Africa: A case for compelling niche habitats...and killifishes! (Pt.2)

Africa...perhaps the most diverse and fascinating aquatic environment on earth.

Africa contains thousands of small tributaries and streams which flow throughout the continent, encompassing a variety of aquatic environments of every type.

Yes- the aquatic habitats of Africa encompass just about every cool idea we throw at you here- and then some!

The chance to replicate some truly unique ecological niches is tantalizing, isn't it? There are remarkable aquatic habitats in Africa which we can readily replicate with the materials and techniques we already use. Some of them are rather simple for us to execute, such as a variety of plants and terrestrial grasses in a blackwater habitat filled with leaves.

Many fishes, like the cool Ctenopoma, are found in habitats like this, 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.

And Africa, much like South America, has a tremendous diversity of these types of leaf-choked habitats to work with.

There are lots of different types of river habitats, jungle streams, temporary pools, and (perhaps most exciting to many) plant-rich ponds and tributaries- all of which have blackwater "versions"- can make this an amazing canvas upon which to execute our craft.

Yes, lots of cool cichlids, characins, and other types of fishes are available in the hobby which inhabit variety of "fairly standardized" and well-represented ecological niches in the aquarium. I'm not the first person to argue this case in the hobby. You likely don't need me to sell you on them.

Yet, there is a group of fishes which we can play with that are almost the perfect "subjects" to work with to attempt to replicate some unusual habitats in the aquarium. Unique fishes which are colorful, interesting, downright tough, and highly adaptable...

The killifishes!

Yup, the chance to do some really unusual work, especially with the under-appreciated (in the hobby mainstream, anyways) killifishes- is always pretty cool! The habitats in which killies are typically found are compelling, and their unique structure and aesthetics pushes us to the very edge of what we consider our "craft" if we want to replicate them.

Hobbyists have kept them for many decades; not much truly "new" there, right? The list of popular killies from Africa reads like a "who's who" of the aquarium world: Nothobranchius, Chromaphyosemion, Fundulopanchax, Epiplatys, Aphyosemion...just to name a few.

So, although new species are being discovered all the time, and taxonomic debates rage in the hobby and scientific communities, their husbandry has pretty much been "standardized" for a long time. The main "theme" of the killifish hobby, at least in my opinion as a sort of "peripheral" killie keeper, has been simply to breed them and maintain captive populations of them. 

A super noble goal, of course, yet rather "one dimensional", in my opinion. The "formula is straightforward: Keep them in small aquariums filled with spawning mops, containers of peat moss, and maybe a few floating plants. Useful, efficient, highly functional, and..well...boring.

The idea of controlled breeding in peat-filled containers is just one way to approach their care. Imagine the interesting types of "permanent setups" you could create by looking more closely at the actual physical/chemical/environmental aspects of their natural habitats and attempting to replicate them in the aquarium.

Yeah. The habitats themselves are the key, IMHO to unlocking more interest in these amazing fishes! 

Hear me out...

Arguments abound online in killifish forums with hobbyists preferring all sorts of ways to popularize these rather under-appreciated fishes, and what many call a "moribund" sector of the aquarium hobby, seemingly lacking a significant influx of new hobbyists. So, why not solve this "problem" by working on "the whole picture" of killifish care?

The inspiration is right in front of us. The information about them is abundant.

Many killifish enthusiasts have visited the wild habitats of killies and documented information about the ecosystems in which they are found, so why not use this data to replicate this most interesting, yet remarkably under-represented aspect of the killie realm?

Think of what our community, which has a tremendous amount of experience with unique aspects of habitat replication, can bring to the table here!

I've already started doing some of this type of work with South American annual killifishes, keeping them in my "Urban Igapo" habitat replications in "wet/dry" cycles, and the results have been really interesting! Spawning annual fishes in an aquarium environment which more realistically and accurately represents the natural habitats from which they have evolved in over eons is truly exciting!

And of course, a vast variety of killifish species inhabit leaf-strewn, sediment-laden bodies of water.

Bodies of water which offer habitat "enrichment", physical structure, and chemical influence. Bodies of water which our community is quite "fluent" at replicating in the aquarium. Leaves, botanical materials, and sediments are right up our proverbial "alley", right?

Sediments and substrates and leaves again!

Yeah, I suspect that we would do well to work with sediments, particularly sediments mixed with finely-crushed botanical materials like leaves. These materials will, of course, not only visually tint the water snd add some turbidity, they'll very accurately represent some of the chemical aspects of the natural habitats, too.


And of course, Africa has some other very compelling environments that would be equally fascinating to replicate in our aquaria. Environments seldom replicated in the hobby:

Tiny jungle streams, vernal pools, and... MUD PUDDLES!

Yes, mud puddles! Now, would it be possible to recreate a mud puddle in an aquarium to any degree? I think so! We've more-or-less done this already, right?

And what better fishes to use as "subjects" for this unique biotope-inspired work than killifishes?

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...By working with "the whole picture" of their world?

Yes, they've been kept by avid enthusiasts for a century or more, but there are still so many secrets to unlock.  I think that the killifish hobby is really great at what they do, but is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees!  The answer to getting these fishes more into the mainstream of the hobby AND bringing in new enthusiasts at the same time is right in front of our eyes.

Creating aquariums that specifically aim to replicate the particular habitats of some of these species is simply beyond just an "under-served" area of the hobby. It's one which YOU could make very useful contributions to with a little research and some cool documented work!

I couldn't think of a better way to increase awareness within the hobby and outside of it about an amazing group of fishes, and the awe-inspiring natural habitats from which they come. Habitats which are increasingly endangered by mankind's encroachments and activities.

Habitats which need our protection more than ever!

Habitats which we can create a greater appreciation for  and understanding of by attempting to replicate them in the aquarium! 

What better outcome for the fishes, the hobby, the content, and the planet-could there be than that? 

Stay thoughtful. Stay informed. Stay curious. Stay resourceful. Stay bold. Stay unique...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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