Throughout the world, one of the most popular hobbies is setting up aquariums to hold tropical fish. Unlike snakes and lizards that have a negative stigmas associated with them, fish have always been viewed as things of beauty. Perhaps the best thing about keeping fish is that they are relatively easy pets to keep, they are considerably cheaper than most pets, and there is an enormous quantity of different fish to choose from. Not only is there an endless supply of species, there are also many different fish from different types of bodies of water around the world. This article will touch on the most available and popular fish found in homes, that being fresh water fish from around the world, but we also have to talk a little bit about salt water fish as well. With such a large array of fish in the world, it is easy to run into problems by mixing various species of fish together with often disastrous results. The key to success with tropical fish, a lesson that is transferable to all pets, is that you can never do enough research about an animal. The more you know about something, the happier you and your new pet will be. What you will find truly interesting, is that the hobby has been around for centuries, and a little trip through history can teach us a great deal.
In the Roman Empire, the first fish to be brought indoors was the sea barbel, which was kept under guest beds in small tanks made of marble. Introduction of glass panes around the year 50 allowed Romans to replace one wall of marble tanks, improving their view of the fish. In 1369, the Chinese Emperor, Hóngwǔ, established a porcelain company that produced large porcelain tubs for maintaining goldfish; over time, people produced tubs that approached the shape of modern fish bowls. Leonhard Baldner, who wrote Vogel-, Fisch- und Tierbuch (Bird, Fish, and Animal Book) in 1666, maintained weather loaches and newts.
In 1836, soon after his invention of the Wardian case, Ward proposed to use his tanks for tropical animals. In 1841 he did so, though only with aquatic plants and toy fish. However, he soon housed real animals. In 1838, Félix Dujardin noted owning a saltwater aquarium, though he did not use the term. In 1846, Anna Thynne maintained stony corals and seaweed for almost three years, and was credited as the creator of the first balanced marine aquarium in London. At about the same time, Robert Warington experimented with a 13-gallon container, which contained goldfish, eelgrass, and snails, creating one of the first stable aquaria. He published his findings in 1850 in the Chemical Society's journal.
The keeping of fish in an aquarium became a popular hobby and spread quickly. In the United Kingdom, it became popular after ornate aquaria in cast iron frames were featured at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1853, the first large public aquarium opened in the London Zoo and came to be known as the Fish House. Philip Henry Gosse was the first person to actually use the word "aquarium", opting for this term (instead of "aquatic vivarium" or "aqua-vivarium") in 1854 in his book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. In this book, Gosse primarily discussed saltwater aquaria. In the 1850s, the aquarium became a fad in the United Kingdom.
Germans soon rivaled the British in their interest. In 1854, an anonymous author had two articles published about the saltwater aquaria of the United Kingdom: Die Gartenlaube (The Garden House) entitled Der Ocean auf dem Tische (The Ocean on the Table). However, in 1856, Der See im Glase (The Lake in a Glass) was published, discussing freshwater aquaria, which were much easier to maintain in landlocked areas. During the 1870s, some of the first aquarist societies were appearing in Germany. The United States soon followed. Published in 1858, Henry D. Butler's The Family Aquarium was one of the first books written in the United States solely about the aquarium According to the July issue of The North American Review of the same year, William Stimson may have owned some of the first functional aquaria, and had as many as seven or eight. The first aquarist society in the United States was founded in New York City in 1893, followed by others. The New York Aquarium Journal, first published in October 1876, is considered to be the world's first aquarium magazine.
In the Victorian era in the United Kingdom, a common design for the home aquarium was a glass front with the other sides made of wood (made watertight with a pitch coating). The bottom would be made of slate and heated from below. More advanced systems soon began to be introduced, along with tanks of glass in metal frames. During the latter half of the 19th century, a variety of aquarium designs were explored, such as hanging the aquarium on a wall, mounting it as part of a window, or even combining it with a birdcage. Circa 1908, the first mechanical aquarium air pump was invented, powered by running water, instead of electricity. The introduction of the air pump into the hobby is considered by several historians of the hobby to be a pivotal moment in the development of the hobby.
