Kuhli loaches get a domestic makeover and some new housemates in a handful of easy to copy steps…
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: NATHAN HILL
Steve Hunt’s Kuhli loach was in dire straits. The nano tank it had called home had been a present for Steve’s daughter, but it was woefully small. A curve-fronted little all-in-one lump of barely 30l/ 6.6 gal, it had become tired and grubby, hidden away in a corner, decrepit and embarrassing.
My original offer was to overhaul the tank, revamp it and make it shiny once more. The centrepiece of the tank — the crowning achievement — was to be a tubular ‘loach hotel’. The idea was simple. A bundle of pipes was to be constructed into a large pyramid, with all the tubes facing the same direction. Any mixture was to be used — ceramic, plastic, old hose or miscellaneous. They were to be glued together, and then given a thatched roof of Java moss, strategically glued at key points. That was the plan.
Then one morning a 102cm long Ciano Emotions Nature Pro tank turned up for review and blew all those early plans out of the water. I offered it to Steve to break in for me, and we went back to the drawing board. ‘How about a luxury, open plan apartment,’ I suggested, ‘with plenty of crevices and open spaces?’ Steve was sold on it.
With the added swimming area, we plumped for a streambed tank with extra inhabitants. Kuhli loach are handsome but shy, and even a dozen or so in this tank could prove hard to spot. Give them too many hiding spaces and you’ll never see them. Don’t give them enough and they’ll never become confident enough to show as much as a whisker. Many a tank has ‘lost’ its Kuhli loach for years at a time, only found again when the tank is eventually stripped.
Kuhli loach are Malaysian fish, so we wanted a tank with plants from that part of the world. That meant two easy targets appeared straight away — Cryptocoryne and Java fern.
For tank mates, we needed something that could get on well with low flows. Kuhli loach hate high flows (which is handy, as the outflow of the tank’s filter is pretty mild), coming from slow moving, leaf-littered and often darkly acidic waters. A little head scratching and we came up with the idea of danios. While not entirely geographically correct, Brachydanio kyathit (from Myanmar) has enough overlapping requirements of water (soft, acidic, slow flowing) and temperature (best under the usual 25°C/77°F tropical catch-all) to live in harmony here. And given that they make their living at the middle and surface of the water column, they’d provide plenty of movement while the loaches were out of view. It was optimistically hoped that they might even act as ‘dither fish’, helping to boost the confidence of the loaches and encouraging them to come out more.
We were pleasantly surprised when they did.
Here's how the tank went together...
1. The cabinet was assembled and put into place with the tank on top. We placed it against a wall in close proximity to power sockets, and as we were on a ground floor, there was little worry about finding floor supports and positioning the tank across them. Once in place, a spirit level was used to check that it was sat squarely and evenly.
2. The filter was assembled. The Ciano filter uses a mixture of cartridges and foams. When constructing a filter, always ensure that things like carbon pouches are quickly rinsed, and that any media sealed in packaging for transport is liberated from it. Many a tank has failed because the biomedia was trapped in a plastic bag when everything was switched on!
3. Pre-washed silver sand is added and shaped into a mild slope, and the two largest foundational rocks added. The rocks cover a maximum of two-thirds of the tank for both pragmatic and aesthetic reasons — an open area allows for debris to accumulate and be removed more easily than if the whole base is decorated.
4. A third stone is added (and note the way that it has been placed, allowing for a broad cavern underneath) and a large chunk of bogwood added for both height and to reach out into the ‘open’ region. At a later stage, the wood may be used to house plants such as mosses or Java ferns.
5. Large Java ferns are added. I’ve taken the unusual step of keeping them in their pots and adding them to the base of the tank instead of tying or adhering them to wood. The pots are not placed deep in the substrate, allowing the root structures to still uptake nutrients. Planting Java ferns into the substrate can cause the roots to suffocate and die off.
6. Mixed Cryptocoryne are removed from their pots, have their roots trimmed and tidied, and are planted. Crypts are notorious for ‘Crypt melt’ after transit, and we kept them in large clumps for the first few weeks to see how they settled in. Once happy they weren’t going to die, we later divided them up into smaller plantlets and spread them over a wider area.
7. The tank is filled with water, using a colander to stop the inflow from stirring up the substrate, and everything is turned on. As the heater is not visible (it is hidden inside the filter), monitoring with a thermometer and adjusting over the following days is essential to get to the right temperature. We ran this tank at 23°C/73.4°F.
The tank was matured using a mixture of ammonia, Evolution Aqua’s Pure Aquarium, and pre-seeded media hijacked from another aquarium. The cycle was rapid, just a couple of weeks before we were able to add fish, but this stage of the tank’s life requires scrupulous water testing to ensure that ammonia and nitrite levels are being controlled by the life support system.
Scroll down for a video of the finished set-up.
The big stones used here were bought from a garden centre as rockery stones. Though dusty, we tested them with a little hydrochloric acid to see if they ‘fizzed’ and they did not, meaning that they do not contain any water-hardening calcium carbonate.
To float or not to float…
The wood we tried here was dense, perhaps the densest I have used in a tank. On this rare occasion, it did not require prior soaking, but you will likely find that any wood you use will need to be placed in a bucket of water for a week or two before use.
The rounded rocks we used could easily be replaced by large flint cobbles. I’d be wary of using one of the large ‘resin type’ fake stones in this role, as these are hollow and you’ll soon have more Kuhli loaches inside it than out of it.
For wood, any of the hardwood types would be suitable. Oak or Beech would offer a tangled, fine-branched effect, while the aquarium staple of Mopani could bulk up an area in place of
Kuhli loach, Eel loach — call ‘em what you will, but they’re one of the best wriggly beasts you’ll meet. Intensely shy, masters of hiding and burying, and diehard fans of bloodworm, just pray you never need to catch them in a hurry. They are far better at swimming than you will ever be at using a net…
Scientific name: Pangio semicincta (Pan-ghee-oh sem-ee-sink-tah).
Habitat: Slow moving forest streams and static bodies of water, often acid-soaked and discoloured. Little, if any flow.
Water requirements: Soft, acidic water; 4.0 to 7.0pH, hardness 1–8°H.
Feeding: Loves frozen and live foods like Cyclops, Daphnia, Tubifex and bloodworm.
Temperament: The most peaceful fish there is.
Availability and price: Widely available, starting from around £2.50 a fish. Buy in bulk for reduced prices. We bought 12 specimens for this set-up from the Waterzoo in Peterborough.
Orange finned danio
These are small fish that need a big tank, like many of the ‘danio’ varieties. Once settled, this has to be the brightest of the family, with its fiery orange flanks. Kyathits prefer tanks with plenty of plants, and if you can’t get lots of greenery then at least go for a dark substrate, otherwise you’ll end up with pale fish that hide their best colours away. Invest in some colour-enhancing foods and Calanus to keep those markings intense.
Scientific name: Brachydanio kyathit (Brak-ee-dan-ee-oh kye-ath-it).
Habitat: Slow moving streams with heavy planting at the banks.
Water requirements: Soft, acidic water; 6.0 to 7.5pH, hardness 1-8°H.
Feeding: Will take flakes, but also offer plenty of frozen and live meaty foods like bloodworm and Daphnia.
Temperament: Incredibly peaceful and a perfect community fish.
Availability and price: Increasingly available, with prices starting around the £2 mark.
Warned about entering a hitherto unexplored Peruvian backwater, Heiko Bleher proves that defiance can be rewarded with some marvellous discoveries.
The boat owner thought I was crazy. "You want to chance it with indian tribes which had yet to see a white man? The military might not even let you go!" he said.
Our conversation was taking place in Tabatinga, Brazil, at the border of Colombia and Peru, and I wanted to go far into unknown territory near the Brazilian border with Peru up the 1100 km/680 mile long Yavari river.
However, he relented and our party and guides left from Leticia immediately after getting 'exit' stamps on our passports from the Colombian authorities. I was on my way to Caño Arabella…
The sun set early and in the darkness Stefen, one of our guides, saw just enough to find a short cut from the Solimões to the Yavari. The latter is a white water tributary of the Solimões and forms a boundary between Brazil and Peru for more than 900 km/560 miles.
My destination was the left-hand tributary called Yavari-Mirim far up the Yavari and the Arabella, a left-hand tributary of the latter, leads to a small, unexplored lagoon.
It took us three days to reach the mouth of the Mirim, passing several settlements along the Peruvian side of the Yavari, mostly cattle ranching and indian villages. Along the Brazilian side, where the river is called the Javary, we saw few settlements on the second and third days until we reached a native settlement with the sign declaring it was protected land and entry was prohibited.
I spoke in Portuguese to the only indian I saw about a short cut to where we wanted to camp and away from the main river. He directed us to one on unrestricted land but it look us almost three hours to cut all the bushes and trees to get the boat there.
However, we had found paradise! Fish were jumping, hundreds of herons and cormorants and red macaws were flying over our heads, like every creature wanted to say 'welcome'. We found an area to camp and in seconds had piranhas on the hook, along with other fishes, for dinner.
A half-day boat ride below the mouth of the Mirim, took us to the Brazilian military outpost of Estirão do Equador on the right bank and as we travelled along the Peruvian left bank a military launch forced us to turn back and report to the authorities. It took nearly four hours to get clearance to continue.
While waiting I took parameters, as downriver along the sandbanks we had collected species. I noted pH 5.67; conductivity 21 µS/cm and a temperature of 28.8°C/83.84°F at 3:45pm.
We continued upriver early next morning, finally reaching the "entrance" to the Mirim. It wasn’t easy to find and less than 50m/165’ wide at its mouth and overgrown by dense rainforest.
Two hours later we reached a Peruvian checkpoint and soldiers there told me that the entrance to the Arabella and its two tributaries was not far up the Mirim. All have mixed black water like the Mirim, as the sediment-rich Yavari waters influence everywhere else.
We reached Arabella about two hours later. Entering this 30m/100’ wide lagoon was another world, even more virgin than the Mirim. There were roots from giant trees looking hundreds of years old hanging in the water. Eagles flew high, bustards lower, toucans crossed the riverbed.
I saw a small creek merging at the right bank. I climbed high up with my hand net to find deeper water inside the jungle, as at its mouth access was impossible. I found the creek I sought between high primary rainforest trees.
I had to climb down as water levels had dropped, which was excellent as all the species there were concentrated in the remaining body of water.
First netting finds
With the first netting I had a beautiful and certainly un-described Hemigrammus species. It was as long as H. bleheri, at 4.5-5.5cm/1-8-2.2” TL and with a tail in bright colours as orange-red, jet-black and snow-white. I also collected what could be a second Hemigrammus species with yellow in the tail instead of the colours of the former.
I also collected Phenacogaster and two Carnegiella species, one possibly un-described, Hyphessobrycon cf. loretoensis (much more colourful than the described one), an unidentified Elachocharax species, unseen Hypoptoptoma and Otocinclus species and definitely a new Corydoras species (pictured above) with a bright black oval pre-caudal peduncle spot surrounded by iridescent golden colours. That I’m calling my Cory sp. 2.
There was another similar to C. trillineatus (my cory sp. 1) and I caught many others in early morning when the water parameters at 6:15am were pH 5.75; conductivity 17 µS/cm and temperature at 26.4°C/79.5°F.
The water was clear with no aquatic vegetation, only lots of leaf and driftwood.
My next collecting spot was two hours further up the Arabella. I’m sure no boat had ever been further as we had to remove hundreds of ancient logs and fallen in leaf-less trees. It was proving to be a real jungle adventure!
We came to a stop at the Capivara.
The water level there was so shallow that the boat was halted and there were many semi-sunken trees barring our way.
Over sandy ground, with Cyperus growing along the edges and Spatiphyllum in more shady areas, we found more species. There was a beautiful Pimelodus with three or four golden stripes, Farlowella, another Otocinclus and Peckoltia species and a third Corydoras species, which belongs to the C. elegans group (my Cory. sp. 3).
Stefen took a very large Serrasalmus immaculatus, as well as smaller Serrasalmus species ashore and he had a Ageneiosus cf. magoi on the hook. They were enough for a fine dinner …
In total I researched in 19 rivers, creeks and lakes, recording in three days and nights 152 fish species, of which 50 seem new to science and the hobby.
The new Hemigrammus, Moenkhausia, Pyrrhulina (pictured above), Aequidens and fantastic Apistogramma and Corydoras species will I’m sure bring joy to many enthusiasts with biotope correct aquariums.
Delights on dry land too
Travelling for almost nine days and 1,850 river kilometres (1,150 miles) I had recorded an amazing flora and fauna above and below water — including the world’s rarest and smallest crocodile, the Babo morichalero (Paleosuchus palpebrosus) that’s pictured here.
I had heard and seen traces of jaguar, seen two or three monkey herds jumping along the river edges in the trees, and endless herds of capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris).
Some of the fish of the Caño Arabella expedition
Charax sp. 1
Apistogramma sp. 2 female
Aequidens sp. 1
Bunocephalus cf. verrucosus
Otocinclus sp. 1
Hypoptoptoma sp. 1
Hyphessobrycon sp. 1
Carnegiella sp. 1
Moenkhausia cf. oligolepis
Leporinus cf. agassizii
Serrasalmus sp. 7.
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Tired of seeing Anubias-based displays teeming with Kribensis, Nathan Hill takes a different slant on aquariums in the style of the dark continent.
The Congo is in crisis. Ravaged by civil wars, a humanitarian pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the indigenous peoples for decades. Life is cheap and conditions harsh.
This part of Africa has the world’s second highest infant mortality rate. Disease lurks everywhere, as do those looking to kidnap and ransom.
It’s therefore a brave aquarist who enters the depths of the democratic republic (DRC), braving rebel fighters, tropical heat and hostile terrain, to return with fish for the aquarium trade. As such, our hobby has potentially missed out on some beautiful tanks.
African river fish have always been the ‘other’ option to the much more accessible selection of livestock coming from the Amazon. To even mention an African aquarium is to think of the vast lakes, huge rocky habitats brimming with cichlids and synodontid catfish.
When embarking on this project – a loose biotope based on Congolese rivers – I hit a huge obstacle in the availability of the fish.
I’d phoned as far afield as Yorkshire and Dorset seeking suitable African fish. After three days I’d all but given up. I could get a Kribensis here, a Congo tetra there, but nothing substantial. Faced with such a barren selection, I understood why West African tanks so rarely appeared on my radar…
I then called up old contacts at Neil Hardy Aquatica, a London-based importer and wholesaler of exotic fish. It’s one of very few places to have shippers on the ground in the Congo, but had what I needed – a good selection of Congolese livestock.
I wanted my display to be different. I wanted to use a handful of major players in the African fish scene, but at the same time keep things fresh. I had to decide early on whether to take the path of the fastest rivers, home to Steatocranus cichlids and Eutropiellus catfish, or something slower.
In the event I went for slower, if only for the extra options that gave me with planting. It was important for me not to mix the two worlds.
Biotopically speaking, keeping fast and slow fish together is as far removed as keeping Polar bears and Camels happy in one enclosure.
My next hurdle was suitable greenery and plant exporter Tropica came to my aid. As much as I enjoy Anubias, I felt they had been done to death. I wanted my set-up to be beyond the standard. I wanted to take a chunk of river where Anubias weren’t found.
I opted for a mixture of Crinums, half C. natans and the other half C, calamistratum. These large plants lend themselves well to the depth of the tank, creating immediate impact and density.
I also used Bolbitis, as I could tie these to the hardscape of the tank, giving instant greenery higher up. To fill a space I’d planned for the front I opted for delicate African lilies.
Crinums are easy to work with and needed minimal trimming before going in. These don’t like to be knocked or moved, so getting them placed correctly first time round is vital. Over the first week or two, a few leaves turned brown and dropped off —to be expected given their long-distance journey. They soon regained composure, however, and sent leaves spiraling upwards.
I felt it important that the hardscape should be realistically priced and easy to locate. Not all of us in the UK have time or geography to locate our own woods and rocks, so I opted for a selection of substrate and wood that can be purchased from most local retailers.
I used supplies from English-based company Unipac, feeling like the kid in the proverbial candy store as I took a once in a lifetime chance for a trolley dash in its ample warehouses.
I opted for the aptly named Senegal sand, a brown and black mix of fine grain, along with enough Sumatran wood to fuel a week- long bonfire. Some weathered petrified wood and cobbles followed, loaded onto a forklift truck that followed me while I leapt from selection to selection.
Unlike most home aquarists, time was not on my side for this project. I needed immediate impact, as I would only have the tank for a few months at best. In light of this restriction, but still wanting an active display, I deliberately stocked heavily.
West Africa has some beautiful fishes, many the domain of the committed breeder and intense cichlid buffs. I had to draw a line between being realistic on one hand and putting together one of those same, tired biotopes I’d seen produced many times before on the other.
I opted for a moderately narrow West African selection of fish. Originally I’d hoped for some Micralestes tetra, but lack of availability nudged me towards Brycinus sp. instead. These, along with some young Arnoldichthys spilopterus, provide much of the movement, and keep the upper layers of the tank filled.
Colour was introduced by the classic Congo tetra (Phenacogrammus interruptus) with an even split of males and females to minimise aggression.
Secretly, I’d planned much of the tank around my prime inhabitants — a brace of true Synodontis nigriventris. It was their presence that necessitated the dense, tank-long branch network, under which they cling and migrate around the display.
Although much of what is seen of them is silhouette, these are the real prizes in the set-up. Essentially, they are among the smallest species and I felt I could keep a shoal without having to find a dozen large homes for them after the project. Plus, I have a soft spot of upside-down catfish…
Despite my aversion to the easy option of Kribensis, I still craved a cichlid variety and when we spotted an unknown Hemichromis species at Neil Hardy’s, the deal was sealed.
Further investigation hints that these are actually H. cristatus, but the jury is out. Either way, these behaved exactly the way I thought they wouldn’t, roaming in all levels of the tank, being agreeable and peaceful, even with each other, and never shying away to breed.
