Those "domestic issues..."

Like so many of you, I am utterly awed by the sheer variety of tropical fish species that we've managed to breed over the decades. This is a testimony to the skill set and dedication of talented hobbyists and commercial breeders worldwide. And with obvious implications for some wild habitats, the idea of breeding fishes is a timely one.

Of course, there are absolutely benefits to a well-managed fishery, too, including protection of resources, economic benefits to indigenous peoples, and the preservation of wild populations. Programs like Project Piaba in Brazil have shown the tangible benefits to the people, environment, and the fishes that may be had with a properly-managed program of sourcing wild-caught fishes.

And, when it comes to the way we keep our fishes in the hobby, I find a very interesting dichotomy here...

Have you ever thought about the way we've "domesticated" the fishes that we keep in our aquariums? I mean, the way we have sort of categorically "made" fishes more accommodating of the environmental conditions that we would like to provide them with in our aquariums... We've proudly advertised fishes like Discus and Cardinal Tetras as not requiring soft, acidic water to thrive and reproduce.

This is interesting and makes me think about this from multiple angles...good and bad.

As you know, I tend to spend a fair amount of time snooping around the scientific literature online, looking for tidbits of information that might fit nicely into our fascination and evolving technique with natural blackwater and brackish- aquariums.

It's a pretty fun, albeit geeky- pastime, really- and quite educational, too!

And one of the interesting things about sifting through much of the scientific stuff is that you can occasionally find bits and pieces of information which may not only confirm a "hunch" that you have had about something- these data can sometimes send you into an entirely new direction! (I know that it can, lol!)

As a lover of brackish-water habitats, I've spent a lot time over the years researching suitable fishes and other aquatic organisms from this environment for aquarium keeping. I've made a lot of interesting discoveries about brackish water habitats and the fishes which supposedly occur in them. 

Notice I use the term "supposedly..?"

Interestingly, many of the fishes that we in the hobby have assigned the "brackish" moniker to are actually seldom found in these types of habitats. Perhaps small populations of some of these fishes might be from mildly brackish environments, but many of them are primarily found in pure freshwater. Perhaps through a combination of misinformation, assumption, and successful practice by a few hobbyists over the years, we've sort of attached the "brackish water fish" narrative to them in general.

Now, sure, many fishes can adapt to brackish water conditions, but I'm more fascinated by the fishes which are actually found naturally in these environments. And it's always interesting when you can find out that a fish which you have previously dismissed as not having typically come from this environment actually does come from it naturally!

It's like a little discovery!

One of those happy "surprises" is our good friend, the "Endler's Livebearer", Poceilia wingei. Many of you love this fish and keep it extensively. 

This popular fish is widely kept under "typical livebearer conditions" in the aquarium ( higher pH and harder water).

However, there are a number of wild populations form their native Venezuela which inhabit mildly brackish water coastal lagoons and estuaries, for example, Laguna de los Patos, near Cumana, which has definite ocean influence, although it is far less salty than researchers thought it may have been in the past. And the wild populations residing there might very well be considered "endangered", or at least, limited.

Now, this kind of stuff is not "revolutionary" from a hobby standpoint, as it seems like we've known this for some time. And although the fish are very adaptable, we don't hear all that much about keeping them in what we'd call "brackish" conditions (like typically SG of 1.003-1.005, although I like to push it a bit higher, lol). It's just interesting to ponder and kind of get your head around.

And with all of the popularity of this fish, it seems to me like the brackish water habitat for this species has not been embraced much from a hobby standpoint.

And I suppose it makes sense- it's far easier to simply give fishes harder, alkaline water than to "mess with adding salt" to their tanks for a lot of hobbyists. In addition, wild populations of these fishes are scant, as is natural habitat data, so indeed confirming with any great certainty that they are even still occurring in these types of habitats is sketchy.

And often, so-called 'populations" of fishes in these specialized habitats might have been distributed as a result of actions by man, and are not even naturally occurring there- further confounding things!

In general, the question about adding salt to livebearer tanks has been debated for a long time, and there are many views on the subject. Obviously, the ultimate way to determine if you should or should not add salt to an Endler's or other livebearer tank would be to consider the natural habitats of the population you're working with. Easier said than done, because  the vast majority of them are now commercially or hobbyist bred for generations- especially Endler's- and wild collection data is not always easy to obtain.

I think the debate will go on for a long time!

Yet, with the increasing popularity of brackish water aquariums, we're hoping to see more experiments along this line for many different species! I was recently very happy to secure some specimens of the miserably-named "Swamp Guppy", Micropoceilia picta, a fish which absolutely does come from brackish water. And I have no intention of ever "adapting" them to environmental conditions which are more "convenient" for us hobbyists!

