In this top 10 article, we will be looking at some popular species that will enhance and add to the beauty of an aquascaped aquarium. Some will provide a janitorial service, helping with algae control, whilst some are simply a pretty addition. Some aren't even fish! Not all will be commonly found, but will be similar to popular varieties found in most aquatic stores. Aquascaped tanks usually demand peaceful, small species, with the core focus on the hardscape and plant selection. There were plenty of species left on the editorial floor to make it simply a top 10... There are many other species that would also make a great addition! Here are the 10 that did make it:
1. Siamese Algae Eater (Crossocheilus oblongus)
There are a few species of ‘algae eaters’ that are sold and it is important to make sure you choose the correct species as not all are equal! The fish that has made this top 10 is a great addition to the larger planted aquascaped tank. They can reach 15cm in length and enjoy being in a group, so are suitable only for larger aquariums of 120cm+. Their ace up their sleeve is their desire to eat black beard algae (BBA). BBA is a plague many planted tank keepers face and can appear for many reasons. It is not simply because of excess nutrient or light. BBA appears to thrive in fluctuating water conditions, usually fuelled by high nutrient levels. If the aquarium is too small to accommodate Siamese algae eaters, there are other methods of controlling BBA. CO2 injection seems to keep BBA at bay, or regular dosing of a liquid carbon substitute (NT Labs Liquid CO2 Boost).
In the wild these fish are found in loose schools, so a group is recommended if the aquarium is large enough. As with many schooling fish, if there are not enough in the group, bullying can occur between individuals. A group of 4-6 minimum is recommended to suppress this.
As mentioned before, be careful when shopping for Siamese algae eaters - as they may be imposters. ‘Chinese algae eater' (Gyrinocheilus aymonieri) may be similarly named, but are worlds apart. The latter fish has a sucker mouth, does not have a fondness for BBA algae, and can become very aggressive and territorial as it grows into an adult. Another similar species is the Thai flying fox (Epalzeorhynchos kalopterus). It's a very similar looking fish but without the affinity for eating black beard algae. The Thai flying fox can also be more aggressive than the Siamese algae eater, but they are pretty effective at consuming green algae.
2. Otocinclus (Otocinclus vittatus)
The otocinclus (oto) is a great addition to the planted aquascaped whatever the size. These small algae eating catfish from South America appear to never stop eating algae. They will control algae on the glass, on plants and the hardscape. There are a few species of oto that are available in the hobby, and some confusion as to which species is the ‘common otocinclus’. For this top 10, Otocinclus vittatus has been chosen (according to planetcatfish.com). Very often these will be mislabelled as O. Affinis or O. Arnoldi. They are all very similar in appearance and care, so should not be too problematic if a different species is sold under the umbrella Otocinclus. There is little to no reports of captive breeding of these fish, so all stock offered for sale is wild caught, mostly exported from Colombia. When first imported, otocinclus can be in a very poor condition. Fish are usually starved prior to shipping to prevent water fouling in transit. Ask your local aquatic store how long the catfish have settled in first and ensure they are well fed. An otocinclus should have a full, fat belly when suctioned to the glass!
Otocinclus do not grow larger than 2cm, and are very gregarious, so a group is a must! Because they stay small, a group is easy to add to all but the smallest of aquascaped tanks. Their diet in the wild is a bio-film like material called aufwuchs. Brown algae (diatoms) makes up a large part of aufwuchs, which is a common algae problem in the early days of setting up a new aquarium. But due to their delicate nature (being wild caught), they shouldn’t be introduced to an immature aquarium.
3. Cherry Shrimp (Neocaridina davidi)
The third species on our top 10 fish for aquascaping is the first that isn't a fish at all! It is the popular and colourful bright red cherry shrimp. Their popularity make them a deserved member of this top 10.
Cherry shrimp are a bright red coloured form of a wild shrimp found in Taiwan. Selective breeding has created a wide variety of colours including blue, yellow and green. Be mindful if mixing different coloured shrimp in the same tank. There is a high probability the offspring will revert back to their wild type brownish colour. If inter-breeding isn’t an issue, there is something to be said for an aquascaped tank full of different coloured shrimp!
They not only add a splash of colour to the planted tank, but they also help look after the plants. Being so small, they are able to get into most nooks and corners to pick away and eat aufwuchs algae. Like Otocinclus, they like the brown diatom algae that plagues many new aquascaped tanks. Feeding a specialised shrimp diet will also help keep them in top condition. NT Labs - Pro-f Shrimp Enhancer provides a nutritious blend of ingredients to help keep shrimp in top condition. The addition of calcium and magnesium in this food is especially important for shrimp to build a healthy exoskeleton.