To finish the surface layer I opted for the ever-stunning Butterfly fish (Pantodon buchholzi). Despite the tank being open topped, and despite their reputation for jumping, these fish have been unproblematic, nestling in the Bolbitis that hits the surface and shoving all other fish aside when food hits the top of tank.
A few weeks on and I’m happy with the result. Given the advantage of having already matured filters and media running on other set-ups, I was able to rush my tank, putting it all together in a few days. This isn’t something I’d suggest to the newcomer, or anyone without a massive contingency plan at the first sniff of ammonia, but I managed to carry it off without a hint of trouble.
The right conditions
Water quality for these fish should be soft and slightly acidic. The display featured on these pages here runs at a pH of 7.0, with a hardness of 8 – 10°KH. Temperature is fixed at around 25-26°C/77-79°F.
Ammonia and nitrite are nil, while nitrate runs at between 10 and 20ppm. After water changes of 30% weekly, a range of plant fertiliser is added. Easycarbo is used bi-daily at 5ml measures. No CO2 is used.
How the African set-up was created
1. The Fluval Studio tank is stripped and cleaned before use. Vinegar is used to remove any signs of a tidemark from previous use and the whole thing rinsed several times to ensure cleanliness. During this time the filter is attached to another, well-stocked tank.
2. Wood is soaked for the week prior to setting up the tank. This removes the worst of any tannic acids that can leach from it, as well as ensuring it will not float when placed into the aquarium. Water is changed daily on the wood during this stage.
3. A layer of Nutribase is added and sculpted into shape in the areas where there will be heavy plant growth. This ensures that food will be available to the root-heavy Crinum when they are first put in to the tank. The Nutribase is not rinsed before use.
4. Senegal sand is added on top of the Nutribase. To create the effect of the base of a stream, a dip is made at the centre while the two rear sides are more deeply banked. Once in place the sand is shaped and smoothed with a credit card.
5. The first, gigantic piece of wood is added, serving as a template for the remaining pieces. The wood is so large that the cover glasses have to be removed and the light worked around it. The wood is seated deep into the sand to avoid toppling.
6. With the centre wood in place, subordinate roots are added, creating a tangle for catfish at one end as well as a means for them to reach both ends. None of the wood is tied or secured, but placed so that movement is minimised.
7. The first of the petrified wood rocks are added to one end of the tank, after being scrubbed with hot water. Rounded rocks are used to create a worn, riverine feel. Some are used to help reinforce the position of the wood, securing loose points.
8. To offset the heavy hardscape at one end of the tank, more petrified wood is added to the other, along with cobbles. Once happy that the cobbles are in place, some water is added to the tank to allow for the first stages of planting.
9. The plants are now sorted through, examined and removed from their pots, and have any excess root growth or damaged leaves taken off. The plants remain in their original polystyrene box when not being planted and are periodically sprayed with water.
10. The Crinum are added, with C. natans being used at the cobbled end of the tank while C. calamistratum is used at the denser end to cut through the tangles of wood. The bulbs are not placed into the substrate and only the roots are buried.
11. The Bolbitis is attached to higher parts of the wood with fishing lIne. Eventually the roots will grow onto the wood and secure the plants, but early on they need help to stay in place. Tying is loose to prevent damaging the plants.
12. With all plants in place the tank is now filled and the filter reattached. Mechanical filters are checked frequently over the next few days, to take in account the debris and fine particles thrown up during the filling stage, and cleaned as needed.
Who helped with the project?
Everything involved with this project can be found with a little shopping around — the most difficult being the fish.
The tank is a Fluval Studio 900 from Hagen. It has a Fluval 306 canister filter, as well as the standard two T5 light tubes – one Power-GLO, one Life-GLO
The décor and sand is from Unipac Ltd., and the company’s products can be found in many Maidenhead Aquatic and other stores through the UK.
Tropica is a Danish wholesaler and its plants are available from many branches of Pets at Home, as well as a huge range of other retailers throughout the country.
Neil Hardy Aquatica is a wholesaler supplying many stores in the UK. However, note that it is a trade-only dealer and will not supply hobbyists directly.
Practical Fishkeeping thanks all suppliers who made this set-up possible.
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Heiko Bleher heads for Crocodile Dundee country in the Northern Territory of Australia and finds a place where not all the creatures find humans tasty!
I had arrived in Darwin minus fishing and collecting gear, which had been left in Paris, and with only a gift of a T-shirt and some hasty tank, net, torch and food purchases, my expedition to the northernmost tip of Australia seemed ill-prepared.
However, my colleague Bruce Sambell, owner of Ausyfish hatchery, assured me we had everything we needed, so we set off early next morning, heading south.
Our first destination was Wangi Falls (pictured at the top of the page) in the Litchfield National Park 100 km/62 miles south-west and we sought out the remote 'jungle' roads, so camped along the Jim Jim Road, along a creek which ended up in a branch of the Adelaide river.
While Bruce and his friend prepared a Barramundi they had caught I looked for smaller fishes. Bruce later also caught a larger Scleropagus jardini before warning me that I should not get into the water as crocodiles were about.
By torchlight, I did come across one — but it was hardly 1.5m/5’ long.
Bruce screamed but I told him to calm down and walked in the water toward the animal, showing my colleagues that it would swim away — and it did.
I have visited Australia regularly since 1974, and I simply do not believe all those tales of crocs taking people as food. I have never been attacked anywhere by a croc.
Anyhow I survived the night, found interesting gobies, and saw several night active Toothless catfishes (Anodontiglanis dahli), in groups below the roots of the trees growing along the river’s edge, and also the rainbowfish species Melanotaenia splendida inornata.
Next morning we drove to the Wangi Falls, a beautiful but deserted place fenced in with signs warning that swimming is prohibited because crocodile attacks "can cause injury or death."I climbed the fence, just to see some of the fishes and Bruce warned me again of the dangers.
In the clear water I could see the bottom, covered with larger rocks and gravel, and the rocks were covered by algae. There were plenty of fishes, large groups of what
I think were Gulf grunters (Scortum ogilbyi) which can grow to about 40cm/16” .
We then headed for the Stuart Highway 1, after crossing Pine Creek and the Fergusson river, driving south 340km/210 miles to Katherine, which is the fourth largest township in the Northern Territory with 6,000 residents. The Katherine river runs through the north of the town and has a history of flooding, doing so in 1957, 1974, 1998 and 2006.
We fuelled up Bruce’s truck, ate and went on, as I wanted to see some of the tributaries of the upper Katherine river, and we wended up to a remote area on a rough track called Giyamuckur Buck Jungle Springs.
The small creek was full of driftwood and fallen-in trees and there was white fine sand everywhere, with a few roundish, beige rocks. Overhanging trees gave shade and the water was tea coloured, flowing swiftly.
While the rest camped and prepared to cook at nightfall, I went along the river, crossed easily as it was hardly more than 2.5m/8’ at the deepest place, and was lucky to see by flashlight hundreds of Craterocephalus straminaeus, the so-called Strawman or Blackmast.
This fish is only known from a few places in northern Australia and I never knew that it swims in schools in swift water. I saw them only in the middle of the creek where it was flowing fast. The population here had a red rim on the second dorsal fin and also on the anal fin (which is in the type yellow).
The first dorsal is also black, but not as extremely high as in the type, and the most remarkable feature was the neon stripe running from its gills into the caudal peduncle.
I also found some Northwest glassfishes (Ambassis species), which are still not described, and Mogurnda mogurnda, or at least fish that look similar (below).
Three species are known from northern Australia, but one, M. adspersa, is limited to the eastern part of Australia and M. oligolepis is only known from the Kimberley region in Western Australia.
There were also many of a very small Craterocephalus species, an extreme yellow-golden coloured one, of which there are none similarly described from northern Australia. I found a similar one only on the Aru islands.
Next morning I saw Nymphaea violacea species growing in stagnant parts of this beautiful river, along with Eleocharis acuta, and in bays there was Eriocaulon setaceum, Najas tenuifolia and Potamogeton crispus. I then saw wallabies, a Sugar glider flying from one tree to another and Northern brushtail possum disappearing into the bushes.
We then crossed the Kakadu National Park on Highway 21 to Jabiru, on the way stopping at a tiny creek full of aquatic vegetation. There was Brasenia schreberi, Nitella penicillata, Myriophyllum papillosum, and the red M. salsugineum, Potamogeton perfoliatus and Villarsia exaltata, and what is probably Vallisneria caudlescens, a beautiful submersed red plant up to 60cm/24” that would be an excellent addition to the larger aquarium.
Along the edges there was Blyxa spp, Nymphoides crenata and floating plants, like Salvinia molesta. This place, called Plant Creek, resembled a real underwater garden, a gigantic shallow nature aquarium.
I found Amniataba percoides juveniles slowly losing their extreme beautiful colours as they approach their adult stage.
Another collecting spot needed a special permit to explore. This was at the border with Arnhemland, where the East Alligator river flows north into the sea. This clear river bed, completely covered with sand, is also a tourist spot and you can boat ride with a guide pointing out the dangerous saltwater crocodiles.
Naturally, swimming is prohibited here but I just had to go in, just to see how many of those man-eaters would attack me. None came… However, Bruce and his friend bellowed: "A poisonous snake is biting you underwater." In fact, while I was fishing along the edges, a Swamp eel (Ophisternon gutturale) was nibbling my feet, tickling them.
The East Alligator river is home to many freshwater species, of which some may enter the mouth where it becomes brackish. Of the many collected species, one which did strike me more than anything else was a Golden archerfish.
It looked somewhat like T. jaculatrix, but this species is white and black. The one I found here was jet black and gold — even the juveniles. I had never seen anything like this amazing beauty before.
There was a second archerfish (Toxotes chatareus) here, too.
I also found the strikingly coloured Melanotaenia splendida splendida. The males had a very reddish coloration and the females a yellowish pattern. I even found some with typical rainbowfish diseases.
I came across Mogurnda here, a dwarf, and possibly not M. mogurnda.
This area of the world could throw up species of flora and fauna that were both surprising and beautiful.
At journey’s end we camped late, or better tried to camp, along the Mary river. While the others were putting up the tents
I ignored all pleas to stay out of the water, as it was full of crocs.
I didn’t listen, but when Bruce and his pal come to the edge to convince me to come out a big one came upriver, a saltwater croc at least 5.5m/18’ — and when both saw it they screamed.
I have never seen people pack so fast, throwing tents and equipment into the truck in panic. I could not convince them to stay, but I will go back to Australia some day — only this time alone, as I’m now convinced that these crocs eat only Aussies...
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Chris Lukhaup was part of a team from Dennerle that recently explored Brazil, discovering fish, plants and breathtaking underwater scenery in an area they describe as the â€˜cradle of aquaticsâ€™. Be prepared to be inspired â€” and more than a little bit jealous!
Our trip to Brazil might not have been a religious pilgrimage as such, but the strip of land around the small town of Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul might rightfully be described as an aquatic place of pilgrimage, with our journey there an act of devotion and reverence towards the magical powers of nature that are so present and inspiring in this incredible region.
This place might even be considered the cradle of aquatics, and for fishkeepers and adventurers — and everyone else who yearns to experience nature — this trip is a milestone.
We had been informed that the best time to go exploring in Bonito and the surrounding area was December— before the travelling season began.
We entrusted this journey to the knowledgeable hands of the Indian Marcello Yndio and his Swiss wife Mirjam who run Explore Panatal. They arranged the trip for us in a way that allowed us to see, photograph and film as much as possible over ten days.
In addition to their ample knowledge of the area, the pair have established all-important relations with the local authorities and owners of the places we planned to visit.
I left for Brazil two days before Stefan ‘Plantahunter’ Hummel and Max Dennerle, son of the company founder Ludwig Dennerle. At that time, there were heavy snowfalls in Germany and I was very lucky, as after my plane had taken off all flights for the rest of the day had to be cancelled.
Unfortunately the bad weather delayed Stefan and Max, who had to spend a number of days at various European airports. To top it all off, Max’s luggage got lost in transit...
However, they eventually arrived and due to the fact that we had lost several days, Marcello re-organised our trip with a new and even more crowded schedule.
Our first trip was to Rio da Prata, the Silver River. These fascinating headwaters are strictly supervised and no one is allowed to go into the water on their own. You can only stay in one place for a few minutes, and you must not stand on the bottom to avoid stirring up any sediment — which would be detrimental to the habitat.
You can only float without touching fish or plants and a guide is always present to ensure you don’t violate these rules.
If you don’t have your own underwater camera you can borrow one there and then, together with any snorkeling equipment. Ecotourism is a real alternative to the vast soy farms and seemingly endless cattle pastures that are now so common to this region.
Our permit allowed us to stay in the source area for a full two days.
Silver River’s true assets are in its beautiful aquatic plants and innumerous large and small fish, which are not shy at all.
Some smaller characins, probably Cheirodon kriegi, were quite bold and kept biting our lips. We could see groups of blackish grey Pacu, Colossoma sp., gliding across the gleaming sandy areas, and quite a few Ancistrus sp., which seem to live under every other root.
Some large characins, Brycon hilarii, locally called Piraputanga, and which are exclusively plant eaters, sat in the current, waiting for the monkeys in the trees above the river to drop in some of their leftover food.
The Dorado (Salminus brasiliensis) pictured above is a large predator characin that calmly circles its territory and just opens its mouth to get a meal. They can grow to 1m/39”, adult specimens weighing up to 30 kg/66 lb. Their strong jaws are lined with sharp, large-dimensioned teeth, and their favourite prey is Prochilodus lineatus, which we found in large numbers in this habitat.
A group of Leporinus friderici dipped their noses into the detritus on the ground, stirring up micro-organisms, accompanied by a school of Hyphessobrycon eques. Their red colouration was especially stunning.
A Crenichichla vittata had staked out its territory under a tree trunk, defending it against everything that wandered close.
The dominant plant in these waters is Star grass (Heteranthera zosterifolia), which belongs to the family Pontederiaceae.
This plant needs lots of light. It can be found in vast stretches of several km in Rio da Prata, and even at depths of 2m/6.5’ its growth is dense and is a lush green. In some places we even found the emerged form with its light blue flowers. However, the strong current made photographing it difficult.
Especially attractive were the sharp-edged limestone formations we floated past, and which are below the waterline in a short stretch of the river. You have to be very careful here, as the sharp edges would not just slice through your wetsuit!
Besides Star grass, we also saw Hydrocotyle verticillata and Helanthium bolivianum. In a small pond beside the river we found a beautiful moss. Like so many other rivers in that region, the water of Rio da Prata is high in carbonates, which makes this moss suitable for hard water.
Only a few kilometres from Rio da Prata lies Anaconda river, Rio Succuri. During the trip there we passed many pasture grounds with zebus, an Indian cattle species. Unfortunately, deforestation in this region increases open space so benefitting the interests of the cattle barons.
The spring source of Rio Succuri is in the middle of one of these pastures. Marcello procured a special permit for us so we could to spend all day here. The water was only 40-70cm/16-28” deep and crystal clear.
Stefan found at least ten different plant species here and especially impressive were large patches of Potamogeton illinoensis. In just a few square metres there were many plants we know well in the hobby, plus new ones like Bacopa australis.
In some places, the underwater scenery looked as though it had been moulded by human hands. Large beautiful ‘meadows’ were formed by Hydrocotyle verticillata and H. leucocephala. The latter, in its emerged form, could also be found in the undergrowth around the water. Here, Parrots feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), was of a striking brownish red, due to plentiful light.
Contrasting with its delicate whorls of leaves, there were large-leaved Echinodorus macrophyllus and the Chain sword (Helanthium bolivianum) – well-known in the hobby for a long time under the name of E. bolivianus.
After around 50m/165’ in the shallow water of the source, the rivulet had quite a strong current. We put on our snorkels and floated downriver effortlessly. We could see great patches of Illinois pondweed (Potamogeton illinoensis) and their yellowish-brown leaves shimmered in the sunlight — absolutely fascinating.
After a few minutes, the water depth increased, in some places to 2-3m/6.5-10’. Here we found bright red Nymphaea gardneriana together with huge Pontederia parviflora. They prefer the bank areas, but grow also in deeper waters. However, the leaves always grow above the waterline.
We also found some dark green shoots of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana). At first glance this plant appears something like a small hornwort, but it’s actually a primitive water plant that belongs to the family of green algae. There were also small patches of Heteranthera zosterifolia and Gymnocoronis spilanthoides.
The fish fauna here was quite similar to that of Rio da Prata, but the population densities were a lot lower.
We didn’t see an anaconda on this trip, but we did see one of the very rare giant otters. It was at least 1.2m/4’ long, and as soon as it had emerged from the water it disappeared again.
The baylike headwaters of Rio Baía Bonita is paradise for the Echinodorus enthusiast. In order to get there, you have to leave the official reserve and walk around 800m/880 yards through dense forests, accompanied by a guide. Marcelo had organised a guide who was with us for the entire day.
When we arrived at the pool the view took our breath away. There were huge patches of lush E. macrophyllus at a water depth of 1.5-2m/5-6.6’. When snorkeling you sometimes touch the tips of their leaves as these plants grow really long. The most recent leaves are a beautiful red to pink. Unfortunately, due to their size, these plants are not suitable for a normal tank.
Between the Echinodorus patches, there are beautiful groups of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana), its dark green contrasting beautifully with the bright colours of the Echinodorus.
At other places in the bay we again found compact groups of Helanthium bolivianus. These stay comparatively small and reproduce by runners. They are great for the fore or middle ground of an aquarium. The reddish colour, as well as the relatively broad leaf blades (or laminae), have so far only been observed in nature.
Towards the open side of the bay we could feel the current towards the rivulet. We floated past huge patches of Senegal tea plant (Gymnocoronis spilanthoides), some up to 2m/6-6’ high and an incredible sight. There were also beautiful meadows of Potamogeton illinoensis interspersed with individual large water-plantains.
The manifold moss patches below and above the waterline on rocks and stones were also impressive.
Aquascapers would really have fun here – one natural layout following the other.
