Seek and Ye Shall Find: How to Research Your Fish | Details | Articles

Featured Article

Issue: May 2008

Author: Craig Sernotti

Copy Of Sernotti Feature Pic
Photographer: MP. & C. Piednoir

Confused about the keeping requirements of that neat new fish at your local shop? Found some conflicting advice online? Do a little investigative research with help from T.F.H. Publications’ inquiring Aquatics Book Editor.

One of the resounding maxims you’ll no doubt encounter in the aquarium hobby is to resist impulse and research the fish that interest you first, then make your purchase. Doing so educates you on care requirements, total length, compatibility concerns, and other important issues to be mindful of to provide the best possible underwater home for your fish.

   A seasoned hobbyist already knows where to look because he or she has done so many times. But what is a beginner to do—where do the newcomers look, or better, where do they even start? There’s so much information available today, what do you trust and what do you take with a grain of non-iodized salt?

   To all the beginners, the ones that don’t know where to begin researching their fish: read on, you curious lot!

You Have Questions,Go Get Answers

   A journalism professor of mine once told us of an acronym that bounces around among reporters: GOYAKOD. After some awkward and uncertain silence from the peanut gallery as to what it meant, he explained, “Get off your [butt]; knock on doors!” Good reporters don’t wait for information to come to them, they find out what they need to know.

  The same can be said for researching fish. The answers are out there—somewhere—and you’ve got to hunt them down. You may have read some my-first-aquarium-type books (and if so, you’re on the right track), but these don’t tell you everything about the fish they recommend for beginners. So where else can you look? Luckily, since we live in the Information Age, knowledge is just a click away.


The Internet

   Turn on, sign on, and get your learn on! A few keywords entered into a search engine will produce thousands of sites that can tell you what you need to know. Not all that information is accurate, but good or bad, it’s there for your immediate review.

   While the Internet gives a voice to anyone who can access it, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Everyone has their opinion, and speaking subjectively, everyone is right. For example, one person’s husbandry techniques may differ from another’s; if both provide proper care for the fish, who’s to say who is right or wrong.

While both techniques may work, no Internet “governing body” exists to submit one’s information for review. A majority of the bountiful and overwhelming information available is completely unedited. No facts are checked, no errors or inaccuracies are caught, and material is simply uploaded to a website for all to see—and for some to take as truth.

   Of course, this generalization is not true for all websites. Some, like FishBase (, source scientific articles and other reputable materials for all the information they provide. These websites can be trusted to provide accurate information. Others, like Tropical Resources (, offer online forums where you can create an account and post questions, which in turn will be answered by hobbyists with many years of experience. These too deserve regular visits.

   It is the homemade, amateur pages—“My favorite cichlids dot com”—that you should be wary of. Rarely is the information on these labors of love sourced; most likely they are diluted regurgitations of other web pages. Not that these hobbyists should be scolded for showing off their favorite fish, but they would better serve their fellow fishkeepers by suggesting books or other edited sources of information.

   There’s a good chance that misinformation will proliferate on the Internet because as long as a page’s owner pays the hosting fees, the website will be available for visitation. For instance, when researching the celestial pearl danio
Celestichthys margaritatus, regular TFH contributor Mike Hellweg discovered that what little information he could find on the Internet—other than that it’s a beautiful fish—was wrong. If you ask, Mr. Hellweg will tell you that correcting these errors was the impetus for writing “The Celestial Pearl Danio: A Cautionary Tale,” published in the July 2007 issue of this magazine.

  The pictures and rumors circulating on the Internet suggested that they may be either man-made hybrids of
Danio choprai and Microrasbora erythromicron or a hoax designed with photo-editing software. Mr. Hellweg and others will attest to their natural beauty. He has also been in contact with the person who discovered them in the wild; better to trust this than faceless, baseless Internet poppycock, right?

   Untrustworthy data on this species said it was a delicate schooling fish from warm, soft waters in coastal swamps, that they were hard to breed, and that the greed of aquarium hobbyists had just about wiped out the entire wild population. In actuality,
C. margaritatus is a hardy, territorial species (males especially, who have been known to kill rivals) that comes from cool, basic water in high-elevation mountain springs.

