Below we have put together a list of some of the more popular and iconic freshwater fish species and an insight into where they live in the wild.
1. Siamese Fighting Fish (Betta splendens)
The Siamese fighting fish is a ubiquitous fish in nearly every pet and aquatic store worldwide. Their relative ease of care and colourful appearance makes them a popular pet. Their common name gives a clue to their origin, but their home country is no longer known as Siam. In 1939, Siam became Thailand, and this is where these fish call home. But the Betta splendens found in Thailand are far from those found in aquatic stores. For centuries, Betta were selectively bred for fighting, much like rooster fighting. Betting would take place on which Betta would win in a one-on-one battle. Defeat was usually judged by retreat, rather than death, however injury of both parties was common. Betta in the wild are generally not found to be as aggressive as their captive reared cousins. Hyper-aggression has literally been bred into the nature of the fish!
In the wild, Betta are usually found in slow moving waters, densely vegetated and often hypoxic (low oxygen environments). Betta, like their cousins the gouramis, are members of the Anabantiformes order of fishes. They all share an evolutionary advantage when in low oxygen environments - they can absorb oxygen from the atmosphere using a lung-like pouch called the labyrinth organ. The agricultural revolution which converted swathes of land into rice paddies probably worked to the Betta’s advantage, creating millions of stagnant, enclosed spaces for male Betta to set up territories. The water temperature in the wild varies between 22-30°c and is soft (low GH) and acidic (low pH, low KH). Domesticated Betta have become very adaptable to neutral water conditions and do not need for wild conditions to be replicated, but that is not to say they wouldn’t benefit from them, especially for breeding. An Indian Almond Leaf will soften the water and release tanins, replicating wild conditions. The Betta may also use the leaf to rest near the surface, before the leaf decomposes and sinks.
2. Neon Tetra (Paracheirodon innesi)
Quite possibly the most famous tropical fish on the planet, the neon tetra has got to be on every fishkeepers list at some point in their hobby. They are found across ‘tropical’ South America, being found in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. Countries include Peru, Colombia & Brazil. Wild collection is minimal compared to farmed export. The neon tetra is probably the number one aquacultured ornamental fish in terms of animals reared globally. There are also selectively bred varieties now being sold, including diamond, long fin and albino.
The Amazon and Orinoco basins are so large and widespread, the water conditions will depend on specific regions. It is generally accepted the water’s pH value is below 7.0 (acidic) and soft (low GH, low KH), but variance will be high. The Rio Negro in Brazil is named after its ‘blackwater’ conditions, with a pH as low as 2.9-4.2 (vinegar has a pH value of 2.9, for comparison)! Captive reared neons have become very tolerable to a wide variety of water conditions so replication is not needed. Interestingly, it is believed they evolved their iridescent blue stripe to be seen by other fish in their shoal in tannin-stained water.
Water temperatures in the wild are recorded between 21-25°c, which suggests they should not be kept in water too hot. For warmer aquariums, their cousin the cardinal tetra is a more suitable species.
The rainbowfish family Melanotaeniidae contains beautifully coloured fish that originate from the Indo-Pacific. The distinct blue and orange boesemani rainbowfish is found only in the Ayamaru lakes of West Papua. West Papua is a province of Indonesia on the Island of New Guinea. This species has unfortunately been impacted by the ornamental fish industry through overfishing. It is now listed as an endangered species by the IUCN. Wild fish are very rarely offered for sale in aquatic stores, so the thought is wild stocks are being exported to produce more captive reared stock. Nearly all livestock found for sale are captive bred in Asia or Eastern Europe. New intense coloured variants have recently been offered for sale from breeders in Europe.
The natural environment of the boesemani rainbowfish is mildly alkaline (pH 7.0-8.0) and hard (high GH). General hardness (GH) is the combined dissolved content of calcium and magnesium. Lake Ayamaru is reported to have a blue hue which is caused by high mineral content - a clue to the hardness of the water. Many old coal mines that have since been flooded also develop a blue hue due to leached minerals in the water. Plants are abundant in Lake Ayamaru so a planted aquarium is a perfect environment for these rainbowfish. Just ensure there is plenty of swimming space too as they are an active species that can move fast when needed. Water temperature is recorded between 26-27°c. If kept in neutral water conditions, they make a hardy, peaceful addition to the larger community aquarium.
4. White Cloud Mountain Minnow (Tanichthys albonubes)
A popular coldwater alternative species to the goldfish, the white cloud mountain minnow (wcmm) is named after where it was found. White Cloud Mountain is found in Guangzhou, a province in Southern China. The species’ latin name albo (white) and nubes (cloud) gives reference to its natural habitat.
The wcmm is commercially bred on a large scale for the aquarium industry. It is doubtful any wild caught stock is ever offered for sale. In fact, between 1980 and 2001 the species was considered extinct in the wild. Scientists discovered a new population nearly 400 miles away on Hainin Island. Whether this population is native to the area or has developed from aquarium stock released into the wild is questionable. Researchers believe the discovery is a separate population as they are less cold tolerant than aquarium strains. It is very possible the species is not endemic to White Cloud Mountain and is more widespread. The decline of wild populations on White Cloud Mountain is thought to be caused by human interference, as the area is now a very popular tourist site.