The fish fauna was dominated by the ever-present Brycon hilarii, circling in large schools.
Again, on the ground and in the rock crevices we kept seeing Ancistrus sp. and also a large, hitherto unidentified crab. Small tetras were swimming around, but moving too fast for a good photo.
The mountains of Serra Bodoquena are around 70km/43 miles from Bonito. Here, too, small and larger streams pass through the landscape. Marcello had organised a boating trip on Rio Betione — betione being anteater in English, of which we saw numerous specimens. Even the trip to the river was a foretaste of the adventures to come.
The way for the cars had to be cleared with machetes. After some kilometres through deep meadows and impenetrable bush we passed an ancient wooden bridge already rotting and threatening to break any moment.
After another kilometre we reached the bank of Rio Betione. The turbid water was a deep brown, with no water plants in view at all. I soon caught some catfish here. Marcello was very thirsty and almost emptied the container they were in – the fish were OK though.
Marcello warned us not to drink the water from this river ourselves however. He’s grown up with it, so is very used to it.
We then had to travel on by boat. After a good two hours of paddling we had almost given up hope on getting any nice underwater photographs.
However, Marcello was still grinning and pointed to the front. In the distance, we could make out floating plants. When we approached them we were greeted by crystal-clear water and a white sandy ground – paradise!
A rare find
There was gigantic patch of Eichhornia azurea with their typical floating leaves and their especially impressive submerged leaves. This plant is really rare in the hobby and the underwater form is not too common in nature either. Probably the extremely clear water and the nutrient-rich ground have something to do with this wonderful phenomenon.
This Rio Bentione feeder has its source at around 600m/2000’ from the river and the plants have populated the entire stretch.
It was definitely the botanical highlight of this trip for Stefan.
Besides some tetras, we also discovered several crabs and some Apistogramma sp. on the ground.
Rio Formoso, near the town of Bonito, isn’t as clear as other rivers in the area, possibly due to the numerous cascades that churn up the sandy ground. However, it has its own special charm, featuring many beautiful rock formations and gigantic pieces of driftwood.
The slightly turbid water is a light pastel green with visibility around 10m/33’. By pure chance we stumbled across a small feeder stream of around 50m/165’ in length, with strikingly clear water and an incredibly beautiful aquascape with driftwood and large clusters of Stonewort algae (Chara rusbyana) which reminded us very much of dwarf hornwort. it was a miniature paradise, only a few square metres in size.
Stonewort algae can be found all over the world, and most frequently in clear waters and springs. Their common name comes from the fact that their stems are often encrusted in lime.
Besides seeing a pair of Crenichichla busy caring for their brood there was not much else in the way of fish.
Nature has done stunningly wonderful things to this place, but these habitats are now under ever increasing threat. The cattle barons need more pasture, the peasants more fields, and the world is hungry for soy.
We cannot say for how long these clear waters will still exist. Even though they are pretty well-protected right now, this might change in a short time.
What's the water like?
The parameters for the headwaters of Rio da Prata were:
CO2: 8 ppm
FE++: 0 ppm
The parameters for the estuary of Rio da Prata were:
CO2: 2 ppm
FE++: 0 ppm
Watch out for jaguars!
Repeatedly, Marcello warned us to be careful as there were jaguars around Rio Betione – and just a few days before there had been a deadly attack on a fishing boat there.
It had been a good 4m/13’ from the banks, but the jaguar took a gigantic leap and jumped directly on it, killing a 12-year-old boy with one bite at his head.
Jaguars must not be hunted in this area, although Marcello told us that the cattle barons still do so — one of them shooting and killing 29 or more of them. The wheels of justice turn slowly in these cases and the trigger-happy cattle baron has never been held responsible for what he did.
Chris, Stefan and Max would like to express their sincere thanks to Marcello and Mirjam, who did a great job for Dennerle which sponsored this trip.
You can contact Marcello and Mirjam at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website. Only a well-organised trip is real fun!
Nathan Hill creates a useful aquatic device for those who want a river biotope tank with a more natural flow. Here's how to do it...
If we absorb the new documentaries and scientific papers we can constantly learn more and more about the biotopes our fish come from. However, one tank concept continues to elude fishkeepers — the riverine aquarium.
When purchasing rheophilic (river loving) fishes, we often tend to rely on powerful filter outlets to create suitable flows. Some keepers go further and invest in specific pumps or powerheads to bolster movement, but they end up with conflicting currents that tend to disperse at all angles within the tank.
The manifold system in the latest PFK project here is designed to ensure that water flows constantly in a straight line. It can be cranked up or down as preferred by the fish, making it ideal for any that like to cling to rocks, or dash through strong currents snatching at passing particles of food.
Some predators even find their niche in being able to outswim other fish, making use of such raging torrents in the wild to wear down their prey, before grabbing their tired meal.
In order to keep those fish with higher oxygen requirements, there’s even the option to attach a Venturi system to the pumps used. This simple feature will suck in atmospheric air through the power of water movement from the powerheads and churn out a relentless stream of fine bubbles.
What could be stocked in a tank like this? It depends one what kind of biotope you want to recreate, but most interest in river manifolds comes from the loach community. Fishes of the Balitoridae family in particular will behave just as they would in the wild, clinging on to smooth boulders and sifting through both the algae and aufwuchs — micro-organisms that live within the algae and biofilm — from the surface.
However, there’s no need to stop at loaches. Many South American loricariids, tetras and even cichlids are known to frequent rivers with colossal flow.
The very inspiration for the tank designed here was a South American river in which live various Cteniloricaria, Ancistrus and Hypostomus species. Here, they share raging waters with Astyanax tetra, tiny Characidium, Paradon and even Guianacara and Crenicichla — and just because there’s such a strong flow of water doesn’t mean that there’s no room for plants.
In the river I’ve based my design on, huge fronds of Mayaca are commonly found.
African rivers can be emulated, with cyprinids aplenty and stronger swimming Synodontis catfish. Literally, if it comes from faster waters, then this is the tank you’ll want to set up.
Be cautious about buying particularly small fish and under no circumstances place non-riverine fish into a system like this. The relentless push of water will eventually exhaust them and, given the powerful suction of the uplifted strainers, any fish that become trapped against them may struggle to break free.
This risk can be reduced by adding foam blocks over the strainers, but will still not make the tank any more suitable for slower moving fish.
Gouramis or angelfish would not enjoy this tank, so plan on setting up just for a specific target of fish species and don’t be inclined to opt for the usual community selections.
Substrate choice for a river tank needs to be carefully thought through. Soft, sandy substrates are prone to being pushed to one end of the tank, and planting substrates are near suicidal. Coarse sands, maybe with a softer layer beneath, are the way forward.
Decoration should be big and robust, but ideally smooth surfaced if it is to fit in with the overall image. After all, rocks that spend their lives tumbling downstream tend to be eroded over time into smoother shapes, rather than the jagged edges you’d expect to find on lava rock.
Wood and rounded cobbles should feature heavily. As well as looking authentic, these obstacles will also provide a place of quiet refuge for those fish that want to take a little time out, although quiet spots above the pumps should also serve this purpose well.
It’s vital that any décor goes in before you fill the tank with water. The plastic piping floats in water and will simply spring to the surface if all that’s holding it down is the gravel.
Alternatively, you can use a combination of suction cups and cable ties to hold the frame in place. The real diehard enthusiast can silicone the unit in permanently and allow it to dry before filling the tank with water.
Another important point to remember is not to turn the pumps off at night. When setting up a tank like this, it’s just as much for the welfare of the fish as well as for our visual enjoyment, and riverine species tend not to take a break when the lights go out.
Rivers stream 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the wilderness, and that’s what you want to recreate in the tank, too.
Ensure good ventilation if using the pipe cement and cleaner. The fumes of both can be harmful if breathed in.
What you’ll need
- Enough 2.5cm/1” diameter rigid piping to span the length of your aquarium more than three times.
- Four 2.5cm/1” 90° bends.
- Six 2.5cm/1” tee pieces.
- Two 2.5cm/1” caps.
- Pipe cleaner (optional).
- Pipe cement (optional).
- Two powerheads.
- Junior hacksaw.
- Power drill and sharp drill bit.
- Tape measure.
Half an hour — depending on how quickly you can clean up the cut ends with a file.
Cost at a glance
2.5cm/1” pipe at £4.40 per metre
90° bends £1.10 each
Tee pieces £1.50 each
Caps 79p each
Pipe cleaner £10.18
Powerheads, (Rolf C Hagen Aquaclear 70s from Swallow Aquatics)
£54.99 each (all piping from ZM systems)
Total: (to set up a 90cm/35” long aquarium with strong flow) £158.82
Here's how to do it
1. I’m using a Hagen Studio 900 aquarium 94cm/37” in length. Be aware that with other aquaria there may be a central bracing bar that makes it difficult to get the finished manifold into place. In tanks with drilled bases, as with this model, you’ll need to factor this into your design.
2. Measure the lengths of pipe. I’m using three 77cm/30.3” lengths to go from end to end, allowing me space for the bends. I cut shorter, but equal sized lengths to fit between bends and tee pieces. I have a ‘dry’ run and lay my parts out so I can establish what will go where.
3. Using a level surface, I cut my piping. I ensure that they are as straight as possible to avoid inconsistencies when fitting the manifold together.
Once cut, I take care to file the swarf from the inside ends of the pipes. Any remaining may come loose and damage the pump impellers when running.
4. I clean the ends of pipes and insides of elbows, then apply a conservative amount of cement to both. Pushing the pipes into place, I hold them for ten seconds, after which they have formed a permanent seal. When cementing I need to be accurate and fast. You only get those ten seconds!
5. I cement a tee to each end of the outside lengths of pipe, ensuring they sit at the same angle. Then, using smaller pieces of pipe, I connect a tee to each corner bend. Pieces must point up 90° from the rest of the manifold, as these will house the pumps and the strainers.
6. I cement the remaining short pipes to the tee pieces and, using the two outer assemblies, ‘sandwich’ them onto the centre length. I can now focus on the uplift pipes I want to act as strainers and pump holders, so I cut lengths of pipe around 17cm/6.7” long.
7. I drill holes in two lengths before cementing on the caps. These are then connected to the tee pieces at one end of the manifold. I don’t cement them, so I can access and clean them. At the other end of the tank I insert two lengths at the height I want my pumps to sit.
8. After placing the manifold into the tank, I fit the Aquaclear powerheads using the conical adaptors provided. Once in position, I can add substrate to cover it and decorate my tank using the large, rounded stones I’d expect to find in a river. Now I just need to fill the tank!
The Coral Sea, off the north-eastern coast of Australia, is bounded by the coast of Queensland, including the Great Barrier Reef, by Vanuatu and New Caledonia, the southern Solomon Islands and Tasman Sea. It is home to more than 2,000 species of fishes.
Cardinalfishes are under-rated as aquarium fish because of their shy, nocturnal natures. They are paternal mouthbrooders and species like the Pyjama cardinalfish (Sphaeramia nematoptera) make ideal community fish. Keep them in groups of at least five individuals.
Moray eels (pic by Prilfish, Creative Commons)
Although moray eel diversity is reasonably high in the Coral Sea, at more than 30 species, most grow too large and are too aggressive for the average aquarium. A notable exception is the Snowflake moray (Echidna nebulosa), a very common aquarium species.
Stingrays are typically associated with coastal and estuarine habitats with sandy or muddy bottoms, and relatively few species are found near coral reefs. One is the Blue-spotted ray (Taeniur aa lymma) which can be found in sandy areas associated with coral reefs.
More than 100 species of damselfishes (Pomacentridae) are known from this sea and the group includes the iconic anemonefishes. Most damselfishes, such as this Talbot’s damsel (Chrysiptera talboti), are territorial and aggressive to tank mates, particularly congeners.
The family Serranidae includes colourful denizens of reefs, such as anthiases and soapfishes. Some members of the subfamily Epinephelinae, such as the Panther grouper (Chromileptes altivelis), are attractive when young but grow too large for average aquaria.
The Coral Sea is home to about 30 species of hawkfishes (Cirrhitidae), including the Scarlet hawkfish (Neocirrhites armatus). These ambush predators are typically found on coral reefs and rocky substrata where they feed on small fishes and crustaceans.is), are attractive when young but grow too large for average aquaria.
The wrasses (Labridae) are one of the most diverse groups in the Coral Sea, with well over 100 species found there. Many wrasses, tuskfish and hogfish, such as this Coral hogfish (Bodianus mesothorax) are imported from the region.
The marine angelfishes (Pomacanthidae) are sought for their vibrant colours. A striking feature in many species is a dramatic change in colour pattern as juveniles grow. A number, such as this Emperor angel (Pomacanthus imperator), are best left to the advanced aquarist.
The dartfishes have been reclassified as gobiids. Those such as this firefish (Nemateleotris magnifica) feed on micro-invertebrates such as copepods in the wild, although take most meaty foods in the aquarium. A tight tank cover will prevent them jumping out.
Also known as tangs, the surgeonfishes get their name from the sharp spine or spines on their caudal peduncle. The Regal tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) is one species suitable for the larger home aquarium, being relatively robust if maintained under proper conditions.
Triggerfishes, including species from the Coral Sea such as this Clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspillicum), are sought after as aquarium fish due to their fabulous colours. However, triggers are ill tempered and can inflict nasty bites from their powerful jaws and sharp teeth.
Pufferfishes (pic by Ular Tikk, Creative Commons)
Pufferfishes of the subfamily Canthigasterinae, such as this Valentini puffer (Canthigaster valentini), are frequently seen in the Coral Sea. Often found in large schools in the wild, some members are actually the filefish (Paraluteres prionurus) which mimics the puffer.
Why not check out our other features in this series:
In war-ravaged Mozambique thereâ€™s little hope and even less water, unless you're looking for fish in higher ground. Heiko Bleher follows in the footsteps of a pioneer explorerâ€¦
Wilhelm Karl Hartwich Peters was a man I always envied. He was the first to research in Mozambique.
His expedition was in 1842 and he returned to Berlin with an enormous collection of specimens, having researched 51 freshwater fish species.
Having read about his amazing travels I’ve long been eager to research there as well. However, opportunity and the legacy of a lengthy and bitter civil war there had prevented me doing so.
I had also read that the first live cichlids were imported form Beira (Mozambique) before World War Two and they were called Haplochromis philander disperses, which is today considered Pseudocrenilabrus philander.
This excited me even further because I had found a very interesting Pseudocrenilabrus in South Africa near the Mozambique border, which did not look like the philander from Lake Otjikoto in South-West Africa. Then I read that there should be no Haplochromis in Mozambique, although a black and white photo from 1937 shows clearly a Haplochromis or a Chetia. I had to go to Mozambique...
I flew to Johannesburg in South Africa, and drove the long trek solo, crossing the Drakensberg mountains into Mozambique from the northern end of the Krueger National Park. Late afternoon, I reached a village that looked as if it belonged to millennia gone by. Even its plough seemed Stone Age.
The mud huts were beautifully painted and covered with palm leaves. No one spoke Portuguese, only a native Bantu mixed with Portuguese, so I understood some words. I learned that there was no water nearby and the tributaries to the Limpopo — my first destination — were all dry.
At sunset I reached the Limpopo’s shore. The water wasn't even knee deep and this is supposedly one of Mozambique’s largest rivers.
I only netted a Clarias, probably C. gariepinus, and a Tilapia, as well as a Xenopus frog, probably X. laevis. This belongs to the only frog group living permanently under water and is endemic to Africa. However everything was desert-like along the riverbed, nowhere where a fish could find protection or food. Only the tough guys have a chance...
After another 75 km/47 miles drive along the Limpopo, partly in its riverbed, I came to three houses, one made of brick. On the map this was Mapa, but the sign said Mapai and showed it north-east of here. A native told me Mapai was 17 km/11 miles across the Limpopo, but the riverbed here was at least 500m/1,650’ wide and there was no bridge. Luckily it was shallow and sandy, and although I got stuck twice, four men from the settlement helped to push me to the other side.
The dirt track to Mapei was lined with several bombed and derelict houses — grim reminders of the hostilities. Natives lived in mud huts next to burned-out vehicles and tanks.
There was no water all the way to Mapei. Then I had to find a place to fix the exhaust pipe, which had become dislodged on these primitive roads. Finally I found a guy called Ernesto who helped find someone who could weld. Job done, Ernesto said he could show me the way to Massenga. I had chosen dirt roads to avoid rivers indicated in Google maps but, as Ernst said, none had water and no listed villages existed any more.
Massenga lies on the Save river on the maps, but in reality the riverbed is 4km/ 2.5 miles east and I would need a tractor to get across a shallow channel about 100m/330’ wide. I walked across and at the deepest point was about 1m/3.3’. I knew I would get stuck. With eight men pushing from behind we made it across, my 4x4 filling with water.
During the night I camped and researched in the Save, but found only more Glossolepis and Tilapia. I knew I had to get to the source of these rivers.
I headed north and I saw a bombed concrete bridge over a small creek. It still had a little pool with water lilies. I walked down as a beautiful hornbill took off. In the shallows I found plenty of fishes, so that bird must have had a feast. There was so much life and countless frogs. The fish biomass consisted of four different species — three Barbus and another clariid catfish.
Further on I found another couple of drying pools and Nympheae struggling in any remaining wet soil, surrounded by bushes with climbing yellow flowering plants. In these pools and at my next collecting spot in another waterhole, I found the same barb species.
This biotope, once a flowing river, consisted of lava rock formation and in their crevices I spotted beautiful P. philander flashing in the early sun.
There was a pair in clear water carrying babies and when I moved close the female (above) sucked all of them into her mouth.
The male was a bright bluish yellow colour and they swam between half submerged Cyperus plants along the edges and some floating Najas species.
I collected one Chiloglanis species, possibly emarginatus the Phongolo suckermouth, about 5cm/2”. There was another small Barbus, bluish in colour, and many empty mussels. Water temperature was 28°C/82°F, pH 7.23 and conductivity 830 µS/cm. Air temperature had already reached 38°C/100°F.