   The specimens being imported were thought to be juveniles that would grow larger, but this fish is full grown at less than an inch. Males and females were believed to be indistinguishable, but there’s actually strong sexual dimorphism. This fish is not a rasbora but is actually closely related to the danios, and it prefers to hide among plants, not to swim in open water. They are, in Mr. Hellweg’s words, “incredibly easy to spawn, are widespread, and populations in the wild are extremely resilient, even under heavy collection pressure.”

   The Internet is not all bad. It does provide you with a good starting point for your research. From visiting several sites you can easily learn a fish’s scientific name, general behavior, eating habits, etc. A more reliable source for this information, though, is printed matter.


Books and Magazines

   Maybe it’s my bibliophilic prejudice, but even so, books and magazines are, for the most part, a better source of information than the Internet. They have what most web pages don’t: a review process. All printed material must first be evaluated for accuracy and clarity. If the publication was released by an established, reputable company, you can trust that it is precise, informative, and reliable.

   Perceived experts in the various sciences—and wordsmith hobbyists—all attempt to publish their writings in journals and books. An accepted and printed piece means your words were reviewed, approved, and believed to be helpful to the reading audience. Famous careers and esteemed reputations are built off of published works (and the debate they create).

   Now I know I said books are better, but I did say “for the most part.” Some print authors have been known to source faulty data found on the Internet, perpetuating this inaccurate information. And of course there’s the whole print-on-demand craze, where anyone who pays the fee can publish their work. These projects are not reviewed by editors, rather reflecting only what the author has done on their own. It’s better to trust an established publishing firm for your print purchases. These firms have more invested in releasing a quality product.


Local Clubs and National Societies

   I did say get up and go knock on doors! Through the Internet or from magazine advertisements you may learn of a local fish club. Find out when and where they meet and check them out! It’s here that you’ll find the best resource—the dedicated aquarium hobbyist. Introduce yourself, ask questions, seek advice. Hobbyists love to share their experiences and knowledge. This is solid information—these men and women have gone through what you’re going through, have made the same mistakes, and have learned how to correct them and how to create and maintain thriving aquariums.

  By staying active in a club, before you know it you will go from local to national, and one day you may be perusing the aisles at large fish conventions, such as those held by the American Cichlid Association, the American Livebearer Association, the American Killifish Association, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America, and others. These annual national gatherings will all provide worldwide networks of fish experts, hobbyists, and information.


Ask an Expert

   Often at club meetings or in convention workshops, an expert is invited to speak. Topics vary by the speaker. No doubt there will be something for everyone. Don’t be shy! Ask questions. Most will gladly play the role of teacher to you, the student.

   And if a speaker or author provides an email address, start up a conversation. Who knows, you may make a new friend!


How to Processthe Information

   So we have established the best sources of information for you, dear beginner. You’ve scanned the websites and posted on forums, you’ve collected a few books, you’ve joined a local club and are an active member, and you’ve talked to some experts who know far more than you do. How do you process the information? What do you discard? What do you trust?

Be Receptive,But Cautious

   First, be the proverbial sponge. Take in everything, and initially, reject nothing. The more you have, the better.

   Start with the advice from experts, those who have been in the hobby for several decades. Take what they say as truth and go from there. Scientific articles and books may be too complex for a beginner, so find the published writings of an advanced hobbyist. These are perfect for the beginner, because advanced hobbyists know how to cut through the scientific jargon that is often confusing to a novice reader, and extract tangible, usable information.

   Buy books that interest you. If they include bibliographies, see if you can track down the cited materials. What books do they reference?

   Be critical of unsourced material. Amateur websites and so-called experts can easily spread bad information. If their data or recommendations differ dramatically from an expert’s, discard or ignore it, but be mindful of it. Perhaps one day you can pass along perfect examples of “right” and “wrong” information.


