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.

Practical Fishkeeping (UK) - - Welcome - WORDS: NATHAN HILL

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.

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