Aquaria became more widely popular as houses had an electricity supply after World War I. Electricity allowed artificial lighting as well as aeration, filtration, and heating of the water. Initially, amateur aquarists kept native fish (with the exception of goldfish); the availability of exotic species from overseas further increased the popularity of the aquarium. Jugs made from a variety of materials were used to import fish from overseas, with a bicycle foot pump for aeration. Plastic shipping bags were introduced in the 1950s, making it easier to ship fish. The eventual availability of air freight, allowed fish to be successfully imported from distant regions. In the 1960s metal frames made marine aquaria almost impossible due to corrosion, but the development of tar and silicone sealant allowed the first all-glass aquaria made by Martin Horowitz in Los Angeles, CA. The frames remained, however, though purely for aesthetic reasons.
In the United States, aquarium keeping is the second-most popular hobby after stamp collecting. In 1999 it was estimated that over nine million U.S. households own an aquarium. Figures from the 2005/2006 APPMA National Pet Owners Survey report that Americans own approximately 139 million freshwater fish and 9.6 million saltwater fish. Estimates of the numbers of fish kept in aquaria in Germany suggest at least 36 million. The hobby has the strongest following in Europe, Asia, and North America. In the United States, 40 percent of aquarists maintain two or more tanks.
The first thing you must have is an actual aquarium. Any pet store in North America will typically have a large supply of different shapes and sizes of aquariums. With so many to choose from, I always revert to the golden rule of purchasing an aquarium. Always choose the largest aquarium that you can physically fit in your home and that you can financially afford. There is no sense blowing your budget on a fancy 100 gallon bowed front aquarium that you can’t fit into your apartment, but the rule is to purchase a big tank because there is a higher level of error that is allowed in bigger fish tanks. For example, an ammonia spike in a 10 gallon fish aquarium will instantly kill everything, whereas the same spike in a 100 gallon tank won’t be notices at all. The size I generally prefer on a personal level is the 29 gallon tank because it is a decent size but not too big. Shape generally is not a bog concern, but you have to understand that most fish swim in the mid to low range of an aquarium, so tall tanks will generally be empty on the top half and lower tanks will look nice and full. The one thing that is often forgotten about fish is that they too have day and night cycles that require a light to be present on top of the aquarium. It’s something so simple, but if forgotten, can stress your fish out to the point of getting sick of actually dying. There are various lights that tend to mimic certain types of light. For the most part it is irrelevant to the fish as long as they have light, but if you plan of having live plants, then you will need to purchase a bright fluorescent that will aid in the plants’ growth.
If there is anything more important than the aquarium itself, it would be the aquarium filter. There are numerous filters on the market right at any given time. There are many great filters, and there are probably twice as many terrible filters. People generally buy the terrible ones because they are dirt cheap, both financially and constructed cheap. There are two types of filters which are equally great for aquariums. Canister filters are the best by far because they circulate the aquarium water the most, hold the most filter media, and sit below the aquarium out of sight. The only issue with this kind is that they are more expensive, but they are generally used for larger aquariums. My favorite type of filter is the Hang on the Back filter that literally hangs on the back of your aquarium in order to filter the water. To ensure you have a good quality filter, you should always use filters that have separate filter media instead of the cheap models that have an all in one filter media. This will become more apparent when we talk about the nitrogen cycle and maintaining your aquarium. The different type of filter media are the sponge, which is a dense foam material that collects solid waste, charcoal, same thing that is in your Brita filter that removes odors and color, and Zeolite, which removes ammonia from the water. Other media can be used such as peat, which softens the water for some species of fish, and Biomax, which is a brand name porous material that grows beneficial bacteria.