Aquascaped tanks using a Japanese based soil as the main substrate will also provide a perfect habitat for baby shrimp. The small gaps between the soil beads creates a safe space away from predators. The acidifying effect of aqua soil provides an ideal environment for many freshwater shrimps.
4. Amano Shrimp (Caridina multidentata)
When talking about aquascaping, one cannot but mention the late, great Takashi Amano. He was a pioneer and legend of the aquascaping world and this top 10 animal is named after him. The amano shrimp is another great addition to aquascaped tanks, keeping the plants healthy and algae in check. They are larger than cherry shrimp, reaching up to 5cm, but do not share their bright colours. They also do not breed in freshwater like cherry shrimp. Amano shrimp larvae only hatch in brackish / saltwater and develop there before returning to freshwater. So whilst they will not multiply in home aquariums, they do have a long life span of up to 5 years. They are also very tolerant of a wide variety of water temperatures. They have been found in water ranging from 18°C to 28°C, although an ideal temperature is 24°C for long term care. Keeping them in hotter environments will increase their metabolism, shortening their lifespan.
Amano shrimp are good for algae control in the aquascaped tank. Being larger than the Neocaridina species, they are able to consume a larger range of algae and are particularly good at eating hair algae. They are omnivorous and will need more than just algae to thrive. Amano shrimp have been observed picking the slime coat off newly introduced fish. If this happens, it is best to try and distract the shrimp with food away from the fish to allow them to recover. Transporting fish is a stressful process. NT Labs Aquarium Tap Water Safe contains a special protective coating that reduces stress caused by the transportation of fish. This can be added to the fish bag during transit or after new fish are introduced to the tank to aid recovery.
5. Green Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon simulans)
On first glance, this fish might look like the ever popular neon or cardinal tetra. These omnipresent species are on every fishkeepers list at one point or another in their hobby! But this species is neither of those, it is the secret third cousin in the Paracheirodon genus that is rarely seen in aquatic shops. The green neon tetra is the smallest of the three species but can reward the aquascaper with a beautiful and peaceful shoaling fish.
Green neon tetras are still mostly exported as a wild caught fish. They are found in blackwater environments in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in South America. Fish found in stores will be likely exported from Colombia. This does make them a more delicate choice than their tank reared cousins. Captive bred fish are now exported from the Far East and Eastern Europe but are more expensive to import. Like the cardinal tetra, the green neon tetra can tolerate higher temperatures and a record 35°C has been recorded in the wild. In an aquascaped aquarium, this will be too high as most plants do not thrive above 27-28°C . Green neon tetras can handle temperatures down to 21°C but best to stick to around 24°C for good long term care.
Their small size, tight shoaling nature and iridescent turquoise sparkle makes the green neon tetra a fantastic alternative for the aquascaped aquarium!
The glowlight rasbora is a relative to the popular harlequin rasbora (Trigonostigma heteromorpha). They originate from Indonesia in slow moving, heavily planted tributaries. They can be distinguished from their cousins by a more compressed body and a bright orange stripe that runs along their lateral line. Hengeli rasbora do not grow as large as the harlequin, (3cm vs up to 4.5cm). This makes them a great addition to smaller aquascaped tanks. Using a small fish that looks bigger can give small aquascaped tanks a unique perspective. Many award winning aquascaped tanks look big in pictures, but are in fact miniaturised underwater gardens.
Hengeli rasbora are one of the best fish species to choose for swimming in tight schools. Many species will swim in a tight school when first introduced, but will disperse and loosen their aggregation once settled. Even after a significant period of time, hengeli rasbora appear to keep their tight formation.
A similar species sometimes seen for sale is the lampchop rasbora (T. espei). They look and behave in a similar way to the glowlight rasbora and so would also make a great addition to an aquascaped tank.
7. Pygmy Cory (Corydoras pygmaeus)
There are over 180 described species of Corydoras catfish, all originating from South America. Most species grow to a modest size of 4-5cm, but there are a few species that buck that trend (both smaller and larger). On the smaller end of the scale is the aptly named pygmy cory (C. pygmaeus), growing to a maximum size of 3cm. To many fishkeepers, it would be described as a rather drab grey colour with a dark line running along its lateral line. But what the pygmy cory (and other dull-ish cory species) lack in colour they make up for in personality!
Corydoras are generally gregarious, very much liking and needing their own company in an aquarium. They will shoal around the bottom of the tank foraging for food endlessly. If the aquarium has strong water movement, they will also swim against the flow in bursts of energy! The pygmy cory is chosen here for its smaller size, limiting the uprooting of plants and mosses in the aquascaped tank. They are a tight shoaling species, even bucking the trend of being a ‘bottom feeder’ and can be seen swimming in midwater.