I next headed for Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city by the Indian Ocean, for fuel and oil which was impossible to find at my next planned destination.
I drove to Chimolo from where I wanted to reach my most important destination in southern Mozambique — namely the headwaters of rivers in the Chimanimani mountains. which included Mount Binga at 2.445m/8.020’ and stretching for 50km/31 miles, to form the border with Zimbabwe.
Binga is Mozambique’s highest mountain and I knew there was a track from Chimolo going almost to the top, crossing all of its hill streams. I followed a dirt road and further up, above a dam found very interesting fish species and some amazing underwater plants. Later I found out that it belongs to the genus Hydrostachys and is possibly one of the most amazing aquarium plants never previously collected.
The Revue river, not far from a native village called Dezembe Centro, had clear, fast flowing water and was an ideal place to camp. Late that night I walked over the river’s stone plates and watched at least two Chiloglanis species; a larger one (pictured above) which I later identified as C. bifurcates growing to 7.5cm/3” and C. neumanni at about one centimetre less in total length.
There were groups of four to seven of each, scraping and eating from the aufwuchs over the plates hardly more than 20cm/8” deep in the fast current.
One has to wonder how they can swim and feed at the same time under such a fast water flow, but I noticed later that C. neumanni (above) particularly has large ridges on the head and body which clearly enable them to do so.
I collected both for the first time alive and one female was full with bright yellow-golden eggs.
I also collected a pair of Barbus paludinous and one specimen of the latter was bright golden – possibly new.
Further upriver, again over rock plates, I found a third Chiloglanis species, (C. paratus), including another female full of eggs (pictured above) There were two other smaller groups of fishes, but I wasn’t able to catch any. One was a very beautiful Garra species with a juvenile, and the other an elongated and colourful Barbus species.
In addition, near the edge of the river, but still over these large rock plates, there was a fantastic Cichlidae which was always able to evade my hand-net.
The next morning I collected day-active species and took Barbus, probably B. eutaenia, and below overhanging grasses there was a small beautiful golden coloured Barbus with five black spots, possibly B. lineomaculatus.
Then, a little deeper, there were three different tilapine species. One very small species (pictured above) was hardly 6cm/ 2.4” TL, which could be the original described subspecies of Tilapia rendalii, named swierstrae by Gilchrist and Thomson in 1917, but later placed in synonomy to T. rendalli.
The second was Tilapia sparrmanii, also a smaller species, and this population had amazing yellow-golden stripes, especially in the fins. The third, Oreochromis cf. niloticus (above) looked similar to the described species from the Nile, but all populations I collected throughout Africa were not as colourful as this…
This high-altitude site was my most successful collecting site so far, offering some very interesting fishes. The water parameters at 9am were pH 7.36, conductivity 50 µ/cm and water temperature 26°C/79°F.
The river was filled with reddish lava stones and on these grew amazing fern-like underwater plants, together with rock-plates.
Heiko's other biotopes in this series are:
Biotopes of Goa and Karnataka, India
Heiko Bleher finds amazing fish in an Indian creek just hours before it is due to become part of a dam complex.
I had just given two lectures at the INDAQUARIA exhibition in southern India and had a little free time which my partner Natasha and I best used to visit the Seethalam Falls in Ubbalamadugu, Andhra Pradesh, south of Chennai. It was to be a case of just in time!
I had just three quarters of a day, as our flight out was the next evening, but I wanted to visit these falls as I always seemed to find interesting fishes near or at waterfalls around the globe.
During my talks at INDAQUARIA a breeder offered to guide and drive us there. We left next day at 5am and four hours later reached the dirt road leading to a distant mountain area and the falls.
After some 12km/7.5 miles we saw large movements of trucks and caterpillars turning masses of earth and starting to build a dam there – all for a small creek coming down from Seethalam Falls…
One arm of the creek was still undisturbed, about 4-5m/13-16’ wide, and had a clear water flow over rocks, stones and gravel. Along the edges, where the flow was slow, the rocks were covered with green algae but showed a variety of fish and one submerse Potamogeton species.
The other side had already been cut away from the main stream. Only algae-covered pools remained, with very few fish. There were already dead ones in some, like Macrognathus armatus.
Further up I found a pool where we spotted a pair of trapped Etroplus maculatus and the female was guiding around at least 100 or more babies. The guarding male had a fascinating colour pattern, but there was no other fish.
I walked the undisturbed upriver part of the creek, searching for every living species. In the fast flowing part, over seemingly endless rocks, I saw a beautiful bright yellow Labeo, and, after lifting aufwuchs-covered rocks, chased one of these beauties into my hand net.
Where grass and trees hung over the right-hand edge of the creek and the water flow was slow I saw Aplocheilus in groups of two and three, sometimes more. Being very good swimmers they have adapted to survive and escape rapidly from any intruder or possible predator, particularly birds.
However, after chasing them all over the place, I took a few in my net and discovered two different species living together: A. blockii and A. kirchmayeri – the latter with red lips…
I also found a beautiful Puntius in the slow-flowing habitat and shallow area, between hanging-in grasses. It was definitely not a young P. filamentosus, because I counted scales and fin rays and still cannot place it. However, it is a jewel with its yellow body colour, four broad black bands and red dorsal fin.
The P. cf. filamentosus was also very nice and I got larger specimens in deeper water. I found another unidentified Puntius living sympatric with the latter. It is a larger species, grows to 8-9cm/3.1-3.5”, has a golden body and very large black roundish spot in the caudal peduncle. A few scales below the dorsal fin in mid-body are ornamented with black spots, forming short, two or three horizontal rows.
I also found the similar looking P. vittatus in the same habitat. Here it was extreme yellowish as well, with an even more pronounced yellow tail, dorsal and head region, but this fish stays small, hardly reaching 5cm/2”. It also has a tiny small round spot in the caudal peduncle.
A magnificent P. bimaculatus was another barb found in the shallow habitat. Near the edges was a male with a bright red stripe from the eye into the tail and two almost square spots: one in the caudal peduncle and the other in the lower centre of the dorsal fin.
Finding five Puntius species in such a small habitat was amazing. They were living with Devario cf. malabaricus – a high form – and a Salmophasia species with extremely large eyes.
Unfortunately, the latter are rarely found in the hobby, although more than ten species have been recognised in the genus from India.
Salmophasia species may not have bright colours, but is a peculiar elongated shape with gigantic bright yellow eyes. It’s a very active group fish, along with the Devario species. Together they form an interesting shoal for any medium-sized aquarium.
I also found a very colourful Rasbora daniconius population living in smaller groups. The latter was the typical species with a bright golden stripe from the gills to the tail.
The fifteenth species I found was Macrognathus armatus, but it seemed most of this species had already died as I located only a single specimen and that was in pretty bad shape.
I took water parameters at 9.30am and pH was 6.72, conductivity 92 µSiemens/cm and temperature 26.2°C/79.2’F.
This creek of the waterfall’s drainage seemed undisturbed — until the diggers started to turn over the earth and divert part of it to build the dam. We had to move out, because the trucks were pouring in large stones, inhibiting the future flow of the creek.
Later that day everything was to be destroyed and these fish became history.
Jeremy Gay creates a natural river biotope with all the ingredients from just one country. He explains how in this step-by-step guide.
What springs to mind when someone talks about an Asian biotope? Gouramis, rasboras, loaches? Unfortunately, and as with the Amazon, the term Asian biotope can become a bit clichéd, whereby a load of fish and plants from a very large area are placed together in the same tank.
Well not any more, as, thanks to exporters, specialist importers and the Internet, we can now be much more specific about our biotopes.
Start with fish
You can set up by starting with the fish, instead of the other way round. That way you can select the fish you want, quarantine and condition them and build the biotope around them.
This Taiwanese biotope came about from the sudden availability of the Rosy bitterling (Rhodeus ocellatus ocellatus) last year. We instantly took a shine to them and were soon researching and collecting other species from Taiwan — including gobies, shrimp, snails and even plants.
Avoid a 'catch all'
Even when you have researched all the possibilities and found the suppliers of your chosen fish, next sub-divide them into suitable habitats.
For example, most Taiwanese gobies available are amphidromous species, meaning their larvae are washed out to sea to develop. Adults then make journeys into fast-flowing freshwater rivers to breed again.
Yet the bitterling, the subject of this biotope, are known to inhabit quieter waters further inland.
The decision was therefore made not to include most of the gobies, as only a very large aquarium could include suitably fast and slow water in the same tank. However, a goby-only habitat could be great too!
In addition, when it comes to aquascaping and stocking, less is more. By using few species, but a decent number of each, you can provide a more natural display.
What Asian biotope would be complete without all the great little invertebrates now common in the hobby?
What’s more, the two species selected will also do a great job cleaning up the tank.
Few shrimp are more widespread in the hobby than the now famed algae eating Caridina multidentata and, great for us and our theme, they come from Taiwan, among other countries.
We have also included an interesting little Nerite snail called Clithon sowerbyana. They will be perfect for the biotope we created.
We long-term tested them with Vallisneria too and found that they either don’t eat the plants, or, if they do, at a rate slower than which the vallis regrows.
Creating a theme
Every biotope needs a theme and this can be replicated in décor. Bitterlings are well known for their unusual method of reproduction involving mussels and Rosy bitterlings are no different.
Unfortunately live mussels don’t last long in aquaria as they starve, so we included some shells of Swan mussels that died in an outside pond years ago.
Collate your research and you’ll be able to collect décor accordingly.
We tried to replicate a river scene so collected several types of inert substrate to make up the bed and round pebbles and twigs to replicate the bank.
From reading up, and from our own keeping, we soon recognised that the bitterling are a shy species that inhabit the shady, slack water close to the riverbank. They also preferred to live among plants.
We therefore endeavoured to create a bank effect, sloping the substrate towards a rear corner and graduating the grade of the substrate particle size from very large pebbles (the pretend fast flowing part) through pea gravel, grit, to fine sand (the bank.)
The effect seemed to work and also provided a deep bed for planting the vallis. Then, by providing what we thought was suitable habitat, the bitterling soon became riverbank residents, spending most of the time in our shady bank section.
The amorous males made occasional forays to show off their beautiful colours in the open water.
Is a Taiwanese biotope for you?
Although subtly coloured, our Taiwanese biotope has received great comments from onlookers in and outside the hobby.
Everyone likes a natural biotope and once the vallis grows in more it should look fairly representative of a natural stream. We didn’t seek to over beautify it or create too much need for maintenance and we definitely achieved that with the vallis growing merrily without any special planting care. It was quick and easy to set up too.
This set-up is also, strictly speaking, temperate, as the livestock naturally inhabit temperatures between 18-24°C/64-75°F. With the average room temperature being around 19°C/66°F, you shouldn’t even need a heater, so this type of biotope saves energy too. Fish plus natural habitat equals happy fish and happy fishkeeper!
Common name: Rosy bitterling
Scientific name: Rhodeus ocellatus ocellatus
Origin: China, Taiwan
Size: Up to 7cm/2.8”
Tank size: 75cm/30” upwards
Water parameters: Temperature 18-24°C/64-75°F, pH 7-8
Notes: A really nice little bitterling that you can legally keep in the UK without a licence. Males become colourful, sporting iridescent blue and turquoise over a red and silver body.
They are shy and nervous fish so keep in a group.
Price: Around £7.50 each.
Common name: Giurinus
Scientific name: Rhinogobius giurinus
Origin: China, Korean Peninsula, Taiwan and Japan
Tank size: 75cm/30”
Water parameters: Temperature 18-24°C/64-75°F, pH 7-8
Notes: An amphidromous fish, coming from the sea to breed in freshwater and so suited to freshwater, brackish and marine tanks. We long-term tested ours in freshwater to check suitability for this set-up. Males have a bigger head and larger dorsal fin.
Price: Around £5 each.
Common names: Algae eating shrimp, Amano shrimp
Scientific name: Caridina multidentata
Origin: Japan, Korea and Taiwan
Tank size: 30cm/12” upwards
Water parameters: Temperature 18-27°C/64-81°0F, pH 6-8
Notes: The world’s most popular freshwater aquarium shrimp. Their larvae are thought to be washed downstream into the sea to develop, so although large females may release eggs in your aquarium, they won’t develop without special care.
Price: Around £2.50 each.
Common name: Bumblebee snail
Scientific name: Clithon sowerbianus
Origin: Taiwan and neighbouring countries.
Tank size: 30cm/12” upwards
Water parameters: Temperature 18-24°C/64-75°F, pH 7-8.5
Notes: When you buy these snails, ensure they are stuck to something in the shop. Place them straight onto a rock when you get them home. Snails that are upside-down are dead or dying.
Price: Around £2.50 each.
Common name: Straight vallis
Scientific name: Vallisneria spiralis
Origin: Asia, including Taiwan
Size: Over 60cm/24” tall
Tank size: 75cm/30” upwards
Water parameters: Temperature 18-24°C/64-75°F, pH 7-8.5
Notes: Vallisneria needs hard water to thrive and can grow quite happily without fertilisers or CO2. Its scientific name is confusing — the flower spikes are spiralled, not the leaves. The classic underwater grass, Vallisneria is widely available and always sets the scene.
Price: Around £1.50 per bunch
How to set up your Taiwanese biotope tank
1. Choosing a big tank
Our tank is 80 x 45 x 45cm/32 x 18 x 18” — large enough for a group of bitterlings and nice and wide for aquascaping. We used a black background and fitted the external filter pipes and heater discretely in the rear corner.
2. Adding the pebbles
To replicate the main river channel we placed some large pebbles in one of the front corners. The pebbles are inert and will give the illusion of a riverbed. Smaller pebbles are placed behind them, graduating into smaller gravel.
3. Adding the gravel
Pea gravel is next in as it suits the look we want, being clean and rounded. We wash it then place a layer across the bottom of the tank. We then place some more pea gravel in a band going towards the rear corner.
4. Adding some grit
Smaller in size than pea gravel, some grit is next. The idea is that the grain size should be getting smaller and we are raising height to start to create our riverbank effect. Again make sure everything is pre-washed and inert.
5. Getting a banking effect
Another layer of the grit goes down and this time you can see developing the banking effect that we are trying to achieve. Place it further to the side than the last lot and deeper still to create a mound.
6. Adding fine sand
Fine sand is our last layer. In nature mud would go down after that, though in an aquarium this is not practical. Again bank it up in height and push the mound further into the corner so it rises up several inches.
7. Adding the plants
Vallisneria is the only plant we are using in this biotope and the tank needs to be at least half filled with water to hold up the vallis for planting. To avoid shock to the plants, bring the water to room temperature and dechlorinate first.
8. Separating the bunches
Vallisneria usually comes to us in bunches, wrapped and weighted down with a strip of metal. Best for the plant and to create best value for money, separate individual plants from the bunch, space them out and push them into the substrate using your hand or tweezers.
9. Adding bogwood branches
To further accentuate our effect we inserted thin bogwood branches into the banked-up substrate. We obtained these after purchasing a spindly piece of bogwood and snapping the thinnest bits off. Stick them into the sand to replicate tree roots and submerged branches.
10. Adding empty shells
To add to the bitterling theme we utilise our empty Swan mussel shells. Genuine Taiwanese mussels are available but destined to fare badly, so we used artistic licence and used Swan mussels instead. Bitterling and mussels are the perfect accompaniment.
To create shade and replicate overhanging branches we take another piece of spindly bogwood and place it inverted in the rear corner of the set-up with the vallis. We simply hook one of the branches onto the tank rim to secure it in place.
Plug in the heater and filter, and mature the tank before adding the fish. Set the heater to low, so it only comes on in cold periods. Set the lighting to come on for ten hours per day and remove any dead Vallisneria leaves from the aquarium.
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The Indian authorities allowed Heiko Bleher only a brief glimpse of Nagaland, but it was enough to find treasures in a place of secrecy and slaughter.
The border police at Nagaland were adamant. We hadn’t permission to enter this hilly north-eastern state in India. It’s off limits to all tourists — and explorers.
In my latest search for new fishes I had been given telephone confirmation by an ichthyologist at Guwahati University at Assam, and official documentation, our party was assured, would await us at the gate to Nagaland.
We had driven across the states of Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur and now had to wait days sitting at a police station for bureaucracy to take its painfully slow course.
Nagaland is so remote that only at the Ministry of Home Affairs at New Delhi or through the Indian Embassy High Commission can permits be obtained. It’s also a restricted area and I had been trying for years to get in there to explore it.
Until the mid 1950s there were no roads, schools, shops or administrative centres and literacy was practically nil. This was only designated a state of India on December 1, 1963, and it remains the smallest and most secretive.
We needed photocopies of our passports and passport photos, so made digital copies, transferred them to our laptop, burned a CD and had them printed, sending them to admin headquarters in the capital city of Kohima.
We slept in a guarded hotel and waited at Dimapur police station for a response. After two days we finally got the all clear.
Stopping at several Nagaland checkpoints and military controls we manoeuvred around several trucks which had turned over on this winding, mountainous road. We also drove past burning forests to finally reached the capital city of Kohima in early morning.
This settlement is almost 1,700m/5,580’ above sea level and, being head hunters, the Nagas chose to live where they could easily spot any enemies, so all the houses here and the rest of Nagaland are built on hilltops.
Police Chief Secretary Shri Zanbemo Lothaips granted us only a two and half day stay here, dictating that it was enough to where I wanted to go. It wasn’t worth the protest — and better than nothing.
I wanted to research the riverbeds flowing east into Myanmar, as I knew no one else had collected extensively there before, but the problem was finding the only road to get there.
Our driver got lost and went wrong. I made him return to Kohima and luckily found a man who told us to follow him as he rode his bike. He led us across ups and downs for at least one hour into a valley and the only track leading north, a meandering dirt road. From here on in, if we arrived at any bridge it had collapsed — not through being washed away as there was no water to cause it.
