When selecting fish for a community aquarium, it is almost impossible to ignore the colorful and active Characin family of fish. There are more than 1300 species of fish in the Characin family (Characidae). Additionally, there are several hundred in four closely related families, the Anostomidae, Hemiodontidae, Citharinidae, Citharinidae, and Gasteropelecidae.
A characteristic feature of the Characins is the adipose fin, situated on the back, between the dorsal fin and the tail fin. All the fish in these 5 families need the same conditions in the aquarium. The fish are widely distributed in tropical Central and South America and also in tropical Africa.
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Ideal Water Conditions for Characins
Many of the popular aquarium Characins, including the ‘Tetras’ come from the Amazon Basin where they live in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, all offshoots of the Great River Amazon. This is an area of tropical rainforest with a very high rainfall and the thick forest shutting out much of the light.
The water is very soft and acid with a heavy growth of bog plants and taller forest trees surrounding the streams and rivers. These waterways have surprisingly few aquatic plants away from the banks and shallows. The water temperature varies only a little, from 82 F to 86 F (28 C to 30 C) throughout the whole year.
There are many differently shaped fish with widely differing life styles in these families, from a fish such as the Neon (Paracheirodon innesi), 1.5 inches long (5 centimeters) long and a vegetarian, to a vicious carnivore such as the Red Belly Piranha (Rooseveltiella nattereri) 12 inches (30 centimeters) long.
There are literally hundreds of species and variations of the Characin Family that will thrive in a community aquarium environment. Many exotic species must be avoided, as they present special needs new hobbyists are not yet prepared to deal with. At first stick to the standards: Neon Tetra, Bleeding Heart Tetra, Serpae or Blood Tetra, Buenos Aries Tetra, Glowlight Tetra, Flame Tetra and the Black Widow Tetra for starters. Happily, there are many small, peaceful Characins which are beautiful and eat all the usual aquarium foods.
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How to keep Characins with their Brightest Colors
Most common Characins can be kept in normal community aquarium conditions, but they have to be given conditions more like their natural habitat if the aquarist wishes to see the brightest colors. Characins bright colors are present when they are in breeding condition, and these little fish are always breeding right in your community aquarium under the right conditions. The fry will almost never be observed since the eggs are a delicacy and the fry (almost microscopic at hatching) are a quick snack.
Keeping a community aquarium at optimum conditions for Characins is almost always a great environment for most other common community aquarium fish. The smaller Tetras need a tank of at least 10 gallons filled with soft water, which optimally means water containing less than 25 parts per million (PPM) calcium carbonate. This testing is necessary depending on the area of the country or the world the aquarium is located, if the tap water is naturally hard water, it must be softened for most aquarium fish to be successful.
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Breeding the Characin
Breeding the Characin Family is much trickier than a guppy or even a cichlid, but much easier than once thought. If proper preparations are made and the right pair of fish are selected success is almost guaranteed. The greatest thing about breeding Characin species is that they are best in shoals, which mean that 10 or 20 of one species in a community aquarium can be stunning, but expensive, but through breeding them, you have a project success and a place to put the fruits of your labor.
The Flame Tetra (Hyphessobrycon flammeus) is a suitable fish for beginners to breed. The tetras, of which there are about forty commonly available, are small fish, largely from the genera Hyphessobrycon and Hemigrammus, and include popular aquarium fish such as the Glowlight Tetra and the Neon Tetra. Many fo these Tetras will live for 7 years or longer under the right conditions.
To breed the Flame Tetra, first acquire a good pair with a “ripe” female, an experienced breeder or your tropical fish dealer can help you with the selection of your fish. Prepare an isolated 10-gallon tank that is new and filled with distilled water which is no more than 25 PPM calcium carbonate. A large clump of peat fiber, well teased out so as to fill half of the tank, completes the set-up. This peat is available at your local pet store or online.
After conditioning the adults, put a pair in the tank with the temperature between 82 F and 86 f (28 C and 30 C) and then cover the tank with a sheet of black polyethylene to exclude the light. If the fish are in good condition, they will spawn in a few days and the eggs will be seen scattered about the fiber and tank bottom. Remove the parents. The fry hatch in twenty-four hours and become free-swimming after two or three days. Remove the polyethylene and feed with infusoria and then first foods for fry.
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Characin to Avoid
On the other extreme of the Characin Family is the Piranha. Piranha is the common name given to a number of different species of fish from the Serresalmus, Roosereltiella, and Pygocentrus species. In the wild, they live in large shoals and are aggressive predators. In the aquarium, they will eat all live foods, other fish, and strips of beef and liver. They cannot be kept with other fish and if two Oiranhas are kept together they should be closely matched for size or they will most probably kill each other.
Close in size and look to the Piranha when young, but calm, docile, and actually a vegetarian is the Red Belly Pacu, an equal danger to the community aquarium. Another member of the Characin Family that should have stayed in the Amazon, this fish will grow so large that it will not be able to turn around in your aquarium. It will starve all other fish in your community aquarium of oxygen and eventually die itself.
The Melynnis, sold often as the “Silver Dollar” is another fish to stay away from having in a community aquarium. This fish will grow to over 6 inches long and 5 inches tall crowding out everything else in the aquarium. Although it is not an aggressive fish, it will tear up the tank and its decorations, use up most of the oxygen and eat the plants.
At one time the Six-banded Distichodus was widely distributed as a community aquarium fish, it is most definitely not suitable for anything but the largest of aquariums and a community of the largest of aquarium fish. This monster grows to over 10 inches and will eat every plant in the tank. It has been known to run headlong into the side of an aquarium with such force that breaks through the side of the aquarium itself or does great damage to itself.