Now, you know I've always been a fan of sort of "re-adapting" or "re-patriating" even captive-bred specimens of all sorts of fishes (like "blackwater-origin" characins, cichlids, etc.) to more "natural" conditions (well, "natural" from perhaps a few dozen generations back, anyhow). I am of the opinion that even "domesticated" fishes can benefit from providing them with conditions more reminiscent of those from the natural habitats from which they originated.

Although I am not a geneticist or biological ethicist, I never will buy into the thought that a few dozen captive generations will "erase" millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to specific habitats, and that re-adapting them to these conditions is somehow "detrimental" to them. Something just seems "off" to me about that thinking.

I just can't get behind that.

Now, even more compelling "proof" of that it's not so "cut-and-dry" is that many of the recommended "best practices" of breeding many so-called "adaptable" species are to do things like drop water temperatures, adjust lighting, or perform water exchanges with peat-influenced water, etc....stuff intended to mimic the conditions found in the natural habitats of the fishes...

I mean...WTF? Right? 

Like, only give the fishes their "natural" conditions when we want to breed them? Really? That mindset just seems a bit odd to me...

Of course, there are some fishes for which we don't really make any arguments against providing them with natural-type environmental conditions, such as African rift lake Cichlids. I find this absolutely fascinating, from a "hobby-philosopher" standpoint!

And then, there are those fishes which we have, for various reasons (to minimize or prevent the occurrence of diseases) arbitrarily decided to manipulate their environment deliberately away from the natural characteristics under which they evolved for specific reasons. For example, adding salt to the water for fishes that are typically not known to come from brackish habitats.

Examples are annual Killifishes, such as Nothobranchius, which in many cases don't come from brackish environments naturally, yet we dutifully add salt to their water as standard practice. The adaptation to a "teaspoon of salt per gallon" or so environment is done for prophylactic reasons, rather than what's "convenient" for us- a rather unique case, indeed...and again, something that I find fascinating to look at objectively.

Is salt simply the easiest way to prevent parasitic diseases in these fishes, or are there other ways which don't require such dramatic environmental manipulations?

And then, of course, there are those unexpected populations of fishes, like various Danios and Gold Tetras, for example, which are found in mildly brackish conditions...Compelling, interesting...yet we can't conclude that all Gold Tetras will benefit from salt in their water, can we?

And, as we evolved to a more sustainable hobby, with greater emphasis on captive -bred or carefully-sourced wild fishes, and as more wild habitats are damaged or lost, will we also lose valuable data about the wild habitats of the fishes we love so much?  Data which will simply make the "default" for many fishes to be "tap water?"

I hope not.

Is it possible, though, that we've been so good at "domesticating" our fishes to our easier-to-provide tap water conditions- and our fishes so adaptable to them- that the desire to "repatriate" them to the conditions under which they've evolved is really more of a "niche" thing for geeky hobbyists, as opposed to a "necessary for success" thing?

I mean, how many Discus are now kept and bred exclusively in hard, alkaline water- markedly different than the soft, acid blackwater environmental conditions under which they've evolved for eons? Am I just being a dreamer here, postulating without hard data that somehow the fishes are "missing something" when we keep and breed them in conditions vastly different than what the wild populations come from?

Do the same genetics which dictate the color patterns and fin morphology also somehow "cancel out" the fish's "programming" which allows them to be healthiest in their original native conditions?

How do we reconcile this concept?

In the end, there are a lot of variables in the equation, but I think that the Endler's discussion is just one visible example of fishes which could perhaps benefit from experimenting with "throwback" conditions. I'm by no means anything close to an expert on these fish, and my opinions are just that- opinions. Commercially, it may not be practical to do this, but for the hobbyist with time, resources, and  inclination, it would be interesting to see where it takes you.  

Like, would the same strain kept in both brackish and pure freshwater habitats display different traits or health characteristics?

Would there even be any marked differences between specimens of certain fishes kept under "natural" versus "domesticated" conditions? Would they show up immediately, or would it become evident only after several generations? And again, I think about brackish-water fishes and the difficulty of tracing your specimens to their natural source, which makes this all that much more challenging!

I look forward to many more such experiments- bringing natural conditions to "domesticated" fishes, and perhaps unlocking some more secrets...or perhaps simply acknowledging what we all know:

That there truly is "no place like home!"

Stay observant. Stay curious. Stay adventurous. Stay resourceful. Stay experimental...

And Stay Wet.

 

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

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