The Sidzi river was more a creek, very stony and quite fast running and I hoped to find interesting fishes there, until I saw a couple of large but dead cyprinids of the genus Tor. The Naga had poisoned the entire river to catch fish to eat just days before and killed practically everything in there in the process.
I find this problem almost all the tropical and sub-tropical world over, mainly in so-called third world countries. Populations are growing so quickly and people know which root or liana (woody vine) they can use to kill all the fishes — and do so when hungry.
In a waterway hardly 50cm/20” wide and running parallel to this poisoned creek I found many aquatic plants — Bacopa, Myriophyllum and Potamogeton species — and one single Garra lissorhynchus (pictured above). It was a beauty with an extremely large flat mouth structure with two short, red pairs of barbels and its pectoral, pelvic and anal fins were a reddish gold.
It was a perfect algae-eating fish, busily cleaning all the rocks.
Our driver was by now reluctant to tackle any more remote and steep, winding dirt roads, but continued after heeding our threats to leave him there!
Our destination was Meluri, again a settlement on top of a hill, and an innkeeper’s family there confirmed that all 26 villages of the former headhunters were sited nearby. The son explained that a festival of worship for a good harvest was imminent and the once-feared hunters joined in.
He also explained that he knew of a nearby river that could interest me and he could lead me there.
We drove some 30km/19 miles downhill from about 1,500 to 550m (4,920-1,800’) above sea level into a valley with rice plantations. From here we walked some two hours to reached the tributary of the Tizii river.
I was after the main river because it flows into the Chindwin valley and river in Myanmar, so I fIgured there must be a different aquatic fauna simply because all other rivers in Nagaland drain to the Brahmaputra valley.
However, in this tributary I was only able to find one nice Nemacheilus loach species with striking colours and which has still not been identified. It looked to me though that this river had also been recently poisoned.
We walked along the river into the bed of the Tizii and then had to cross a woven hanging bridge, which looked particularly dangerous but proved otherwise. This type of bridge has been used for thousands of years and I can still find them in Central Asia, many parts of Central Africa and also South America — all made to a style the same the world over.
The Tizii river was cold at 17.5°C/63.6°F, pH 8.2 and conductivity 360 µS/cm, and so high because of limestone everywhere. My partner Natasha was holding the other end of the seine from the shore but I was in open water so deep I couldn’t stand on this stony habitat.
Nevertheless, I netted some Barilius species and juvenile Labeo with Lernea anchor worms attached to their head.
Then, in the crevices of rocks overgrown with green algae, I caught two Danio species, of which one should be D. rerio, but the second was a beautiful fish with striking golden stripes and an amazing pattern in the anal fin. I had never seen one like this before and I’m convinced it must be a new species. For the time being it is Danio sp. aff. rerio (pictured above).
On the bottom there was a very interesting loach, silver with jet-black markings and certainly Schistura prashari. I don’t think this species had been collected alive before.
I thought there must be yet more fish in this cold, clear water and walked with my hand net downriver towards Myanmar to find rocks all over the place and plenty of algae.
Over the fast flowing rocky and shallow areas were many loaches, again different from the one collected in the tributary. My Nemacheilus species, numbered five, was also in the net.
Then, finally came the second beauty of this Nagaland expedition. I found below overhanging bushes and along the river’s edge some beautiful Puntius, especially the males. The specimens were later sent to Sven O. Kullander in Sweden who, with his late wife, had worked extensively on fishes of Myanmar and he says he believes it to be P. meingangbii.
This fish was described by Arunkumar and Tombi Singh in 2003 from the Yu river drainage in the Manipuri state of India. My location was very much further south, but also a river with drainage to the Myanmar.
In any case the fish has already reproduced and should be another joyful addition to the hobby.
Despite the incredibly short time I was allowed to stay in this relatively unexplored region of India I was able to discover some true beauties. I will be back — permits permitting!
Skull collecting ensured fertility
Nagaland lies in a narrow strip of mountainous territory between the Brahmaputra valley and Myanmar where, until the 1990s, head hunting of enemies was well practised.
The Nagas tribespeople needed human skulls, because they believed that only by possessing them could they guarantee the fertility of the fields and the people.
Their origins are said to be Indo-Mongoloid — though the womens’ features seemed more like those of the Quechua tribe I’ve seen from the South American Andes.
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Heiko Bleherâ€™s search for Iranocichla in Iran revealed a cichlid barely surviving heavily salted waters and intense heat.
Even getting into Iran was difficult — and proved a prelude to the extreme conditions we and its fish were expected to face in this sun-scorched country.
The Iranian Consulate in Milan claimed we needed a contact number from the Ministry of the Interior’s website and only then could we apply for a visa. This would will normally take 14 days, but the website was currently ‘under construction’…
A friend unsuccessfully tried to get the visas for us in his own city, then drove 600 km/370 miles to Tehran to try his luck there. Twenty four hours before our departure, he called to say we could get them on landing at Tehran airport.
We arrived in the early morning to find immigration closed as the airport officials pray at least four times each day. We finally found one who had finished and our friend Behnam welcomed us, together with Ramtin, the largest fish breeder from Tehran’s sister town of Karaj.
Ramtin’s breeding establishment was breathtaking, as I was to discover later. His father had designed large vats and hundreds of aquariums built in four sections, each run by a gigantic filter. Every fish looked healthy and happy
The system never needs a change of water, only topping up after any evaporation, and it has been running efficently non-stop for ten years, according to Ramtin.
The journey south was long but the four-lane highway was in excellent condition. That evening we reached Esfahan, one of the oldest and most beautiful of Iranian cities.
Behnam showed us around, but I was keen to start researching in the Esfahan region for the killifish Aphanius isfahanensis. It was only described in 2006 by Hrbek, Keivany and Coad, but I had not seen a picture of it anywhere.
Behnam showed me the type locality, the Zayandeh Rud (Zayandeh river) at Varzaneh bridge, which is redundant now as the riverbed is completely dry! There’s a dam in its upper reaches, as the little water it gets during a few days in spring is urgently needed by local people.
Before the river became completely dry engineers pumped some water into the only mountain at Esfahan’s southern region to a park. They also incorporated a circulating spring water channel, some 50m/165’ long, and when completed some Aphanius appeared — a tiny population still surviving.
First we found only Gambusia in the channel, but then discovered a few Aphanius in deeper water. It was A.isfahanensis (above) possibly one of the last survivors.
Most easterly cichlid
The following day we travelled south-west, as I wanted to search for several Aphanius species and the most easterly of all cichlids on earth, the endemic Iranocichla hormuzensis. We drove along desert with mountains on both sides, but no trace of vegetation. We crossed riverbeds which hadn’t seen water for decades.
Behnam had told us about a beautiful waterfall in Semiron, which should have fishes — but no one was certain.
Hours later we find it outside a village which even had an aquarium shop which was selling Parrot cichlids and goldfish.
We were 2,000m/6,560’ above sea level and the waterfall was hidden in a small canyon. Just a few drops of water were falling and there were no fish.
Later we reached a sign directing us to a nomadic settlement at Ab Malakh (meaning fall, like waterfall) and the creek had crystal clear water. It looked very remote and almost untouched.
I found several cyprinids, including a nice golden and black striped Alburnus, probably
A. mossulensis. Juveniles were swimming along the shore, while the larger ones, at nearly 20cm/8” TL, were only in the fast running water.
Also along the shore, among some aquatic Potamogeton plants, was an excellent Barbus-like fish with golden body colour and black blotches, probably Capoeta aculeata, which could be ideal in smaller groups for aquaria.
In the open running water we also collected a cyprinid with yellowish body and yellow fins, a large Chondrostoma cryi (above).
Along the sandy bottom, in between larger rocks, was a fish which I first thought was a real Barbus with its two pairs of barbels. Yet when my partner Natasha photographed it I realised it had to be a Schizothorax, later discovering it was S. zarudnyi.
I also netted a really small and beautiful frog along the shore.
I walked for about one kilometre downriver and came to the waterfall Ab Malakh. From the top of the mountain the cold water tumbled over massive rocks into the creek. I fished everywhere underneath and round it, but found no sign of fish.
This place was pleasant and the water refreshing; the temperature was only 17.8°C/64°F, conductivity 19 µS/cm and pH 8.0 at noon.
We drove back to the highway continuing south, crossing mountains left and right and after an hour we crossed a bridge with a larger river flowing below. I found one large predator, Aspius vorax, in open water at nearly 1.5m/5’.
Along the shore, below overhanging bushes and in muddy and stony ground, I found the sub-species of Capoeta barriosi named mandica, and an unidentified Garra. Surely there are more species of Garra still to be named in Iran! The water was 19°C/66°F while the air was 30°C/86°F.
Behnam wanted to find trout at a farm off the main highway in a mountainous region where water was falling and ideal for aquaculture. Next to it was a creek with many aquatic plants, which I believe were dark green Myriophyllum of a species I had never seen before and a light green Samolus species with some red veins in the leaves.
It was a pleasant but small habitat, with a rocky bottom, sand and many fishes, but Behnam took only a single species, probably Alburnus filippii.
South of the city of Shiraz I knew of a creek where a dam had been built and wanted to see if it still held water and fishes. We discovered hardly any water there and the creek, called Mond river, was just a few centimetres deep.
The biotope below was full of rocks and algae was everywhere, often in thick layers. In what little water managed to flow I found a few surviving fishes and some Cyperus species.
I caught one beautiful Cyprinion tenuiradius, probably never seen alive before, and this could become a biotope aquarium.
However, another beauty, Garra persica, caught my eye. I had never seen one alive before and only previously witnessed such a colourful Garra when collecting on the other side of Gulf in the Emirates in 2009.
We were lower now, only 1,345m/4,400’ above sea level and water temperature was 26.4°C/79.5°F at 11.30 hours.
The air temperature measured 38°C/100°F. conductivity was 264 µS/cm and pH 8.0.
From here we drove to Lãr, Iran’s hottest city, where it's claimed the temperature hardly drops below 40°C/104°F, but we were to find hotter locations...
Brian Coad, the Canadian ichthyologist and expert on Iranian fishes, and who also described Iranocichla, recorded 22 sites for this cichlid. I wanted to see them all and perhaps find a new one. The first was south-west and the river was said to lie between Hormud and Tangdãlãn, but there was no longer a riverbed, only a lake with desert on both sides.
Here at 625m/2,000’ above sea level in very salty water, among millions of Potamogeton plants, I walked along the salt-accumulated shore, seeing many dead fishes — first Iranocichla and then Aphanius.
It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience to go breast deep into this saltwater and try to bring my seine ashore with tons of aquatic vegetation in it. Somehow I managed it and there was plenty of Apanius (above) possibly a new species. It looked like A. ginaonis at the time, but I found that species later at its type locality and it looked very different.
The Irancichla here also looked different from what Coad has published, and had less red. I gave this Iranocichla hormuzensis population the title of number one, as I found three different ones.
Of the 22 sites registered as to where they occur, only two had water remaining...
There was no other fish species, as they probably cannot survive these conditions. I wonder for how much longer these can live in increasingly salted conditions. Water temperature at 16.00 hours was measured at 35.6°C/97°F, conductivity 6650 µS/cm and pH 7.6.
I had no oxygen with me so most of the 20 collected specimens died from heat exhaustion on the journey to the Strait of the Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. We could hardly breathe in this the most intense heat I had yet encountered.
The thermometer read more than 55°C/131°F — and that was in late evening!
I researched the entire area of the Strait of Hormuz and it was most depressing as most of the locations recorded for Iranocichla had been dry for a long time.
However, I had found variants on this my most recent trip; the two possibly new Aphanius species and the one described form here. I was able to get examples of the two of the three populations back and hopefully we will be able to breed them.
In its natural habitat this beautiful and very unique cichlid (above) is surely at the very brink of extinction. Global warming is taking a toll far greater and far more rapidly than many believe.
Heiko's other biotopes in this series are:
Biotopes of Goa and Karnataka, India
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Heiko Bleher visits India in search of new fish. His expedition takes him to Goa and Karnataka where he discovers survival against the most formidable odds.
Goa was to surprise me. I have regularly fished in shallow waters. But there is shallow and Goa shallow! I even discovered creatures in mud that was drying so quickly that it offered only the last drops of moisture of an emptying creek.
The smallest Indian state, almost in the centre of the Western Ghats, Goa has 1.5 million inhabitants and we appeared to be mingling with most of them at the famous fish market at Panji. There were baby sharks and barracudas as well as stingrays of the genus Dasyatis which enter Mormugao Bay and live in freshwater habitats.
Yet there were no noticeable freshwater fish, so I wanted to visit some local aquarium shops, hoping to see some native species. However, they only sold Koi, goldfish, angelfishes, Pangasius catfishes, guppies, swordtails, arowanas and other exotics.
En route to Ponda I wanted to research in the Khandepa river which is a tributary of the Mandovi, but it was almost completely fenced off. The only access was through a private property and a Hindu temple guardian gave us permission to go through. Along the sandy riverbank I caught for the first time Mystus oculatus, a very nice catfish which looks like a South American pimelodid.
Then came a colourful Puntius vittatus (above), which is rarely found in the hobby, and the gudgeon, Eleotris fusca, found almost throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
While my partner Natasha was taking photographs on the balcony of the temple two software engineers approached. One said he knew where we could find "some interesting fishes" and he escorted us there on his motorcycle.
At the edge of a forest we walked to a small, stagnant creek which, he explained, practically dries up at this time of the year. I doubted finding any fish, but ventured in with my hand net and sunk to my waist in mud.
I lifted the load, looked in the mess and, amazingly, there were quite a few. The engineer said he knew where to wash them and gave me a lift to a tap at a nearby village — and I realised I had some interesting specimens.
I had a beautiful dwarf snakehead showing similarity with Channa punctata, then a loach (Lepidocephalus gunthea), two killis, (Aplocheilus lineatus) and A. kirschmayeri (pictured above) living sympatric, a labyrinth fish (Pseudosphromenus cupanus) in amazing reddish colours, again Puntius vittatus and possibly Rasbora daniconius, but with a different mouth shape.
It seems all of these hardy souls can survive in the mud and without water for a month!
In the Belgaum district I wanted to follow a small road leading south and research in this remote part of Karnataka, but people were everywhere. We had reached 1,000m/3,280’ above sea level and my first destination was a lake near a village called Kaspar Nandgad. Along the shore in early morning and next to a tiny pink Hindu temple three women were already washing cloth and a tractor was out collecting some of what water was left in there.
I tried my luck among many white flowering water lilies and Nymphoides aquatica with its typical 'Banana plants'. I had collected many of these in Florida and made pocket money from them in the 1960s…
There was a striking red Parosphromenus cupanus in the net and an orange Puntius sophore, with its remarkable red gill plate spot, and Rasbora aff. wilpita with a very large mouth structure, and I had my first Puntius bimaculatus — the real one — in the net.
I found another dwarf snakehead, possibly new, with no pelvic fin and two remarkable red spots on its gill plate, and also a very strange small Danio. It looked somewhat like D. rerio, but its base colour was yellow, not blue, and it had only two golden stripes running from the gill plate into the caudal fin.
Another exciting find was a loach along the drying muddy shore. It had a remarkable pattern and could be a variant of Lepidocephalus thermalis (pictured above) found from India to Sri Lanka, and a transparent, light greenish Caridina shrimp. This lake would dry up in the next couple of weeks and the fishes will either survive in the mud or be eaten by herons.
Near the large Haligri Dam the road crossed a small creek, which seem to flow into the dam. While I walked this stony, slow flowing turbid creek two guys came along and insisted on catching fishes for me. They took a few each of Devario aequipinnatus, Nemacheilus denisonii, Rasbora aff. Daniconius.
I looked along the edges and came up with a few firsts of this trip, like Puntius melanostigma. For the first time I also had P. pookodensis — probably never seen alive before — and again a P. bimaculatus population.
Again I was amazed to find so many different species in such a small body of water. Of those that survive, do they only live one year in nature? One typical example is the Cardinal tetra, or almost every Apistogramma species.
However on our next stop at Lake Hatiri, which belongs to the Kalinadi basin, I did not find a single fish. Was it too late? Was the water already too polluted from all the rubbish dumped in it?
The Tattihalla river was our next destination. It is a clear, 10m/33’ wide slow flowing tributary of the Kalinadi and my collecting spot was near the Tatwal village in the Uttara Kannada district. There were lots of trees along the river’s edges. With my large seine and Natasha helping from along the shore I caught some Esomus barbatus and an unidentified Rasbora species living in mimicry. I also had the true Lepidocephalus thermalis and again Puntius bimaculatus.
I asked my driver to head for the Magod waterfall region and discovered how different the aquatic fauna was above the falls. Unfortunately the almost 200m/ 650’ drop had hardly any water and to reach the lower of two portions would have taken a full day’s journey.
So I researched the upper part and in a small tributary supplying very little water found a beautiful colour variant of Danio rerio and again loaches.
Along its edge grew swamp plants; a Typha species and also an Araceae which looked like the large Anubias lanceolata from Africa.
Below is the Bedti river supplied with the water from the Magod falls. The bottom and edges were of gigantic stone plates and in some cracks there was gravel. In those I was able, with one of my hand nets, to fetch some Devario malabaricus which seem to lay their eggs in the cracks.
I found another Rasbora daniconius variant and large quantities of Garra mullya (above) grazing these plates by continuously scraping algae. Then, in one hole with a sandy ground I saw my third dwarf snakehead in Karnataka which, when I finally caught it, looked like Channa orientalis but had a very soft orange coloured edge around its caudal fin.
The city of Shimoga is well known for many attractions and one is the 253m/ 830’ falls, but again this had very little water dripping down – another legacy of the dry season.
The following day we drove south-east to Panji lake near Tarikere Tuluk. We crossed the bridge over an almost completely dry Tungabhadra river which flowed from a large reservoir in the north of the same name. There was hardly any flow of water, but the riverbed was several hundred metres wide.
