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Where I Think The Hobby Should Be Going

Where I Think The Hobby Should Be Going
By: Steven Pro

I have had the pleasure recently to get out to a good number of local aquarium clubs. As part of these trips, inevitably, I get to visit the homes of some of the aquarists and view their displays. And, while I am truly grateful to talk to my fellow aquarists, travel the country, and see these tanks, more and more lately I find myself feeling that if I have seen one tank, I have seen them all. That is not to take away from these aquariums. I have seen some very pretty exhibits. It is just that I find myself wanting to see something different, something new, something that takes me back for a moment and makes me think, “Wow! I never thought about doing something like that before!”

It is with this frame of reference that I offer up some intriguing possibilities. Not so much to be copied, but to inspire my fellow hobbyists to think outside the box and come up with new and interesting ways to appreciate our aquatic pets.

Well-rounded fish geeks like me should be familiar with the name Takashi Amano. For the uninitiated, Amano style freshwater-planted aquariums are becoming quite popular, and in my opinion, they can rival many so-called reef displays in their attention to detail and overall beauty. Many times, they tend to focus on a monospecific display of fish and plants instead of the all too common hodge podge of fish and corals that we emulate, the so-called coral reef garden, if I could borrow a phrase from my friend Anthony Calfo. Amano also tends to tell a story with his aquariums. Or, give the viewer an overall impression of something else, for instance a mountain range, or of something already existing in nature but on a smaller scale. In short, these displays are much more than a typical freshwater community tank. I have tried to emulate some of Amano’s style in the following ideas while replacing the plants with corals.

Red Sea Representation:
Who amongst us does not recognize the beauty in a typical Red Sea image of a ‘forest’ of non-photosynthetic Dendronepthea with a large school of Anthias intermingled? Pictures such as these were what initially inspired many of us into marine ornamentals. Soon afterward though, we learned of how keeping Dendronepthea long-term is nearly impossible. And then, it seems the image then faded away from our collective memory.

While I am not going to recommend that anyone go out and fill their tanks with corals that are doomed to perish, why not try to devise a realistic representation of this habitat with animals that can be kept successfully? What I envision is an aquarium stocked with various colors of what we generally refer to as Finger Leathers. Sinularia in particular come naturally in pinks, yellows, and fluorescent greens. While not the same thing, a display dominated by these Finger Leathers and a school of Red Sea Pseudoanthias squamipinnis would be impressive and yet easy enough to maintain using current husbandry techniques and equipment.

Sinularia are typically hearty species suited for many types of aqaurium since they adapt to many types of conditions. This would be an excellent coral for the display described above. Photo by Steven Pro.

Anthias are beautiful fish and although they do have some captive challenges, they are not out of the reach of any aquarist. Photos by Steven Pro.

A Little Atoll:
The theme of this display would be to recreate a small outer patch reef. A small mound of rock would be situated such that it was centered in the aquarium with a fair amount of sand all around it. Onto the rockwork, small frags of the common Green Slimer Acropora would be attached and encourage to grow into one large, massive colony to the point that nearly none of the underlying rock would be visible any longer. The fish stocking would be made up entirely of a small group of Four Stripe Damsels, Dascyllus melanurus. Preferably the water flow would be constructed in such a way that it would create ripples in the sand bed. This would further give the illusion that this patch reef is isolated and set apart from the greater reef structure. The final touch would be the stark blue background, signifying that this little piece of rock is the last refuge before the wide-open blue sea.

Dascyllus melanurus are not just for cycling new aquariums as they are often recommended. These small fish are excellent candidates for smaller aquariums and can be used to create appealing displays. Photo by Steven Pro.

Plating Stand of Coral:
With this idea, I set out to mimic a portion of an overall reef. I have always been impressed with the pictures of the reefs showing large stands of plating Acropora. But, getting and then maintaining plating Acropora is a challenge. Specimen selection is very important, as is strong lighting and massive amounts of strong, turbulent water flow to keep the branches growing thick and robust. An alternative can be found, though, in rather easy to keep corals. Imagine an aquarium made up entirely of various colors of plating Montipora instead. They are not nearly as demanding as their plating cousin Acroporas in terms of lighting or water flow. They also tend to grow like weeds. A few small frags of orange, red, green, and purple plating Montiporas strategically placed and permitted to flourish would quickly fill a display with their intricate whirling forms and colors. One could even add a yellow Turbinaria reneformis for additional color, although careful pruning of the Montiporids will be needed to ensure that the Turbinaria is not overgrown, shaded, or otherwise killed. To this boldly colored montage, I would incorporate a slightly modest fish for balance. Something like a school of Threadfin Cardinalfish, Apogon leptacanthus, with their understated beauty would be a perfect compliment to the bold, contrasting colors of the plating corals in the background.

A beautiful purple encrusting coral. Photo by Steven Pro.

