It’s ironic that one of the hottest fish on the scene comes from cold waters. While tropical and marine species battle to outdo each other on the glamour front, the Rainbow shiner sneaks in through the side door and steals all the glory.
It’s ironic that one of the hottest fish on the scene comes from cold waters...
Back in 2014, the British government implemented the Prohibition of Keeping and Release of Live Fish Order to legislate which fish could be kept and traded freely around England. What it basically amounted to was a cap on the varieties of temperate and sub-tropical fish that could be kept. The sober measures were taken in part to reduce the risk of invasive or disease vector fish that could impact on the country’s waterways. With the ever-present danger of growing threats like Cyprinid Herpesvirus (KHV) and Spring Viraemia of Carp (SVC) looming from foreign farms, the changes were arguably as necessary as they were upsetting.
The legislation mainly affects known problem species, and for us that means coldwater species. For the home and public aquarist, there was a sudden loss of delights like darters, gars and even many
Rhinogobius for those keepers without a specific license.
Despite tossing out all the bathwater, we managed to keep hold of one baby:
Notropis chrosomus to the science fans, Rainbow shiners to the rest of us. Rainbows somehow had their passports ready, the only Notropis species to squeeze through the new biosecurity checks, making themselves at home in the UK aquarium scene. Here, we were blessed, for they are stunners.
These gorgeous fish first appeared in English stores sometime around 2009, when tentative retailers were unsure of where they stood on legally importing them. Under older legislation, the DOF licence of the time didn’t cover them, so glory went to those with the
sense to apply for the correct licence.
Despite being new to us, the Rainbow shiner was long known in its native America. The man who got to name these colourful fish had an equally colourful life. From early ichthyological backgrounds — he described N. chrosomus in 1877 — David Starr Jordan was by 1884 the president of Indiana University, and then Stanford University as its first president. He had some positive impacts in his time. During the infamous 1925 ‘Scopes Monkey trial’ which eventually led to the nationwide teaching of evolution in the US, he was an expert witness. Inadvertently, he helped pave the way for much educational and scientific progress.
By some twisted karma to offset Jordan’s good deeds, he also vocally espoused eugenics. As a trustee of the ‘Human Betterment Foundation’ his works turned out to be a direct inspiration to the Nazis, and their genocidal pursuit of a ‘master race’. If that wasn’t bad enough, he also tried covering up the murder by strychnine poisoning (rat poison, to you and me) of Jane Stanford, founder of the Stanford University. On balance, he was something of a rotter.
But, if Jordan’s own life was mired and dark, the fish he described is the embodiment of light; an apotheosis of colour. The Rainbow shiner is a fitting name for a living prism.
Even better, it is an easy fish to keep. It ticks most boxes that people want from an aquarium fish — colour, activity, presence. It is affordable, adaptable and increasingly available.
It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a fish that you desperately need. You just don’t know it yet.
Trying to describe the amorphous Rainbow shiner to someone who hasn’t seen one is easier said than done, as I recently found out. ‘They’re sort of red, but not red,’ I started, ‘but then when they turn, they’re blue. Oh, and they’re both metallic and not metallic. And they have a pearlescent shine.’ My audience looked aghast, and I hadn’t even gotten as far as the purple overtones, or the orange streaks in young fish.
The Rainbow is an orgy of colour, and one that develops with age. Unfortunately, when really young they have all the appeal of an oversized, underwhelming Glowlight tetra. An olive-drab body with an orange line starting at the nose, fading out just before hitting the tail. Nothing to see here, folks.
Fast forward to adults, ready to spawn, and words do them no justice. The stark metallic blues of the head and fins are, simply put, unrivalled in the fish world. Keep your Regal tangs and Damselfish, I want the real blue of a shiner.
Where do they come from?
Shiners are North American, and span the states of Alabama (where they are mostly found), Tennessee and Georgia. Here, they inhabit multiple rivers, including the Coosa, Cahaba, Alabama and a fringe of the Black Warrior systems.
The exact boundaries of their natural range are up for debate, and it’s believed that a degree of their spread is, in no small part, down to the accidental and/or deliberate release of bait buckets, especially as the fish themselves are not migratory. They have no need to travel.
In their native states, they are seen as fair game by anglers who use them as living lures for sport species. As buckets of bait, they have been transported up and down distances they’re unlikely to swim in a lifetime. At their destinations, it only takes one tipped pail, and you have an escaped ‘starter’ population to establish itself, joined in time by those fish that wriggle free from anglers’ hooks.
To try putting a positive spin on it, this does at least indicate that the fish is flourishing in the wild. Adding to this, the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species ranks the Rainbow shiner as ‘least concern’. Unlike troglodont cave fish, or other ultra-niche species with a range of a few hundred metres, Rainbow shiners are widespread and bounteous. Populations are large, subpopulations are large, and even though some human environmental impact is noted across their range, they remain stable so far.
For our purposes, they are guilt-free fish, and not a species that needs lengthy ethical discussions with our own consciences. If the numbers are declining, they’re not doing so fast enough to put the frighteners on the usually cautious IUCN.
