Among the pretty leaves...

After following us for the better part of a year now, you're probably acutely aware that we're really into leaf litter biotopes, and creating aquariums that replicate this unique habitat. And of course, when you're creating such a habitat in your aquarium, it makes sense that you'd want to give a lot of thought to the fishes which will reside there! I mean, the obvious question here is, "What fishes are suitable/appropriate for a leaf litter biotope-type aquarium?"

A great question; happy you asked!

First off, a quick review. As you recall, leaf litter beds are found throughout tropical rivers,s teams, and other watercourses around the world, from South America, to Asia, and Africa, to name just a few regions. They are remarkably productive habitats, because they offer not only shelter for their inhabitants, but food items, an area to reproduce, and function as a "nursery" of sorts for larval fishes to shelter and feed in. They are among the most productive environments in the wild.

In the case of South American,  litter beds, you're likely to find many species of fishes, distributed among a dozen or more types. You're likely to find Catfishes, characins, and cichlids, just to name a few. Today, we'll focus on South America, and look at a few fishes that you might not have previously considered for your leaf litter aquarium! If you're a SE Asia or African fan- not to worry- we'll touch on those soon in a different installments!

Some of the more interesting fishes in South American leaf litter beds are the so-called "Darter Tetras" from the subgroup Characidiinae, which has over 70 species. These fishes are fairly abundant in nature, yet don't find their way into the trade all that often. When they do, you should jump at the opportunity to snap these fishes up! Why aren't they more common? Well, for one thing, they're little fishes that tend to hop along the bottom and hide amongst the leaves. And they tend to take on rather cryptic color patterns to blend in with their surroundings. So, yeah- probably not the first fish the collector is likely to go after...I bet that most of them are "by catch" in the hunt for more popular, economically rewarding species.

One of the endearing features about these fishes is that, unlike other characins, they are bottom-dwelling fishes which tend to hop around on the bottom of the aquarium. Some species, like the little "Green Darter Tetra", Ammocryptocharax elegans, like to cling to leaves or aquatic plants, and will camouflage themselves by taking on the coloration of the plants or leaves.

They're little "ambush predators" (scary if you're a small crustacean or aquatic insect- laughable to almost anything else!), and play their role well! The other "common" darter Tetra in the trade that you should watch out for is Elachocharax pulcher, a species that seems to hang out just below the litter surface where the leaves are not so old and decomposed, hiding in the little "interstitial cavities" created by the litter. It's also a petite little predator, and, like the Green Darter, feeds on small crustaceans (like Daphnia, Cyclops, etc.) and insects. 

Of course, those of us who love cichlids would not be disappointed when looking for suitable specimens for our litter-bed themed aquariums. The genus Apistogramma offers some beautiful, and fairly popular fish that would be perfect! One of the more common Apistos found in leaf litter surveys I've read seems to be Apistogramma cf. regani, a beautiful and interesting little fish. The reality is that many species of Apistos are suitable for leaf litter-themed aquariums. In nature, they are often found in groups, and if your aquarium is large enough, this would be a very cool way to keep them! Try a group of your faves!

And of course, you could always incorporate a catfish! Among the more unusual, yet perfectly suited ones for such a setup would be Amblydoras nauticus, the "Marbled Raphael Catfish." This species is a nocturnal scavenger, is easy to keep, and makes a near perfect community tank fish. They get along well with just about any fishes we're bound to keep, and eat like little pigs!

If you're looking for something a bit more familiar-looking- a fish you can actually see more often- then you'd be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate candidate than a Pyrrulina species! These little characins are closely related to the "Splash Tetras" (Copeina and Copella species), with a few minor anatomical differences. They are surprisingly colorful, interesting, and easy to keep fishes that fill a similar role and niche in the leaf litter zones as the better-known (in the aquarium world, at least) Pencilfishes. 

Obviously, there are many other fishes that call the leaf litter beds home, but these are just a few of the interesting choices that you may not have considered when deciding to play with this type of aquarium. With a little creative license, yo can utilize an interesting mix of fishes to really make your leaf litter aquarium come alive! And far be it from me to stop you from mixing in a few Southeast Asian or African leaf litter bed dwellers for fun and interest! We'll cover some choices from those regions in upcoming blogs!

In the mean time, look beyond the common, and you'll find some really cool choices that you might not have previously considered!

Enjoy the process...enjoy the fishes!

And Stay Wet!

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

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