Biotope Aquarium. The present and future of the Ornamental Fish Hobby

In recent years, in the ornamental fish hobby some changes concerning the decoration of aquariums have been taking place on a worldwide level. The so-called “aquascape” or “nature aquarium” has had a tremendous impact on hobbyists globally, but only for a minority, like those decorations and designs which have their origin in the Japanese zen-garden decoration (that is copied from gardens above water and rarely from an underwater habitat) and not in the real underwater world. Moreover, since the year 2000 there have been international competitions in different countries, but the largest is still the one which Takashi Amano started in Japan.

Biotope Aquarium movement

The other one, the real nature-biotope aquarium decoration according to an existing underwater habitat – where certain fish species live in a specific and often small biotope together, with plants and or only materials from that habitat – is growing at an unexpected rate.

The concept of keeping fishes in the (biotope) correct way (including invertebrates) started to really catch on only this millennium. I think it really became popular after I built a special unit to be shown at the Aqua-Expo 2001 in Belgium, a walk-in-unit with a jet-black inside, with 9 aquariums all around, each of a different size, from 1600 litres down to 70 litres, and a total capacity of approximately 10,000 litres. One could walk into this unit and would only see biotopes, nature and habitat-correct, with a detailed description attached to each aquarium.

It took a long time but, as aquascape, biotope aquariums have finally been established, and simply because they have many advantages over the formers:

  1. they can be done very easily (and fast, normally I need less than one hour to do a biotope correct decoration) and simply, as underwater nature is almost everywhere;
  2. the materials are all very natural and not difficult to get (no one has to pay a fortune for Japanese rocks or other imported materials);
  3. a biotope aquarium is very easy to maintain (no weekly trimming of plants is needed, if at all) and it lasts forever – the longer it runs the better it normally gets;
  4. last but not least, it’s nice when the correct fishes and/or invertebrates are placed together from the very beginning: those knowing each other (fishes from Africa will never communicate with Asian, South American, nor Australian species, etc.) will normally start to spawn within a few hours (this never happens in an “aquascape-décor”, as that is not their “home”). In a biotope correct environment, they will show colours hardly ever shown in an aquarium not made for them.
Biotope aquarium stand in Germany 2001. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Bleher’s Biotopes at Interzoo 2008.

For those in the ornamental fish hobby who still do not know the easy way of doing a biotope, I give below some suggestions on 5 different fish communities in certain size aquariums which will work very well together, while also giving happiness to the fishes as well as to the owner of such a biotope-correct aquarium.

Biotope Aquarium Exhibition. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
The inside of Bleher’s Biotope stand.
Blehers Biotope, Zierfisch and Aquarium2008. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Bleher’s Biotope at Zierfische and Aquarium in Germany, 2008.

What aquarium size, and is 90x45x45cm a good size?

In Europe, the most popular aquarium size is 100(or 120)x50x50cm (sometimes, 100x45x45cm). However, in the last decade many aquarium cubes, the so called “nano aquariums”, have become extremely popular as they can be placed next to the computer, on an office desk and elsewhere. Those are maximum 60-litres-aquariums, normally less. Their popularity is also shown in Europe by the sales of common species for small aquaria, such as fishes, small tetras, Apistogramma, small catfishes like Hara jerdoni, Corydoras pygmaeus, Aspidoras species, as well as Danio species, Caridina and other small invertebrates.

With regard to a 90x45x45cm aquarium (200 litres), which is a size hardly produced in Europe, I think it can be a good size, not too big and not too small. It all depends on what people want from their aquarium. Certainly, the depth of an aquarium is extremely important – even just to do a very good nature-like decoration. With enough depth one can do all kinds of beautiful layout designs. When I have aquariums made for me and my biotope decorations, depth is always the most important thing to me. Aquariums of 120 litres need to be at least 60 cm deep, while aquariums of 150 up to 250 litres need to be at least 80 cm deep. Otherwise, one can never do justice to the decoration.

Resuming 90x45x45cm: if produced in this size in Japan, I suggest that it would be better to do a 100x50x50cm, as it ensures a much better perspective, a much better way to decorate it and, therefore, a more beautiful aquarium to look at.

If in Japan the most popular aquarium is 60cm, the ways of decorating it will always be very limited, and the fishes suitable for it can only be of a small size, like those from South America: a group of Apistogramma, or small group of Corydoras, Otocinclus, small tetras like Nannostomus, Copella, Pyrrhulina, Crenuchus, Paracheirodon, or small Hyphessobrycon species. From Asia, only small Danio species, small puffer species (Carinotetraodon imitator or Carinotetraodon travancoricus), small barbs (Puntius jerdoni, Puntius dario, Oseichthys cosuatus), small catfishes (Hara jerdoni, Hara hara, Conta conta, Chandramara chandramara), etc.

Furthermore, when one likes loaches, the best species for such an aquarium size are the following: Nemacheilus denisonii, Nemacheilus semiarmatus, Nemacheilus guentheri, Mesoneomacheilus triangularis. If others are wanted, the best are mainly Indochina fishes, for example Danionella species, Botia sidimunktiParambassis ranga,  Badis badis, Badis ruber, Badis assamensis, Yunnanilus brevis, Inlecypris auropurpurea, Swaba resplendens, Microrasbora rubrescens, Danio nigrolineata, etc.

