Create a Central American mountain stream


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Lee Nuttall chooses the biotope of a Central American mountain stream as his theme for a competition entry. Follow his step-by-step approach.

Biotope and natural aquariums have grown in popularity over the last couple of years, especially among keepers of Central American cichlids.

With all the information, film and images available on the Internet, hobbyists can learn more about the fish they keep and the natural habitat they live in, helping to re-create as natural environment as possible.

These were all the tools I needed to create my second entry to the latest AGA Aquascaping contest. My foremost passion is for the genera of New World cichlids, especially those from North and Central America, so based my chosen biotope on them.

The aim was to create something contemporary, yet still keeping the authenticity of a biotope environment.

Aquarium size is a major reason that deters many hobbyists from keeping Centrals, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There’s a lovely group of smaller cichlids under the Cryptoheros complex that will make an ideal choice for my size of aquarium.

The biotope

I wanted to base my project around a Honduran river or stream, in particular the Rio Monga. This, along with its tributaries, originates in the coastal Cordillera mountain range and flows into the Caribbean.

Mountain rainstorms provide the clear water conditions that the fish fauna thrive in and, dependant on the time of year, the water can be shallow and crystal clear in this rugged prepublic. The river environment has rocks and boulders which range in size from a small football to a small car. The formations can break up into small rocky areas with a sandy bottom or mixture of small pea gravel.

How I set up

I used a 103l/23 gal, 80 x 36 x 36cm/32 x 14 x 14” tank that was too small for a cichlid community biotope, but ideal for a small breeding pair of Cryptoheros spp. If you’re not sure, bigger is better, but I usually advise using tank from 90cm/3’ in length.

1. I add a thin layer of washed sand, you can use either playpit or pool filter sand. This helps cushion the larger boulders added later. Alternatively you can bed the boulders on thin sheets of polystyrene and then cover with your chosen substrate.

2. The rocks and pebbles were bought from my local garden centre as most good outlets will label the rocks fish safe. You can also collect them yourself from rivers, but always prepare and wash and scrub in very hot water first. Place the rocks using the rule of thirds; makes the arrangement more aesthetically pleasing.

3. I added smaller cobbles and pebbles around the base of the larger rocks. This helps blend in the larger rock formations, also giving a more natural look to the sand substrate. Arrange the cobbles into natural piles; trying to imagine how the river bed may look.

4. Small twigs and debris can be expected in the natural biotope, so I added a basic twig arrangement from a beech tree. The wood is soaked and washed in very hot water, then left to dry outside for a week. Thin branches like those I used should sink in a couple of days.

The tank

Dimensions: All glass, 80 x 36 x 36cm/ 32 x 124 x 14”.

Décor: Playpit sand, large worn river stone and cobbles, beech tree twigs.

Background: Black paper.

Lighting: One Arcadia freshwater lamp.

Filtration: Fluval 204 external canister.

Heater: One 200w.

The fish

There are around 13 described species and one undescribed in the Cryptoheros complex. All are suitable for this set-up, as most only attain 10cm/4”. The fish chosen here are the undescribed species ‘Honduran red point’, so called because of the colour on the ends of the dorsal, anal fins and base of the caudal peduncle.

This colour trait appears to be lacking in females, however they tend to have orange bellies.

This is a beautiful fish that usually maxes out to only 3” for males, making them ideal for smaller biotope aquariums. They are also readily available and very easy to breed.

It’s safe to add a small young group, but once a pair has formed the surplus fish will need to be removed straight away!

Check our Lee Nuttall's other tanks in this series:

Lee Nuttall, part one

Lee Nuttall, part two

See some of the other tanks in the Your Tanks section.

Mark Evans, part one

Mark Evans, part two

Mark Evans, part three

Sam Clowsley

Jeremy Squires

Andy Hart

Balazs Farkas

George Farmer

James Starr-Marshall

Viktor Lantos

Norbert Sabat

Steven Chong

Jason Baliban

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