The lake was outside Tarikere and also drying fast. Actually we were lucky, as one to two weeks later I would not have been able to find any fishes in most of my collecting spots. The water level was hardly 10cm/4” and in most parts less. Right in the middle though were four guys with a big sack and I wondered what they were doing among millions of Potamogeton plants with floating leaves.
With their bare hands they were catching Labeo rohita up to 50cm/20in in TL with red eyes. These guys had a feast because it was so easy to catch them in these shallows. The only other living fish I was able to find was Aplocheilus kirschmayeri.
I knew of another lake a few kilometres further south and there was lucky to catch my first Devario fraseri. It was a beauty with bright yellow fins and golden stripes along its side, and does not grow as large as D. malabaricus. It also has a different head shape. It is a group fish and should never be kept in singles or twos.
I found only one loach species there — the less colourful Nemacheilus anguilla.
My third lake in this area was the Sauarenikaryl. It was larger then the previous ones, dammed and covered by species of the genera Myriophyllum, Potamogeton, Nymphaea and Lotus and there were lots of fishes.
The locals had already collected many to eat and to sell, including snakeheads, barbs, gobiids and very large Labeo rohita and Catla catla. One of the latter was more than 10 kg/27 lb.
Here I was able to catch the true Channa striata, which is bright yellow, even golden, along its belly and almost black in upper body. I also found what could be Puntius fraseri, a handsome cyprinid never before seen alive — at least in no publication or aquarium.
It has an emerald green upper body and shiny golden humeral spot in the centre of its rear body just below the end of its dorsal lobe. Immediately connected was a very large bright emerald green spot which narrows from a triangle into the caudal peduncle. I had never seen such a Puntius before.
I wanted to check as many lakes as possible and there was one more, the Arsinikare in Karnataka. It was near the village of Piriyapatna in the Mysore district. When it has enough water it drains into the Kaveri river basin, but we had arrived a few days too late.
The herons had already moved in and on, and there was hardly any water. However, millions of Certophyllum demersum, Lagarosiphon and Najas species, Lotus and Nymphaea, were everywhere, covered with a very large growing Salvinia species.
After a struggle in the mud I took a single Puntius in my net and one looking similar to P. vittatus.
My last destination was up in the Ghats at 1,400m/4,600’ near Madikeri. I knew from my research that there was a rainforest lodge ahead and higher still a small unexplored creek.
The lodge was in a secondary forest with some medium-sized trees. It was refreshing and not hot at all. However, I suddenly felt sick and thought another malaria attack was imminent. Perhaps I was exhausted, visiting 24 collecting spots in five days.
I covered myself with all the blankets available, but was determined to fish the creek I had travelled so far to reach. I took a flashlight and hand net to this crystal clear, fast flowing but shallow waterbed.
The water was intensely cold and the further I walked the colder it became. Yet it was cooling my fever and with every new discovery I thought about it less.
This was the most virgin location of my entire trip. It was a fantastic biotope full of gravel, sand and round stones, most of them covered with moss or algae. Forest vegetation covered the shore of the creek.
Where the water flowed fast I found a new Travancoria species looking from a distance like T. jonesi, but the latter is only known from Pampadampara, Peerumedu Taluq, in Kerala, and far south from here. It has a different morphology and only two species are described. The second one is T. elongata, which lives endemic in the Chalakkudy river.
In the slower running parts I found a new Devario (sp. 1). This one had never been collected, nor seen before, and the other beauty was a Nemacheilus nilgiriensis, a very red loach. Then again there was a Danio rerio population.
This unique biotope, called the Kaluarili creek, is a source of the Kaveri systems, and had the following springtime parameters: water temperature 18.5°C/65.3°F, conductivity just below 30 µS/cm and oxygen 5.95 m/l.
In most parts of this region water temperatures fall to 15°C/59°F, especially in winter in higher regions of the Western Ghats, and rise to 27-30°C/81-86°F in summer, mainly in lowland waterways.
Higher up it rarely reaches above 25°C/77°F. The pH was in most places above 7 and the conductivity everywhere I collected between 100- 300 µS/cm.
Two dozen women were washing cloth in the Kauveri river while I was looking between the rocks for fish and two came over to watch me in my search.
They then jumped in and used their dresses as hand nets, catching a beautiful loach in no time in between hundreds of large stones. They had caught the first Nemacheilus guentheri of my trip!
They also snared a magnificent Garra species and it could prove be the subspecies G. gotyla stenorhynchus. It had an orange spot below its dorsal and a large emerald green spot on the gill plate. The lips were bright blue, as was the base of its pectoral fins. The upper and lower tail lobe was orange-red.
Check out Heiko's other biotopes in this series:
Jeremy Gay continues his expedition of Sri Lanka, where things just get better and better...
Our rainforest stream expedition took us to Boralugoda and we met our guide Shantha Jayaweera, president of the Organisation for Aquatic Resource Management (OARM).
Shantha knew this area like the back of his hand and had also been involved in conservation work, planting some 30,000 trees to restore the natural habitat.
He explained that the area we would be exploring had the highest freshwater fish diversity in all Sri Lanka, but it had also been at risk from human activity, including sand mining for construction in the main river and deforestation which affected the streams.
The Sri Lankan government had previously given the land to the people for farming, but, aware of potential biodiversity loss, OARM recorded the many species there and advised the government of potential damage.
They cited sand minding and farming, as deforestation caused soil erosion. Even tractor tracks acted as slipways for soil-laden water to run straight into what should be clear water streams and important habitats.
Deforestation was stopped, and Shantha and OARM have been working in the area ever since.
Pool of surprises
After meeting some locals at the OARM office on the first day of this expedition, we made for the hills. Our vehicle was a Tuc Tuc and we wondered whether it would cope on some pretty steep dirt tracks.
We pulled over next to a stream which ran down a heavily vegetated gully by the roadside. Looking down through trees and ferns we could see a pool, about 2.4m/8’ round and fed by a tiny stream. This, said Shantha, was the habitat of Cherry barbs.
As we descended to the stream (pictured above) I could see that the pool was man made, or man modified, for bathing. A large rounded stone stood at one side, with traces of soap suds on top, and the pool had been dammed at one end with sacking to maintain a depth of some 30cm/12”.
Someone was using the spot for bathing and washing clothes, though, when they weren’t around, the fish used the pool too!
We set to work with four hand nets and were soon catching fish: Giant danios, Devario malabaricus, beautifully coloured Combtail paradise fish (pictured above) and, from the corner of the pool, Cherry barbs. I was happy indeed!
As we netted some of the barbs one crimson male continued about his business, toing and froing from behind a large stone, displaying to females and subordinate males. Yet this pool was wider and deeper than normal and the stream proper was just inches deep and two to three feet wide. It was so shallow that many rounded stones and pebbles in the stream bed were sticking out of the water.
You wouldn’t find fish that small in UK hill streams. They wouldn’t be able to negotiate the obstacles on the way there either. Yet here in Sri Lanka, in possibly the most beautiful stream habitat found to date, were those little beauties.
Shantha’s helpers went upstream and started to return with some small snakeheads. Shantha explained that both Channa gachua (pictured above) and Channa orientalis lived in the habitat and soon we had both species in our photo tank.
I thought I kept Channa orientalis some years ago and was proud of the fact — only to later find out that they were more than likely the more common Channa gachua. I had also obtained them from a supplier in India, yet Shantha confirmed that true orientalis only came from Sri Lanka.
In size, shape and colour the juveniles looked similar. Only a close inspection of the underside reveals the total lack of pelvic fins on true C. orientalis.
Shantha promised me a larger, adult specimen which he would catch at night by torchlight.
I studied the habitat and puzzled over the fish species living there. In this tiny stream were Cherry barbs, but then bizarrely there had been Giant danios — a fish I had seen the previous day in streams much larger and flatter. When the paradise fish would be fully grown they must have their backs sticking out of the shallow water. Then there were those two snakehead species living sympatrically…
The habitat gave me clues as to how snakeheads should be kept in captivity and why they do what they do — like jump, escape, and fight each other.
In this environment these agile air breathers had to be virtually amphibious to navigate the stream, sliding over stones and riffles, and jumping over dams and other obstacles. In the wet season they could probably travel over land too.
Although they lived in the same tiny habitat they certainly weren’t living together — each fish spaced some 5m/16’ apart along the length of the stream. These fish hunt as loners and suspected diet is shrimp, insect larvae and small fish.
Place these truly wild creatures in a brightly lit, glass box in full view and in close proximity to each other and you will get fighting and escapees. They are much better in low stocking densities, in long shallow tanks with lots of hiding places, as nature intended.
If with unlimited resources I would keep them in a mega paludarium, just inches deep in water but many feet in length and filled with terrestrial vegetation above the waterline and sealed with glass sliding doors at the front to trap in humidity.
That way if the Channa did feel like walking they could do so — and not be discovered dried out on the carpet the next day. You could even feed crickets and the like too.
In the small stream we also found Banded mountain loach — with the two we caught having very different patterns.
Feeling chuffed to have been to the natural habitat of yet more of my favourite fish, I talked more with Shantha about the Channa as he shared my passion, creating some outstanding paintings of them.
He explained that snakeheads are extremely important to the local human populations as the young eat mosquito larvae. He added that adult snakeheads are also an important source of protein, being offered to emaciated people and pregnant women.
He added that they successfully defend their young and are great parents, though once babies leave their parents’ care they are predated by the larger specimens of their own species, so effectively controlling numbers.
The eventual haul from our short time at the stream included freshwater crabs and Clarias catfish, and water tests revealed a temperature of 26°C/79°F, pH 6.8, GH3 and KH6. The stream’s name was Cos Dola, meaning 'Jack fruit stream.' Fruitful it certainly was!
War movie scene
Later that day Shantha took us to the Maguru river (pictured above) hidden by rainforest vegetation. A hike got us there, travelling through hillside tea plantations and low-level rice paddies, with the paddies and surrounding hills resembling a Vietnam war movie.
We scanned the water bodies as we travelled, Shantha pointing out yet more snakeheads in ditches surrounding the paddies.
Ever on the lookout for aquatic plants, I spotted what looked like Blyxa growing in the corner of one of the paddies. Puntius bimaculatus were in the ditches and paddies.
After a scary descent through steep forested hills to the river, the scene opened onto yet another beautiful vista.
This was the Maguru Ganga cutting its way through the hills and looking fantastic in early evening sunshine.
The habitat was rocky with huge boulders and a waterfall at the head of the river. The water was deep and clear, over 180cm/6’ in places, and lined with smaller boulders, along with patches of clean quartz sand.
Water tests showed a temperature of 27°C/81°F, pH 7.2, 3GH and 6KH. We donned swimming gear and got in.
It was there that I had what Peter Richardson of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) called my Zen moment. He knew what that meant and had recommended this trip for just such an experience.
The greater depth meant that we could go 'proper' snorkelling and I spent some 20 minutes at a time just following fish. The underwater landscape was dramatic with huge striated rocks opening up to large expanses of deep, open water.
It was so clear that 10m/33’ or so of water could be viewed ahead, so you could make out points of interest and explore.
Fish were there, but sporadic and low in number. I swam thinking just how lucky these residents were to live in this pristine river, largely cut off and protected from the outside world. The three by now usual suspects were there: Puntius singhala, Black ruby barbs and Rasbora daniconius (pictured above) — with the rubies confirming that they clung to rocky cover in the margins and hung around in low numbers.
R. daniconius were definite shallow water fish and the singhala, larger and fish of open water.
River of walking catfish
The stars however were the large Garra ceylonensis (above) that swam in groups of five or so from rock to rock and paraded some 50m/164’ of river. Named the Maguru river, or river of the walking catfish, it appears that the Garra is king.
The huge boulders and clear, well oxygenated water offered excellent grazing for these fish and I could see the tubercles on the heads of mature fish.
In such a paradise I puzzled over why it wasn’t more heavily populated and by larger fish in larger numbers. The Garra and Singhala barbs did seem nervous. Shantha told me that Tor khudree, the mighty mahseer, was also in these waters —a threat confirmed by Shantha’s keen eye for wildlife, spotting fresh otter spraint on rocks nearby. They too were here.
Another highlight was getting to properly observe the goby species. I could swim from deep water to a sandy channel between rocks and directly over freshwater gobies going about their daily business.
The Awaous melanocephalus were busy sifting the quartz sand, whereas the Redneck gobies and Lipstick gobies (pictured above) were more rock bound. I hovered next to a submerged boulder. In front a Lipstick goby clung to the vertical, striated rock face, looking more like something from the ocean than freshwater river.
Our guides’ assistants also found a large spiny eel jammed into a rock crevice, just with its head pointing out. It obviously felt quite safe as it stared back at me.
A habitat interpretation of this river in an aquarium would look more like a Malawi or Tanganyikan biotope in terms of the huge rock structures, only with riverine fish. Again I was learning as I swam, determining exactly why Garra can be so territorial in the aquarium.
These grazed an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool with no competition, so an over populated aquarium must seem claustrophobic at the very least and unliveable at worst.
The next day was to be the last of our trip and we travelled further down the Maguru to where it became wider, flatter and much more sandy. Here the river was some 25m/82’ wide but only about 60cm/ 24” deep at most.
Vast sand banks and water worn, sunken wood were everywhere. Shantha said that this was where a lot of the sand had been excavated for house construction, but this practice had now largely stopped.
I waded across the river and headed for a small tributary to the main river on the opposite side. Averaging 1.8m/6’ across and 45cm/18” deep, this stream felt cooler than the main river, being shaded by overhanging vegetation and steep banks rising and creating a kind of cove that meandered and disappeared into the forest.
The clear water flowed over mud, sand, wood and leaves and I followed Black rubies around the corner, catching a small needlefish, Xenentodon cancila, as I went.
This was to be a special moment as I headed upstream at one with nature. Being as quiet as I could, I could see fish around every bend of the stream. I saw beautiful Belontia signata with crimson red tails along with Rasbora daniconius before stopping to watch the best Black ruby barbs I had yet seen. They were totally unaware of me.
I saw fry in the water below, moved the net through them and was delighted to see they weren’t fry but the elusive Fire rasbora, Rasbora vaterifloris (above). This Sri Lankan endemic is still quite rare in the hobby and is said to come in several naturally occurring colour morphs.
These looked orange, though Shantha said that five colour morphs could also be found.
Stood in the stream in my own silent bliss I saw Cummings barbs, though couldn’t catch them during my first few attempts. Further upstream it became shallower and divided by fallen branches. I saw a larger needlefish — there I suspect to predate the vaterifloris — more Cumming’s barbs, a plain barb with a red dorsal fin, Puntius dorsalis, and some larger, redder vaterifloris.
We rested the photo tank on what Shantha told me was a 300-400-year-old fallen tree used by generations of villagers as a bridge. In the main river I watched gobies and spiny eels as Shantha told me there were actually two Cumming’s barbs species: the true Puntius cummingi we had caught were known as the Lemon fin, whereas the one we know in the trade with orange fins is actually Puntius reval.
He also explained that spiny eels were trapped in bamboo poles and eaten by the locals.
Downriver was a large pool said to contain Channa ara — a large snakehead species now rare in the area. Correctly named Channa marulia, there is said to be a monster-sized specimen living in the bottom of a well in a nearby village.
Other fish species included Spotted loach in the tributaries, Asian stinging catfish and a few fish I checked out with Sri Lankan ichthyologist Rohan Pethiyagoda as they seemed of interest.
We found Laubuca further up the tributary, living sympatrically with Devario malabaricus. It was the first time that we had found these. When I read one of Pethiyagoda’s scientific papers I wondered if we had caught the new Puntius kelumi, and Labeo lankae as well.
All in all the Sri Lanka adventure had been amazing trip, giving me a unique chance to see some popular aquarium fish doing what they do best — living wild!
Still discovering, even back home...
Shantha Jayaweera was so good at collecting fish that it wasn’t until I returned to the UK that we got a good look at all the pictures of our catches.
We sent the pictures to Rohan Pethiyagoda and he identified a Mystus catfish I caught as Mystus ancutta, a newly described species. and confirmed that the different looking 'daniconius' we caught in the Maguru weren’t R. wilpita, but that he had just submitted a paper on them and that names may well be set to change.
Jeremy Gay visits a large lake in Rekawa on the south coast of Sri Lanka.
When I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka with the Marine Conservation Society recently, I experienced my own unforgettable journey of discovery.
Early in our trip we were taken to a large lake at the village of Rekawa on the south coast. It covered several acres and looked a real haven for wildlife, having plenty of birdlife, plenty of plant life, and, we hoped, plenty of aquatic life too.
Even the look of the lake excited me, as we don’t really see anything as exotic as this in the UK. About 40% of its entire area was thickly planted, mostly with floating Salvinia natans, several varieties of water lilies, Water hyacinth, tall reeds and thousands of square metres of what looked to be Ceratophyllum demersum.
The plants seemed key to the health of the lake, as close inspection of a net revealed simply thousands of tiny aquatic invertebrates, insect larvae and larger inverts like shrimp and crabs. These would feed in and around the abundant mass of plants, which, in turn, went on to feed the lake’s fish.
I wasn’t disappointed with numbers of fish either, as I could see a few on the surface next to the bank. From above, they looked to be small killies, and where there is an abundance of one species there are usually many more too – at least in the tropics.
Our first glimpse of the lake was towards evening when we were actually in the area to visit a fish growing-on facility ran by the Turtle Conservation Project and because it was getting dark I didn’t get to dip my net. Yet on the Thursday morning of the first week Peter Richardson of the Marine Conservation Society and I were desperate to do some fishing so left early to see what we could catch.
I’m always cautious when entering unfamiliar waters because I don’t know how deep they get and how quickly, and I have a healthy fear of what I can’t see underwater. Peter was first in and I followed, and we found that in some places the lake felt as warm as bathwater and, in the margins where we were fishing, it averaged just 45cm/18” in depth.
As I said the plant life was incredibly thick, with Ceratophyllum completely filling the water in places and water lily leaves and floating Salvinia growing on top of that. Water tests were surprising, revealing an average temperature of 28°C/82°F, a pH of around 8, and general hardness that was through the roof. So this was a hard, alkaline, warm, habitat.