The last thing you have to do before you can set up your aquarium is decide what type of fish you are going to keep. For anything other than cold water fish, basically goldfish, you will have to purchase a heater. Since fish in pet stores are tropical, they require their water to be heated to approximately 75 to 80 Fahrenheit in order for the fish to have a proper metabolism and to ensure a stress free life. Just like filters, there are numerous good quality and cheap models available from pet stores and online that will do the job. I shouldn’t have to say it again, but never buy the cheap models. Always buy fully submersible filters because you can then mount them horizontally across the back of your aquarium to insure the tank gets heated evenly. The cheap model hangs on the back of your aquarium, and works fin, but it has a water level on it that must always stay in the water. Problems arise when water evaporated leaving the heated part of the heater exposed, which usually causes the heater to break and possibly electrocute you and the fish. Never cheap out when it comes to your pets!
Large volumes of water enable more stability in a tank by diluting effects from death or contamination events that push an aquarium away from equilibrium. The bigger the tank, the easier such a systemic shock is to absorb, because the effects of that event are diluted. For example, the death of the only fish in a three U.S. gallon tank (11 L) causes dramatic changes in the system, while the death of that same fish in a 100 U.S. gallon (400 L) tank with many other fish in it represents only a minor change. For this reason, hobbyists often favor larger tanks, as they require less attention.
Several nutrient cycles are important in the aquarium. Dissolved oxygen enters the system at the surface water-air interface or via an air pump. Carbon dioxide escapes the system into the air. The phosphate cycle is an important, although often overlooked, nutrient cycle. Sulfur, iron, and micronutrients also cycle through the system, entering as food and exiting as waste. Appropriate handling of the nitrogen cycle, along with supplying an adequately balanced food supply and considered biological loading, is enough to keep these other nutrient cycles in approximate equilibrium.
An aquarium must be maintained regularly to ensure that the fish are kept healthy. Daily maintenance consists of checking the fish for signs of stress and disease, on a daily basis. Also, aquarists must make sure that the water has a good quality and it is not cloudy or foamy and the temperature of the water is appropriate for the particular species of fish that live in the aquarium.
Typical weekly maintenance includes changing around 20% of the water while cleaning the gravel, or other substrate if the aquarium has one. A good habit is to replace the water extracted while "vacuuming" the gravel as this will eliminate uneaten foods and other residues that settle on the substrate. Tap water is not considered to be safe for fish to live in because it contains chemicals that harm the fish, so any tap water used must be treated with a suitable water conditioner, such as a product which removes chlorine and chloramine, and neutralises any heavy metals present. The water parameters must be checked both in the tank and in the replacing water, to make sure they are suitable for the species of fish kept.
The nitrogen cycle is a necessity to know if you plan on having success with the hobby of tropical water fish keeping. What it basically does, is show you how and why you have to do regular maintenance on you aquarium to ensure you always have top notch water quality. The basic idea is this:
The second you add fish to the water, they eat and poop. Fish poop and uneaten food breaks down to cause ammonia to build up in your aquarium. To prevent the ammonia from killing your fish, nitrifying bacteria breaks the ammonia down into the less harmful nitrites. Since they too are dangerous if left unchecked, they too are broken down by nitrifying bacteria into the far less harmful nitrates. These of course are removes when you perform your 20% weekly water change.
What hobbyists call the nitrogen cycle is only a portion of the complete cycle: nitrogen must be added to the system (usually through food provided to the tank inhabitants), and nitrates accumulate in the water at the end of the process, or become bound in the biomass of plants. The aquarium keeper must remove water once nitrate concentrations grow, or remove plants which have grown from the nitrates.
Hobbyist aquaria often do not have sufficient bacteria populations to adequately denitrify waste. This problem is most often addressed through two filtration solutions: Activated carbon filters absorb nitrogen compounds and other toxins, while biological filters provide a medium designed to enhance bacterial colonization. Activated carbon and other substances, such as ammonia absorbing resins, stop working when their pores fill, so these components have to be replaced regularly.
New aquaria often have problems associated with the nitrogen cycle due to insufficient beneficial bacteria. Therefore fresh water has to be matured before stocking them with fish. There are three basic approaches to this: the "fishless cycle", the "silent cycle" and "slow growth".
