Born and Bred

The other day I was admiring some of my Epiplatys dageti Monroviae (a top-spawning African killifish) spawning in one of my tanks. It's always cool to see your fishes spawn, and it's even more cool when they are fish that you've raised from fry themselves- I guess it's something about "closing a circle", or whatever. 

Regardless, the satisfaction of seeing our fishes- any of our fishes- engage in reproductive behavior in our aquariums is not only one of Nature's wonders- it's kind of a testimony to our work!

When our fishes reproduce in our aquariums, it's a pretty amazing achievement, really. Think about it: An animal is comfortable enough in the environment which you have provided, and healthy enough under your care to engage in eons-old reproductive activity, just like occurs in Nature. Now, sure, with some fishes, like many livebearers, this reproductive behavior is almost inevitable in captivity. It's still amazing to see, though isn't it?

And of course, there are some fishes, like Discus, for which spawning is not considered "inevitable." These fishes require very specific environmental conditions, social hierarchies, and time, in order for this to occur. It's not "impossible"- just a bit more demanding of us...
What is it about some fishes which challenges us to make them spawn? Is it some sort of environmental  "trigger" that is required? Or is it simply something in the "genetic programming" of the fish, which has a "timing mechanisms: which needs to be "unlocked" or something?

As a kid, I remember that the idea of breeding my fishes seemed so exotic; so aspirational...and often, unachievable.

Sometimes, it still feels that way, especially with some fishes.

I mean, sure, I was able to breed livebearers, killies, Kribs, Zebra Danios, Apistos, Cherry Barbs- fishes like that. Sometimes, these were the result of random chance, coincidences, or just plain old luck. Usually, my deliberately organized breeding attempts just sort of came up short all the time.

I mean, I'd have some success.

I had various Tetras breed when I intentionally tried to do it. However, for the most part, my "career" as a deliberate fish breeder has been essentially lacking. For whatever reason, I just don't have that combination of skill, desire, and a certain kind of patience that almost every talented fish breeder seems to possess in abundance.

The combination which leads to success with so many types of fishes.

And, that's okay. I made peace with that a long time ago. Thank goodness there are so many hobbyists out there who have that skill set and desire! Where would the hobby be without you guys?

Yeah, not everyone has the right combination of skill, patience, and resources to be a great fish breeder. Some of us just don't get bitten with that bug. I mean, the occasional random, spontaneous event happens, and we rejoice, panic, and hopefully learn from it!

Over the decades, I've had a surprisingly large number of those "spontaneous" spawning events with my fishes. You know, you wake up one morning and your Pencilfishes are acting weird...Next thing you know, there are clouds of eggs flying all over the tank...

That sort of stuff.

And after the initial surprise and excitement, during my "postgame analysis", I'd always try to figure out what led to the spawning event...It was usually pure luck, coupled with providing the fishes a good environment, rather than some intentionally-spawning-focused efforts I made.

And after a few years of experiencing this sort of thing, I began to draw the conclusion that it was the result of going out of my way to focus on recreating the correct environmental conditions for my fishes on a full-time basis- not just for spawning- which led to these events occurring repeatedly over the years.

With all sorts of fishes, too.

When it happened again, a couple of years ago, in my experimental leaf-litter only tank, hosting about 20 Paracheirodon simulans ("Green Neon Tetras"), I came the conclusion, in a rather circuitous sort of way, that I AM a "fish breeder" of sorts.

Or, more precisely, a "fish natural habitat replication specialist."

A nice way of saying that by focusing on the overall environmental conditions of the aquarium on a full time basis, I could encourage more natural behaviors- including spawning- among the fishes under my care.

Of course, there is more to being a "successful" breeder than just having the fishes spawn. You have to rear the resulting fry, right? Sure, half the battle is just getting the fishes to lay eggs in the first place- a conformation that you're doing something right to make them comfortable enough to want to reproduce! And there is a skill set needed to rear the fry, too.

Yet, I think that with a more intensive and creative approach, our botanical-style aquariums can help with the "rearing aspect", too. Sure, it's more "hands-off" than the traditional "keep-the-fry-knee-deep-in-food-at-all-times" approach that serious breeders employ...but my less deliberate, more "hands-off" approach can work. I've seen it happen many times in my "non-breeding" tanks.

We're seeing more and more reports of "spontaneous" spawnings of all sorts of different fishes associated with blackwater conditions.

Often, it's a group of fishes that the aquarist had for a while, perhaps with little effort put into spawning them, and then it just sort of "happened." For others, it is perhaps expected- maybe the ultimate goal as it relates to a specific species...but was just taking a long time to come to fruition.

The "common denominator" in all of the reports we receive are that the fishes are displaying better overall color, vigor, and overall health after being recently exposed to the more "physiologically appropriate" conditions of a blackwater aquarium. Now, this is by no means us stating that blackwater/botanical-style tanks are somehow "magical", and possess the ability to make every fish automatically thrive and spawn- or that this is some amazing "secret" that we've stumbled upon.

