BOB MEHEN

Who says brown is bor­ing? The Cho­co­late gourami is a real treat that not only looks de­li­cious but also has a soft cen­tre. Find out how to keep these sweet lit­tle fish.

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Welcome - WORDS: BOB MEHEN

has been keep­ing fish since the 1970s and has a par­tic­u­lar pas­sion for cat­fish and all things brown. This month he looks at the sweet lit­tle Cho­co­late gourami.

As a lover of brown fish, I of­ten get a gen­tle rib­bing from both fishkeeping and non­fish­keep­ing ac­quain­tances. Why, with all these gor­geous colour­ful species, do I in­sist on keep­ing some­thing as dull as a brown fish? It can be hard to ar­gue the aes­thetic at­trac­tion of a lumpen brown cat­fish — es­pe­cially when it spends much of its time liv­ing un­der a log, only ven­tur­ing out un­der cover of dark­ness and even with the help of a torch looks like the poorly an­i­mated end re­sult of a fi­bre rich diet.

But brown fish needn’t be the ugly duck­lings of your tank. Some are among the most beau­ti­ful in the hobby. Think of the glo­ri­ous wild brown Dis­cus. Yes, they are splashed with blue-green neon retic­u­la­tions, but for me, with­out the rich brown back­ground to off­set this bril­liance they lose some­thing. Other fish glory in their pure ‘brown­ness’. Gi­ant whip­tail cat­fish (Stur­i­soma) are brown through and through, but they’re like a liv­ing Far­row & Ball paint colour chart with their com­bi­na­tions of rust, sepia, rus­set, bistre and tan.

But ar­guably the most beau­ti­ful brown fish is the lovely lit­tle Cho­co­late gourami, Sphaerichthys os­phromenoides, a stun­ner with­out any need of a splash of neon blue.

Not plain Choco­lates!

The Cho­co­late gourami is one of those fish that is rel­a­tively well known within the hobby, but of­ten shied away from due to its rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dif­fi­cult to keep. While they may be del­i­cate com­pared to their larger, more ro­bust cousins like the Three-spot, Tri­chopo­dus tri­chopterus, and Pearl gourami, T. leerii, they are far from im­pos­si­ble to keep (and in­deed breed) in the aquarium. What they do need is wa­ter con­di­tions not typ­i­cal of the av­er­age com­mu­nity tank and this is where so many hob­by­ists go wrong, plop­ping these lit­tle fish in with their tetras, gup­pies and barbs where they go pale, hide be­hind the first avail­able plant and fade away rapidly. Over the last few years more and more of these once rather in­fre­quent im­ports are turn­ing

They come from peat rich, tan­nin soaked wa­ter with lim­ited aquatic plants, but plenty of fallen wood and leaf lit­ter — a brown fish in brown wa­ter will be pretty cryp­tic, with the gold stripes mir­ror­ing shafts of sun­light and shadow pen­e­trat­ing the peaty wa­ter.

up in the shops. A tank packed with these charm­ing, plump lit­tle fish is now a rel­a­tively com­mon sight and the at­trac­tion is ob­vi­ous, but many are des­tined for a short, sad life in the com­pany of un­suit­able tank mates and in wa­ter chem­istry far re­moved from ideal.

‘Cho­cos’, as they are of­ten called, are a small species of gourami, with an adult size of just 6cm/2.3in. Body shape is typ­i­cal of most gourami, with a deep, lat­er­ally com­pressed body, ta­per­ing to a del­i­cate, ‘su­pe­rior’ (up­ward point­ing) mouth. They share the clas­sic thin, fil­i­form (thread like) paired ven­tral fins, which they use to touch each other as well as ob­jects in their tanks. Their cau­dal fin, (tail) is quite large in pro­por­tion to the fish’s to­tal length, giv­ing them a quite stubby, fore­short­ened ap­pear­ance.

Colour wise, ‘brown’ doesn’t re­ally do them jus­tice. On close in­spec­tion each of their scales is edged in a deep, rich, dark cho­co­late shade, stand­ing out over a gen­eral, warm milk cho­co­late tint. These dark tones are off­set by a se­ries of golden yel­low ver­ti­cal bars, the first of which is just be­hind the eye, with an­other two fur­ther back, to­ward the tail. A fainter hor­i­zon­tal bar runs from mouth to tail along the mid­dle of the fish, but this can fade or in­ten­sify

de­pend­ing on the fish’s mood. They also pos­sess a black ‘eye-spot’ on the top half of the cau­dal pe­dun­cle. Both the dor­sal and anal fins are marked with more golden blotches and bars and in some light can have a blue-green metal­lic sheen. Like most gourami they ‘scull’ around the tank with swan-like grace, largely us­ing their pec­toral fins for propul­sion.

