A Livebearer Biotope

(Unedited version)
Originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of
Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine

This is the special livebearer edition of TFH, honoring this years ALA convention. When my old buddy Ted asked me to include livebearers in my column this month, how could I refuse? Livebearers are one of my three aquarium passions. The others are of course plants and then fresh water invertebrates. I'm also a former chairman of the ALA. They're a great group of people that are truly dedicated to livebearing fishes.

I currently have over 30 different types of livebearers, divided about equally in thirds between fancy guppies, wild type Poeciliads, and Goodeids. These fish have all done very well for me in well planted aquariums, though most prefer neutral to somewhat hard water.

Even if you aren't interested in creating a biotope aquarium, livebearers are great additions to your planted tank. The plants make great hiding places for fry and smaller fish, or the weaker sex, which in livebearers isn't necessarily the female. Many livebearers are good community fish and will get along quite well with the small algae eating shrimp you may keep. A well planted tank with a colony of livebearers and shrimp can be an easy to keep and rewarding aquarium. This type of aquarium can provide extra fish, shrimp and plants, to trade or auction at your local aquarium club.

The Biotope

Biotope aquariums seek to represent a specific type of natural body of water. They can be one of the most difficult aquariums to create. It all depends on how authentic you want to make your biotope. A simple biotope would include plants and animals that are found in roughly the same geographic area and the same types of water. Roughly the same can include areas as large as continents, or a specific place on a specific body of water. The more accurately you want to make your biotope the more difficult it becomes.

You can never truly recreate all that nature offers in a small glass box in your home, but you can work to achieve as close a re-creation as possible. This would include not only appropriate water conditions, decorations and substrate, but a mixture of fish and invertebrates that inhabit the same small area in a natural body of water.

I also should note that not all biotope aquariums, just not like all natural bodies of water, will include plants. Some natural waters are mostly devoid of plant life, and some just have types of algae and emergent plants on its banks.

Starting Simple
The Basic Guppy Biotope

So let's say you want try a biotope aquarium but would rather start with something simple. What do you do to find out what goes in it? There are a few books that offer suggestions and sometimes you can find articles with specific information. But let's say you don't have anything that specific available, and you'd like to start with something pretty simple.

When creating a simple biotope aquarium you'll have to start somewhere, either by choosing a fish, a plant or place. I thought I would choose the most common of the livebearers for this example.

Many good livebearer reference books and general fish books should indicate the original geographical locations of the fish it coves. Today guppies can be found in many places in the world. Originally they came from the very northern parts of South America and the islands north of it. This includes, among others; Northern Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, Barbados, and Trinidad. Guppies occupy many types of slow moving or still waters in these areas, from calm sections of rivers to lakes and ditches. Some even live in brackish waters.

Now we know where guppies are from. Since they live in a variety of different types of water the substrate and other decorations can be pretty much open to interpretation and we've already decided this tank will be a very loosely based biotope. A natural color substrate is chosen and natural decorations like rocks or wood are added.

Checking in aquarium plant books which also contain geographical information on individual plants, I found over 40 species that could theoretically live in the same place as guppies. Most of these plants are not common in the aquarium trade and many I've never even seen available. Fortunately with over 40 species listed there are several that are regularly available to aquarists. Some are more difficult to find for sale than others. These plants are also varying in their levels of difficulty to grow.

Those plants that are found in the native geographical region of guppies, and also regularly seen available for sale include: Bacopa monnieri, Cabomba aquatica, Echinodorus berteroi, E. cordifolius, E. tenellus, Eleocharis acicularis, Hydrocotyle verticillata, Mayaca fluviatilis Myriophyllum aquaticum, Najas guadalupensis, and Sagittaria subulata.

This doesn't mean that these plants or a combination of them and guppies necessarily do live in the wild together, but they are both living in the same general geographical area. It's at least theoretically possible they could occur together in the wild.

Of course the beautifully colorful guppies most available today aren't much like their wild forbearers. Feeder guppies are more similar to wild ones. Wild guppies are very seldom available, and can be much more difficult fish to keep alive and breed, than the very domesticated fancy guppy. Still for a fun project it's not too difficult to plan a very general biotope for any kind of fish, plant or place.

Trying to Create a Slice of Nature

To plan a more exact biotope aquarium you'll need a little more information. In this instance you'll want to know exactly what type of substrate, fish, and plants actually are living together, and if there are generally rocks or fallen branches in their native waters.

