Let's hear it for the...dull?


If I look at it objectively, I've always kind of favored small, grey-brown fishes. Or subtly colorful ones, at least.

Why do I like these small, grey-brown fishes so much? Why do I covet fishes that most people find rather uninteresting? I mean, lately, I'm really obsessed with Elachocharax pulcher, which is really kind of a brown and grey "cammo" colored fish. Hardly "exciting" in the traditional context.  Yet, I am totally into that fish. Like, what's up with that? Do I not get out enough or something? Am I too "cool" to jump on the bandwagon of sexy designer bettas and African cichlids?

No- I love them. I do. Yet, they're not the particular subjects of my adoration.

Why do I covet seemingly "boring" fishes so much? 

Well, could it simply be that, after a lifetime in the hobby- I’ve learned to be honest with myself about what I like?  Perhaps I am more into the "overall" aspects of a fish than I am about their color alone. I mean, behavior, habits, environmental digs- the whole picture is what makes a fish "sexy" to me. I mean, Elachocarax puncher is an inhabitant of Amazonian leaf litter beds..and as such, it's particularly fascinating to me!

I find these "chromatically challenged" fishes fascinating for so many other reasons...

And, when I think about it- I know I'm not alone. 

I was contemplating; just for a second- how easy it is to take for granted what has become “common” to us. Like, for example, some of the "common" Tetras that we see- Pristella,  Glowlight Tetras, and others.


These fishes are popular in the aquarium hobby for a reason: They are readily available, inexpensive,  adaptable, and easy to care for (hardly "minor details", right?) They have become "staples" in our hobby..and they're subtly beautiful, not trendy. Not overly flashy. Which all too often translates into "fishes we take for granted." Yet, they are interesting creatures. They are precious, regardless of the price tag- and they are worthy of our respect and admiration. Fishes need not be expensive and flashy to be worthy of our admiration, do they? (The reef keeping world, from which I hail, has yet to fully grasp this concept, IMHO.)

To further validate my opinion, I need only slip over to my LFS, and admire the (very grey!) “Tanganyika Lampeyes” that they received not too long ago. Okay, on the surface, these grayish Rift Lake killifish are about as unexciting (is that a word?) as a fish can get- a "poster child" for the freshwater “haters”, who claim that every freshwater fish is dull (i.e.; most of my reef keeping friends)…

But wait a minute. Have you ever even seen one? Probably not that often. Probably because they are rather…well- bland, and collectors toss ‘em back. But man- that’s what’s so cool about them! They are different! Subtle. And just uncommon enough in the trade to actually stand out for being so! Imagine how awesome they’d look as "contrasting players" in a tank full of colorful African Cichlids! 

Probably pretty cool.

The hobby needs fishes like that.

And let's be honest- some of the popular cichlids, or ones that fanciers covet- are not exactly the most colorful ones out there. Rather, they are kind of...dull. However, their personalities, behaviors, and general deportment are so alluring that the color aspect is simply not a factor for their owners.

And when you think about it- so many fishes are grey-brown because this color provides lots of protection from predators in the wides variety of circumstances! And in some instances, it helps the predators by not betraying their presence to their potential prey! I think some fishes are cool because of their “cryptic coloring”, especially if they are matched to an aquarium which offers an environmental niche that’s similar to that which they inhabit in nature.

For example, the Amazon Leaf Fish looks amazing if placed in a tank containing leaf litter, right? As opposed to a bright, sparse, "community" tank, where it would just be a dark brown fish (or grey, depending upon it's stress level and other factors), with little to arouse interest for many. Place it in a blackwater, botanical-style tank with lots of leaves and wood...Different story!

Some fishes simply need to be "staged" correctly to be given the opportunity to show themselves in their "best light."

(Image by Daiju Azuma, used under CC BY-SA 2.5

Even wild forms of Angelfishes are admired, not so much for their colors, but because of their regal deportment and ability to blend into the environment they hail from- and of course, for their scarcity in the hobby.

Glass Catfish are as colorless as a fish can be, yet are an all-time favorite…and they “go” with just about any “aquatic color scheme”, right? 


The list is endless.

I think many fishes that lack the killer colors are popular or loved because they have fascinating or endearing habits and behaviors. For example, some of the little shell-dwelling Lake Tanganyikan cichlids are not what you'd call "inspiring", color-wise- but have utterly fascinating behaviors and social patterns. Many hobbyists obsess over them, and it's easy to see why!

The beauty of the hobby is that there really IS room for all sorts of fishes and inverts. Seems like pretty much every animal out there gets at least some love from the hobby masses! Admit it- you’ve occasionally stared longingly at a brownish fish of indeterminate origin in your dealer's "All fish in this tank $2.00" section and wondered, right? You’ve contemplated purchasing that grey-brown blenny with the cute eyes before, huh? You may have even owned a "Corydoras sp." (you know, the sort of "generic-looking" ones) once! 


There is hope for the hobby after all…Long live the...dull! 

So..who loves those grey/brown fishes? Who celebrates them? I really think that we all do.

Yep. Let's hear it for the...dull! 

Until next time…


Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay appreciative.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


July 29, 2017

I liked your first tank idea, the rich-substrate seagrass one, the best – probably because I have never seen a planted reef tank before! The appeal of rarity always gets me.

My next tank also has a million iterations. I’d like to do a bigger tank, 70-120 gallons. I started out really interested in some grunting toadfish (allenbatrachus grunniens) that my LFS has had in stock for, well, forever – set up a brackish tank, with a secondary brackish tank to breed feeder platies or guppies. Then I realized that as ambush predators, they’d be about as exciting as reptiles (once a month, when feeding)… So I canned that.

Then, PFK Magazine had an article about piranhas that talked about them being omnivores and eating fruit and nuts. Fascinating! My first fishkeeping exposure was a big piranha tank at the local Chinese restaurant, where I would watch them for hours while my family had all-you-can-eat buffet. It was a great setup, especially for the early 90s. This would be a cool return to my “roots”! Then I found out how much space (and food, and maintenance) they would need… out of my budget.

How about other giant SA cichlids? An oscar would be cool! While they still need a big tank, a single one needs less space than a school of piranha, and it’s rare to see a nicely aquascaped oscar tank. (Monster Fishkeepers seem to like owning giant fish and empty glass boxes for some reason.) Once again though, big fish make big messes, and they also eat smaller fish who might otherwise clean up their mess, and mess will be difficult to clean up in a leaf litter tank…

My latest idea is setting up an Amazonian viviparium/riparium. Build about 1/4 of oneside of the tank as a shoreline using soil and clay, plant it with marginal plants like hairgrass, amazon sword etc. and let those root in and grow out for a few months until they have a strong root structure (the waiting game is strong with this one). We have a few houseplants that will also work in this setup: crotons, peace lilies, and so on. Introduce some bugs that can’t crawl out, maybe some earthworms, pillbugs or beetles. Then, when it’s ready, collapse the side, creating that carved-out riverbank look with roots hanging out! Once the dust settles, introduce some cory cats and cardinals, or maybe some angelfish, or maybe…. etc. etc.

This last idea excites me the most because while we have seen many fantastic ripariums, very few – if any – give us the terrestrial cross-section with its own ecosystem of microfauna. Once again, the appeal of rarity! Besides, why wouldn’t you want to have a worm farm and an aquarium in one?

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