I've covered the basics of aquarium keeping so many times, most often in Freshwater & Marine Aquarium magazine, that you might think that I would tire of it and just think that I was repeating myself and didn't have anything better to talk about. Well, that's one opinion, but not mine. I consider basics as not just the most important part of successful tropical fish keeping, but as a general part of your personal behavior that you are going to have to cultivate all of your life. Infatuation with aquariums is similar to puppy love. After a while, it passes and other things take over. In the case of tropical fish, those other things can result in your fish becoming sick or dying. It's OK to have a short affairs with a fish tank, but all I ask is that whatever kind of affair you have, you make it humane and something to build on later in life, not to forget and never get near again. Yet, I have to admit, even after failures and disappointments, time does heal many of us, and we get the itch once again to try our hand at cichlids, Koi, tetras, catfish, marine organisms, etc. But it's that first-time itch I would like to discuss this month, and how to scratch it properly without breaking the bank, and most ever so most importantly, without killing your fish. The comments that follow can also be appreciated by more experienced fishkeepers, and if you do have any feedback, please send it on at email@example.com.
Keeping an aquarium properly might be compared to handling a rifle. To do it properly, you should get instruction from a professional, practice with him/her, grow more confident in your ability, then go out and buy a gun (in our case, an aquarium) of your own. Unfortunately, for some strange cosmic reason, we don't have professional organizations that are very well known, that serve as a stepping stone from our front door to the fish of our dreams. We don't have, or just as bad, don't realize that we have, local organizations that advertise, sponsor, teach and tour, unless you speak of public and certain private aquariums. By and large, the potential and actual fish buyer/raiser is left on his/her own, to buy whatever fancies the mood, and to take whatever consequences that come with this unregulated practice. OK, then, how do we circumvent this situation and make it so that when we do decide to buy fish and place them into an aquarium, that we are doing the right thing for all fish concerned? Or rather, what are the actual basics?
First, appreciate the fact that fish have their own individual water needs. After all, considering that some fish come from Africa, some from South America, some from Southeast Asia, others from North America, and so on, you can well and correctly imagine that the waters in these diverse geographic locations are indeed different. So why is it, or rather, how is it, that many species from such varied locations on this planet are able to co-exist in the same tank?
The secret is that while they have their own individual water requirements, many times those requirements are so close, or not so different, that they can easily be placed together. So you can have a native Southeastern Mexico platy, Xiphophorus variatus var. found in the same tank as a Thai Three-spot gourami (Trichogaster trichopterus). Keeping in mind, unlike many aquarists, that the platy, swordtail and molly all need somewhat brackish water to do their best (even to survive depending on water conditions). Into the same tank you might also place a Archocentrus nigrofasciatus (Convict cichlid). If you did the latter, you would be inviting trouble. The convict is aggressive and likes to tear up the tank from time to time. Too, you could be considering angelfish, but don't know how to raise them properly. So you decide to take a chance.
Please don't! Don't take chances with aquarium fish. This is perhaps the basic of all basics in aquarium keeping. If you do not know whether or not the fish you are considering is compatible with the water and other fish in your tank, or much worse, if you don't even really know what kind of fish it is, you may have no business considering buying it until you find out for sure. And where do you find out? From experienced aquarium keepers or staff at public aquariums. Libraries and books are also useful, but they often don't provide the kind of advice and warning that you really need before you take the plunge. Some basic questions you should be asking the retailer and the experienced hobbyist before you buy are: (1) is this fish compatible with my water conditions (pH, temperature, hardness, salinity, etc.) (2) is this fish compatible with other fish I have or will place in my aquarium? If not, what are the limitations and what do you need to do to preserve the health of all fish, some of which are basically not compatible but which are being kept together anyhow?
Even many intermediate level fishkeepers might not be able to answer some of these questions. I have known others, and done so myself, who thought they were doing the right thing but were not in terms of handling fish, in terms of placing them with other fish, and in terms of upkeep of general water conditions. To be successful in aquarium basics, and thus in aquarium keeping, you need to keep educating yourself - not from direct experience only, which is a toss-up on whether it's harder for the fish or the fishkeeper! - but by, as said, visiting aquariums, talking and working with more experienced fishkeepers, and from dabbing into keeping species tanks and community tanks.
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