The pygmy cory is not a very common find in aquatic stores. There are two similar species in size and resemblance, Corydoras hastatus and Corydoras habrosus. Either of these would make a great substitute and behave in a similar fashion.
8. Ember Tetra (Hyphessobrycon amandae)
Another more unusual tetra species to make the top 10 - the ember tetra is not high up on many fishkeepers list but there is no reason why it shouldn’t be! It’s bright red body, small size (at only 2cm fully grown) and tight shoaling style make it a perfect species for the aquascaped tank. Because of their gregarious nature - try to keep a minimum of 8 ember tetra together. Being such a small species, this number is achievable in all but the smallest of aquariums (pico, etc).
It is also fairly undemanding to water parameters, happy in acidic to neutral conditions (pH 5.0 - 7.0) and in temperatures from 20 - 28°C . Try to aim for the middle (24°C) to give them a happy medium and ideal temperature for plants.
Ember tetra are a perfect community species. They are not known to be fin nippers and spend most of their time swimming in the central-to-top of the water column. They are unfussy when it comes to food or water conditions and are very affordable. Ember tetra are part of the Hyphessobrycon family of tetras (Characins). , This family includes the lemon tetra, black neon tetra, rosy tetra and bleeding heart tetra, to name a few. Most of these species can be identified by their larger and more pointed dorsal and anal fins. This gives them a more disc shaped appearance, compared with their Paracheirodon cousins the neon and cardinal tetra.
9. Freshwater Nerite Snail (Neritina and Clithon sp.)
Another non-fish species that is an absolute must for planted / aquascaped tanks. 'Nerite snails' is a very broad term for a large group of aquatic snails found across the tropics in both fresh and saltwater. For planted aquariums, the species of interest are from the Neritina and Clithon genuses - the freshwater nerites. These small snails (maximum size 2cm) are excellent at eating algae and excess detritus. They have a colourful variety of patterns and shell shapes. Their common names give a clue to their variation - including zebra (pictured), tiger, spotted, onion and horned snails! Most offered for sale will have been wild caught and shipped from Indonesia. This is because freshwater nerite snails have not been able to completely break from their salty cousins. Nerites will lay small white eggs in their aquarium, but they won’t hatch. The eggs need a salinity of at least SG 1.007 (natural sea water is SG 1.026) to develop and hatch. Whilst species only tanks with the right breeder might be willing to try, the addition of salt in aquascaped tanks will upset the plants.
Nerite snails are fairly undemanding to water parameters but try to keep water as neutral as possible (pH 7.0). In acidic conditions, their calcium based shells may start to dissolve in a form of neutralisation reaction. A tiny amount of coral rubble added to the tank can have a positive impact to shell development - similar to a cuttlefish bone in a bird cage!
10. Dwarf Ram Cichlid (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi)
The final species in this aquascaping article is the enigmatic, characterful ram cichlid from South America. One of only two species in the genus Mikrogeophagus, the dwarf ram is smaller and more colourful than it’s cousin M. Altispinosus. The dwarf ram is more readily available in the hobby and comes in a variety of colour morphs.
The original wild type, arguably the nicest to many purist fishkeepers, is often labelled as the ‘German blue ram’. It has a beautiful base colour of bluey-purple with red fins, a yellow belly and iridescent blue scales. It is a stunning animal, one the commercial breeders have adapted over the years to produce solid gold, neon blue, long finned and even balloon (distorted) varieties.
As their genus name suggests, they are cousins to the Geophagus group of fishes - which literally translates to 'earth eater'. They use modified gill plates to sift through the substrate for food. It’s an interesting behaviour and one that may uproot carpet plants if not careful. Dwarf rams are definitely not as bad as their larger Geophagus cousins but keep an eye on them. Being a substrate spawner too they may displace plants and hardscape to achieve an ideal spawning site.
Whilst they may be a temptation in the aquarium store, some research is advised before taking a pair home. Ram cichlids like their aquarium warm - aim for 27-30°C (which may be too hot for some plants). Being a cichlid, they are territorial, especially with each other. Aim for at least 60cm x 30cm of aquarium floor space per pair to reduce fighting. Males and females are fairly easy to tell apart (less so in the colour morph varieties). Two tell tale signs are a ‘cockatoo’ dorsal spine on the 3rd dorsal ray on males and a bright pink belly on females.
Some aquarium stores may label these fish as butterfly cichlids (especially their larger cousin, the Bolivian ram (M. Altispinosus). This nomenclature is not without history, for one synonym used in the 1970’s for this genus was Papillochromis. Papilio is the latin word for butterfly, whilst Papillon is the French translation. Papillon is even a dog breed - a spaniel with large ears resembling… you guessed it - a butterfly!
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