Selecting Community Tank Fish
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Selecting Community Tank Fish

Choosing the right species for your first community aquarium will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. Some aspiring aquarists tend to randomly pick out a long row of colorful species from the pet shop shelves and then try to force them to co-exist regardless of their respective temperature requirements, set up preferences and temperaments. This is of course not the best way to go about. In this article, I will provide you with a few suggestions and guidelines that can be a good idea to keep in mind when you are about to set up your first aquarium.

Chose sturdy and adaptable fish

As a beginner aquarist, your best bet is picking sturdy and adaptable fish that will be able to survive your beginner mistakes. It might be tempting to head straight for the showy marine Clownfish, but selecting fish species with exacting requirements will often lead to trouble and you may lose interest in the hobby all together if all your fish has turned belly up. Getting fish that you are not ready to care for is also cruel to the fish. Fish are living creatures that deserves the care of a devoted aquarist, not being slowly tortured to death in the hands of an unknowledgeable aquarist.

Chose inexpensive fish

Spending 90% of your aquarium budget on expensive fish is not a good idea, since it will leave you with very little money left to spend on equipment, food, and so on. If you are a beginner aquarist forced to choose between a mid-sized aquarium with inexpensive fish and a small aquarium with expensive fish, you should definitely go for the mid-sized aquarium. Keeping the water quality up and the temperature stable is much easier in a big aquarium than in a small one, and a big aquarium will also be more forgiving when it comes to beginner mistakes since the large water mass will dilute harmful pollutants. When a fish dies in a small aquarium, it will pollute the water in no time and by the time you notice its demise, it may very well have brought death upon all the other aquarium inhabitants as well.

Chose peaceful fish

Sticking to peaceful or just slightly aggressive species is important, at least until you have learned how to deal with aggression in the aquarium. Highly aggressive species in the hands of an inexperienced aquarist normally leads to serious injury, infected wounds and premature fish death. Medium aggressive species (such as the ones included in the below mentioned Malawi Tank) can be successfully kept by an inexperienced aquarist as long as that person is willing to do some reading on mid-aggressive species and how to prevent the fish from killing each other.

Even peaceful fish species can be fin-nippers and such species should be avoided, especially if you plan on keeping fish with long and delicate fins. Tiger barbs are for instance notorious for nipping the fins of other fish.

Chose active fish

If you are a die-hard Catfish devotee you can of course furnish you aquarium with nothing but strictly night-active fish that will spend every day hiding under a piece of wood, but most aquarists tend to favor more active species, at least until they have developed a more personal type affection for some quiescent member of the aquatic world. If one of your prime goals with your aquarium is that it should be entertaining and look good, then include at least a few active species.

Choose a suitable combination of fish

Aquarium size
First and foremost, the proper combination of fish will depend on the size of your aquarium. The exact size of the fish is not the only factor here; their sensitivity to poor water conditions is also important. A novice aquarist will for instance have a much greater chance of successfully keeping semi-sensitive species in a large, non-crowded aquarium than in a small one.

Secondly, aim for a nice combination of fish. It is important that the species will look as well as function nicely together. This will naturally depend on your goals for the aquarium, but if one of them is to set up a nice looking aquarium that will be almost like a living piece of art, then try to visualize the species together as a unit instead of picking one species at a time without regard to what the end result will be. It is for instance a good idea to choose some species that will inhabit the bottom, some species that will inhabit the lower part of the water column and some species that will inhabit the upper parts of the aquarium.   

If you choose species cleverly, your fish will actually help to keep the water quality up and remove unsightly algae growth. It is therefore a good idea to include both scavenging fish and algae eaters in your set up. The scavengers will prevent the water from fouling by eating uneaten food and similar before it starts to decompose.

Avoiding predation
As a general rule of thumb, it is not advisable to combine two fishes where the mouth of one of them is big enough for the other one to fit into. There are of course exceptions to this rule, such as the case of very strict herbivore (vegetarian) fishes. You should however keep in mind that a lot of fish is opportunistic and even if the main diet of a fish is made up of plant matter it can still be tempted to swallow a small, defenseless fish that happens to swim by.

But I want beautiful fish!
Sticking to inexpensive, sturdy, adaptable, and peaceful species that will not devour each other doesn’t mean that you will be stuck with boring, unattractive fish. There are many examples of fishes that fit the profile while still being remarkably beautiful. Why not take a closer look as some of the rainbow fishes for instance? Melanotaenia boesemani (Boeseman's rainbows) and Glossolepis incisus (Red rainbows) are just two examples of gorgeous fish species that are both easy to house and care for.

Set up a community aquarium

There are naturally no strict rules when it comes to setting up your first community aquarium and how you decide to go about will depend on personal preferences, budget, how much time you have to spend on your hobby, the short term and long term goals of your fish keeping and so on. This article will therefore only offer a few suggestions and guidelines. It should also be noted that these guidelines are constructed with a 120 liter aquarium in mind. If you aquarium is smaller than this, you will have to make some adjustments.

