Angelfish (Photo: Public Domain/Pixabay)
When I was a boy and in my early teens, besides various caterpillars, silk-moths and stick insects, I also had a lot of tropical fish. In fact, I had tanks all around my bedroom. I used to breed many species of fish, including angel fish, keyhole cichlids, golden barbs and paradise fish.
Some types of fish eat their eggs and so it was vitally important for me to be able to get the parents out as soon as they had laid their eggs. I used to stay up into the early hours watching for this to happen. My mother used to get annoyed and would tell me I should be asleep because I had school in the morning. I never cared about school because my insects and fish were my world and what was important to me.
It was in my early teens that I really got into keeping tropical fish and had a school friend called Roger Wiggins who used to keep tropicals too. We used to read magazines for aquarists and find out about fish farms in America and read about specialist breeders of difficult species, and we would fantasise about one day running our own tropical fish businesses. By that time I had started selling surplus fish that I had reared in the tropical fish shops in Cardiff, and sometimes I would supply them with bags of water lettuce, a floating plant I used to get so much of it covered the tops of the water in my tanks. They never used to pay me much for the fish and plants but it was a boost to my ego to be able to think I was successful at being a supplier, even if on a really small scale. The men that ran the shops knew that I knew my stuff too. It all appealed to my youthful sense of pride.
Roger and I used to order exotic aquatic plant species from mail order companies too. It was exciting seeing what the plants were actually like and to find out how well we could grow them. Often enough our efforts failed but that did not stop us. I remember being fascinated by the names we read in ads and wondering what these plants would really be like. Some like the aptly named four-leaf clover turned out to be really great and easy to grow aquatic plants but others just withered away.
I also remember going to Newport to a tropical fish shop in the Pill area of the city. Tachbook Tropicals I think it was. It was worth making this trip by train, not just for a day out, but because for some reason this shop always had fish you could not find in any of the shops in Cardiff. I remember getting an Egyptian mouthbreeder or mouthbrooder and a skunk botia from Newport.
The mouthbreeder was a female and I had her for years. Sadly I never managed to get a male and though she used to spawn on her own her efforts were wasted because the unfertilised eggs died and after she realised this she ate them. It was sad seeing this dedicated mother fish with a mouthful of eggs, not able to eat and expecting her eggs to hatch into tiny babies but never have any hatch out. My Auntie Elsie from London who used to often visit used to call this fish “Ugly” but I couldn’t see why. But it was a male I needed and for some reason every time I saw these mouth-breeders for sale there were never any males. There were unexplained mysteries in the tropical fish business. In Cardiff they were never on sale in either sex. I never understood why because it was an interesting fish, easy to keep and in most tropical fish books.
I remember something else that happened that involved my Auntie Elsie and a fish I had at the time. It showed me something about how human opinions can be so very wrong and how animals and plants are built to survive and repair themselves if hurt. I had an upside down catfish.
Upside Down Catfish (Photo: Neale Monks)
These fish are named that way because they do swim upside down. The one I had was a greedy fish and was always on the lookout for more food but one day it had a terrible accident that was to cause it to stop eating. What happened was that for some reason, which I cannot remember, the fish was very alarmed and dived down fast towards the bottom of the tank. In its speed it failed to watch out for a jagged rock and cut its belly open. It was really badly hurt because I could see its innards that spilled out through the cut it sustained. My Auntie saw me upset and asked what was wrong and I told her what happened. She took one look at the catfish and said I should do the right thing, and put it out of its misery, because there was no way it would survive. I didn’t want to kill my fish. I hoped so badly it would get better. I decided to give it a chance, though I could clearly see that the odds were against it pulling through. My catfish retreated to a corner of the tank, stopped eating and swimming about and just stayed there, hanging almost motionless in the corner. The days rolled onward and the fish didn’t die. It didn’t resume its normal lifestyle of swimming around and looking for food but it didn’t die. What happened was a miracle. The guts of the fish were very gradually being pulled back inside its belly, and the skin was closing over. Eventually, after about a week, wound had closed and all was left was a scar. The catfish gradually started to take an interest in life again and moved around in the tank, and most importantly, began eating again. Within a few weeks, it was back to normal and even the scar on its belly vanished. I was so glad I had not listened to Auntie Elsie, and that I had given my fish a chance.