In a fishless cycle, small amounts of ammonia are added to an unpopulated tank to feed the bacteria. During this process, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels are tested to monitor progress. The "silent" cycle is basically nothing more than densely stocking the aquarium with fast-growing aquatic plants and relying on them to consume the nitrogen, allowing the necessary bacterial populations time to develop. According to anecdotal reports, the plants can consume nitrogenous waste so efficiently that ammonia and nitrite level spikes seen in more traditional cycling methods are greatly reduced or disappear. "Slow growth" entails slowly increasing the population of fish over a period of 6 to 8 weeks, giving bacteria colonies time to grow and stabilize with the increase in fish waste.
The largest bacterial populations are found in the filter; efficient filtration is vital. Sometimes, a vigorous cleaning of the filter is enough to seriously disturb the biological balance of an aquarium. Therefore, it is recommended to rinse mechanical filters in an outside bucket of aquarium water to dislodge organic materials that contribute to nitrate problems, while preserving bacteria populations. Another safe practice consists of cleaning only half of the filter media during each service.
Of the perhaps hundreds of thousands of fish throughout the world, there are thousands available for you own personal aquarium. There are many ways to break the thousands into groups, but without writing a series of encyclopedias, there is no way one can write about all the different types of freshwater, cold water, and marine fish available to the hobbyist. The main groups of fish that you may find in a pet store are the live bearers, which are a hearty fish that as the name implies gives birth to live young, schooling fish, basically the minnows of tropical fish species that always stick together in large groups, and cichlids, which are a large group of aggressive fish spanning multiple lakes throughout the world. Of course Marine Fish are more popular than they have ever been featuring brilliant colors and unique shapes and sizes. An unusual type of fish from fresh water lakes near the ocean is the Brackish water fish, which prefers about 50% of the salt as Marine aquariums. And of course no pet store would ever think of not selling the forever popular Cold water fish, the gold fish.
From the outdoor ponds and glass jars of antiquity, modern aquaria have evolved into a wide range of specialized systems. Individual aquaria can vary in size from a small bowl large enough for only a single small fish, to the huge public aquaria that can simulate entire marine ecosystems. One way to classify aquaria is by salinity. Freshwater aquaria are the most popular due to their lower cost.
More expensive and complex equipment is required to set up and maintain a marine aquaria. Marine aquaria frequently feature a diverse range of invertebrates in addition to species of fish. Brackish water aquaria combine elements of both marine and freshwater fishkeeping. Fish kept in brackish water aquaria generally come from habitats with varying salinity, such as mangroves and estuaries. Subtypes exist within these types, such as the reef aquarium, a typically smaller marine aquarium that houses coral.
Another classification is by temperature range. Many aquarists choose a tropical aquarium because tropical fish tend to be more colorful. However, the coldwater aquarium is also popular, which is mainly restricted to goldfish, but can include fish from temperate areas worldwide and native fish keeping.
Aquaria may be grouped by their species selection. The community tank is the most common today, where several non-aggressive species live peacefully. In these aquaria, the fish, invertebrates, and plants probably do not originate from the same geographic region, but tolerate similar water conditions. Aggressive tanks, in contrast, house a limited number of species that can be aggressive toward other fish, or are able to withstand aggression well. Most marine tanks and tanks housing Cichlids have to take the aggressiveness of the desired species into account when stocking. Specimen tanks usually only house one fish species, along with plants, perhaps found in the fishes' natural environment and decorations simulating a natural ecosystem. This type is useful for fish that cannot coexist with other fish, such as the electric eel, as an extreme example. Some tanks of this sort are used simply to house adults for breeding.
Ecotype, ecotope, or biotope aquaria is another type based on species selection. In it, an aquarist attempts to simulate a specific natural ecosystem, assembling fish, invertebrate species, plants, decorations and water conditions all found in that ecosystem. These biotope aquaria are the most sophisticated hobby aquaria; public aquaria use this approach whenever possible. This approach best simulates the experience of observing in the wild. It typically serves as the healthiest possible artificial environment for the tank's occupants.
