If you're a typical fish geek, your aquatic interests will span a multitude of fish types, habitats, and geographic locations.
I admit freely that I'm a great lover of the fishes of South America; specifically, Amazonia. With it's incredibly diverse variety of habitats, one could spend a lifetime just studying, collecting, and keeping fishes from this area, and just as much time replicating the amazing environments from which they come.
However, as we all know, it's a big world, and there are numerous other places where amazing fishes come from...Like, Africa, for example!
The coolest thing about the African content is that it has a diversity of habitats and fishes that is equally as stunning as anything found anywhere else on the planet. Yet, for some reason, outside of the Rift Lake cichlids and a few popular favorites, the region seems stunningly under-represented, at least from a "Natural habitat replication" standpoint, IMHO.
Now, this piece is absolutely NOT going to be an essay all about Africa and the many fishes available there. That could take hundreds of pages and a lifetime of research and study. Sadly, this will be a very quick- and ultimately unsatisfying- look at this amazing place, from an aquarium perspective. Yeah, wanted to clear that up from the start! We're just trying to open up your eyes to the possibilities that await the adventurous aquarist who takes a different perspective on the fishes and habitats of this vast continent.
What we will talk about (albeit all too superficially and briefly here) is the remarkable similarity between the blackwater habitats of Africa and the South American and Asian ones we're probably a bit more familiar with. And of course, we'll note where we can utilize most of the same botanicals, ideas, and aesthetics in working with the fishes from this dynamic part of the world.
Now, first off, in many tropical African regions, you have influence from the mighty Congo River, arguably the natural analog to The Amazon. It flows almost 3000 miles, and is the world's deepest river. There are over 700 species of fishes recorded as having been from this river, making it remarkable for species richness. And of course, the numerous tributaries which emirate from this river, including the major tributary systems, including the Kasai, Lefini, Ubangi, Tshuapa, and Lomami, and hundreds of tiny, lesser-known ones, contain more fishes, and encompass a variety of habitats.
Many of the fishes we keep from this region are from an area known as the "Malebo Pool", with its sandy substrates, often with leaves and branches, and it's interesting reed grass "islands." It's known for slower water flow than the rapids of the main river itself. And then, there are the thousands of small tributaries and streams which flow throughout the continent, encompassing a variety of aquatic environments.
To think about what fishes you would keep in such habitats, you can simply "pick a fish- any fish" that you like, study the habitat and the fishes associated with it...and wham! Instant stocking plan! Of course, some of these fishes are more challenging to keep, because they require acclimation from living foods, etc...but hey, we've covered a lot of that before, right?
Many fishes, like my fave, the Ctenopoma are found in habitats which bear a remarkable similarity to the ones we're familiar with in South America: Rather dimly illuminated, thickly vegetated jungle streams, choked with floating vegetation and a bed of leaf litter and botanical materials (submerged branches, seed pods, etc.). The water itself is typically soft and acidic, with pH levels ranging from 5.5-6.8.
Other fishes found in similar habitats to the Ctenopoma include some aquarium varieties like various Pelmatochromis, and some less-well-known, but nonetheless kept species, like Pantodon buchholzi, Distichodus sp., Neolebias sp., and Epiplatys chevalieri. Phenacogrammus interruptus (yeah, the Congo Tetra!), is often found in similar habitats, as well as some super cool, leaf-litter-dwelling Nannocharax species.
Are you feeling it yet?
Yeah, okay...so there are a lot of cool fishes that you can base an African-themed botanical-style blackwater aquarium on....The ideas are endless.
And then, of course...there are the killes.
Yeah...we've kept them for many decades. The list of popular killies from Africa reads like a "who's who" of the aquarium world: Nothobranchius, Fundulopanchax, Epiplatys, Aphyosemion...just to name a few.
Each coming from compelling environments that would be equally fascinating to replicate in our aquaria: Tiny jungle streams, vernal pools, MUD PUDDLES!
I mean, for the hardcore biotope enthusiast, messing around with aquariums simulating the various habitats in which killies alone are found could be a lifelong obsession!
Imagine how cool it would be to delve into the world of killies...I mean, they've been kept by avid enthusiasts for a century or more, but there are still so many secrets to unlock. And creating aquarium that specifically aim to replicate the particular habitats of some of these species is still a sort of "under-served" area of the hobby, to which YOU could make useful contributions to with a little research and work!
And yes, you can utilize a host of different botanicals to achieve many of the same effects as you do in your Asian and South American-themed aquariums...Leaves being just one of them...
So, turn towards Africa, as adventurers have done for centuries...and launch a new adventure in your own voyage of "aquatic creativity!"
Stay bold. Stay inspired. Stay fascinated.
And Stay Wet.