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.
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.
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.