The stark metallic blues of the head and fins are simply unrivalled in the fish world. Keep your Regal tangs and damselfish, I want the real blue of a shiner.
What do they need?
Their biotope of choice is so easy to recreate at home that I needed to double check it. If something is too good to be true, and all that…
They have a fondness for riffles, a North American word that describes shallow streams where broken water flows. Think of those BBC documentaries of Salmon swimming upstream to their mating grounds, hook-jawed and pumped full of rage. Those fast-flowing, testosteronepacked, gravel-substrate rivers are the riffles that Rainbow shiners love.
They’re ‘sort of ’ open swimmers. Technically they’re benthopelagic, meaning they swim near the substrate, but not on it like catfish do. In an aquarium, they tend to inhabit all levels, adhering to the criteria for a midwater swimmer.
To make a biotope (please create a biotope) for them at home, you’ll want a tank of at least 100cm long, a really gutsy filter (I’m going to shamelessly plug something of Fluval FX4 size here), a couple of hefty circulation pumps (optional), some rounded cobbles or big, flattened rockery stones, a sack of medium to coarse gravel (or better a mix of both) and some decent lighting. That last item should be selfexplanatory — you’re buying some of the most attractive fish in the world, so make sure you illuminate them to their best.
Note the absence of a heater. Unless you’re siting the aquarium in a garage or fish house where freezing is a danger, heating isn’t necessary.
If simple rocky decor is a little too scant for your taste, consider some weather-beaten wood as well. A couple of aged, smooth branches (bark free) can add some presence to an otherwise open layout. Bank the gravel creatively to give the impression of fast and slow flow areas, and don’t be afraid to graduate it — use various sizes from fine to extra coarse to create a riverbed feel.
In an ideal world, you’d want laminar flow, gushing from one end of the tank to the other. In the confines of four glass walls, a chaotic flow is fine. If the fish are buffeted and bashed about by currents, they are content. Out of personal taste I’d line my flow pumps up like cannons at one end of the tank, blasting straight down. If that ends up lifting all of my gravel and shifting it about the tank I’d then renegotiate their positions. Trial and error is key.
If you’d rather go ‘not’ biotope, the possibilities are vast. For personal preference, the only restriction would be tank size — too small and you won’t be able to house an adequate shoal, so 90cm upwards is a winner here, though I’ll confess I’ve seen them thriving in smaller.
Rainbow shiners ignore plants. To them, greenery is furniture, not lunch. That means the door is wide open for stunning unheated aquascapes, which in turn opens up a whole new domain of subtropical and temperate plants. Shop around for the likes of Stoneworts,
Ranunculus, Hairgrass, Cabomba, Elodea and Java ferns that’ll cope in cooler water. Or, just bin the whole live plant idea and go plastic. The shiners will not care.
What to keep with them
Tank mates are going to be hotch-potch. Simply put, fish occurring naturally alongside Rainbow shiners aren’t readily for sale in England, and so to make up a community you’re looking at temperate and sub-tropical fish from across the globe.
Bitterling, Rhodeus ocellatus, have similar temperaments and requirements, as do Rosy red minnows, Cyprinella lutrensis. Be very careful that you’re buying the right fish here, though. Other Bitterling and minnow species, plus other fish that may require a separate licence do pop up in the UK (bear in mind, for example, that Scotland has different legislation to England).
Rainbow shiners will survive anywhere between 4°C and the low 20°Cs, so if you have a warmish and stable room (or a heater set real low) you can start to factor in the likes of Black ruby barbs, Peppered corys,
Scleromystax, Danios, Buenos Aires tetra, Hillstream loaches, Garra and Weather loach (but again, check the species first — if
it’s not Misgurnus anguillicaudatus or mizolepis, you’ll need to apply for a licence that you probably won’t get.) Paradise fish and Florida flagfish can be a bit too nippy to keep alongside the shiners.
You could house them with goldfish if you really wanted, but you’d need to substantially up your tank size. Whatever fish you go for alongside, the tie that binds is that the Rainbows will barely acknowledge them. Violence isn’t within their remit, and they prefer to blank other fish around them.
Up the numbers
What you do need is a shoal. Six shiners should be minimal, but if you’re going biotope, you want at least a dozen. Given that the maximum size recorded on a Rainbow was a mere 8.1cm (with most a good 3cm below that) you can stock quite heavily without the worry that they’ll overload your system any time soon.
Increased numbers bring benefits. Male fish, like many male humans, are sexually competitive. They love to show off what they have to impress the ladies. One male with a handful of females will put on a mediocre show. Six males vying for the affections of ten females will be gloriously technicolour.
As well as putting on their brightest costumes, males become fisticuffs with one another. Sporting white, lumpy tubercles on their heads, they bash each other’s flanks in shows of dominance.
Telling males from females is tricky. For juveniles it’s a fruitless exercise, as you need colours and mass to be exhibited to identify each gender. Males develop a lean body shape, garnished with the brightest markings. Females become plumper, with less emphasis on brightness. Colour alone can sometimes be unreliable. Only the most dominant males in a tank may be obvious.
