In a new light...

With our focus on botanically-influenced natural aquariums, there is an explosion of  discoveries, "unlocks", and even game-changing paradigm shifts. And of course, as with any new adventure, we tend to bring along much of what we already know in the hobby.

As we've discussed ad naseum, the husbandry techniques and maintenance practices we've learned in other areas of the hobby will absolutely serve us well here, and might evolve or change somewhat to fit the needs of the types of aquatic habitats we're representing. However, there are some things- like, our fish selections, which don't need to change. 

In fact, they shouldn't, really. We need to bring along many of our "old friends" for the ride. 

We are so caught up looking for the newest and rarest, that we may often overlook that which is always in front of us, huh? It got me thinking, which is cooler: An ultra-rare Pleco or Mbuna, or a fantastic specimen of a "common" fish like the Glowlight Tetra, that has inspired such a passion for then hobby for so long- displayed in an aquarium that's a perfectly unedited representation of their natural habitat? I know, I know. The first thing you think of when you hear the words “common fishes” are those "regulation-issue" translucent grey "Bloodfins" or boring "assorted" Cichlisoma, or dull silvery-colored Barbs...whatever. 

The so-called "dirt-brown" Corys, "non-distinctive" Swordtails , and "generic" Neon Tetras take on a whole new look when kept in conditions which resemble those in which they evolved over millions of years. Not just aesthetically but from a physical/ environmental standpoint, as well! When you see the "dirt brown" Cory in an aquarium which resembles its natural habitat in form and function, suddenly it makes sense why the fish looks the way it does.

And it usually looks pretty spectacular! There is something about "context" which makes all the difference in the world, isn't it?

In a new light...

How about fostering truly gorgeous specimens of these so-called “common” fishes? How about creating an aquarium based upon their specific needs- or replicating aspects of their natural habitats. Like, why NOT create a tank specifically for the good old "Head and Tail Light" Tetra, or the Glass Catfish?

Yeah, so called "common" fishes...Old friends, if you will. When you give an old friend the star treatment- anything is possible. Think back to the beginnings of your hobby experience...and think what you could do with those "basic fishes" with your evolved skill set, mental shift-optimized attitude, and experience!

Want a personal example of a beloved, "beginner's fish" I've almost forgotten about over the decades?

(I was just thinking...How would YOU like to be called a "beginner's fish", anyways? And, what the &^%$ does that mean, anyways?)-S.F.

As a kid, I think one of the most memorable sights in my first aquarium, complete with blue gravel and plastic plants, was my group of 8 Zebra Danios  (Danio rerio) racing at high speed around the tank in a furious fashion, as if they had to get somewhere in a big freaking hurry...only to reverse course, and do it all again. I've never forgotten how much I liked the Zebras- or almost every other Danio species kept in the aquarium. 

And the amazing thing about this fish is that it's probably THE most bulletproof species you can keep. In fact, I recall reading somewhere that it's "tolerated temperature range" based on wild type localities is from 76.2 – 101.5°F (24.6 – 38.6°C). I mean, if THAT isn't a broad range, nothing is! And it tolerates water with a pH from 6.0-8.0.

Yeah, these guys are hardly what you'd call "fussy" fish!

And you know me- once I hear that, I get these weird ideas like, "What if we mimic the conditions of the natural habitat of the fish? Would they do better? IS there an advantage somewhere?" I think like this for so many fishes, as if to shun the fact that 90% of what we keep in the aquarium these days has never seen a stream, pond, or river...

It's just..I don't know..irresistible to me to think about this kind of stuff! Taking the most common of common aquarium fishes and giving them "throwback" conditions; seeing if it somehow "awakens" something locked into their genetic code over eons...something...

I mean, it's kind of silly, I suppose...there are so many other things to do in the hobby...yet I can't help but wonder if we can learn something from replicating some aspects of their long-forgotten wild habitats...

