"Nature's Game": Reconciling what our fishes need against what we want to provide...Some thoughts for discussion...

The following "rant" has a lot of ideas and points. There are some that you might agree with, or violently disagree with! This is good. Remember,  it's my opinion, offered up on a topic I"m passionate about, and it's intended to be an "ice breaker" or mind opener to facilitate further discussion. I don't have all of the answers or even a lot of them. I have some thoughts, as I hope you do, too. It should be discussed, debated. Healthy debate is good.

When it comes to blackwater aquariums, a few fishes come to mind immediately for many of us- Cardinal Tetras, Wild Bettas, Rasbora, etc. Yet, every day, we field emails and PM's from "Tinters" who are asking for suggestions on some "cool fish" for their blackwater, botanical-style aquariums.  And of course, these are really subjective questions. I mean, it's like asking a teenager who is the top Instagram star, or what the hottest Kanye West song is, or...well, you get it. Opinions are many and varied.

Fishes are a bit different than rappers, Instagram influencers, and fashion, but they all have their fans and detractors. There are many cool fishes that you can keep that not only will challenge you a bit- they'll provide a pleasant diversion from the "cool kids"  (like Apistos and flashy Gouramis) that seem to be "it fishes" in blackwater tanks sometimes. Some are obscure.

However there are a few that, although we're well aware of them, we seem to pass over in favor of flashier, larger, and maybe even sexier fishes. And fewer still that everyone sort of "knows about", but not everyone really knows. Our friend the Checkerboard Cichlid, Dicrossus filamentosus, is one of these fishes- one which is perfect for the tannin-stained worlds we love to create. One which we should work with a lot more, for lots of reasons!

Although only known to science since the late 1950's (like, 1958 to be exact), this fish has become a sort of poster child for "Understated, cool cichlid..." and deserves more of our attention! Hailing from the Amazon region (like you didn't expect that, right?) of Columbia, Venezuela, and Brazil ( specifically the Orinoco and the Rio Negro areas), these small fishes are a bit shy, occasionally fussy, and altogether endearing!  They inhabit sluggish low-pH/hardness streams and tributaries, where abundant roots, leaves, and other botanical materials provide cover. Obviously, if you're a botanical-style blackwater enthusiast (I have a hunch that you are...), these fishes are perfect for our displays! 

An ideal situation would be to set up a modest-sized (40 gallons/160L) or less tank with a small group of them, some abundant hiding places, and lots of leaves on the bottom, and they can develop a hierarchy and social structure on their own. So, you could set up a tank with a lot of wood oriented vertically, to simulate root tangles, and have a thick layer of leaves on the bottom (choose your favorites) for a simple, easy-to maintain hardscape that's a surprisingly faithful representation of their natural habitats.

While not flashy at all, these diminutive cichlids have a certain cool, earthy look which lends itself so well to a botanical-style tank. Their "checkerboard" color pattern and lyre-shaped tails (in the males) stands out against the dark botanicals in a sort of non-flashy way. And the fact that they are a true "specimen fish" even at this late stage in the hobby tells you that there is a lot more work to be done with them! Sure they have been bred numerous times, but they have a reputation for being "challenging", even "touchy." Something about needing soft, acidic water and benefitting from humic substances...Oh, hang a tick...WE offer that as part of our "regularly scheduled environmental programming", right? Yeah.

Which brings me to a quick general digression...or maybe the whole point of this rambling rant:

I think a lot of the so-called "challenging" or "troublesome" fishes in the hobby (specifically ones which come from more specialized habitats like blackwater, etc.) have earned their reputations for sensitivity over the years because the vast majority of the hobby is insistent upon "adapting them" to conditions that are inconsistent with those they have adapted to over eons of evolution. Hobby literature will cite how "adaptable" that fish from soft, acidic water is when it spawns in hard, alkaline city water. And this has emboldened us, compelled us to use this "adaptability" to our advantage to make keeping and breeding said fish easier for us. Yet, when "strange" health issues start occurring over time, or the fishes take on less-than-stellar coloration, vigor and growth, we're quick to search for other answers like food, husbandry, etc. 

I think we as a hobby may have created this problem.

Now, don't get me wrong- the aforementioned factors are valid points and good items to investigate under any circumstances where "fish troubles" occur...yet part of me can't help but wonder how much better off many of these so-called "specialty fishes" would be if WE adapted to THEIR needs, rather than vice-versa? Like, us learning how to provide conditions that the fishes evolved under.

