Survival in the Tank

by Shawn Chase

Kind-hearted aquarist seeks tank companions for a peaceful, relaxing environment.

Hi, I’m Tanya the Yellow Tang, responding to your recent ad. I’d love to come live in your tank!  I love to graze on algae and swim around and around.  I will always entertain you with my antics.  However, I do have a few requests. I have a slight aversion to anything that’s the same shape as me, and sometimes I despise the color yellow.  I know I sound a little picky but you should meet my sister Yaya!  She pretends that she’s sweet, but she can’t stand anyone that comes into her territory!  Please let me know if I can live with you…

Tank mate compatibility.  Sounds simple right?  They all live in the ocean so they should all get along. WRONG. The ocean is a fish eat fish, survival of the fittest environment.

Here’s a great idea…let’s pick a bunch of pretty-colored, really cool looking fish and stick them into our big 55 gallon tank – a 4-foot by 12-inch slice of the ocean. Hmmm, big? Did I say THE OCEAN?  But the salesperson said they would all get along!

Yes, I’m making this sound difficult. Sometimes it is, but with a bit of research and common sense you can do it.  Start with Google.  Don’t just check to see who all gets along.  Tank compatibility charts can sometimes be inaccurate.  Learn about the fish. Watch videos of their natural habitat. Ask yourself these questions about each fish you’re considering:

  • How big does it get?
  • Where does it live its life?
  • What does it eat?
  • What behavior does it display?

Now consider that you are re-creating their world – shrinking it into an itsy-bitsy glass box. Say it with me in a booming voice…they come from THE OCEAN!  Give them space; remember, that not all fish have read the same books we have.  So they might not adapt to tank-life the same as others.  If you suspect a bully, sit and watch your tank for 30 or so minutes.  There might not be outright fighting, but the stress from intimidation can be just as deadly. (Remember the school bully and glass box? Scary!)

It certainly helps when we make informed decisions knowing which direction we want to go.  Envision your ultimate tank and work backwards. Putting the smaller less aggressive fish in first will let them get comfortable in their new stomping grounds.  Fish that have no natural defenses are a food source, so don’t be surprised if they hide until they realize there are no sushi-seeking predators out there.  Sometimes it can be helpful to have a “mover and shaker” in the tank – a fish that naturally is out and about, swimming around without a care in the world.  Surely he will be eaten first, so it must be OK for the rest of us to come out.  Fish psychology.

One more little secret. Let’s say you did fall in love with Tina the Yellow Tang.  You have done your research and you know they get to be 6-8 inches and should be in a minimum 90-gallon tank.  All you have is a 29-gallon, but you plan on getting a bigger tank.  As you stroll through the fish store, swimming around is the cutest little tang ever!  She’s no bigger than a 50-cent piece and has sooo much personality.  She’s in a 20-gallon now and looks happy, and that helpful employee at the fish store said she’d be fine.

First of all, a fish store is a temporary home; the fish do not display normal behavior when they are in an abnormal situation.  Second, Tina the cute little tang is Tina the Yellow Tang in all of her glory, in her head. If you put her in a small tank for a fair amount of time, it will be extremely stressful for her.  A stressed-out fish can show aggressive behavior, is susceptible to illness and could lose its life.  The opposite of what we want to accomplish.

Do your research, be conscientious, have patience and you will have a beautiful stress-free tank.  Also, try to stay away from the online fish ads.They don’t always tell the truth.

Shawn Chase has been the sole proprietor of Mountains to Sea Aquariums in Asheville for 3 1/2 years.  She describes her business as a boutique fish store dedicated to doing the right thing for both fish and customers. Reach her at schase_4@hotmail.com.

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