If from Australasia, the fishes to place for a biotope in such a 60cm-aquarium should be mainly  Pseudomugil species (but not the 3 living in brackish and marine habitats), small gobies as Pandaka species or Tateurndina ocellicauda. Whenever one wants rainbowfishes, only Melantaenia preacox and Melantaenia macullochi should be placed, best if in groups.

 If I had a tank of 90x45x45cm, what would I place into it?

In a 200-litres-aquarium, I would only have fishes from one biotope – those which in nature normally live together – because of the harmony those fishes are able to create, as they already know each other.

For a small biotope of upper Amazon:

  • 06 Apistogramma (possible pairs); ie. Apistogramma agassizi, or Apistogramma trifasciata;
  • 10 Otocinclus arnoldi (or affinis, or sp.)
  • 05  Ancistrus hoplogenys
  • 08 Corydoras leucomelas
  • 06 Nannostomus trifasciatus
  • 06 Nanostomus eques
  • 06 Carnegielle strigata
  • 05 Gastelopelecus levis
  • 08 Hyphessobrycon erythrostigma
  • 06 Hyphessobrycon copelandi
  • 12 Petitella georgia
  • 20 Paracheirodon innesi
  • 03 Characidium sp. (or Paraodon sp.)

For a small biotope of upper Congo:

  • 06 Synodontis nigriventris
  • 05 Eutropiellus debauwi
  • 04 Microctenopoma ansorgii
  • 06 Phencogrammus interruptus
  • 05 Phenacogrammus caudalis
  • 03 Hemichromis stellifer
  • 03 Nanochromis transvestitus
  • 06 Aplocheilichthys katangae
BAM – Moanda, Lower Congo, DRC. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Biotope of Moanda, Lower Congo, Africa at NaQ 2011.

For a small biotope of New Guinea:

  • 30-40 Melanotaenia preacox
  • 10 Iratherina werneri (5 males – 5 females)
  • 08 Pseudomugil gertrudae
  • 06 Hypseleotris compressa or Hypseleotris gunteri
Dabra, Mamberamo, Irian Jaya. ©BAP, photo H. Bleher
Biotope fof Mamberamo, Indonesia at Zierfische 2003.

For a small biotope of Kerala, India:

BAM Meruvambayi River, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N.Khardina
Biotope of Anjarakandy River, India at Interzoo 2008

This river, almost 200 metres wide and tributary of the Kunthi River, is full of large stones, edged by thousands of Cryptocoryne spiralis. This was the third river in Kerala where I found the “Princess of Kerala” (Dawkinsia denisonii) in large quantities (but also in Karnataka). They were spawning in the crevices of these large rocks under the Cryptocoryne plants that hung over into the water.  We collected females full of eggs, hardly 10 cm in TL, and many babies, together with Dawkinsia filamentosa. Both had almost an identical juvenile colour pattern, with 4 black bars, which disappeared completely in adults of both species. They were spawning at 31.4°C; the pH was 7.1 and the conductivity 64µS/cm.

Kunthi river, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
The Kunthi river near Thootha in Kerala, India.
Cryptocoryne spiralis, Kunthy River, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Cryptocoryne retrospiralis in the Kunthi river in Kerala, India.
Dawkinsia denisonii, Kunthy River, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Fishing in the Kunthi river near Thootha, Kerala, India.
Carinotetraodon travancoricus, Kunthi river, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Adult specimen of Carinotetraodon travancoricus ‘gold’ in the Kunthi river, Kerala
Mesonoemacheilus triangularis, Kunthi river, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Mesonoemacheilus triangularis in the Tuda river near Cherplassery, India.
Dawkinsia denisonii, Kunthy River, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Juveniles of Dawkinsia denisonii (lower) and Dawkinsia filamentosa (upper) in the Tuda river near Cherplassery, India.
Awaous grammepomus, Kunthy River, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Awaous cf. grammepomus in the Kunthi river, Kerala, India.
Puntius mahecola, Kunthi river, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Puntius mahecola in the Tuda river near Cherplassery, India.
Salmosphasia boopis, Kunthi river, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Juvenile of Salmosphasia boopis in the Kunthi river in Kerala, India.
Sicyopterus griseus, Kunthi river, Kerala. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina
Sicyopterus griseus in the Kunthi river, Kerala, India.

These are just four examples of what I would place into such a 200-litres-aquarium. I would insist to do it biotope-correct – only placing those fishes together in a community, as they are known to live together in nature. Most aquarists or most of those who want to be aquarists know this: fishes from the same biotope know each other and, therefore, they will always feel “at home” no matter what you do. It is similar to our own homes: we know and normally get along with each other very well. This is not always the case if a person, for example from Japan, goes to a foreign place. Moreover, I would make the decoration according to the habitat the fishes come from, and never use plastic gravel, coloured sand, plastic gadgets, nor artificial decoration materials. The fishes come from nature and one should give them nature – just like at home.