Nothobranchius rachovii male (Photo: Andreas Wretström)
But getting back to my friend Roger and our shared hobby; we had an ongoing mystery. You see, we never saw any killifish for sale, though we read about these unusual fish in books and magazines. Because of their habits of laying eggs that need to be kept semi-dry to replicate the conditions in the wild where ponds dry up, we assumed these species really were so difficult that this is why they were not available in South Wales. These were fish it was probably too hard to keep and breed. This is what we thought was the reason why people do not keep killies. Many years later I was to find out that this assumption was wrong. It was possible to order killifish by post, as eggs or adult fish. Some types were very hard to keep but others were easy. I became a member of the British KIllifish Association in the 1990s. This meant I received the society’s monthly journal and could read the ads and respond. I could order eggs from other members. The killifish eggs were in peat and used to be contained in small plastic containers or in plastic sachets. They could be sent through the mail this way. The excitement came from hatching the tiny fish out and seeing if you could rear them successfully. Some types like the Nothobranchius species were exceedingly colourful with the males having red tails and bright blue bodies. I was successful in breeding and rearing quite a few species, including some of the larger bottom-spawning aphyosemion species, such as the Blue Gularis.
I was proud of my success with these fish. I sold a lot to a local fish shop where I knew the owner Neil. Sadly though he was to tell me that many of them died. I never sold him any more after that. These fish I found easy to keep could not survive in a tank in a shop. perhaps they did need specialist care after all?
I have another fish story I would like to share. I had a pair of some type of mouthbrooding cichlid. I say “some type,” because they were not identified when I bought them and I never did find out what they were. There are a lot of African mouthbreeder cichlids and these were mostly a yellowish colour and it was clear which the male was because he was a lot bigger and he used to dig pits in the gravel, which is something male fish do to attract mates. I also could see that the other was the female because the fish used to breed but sadly, for some reason, I never discovered, they always lost their eggs which failed to hatch. Nevertheless, this pair of fish seemed OK in my community tank and never bothered other fish I had. I mention this because many cichlids are known for being aggressive and cannot be kept with other species. But all of this, I have just told you, is not what this story is about. What I really want to share is what happened when the female fish died. I cannot remember what was wrong with her but I can vividly remember what happened to the male. It was as if he lost his will to live, like a brokenhearted human it seemed he no longer had any reason to be alive without his mate. Now, what you probably don’t know is that there are many fish that are monogamous and faithful to their mates. There are fish that mate for life and are far more loyal to their partners than many married humans can be. Anyway, what happened with my male cichlid, and how I could see he was grieving badly, was that he stopped eating, stopped showing an interest in swimming around the tank, stopped digging in the gravel, and like the upside down catfish I have already told you about, he went into a corner of the tank and just lay on the gravel. After seeing him behave this way for several days I thought he was pining away and would die, but I was wrong. Something amazing happened that showed that fish can respond to humans and that one species can communicate with another.
My friend Sioned used to call at my house on a regular basis. One day she called round and had gone in the kitchen for something, which was where the tank was I had my cichlid in. She asked me what was the matter with my fish. I told her that he was very sad and grieving because his wife had died. I said I thought he would die too because he wasn’t eating. Sioned was horrified and said she was going to see if she could help save him. She started gently tapping on the side of the tank and talking to the fish through the glass. My friend repeated this every time she visited which was every day that week. My heart-broken male cichlid began to respond. He left lying in the corner and would come over to see Sioned through the glass pane. Eventually after a few days he started eating again, and swimming about. He even began digging in the gravel. probably in the hope that his mate would somehow return, or maybe to attract a new mate. This never happened, of course, and I was unable to get any more of this type of fish, though I looked in the local tropical fish shops. As a result of my friend Sioned spending time trying to talk to my male cichlid and succeeding, he went on to live many months more.
Footnote: The story above is taken from an unfinished book of memoirs about nature.