And, in regards to the Zebra Danio, what's interesting to me is the habitats in which these fish are found. Typically, these fishes are found in Northern India, and this area is subjected to seasonal rainfall between the months of June and September due to the summer Monsoon, and the water levels and characteristics vary considerably at different times of the year. They are often found in inundated rice paddies and marginal pools, with silty, kind of turbid water with very little movement. During the dry times of the year, they spend their time in calm, shaded areas of streams, with rocky substrates. 

This is interesting, because it reminds me a bit of the Amazon igarape, although instead of rain forest, you've got rice paddies...

And, I've been playing with rice seeds, silted substrates, and turbid water lately! Hmmm...

So, my simple thought is...this fish seems to hang out in what we as hobbyists would think of us "less desirable" conditions for much of the year- the silty rice paddies...And only spends the dry season in the more permanent, less turbid streams. Why would this be? Is there some advantage? Like food, better substrates for breeding, protection? Why the turbid water? What does it bring to the fishes?

Would there be an advantage to keeping a fish like the Zebra in different conditions different times of the year, as in nature? Or simply in a tank representing one of the two habitats it's found in. Would you WANT or NEED to? I mean, the fish has been a captive-bred staple of the hobby for almost a century...but I can't help but wonder why these fishes live the way they do in the wild. What advantages do these habitats hold for the fish?

Would you get different behaviors, colors, health, spawning out of the fish by doing this "seasonal transition"..? Using a very fine sand substrate, maybe mixed in with some mud or something similar to replicate the rice paddies, with pump returns very gently angled at the bottom to simulate turbidity?

Again, why, you ask?

My answer? I just think it could be kind of cool. Weird, but cool.

Am I the only one who imagines weird stuff like this? Maybe?

On second thought- don't answer that!

I know, the fish is bred by the billion in fish farms all over the world, as are many much sexier, domesticated strains of its relatives...but wouldn't it be interesting to see what happens when you "repatriate" these "common" fishes to an uncommon execution of their natural habitats? 

Yet, the idea entices me. 

I've been playing a lot lately with more realistic interpretations of the Brazilian igapo habitats which I'm so obsessed with, and am wondering if, by nuancing the executions of the physical environments we provide even "common" fishes, that there will be some "unlocks."

Looking at old friends in a new light is kind of exciting!

The other day I had a discussion with our friend, Tai Strietman, who's doing his post graduate ichthyology work in Brazil, and spends enormous amounts of time in the tinted, silty, igapo and Pantanal habitats we obsess over. We were discussing my latest tank and the fishes we're thinking of housing there, and he almost instinctively brought up one of our mutual favorites..the good old Neon Tetra, Paracheirodon innesi- a fish that has graced aquarium worldwide for almost a century. "About as common as box of Kleenex", as one of my fish geek friends likes to say.

Yet, really- when was the last time you really saw this fish displayed in an aquarium that represents its natural habitat in a most accurate way? I mean, not that often. It seems that usually in those splashy biotope aquarium contests, everyone wants to feature the rare characin, Angelfish, or dwarf cichlid. Meanwhile, the fish that everyone knows- the blackwater fish that is found generally in clear white water, high-concept planted tanks which have absolutely no resemblance to the natural habitat it typically comes from- just screams to be included!

It's great to have friends in cool places, isn't it?

The simple conversation drove home what I've believed for so many years: That a "common" fish in an "uncommon" context is...well, uncommon!

Tai summed up this idea most eloquently when he stated, "It’s important to look at things from different angles and revisit things because then we rediscover why we fell in love with them in the first place..."

And that pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

Looks like I'm quarantining some Neons for my new tank.

Can't wait to have these fish again- and to see them in a whole new light.

Until next time...

Stay inspired. Stay curious. Stay loyal. Stay bold. Stay dedicated...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


March 23, 2021

Nice article. I keep danios, and been wondering how, HOW on earth I should furnish that tank for them, and then it occurred to me, hangonasec, these guys have a natural habitat, why don’t I copy that? Rather than pine over award-winning aquascapes that I will never be able to replicate? so, the way forward is … well, I don’t want turbid water lol, but something with a bit more wood, a lot less SCAPED, constructed, more random… Thank you for sharing.

Leave a comment