Nope. It's as old as the hobby itself. It's hardly magic.

It's the work of Nature.

Rather, it's more of an affirmation of a theory which I've developed over the decades that fishes from "specialized environmental conditions"- even those which might be many generations captive-bred, can always benefit from being "re-patriated" to the conditions under which they have evolved for eons.

I often wonder what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..."

This is pretty much the "classic" way many of us "bred" livebearers, killifish, and Rainbowfishes for a long time. It's a very low-labor, aesthetically interesting way to keep and breed these guys.

Now, I realize that a lot of hardcore, very experienced breeders will scoff at this- and probably rightly so. For the serious breeder, giving up control when the specific goal is the reproduction of your fishes is probably not a good thing. Practicality becomes important- hence the employment of clay flowerpots, spawning cones, breeding traps, bare tanks to raise fry, etc.

Sure, to a fish, a cave is a cave, be it constructed of ceramic or if it's the inside of a hollowed-out Cariniana pod. To the fish, it's a necessary place to spawn quietly and provide a defensible territory to protect the resulting fry.

In all likelihood, they couldn't care less what it is made of, right? And to the serious or professional breeder, viable spawns are the game.

And rearing the fry is the whole game!

No discussion of rearing our little fishes would be complete without revisiting the idea of a botanical-influenced "nursery" tank for fishes. You know where I'm going with this, right?

I think it's interesting for a number of reasons:

First, as we've discussed many times, the humic substances and other compounds associated with leaves and other botanicals, when released into the water, are known to have beneficial health impact on fishes. The potential for antimicrobial and antifungal effects is documented by science and is quite real.

Wouldn't this be something worth investigating from our unique angle? 

I think so!

Additionally, rearing young fishes in the type of environmental conditions under which they will spend the rest of their lives just makes a lot of sense to me. Having to acclimate young fishes into unfamiliar/different conditions, however beneficial they might be, still can be stressful to them.

So, why not be consistent with the environment from day one?

Wouldn't a "botanical-style fry-rearing system", with it's abundant decomposing leaves, biofilms, and microbial population, be of benefit?

I think so.

This is an interesting, in fact, fundamental aspect of botanical-style aquariums; we've discussed it many, many times here: The idea of "on board" food cultivation for fishes.

The breakdown and decomposition of various botanical materials provides a very natural supplemental source of food for young fishes, both directly (as in the case of fishes such as wood-eating catfishes, etc.), and indirectly, as they graze on algal growth, biofilms, fungi, and small crustaceans which inhabit the botanical "bed" in the aquarium.

And of course, decomposing leaves can stimulate a certain amount of microbial growth, with infusoria, forms of bacteria, and small crustaceans, becoming potential food sources for fry. I've read a few studies where phototrophic bacteria were added to the diet of larval fishes, producing measurably higher growth rates. Now, I'm not suggesting that your fry will gorge on beneficial bacteria "cultured" in situ in your blackwater nursery and grow exponentially faster.

However, I am suggesting that it might provide some beneficial supplemental nutrition at no cost to you!

It's essentially an "evolved" version of the "jungle tanks" I reared killies in when I was a teen. A different sort of look- and function! The so-called "permanent setup"- in which the adults and fry typically co-exist, with the fry finding food amongst the natural substrate and other materials present I the tank. Or, of course, you could remove the parents after breeding- the choice is yours.

While I believe that we can be lucky about having fishes spawn in our tanks when that wasn't the intent, I don't believe that fishes reproduce in our tanks solely  because of "luck." I mean, sure you will occasionally happen to have stumbled n the right combination of water temp, pH, current, light, or whatever- and BLAM! Spawning. However, I think it's more of a cumulative result of doing stuff right. For a while.

So, what is wrong with the idea of a permanent setup- a setup in which the fishes are provided a natural setting, and left to their own devices to "do their thing..?"

There really is nothing "wrong" with that. 

I guess my personal approach to fish breeding has always been, "If it happens, great...If not, I want the fishes to have an environment that mimics the one they're found in naturally." And that works to a certain extent, but I can see how many hobbyists feel that it's certainly not the practical way to do systematic, controlled breeding. 

Yet, isn't their something wonderful (for those of us who are not hell-bent on controlling the time and place of our fish's spawnings) to check out your tank one night and see a small clutch of Apisto fry under the watchful eye of the mother in a Sterculia pod or, a bunch of eggs of your fave Cory adorning the substrate, or whatever? Perhaps not as predictable or controllable as a more sterile breeding tank, but nonetheless, exciting!

It's about wonder. Awe. The happenstance of giving your fishes exactly what they need to react in the most natural way possible.

And that's pretty cool, isn't it?

Stay enthralled. Stay Excited. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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