The perfect fish to look for when stocking an aquascape 

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Stocking an aquascape isn’t as simple as finding something to offset your plants, writes Tom Ackrill. Here’s an overview of the fish that you should look at to partner with your own aquatic layout.

Aquascapes and fish. On paper, they should be as straightforward a combination as salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, steak and chips. In practice to look at many an aquascape is to see a chasmic disparity between the two worlds, the needs of one skewed out of proportion to the needs of the other.  

You could make a case that this harkens back to an age-old and persistent argument —aquascaped aquariums are in themselves somewhat artificial. When working outside of a biotope setup, when we aren’t aiming to replicate with authenticity some naturally occurring habitat, we are often applying human ideas of aesthetics, scale, and layout, in order to make our own biologically rendered artwork. Plant choices, hardscape, substrate and even lighting are considered and arranged with painstaking attention to detail, and with each rock, epiphyte, stem and moss — even the spaces between them — given their own special parts to play in the pursuit of a particular visual impression. 

But the final ingredient to almost every aquascape is the livestock that inhabits it. And it is the livestock that is, unfortunately, the part that is most commonly overlooked. 

We all know about the ‘rule of thirds’, the ‘golden ratio’ and other successful approaches to make that perfect aquascape, fuelled by the original masters like the great Takeshi Amano, and more recently by the likes of George Farmer, Jurijs Jutjajevs, Oliver Knott and so on. But do we apply that same rigorous discipline to the way we stock our tanks, or, do we make the error of choosing a fish for its aesthetic appearance and fitment into the ‘scape as an additional piece of décor? 

In this feature I want to run through some of the most popular aquascaping styles, and perhaps join the dots between these layouts and the fish best suited to them. 

Triangular or Island nature aquascape 

At this time, the triangular design is popular. This layout takes the form of a corner section heavily decorated with hardscape, with an abundance of plants emerging from and around it. Outside of that is usually a large open space, often a sand or aquasoil base, but little to no coverage of any other kind. 

The same ethos might be applied to an assembly of plants and hardscape sat in the middle of the tank, as an island layout, the key difference being that the open expanses surround the ‘island’ on either side.

Such a design is associated with plenty of flow in order to keep the plant nutrients dispersed and suspended across the entirety of the tank — a strategy that helps to keep algae down, and plant growth up. 

The relatively high flow, combined with large open expanses, perhaps peppered with the occasional rock, makes such a set-up well suited to rheophilic loaches or gobies. These will frolic in and around the plants as well as the rockwork, and not be intimidated by the open space. 

Instead, however, many aquascapers tend to prefer to stock with species such as gouramis. Alas, this family of fish is more closely associated with areas that are naturally swamped with plants and have therefore evolved to feel comfortable in dense planting. 

Other poor choices often involve rasbora and tetra species from blackwater, or areas naturally adorned with dense hardscape — a stark contrast to an aquascape with minimal layout, crystal clear water, and intense artificial lighting. 

The result? A tank of fish that spend most of their time hidden amongst the foliage. Those that do expand outwards into other sections tend to be more nervous and less carefree than those housed in a more suitable setting. 

Five to try

Why not consider the following for an island or triangular layout? 

Add a few caves to keep Rams happy. 

1. Ram cichlids, Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, are worth consideration here for a super soft water environment. Their love of cover, caves and other safe spaces makes an island scape appealing to them.

Corydoras appreciate open sandy areas.

2. Corydoras catfish love to snuffle, and an island ‘scape can give them plenty of space to do that, with a good expanse of open substrate over which to forage,
 

Stiphodon gobies thrive in higher flow. 

3. Stiphodon species of gobies may come into their own here. Take for example, Stiphodon atropurpureus, a lover of fast moving, clear, well oxygenated water with plenty of light to support a dense ecosystem of grazeable goodies. Plenty of rockwork for exploration and burrowing will also help tick their boxes.

Badis badis will browse about. 

