-lipped gourami. Essentially a larger and more robust version of the popular dwarf gourami, if you’ve never had luck keeping dwarf gouramis alive in your community tank, this is the species to try. They get to about 8 cm or so, about twice the size of the dwarf gourami, but have the same red-and-blue oblique stripes along the flanks. They mix well with most community fish, and are generally easy to keep and breed. Other unusual gouramis to be found at Wholesale Tropicals include Trichogaster pectoralis, the snakeskin gourami; Sphaerichthys acrostoma, the sharp-nosed chocolate gourami; and Belontia signata, the Ceylonese combtail.
Paradisefishes and climbing perches are both overlooked but rewarding groups of labyrinth fish. The red paradise fish, Macropodus erythropterus, is a fairly large (12 cm) species that does best in slightly acidic, not too hard water. It is rather aggressive among its own kind and towards other labyrinth fish, but hardy barbs and catfish will be ignored. It is an attractive fish, with a reddish body, especially around the back, and blue-green fins. The ventral fins are red. As is typical with paradisefish, the males are more brightly coloured and have longer fins. Climbing perches are generally tough, easy to keep species that do well in community tanks with robust species. They make a nice alternative to cichlids, but few aquarium shops regularly keep them in stock. Among the African species, Wholesale Tropicals has Ctenopoma acutirostre and Ctenopoma kingsleyae. The former, known as the leopard bushfish, gets to about 15-20 cm and bears a beautiful pattern of small dark spots against a wood-brown body. Completely peaceful, it is easily kept with tankmates that are not too small (it will eat things like neons and guppies) but despite its predatory habits can be easily maintained on bloodworms and other small invertebrates. Ctenopoma kingsleyae is little larger and a bit more territorial. Essentially green in colour with a black spot at the base of the tail fin, it makes a nice addition to a tank containing things like plecs, tinfoil barbs, and oscars.
Perhaps more than anything else, Wholesale Tropicals has a reputation for regularly holding a wide selection of catfish, particularly South American and African species. The black mouse catfish Hassar orestis (also known as Hassar notospilus) is an unusual and peaceful schooling catfish from South America. Getting to about 18 cm when fully grown, this fish is a shy when kept singly and immediately after import, but once settled in a group of these catfish makes an interesting addition to any sufficiently large community tank. They have unusual barbels that are feathery and face forwards, and compared with most other members of the Doradidae family, these catfish are surprisingly active. It is easily bullied though, so keep with smaller fish, such as tetras and barbs, rather than aggressive cichlids or territorial catfish.
Corydoras are always high on the list of catfish enjoyed by aquarists, and Wholesale Tropicals usually maintains a good variety of these generally small and easily accommodated catfish. Besides the usual varieties of bronze and peppered catfish, the new “gold”, “green”, and “orange” stripe bronze catfish can be found, as well as albino catfish, which may be either bronze or peppered catfish depending on the shipment. Among the more colourful and popular Corydoras species in stock at the moment are Corydoras arcuatus, Corydoras melanistius, and Corydoras panda. More hard-core catfish enthusiasts will welcome the subtropical bearded catfish, Scleromystax barbatus, and the handsome but rather aggressive (for a cory) Corydoras sp cf. narcissus.
L-number catfish in particular, and loricariid catfish generally, remain as popular as ever, and it is certainly true that among these catfish there is one for practically every tropical freshwater aquarium. It’s hard to fault L027a and L190, both known as “royal plecs” and most likely variations or subspecies of Panaque nigrolineatus. These big, boldly marked catfish are famous among scientists for being able to eat and digest wood, and should always be supplied with bogwood when kept in the home aquarium. Though they enjoy meaty foods like mussels and bloodworms, these should only be used occasionally, and the bulk of their diet should be either fresh vegetables or processed foods such as wafers and tablets formulated for herbivorous fish. Royal plecs are shy and basically nocturnal, and are distinctly territorial, but once settled in become tame and active during the day.
Acanthicus adonis is another large but more omnivorous loricariid catfish. It is also distinctly aggressive towards even other species of catfish, and is best combined with medium-sized midwater fish such as barbs, cichlids, and characins. It is most celebrated for its large size (potentially up to 1 meter) and beautiful appearance (jet-black with small white spots). Besides algae and vegetables, this species also enjoys mussels, prawns, and small pieces of white fish. As with most of the larger plecs, it should also be supplied with some bogwood for grazing; whether they actually eat the stuff or use it as kind of dietary fibre is unknown, but it does seem to keep them healthy.
At the other end of the size spectrum are the small loricariids of genera such as Hypoptopoma and Otocinclus. Otocinclus tend to be the smaller of the two, averaging around 3-4 cm in size, where most Hypoptopoma are nearer the 10 cm mark. Otherwise, the two genera are very similar in needs: sociable, peaceful, and feeding almost entirely on green algae, they make excellent additions to planted aquaria. Once they’ve cleaned all the algae away, provide them with suitable substitutes, such as algae wafers and thin slices of blanched vegetables such as courgette and sweet potato. These “dwarf suckermouths” have a reputation for being delicate, and a lot of this has to with their size. Compared with the larger plecs, which can survive for weeks without food, these little fish need to be provided with food immediately upon import. Look for fish that are active and have nice rounded bodies that prove that they have been eating well. One final note: Otocinclus have been known to attack the mucous on the flanks of large, slow moving fish such as angelfish. Choose tankmates with care, sticking to small, active species such as Corydoras, tetras, barbs, and so on. Wholesale Tropicals currently have Hypoptopoma gulare and Otocinclus affinis in stock.
Killifish, livebearers, and gobies
Wholesale Tropicals is very unusual in maintaining a section devoted entirely to these “little jewels” of the aquarium. Aphyosemion australe and Aphyosemion striatum are two of the regulars, and both are extremely beautiful fish with vivid colours and lively personalities. As with many of the other annual killifish, these fish need a clean, quiet aquarium with soft and slightly acidic water to do well. A peat or coconut fibre substrate works especially well for these fish, creating authentically dark conditions. Obviously with annual fish like these, breeding them successfully is part of the fun, and these fish aren’t especially difficult to breed.
For aquarists with an interest in livebearers, Wholesale Tropicals is always worth a visit. As with killifish, you’ll regularly find species here otherwise hardly ever seen in other aquarium shops, including Girardinus metallicus, Heterandria formosa, Limia perugiae, and Priapella intermedia. One nice thing about livebearers is that most positively thrive in the hard, alkaline water of Southern England, making them excellent subjects for aquarists wanting to breed their own fish.
Gobies are another group of small fishes that make good additions to small aquaria. Like the livebearers, most do well in hard water. Among the more unusual gobies in stock at the moment are Gobiopterus brachypterus, a tiny, semi-transparent, schooling species; Sicyopus zosterophorum, a species that inhabits rocky streams and enjoys fast-flowing, spotlessly clean water; and Stiphodon elegans, the vividly-coloured freshwater neon goby, a territorial but otherwise harmless species that also lives in mountain streams.
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