Always Ask Questions

   You can’t learn if you don’t ask questions. Asking questions can be a good icebreaker at clubs. This may eventually lead to new friendships, new understanding, new discoveries, and….more questions! That is one of the most wonderful things about this hobby: there’s always something new to learn, so ask away.


Research in Practice

   This article isn’t all theory. Let’s look now at some of the research I did for a fish I encountered recently.

   Before buying dog food at my local pet store, I did a quick lap through the fish aisles. They had all freshwater species, nothing out of the ordinary: fancy guppies, bettas, Malawi cichlid juveniles, rosy-red feeders, various goldfish. And then, there it was—a 6- or 7-inch juvenile catfish with several long, flowing barbels and a flat head. The common name scrawled on the tank said it was a Lima shovelnose catfish. Being a lover of the Siluriformes, but knowing nothing about this specific fish, I had to find out more.

   My first stop was the website Planet Catfish ( It had a listing for that common name, and it was here that I learned the fish’s
likely scientific name, Sorubim lima. I then typed in the web address for FishBase. While they listed the fish’s common name as “duckbill catfish,” the scientific name, the only name that really matters, was the same.

   I must pause here for a moment. For the sake of brevity, I am taking the common name written on the tank and this associated scientific name to be a match. This, however, is usually not a
good course of action. Common names are suspect, since there are so many for any single fish, some are used for more than one species of fish, and scientific names are sometimes given to the wrong specimens in fish stores. In some cases, only a trained professional will be able to accurately assign a scientific name to a specimen in your keep.

   Back to Planet Catfish. The website said this South American cat may grow to at least 17 inches and three could be kept in a 55-gallon aquarium. Tankmates had to be of equal size, or else they would be eaten. The site recommended large plecos or other catfishes. A good start, but a little vague. Which other catfishes? Which plecos?

  There’s a website that caters to large, carnivorous fishes like
S. lima. I could post my questions in the “Catfish” or “Bottom Dwellers” section of a predatory fish forum (such as,, or, or take yet another route. I was fortunate to be able to ask TFH columnist Lee Finley about it. He sent me the PDF version of a published scientific article on the Sorubim catfish, then gladly answered my questions. You should be able to find similar help in your local aquarium society or online forum.

   Mr. Finley reiterated that tankmates for S. limahad to be large. “The main factor,” he said, “is to never underestimate the mouth and stomach capacity of this or any other pimelodid catfish. Larger individuals are natural fish eaters and are known to take a wide variety of fishes, including other pimelodids.”

   He went on to say a decent-size
Pimelodus catfish might work well as a tankmate, like a member of the complex that is commonly sold as “four-lined pim.” For plecos, large Ancistrus species are a good choice, as are smaller sailfins, Pterygoplichthys spp.

   I asked about the recommended tank size for keeping
S. lima, as 55 gallons seemed somewhat undersized, especially if keeping several of these and other large fishes together. Finley said that a 55 is ideal for a growing juvenile, but agreed with me that “eventually they would be much better served by, and much happier in, a larger tank.”

   Now, imagine if in my excitement I brought home this fish, only to watch my other fish disappear and the shovelnose grow and grow and grow? That’s why research is so important. Researching the fish that interest you first allows you to prepare a proper setup, one in which all the fish you keep will thrive.


Never Stop Looking and Learning

   I’ll say it again: there’s always something to learn in this hobby. If you aren’t learning, you aren’t trying. Don’t stop looking for answers to your questions. Eventually, you may find a niche that is to your liking—planted tanks, corals, tankbusting fishes, etc. While delving further into your topic of interest you may come to a dead end, unable to find the answers you need. What now? Unleash your inner scientist! Study the troubling specimen, take copious notes, find like-minded individuals, share your ideas. Maybe even attempt to publish your research. Who knows, you may unearth an important discovery and one day be the expert that hobbyists contact for answers.



   I would like to extend my whole-hearted thanks to Mike Hellweg, Lee Finley, and David Boruchowitz for their help with this article. They answered all my questions, again and again and again.


See the full article on TFH Digital

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