4. Badis badis is a slight outsider here in that its natural habitat is somewhat limited of planting in the Ganges river, owing to its turbid, muddy nature. However, this does mean that the little micropredator is going to be of no danger to your plants, and the males cut a striking compromise with their black-blue colouration against greens and reds. A great option for a harder water planted setup. 

5. An honourable mention should be made for the Harlequin rasbora, Trigonostigma heteromorpha, whose natural Asian habitat is often peppered with Cryptocoryne species, an expansive group of aquatic plants that are surprisingly hardy and varied, making an easy entry point for newcomers to a planted tank. 

Dutch style

The Dutch style of aquascape is not one for the feint-hearted. It relies on an absence of any and all hardscape, and an absolute mass of dense planting often built in terraces, as well as a thick and vibrant carpet. Highly disciplined, and much higher maintenance then a nature scape due to its ordered structure, it remains one of the layouts that admirers respect from afar but never have the time or patience to try themselves.

Such a layout is poles apart from a triangular or island structure, with dense planting dominating the entirety of the tank along every axis. Immediately you can see here we have a preference for fish that will frolic in that sort of environment. 

With such a proliferation of growth, a tank like this would be far more suited to the gouramis — you could take a Dwarf gourami, Trichogaster lalius, or Honey gourami, Trichogaster chuna, and expect wholly different expressions of confidence and behaviour when compared to keeping them in a
more barren aquarium. 

Now you’ve got them in a situation that will more naturally resemble their usual environment; no matter how intense the lighting, it becomes diffused amongst the plants, which are altogether denser, and more widely spread through the tank.
This goes a considerable way to offering the fish a feeling of safety and comfort. 

Add in some suitable dither species, whether that’s something they would occur with naturally in the wild, or something more abstract like a Harlequin rasbora, T. heteromorpha, and you’d see a whole mash of colour, both from the plants themselves and from fish moving gracefully through the setup.

Perfect partners

With an affinity for dense plants and shaded situations, why not consider on of the following five fish?

Honey gouramis love the shade. 

1. The Honey gourami, Trichogaster chuna, should be a far more popular fish than it is, especially in its wild-type colouration (although true wild specimens are relatively uncommon). Their love of densely planted aquascapes combined with their insectivorous diet means that said plants will avoid becoming a salad bar. 

Sparkling gourami are small and manageable.

2. The Sparkling gourami, Trichopsis pumila, is another nomination for the wider gourami family. This time an even more diminutive strain which will feel most at home surrounded by a dense mass of planting. 

Pea puffers thrive in planted tanks. 

3. The Pea puffer, Carinotetraodon travancoricus, doesn’t usually encounter much in the way of hardscape in its natural environment, and would benefit from suitable diffusion of light which may lend it to being kept in a traditional Dutch-style tank.

Discus need larger aquariums. 

4. Discus, Symphysodon aequifasciatus, are well known for their shy nature, and in their natural habitat are used to a respectable amount of vegetation.
A large enough tank could offer a perfect combination of dense planting and comfortable, colourful fish, albeit with additional needs to ensure perfect water quality. 

Aphyosemion striatum.

5. The expansive Killifish family may offer up a few choices here. Dependent on the setup, the beginner-friendly Aphyosemion striatum may be an option, although high-flow could be an issue given their propensity to dwell in pools, so perhaps a deviation from the traditional world of Dutch-Style. Nevertheless, dense planting for cover will make these fish feel right at home. 

Iwagumi 

The Iwagumi remains one of the most enduring styles of aquascape; spearheaded by the father of modern aquascaping Takashi Amano. The Iwagumi (literally ‘rock formation’) has at its heart a collection of rocks arranged in such a way as to follow the ‘golden ratio’ rule of design to form a visually appealing landscape. 

Planting is sparse, the rocks and their arrangement being the primary focus, and as such planting is traditionally restricted to those low-growing species that form a dense carpet. There may potentially be the odd bit of moss creeping over a rock or two, but very little else. Spartan, serene, and minimalist are hastags the typical hastags you’d associate with an Iwagumi. 

