Have you ever looked at one of your fish or plants and wondered "why are they shaped and colored like that," "why do some behave or grow so differently than others?" These questions form the inspiration for what I call "Habitat Tanks" - a type of aquarium whose aquascape matches that of its inhabitants. This is good aquarium to keep as it does not demand strict biotopic guidelines. Indeed, it should be a basis for most aquariums as it strives to provide an environment in which your fish and plants can flourish and feel comfortable.
There are basic aquatic biotopes common to plant and animal species around the world. When the hobbyists understands what these basic biotopes are, they can provide a appropriate home for a variety of fish and plant species. Three main terrains surround the tropical freshwater world: Rain forests, Monsoon forests, and Savannas. Rain forests, such as those in West Africa and South America are marked by profuse vegetation and regular rains and flooding. Monsoon forests, as is much of Southeast Asia, are often swampy with severe dry and wet seasons. Savannas, such as those in Central America, contain both grasslands and forests as well as several large lakes.
Within these terrains are various bodies of water. Streams generally have strong but narrow currents as well as rocky beds and shady banks. Many are mountainous with splintered rocks. It is here we find barbs, loaches, swordtails, and plants such as Java or African Ferns, Anubias, and various mosses clinging to fallen foliage and the rocky banks. Setting up a biotope aquarium of this sort entails providing good water flow from filters, some rocks, and a few tough plants along the banks and around the stream bed. Gentler streams, such as the Cryptocorne streams of Southeast Asia, can be filled vegetation and Gouramis, rasboras, and bumble bee gobies for example. Many corydoras catfish enjoy the sunny, sandy, open parts of streams, as do danios.
The River Tank kits currently on the market simulate this type of biotope. A Paludarium (or Vivarium) can also be constructed using power heads or power filters to create flowing water and silicned glass dividers to make land areas. Karen Randall, of the Boston Aquarium Society, has introduced this type of aquarium to American hobbyists in recent years through magazine articles and lectures.
Rivers are larger than streams, but usually move slower. Some characins (Tetras) enjoy schooling in these waters due to their spaciousness and high oxygen content. Cichlids, such as the popular Firemouth, Angelfish or Zebra Convict often inhabit the rocky and weedy banks of rivers. In the main part of tropical rivers there may be floating plants where Colossoma (Giant Tetras) leave their spawn before they retreat back to the lakes and river banks.
When rivers become fast they are called rapids, and it is here that we find, clinging to and hiding among the rocks and tumbled foliage, algae-eating Plecos, tentacled catfish, and rhephilic cichlids whose flattned bodies have evolved for life among the rocks and rapids.
Lakes are larger bodies of water that are relatively calm, fed by rivers and streams. African Cichlids of the Great Rift Valley call the rocky banks and bottoms of such lakes home, as do the larger Central American Cichlids such as the Red Devil or the Jaquar Cichlid.
Bogs, marshes, swamps, rice paddies, and pools are basically water holes created near flooded areas. Some are spring-fed. Platies and Rasboras are often found in these waters whose calmness facilitates their overgrown banks. Watersprite, Cambomba, or Hygrophilia can be seen, as well as numerous floating plants. They provide protection from predators as well as spawning sites. When dry seasons take hold many of these pools become isolated from fresh water or choked with rotting and live plants, lowering the oxygen content. This is common is Southeast Asia and it is here too that we find the Gouramis and Bettas, who have adapted to these conditions with the ability to breath atmospheric air. In South America, characins, catfish, and even Angelfish often get "stranded" in such pools until the next flooding.
Flooding, espcially in the Amazon and Zaire River Basin areas, can submerge entire rainforest up to 40 feet. Angelfish enjoy these deeper waters among the twisted branches and trunks, while their cousins, the Festivum cichlids, enjoy the higher elevations. Ever see the stripe on the side of a Festivum? In nature they can lie sideways and camoflage themselves as a twig. Very important if you prefer the surface over the deeper water.
Even a lagoon, with additional rain and water from surrounding floods can create what's called a "floating meadow" among savanna grasslands. Many characins of the Hybresscon group enjoy hiding among these shallow grassy waters in shoals. Now you know why they are so less active than other tetras in your home aquarium. Rams and Curvicep cichlids also like these areas. These fish also enjoy the marshy banks of water bodies where there are common aquatic plants like Echinodorus swords.
Of course, the fish we keep are highly adaptable charges, even in nature. They are often found in a variety of waters. What I've presented here are "preferred" or "typical" habitats. I hope this has provided an inspiration to try creating a habitat tank for your fish and plants. That way you can combine life forms from various global regions in an environment similar to that which they have evolved.
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