Digging those Geos!

One of the fun things about the aquarium hobby is that there seems to be a fish, or group of fishes, for almost every taste. Those of you who know me well are aware of the fact that I tend to favor small, relatively docile fishes, like characins- the "Teacup Poodles" of the aquarium world.

Although I'm not alone in my love for the little guys, there are plenty of hobbyists who love larger, more aggressive, more "destructive" fishes. Well, I may not favor those fishes in my tanks, but I do have a healthy respect and admiration for some of the more- shall we say- "hardcore" fishes...like the so-called "Eartheaters" (families Acarichthys, Biotodoma, GeophagusGuianacaraGymnogeophagus, and Satanoperca).  

Theyre party of a tribe known to taxonomists as Geophagini. This lively and diverse group contains some of the most endearing and interesting cichlids around. With a surprising number of our customers wanting to incorporate botanicals in setups with these fishes, I couldn't NOT take a little look at them in "The Tint", right? 

(Gymnogeophagus balzanii. Photo by CHUCAO, under CC BY-SA 3.0)

And of course, the name of the genus Geophagus contains the Greek root words for "earth" and "eat", as if to reinforce the popular collective name. So, in case you haven't figured it out by now...They dig in the sand to get food...oh, and they shit.

A lot.

And some are large and mean.

Of course, you probably already knew that, and I'm the last guy you really want to write one of those "Review of the Eartheaters"-type articles, so we're going to focus more on the kind of environment you'd want to set for these bad-asses, from a botanical-style aquarium perspective, of course.

And of course, it's irresponsible for me to simply generalize about all of them as a group. Not all of the Eartheaters are mean, destructive fishes. Not all are huge. However, you need to really study the attributes and behaviors of the species you're into. 

(Satanoperca leucosticta- image by Dr. David Midgely, used under CC BY-SA 2.5)

So, without getting too specific, suffice it to say that the bulk of them do fine in neutral to slightly acidic environments. Hailing from South America (Brazil, Northern Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay), including Amazonia, many inhabit areas with a mix of botanicals, rocks, and of course, sand or sediment.

Yes, you'll see plants in these environments, too, but not always true aquatics, so we'll focus on the botanical aspect. Besides, as you know, I'm hardly the guy you'd go to for information on plants, right? I'm sort of a botanicals, leaves, and driftwood kind of guy, myself...

So, like how would you use botanicals with these fishes?

Hailing as they do from environments that have both swift currents and sluggish water movement, you can use a mix of bigger, heavier botanicals with some of the smaller ones. Rocky, sandy, botanical-strewn bottoms are common habitats for these fishes.

You'll often see them in habitats with sandy, silty substrates and a few leaves and such scattered around. Of course, these environments are slightly turbid, not only because of the currents, but because of the digging activities of these fishes.

Many species are also found in swamps adjacent to streams or rivers, with far less water movement and more placid water flow.

One interesting thing that we should think about when housing these guys in tanks with botanicals- a fair amount of these fishes need some "roughage' in their diet- usually in the form of plant materials...However, some of the "softer" botanicals, such as leaves, coco curls, etc are often "mouthed" by these fishes, so that's something to think about when keeping them in a botanical-influenced tank.

Now, I wouldn't specifically go for a leaf litter-only tank with these guys- they'll simply move it around and create a sort of boring look. Rather, I'd go with some of the more durable, larger materials, in various sizes. The beloved Cariniana Pods  (when the damn things are back in stock from our suppliers- thanks, Covid, you piece of shit!) and "Helix Pods" are perfect "props" for these fishes, offering them an interesting and stimulating physical habitat.

Although the bulk of these fishes reach sizes which will make some of these pods useless as a hiding place after they're just a few months old, these will function as the equivalent of a dog toy!  And, the larger, more durable pods make pretty cool "props."

My preference for botanicals with fishes like this would be an abundance of the more durable stuff, in various sizes, such as Mokha Pods, or Jacaranda Pods, which have "nut-like" outer shells that can easily be moved, and are analogous to some of the botanical materials that you'd see falling into rivers and streams.

Hmm, it's that allochthonous input thing again!

And you know that I find this a fascinating behavior, right?

(A classic, Geophagus brasiliensis. Image by Cezary Porycki, used under CC BY 3.0)

Since many species do forage of fruits and other botanical materials as part of their diet, you could include some of the more "transitional" materials, like  Calotropis pods, which soften significantly after being submerged, and are a favorite of shrimp and many catfishes, too.

Damn, if I keep suggesting materials to use with your Eartheaters, this blog is simply going to end up sounding more like a sales brochure for our stuff than anything else, so I think you get the idea by now....

In summary:

You can use pretty much any of our botanicals with these unique cichlids, within reason. We receive a lot of request for "Enigma Packs" designed for these fishes. And of course, when we curate them, we try to take into account the species that the pack is intended for.  Of course, we can generalize a bit when selecting botanical materials for these guys...

The key, IMHO, is to mix more durable materials, which can hold up to the "chewing" and digging and general moving-around-the-tank activities that these guys are known to engage in throughout the day.- in with the more "transitional ones You can create a cool aquascape that is both functional and aesthetic by using a nice mix of the larger, more durable botanicals with more traditional hardscape elements like wood, etc.

To quickly summarize, these endearing fishes are surprisingly good candidates to keep with botanicals, because while many are not specifically from tinted, blackwater environments, the bulk (heh, heh) of them do come from environments which have "botanical influence" from materials that fall into their habitats from overhanging trees and such.

(Acarichthys heckelii- Image by Dr. David Midgely under CC BY-SA- 2.5)

I also think that we as hobbyists make entirely too much out of the "They make the water cloudy!" argument. I mean, sure, many of them dig. You need good circulation, filtration, and overall husbandry. But guess what? If the water is a bit turbid because sediment and sand are in the water column because of the excavation efforts of these fishes...who cares? The fish?

I don't think so.

I mean, yeah- they dig, and they'll make their aquarium environment turbid as a result. So, you compensate with good husbandry- but you need not freak out by trying every possible avenue to make the water crystal clear. I'm feeling that we place way too much emphasis on this attribute in aquarium keeping- feeling that any turbidity or color in water is somehow "problematic."

As we know by now, many habitats in Nature, including those where this trip of fishes comes from, are anything but "crystal clear."

So keep enjoying these fascinating, high-octane cichlids...and keep creating "functionally aesthetic" displays for them! Let us know if you've found that some of the botanicals seem to work better than others for these guys! 

Stay excited. Stay dedicated. Stay engaged. 

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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