Commercial breeding of the wcmm has allowed the development of a few varieties, including golden and long finned. There is also a similar species infrequently offered for sale, the Vietnamese cardinal minnow (T. micagemmae). It is a smaller, more colourful but also more expensive species that is a rare gem in aquarium stores.
In the wild, wcmm are found in slower moving areas of streams near vegetation. A densely planted aquarium with moderate flow would suit them best. They can tolerate a wide temperature range of 14-22°c, making them ideal for unheated aquariums. Some fish keepers also find they can tolerate higher temperatures, although this may shorten their lifespan. Seasonal fluctuations in temperature replicates nature and conditions the fish ready for breeding. Water parameters also fluctuate but anywhere between pH 6.0-8.0 will be more than adequate. A highly adaptable, tolerable species that is ideal for the home aquarium!
5. Clown Loach (Chromobotia macracantha)
A highly popular and often mis-sold species, the clown loach is found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia. In the wild, adult clown loach are found in rivers, migrating to floodplains to spawn. It is in these floodplains where youngsters remain until large enough to survive the main rivers. Until fairly recently, most clown loach offered for sale were wild caught youngsters, easier to collect in the floodplains. Adults are harder to collect in the main river system. A ban was imposed of wild adult export to try and regenerate wild populations. Most clown loaches now offered for sale are captive reared, although their natural breeding habits remain a mystery. Most breeders use hormone treatments to trigger spawning with a high yield. This has allowed a reduction is price of these fish in stores.
Water conditions found in Borneo and Sumatra are similar, with soft, acidic parameters with a pH of between 5.0-7.0 and warm temperatures of 24-30°c. The migration pattern these fish undertake suggests changing conditions during the wet season triggers breeding. Cooler water temperatures and stronger flow from the wet season may condition the fish to spawn.
With adult clown loaches potentially reaching 30cm or larger, and their gregarious behaviour recommending a large group of at least 6, these fish should only be kept in very large aquariums! For smaller aquariums, there are more suitable loach species that are also full of personality and provide adequate snail extermination. Dwarf chain loach (Ambastaia sidthimunki) would be a perfect alternative for smaller aquariums and are available in more specialist aquatic stores.
6. Dwarf Gourami (Trichogaster lalius)
The dwarf gourami is a popular fish that is actually popular three times over! Captive breeding has created a few different colour morphs which are all equally as attractive. The males of the wild type dwarf gourami are patterned in blue and red stripes with a blue throat and dorsal fin. The females, however, are a drab colour and do not share the same popularity as the males. Other colour varieties that are offered for sale include a bright solid red and a neon blue (males).
In the wild, dwarf gouramis are found across Pakistan, Northern India and Bangladesh, in swampland and slow moving water. Like other species of gourami, they possess a lung-like apparatus called the labyrinth organ. This allows them to absorb oxygen from the atmosphere when living in hypoxic (low oxygen) environments. The water there is tropical (between 22-27°c), soft and acidic. As nearly all fish offered for sale are tank bred, they are more adaptable than their wild counterparts. Water with a pH of anywhere between 6.0 and 7.5 would be suitable.
Dwarf gourami should be considered with caution before adding to a community tank. They can be very territorial, especially with other each other, so ensure plenty of space if wishing to keep more than one. Recently imported fish are also susceptible to the disease ‘dwarf gourami iridovirus’ (DGIV). This virus is thought to have originated in aquaculture facilities. Most exported fish are screened prior to exportation to ensure the fish are ‘virus free’. It doesn’t appear to be 100% effective though as some fish do arrive carrying the virus. The symptoms for DGIV are usually red blotches on the body and lethargy, and has so far proven untreatable. Before purchasing a dwarf gourami, check all the fish look healthy and alert in the shop tank.
7. Red Line Torpedo Barb (Sahyadria denisonii)
A relatively recent addition to the aquarium scene, the red line torpedo barb is a very popular fish for the larger aquarium. Whilst scientifically described in the 1860’s, its popularity in the aquarium industry only began in the 2000’s. They are only found in the fast flowing streams of The Western Ghats mountains in the Indian state of Kerala. Their limited habitat range and huge popularity has led to them becoming endangered. Kerala banned wild caught stock after it became aware of the destruction collectors were causing to keep up with demand. Captive breeding efforts were quick and successful and most fish offered for sale are now farmed.
Although native to India, due to their mountainous range, the water conditions are cooler than perhaps first thought. With a seasonal variation between 15-25°c and living in highly oxygenated water, it is important not to keep these fish too warm. When water temperature increases, the amount of saturated oxygen it can hold decreases. Because torpedo barbs live in the mountains, the water is incredibly pure and low in organic load. They do not therefore have a tolerance for nitrates, so ensure large water changes (>30%) are performed weekly. Apart from organic intolerances, torpedo barbs are happy in fairly neutral pH (6.5-7.5) and unfussy in regards to hardness. Being an active and gregarious species, keep a group of at least 4-6 in a large aquarium. Keep with similarly active fish such as other barbs or tetras too large to be eaten as slow moving fish could be intimidated.
8. Angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare)
The number one cichlid that nearly every fishkeeper has kept at some point in their hobby. The angelfish is a staple of aquatic stores worldwide. In the wild, they are found across ‘tropical’ South America, including the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. Within the Pterophyllum genus, there are at least 3 species currently recognised. The most popular species, and the one found with a huge variety of colours and patterns, is the common angelfish P. scalare. The other two species, P. altum and P. leopoldi and far less common and demand high price tags and high care requirements to keep successfully. The ‘angelfish’ seen for sale in aquarium shops now vary greatly from their wild cousins. Decades of selective breeding has resulted in many different varieties and morphs being offered for sale.
In the wild, angelfish are found in slow moving, densely vegetated backwaters. Their laterally compressed bodies allow them to weave in and out of submerged roots and plants with ease. The wild type body pattern of vertical stripes also acts as an effective camouflage. Water is warm in the backwaters, usually sitting between 27-30°c, although captive bred fish will be more tolerable. For best results aim for the higher end of tropical community temperatures (>26°c). The water in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins vary considerably, but it’s generally accepted that the water is soft and acidic. Again, with captive bred specimens they will be accepting of a wide range of parameters. Before buying an angelfish, consider their pugnacious attitude (they are a cichlid after all) and potential size. Nothing below 100L should be considered as a permanent home, but larger the better. With a potential adult size of 20cm in height, a taller aquarium would give them more room to grow naturally.
9. Swordtail (Xiphophorus hellerii)
Swordtails are a member of the most popular group of freshwater fishes - the livebearers. Livebearers include guppies, mollies, swordtails and platies - and all originate in The Americas. Swordtails and platies are both in the genus Xiphophorus, and can even interbreed. Swordtails are found throughout Central America - stretching from Mexico to Honduras. Whilst wild fish are generally a green colour, captive breeding has resulted in a myriad of colours and fin styles. Wild fish grow fairly large for a community fish, with females reaching up to 16cm and males up to 14cm. In captivity, adults rarely grow larger than 10cm, but this is still a sizeable fish for the smaller aquarium.
In the wild, swordtails are found in a variety of habitats, so are very adaptable to a wide variety of water conditions. Water temperatures have been recorded from 16-28°c and water parameters are generally above neutral (pH 7.0-8.0) and hard (>10 dGH). Livebearers can also appreciate a low salt concentration in the aquarium. NT Labs Tonic Salt can relieve fish from osmotic stress (common in livebearers) and is used for a variety of benefits.
Only male swordtails grow the namesake ‘sword tail’. Interestingly, female swordtails, in the absence of males, can undergo a sex change and become male. Complete with an elongated tail and gonopodium (male sex organs), it is an advantage when populations in the wild are sparse. Many fish undertake similar sex changes, including the popular 'nemo' clownfish!
10. Guppy (Poecilia reticulata)
The humble guppy fish is arguably the most popular freshwater fish kept in aquariums. Their popularity no doubt is due to the variety of colours and patterns, coupled with their ease of reproduction. Guppies are another member of the popular ‘live-bearing’ group of fish from the Americas. The guppies seen for sale in aquarium stores look very different to those found in the wild. The bright colours and patterned tail fins of shop guppies have been developed through decades of selective breeding.
Guppies originate in northern South American countries - Guyana, Venezuela, Brazil, and are also found in the Caribbean. Their popularity as an aquarium fish and their ease of reproduction has led them to establish feral populations on every continent except Antartica. They are tolerant to a wide range of temperatures and even salinities. Guppies have been found in brackish conditions as well as their native freshwater habitats.
There is another similar species, the endler guppy (Poecilia wingei). Named after the evolutionary biologist Dr John Endler who studied wild guppy sexual selection for many years. Endler guppies are found in small populations across Venezuela. Their variable patterns depend on their small pocket populations.
Both species can be treated equally, being undemanding with water parameters (pH neutral to mildly alkaline) and a wide temperature range (18-28°c). In the wild, temperatures are usually between 25-28°c but they seem to be able to thrive in lower temperatures too. It is their wide tolerance that has allowed them to adapt to many different habitats around the world and establish alien populations. It is a classic example of why aquarium fish should never be released in to the wild, that even includes ‘flushing down the toilet’! Many aquarium stores will help re-home fish if they are no longer wanted. If that is the case, speak to a member of staff to see if they can help.
As this article shows, tropical aquarium fish come from all around the world. While many popular species are now captive bred for the aquarium industry, their wild cousins still exist in the wild. Whilst many of these species require similar water conditions and can be kept together, there is also something to be said for creating a biotope aquarium. This style recreates a specific wild habitat, selecting only fish and plants from that region. This can lead to a more natural interaction, as they would encounter each other in the wild.
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