The idea of "repatriating" some of these fishes which come from soft, acidic blackwater habitats from our "tap water" conditions back into the water in which they have evolved, and learning how to manage the overall captive environment is by no means new or revolutionary. It's just that we've sort of taken a mindset of "it's easier/quicker for US" to adapt them to the conditions we can most easily offer them. Just because they can "acclimate" to wildly different conditions than they have evolved to live under doesn't mean that they should.  I mean, it's not about us. Right? The consistently successful serious breeders have, and we all should, IMHO. As we've shown, it's not at all impossible to provide such conditions as a matter of practice...

And in our own community, we've seen time and time again hobbyists providing "blackwater origin" fishes with the conditions they've evolved to thrive under for eons and seeing them display vigorous growth, intense coloration, and spawning behaviors. Initially, I wanted to say it was all a coincidence. Just timing. But we hear these stories so often now that I think it's more about us doing things right! 

Yet, I'm sure many are still skeptical about the idea of "reverse accommodation" being a good one, or even necessary. I can understand, but I think it warrants further discussion.

Need some examples of this concept? Well, look at the reef community, or the planted tank enthusiasts. Once these hobbyists devoted their energies to providing fishes/corals/inverts/plants the conditions that these organisms required to thrive, rather than the conditions that were "easiest" for the hobbyists to provide, these specialty areas exploded, with successes beyond our wildest dreams available to everyone who learns the rules of the game.

And yes, technology and products eventually showed up on the market to enable this process of more easily providing what the organisms need. NOT to adapt them to more easily/conveniently-provided "tap water" conditions, low light, low flow, etc. Rather, it was to make it easier for the largest number of hobbyists  to provide the natural conditions which make it possible for these organisms require to thrive.  As much as we would have liked to be able to keep thriving reefs full of corals in table-salted tap water, or high-light-loving plants in dim conditions without C02 or nutritive substrates, nature won't let us play that way.

We have to play nature's game.

This concept works.

It's not a coincidence. 

Now, a lot of people will argue that having soft water fishes adapt to our hard, alkaline tap water enables tropical fishes to be available to a wide variety of people who might not be interested in keeping them if they had to provide specialized conditions for them to thrive, and that even providing "additives", equipment, or whatever to mimic these conditions is an expense and economic hinderance to thousands. Hard one to argue, I suppose.

As a dog or cat owner, you have to purchase dog food, kitty litter, tick and flea meds, right? An expense. A barrier to entry of sorts? Weak argument? Maybe...

A good part of why I've been so passionate about us as a hobby specialty elevating, researching, and perfecting blackwater aquariums (and next, brackish), is for the very reason argued above. I think once we develop a body of work, experience, best practices, whatever for creating and managing these specialty environments, that the idea of "adapting" fishes to the conditions that are easiest for us to supply may be looked at as a laughable practice someday, much as it is with marine fishes and invertebrates now.

And, as I've cited before- attempting to understand these habitats has also given us a greater appreciation for how precious they are, and how important it is for us to safeguard and protect them and the creatures which have evolved in them. And everyone wins. The fishes. The hobby. Ourselves. The planet.

So, yeah,  I think that the Checkerboards which started this rant are just one example of this dichotomy.  Like many other fishes, I personally feel that historically, we've "force fit" them into conditions which may simply not be the best for them in the long term. That's a good part of why they're considered "challenging", I'll wager. Now, I know there is an entire Discus "culture"/industry out there which will disagree and cite generations of strong captive bred fishes, developed by people who have forgotten more about fish care than I'll ever know. However, I still can't help but wonder. I mean, despite incredible care and indisputable strain development for decades in captivity, have we really managed to "reprogram" the physiological preferences of a fish that's evolved for hundreds of thousands of generations under significantly different conditions than we provide in captivity? A tough one to argue, but I guess my point again is looking at it from the perspective of "us versus them", in terms of who is accommodating whom!

I think it's also important for us to ask and expect more of our fish suppliers. It's important for us to know where the fish that we're purchasing has come from, particularly if it's a wild specimen. In my opinion, if we are to take the idea of providing our fishes what THEY need, WE need to know this information, research the best that we can, and provide the closest facsimile to their wild conditions possible. It's not always easy. It doesn't always have to be. I mean, could we argue that keeping incredibly rare fishes from precious and endangered habitats is a privilege, and if you can't pay the price of admission (i.e.; providing the correct conditions), maybe you should be playing different game?

Perhaps. I mean, it doesn't have to be militant, exclusionary, or whatever. Yet, I think we need to scrutinize ourselves and our mind set just a bit more closely sometimes. 

Something to ponder. Something to debate. Something to work on.

Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay passionate. Stay brutally honest.

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics.




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

July 19, 2017

Exactly, Kelly! ESPECIALLY brackish! We’re working to change that! :)


July 18, 2017

Interesting article. I was pondering this concept myself lately while researching brackish tanks. Seems very common for people to keep brackish fish in fresh water because they “adapt”

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