Shane's World Right Arrow CatfishologyRight Arrow Natural Catfish Aquarium, Part 2 • Materials and Techniques

Article © Shane Linder, uploaded January 01, 2002.

In the previous article in this series, I discussed several natural habitats where catfishes kept in aquariums are encountered in the wild. I would like to continue the theme by discussing some of the materials and techniques aquarists can use to recreate these habitats.

Glass Boxes
For the most part, aquariums are really just water proof glass boxes. In an ideal situation the aquarist would decide what type of habitat they wished to recreate and buy an aquarium with the dimensions best suited to recreate that specific habitat. In reality most of us already own one or more tanks and thus will be limited in our options by this factor. Two factors that normally mirror each other should be taken into account when buying a new aquarium; surface area and substrate area. Since most, but certainly not all, catfishes are benthic (a nicer term to my mind than bottom-dweller) in their habits, substrate area is a paramount factor. More substrate space allows the fish to establish territories or school over a larger area. Since oxygen exchange takes place at the water's surface, a greater amount of surface area will permit higher oxygen levels. The height of the tank will increase the actual amount of water in the aquarium, but should be a measurement of secondary importance as far as stocking levels are concerned.

Natural aquarium by Iwona Palczewska Natural aquarium Alex von Tilburg Natural aquarium by Iwona Palczewska

A well designed background can really change the way an aquarium looks. While some aquarists elect not to have a background, it has been my experience that fish are much more nervous in this situation. Ideally, the background should actually encompass three sides of the aquarium with only the front exposed for viewing. One or both ends of the tank can be left uncovered if it fits with the aquascaping theme the aquarist is after. Here are some background ideas:

  1. The Poor Aquarist's/Breeder's background: Use a big black plastic trash bag and cut it to size. Breeders typically prefer to cover three sides of the tank so that the fish settle in and are less disturbed by movements outside the aquarium. Trash bags look as good as any store bought black background, the cost is very low, and they last a long time.
  2. Slightly more expensive, but also more durable, is contact paper sold for lining kitchen drawers. It is cheap and comes in many colors.
  3. Make your own background: Get an old box and cut the cardboard to fit the rear or three sides of the aquarium. I like the brown textured look of cardboard for a riverbank type background. If you feel a bit artistic you can spray paint the cardboard black, dark brown, dark green or even a slate gray to compliment the aquarium's aquascaping. If you want to have some real fun paint rocks, roots or whatever effect you are after on the cardboard. This is a much better idea than painting the actual aquarium glass because paint is very difficult to remove should the aquarist want to do something different in the future.
  4. Hi-tech backgrounds: I have seen some really neat backgrounds that have used dark car window tinting with weak back lighting behind the aquarium. This takes some work, but can look really professional and really give a look of depth. There are also some companies now making very attractive resin backgrounds that recreate stones and driftwood. I would not recommend these backgrounds for aquariums housing loricariids as they will eat off the background's paint over time. In fact, I would stay away from any plastic décor with most loricariids as neither the paint nor plastic can be good for their digestive systems.
  5. Homemade Hi-tech backgrounds: If you have access to some basic tools you can create your own natural hi-tech background. Simply cut appropriate driftwood pieces in two down the middle and place the flat side against the back of the aquarium. This method adds natural looking depth to the aquarium. The same technique can be used with stones by picking out rocks that are flat on one side and placing the flat portion against the rear pane of the tank.
  6. More homemade hi-tech backgrounds: A false riverbank can be created by laying the tank with what will be the back on the ground and attaching flat stones with silicone. After the silicone is dry, the tank is placed on its stand. The gaps between the stones can then be filled in with Java moss, Java fern, and Anubias. Once the plants have grown in, this is an attractive display. In a similar manner, a false driftwood snag can be constructed by attaching suction cups to pieces of driftwood and affixing the driftwood pieces to fill out the rear of the aquarium.

Think hard about the color you choose for the background. Various blues are good for replicating the open water habitats. Use lighter blues to replicate shallow environments and darker blues to represent deeper biotopes. If you use blues, do not stack things against the back of the tank as it is illogical that driftwood could grow out of the open water.

Browns and dark grays can all be used where the back of the tank is meant to be a riverbank. Ideally, the background should be painted to match the tank's decor. A tank heavily aquascaped with driftwood should have the driftwood coming out of a dark brown background that represents a dirt. A tank decorated with lots of gray slate stacked to form caves should have a slate gray background. Golden browns can also be used like blue to create an open water feel in blackwater tanks.

Dark greens should be used with a planted tank where you wish it to look like the tank goes on forever. This looks great in a tank that is heavily planted with nothing but tall grasses, large crypts, or sword plants to replicate a flooded area in the rainy season.

Black is the all purpose background. Use it for low light tanks or a tank where you want a "dark" or very "deep" feel. It also shows off some colorful fish better than "natural" colors.

Feel free to experiment with colors. Paint one side of the precut cardboard one color and the other side another color. After a few days switch colors and see which one gives you the feel you are after.

Rineloricaria in leaf litter Sturisoma in natural setting

Too many aquariums are set up with store bought aquarium gravel that is all the same size and color. This type of quality control simply does not exist in nature. An Andean stream has a typical substrate ranging from fist sized stones to sand, with everything in between mixed in. Nearly every substrate will look more natural if it consists of various sizes of sand and gravel. Use a higher percentage of fine substrate and a lower of larger gravel. For example, try about seventy percent sand, 20 percent small gravel and ten percent large gravel all mixed together for a natural look. Try to select a wide variety of sizes when buying or collecting stones for your aquarium. Another important note with regards to stones is to only use one type of rock. Mixing two stones like sandstone with lava rock never produces a good look.

Possibly the only substrate that should be all the same size is one that is completely sand. Sand substrates are necessary for many catfishes that burrow such as banjo cats, Chaca, and many loricariinae. Natural color sands always give a tank a nice look. The sand in most blackwater habitats is actually almost as white as sugar.

Hopefully the above information has given you some ideas with regards to making your next aquarium a natural environment. The options are nearly limitless and the materials are fairly inexpensive so try something new for you and your fish.

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