Despite feeling pretty horrible to walk through and accumulating floating rafts of plants around our legs as we did, this gave us an advantage in that the killifish-like fish at the surface didn’t really scatter when we came near. We could just scoop them up.
They were the first fish placed in our holding tank on the bank and we could make out females and some particularly nice males. Peter was excited as he had set up a Sri Lanka biotope before and I could appreciate that, although quite subtly coloured, these small panchax-looking fish, averaging only 2.5cm/1”, were thriving in the habitat and I was glad we had at least managed to catch something.
A later check in the reference book hinted that they might be Aplocheilus werneri, a fish that occurs where we were in southern Sri Lanka. However, the fish in the photograph looked far larger and more colourful than the one I had caught and, after reading that they grew to 9cm/3.5” and liked water between 22-26°C/72-79°F, I wasn’t so sure that those I caught were not a sub species or a regional variant. Mine were tiny and living in very warm water. Were they A. werneri at all? I think they were A. dayi.
Contemplation that night made me wonder if there weren’t any large adult fish because of the many hundreds of birds that frequented the lake. It didn’t seem to be from lack of food…
We only had one net so Peter took a stab into the raft of floating plants and immediately brought up a 5cm/2” snakehead that had been resting there. I was really pleased as I thought it looked like a snakehead habitat and this was the first large, predatory freshwater species that we had caught.
I couldn’t identify the species as it was quite mottled, and typically shaped,though a local fisherman told me that it got to about 25cm/10” in length, which isn’t too bad and does make it suitable for captivity. Ralf Britz later confirmed it was Channa punctata, a species that is quite cheap and easy to get hold of in the UK.
The only problem with any snakehead is that they hate confinement, refuse to be tamed and are great jumpers — and ours jumped out of the tank when I wasn’t looking. We got lots more, but all fish were put back anyway. We were there to discover and appreciate them, not to collect them for ourselves.
Key to keeping
I think the key to Channa punctata in captivity, and maybe many others, is to heavily plant the tank with feathery leaved plants and use floating plants on the surface too, as these were resting just under the surface among the plants. It may help to stop them from jumping out too!
Next were the barbs. The first we caught were tiny and silver, and there in abundance. We caught them fairly easily and a close inspection revealed a hint of yellow colour on some males, but all with a small black spot in the dorsal fin. They were Puntius vittatus, though again the book’s temperature reference was too low. Were they taking measurements in wintertime and me in the summer?
P. vittatus are really too plain for most peoples’ tastes. I liked their small average size though, again at around 25cm/1” in length. Through the shoals of thousands of panchax we started to spot a few vertically-banded barbs, small at first and the larger at 5cm/2” in length or more.
The black bands were clearly defined and looked like what the locals called “filamentosa”. The Sri Lankan filamentosa is actually Puntius singhala.
They proved incredibly agile and hard to catch and we caught just one juvenile, making identification even more difficult. The juveniles would certainly stand out in any aquarium!
But you can’t be in ponds, lakes and ditches in somewhere like Sri Lanka without catching a few anabantids and before long we started to catch some tiny fish that looked like small Paradise fish. The closest geographical match in the book was the Black spike-tailed Paradise fish (Pseudosphromenus cupanus.)
Either way they were tiny and gratefully received. We didn’t see any of these in the lake and every one was caught just by shooting the net through a load of floating plants and checking it.
As beautiful as this lake was it did have issues in terms of fish and the main one involved introduced species. It was full with Oreochromis niloticus of all sizes, known just as 'tilapia,' and they were introduced to Sri Lanka as a food fish.
They are very popular as such, only inevitably they escaped and are now in most natural waters in the country. As we visited a tilapia and Koi growing-on farm just feet from the lake’s edge I voiced my concern about having alien species so close to a natural water because of the risk of escapees.
The guy feeding the captive tilapia pond said he had caught them from the lake in the first place, so it looked like they were there to stay. Thushan, our local expert and guide, said there were also Catla catla in the lake as food, which I caught as small fry later that day (above). They are not really aquarium fish, looking a bit like carp and growing large.
If into either natural or cultivated plants, either terrestrial or aquatic, you would have loved this lake. Every plant in Sri Lanka looks like something out of the Eden Project anyway and the plants here were no exception. As I mentioned, I think plant life in the lake plays a major part in its ecology, as well as looking aesthetically wonderful.
Floaters, lilies and vast beds of Ceratophyllum dominated, though there was also Hydrilla, Potamogeton looking in wonderful contrast to the Ceratophyllum with its red leaves, what looked like Aponogetum and lots of lily-like plants.
All the plants grew in deep, soft mud, warmer than the water above as the sun shone onto it. Where there were patches of sand, no plants grew. The huge patches of aquatic plants looked superb in the clear patches of water and were undoubtedly a huge factor in this lake’s habitat. Whether it will continue as the population of tilapia grows I couldn’t say.
Set up a Rekawa lake biotope
A lake biotope tank would be easy to set up at home and, due to the small fish species we caught, doesn’t have to be too large either.
Choose an aquarium at least 60cm/ 24” long with gentle filtration and quite bright lighting for the plants. All plants in the lake are hardy and quite easy to grow in the aquarium without much special care, though CO2 could be added for better growth.
The substrate in most places was dark brown mud, littered with dead plant leaves, stalks and detritus. In open water where no plants grew, there were patches of fine sand. To replicate this and feed the plants at the same time, either use a complete soil-based aquarium substrate like Tetra Complete, Sera Floradepot or Dennerle Deponit — or make your own out of pond soil.
To stop it getting stirred up place a layer of sand on top, again dark if possible, and heating cables could be used to replicate that warm mud I waded through across the lake shallows.
There were few hard aquascaping features in the lake, just the odd log or branch or two, so some narrow bogwood is all that’s needed. I felt or saw no rocks.
Plants were a massive feature in the shallows, so plant heavily with Ceratophyllum demersum and place Salvinia natans floating above it. For larger aquariums of 120 x 45cm/47 x 18” or more, large tropical water lilies could be added along with Water hyacinth. Potamogeton spp aren’t that readily available for the aquarium, so check with a plant specialist as to their availability. Use bright daylight spectrum lighting set for ten hours per day.
Use a heater set to 28°C/82°F to regulate temperature and, to be particularly biotope correct, use hard alkaline water with a pH of 8. Add Aplocheilus dayi, Puntius vittatus and Pseudosphromenus cupanus.
For the larger, oddball version of this biotope leave out all the small fish and add Channa punctata instead — or for the alien, but also biotope correct look, add Oreochromis niloticus.
The Marine Conservation Society
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) are a UK charity caring for our seas, shores and wildlife. MCS have supported the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) in Sri Lanka since 2002.
MCS and TCP arranged Jeremy’s trip as part of a collaborative project developing alternative income within Rekawa village, which is supported by the BBC Wildlife Fund.
MCS also campaign for better protection of endangered marine creatures; promote sustainable seafood choices to protect fish stocks for the future; campaign for pollution-free seas and litter-free coastlines; and involve thousands of volunteers in work to survey and protect our marine life. You can join MCS for as little as £3 per month.
Visit Sri Lanka
If you want to explore the aquatic wildlife of Sri Lanka, visit www.birdandwildlifeteam.com
This item first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Jeremy Gay offers a step-by-step guide to setting up your own rainforest stream habitat for Cherry barbs or dwarf snakeheads.
As soon as I saw the tiny stream habitat of the Cherry barb during my Sri Lanka expedition, I knew that when I replicated it I wanted it to be shallow. And if I have learned anything on my fishy travels it is that small fish inhabit shallow water.
However, and for a neat twist, I thought I would take advantage of the structured nature of a 3D background as and combine it with some wood and house plants to form a trickling waterfall effect.
It looks different and is easily achievable in the six easy steps explained here. Give it a try, as even if you aren’t into small fish it's an authentic habitat for Channa gachua and orientalis too.
I’ve cut out a hole in the background of the tank and shoved in a strainer. This enables the water to flow through the background to be heated and then picked up by the filter.
This strainer will also prevent the fish from getting behind the background — from here they would be difficult to retrieve!
Behind the scenes. The water will be shallow, so ensure the heater is totally submerged in the bottom third of the tank. This is a simple way to make a waterfall, and extra ones could be created by splitting the outlet into two or by using a powerhead or pump. Some small internal filters can be laid on their backs and connected to a hose.
I tracked down some quartz sand in the UK, washed and placed it in the tank at a depth of 2.5-5cm/1-2”. I used two different grain sizes for an even more authentic look. Rocks were water worn and rounded.
The rainforest stream in Sri Lanka was shallow and full of rounded stones, so I have covered the entire bottom, first with large stones and then smaller ones on top.
The stream was strewn with fallen branches and overhanging tree roots, so I have replicated that look with branchy bogwood pieces. I’ve placed some on top of the rocks, but hung some upside down from the top of the background. The idea is for the water to trickle down the hanging ones.
The task of filling with water should be an absolute doddle and take little time because the level has been deliberately chosen to be shallow.
However, it is important to make sure that the water will be deep enough to cover the heater and allow the filter to prime.
Dress with plants, which in this case are ferns and Philodendron, available from garden centres as a houseplant. I tested these long term over a fish tank at home, with just their roots in tankwater, and they did really well. The fern is similar to those in the actual habitat.
Common name: Cherry barb.
Scientific name: Puntius titteya.
Natural habitat: Tiny rainforest hill streams in Sri Lanka.
Water conditions: We found them in pH 6.8, water temperature 26°C/79°F.
Notes: The habitat out on location was shallow with medium flow. The Cherry barbs assembled in small numbers, with single males displaying to two or three females.
Common name: Giant danio.
Scientific name: Devario malabaricus
Natural habitat: Small hill streams to fast flowing rivers in Sri Lanka.
Water conditions: pH 6.8, water temperature 26°C/79°F.
Notes: Beautiful fish that made its way from the main river to this tiny stream. Despite the more streamlined and active look of this fish compared to the small barbs, the two species living together is biotope correct. Small groups are fine, as this how we found them.
Alternatively you could stock either of the following:
Scientific name: Channa gachua.
Size: Up to 20cm/8”.
Natural habitat: Hill streams, ditches, rice paddies and man-made waterways in central Sri Lanka. Found in India too.
Water conditions: Found in pH 6.8, water temperature 26°C/79°F.
Notes: We found lots in the tiny streams, mainly around the 7.6cm/3” mark. They live with C. orientalis, though are best not mixed in the aquarium due to territorial squabbles. Add these instead of barbs or danios.
Scientific name: Channa orientalis.
Size: Up to 30cm/12”, though usually smaller.
Natural habitat: Shallow hill streams, ditches and connecting paddies.
Water conditions: In pH 6.8, water temperature 26°C/79°F.
Notes: The true Channa orientalis is a rare fish, as nearly all the captive orientalis are actually gachua, as they have pelvic fins, and orientalis don’t. This is a wonderful dwarf snakehead species for which it is well worth setting up a shallow stream habitat. Add these instead of barbs or danios.
Heiko Bleherâ€™s relentless search to find and photograph new fish takes him to the Yungas, a remote region of Bolivia fished before only by intrepid pioneers.
Lunchtime conversation with the now late Jacques Géry got round to Nathan Everett Pearson, a student of world famous ichthyologist Carl H. Eigenmann, and who had found many new species in an area of Bolivia.
When Jacques asked why I had not been there a new expedition began to form in my mind...
Jacques was referring to the Yungas where Pearson, during 1921-22, had collected 6,775 specimens, of which the characiformes represented about half of his collection and 77 of a total of 155 species there. Pearson had actually found 25 new species and two new genera — of which most had never been seen live until today.
I have collected several times in Bolivia, but never in that part which is on the eastern slope of the Andes. I felt some very interesting research was there to be done!
The only other person who had reported fieldwork there was Perugia, who in 1897 published on 200 specimens Professor Luigi Balzan (who had the cichlid Gymnogeophagus balzani named in his honour) had found in Bolivia. They represented 37 species, of which five came from the Marmoré and 32 from the Beni, in the Yungas.
Haseman also collected in Bolivia, but only in the Marmoré/Guaporé region.
I wanted to see some of those new genera and species live, especially after I searched and found out that none had ever photographed in the wild and very few had ever been collected.
Bolivia beckoned and La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, brought back childhood memories. After we came out of the jungle in 1955, during my mother’s first two-year South American expedition, she had to sell her Rolleiflex camera to get enough money for our train tickets to Arica in Chile.
We were also involved in a bus accident in Cochabamba and I needed many stitches in a head wound. We also lost two years’ worth of collections of fish, plants, insects and animals — all except Tincho and Pancho (two Capuchin monkeys), Lorita (a parrot), Aquilia (an eagle) and Lagarto (an iguana).
The road from hell
I rented a 4WD truck with spare tyres and fuel tanks in La Paz for this expedition. Once on board I had to cross the city in an incredible traffic jam uphill because although La Paz is almost 4,000m/13,100’ above sea level, it lies in a valley and you have to climb to cross the Andes to almost 4570m/15,000’.
At the city exit all vehicles must stop. Your personal ID, car registration and destination is enterered in a book. First I wondered why, later I was to find out…
On the very top, in late afternoon and after continuous rain, the sun came out and, from the peak, I saw what was front — carretera de la muerte (the 'highway of death'). Here you drive on the left, just inches from a deep abyss, and every few hundred metres there is a cross on the roadside as it seems that every day one or two cars plunge down…
In most places this mountain road (pictured above) is no more than
2 m/6.5’ wide and if another car comes in the opposite direction you have to back up until it widens — and this on a slope which goes straight down 500m/1,640’ or more.
Water flows almost constantly from the mountains and it rained non-stop when I was driving. It rains frequently along the eastern mountain slopes, which turns this treacherous road into a muddy, even more dangerous one!
Having successfully negotiated 'the highway of death' I reached a point, at around 2,286m/7,500', where there was a side road that crossed a tiny, shaking bridge over the Río Huarinilla. I had to stop and, although it was getting dark, I caught in my hand net three very interesting tetras with their mouths up.
Pearson had described Hemibrycon beni from an lower area of this region with a similar mouth shape but different colour pattern. Interestingly, mine lived only in the fastest flowing part of this mountain stream and up to 2743m/9,000’ high.
In the early morning, after driving 150 km and descending from 4570m/15,000’ to 914m/3,000’ close to the Yungas, I found an empty space, pulled in and slept for hours.
I awoke to find hundreds of gigantic tree ferns, bromeliads, in the treetops, Heliconia with their long red and yellow flowers along the road, across were orchids with violet flowers and tucanos were flying overhead. It was good to see because, further on, people had deforested to plant bananas. Then came the lower checkpoint before Caranavi, after crossing the Río Kaka. The military police couldn’t believe I was travelling alone…
Caranavi is a larger city with buildings along the Kaka river for kilometres. From here the road went uphill again to Carrasco. It rained continuously and the road was pure mud. If I hadn’t this high wheelbase 4WD I would never have made it to Sapecho which was just a couple of houses. Fog then became so dense I spent another night in the car.
In the Río Jarreli at 7am I collected some beautiful Hypostomus (probably H. bolivianus) and an Asytanax, recalling that Pearson found four different ones during his expedition. Here in the middle of nowhere, the early morning view was unbelievable: primary rainforest as far as the eyes could see with trees covered by epiphytes.
It continued like this almost until I reached Yucuma (Yocuma), a tiny settlement that showed I had already reached the flat land, the Amazon basin. I could see entirely deforested areas and extensive cattle ranching, a few palm oil plantations and a single aquaculture station, sponsored by Europeans but not functioning. Yet here I had a stroke of luck…
Along this dirt road I suddenly had an urge to stop and enter the bushes to my left. It was actually the only place where I found trees.
Sure enough, about 200m/650’ inside, there was a small lake about 10m/33’ across and no more than 30cm/12” deep. It was a fully functioning environment with different insects, plenty of aquatic vegetation and tea-coloured water. The bright sun hardly penetrated the treetops. I knew there were fish and came up with 27 different species in lttle more than two scoops.
My most exciting find was a tiny characoid, a swimming jewel, which is not scientifically described but probably a Tyttocharax sp. It had a bright gold body, black stripe below the centre golden stripe, two large yellow spots above and below the large black caudal peduncle spot, golden eyes and was only 2cm/0.8” long. Hopefully we can breed it.
There was also an Apistogramma — according to Steack a new species — a strange looking red eye Moenkhausia species and a spectacular Pyrrhulina cf. vittata.
My next stop was the Río Tigre which was full of shrimps, some lobsters, crabs and another Astyanax in schools. Under rocks were a couple of interesting Ancistrus species, maybe A. montana. Pearson collected in this area and had four different Ancistrus on his journey: cirrhosa, hoplogenys, bufonia and montanus.
That evening I reached Rurrenabaque, a city at the intersection of three major ecosystems: mountains, rainforest, and pampas. The result is a remarkably high diversity of wildlife. It is also the gateway to most of the Bolivian Amazon area for tourists — mainly travellers and eco-tourism lovers.
Next day I had to have the vehicle fixed after the pounding it had taken on those terrible mountain tracks. Afterwards I set off to find Pearson’s locations along the eastern slopes to Ixiamas and Alto Madidi and I wanted to cross the Río Madre de Dios and drive to Cobija. The ferry took my Toyota across the Río Beni to where my road headed north-west.
On most of my drive to Ixiamas I had the high eastern slopes of the mountains to my left and It was little more than 100km/62 miles from Rurrenabaque with Tumupasa near the middle to where Pearson researched. After all day collecting in every creek and waterhole I could find, I reached Tumupasa in early evening.
A cafe owner there told me that in 1995 Conservation International was able to convince the Bolivian government to establish the Madidi National Park in this area. It is home to 85% of all the bird species in Bolivia and 11% of all the world’s bird species, 75% of Bolivia’s mammal species and 40% of the country’s reptile species.
Endangered jaguars, giant otters, spectacled bears and black caiman roam the forests there.
