From the bottom up, a different mindset with killifishes...

I have always been fascinated by killifish. 

Their unique colors, shapes, habits, adaptability, and relative ease of breeding for many species has kept them "top of mind" for me over the years, even though I may not always have kept them consistently.

Their relative difficulty to obtain has sort of added to the mystique for me. That and the fact that they typically will not have common names, and are generally referred to by their scientific name, followed by a geographic locale and some other numbers makes them all the more alluring to me!

(Chromaphyosemion bivittatum, pic by Mike PA Calnun)

And of course, one of the things I like best about killifishes is that many come from habitats that would be perfect for us to replicate with our skills and interest.

Perhaps what also attracts me to them is the fact that they are (for the most part) small, super-colorful fishes who have managed to adapt and evolve to life in very unusual environmental niches, like puddles, small creeks, temporary pools- stuff like that. And of course, these are extremely "botanically-influenced" habitats, replete with leaves, soil/mud substrates, branches, etc.


(Kwango Province, Congo- Image by Thomas Minesi)

Interestingly, we have seldom, if ever seen them being kept in anything other than a dedicated breeding setup with spawning mops and bare bottoms, which I think has perpetuated the popular perception that they require "specialty conditions" and tanks. That being said, attempting to replicate, to some extent, the aquatic habitats from which they come would go a long way towards making these adaptable and attractive fishes more popular in the hobby.

(Fp. amieti, pic by Mike PA Calnun)

Sure, some may be shy, skittish, aggressive, come from soft, acidic water, brackish(!), or whatever- but the last time I checked, we have community of skilled, adventurous aquarium hobbyists playing with blackwater, botanicals, and the availability of all sorts of "twigs and nuts" to create these kinds of specialty tanks. (That's YOU!)

We can keep these fishes with ease, so...

We often hear the argument that they are not particularly prolific breeders, or don't live too long (in the case of "annual" species, sure...but how many years have you kept a Cardinal Tetra alive for?). I think that's a sort of lame excuse not to keep them!

(Fp. gardneri in a natural setup. Image by Mike PA Calnun)

Curiously, we're seeing more and more wild Betta species showing up in local fish stores worldwide...SOMEONE is breeding them. And they are finding a place in botanical-style, blackwater aquariums!

Yep. Killies can, too.

And if we look at some of the more popular killifishes, such as the Aphyosemion, Chromaphyosemion, and Funduloopanchax species, there are a variety of ecological adaptations to their environments that have made them extremely compelling subjects for those of us interested in creating natural-type setup for them. 

(Mike PA Calnun's African killie and Neolebias biotope-inspired aquarium is a fantastic example of the possibilities that await the adventurous killie enthusiast when we step out of the box a bit!)

Granted, this is different than what hardcore killie breeders will do- and not as efficient for breeding as setting them up in bare tanks with spawning mops- but it's a different way to enjoy these unique fishes, and to celebrate the unique ecological niches from which they come!

Now, there are hundreds of species to choose from, running the gamut from top-spawning species which deposit eggs in floating plants, to the famous South American and African annuals, which deposit their eggs in the mud and sediments at the bottom of the temporary pools which they inhabit, so it would be impossible to "generalize" a biotope-inspired "generic" setup for all these types. However, one could create a more-or-less "generalized" setup for say, species which come from small African streams and pools. 

(Aphyosemion over leaf litter Wamba, DR Congo- image by Ashley Gordon)

For many of the Aphyosemion and Fundulopanchax species, you can replicate their leaf-and branch-choked habitats with, well- leaves and branches! And seed pods, and a few aquatic and even terestrial plants. Researching the flora and aquatic topography of areas in Camaroon and Nigeria can yield lots of great information which you can use to create some really cool tanks! In general, Africa has been, in my opinion, under-represented in our aquariums, and killies represent an amazing opportunity to learn more about these habitats and the unique fishes which inhabit them.

(Fp. gardneri Pic by Mike PA Calnun)

Many of these streams and pools feature muddy or fine-sediment materials on the substrate. You could replicate this with many of the planted aquarium substrates, mixed in with more common materials like sand and even our "Fundo Tropical" and "Susbtrato Fino" additives.

With some good research and study, it is entirely possible to create remarkably realistic and functionally aesthetic aquariums for many species of killifish. And the concept is simply no different than anything else we do for any other fishes in our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums. 

(The topography and flora of Camaroon contribute significantly to the aquatic habitats of the region. Image by C. Hence, used under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Obviously, a little blog piece like this can do little more than call some quick attention to the possibilities that are out there for this approach. My hope is that more of you will utilize the skills you've acquired at both keeping and breeding fishes and working with botanical-style aquariums. By marrying these two skill sets, the possibilities which can unfold are many!

We just need to get out there, do a little research, and get a tank or two going. Oh- and we need to share this work. On the "big stage"- outside of dedicated killie forums and pages. 

Let's look at some of these unique fishes and the habitats from which they come, and give them more of the attention they deserve in the hobby!

Stay excited. Stay inspired. Stay curious. Stay creative. Stay engaged...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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