Generally the best way to find out what really does live together is to find out from people that have actually been there. Sometimes there is collection information in aquarium books. Aquarium magazines often have great articles about collecting trips. These articles often will say there were a lot of plants or not very many plants but aren't always forthcoming about what those plants are. Fortunately more collection articles are starting to include not only information on the fish found, but on the plants and other organisms they've seen with them. There are also several accounts by collectors available on the internet. Type your specific queries into a search engine to find those most relevant to the type of biotope you would like to create.

Several livebearers actually live in the same locations in the wild. In a large biotope tank with lots of hiding places you could house some of these fish together.

Another big plus for creating a biotope aquarium around livebearers is that many of the wild types carry their original location with them. More fish in general are also being identified with not only the genus and species, but also with their collection location.

The bad news is that for many livebearers their original location is gone, or going. Most livebearers live in the area between the southern United States and northern South America. Water is often scarce in these areas. Many livebearers only had a small range to begin with, some in only one or a few small ponds or springs. As human use dries up these locations the livebearers become extinct in the wild, if these fish aren't kept elsewhere, such as in aquariums, they just go totally extinct. As these waters dry up, if there has been no information gathered before hand, we may never know exactly what plants and invertebrates may have lived with these fish.

Striving for Perfection

The best way to create a biotope tank that most closely resembles an actual piece of natural water is to actually go to the location and collect the elements you need for the tank yourself. Bringing plants home from out of the country can be extremely difficult, but fish can sometimes be brought back without too much trouble, depending on the country and how much preparation was done in advance. Always make sure you know the laws before you try to remove or transport animals or plants of any kind. To make it easier there are sometimes planned group collecting trips available. These groups are usually planned by people who know the laws and take care of the paperwork for you.

You may be surprised to find that there are many wonderful aquatic plants and fish suitable for the aquarium in the United States. The southeastern states in particular have a great variety of aquatic plants, and small fish including several livebearers, that are highly suitable for the aquarium.

If you collect yourself you will be able to know what sort of substrate and decorations are suitable for your tank. And you will know that the plants and animals you collect go together. Collecting your own organisms will also mean you'll be able to try any small invertebrates found in that location in your biotope. Be careful though, in the wild it's eat or be eaten. Make sure the animals you bring home will be compatible.

Creating a biotope aquarium whether with livebearers or other fish, can be a new fun challenge to your aquarium hobby. You can make it as easy or difficult as you like, and learn something more about the natural world as you do it.

Questions or Comments?

If you have questions or Comments about this column, join the Natural Aquariums Forum and post them here.

Welcome to the Jungle | Into The Forest | The Creepy Crawlies | A Clearing in the Thicket | Algae Eaters for the Planted Aquarium
North American Natives | Why things go wrong Pt 1 | Why things go wrong Pt 2 (Algae) | Algae Eating Shrimp | Lo-Tech Tanks
Welcome to the Fish Room | The Stemmed Plants | Mosses | A Livebearer Biotope | Planted Tank Social | The Genus Hygrophila | Cyanobacteria
Easy Plants | What I Did Last Summer | Decorations in the Planted Tank | Botany-An Introduction to Plant Biology | Botany-Anatomy of a plant
Botany-How Plants Work | Easy Rosettes | Going High-Tech | Floating Plants | Dealing with Success | Bringing the Outside In | Vallisneria
Hair Algae | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 1 | Flowering Aquarium Plants Part 2 | Liverworts in the Aquarium | Elements of Design
Planted Aquarium Maintenance | More Mosses | Invaders | Ferns in the Aquarium | Setting up a Planted Aquarium
Seaweeds of the Pacific Northwest | Proserpinaca | Hardware for the Planted Aquarium | Rotala | Neocaridina Shrimp | Lo-tech Tank Tips

Home | Forum | Articles | Plants | Inverts | Store

Vote for us daily on Aquarank

Search the Natural Aquariums web site

Discover new ways to explore your aquarium hobby every month with "Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine". The World's Aquarium Magazine since 1952.

For more information about planted aquariums, Natural Aquariums recommends "The Simple Guide to Planted Aquariums" by Terry Barber and Rhonda Wilson.

Natural Aquariums


Ask questions
Share your successes

"Nature Aquarium World 2" The second Nature Aquarium World book from Takashi Amano. Mr. Amano's aquariums and photography make him the most celebrated planted aquarist in the world today.

Christel Kasselmann's "Aquarium Plants" is the most complete encylopedia of aquarium plants to date. A must have book for the aquatic plant enthusiast.