If you ask a bunch of aquarists what got them into the hobby in the first place, you’re bound to get a lot of different answers: Many will tell you that it was the sheer beauty, or for the challenge of creating a stable "slice of the bottom" in their living room, and some just like messing with all the new high-tech gadgets! For many of us, however, what piqued our initial interest was the fishes!
Yup — even with all of the fancy plants, shrimp and other life forms we keep in our tanks, none are more compelling than the colorful, fascinating fishes that swim in our carefully crafted underwater worlds. There’s just something relaxing, inspiring, and just plain amazing about watching our fishes.
But how well do you really know your fishes? You’ve probably already figured out that your Leporinus fasciatus is an herbivore, and that it needs a lot of swimming room. Yet, have you really given thought to why the fish looks the way it looks, the environment where it’s found, and it’s social behaviors? Maybe not, because you “know what you need to know” about the fish and are content with that. However, one of the best things we can do as hobbyists is to really get to know our fishes. By “know” I’m not just talking about being aware that your Pencifish comes from the Aripuana River, or whatever.
I’m talking about really learning about the animal and it’s needs. With a few pleasant hours of research, you can gain an amazing insight into your fishes. Spending quality time on a scientific site such as fishbase.org can help take your understanding of the fish to a whole new level.
Not only can you find out more about the fish’s physiology, you can research things like gut-content analysis of collected specimens, which can help you more accurately replicate their captive diet. You can also find data about where various type specimens were collected. Valuable information like depth, habitat, time of year, and water temperature. All of these details can really help you in your efforts to create the best possible captive situation for your fishes.
Beyond simply researching the fishes, you could take it to another level and actually visit them on the wild reef. Trust me, getting SCUBA certified was one of the best things this stubborn surfer ever did. Nothing I have done previously has given me a greater understanding of fishes and reefs than going out and seeing them in their natural habitat!
As a dive-certified fish geek, you separate yourself from all of the other hapless masses of clueless recreational divers and have a chance to contribute to the body of knowledge of the reefs. When everyone else is busy looking at that big dumb grouper or boring old shark, you’ll no doubt be drawn to that tiny blenny hiding in the coral rubble! Alright, you might make a lousy dive buddy, but you’ll be a keen observer of nature!
Or just go visit a creek, river, or pond and spend some time observing. Maybe even in The Amazon, if you're lucky!
Not only will you gain a greater appreciation for the delicate nature of the natural environment, you’ll develop a great understanding of fishes’ behaviors in their native habitats. You’ll be able to more accurately replicate (or in some cases decide that you can’t replicate) the environmental niche from which your fish comes.
Seeing fishes in the wild give you insights, which may help you and other aquarists unlock their secrets — perhaps leading to further breakthroughs in their husbandry and captive propagation. Anything that we can do to help protect wild populations and preserve the environment is certainly worth the time and effort.
I am reminded of a charming, but beautiful passage by Kiyoshi Endoh in his great little saltwater book Angelfishes of The World:
“First of all, keep angelfishes with your love, in a suitable habitat with good equipment and proper nutrition until the end of their life.”
Pretty much sums it all up, huh?
Last, but certainly not least, you can take your hard-won knowledge and really get to help others — and ourselves — by sharing. Not just passing on a book recommendation or a thread from a discussion board. I’m talking about telling your fellow hobbyists just what you know and how you do it! Contribute to the body of knowledge out there in the hobby. Go online and write a blog, attend a local club meeting or start a club if none exist in your area. Travel to a hobby conference and spend a weekend talking fish with other fanatics. Write about your experiences or help a beginner. If you’ve totally lost it, like me, you’ll end up jetting around the country sharing your knowledge with any other crazy fish geeks who will listen.
The bottom line here is that there are lots of ways to really get to know your fishes. And the best part is that pretty much every one of them will benefit ourselves, our fellow hobbyists, and most important — the animals themselves. So next time you stare in at that new cichlid, killie, or wild Betta- take the time to really get to know the fish- on a deeper level!
Stay curious. Stay intrigued. Stay excited. Stay charmed.
And Stay wet.