The first rule about purchasing your first fish is to buy a species that is interesting to you. Never be persuaded to purchase fish that you don’t want because you are told it is an easier fish species meant for a beginner. If it is a tropical fish that you don’t really want, then it is a pet that you will grow tired of in the future. Regardless of what type it is that you want, you have to ensure you do all the research about it prior to purchasing it so that you take proper care of the fish from day one. There is simply no sense in getting a freshwater fish that will grow to be 4 feet long that requires a swimming pool to live in. The idea that a fish will grow to the size of its enclosure is a myth, and the fact is that if they live in an enclosure too small their growth will be stunted and they will suffer from health issues.
One of the most debated issues in fish keeping is whether to purchase from a private breeder or from a pet store. Here is an argument that is based on a few too many bad apples spoiling it for the bunch. Without pet stores, there simply would not be reptiles, snake, and fish in captivity as pets because it was various pet stores that sparked the interest in fish in the first place. But over the past twenty years, there have been numerous cases of poor quality fish being sold by people thinking only of profit as their fish suffer from neglect. Thankfully, there has been numerous enthusiasts stepping forward to challenge pet stores to live up to the higher standards people expect from pet stores, and there have also been numerous pet stores in North America that have been promoting proper care of fish species. Unlike reptiles where there is a downside to purchasing from a pet store because the pet store purchases from breeders and then mark up the prices to make a profit, the prices are generally so low that price is of no concern. Sometimes you will find unique fish in pet stores, but if you purchase from a breeder, you may be able to get a more unique morph that most people have never seen before plus the benefit of talking to someone with years of experience in the same hobby as you.
As a general rule of thumb, always try to purchase the healthiest fish available. This is easily done by purchasing the largest in a group that has bright eyes and is active. Larger animals typically mean that they are being well fed and cared for. If a fish is skinny and not active, then it is best to leave it be. You also have to be concerned with fish diseases when purchasing fish. The most common are fish lice, which is a parasite that attaches itself to the fish similar to the way a tick attaches itself to other living things, fish fungus is a disease of the fins that has a fungus that eats away at the fish’s fins, and the most common of all is ich. Ich is a microscopic parasite that is always in water, but only attaches itself to a fish if they get stressed out and drops its protecting slime coat. This is easy to see because after ich is attached to the fish it has a protective white shell, so your fish basically gets tons of white spots. A healthy animal can live many years, and if you put in the time that is necessary, you will be rewarded in the long run.
The other thing that is crucial to success in the hobby is ensuring you do not over stock your aquarium. As a general rule of thumb, you should only put one inch of fish in an aquarium for every gallon of water. So in theory, if you have a 10 gallon tank, you are able to stock it safely with 10 inches of fish. To add to this, you also have to think about the adult size of your fish. It may just be a one inch Oscar South American Cichlid now, but in awhile it is going to be a 10 inch Oscar South American Cichlid. If that is the case, you are allowed to have one Oscar in a ten gallon tank. Should you overstock your tank, you will eventually have a very high level of ammonia and nitrate that can cause all your fish to die. That is of course unless you want to do a water change every single day.
Setting up an aquarium to keep different species of fish is one of the easiest and most rewarding experiences you will ever do. Although the equipment to start can be on the pricey side when you factor in an aquarium, filtration, heating, lighting, and decorations, the fish themselves can be fairly inexpensive if you are planning on purchasing freshwater fish. Even Marine fish are considerably more inexpensive compared to ten years ago, but with marine fish, it is almost guaranteed that you will be getting a wild caught fish, where as freshwater fish are typically captive bred in aquariums. The only problem with keeping fish as a hobby is that it is very addicting because you can only have so many fish in your aquarium, but there are numerous amazing fish available at any given time. For this reason, it is not unusual for people to set up multiple aquariums to have the different types of fish that is of interest to them. It is just such a great hobby because it is just so accessible for people of all ages. But like all hobbies, it takes a lot of time, patience, and research, but eventually all your hard work will pay off.