Mid water
To begin with, choosing a group of schooling fish will add activity to your aquarium. A large school will also create a more unified look than adding a large number of different species. Cramming 30 fishes from 10 different species into an aquarium will in most cases look strange and haphazard. As far as schooling fishes go, you can for instance pick Danios since they are sturdy enough to be used as cycling fish when you set up your aquarium. (I strongly recommend you to read up on cycling before you set up your aquarium because it will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.) If you want small fish, you can go for Zebra Danios (Danio rerio). With a 120 liter aquarium you will however have space for bigger Danios if you want to. You can also choose to have two schools with small fish species. A school of Zebra Danios will for instance look great combined with a school of Rosy barbs.

Schooling fish species should be kept in groups consisting of at least six specimens since smaller groups will make them stressed, prone to disease and very shy. Normally active fish such as the Danios are known to retreat into the corners of the aquarium if you try to keep them alone or in tiny groups. A large group will also look much more impressive in the aquarium and I therefore recommend getting at least a dozen of schooling fish, not the mere six individuals. 

Top water
The schooling fish species mentioned above will spend most of their time in the mid-level of the aquarium and adding some top dwellers is therefore a good idea. True top-dwellers can be hard to find for the novice aquarists, at least if you want colorful fish, since they tend to be either sensitive, expensive or aggressive (or a combination of all three). Swordtails and Platys are however wonderful exceptions to this rule and will spend a lot of their time close to the surface. Swordtails should be kept in harems consisting of one male and several females.

Bottom feeders will not only add some activity to the bottom layer of your aquarium, they will also remove left over food and other types of waste if you chose scavenging species. You can for instance get a school of at least six Corydoras catfish. Adding a Bristlenose catfish
(Ancistrus spp.) is also a good idea since it will help you combat algae growth. The Bristlenose will spend most of its time close to the bottom, but algae growth on the aquarium walls can make attach itself to the glass and eagerly feed until the glass is clean.

Pelvicachromis pulcher are also a nice addition to the aquarium since they will stay in the lower part of the aquarium without really being bottom dwellers. Pelvicachromis pulcher is a colorful cichlid, especially the female who sports a deep red belly. I you decide to keep these cichlids you should give them a cave to seek shelter in, otherwise they will become shy and stressed.

A few examples of community aquariums for beginners

The Small Aquarium (80 liters)
Going for small, schooling fish is recommended in small aquariums since they will make the aquarium look more alive than a few bigger fishes would. You can for instance get one dozen of Zebra Danios and one dozen of small, hardy and colorful tetras. Both species can be kept in small schools consisting of no more than six specimens, but such tiny groups do not look very striking in the aquarium. Sticking to a few species and getting a lot of fish from each species will normally produce the best effect in small aquariums. In addition to the schooling fish, you can add one male and one female Swordtail and enjoy their interesting behaviors. To keep algae under control I recommend getting two Bristlenose catfish (one of the Ancistrus spp.).

The Asian Riverbed Aquarium (120-200 liter)
This set up is very nice if you are willing to install a fairly strong current in your aquarium. It will mimic a South-East Asian riverbed biotope and should therefore ideally be heavily planted. Keeping a planted aquarium is actually easier than keeping a non-planted one since the plants will remove waste products from the water and help you keep the levels of oxygen up. Ask your local fish store for sturdy plant species that will thrive under normal aquarium lighting and require no additional carbon dioxide or fertilizers. This Asia Riverbed setup is inhabited by 15 Zebra Danios, 10 Tiger barbs, 4 Tinfoil barbs and 1 Red Tail Shark. The Red Tail Shark is not a true shark; it is a shark minnow that lives in freshwater only. 

The Gourami Aquarium (120-200 liters)
The Gourami Tank is a nice setup if you are a beginner aquarist with a 120-200 liter aquarium. The base of the aquarium will be two different Gourami species: the Pearl Gourami and the Dwarf Gourami. Combining two males and four females from each species (i.e. 12 Gouramis in total) will provide you with a good sex ratio. Two male and two female specimens of the Friendly Betta will add activity to the lower range of the aquarium, while a Bristlenose catfish (one of the Ancistrus spp.) will help you keep algae under control. Last but not least, add a school of six inexpensive Corydoras cat fish. They will add activity to the bottom as well as help you keep the aquarium clean. Never get less than six Corydoras since this is a schooling species.

The Malawi Tank (120-200 liters)
Many beginner aquarists automatically choose tetras and swordtails since this is what the pet shop recommended them, but the world is filled with suitable beginner species and there is no need to go for the species that “everyone else” gets. Even as a beginner, a devoted aquarist can for instance successfully keep a Lake Malawi aquarium with colorful, albeit somewhat aggressive, cichlids. With a 120-200 liter aquarium, you will have room for quite a lot of medium-sized cichlids. Keeping the aquarium well-stocked will actually reduce aggression, so do not attempt this setup unless you are prepared to purchase all the fishes at once. The genus Pseudotropheus contains several suitable species and you can for instance pick six Pseudotropheus estherae and six Pseudotropheus socolofi. Add six more fish from the species Labeotropheus trewavasae and finish by purchasing two Cuckoo catfish. These fishes hail from the rocky shores of Lake Malawi and the aquarium should therefore be aquascaped using lots of rocks. You can try adding plants if you want to, but they will most likely be destroyed.


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