When Biotopes Really Work

Setting up a biotope aquarium is something many of us have considered but it’s a rare few who have actually built one. I don’t know why that is, but I’ve never heard from anyone who didn’t get excited about a well-constructed biotope aquarium. My only thought is that people don’t built them because they feel like they’ve devoted limited water volume to a one-dimensional display rather than the usual fruit basket of corals/fish and frag plugs. I’ve often threatened to build a biotope aquarium but simply never got around to it. But, every time I see a good one, my creative juices start flowing.
   I saw an outstanding biotope during a recent visit to the Steinhart Aquarium (California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco (If you’re in the Bay area and don’t visit the aquarium you’ve made a critical life mistake.)) This biotope is a Rich Ross creation. To build it, the Cephalopod King self deported to the freshwater side and created an environment that works on several levels.
The bottom half is water, populated by a group of Archer fish (Toxotes jaculatrix). The top half of the aquarium is a rain-forest/jungle environment, populated by Burmese vinesnakes (Ahaetulla fronticincta). Anyone who has kept more than a pair of guppies knows that Archer fish feed by spitting streams of water at insects crawling on branches above the water, knocking them into the water, and eating them. In other words, an aquatic animal attacking and eating a land animal.
   Snake experts aside, it’s unlikely that you know that Burmese vinesnakes do just the opposite. They hang from branches above the water, coil up, and spring forward to snag small fish, i.e., a land animal attacking and eating an aquatic animal. As aquarists we know, without a doubt, that something ain’t right about either of those situations. With a few exceptions, aquatic animals should eat aquatic foods. Land animals generally only eat land-based foods. But land animals don’t follow that rule very well, primarily because they evolved from aquatic animals and get to cheat.
   Having opposite feeding behaviors in the same aquarium is more than interesting to watch and a very creative way to assemble a biotope. But there’s another dimension to this combination. If you watch the videos and think about what’s going on during the feeding, you’ll come to realize that both animals have developed a tremendous ability to compensate for refraction, from opposite directions. Doing so is impressive, but compensating with the accuracy that is achieved by these two species is flat out amazing.
   Seeing displays such as this really gets me thinking about what type of biotope I’d like to have in a marine aquarium. The one that always comes to mind for me is a garden eel tank. The vision of a background of sea grass and a foreground of six or eight garden eels is very appealing. The other biotope that comes to mind is an anemone species tank with two or three species of clownfish. But I would take it a bit further and add one or two other animals (shrimp, crabs) that live their lives within and near the protective tentacles.
Why haven’t you set up a biotope? If you did create one, what would it be?–Gary L. Parr, www.gparr.com, www.reefthreads.comVideo Credits
Archer fish: Gary L. Parr
Burmese vinesnakes: Richard Ross

Gary Parr

About Gary Parr

Reef Threads is a podcast and blog that discusses the most interesting subjects from the various forums, blogs, and magazines supporting the reef hobby. Reef Threads is produced by Gary L. Parr and Christine Williams Pasagelis, two veteran reef hobbyists. Gary has been keeping aquariums for most of his life, starting with a 1-gal. bowl of guppies. He has kept reef aquariums for the past 15 years. His current tanks are a 65-gal. LPS and leather reef and a 40 breeder that contains azooxanthellate corals. Gary’s other hobby is photography. He specializes in macro photography and currently spends most of his time photographing coral and marine fish. You can see Gary’s work in the Reefs and Animals sections of his website, www.gparr.com. You can contact Gary at gparr@reefthreads.com. Christine Williams started keeping fish while she was still a fetus. While the aqueous environment did lend itself to the hobby, it limited her to freshwater species, and so she decided to be born several weeks early. Through sign language, she demanded that her parents convert her crib into a reef aquarium and thus started her illustrious career in marine ornamentals. After completing her studies in biochemistry and molecular microbiology she went to work at “Animal ER” where unfortunately she was not filmed for the Animal Planet channel (though her feet did make a cameo during a rescue segment). She frequently lectures on reef topics including marine animal disease, fish husbandry, human-tank zoonosis, and fish cognition. Contact Christine at christine@reefthreads.com.
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