Seagrass Environment:
A lot of people have urged fellow aquarists to experiment with seagrass habitats, but so far most of us have refused for some unknown reason. But, I am going to plug along and try to inspire you as well to attempt these necessary components of the greater reef ecosystem.

Regardless of where ones falls in the deep sand bed (DSB) versus bare bottom (BB) debate, we should all be able to agree that in this instance a DSB is appropriate and frankly necessary. A lush growth of Turtle Grass in a DSB is a challenging, yet attainable goal. Insert some cnidarians for a change of pace and a very nice biotope can be created. Fungiids such as an orange Cycloseris and a purple Fungia would add some needed splashes of color against the green backdrop of seagrass as would Squamosa or Derasa clams of the genus Tridacna. Even a red Trachyphyllia geoffroyi would be a reasonable addition to the coral life. And, a Diadema urchin or two would be fitting here, as would a mated pair or small grouping of their commensal Banghai Cardinalfish, Pterapogon kauderni. One could continue this theme and really focus on interspecies relationships here by the addition of a Pistol/Snapping Shrimp with its symbiotic Goby. Or, perhaps a shrimp of the genus Perclimmes to host in one of the large polyp stony corals. These would all go together to recreate an interesting biotopic presentation.

Banghai Cardinalfish are popular amongst aquarists whom are interested in fish breeding. The Cardinalfish are common spawners in captive care and watching them in the protection of an urchins spines provides a look into their natural existance. Photo by Steven Pro.

Low Profile Mangrove Habitat:
A relatively shallow vessel, perhaps no more than 12” but definitely not more than 24” would be my choice for this exhibit. And, I would place the tank on or very near the ground. This would permit the mangroves to grow to truly become small trees in the house. An aquarium sitting on the ground with five-foot trees coming out of it would rightly be a sight to behold. This display too would be suited by a DSB and if sticking with the biotope theme, Pearly Jawfish would be a logical choice. Or, one could mix both the Mangroves with the above Seagrass theme with an Indo-Pacific flare. Being able to stand above the tank and look down would be a particularly attractive option when housing Tridacna clams. One word of caution, as a relatively new father I am sensitive that this sort of display would be a potential drowning hazard for young children, so please keep this in mind when deciding if this setup is right for you.

The Opistognathus aurifrons have excellent personalities. Photo by Steven Pro.

Deep Water Indonesia Display:
Picture black sand and starkly colored large polyp stony corals underneath VHO lighting so that every bit of those corals fluorescence an almost unnatural color. The contrast one would obtain by using black sand with the large polyp stonies would create something reminiscence of a hippie, day glow poster, but would be both natural and realistic. Again, because of the almost gaudy colors of the corals, I would tone things down a bit with my choice of fish. Orange Lined Cardinalfish would be nice. But, for a change of pace, try a breeding colony of Fuzzy Dwarf Lionfish; perhaps some with hints of yellow, others with a little red, and of course one or two common tan-brown ones to illustrate the differences.

Tank of the Month Honoree’s:
It is also worth noting some of the previous Tank of the Month honorees. There have been a handful of displays that I can recall months, even years later that I found interesting for one reason or another. Flame Angel’s 120 gallon display was intriguing because of its unusual rockwork design and nice ensemble of inhabitants. Also, Mucho Reef’s tank was great because it demonstrated the beauty of a tank that did not house the prototypical ‘reef’ tank residents. It is also a good example to show beginning aquarists because of its likely lower initial and ongoing costs due to the modest amount of light required and lack of a calcium reactor or any other high-tech gizmo’s common to ‘SPS’ style aquariums.

As I started off with in the beginning, it is not my purpose to convince everyone to setup one of the above displays. I merely want to encourage others to think outside of the box when it comes to how we aquascape and stock what is inside our little glass boxes. My fear is that too often the Tank of the Month on the various message boards or books such as Michael Paletta’s “Ultimate Marine Aquariums” are not merely demonstrating what can be done, but are encouraging replication, stagnation, and even stifling creativity. We can all build a pile of rocks with little corals stuck all over with little to no regard for what naturally occurs together. I would hope one day that there would be enough different displays out there that Tank of the Month would evolve to become a celebration of the diversity of reef keeping, inspiring us all to come up with new and interesting exhibitions. Now come on people, show me what you can do.

Suggested Reading:
Borneman, Eric. 2002. “Do You Know Where Your Corals Are Coming From?” Advanced Aquarist’s Online Magazine, March 2002.

Calfo, Anthony. 2004. “Mangroves for the Marine Aquarium.” Reefkeeping Online Magazine, December 2004.

Knop, Daniel. 2002. “Mangroves in Reef Aquaria.” Advanced Aquarist’s Online Magazine, April 2002.

Sprung, Julian. 1999. A Guide to the Ecology and Care of Mangroves. Two Little Fishies, Inc. Coconut Grove, Florida.