Keep­ing Choco­lates at their best

To work out how best to keep your Cho­cos healthy and vi­brant you should look closer at their wild en­vi­ron­ment. While it may not be a star­tling rev­e­la­tion that a fish species might do best kept in con­di­tions close to those that they evolved in nat­u­rally, the wild habi­tat of the Cho­co­late gourami is far re­moved from that which most of us keep our fish in. These fish have a rel­a­tively wide dis­tri­bu­tion with pop­u­la­tions recorded along the Malaysian Penin­sula, Bor­neo and

Su­ma­tra (its dis­tri­bu­tion may once have ex­tended fur­ther but ap­pears to have been re­duced due to hu­man ac­tiv­ity). Most ac­counts of their wild habi­tat re­port clas­sic ‘black­wa­ter’ con­di­tions; peat rich, tan­nin soaked wa­ter with lim­ited or non-ex­is­tent aquatic plant growth, but plenty of fallen wood ma­te­rial and associated leaf lit­ter. This helps ex­plain their colour — a brown fish in brown wa­ter will be pretty cryp­tic, and the gold stripes will help break up its shape fur­ther, mir­ror­ing shafts of sun­light and shadow pen­e­trat­ing the peaty wa­ter.

Wa­ter move­ment in these sur­round­ings is typ­i­cally slow, if there’s any at all, so fil­tra­tion should mir­ror this with gen­tle, dif­fuse flow wher­ever pos­si­ble. While not a shoal­ing species, they re­ally do seem to need com­pany of their own kind to sur­vive — pairs or small groups sel­dom thrive. With this in mind start with a group of at least six, but ide­ally more. They won’t need a huge tank, but 60 x 30 x 30cm should be your start­ing point, and big­ger ac­com­mo­da­tion will al­low for a larger and po­ten­tially more suc­cess­ful group.

Decor wise a se­lec­tion of twiggy, branch­ing wood and leaves with a soft, sandy sub­strate is ideal. Your local fish shop should be able to of­fer a range of suit­able wood, while In­dian al­mond leaves are read­ily avail­able on­line. How­ever, if your bud­get is low, or you fancy a bit of DIY decor, then na­tive oak and beech branches and leaves are usu­ally easy to iden­tify and col­lect. Late au­tumn or early win­ter is the best time to do this — en­sure the wood is dead, but shows no ob­vi­ous sign of fun­gal growth. The leaves will de­cay rel­a­tively rapidly and need reg­u­lar re­place­ment. You can ‘hoover’ up the re­sul­tant de­tri­tus but if left it will add ex­tra au­then­tic­ity to your biotope as well as be­ing home to ben­e­fi­cial mi­crobe life. Light­ing should be sub­dued.

For those of you not happy to go full black­wa­ter biotope (it can also be a hard sell

to the non-fish­keep­ers in our lives), there is good news. There are re­ports of Cho­cos dwelling in far clearer, heav­ily veg­e­tated en­vi­ron­ments. Even here the wa­ter is soft and acidic, but with­out the PG Tips tint. They still don’t ap­pre­ci­ate bright light­ing though, so con­sider hardy, low light plant choices such as Cryp­to­co­ryne and Java fern and add float­ing plant species to fur­ther re­duce light pen­e­tra­tion.

Other than soft, acidic wa­ter, sub­dued light­ing and low flow rates, an­other vi­tal com­po­nent for their long term health is tem­per­a­ture. These are truly trop­i­cal fish and ap­pre­ci­ate tem­per­a­tures in the high 20°Cs. If kept cooler for any length of time they seem more sus­cep­ti­ble to dis­ease and par­a­sites.

The na­ture of their nat­u­ral habi­tat also means that sud­den, large wa­ter changes are not rec­om­mended in aquar­i­ums hous­ing these fish. Smaller, more reg­u­lar wa­ter changes are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the best op­tion — no more than 10% tank vol­ume at a time, us­ing wa­ter that is care­fully matched in terms of chem­istry and tem­per­a­ture.

Cho­co­late chips

There has been some his­toric con­fu­sion as to just how these fish breed. Some ac­counts claimed they were live­bear­ers, while oth­ers seemed sure they fol­lowed type with most gourami and were bub­blen­est breed­ers. In fact they are a ma­ter­nal mouth­brood­ing species. Spawn­ing can take sev­eral hours, with the pair cir­cling each other, head to tail over a suit­able leaf, flat piece of decor or clear area of the sub­strate. Even­tu­ally the pair will arch their bod­ies into each other and the fe­male will re­lease around 40 eggs (of­ten less) in a sud­den rush, which the male fer­tilises. The male will usu­ally si­dle off at this point, his work done, and the fe­male will care­fully pick up the eggs in her mouth. She will then re­treat to a quiet cor­ner to hold the fer­tilised eggs for at least a week, but of­ten longer, usu­ally not eat­ing dur­ing this pe­riod. The fully formed fry are then re­leased and go off in search of food and should be pro­vided suitably tiny live foods such as mi­croworm or brine shrimp nau­plii. While in a ma­ture, biotope type tank some fry may sur­vive, the par­ents aren’t ad­verse to a bit a can­ni­bal­ism so, if you want to raise sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, the fry or par­ents will need mov­ing else­where.

Spawn­ing can take sev­eral hours, with the pair cir­cling each other, head to tail over a suit­able leaf, flat piece of decor or clear area of the sub­strate.

A slow flow and sub­dued light­ing will help these fish feel more com­fort­able.

Cho­co­late gouramis are shy fish, so avoid keep­ing them with any­thing too bois­ter­ous.

These gouramis are mouth­brood­ers — the eggs are held in the brood pouch for a week or more.

A pair of Sphaerichthys vail­lanti, spawn­ing.

Young se­la­ta­nen­sis fry.

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