While the health benefits of owning a dog or cat are fairly well recognised, you may be surprised to learn that caring for exotic fish can offer similar benefits! If you’ve ever thought about starting an aquarium, now is an excellent time to sit down and plan out the exotic fish tank of your dreams.
Many new aquarists jump into the hobby with little planning and simply fill their tank with anything that catches their eye. There’s nothing wrong with this approach but, if you want to create a spectacular tank, it’s better to build your aquatic community around a planned theme or point of focus. Once you’ve chosen a focus for your tank, it will guide you towards the right species and set-up for creating your ideal aquatic community.
Freshwater vs saltwater tanks
Before you settle on your theme, it’s helpful to decide if you’d like to start a freshwater or saltwater aquarium. While saltwater tanks have a reputation for being expensive and difficult to maintain, it just depends on the specifics. An intricately aquascaped freshwater tank can be just as challenging to maintain as a reef tank.
You may want to research the different tank styles and maintenance requirements to see which best suits you based on your experience, budget and desired appearance.
Keep in mind that freshwater tanks can look as amazing as marine set-ups, so you don’t have to go with saltwater to get a beautiful or tranquil aquarium.
In order of difficulty and expense, these are the typical styles of aquarium:
1) Fish-only freshwater community tanks
2) Lightly planted freshwater community tanks
3) Densely planted freshwater community tanks or Fish-only saltwater tanks
4) Aquascaped freshwater tanks
Pick a theme
There are two ways to go about selecting a theme for your tank. You can focus on your favourite species of fish or invertebrate and design your tank to highlight their appearance and bring out their most interesting behaviours.
Alternatively, you might prefer to recreate a natural habitat such as the Amazon River, a Hawaiian Reef or an African Lake bottom. You might even opt to focus on aquascaping your tank and make fish or aquatic animals a secondary consideration over your plants and hardscape.
When you’re designing a tank around the needs of a particular species, you’ll want to research their natural behaviour and preferences. To recreate a habitat, it’s usually easiest to start with a photograph that has the appearance you’re aiming for and use it as a guide for selecting your live organisms, substrate and decorations.
Select your tank’s capacity
One factor in choosing your tank’s theme is what size aquarium you’d like to have in terms of the water capacity. I would recommend getting the biggest tank you can because large tanks are easier to maintain than small ones. When things go wrong in nano-tanks, they happen quickly, and your fish, plants or corals may not survive.
I’d start with at least a 10-gallon set-up for your first tank; 30-gallon tanks are ideal for novices and allow a lot of leeway in your hardscaping and choice of tank mates. If you want a big group of goldfish or a rare Arowana, on the other hand, you’ll need to look at larger tanks from 100 to 400 gallons.
Don’t neglect to factor in the space taken up by your decorations, live plants and internal equipment like filters and bubble features. They reduce your tank’s capacity, so the more hardscape you add, the less room you’ll have for your fish. Keep that in mind as you draw up your plan.
You’ll probably want to add other fish or invertebrates such as snails, shrimp, live rocks or corals to your tank to round out the picture. You’ll need to research the ideal tank mates for your focus-fish or the animals most commonly seen in your environment of choice.
Some fish and invertebrates are considered community species and often get along in mixed groups with other peaceful or compatible species. Semi-aggressive fish like Barbs and aggressive fish like African Cichlids, on the other hand, require tank mates with similar pugnacious attitudes. Make a list of likely candidates for your tank.
With your tank size and theme chosen, you can start mapping out your layout on paper. Draw a picture from the top and side views to help you visualise what your tank should look like and where the hardscape features, plants/corals and equipment should be placed.
This is where all your research really comes together. Do you need to leave open areas by your filter outflow for your fast-current swimmers like Tiger Barbs or Oscars? If you’re going to keep a Yellow Watchman Goby or a school of shy Glass Catfish, you’ll need plenty of hiding places to maintain their comfort.
Once you have your plan ready, it’s time to start shopping and set up your tank!
On a final note, I would recommend buying captive-bred fish from reputable local breeders to avoid supporting the illegal animal trade, and be sure to secure any permits that may be required to keep exotic fish in your location.
Jen Clifford is Tankarium.com's contributor with over 30 years' experience as a biologist, aquarist and fishkeeper. She started her first aquarium in childhood when she snuck a fishbowl into her bedroom and filled it with African dwarf frogs and 10-cent feeder goldfish.
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