What's been did and what been hid
by Jonathan Downes
I have been a fish keeper for nearly four decades now, and with the onset of middle age I find myself rapidly entering old git territory. One of the enviable traits of the middle-aged is that they can bore on about how things were much better in their youth. I remember, when I was about 12 or 13, my father spending an entire lunch telling me and my younger brother that the Led Zeppelin album that I had just received was atrocious, decadent, and not to be mentioned in the same breath as the Glenn Miller records of his youth. Don't worry, guys; I am not going to spend this entire article droning on about how much better fish keeping was in the 1960s. Mainly because it wasn't. Our hobby has come on apace, and I - for one - would hate to see a return to the bad old days.
However, if you'll pardon me relapsing into old git territory, there are some notable absences from the show tanks of tropical tropical fish shops - mostly fish that used to be kept widely and which are now very seldom seen, but a few, which as far as I know, have never been kept within the trade and I have never understood why.
The Mosquito Fish (Gambusia affinis)
I have extolled the virtues of this singular species in these pages before. I think that it is true to say that if it were not for this particular fish, that the tropical fish hobby, and furthermore the multinational industry that supports it, would not exist. These were the first tropical fish to be kept in temperate climes. They are attractive, showy, engaging little fellows. If I may dare to be anthropomorphic - something I usually avoid like the plague - they are one of the few little fish that really seem to have characters. All the other members of the live bearers that I have come across are nice enough little beasts but hardly riveting company. Don't get me wrong - I have enjoyed keeping Platys any time since 1966, but even the most beautiful of them pales into insignificance besides a male gambusia in breeding colouration.
Originally these little fish come from the warm areas of the southern United States and Central America, but they have a natural attribute that mankind has found irresistible. Their favourite diet is mosquito larvae, and they have been introduced to many parts of the world - including southern Europe - as a preventative measure against malaria. Sadly, however, they have lapsed in popularity as a pet (largely because of their pugnacious nature), and they are very seldom seen in the these anodyne days. If you actually manage to get hold of any please do - you won't be disappointed.
Paddyfield Eel (Monopterus albus)
I was brought up in the last days of the British Empire. Indeed, during my childhood in Hong Kong, I was a witness (though I did not know it at the time), to the last years of Empire proper, before the remaining jewel in the Crown succumbed to a creeping menace of laissez faire capitalism. I remember the governor driving past in his open-topped car and a hat decorated with ostrich plumes. I remember the cannon being fired each day at noon. My memories of the 1960s, therefore, are somewhat different to those of anybody who lived through the decade of love in the UK. My early years as an aquarist, therefore, were spent on the opposite side of the world and so I have no real idea whether this wonderful species was ever widely kept in the UK. Similarly, because I have not lived in the Orient since 1980, I have no idea whether paddyfield Eels are still kept as pets in Hong Kong. But if they ain't they damn well should be.
Paddyfield eels are not eels at all, but members of the order Sybranchiformes or swamp eels. They grow to a length about a hundred centimetres, and are - as the name implies - vaguely eel-like in shape. They are mostly and muddy brown in colour, although there is a very striking chestnut colour morph. They are practically indestructible, and I have seen them kept alive on Chinese market stalls in wicker baskets, which are occasionally doused with water. Why, you must ask, am I extolling their virtues as pets? They ain't exactly attractive. No, they are not, but they are highly intelligent - and in my 38 years of fish keeping I believe that they are by far the cleverest fish that I have ever kept. Various girlfriends (and an ex wife), over the past two decades have complained that I keep fish and other animals in tanks and that you're not able to interact with them in the same way that you can a dog or cat. Well duh! They live in water for one thing, but if you are looking for a fish that will become your constant companion during those long winter evenings then you cannot do better than one of these.
They can become hand tame, will feed from your hand, and will even learn to recognise different people in the room. Nobody ever believes me when I say this, but I even had one once that would let me pet it. They are fantastic fish, and I believe that although you cannot buy them in pet shops, they are imported for the Chinese food market.
There is, of course, a downside. They will devour any other animal in the tank with them, and in parts of America and Hawaii they have become introduced into the wild where they have become an invasive pest. This has given them an enormous amount of bad press. However, I have been a journalist for many years and can whole-heartedly advise you not to believe all that you read in the papers. Try buying one of these fish - shove it in a tank by itself. Don't bother to decorate the tank, your new pet will destroy any ornamentation you care to provide, and will uproot all plants, but you'll have a friend for life.
The Bitterling (Rhodeus amarus)
Even 15 years ago these fish were commonly seen for sale in high street pet stores. However, I haven't seen them for years. This is a great pity, because they are cheap and delightful pets. They are attractive little things - of a strange violet hue, and are lively and fun to watch. But it is their breeding habits, which are most notable. In the spring the males possess all the colours of the rainbow, and the females develop a strange fleshy ovipositor. In order to breed successfully they need the presence of a freshwater mussel into which the female lays her eggs. The male guards the mussel until the eggs have hatched.
Once upon a time these were very commonly kept, and as far as I'm aware it is purely because of the vagaries of fashion that they are no longer seen in pet shops. There are several closely related species of bitterling including some from the Far East, which can be kept in tropical tanks rather than cold-water ones. These charming little fish are well overdue a comeback.
If you ever get a chance to keep them, please do. You will not be disappointed.
For my final selection I would like to choose something a little bit different. Freshwater pipefish are occasionally seen on dealers lists in the USA but I have never seen any in this country. The Syngnathidae or Pipefish family includes over 200 species, distributed worldwide except for the polar regions, mostly in marine environments. A small number of species reside in freshwater habitats. The Syngnathidae family is characterised by a body encased in a series of bony rings; a tube-like snout; and a lack of pelvic fins. Eggs are incubated in the abdominal pouch of the male.
Freshwater species are found in Africa, Indonesia and Central America. I first heard about them in one of Gerald Durrell's excellent books about animal collecting in Africa in the 1940s, and they have fascinated me ever since. From what I can gather, they are relatively easy to keep in a 35-45 gallon (132-170 l) tank. The tank should have a sand - preferably coral sand - substrate and be in a location that receives morning sun. Plant the tank heavily with plants that can tolerate the slightly brackish water conditions. The filter should create a moderate current and the tank must be well aerated. They can even be bred in captivity. With the growing popularity of exotic species such as freshwater stingrays, it is only a matter of time - I believe - before they are available commonly in British shops. When they are, remember where you read about them first.