If you ask 20 different aquarists why they are in this hobby, there's a great chance that you'll get 20 different answers in the process.
Some will tell you that they just love the way fishes and plants look. Others will tell you that they just want to have a replica of the river that they saw on the Discovery Channel show about The Amazon. Others will tell you that they love messing with all the new gadgets! And certain aquarists with messed up priorities will tell you that they set up their tank to impress members of the opposite sex..
For many of us, however, what got us into aquarium keeping was the fishes! Fishes are compelling, interesting, challenging, frustrating, and most are undeniably beautiful...Some of us nut-jobs even ended up abandoning all common sense and do this stuff for a living!
There,s just something relaxing, inspiring, and just plain amazing about watching our tanks.
Think about this for a minute, as you ponder your deciscion wether to purchase a "Scarlet Badis" or a "Flame Jewel Badis", or whatever. How well do you really know your fishes?
You've probably already figured out that your Pristella Tetra is a pretty fish that comes from South America. You probably know it, like many characins, comes from soft, acid waters. Yet, have you really thought about just why that is? What locales does it come from in nature? What does it eat? Does it coexist with other fishes in this ecological niche? Which ones?
Maybe not, because you "know what you need to know" about the fish and are content with that. And that's ok...
However, one of the best things we can do as hobbyists is to really get to know our corals. By "know", I'm not just talking about being aware that your Aulonocara sp. "Maulana" comes from lake Malawi. I'm talking about really learning about the fish and it's needs. With a few pleasant hours of research, you can gain an amazing insight into your fish. Spending quality time on a scientific site can help take your understanding of your fishes to a whole new level.
Not only can you find out more about the fish's physiology, you can research things which can help you more accurately replicate their natural diet. You can also find data about where various type specimens were collected. Valuable information like depth, habitat, time of year, and water temperature. All of these details can really help you in your efforts to create the best possible captive situation for your fishes.
Beyond simply researching the fishes, you could take it to another level and actually visit them in their native rivers or on the wild reef. Trust me, getting SCUBA certified was one of the best things this stubborn surfer ever did. Nothing I have done previously has given me a greater understanding of corals and reefs than going out and seeing them in their natural habitat!
As a dive-certified or traveling fish geek, you separate yourself from all of the other hapless masses of clueless recreational divers and have a chance to really contribute to the body of knowledge of the fishes we keep. When everyone else is busy looking at that big dumb grouper or boring old shark, you'll no doubt be drawn to that tiny goby poking out of the coral rubble, or that little Apisto darting under the leaves on your South American "Eco Tour"! Alright, you might make a lousy dive buddy, but you'll be a keen observer of nature!
Not only will you gain a greater appreciation for the delicate nature of the wild environment, you'll be able to more accurately replicate (or in some cases decide that you can't replicate) the environmental niche from which your fish comes.
Seeing fishes in the wild give you insights, which may help you and other aquarists unlock their secrets- perhaps leading to further breakthroughs in their husbandry and captive propagation. Anything that we can do to help protect wild populations and preserve the rivers, streams, and reefs is certainly worth the time and effort.
Last, but certainly not least, you can take your hard-won knowledge and really get to help others- and ourselves- by sharing. Not just passing on a book recommendation or a thread from a forum discussion. I'm talking about telling your fellow hobbyists just what you know and how you do it! Contribute to the body of knowledge out there in the hobby. Write a blog, attend a local fish club meeting, or start a club if none exist in your area. Travel to one of the big ACA, AKA, IBC, or other conference and spend a weekend talking fish with other fanatics. Write about your experiences or help a beginner. If you've totally lost it, like me, you'll end up jetting around the country sharing your knowledge with any other crazy fish geeks who will listen.
The bottom line here is that there are lots of ways to really get to know your fishes. And the best part is that pretty much every one of them will benefit ourselves, our fellow hobbyists, and most important- the fishes themselves.
So next time you stare in at that hot new Plecostomus at an online vendor, don't just read the two-paragraph description of the fish. Go a bit further..take the time to really get to know the fish!
Stay interested; share your hard-won knowledge with other hobbyists...
And stay wet.