Degrees of difficulty: Working with "Challenging" Fishes.

I suppose that, if you pressed me, I’d tell you that I think that one of the best things in the  aquarium hobby is taking on a task, acting on an idea, or attempting to do something that “everyone” feels is “hard.”

Of course, there is a lot of room for interpretation here. Every hobbyist has their own list of stuff that’s “hard" to do in the aquarium world.

I've always been fascinated by the idea that certain fishes are "difficult to keep." Over the years, I've spent a lot of time considering what the factors are which lead to some of these fishes receiving this label.


First, it starts with where the fish comes from.

Some species come from ecological niches which are significantly different than those which the typical hobbyist in say, suburban Atlanta, Lisbon, or Seul could easily provide. Perhaps they don't easily or quickly adapt to hard, alkaline water, fluctuating temperatures, etc. We need to recreate the environmental conditions from which they come if we want to keep them in aquariums.

Sometimes, those conditions aren't simply pH/alkalinity/temperature, of course. Perhaps, they're more subtle factors, like the humidity of the atmosphere surrounding the aquarium water. Maybe it's the type of substrate materials which are incorporated into their displays. Perhaps, it's water movement. Maybe some missing trace element, which is best provided by incorporating certain botanical materials or rocks?

Maybe it's a combination of factors? 

Other times, it's about food.

Some species are very specific feeders. For example, certain marine Butterflyfishes are what are known as "obligate coralivores", only feeding on live coral polyps.

This "obligate coralivore business" used to be a non-starter for keeping Buterflyfishes. You had no access to live coral. Well, now, we grow coral easily. While one can debate the ethics of doing so, we could keep these fishes- if we are willing to sacrifice our Acropora, or whatever species of coral we grow.

Some fishes, like Hatchetfishes, are used to feeding on live insects. You need to understand how to culture fruit flies, ants, etc in order to keep them successfully...or should I say, in order to get them to acclimate successfully to captive foods and life.

The other factor is sort of related to the first one...Where the fish comes from.

Some fishes come from very remote areas, with limited access to collection and distribution points, and challenging air freight logistics. Even today, places like Papua New Guinea or Borneo are challenging places to get live fishes out of.

This, of course, puts a lot of stress on fishes- many of which aren't fed along the canon of custody from collector to retailer, resulting in a half-starved, weakened, likely parasite-laden fish arriving at your store. That's a rough way to start!


And of course, there are other factors, too. And combinations. In recent years, mass breeding in certain nations has resulted in an influx of inbred, weak, low-genetic quality stock which, for any number of reasons, simply aren't as robust as those produced on a smaller scale, or via the work of hobbyist breeders. Some are so low quality and predictably bad, that you'd be better off dealing with wild-caught specimens of the same species in your tank!

Of course, one of the interesting and humbling things about dealing with Nature's creations is that, even if you think you're knowledgeable, prepared, etc...up for the challenge- you might still fall way short of the mark. 

I remember, like 19 years ago, I really wanted to keep a group of Alligator Pipefish (Syngnathoides biaculeatus) in a marine aquarium. It's a nice sized pipefish, too, typically around 8"or so in size.

And of course, after coveting this fish for some time, and doing some research, I thought I was ready. I realized that the big hurdle to keeping this fish in captivity was feeding it. In the wild, they feed on planktonic organisms, something that at the time was considered difficult to obtain in the aquarium hobby.

Now, this was what I thought was my Ace in the hole! I figured I could just get the fish to eat the newly-available frozen mysis shrimp, spend a few weeks hand-feeding them, and blam! Cool show fish in my new aquarium! 

I was so wrong on so many levels. First, obtaining specimens that weren't already half-starved to death was challenging enough. These fish need to eat on a near-constant basis, and usually they're almost gone by the time they arrive in the LFS. And then, placing them in an aquarium and attempting to feed them a strange, non-living food was yet another challenge.

I lost all 5 of the specimens I obtained.

Interestingly, about 3 months after my Pipefish debacle, I was at the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America, where I ended up hanging out with some Seahorse and Pipefish geeks (these people were the aquarium world's equivalent of the "crazy cat person"- but they did party pretty hard, so..).

Turns out, S. biaculeatus is a bit challenging, but the secret was to feed them live foods first. I also was given some great advice by one very experienced hobbyist: Consider the habitat from which they come...In this instance, seagrass beds-unique marine habitats which are bursting with life at many levels. 