Another plus to owning a shoal is the possibility of breeding. In the wild, Rainbow shiners heist the nest of other fish (a mound made of larger stones) and the most dominant male will take control of the nest, shooing other fish away. Eventually, he’ll assess a worthy female and let her in, where she’ll lay eggs, he’ll fertilise, and that’s that.
In an aquarium you just need a cluster of good sized stones, and when the fish are ready they’ll start spawning between them. Oh, and you’ll want mature fish. Straight out of the shop, they might be too young — they need to be roughly 12 months old before they’ll reproduce.
After laying eggs, there’s zero parental care, so if you’re serious about rearing them, you’ll need to set up a separate breeding and fry raising tank, place the adults in it while they spawn, and remove them to grow on the fry. The young aren’t too demanding, and waves of European breeders have grown them on with liquid foods, infusoria, banana worms and baby brine shrimp.
Bring out that colour!
Feeding is easy. Their forward pointing, terminal mouth can pluck food as adeptly from the surface as it can from the
Male fish love to show off what they have to impress the ladies. Six males vying for the affections of ten females will be gloriously technicolour.
substrate. By the time they’ve reached a sellable size, most Rainbow shiners are conditioned to eat pretty much anything. Wild fish love midge larvae — wriggling, substrate-hugging bloodworm types that are readily available. Live or frozen, it’s all guzzled the same way.
You get out of Rainbow shiners what you put in. Give them drab food and you’ll get drab fish. Whip up plenty of carotenoid heavy meals, like Daphnia and Calanus. Plump for colour enhancing flakes and pellets. Consider making your own colour boosting frozen foods with added carrot and shrimp. Do all you can to get colourful ingredients into your fish.
They’re almost as laid back about water chemistry as they are with temperature. Avoid extremes, and they’ll survive. Hit the golden spot, somewhere around 7.4ph and 12–16°H and they’ll thrive. Avoid water discolouration, as acidic stained water or high turbidity is something alien to them. Instead, particle free, transparent water will see them at their best (as well as sealing the deal for their inclusion in many aquascapes).
Don’t force the colours with outrageous LED settings, simply because it won’t work. Clean, white light brings them out to their ‘loudest’ but good (read ‘new’) fluorescent tubes will make them pop as well.
Are there any down sides?
There are so few negatives to keeping Rainbow shiners that they only deserve a passing mention.
The presence of tubercles on their heads can panic a naïve aquarist. With the prominent white lumps, it’s easy to kneejerk and grab at the whitespot treatments. On the other hand, given that the eye becomes used to seeing white lumps on them, it is conceivable that you’ll miss an early whitespot outbreak. While shiners of all stripes are gloriously sturdy and disease resilient, the endless bashing of one another does take its toll, and immune systems can take a slight tumble from time to time.
If you wanted to be pedantic, you could point to short lifespans. Wild fish live an average of two years, though in tanks they will last longer. The cost of senescence is reduced fertility, though, so old fish will become geriatric non-breeders, hogging valuable tank space. Still, if you’re not breeding, this is no issue. Either way, getting three years in an aquarium out of them is considered a good run, and while the prices have dropped considerably (£15 to £20 per fish wasn’t uncommon at the start), a shoal replacement after 36 months isn’t exactly throwaway money. At roughly £7.50 a pop, you’re looking at £90 upwards for a shoal.
Keep them cool
High summer temperatures increase metabolisms (meaning extra waste), reduce oxygen availability, shorten lifespans generally, and can outright kill at extremes. If you’ve made a schoolboy error of placing your tank somewhere that becomes a summertime pressure cooker (like a sun-side conservatory) then you’ll need to be Johnny-on-the-spot with cooling water changes and ice cubes (in bags, so they don’t alter water chemistry when melting). Personally, I also like slipping a few cobbles in the freezer, too. Combined with ice in bags, they help to cool the tank all over, not just in one area.
Alternatively, you could splash out on a chiller unit, but you’ve seen the price of chillers, right? If it came to a toss between buying one of those or just moving the tank, I’d be relocating before you could say ‘wet carpets’.
So, to quickly recap. We’ve got a fish that is peaceful (beyond a little friction between spawning males), small, easy to spawn (and sell on), easy to feed, versatile on chemistry and temperature, is great for a biotope or aquascape, makes a superb community fish (within reason) and has more colours than a fireworks display. If that hasn’t sold them to you, then you’re one tough, tough cookie.
Tolerates from 4°C to around 26°C, but ideally in the high teens/low 20°Cs. Peaceful, but given to showing off within shoals. Floating and sinking flakes, pellets, granules, live and frozen Rainbow shiner is a fitting name for this stunning little fish.
Unless you’re intending to keep these fish in a freezing room, a heater won’t be necessary.
A typical Rainbow shiner habitat in North America.
Give your Rainbow shiners plenty of current.
Do yourself a favour and get a tank large enough to keep a good sized group — it will be so worth it!
Gender differences can be subtle.
You’ll find shiners incredibly peaceful towards other species, to the point of ignoring them completely.
Rainbow shiners are perfect for biotopes, aquascapes and cooler water communities.