Once again, choices of livestock for this barren landscape often lean towards species of tetra — the Neon tetra, Paracheirodon innesi, being a prime example, or the larger Cardinal tetra P. axelrodi, in its place. 

I’ve also seen Iwagumi layouts that utilise the Harlequin rasbora, Trigonostigma heteromorpha, and admittedly to stunning effect. 

The issue here is that beyond their aesthetic value, these are fish that have mainly evolved to life in densely planted, murky waters, being kept in a pristine environment and saturated in light. 

If we’re matching organisms to artificial habitats, the wise choice here would be Neocaridina shrimp, creatures that thrive in an open, rocky wilderness. Given the excellent range of colours available, it would not be out of place to use them as a fantastic contrast against the lush green carpet, and the dark grey of something like Seiryu stone. Fishless perhaps, but no less stunning to the eye. 

Life in the open

While many fish really appreciate lots of cover, there are still many fish that naturally occur in open water and have no need for tall plants of tangled hardscape. If you’re planning an Iwagumi of your own, keep and eye out for the following three fish in your local shops…

Danio choprae.

1. Danio choprae – Benefitting from a natural habitat that’s often found to be lacking in any sort of greenery, the presence of imposing hardscape here will give them a natural feeling of safety around which to gather, but without detracting from the scape. 

Go cooler for Tanichthys. 

2. Tanichthys albonubes – Dense, marginal vegetation and a decent amount of flow is the standard requirement for these temperate beasties. Whilst the vegetation may not be quite the same in an Iwagumi scape, they are a worth contender for a species happy in the open water. 

3. Shrimp, all and any, are quite happy occupying the lush carpet of an Iwagumi scape, these little critters can give hours of joy, especially without fish in the way.

Biotope

The last option to explore is the one that probably gets the attention from what I would describe as the ‘purists’ in the hobby. There is a genre dedicated to recreating authentic replicas of real-world habitats, and while it can be harder to make something with a precise, manicured look, these designs can still be classed as aesthetic ventures and aquascapes in their own right. 

There is less focus on the artistic side of things, and more on mimicking the exact parameters of some wilderness scene. And notably with a biotope, the aquarium is almost always designed with the purpose of housing a particular fish or fishes. 

The biotope possibilities are endless — tannin-stained waters with minimal planting, leaf litter, plenty of wood and hardscape, or even a tank with nothing more than sand and a few twigs. Such designs can be beautiful, yes, but in a different way to the more contrived and restricting criteria that artistic aquascapes are required to adhere to.

A biotope is arguably the most ‘correct’ version of an aquarium over any of the others, because it most closely tries to replicate nature, limiting itself to the planting, substrate and decoration choices that are the most familiar for the fish the tank is intended to house.  

If you go down this route, then you will by definition hit the nail on the head with picking the right fish for the right scape.

Three you’ll love! 

While all biotopes are great fun, if you’re new to the subject then why not consider starting with one of these? 

Boraras prefer blackwater. 

1. Boraras blackwater — lots of tannin-soaked wood and leaf litter is the order of the day here. You want the tank stained dark, almost like black tea, and you’re probably best avoiding live plants that would struggle to grow in the gloom. It needn’t be a big tank either, something of just 60cm long will house a generous shoal of these tiny fish that don’t even reach a full inch long when fully grown! 

Neon tetras love a biotope. 

2. Neon Tetra – this is the correct category for these diminutive little pockets of colour, and they lend themselves well to a cost-effective, low tech setup. Plenty of fallen branches, leaf litter, and the occasional low-tech plant such as Cabomba, or
even some wild and rampant Hydrocotyle, will help make the tannin-stained Rio Negro-esque habitat a welcoming home. 

3. Sewellia hillstream loaches – the high flow necessary for these organic suction-cups to thrive often rules out the presence of much planting matter. A large river manifold setup will provide sufficient water movement, but use marginal plants to expand your scape out of the water and into the air with species like pothos. Good quality lighting will generate a dense biofilm on which these guys can feed, and crystal clear water will also encourage this.