A dam is set to be built across the Beni at the entrance of the national park, flooding the established Chalalan Lodge and surrounding rainforests. There are road projects in the pipeline too and two companies hold concessions to search for and extract hydrocarbons within the park’s boundaries.
I camped along of one of the 100 creeks flowing from the mountain to meet the Rio Enapurera, Undumo or later the Claro and Madidi rivers. Along this stretch and in many parts of the national park were cattle farms. Finally I found a spot, still amid primary rainforest, and at dawn thousands of dragonflies were in the air.
In the stream, full of rocks, I saw hundreds of Characidium — characoids living mostly over the substrate — swimming in the fast current over and under the rocks.
They were beautifully banded with very large pelvic fins, like hands, which they use to hold onto the rocks in swift waters and graze on the aufwuchs. It took me hours to catch just a few as they were too fast. I hope this fish is C. bolivianum, which Pearson originally collected in Tumupasa.
Next day I was appropaching Ixiamas, with only cattle farms and rice fields in view. It reminded me of an old Wild West town — the end of the line! Except for cattle, rice and wood, there’s nothing to haul away.
I was told that the road goes no further than Alto Madidi, not even to Cobija. I walked a small track for kilometres and encountered a hunter who told me that there had never been a road! I could go to the river (Madre de Dios) and no further...
My luck was in though. In a small creek flowing from the mountain I saw some beautiful blue, neon-like, luminescent fishes. With my hand net I chased a small group into a corner of this 30cm/12” deep crystal clear creek. Once caught, I realised they must be a Tittocharax species.
Back at my home in Italy, I sent some to the characoid taxonomist Dr Stanley Weitzman and he identified them as similar to T. tambonpatensis. This tiny tetra, hardly 12mm/0.5”, then spawned like crazy at my friend Peter Frech’s place in Germany, with thousands of large eggs!
However, after the second generation only very few eggs appeared and after the third there was nothing. The reason is is a still an unresolved mystery.
Pearson and Eigenmann had a great opportunity to see in South America nature at its best — and I can be proud that I have too, I just hope the fishes I brought back will become established in breeding around the world.
Why not check out Heiko Bleher's expedition to Maharashtra, India?
This item first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Heiko Bleher visits some of the biotopes of Maharashtra in the Western Ghats states of India and finds new species overcoming great handicaps.
More than 300 species of fish have been recorded from this biodiversity hotspot in India and I knew, since my first visit to the Western Ghats in 1987-1988 and 1989, that a lot more are still waiting to be discovered!
During a later field trip I researched with my partner Natasha all three Western Ghats states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala, as well as Goa, and found additional fishes. We collected in 37 rivers and lakes, finding more than 150 species, of which surely some are new.
We began in Maharashtra, a place of several languages. A previous visit there had revealed communication problems, but a chance telephone call from a well-wisher enabled me this time to arrange a driver who spoke all the necessary languages and a little English.
I had scheduled my trip to collect during the dry season, which normally lasts from December to May-June.
After a flight and a four-hour traffic jam journey into Mumbai, formerly Bombay, we ‘escaped’ next morning before sunrise and before the day’s traffic built up.
On my way I wanted to visit Sharad Ramchandra Sane, the pioneer of ornamental fishes in India. I also wanted to go with him to the type locality of Horaichthys setnai (recently placed into Oryzias by Parenti, 2008). This was never imported alive, but has probably the most amazing biology of any known small fish.
Although already described 1940 by Kulkarni, it had only been known from a drawing…
We drove along Dharavi, India’s largest slum, where half of the city’s 6 million live.
The water there was so incredible polluted that if I had placed a finger in, it would surely have fallen off. However, Sane explained that I should try further south in Panvel where a creek of the same name flows.
South of Mumbai is a gigantic construction site, a new city emerging and a large lake, seemingly artificial, which contained only tilapias (Oreochromis mossambicus) and endless amounts of rubbish.
We crossed a long, high bridge over the Panvel and I had a hard time getting down to this 50m/160’ broad river. I slipped through mud, cow dung and rubbish. I looked everywhere but could not spot or catch a single fish. Sinking deep, I suddenly I noticed a tiny transparent movement at the surface. I initially thought it was a water spider — but, practically invisible, were the tiniest fish, each hardly a centimetre in total length. Were they Horaichthys?
I tried to catch one, but it was almost impossible as I could only be aware where they swam once they moved. Now I realised why no one had ever collected and exported them before. It took me hours in the boiling sun and warm water, sinking deeper all the time, until I had caught a dozen.
Finally we got a photograph of this unique creature. The male has a gonopodium which encompasses almost half its length. In proportion, no living fish has a longer penis!
Horaichthys have been classified with ricefishes of the family Adrianichthyidae, which were only recently revised by Parenti (2008) and now contain 28 species. Four belong in the genus Adrianichthys and 24 in Orzyias, including Horaichthys, and also the two Xenopoecilus species — of which I discovered one in Lake Lind in Sulawesi many years ago.
They live in freshwater but also brackish habitats from Pakistan to Japan. Ricefishes are mostly light coloured, sometimes yellowish. They rarely have particular colours, except for a couple of Oryzias from Sulawesi. Except for the four Adrianichthys species, they live only in the upper water columns. Their origin is found among the beloniform fishes, but they resemble more closely the cyprinodontids.
Why does Horaichthys male have such an extremely long penis? Because of the need to survive, amazing mechanisms evolve, especially in such tiny creatures, to be able to propagate in a rough world full of larger predators.
Nature has equipped the male with testes to produce special 200-300 sperm capsules, so-called spermatophores, instead of ordinary semi-fluid milt with suspended sperm. A spermatophore is a tiny hyaline body, the broad part of which contains a mass of sperm.
At the tapering end there is a pointed cap with hooks and barb-like structures pointing backwards. The spermatophore get attached with these near the genital opening of the female. There is no permanent opening on the spermatophore to liberate the sperm.
Before freeing them, a small bulging appears at the neck of the tapering spermatophore and begins to enlarge. When it becomes sufficiently large, an opening is formed at its tip by a rupture of membrane and sperm are liberated, swimming into the genital pore of the female.
This form of fertilisation and reproduction is not known in any other live form.
We drove south-east as I wanted to research the hinterland of Maharashtra, in remote areas hardly collected before, reaching Pune, India’s eighth-largest city 560m/1830’ above sea level on the Deccan Plateau. At sunset we drove on a narrow pass to the Karanadi river.
There was very little water flowing over its large rock formation, but I was able to find, in between cracks, a group of Garra nasuta grazing over the algae-covered rock. I also found a loach, which looks similar to Indoreonectes evezardi, but does not have typical bars — being spotted instead.
There’s another similar looking loach, Nemacheilus keralensis, but there are differences. The third species was the most beautiful loach, somewhat similar to Schistura semiarmata and placed in Nemacheilus by some, but the typical black stripe below the eye was missing, as were any spots.
Next sunrise I was walking along the Nira river, which from here on to the sea is dammed many times, so I hoped to find something different and ‘natural’…
Along its edge, although muddy and full of rubbish, I found nice growth of an interesting Bacopa species and submersed large accumulations of Potamogeton with Ottelia alismoides among it. Strange that both of these widespread and 100% submerse plants are rarely found in the hobby — and, among so much aquatic vegetation, fishes thrive very well.
I was able to collect a loach near the edge among the Bacopa, which looks similar to Acanthocobitis botia. It could be new. In open water I found the widely distributed needlefish Xenentodon cancila, at nearly 1,000m/3,280’ above sea level. Unfortunately they are very sensitive and therefore rarely imported.
Everywhere were masses of Oreochromis niloticus babies. Man has introduced them in almost every country, tropical and temperate, around the globe. How ignorant can we be to allow this to happen?
Among them I discovered a few Puntius setnai and Devario fraseri, both species only known from Maharashtra and none have entered the hobby. Hopefully they will soon, but for how long can they cope with the tilapia explosion?
We drove south on the mountainous road and stopped near Bagara village on a creek which was hardly flowing and covered with green algae. However, in one spot not completely overgrown I saw loaches and was lucky enough to catch another Maharashtra endemic Lepidocephalus thermalis. It is a beautiful elongated loach able to survive in this remaining waterhole and a species perfect for a nano tank.
Along this creek every plant, bush or tree was in full blossom — spring was truly in full swing.
The people in this region live as in ancient times, taking care of their rice paddies and with oxcarts their only means of transport. John, our driver, took us below rows of old trees, completely natural and untouched, but returned to the 21st century when crossing several complete dry river beds which were evidence of global warming, We encountered natives who spent all day searching for water.
We turned west at Shirwal, continuing on the mountain road and near Bhor, along giant dams and water reservoirs on our right hand side, most of which had little water.
Late afternoon we again met the Nira river, near Apti. Here, for a short stretch, it was not dammed and showing natural but shallow flow. It had to have fishes, I thought!
Sure enough, after some water buffalos had been washed and moved on, I got a nice Barilius into my folding hand net. It was probably B. barna, a species so far not recorded from the Western Ghats.
This is a beautiful community tank fish to be kept in groups of never less that five or six, but better at ten, swimming as they do non-stop. Quite an attraction for any aquaria, they are still rarely imported, but are available from specialist dealers.
I also found a yellow Rasbora daniconius, but if I look closely at Francis Day’s description (1867) of R. neilgherriensis from the Western Ghats some have been placed in synonomy of R. daniconus Hamilton, 1822 from the Ganga drainage, I would think Day’s fish is a different species.
Another very colourful Devario malabaricus arrived into the large seine, exactly where the flow was stronger but also very shallow at hardly 20cm/8”.
Among the river pebbles I caught a nice green Garra, which so far has not been identified. Neither has the Glossogobius species collected in the same habitat. The latter is frequently classified as G. giurus by Indian scientists but it is a different species and giurus is not found in India.
I was delighted to find the endemic glassfish Parambassis thomassi here too.
We drove on across the mountain range of Sahyadri towards Mahad. The winding road was edged by monkeys waiting for truck drivers to feed them.
Looking down into the deep valley to what is left of the Nira riverbed one could almost identify with the Grand Canyon in the USA, but along the steep slopes are native huts of the Katkari, Thakur and Koli tribes, each one speaking their own language and living autonomously in this remote district.
Late afternoon on our third day we reached the Savitri river, before Mahad, and almost at sea level again. I had to check out this almost 200m/650’ wide, riverbed, although its water flow was only a fraction of that width. I collected in different spots up and downriver and found first some Ambassis urotaeniata, which in literature is said to be a brackish water fish, yet it lives here in pure freshwater habitats far from the sea.
It is a beauty and lives here together with a colourful Aplocheilus blockii variant in shallow water habitats. There was also Dayella malabarica, a clupeid I had never seen alive before. Also found was a second Glossogobius species and again a population of Puntius setnai.
The most interesting discovery though was a halfbeak of the genus Zenarchopterus with a dark brown blackish colour. This genus has never been recorded from western India, only from West Bengal and much less a species with such colour pattern. Almost all described Zenarchopterus are silver or without any colour.
The genus belongs to the needlefish family Belonidae and there are some 20 species found from Pakistan to the Philippines and Australasia. Many are brackish residents, but some are land locked, found in pure freshwater habitats and can only live there.
Some species can tolerate fresh, brackish and saltwater (anadromos) and some have a huge proliferation, such as Zenarchopterus dispar (Valenciennes, 1847), which is found from East Africa to the Fiji Islands, in New Caledonia and Samoa. Most species inhabit freshwater regions of Australasia, from were the most recent species was described about 25 years ago. That is Zenarchopterus ornithocephala, Collette, 1985, from the Vogelkop Peninsula, which G R Allen and I discovered in 1982.
Zenarchopterus striga (Blyth, 1858) is known from the area around Calcutta (Kolkata) on the other side of India on the Gulf of Bengal and the morphological characteristics differ significantly from the species I found in Maharashtra. Obviously, it is also a freshwater species.
The needlefish habitat at 16:55 hours that day was pH 7.68; conductivity 1,394 µS/cm; water temperature 27.2°C/81°F. The water was brown and cloudy; easily flowing over pebbles, large rocks and had a muddy ground. There was no aquatic vegetation, but nearby were cattle farms and water buffalo breeding facilities.
It became dark but I collected by torchlight another Puntius amphibius, which I was to collect again further south, and a beautiful Puntius so far impossible to identify.
Next day we followed the N17 route south to the valley of the Gard river flanked by terraces, as in the Philippines. Here stood an old stone bridge built during the British Raj in the 19th century. Below were small groups of Aplocheilus panchax easy recognisable by the shiny spot on top of their head, and racing over the rocky ground were hundreds of Garra mullya. There was so much rubbish in the river I had no intention of going in!
I still had two more destinations scheduled in southern Maharashtra. One was a drainage of the Krishna river, with an arm flowing into a bay west of Rajapur going down to an old fishing village called Jaitapur — and then one more stream further south.
Jaitapur was reached by a tiny, winding, steep road and all the inhabitants paid attention to our work in collecting tiny fishes which they insisted were babies of large fishes, also Horaichthys. This is a typical response by fishermen who only see fish in large size because their interest is only in eating.
That is why I was able to discover several new dwarf Channa snakehead species as I recalled that fishermen insisted that C. bleheri also grows large when I found it in the 1980s. Besides the ricefish we had marine fishes in the net living in freshwater, like the glassfish Ambassis gymnocephalus, young snappers Lutjanus argentimaculatus and L. erythropterus.
Our last stop before Goa was a creek, east of the N17 called Biali-Nadi and I researched near Alassi. It was 8m/26’ wide, but the water level was no more than 10-15cm/4-6” deep and flowing slowly, although I found a variety of fish over the stony bottom. There were Garra mullya, the Giant danio, Devario malabaricus with bright golden stripes, Puntius amphibius and a gudgeon, probably Pseudogobius melanostictus.
Near the edge, under overhanging grass, I found a very pretty panchax killifish, Aplocheilus lineatus, a blue-yellow banded loach, which could be Schistura denisonii and a Rasbora, which at first looked like R. daniconius, but then I realised was different. It was unusually large with a predatory mouth turned upwards and a remarkable bright jet-black stripe. Its golden body colour was particularly striking. I also had a very nice Caridina shrimp in the net.
New discoveries for the benefit of all
It had been a good field trip across Maharashtra with many discoveries made, including some species never previously recorded from the Western Ghats or even mentioned in the Ornamental Fishes of Western Ghats of India Mercy et al., 2008 publication. There’s surely some beauties set to join the most beautiful and educational hobby in the world. And I had Horaichthys…
Victims of the chemicals
I was only able to collect a few good needlefish specimens in the Savitri near Mahad as most were terribly deformed. The natives told me that not far upriver a chemical plant had been discharging untreated waste for several years into the river and masses of dead fish regularly floated past. No wonder half of all fishes I caught at this point were mis-shapen.
This item was first published in the October 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Jeremy Gay tells us about the natural habitat of the Threadfin acara, Acarichthys heckeli. PFK observed and collected this species in the Rio Negro.
Where does it come from?
The Threadfin acara, Acarichthys heckeli, is widespread in the Amazon basin, inhabiting both black and white waters, but we found it in the tannin stained, very soft waters of the Rio Negro, in Brazil. We visited the river at the end of the dry season when it was at its lowest.
Where is it found?
We found A.heckeli in shallow, woody margins of the main river and in permanent pools, cut off apart from occasional flooding. Temperate averaged 28-30°C, with a very low pH. Flow was slow, or still water.
What other fish live alongside it?
In the Rio Negro we found it living alongside Mesonauta insignis, Biotodoma wavrini and Leporinus fasciatus. In the deeper pools it lived alongside angelfish, juvenile Peacock bass, Leporinus, Laemolyta, Satanoperca, Boulengerella and Heros.
How can I breed it?
This species has a very interesting reproductive strategy in the wild as mated pairs dig deep burrows in the vertical mud banks of lakes and rivers, and lay their eggs and protect their fry there.
We saw severums, chocoloate cichlids and festive cichlids also spawning off-bottom, so presumably predation pressures from bottom dwellers are too great to spawn on the river or lake bed. In captivity this species is rarely, if ever spawned and most come in either wild caught or from Singapore, though far eastern origin fish could also be wild.
One strategy I would like to try is to give them a large bucket or plant pot cut into a foam, 3D structured background acting as a false back. Maybe this combined with soft acidic water would do the trick - that or a mud wall!
This item was first published in the November 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.
Heiko Bleher tells us about the natural habitat of the stunning Polka dot loach or Clouded botia, a relatively new botiid loach species that was first introduced into the hobby from Myanmar (Burma) about five years ago. Heiko claims he first collected this species in Myanmar in 1986.
What is Botia kubotai?
This loach was only described recently. Dr Maurice Kottelat named it in 2004, but it had been available in the hobby for several years before that.
I collected it for the first time in 1986 during a trip to Myanmar. It is sold as the Polka dot loach in UK shops. Botia kubotai can reach up to 15cm/6” in total length, including the tail.
Where is it found?
It lives in rocky habitats and over fine sand bottom in hill streams of the north of Myanmar, but also in lowland rivers of the Salween basin where it is mainly found over only sandy ground.
How do I set up a biotope tank for it?
In aquaria it is best to have white or beige sand on the bottom and some round rocks. It lives only rarely in habitats with aquatic vegetation.
When it is found in vegetated habitats local plants include Ludwigia helminthorrhiza, Ceratophyllum, and rarely Nymphaea and/or Nymphoides in some lowland habitats.
If you keep it, please aim to keep it only with tank mates from the Salween basin. There are quite a few of those available in the hobby now.
What other fish come from this area?
In recent years many of Myanmar’s oldest fish discoveries have entered the hobby. Some of these are real beauties.
In the 1980s and 1990s very few importers, retailers, fishkeepers or scientists paid much attention to these. But now the available species include many Microrasbora (or Microdevario), Channa, Danio species and it includes several loaches like Botia histrionica and this beautiful species, which is very similar to Botia rostrata.
This item was first published in the September 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.