And, with effort, seagrasses can be grown and maintained in the aquarium.


That advice not only changed the course of my Alligator Pipefish project- it may very well have changed the course of my aquarium hobby "life's work!"

Design the aquarium around the fish- not "adapt the fish to your aquarium." 

A few months later, after much research and effort, I had delved into the world of seagrasses and set up an aquarium to grow them. And I was able to get them to grow. My research about this habitat led me to try the idea- suggested by another friend- of "pre-stocking" the aquarium with all sorts of organisms (marine rotifers, amphipods, sipunculid worms, copepods, etc.) and to let the seagrasses establish before adding any fishes.

I learned to develop a microcosm-one which could provide as much supplemental food as possible for the fishes while they acclimated to prepared foods. An environment as close as possible to the one from which my fishes came from.

It worked.

I was able to maintain three specimen for about 2 years, before I needed to break the tank down. Strangely, the idea was pretty simple. The execution wasn't as much "difficult" as it was demanding of patience- something I already had as a fish keeper. I learned a lot, like how to keep seagrasses, how to cultivate amphipods, and other interesting practices.

Lessons learned. Hobby direction formed.


This "Pipefish thing" was a pivotal lesson- one that made me fundamentally reconsider how to create aquariums, manage them, and work with all sorts of fishes.

Meet their needs. Not yours.

It's pretty straightforward.

Despite all of this, and after a lifetime in the hobby, I say, somewhat confidently that there are no difficult fish.

WTF? After all that, you make this brash and seemingly ignorant statement, Fellman?

Well, yeah. Here's why:

It's not that a fish is inherently difficult...It simply means that we as hobbyists, if we want to be successful with a species, need to meet its needs. We need to make the effort to study its specific requirements, the habitat from which it comes from, and it's life cycle.  

We need to find out how to obtain the fish from sources which have properly handled it along the chain of custody from stream to store. We have to do a little research- and that sometimes means bypassing the fish-world drivel (like this blog!) and slugging it out on Google scholar, Fishbase, ResearchGate, and other academic sources.

To many hobbyists, that's difficult.

The fish, however, is not.

Difficult tasks, like, I don't know, landing a man on the fucking moon, require us to solve literally thousands of problems and challenges, accumulate resources, and to create hardware, practices, and procedures to accomplish the goal.

And as we know, even landing man on the moon isn't impossible, right?

We landed a man on the moon back in 1969 because we decided that we wanted to do it, broke it down into a series tasks and stages (projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), put the effort in, overcame our mistakes and failures...and went for it.

So, while trying to keep and breed, say, Indostomus paradoxus might seem like a real problem, is there a problem here, really?  Sure, on the surface, it seems like a "poster child" for "difficult", right? It's a tough to obtain, small, relatively timid fish with a tiny mouth and "specialized" feeding requirements.

Yet, break it down for a second:

It's hard to find, because there isn't a ton of demand for it. Yet, lots of people have kept and bred them over the years...Want some? Hound your suppliers, leave posts on the forums, hit up Google. DO the work. You'll find SOME, trust me. It might take a while, but you WILL find them.

The fish comes from swamps and places with muddy, soft clay-filled substrates filled with decaying leaf litter and such. Well, shit, we make a damn good soft, clay-filled muddy substrate, right?


And I sure as HELL know where you can get leaves! And you do, too. 😆

These substrates are are home to small crustaceans, worms, etc. So, like, why is THAT a problem? Pre-stock the tank with copepods, Daphnia, Gammarus, etc for a month or two before you add the fish. We've done that before, right?

We know how to build the "microbiome" of our aquariums, don't we? Yeah, we do.

And not a lot of water movement, and likely a species-only tank...Just get a tank for them. Problem solved.

So sure, not every fish "problem" will have "off-the-shelf" solutions to utilize, but you can use this same "break-down" approach to figure out how to make it happen.

And yeah, I know, some fish will have 13 different considerations to figure out  instead of 5, but you get the idea.

And yeah, landing men on the moon had about 14 million considerations. And they did THAT.

You can even breed the world's smallest fish, Paedocypris- if you figure out it's needs, provide for them, and are patient and persistent as hell.

You can. 

It's a simple- and as "difficult"- as that.

To me, "degree of difficulty" simply means "how much do you want it?"

How much do you want it? How many challenges do you want to meet? How patient are you? How far will you push?

Are you up for the challenge? 

You've got this.

Stay persistent. Stay diligent. Stay tenacious. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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