The tale of the Chameleon fish and the snail kebab

A while ago now I set up an old style 18x12x12” aquarium with the intention of keeping small tropical fish. The setup was as simple as it gets, with T8 fluorescent lighting, a metal hood and the tank sat on an angle iron stand. Filtration was via one of my now vintage Eheim internal filters and substrate consisted of about an inch of fine sand.

Instead of adding neons and guppies I still wanted some sort of challenge so I soon collected some tiny livebearers in the form of the Tiger teddy, Neoheterandria elegans, and Heterandria formosa, confusingly known as the Least killifish (a livebearer too.)

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Female Heterandria formosa, giving birth. Picture credit Jasmin.Kalcher [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D
Although not difficult to breed, these species aren’t prolific like your usual livebearers are, and I knew that if I ever became inundated they would fetch a fair price as trade-ins to local specialist shops. Next I added five Vietnamese cardinal minnows, Tanichthys micagemmae, and a sexed pair of Badis badis.

I admit to not targeting Badis specifically for this tank, and it was more a case of choosing what took my fancy at the time. I pre-matured the filter and the load from the other tiny fish was minimal, so I was open minded as to what I would keep. I live in a soft water area so Apistogramma dwarf cichlids are an obvious choice, but I was already keeping a pair of A.cacatuoides successfully in another tank and wanted to broaden my species horizons. Life is short when you’re a fishkeeper…

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Male Badis badis, displaying blue fins.

Staring into a shop tank I noticed what I thought were Badis, but the label said Dario. Are all Badis now Dario? I thought, and gingerly I asked for a sexed pair of the “Dario” which I duly received. I observed the two fish over the next few days, not really knowing what they were, as they were initially timid and coloured-down to look as inconspicuous as possible. After a few days observation I could see the faint vertical broken banding on both fish, a hint of blue and a longer dorsal fin on the male while the female was shorter in the body, more plump and a sandy colour over all.

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Female Badis badis with plain colouration and a plump belly.

I roughly planted the tank with some Java fern sprouts, as many different floating plants as I could find, Ceratopteris, giant duckweed, Salvinia and water lettuce, a few sprigs of Ceratophyllum demersum out of my pond, an Aponogeton bulb, and a Barclaya longifolia bulb. Hard landscaping came in the form of two small bits of bogwood and some Alder cones found on the street outside my house. The tank was set up in a spare bedroom and as well as the fluorescent light it received ambient daylight in one corner of the tank from a North facing window. The tank was left alone almost 24 hours a day, and would only be disturbed for feeding once per day, and then observed for half an hour.

 

Feeding

As experienced before with fish like these, although the White clouds and livebearers took flake, the Badis would let it sink straight past their mouths, choosing to potentially starve than eat such peasant food. So I went out and bought some live Tubifex worms and a worm feeder. On introduction of the worms the pair which were previously nil by mouth transformed into ravenous Barracuda, attacking the mass of worms with relish, taking them from the cone and later when they hit the sandy bottom. Within 10 minutes of their first feed the female was looking obese. I picked up one of my old German authored fish books (I was going through a very retro fishkeeping theme at the time,) which stated for Badis badis; “do not overfeed them with Tubifex worms, they will get fat.” I decided to lay off the worms for a few days until the female’s belly went down. The next time I looked the male had disappeared from sight but all other fish were present and correct. The cichlid keeper in me knew that the male had either jumped out (I always check behind tanks,) or maybe, just maybe, something else was going on.

I continued to view the tank in silence, conscious of not disturbing anything. I saw the shadow of the male fish over one of the Aponogeton leaves, high up at the surface, just under the blanket of floating plants. I crawled around the tank for a side view and saw the male was there, looking dark and cryptic and guarding some eggs on the leaf. One feed of Tubifex, a bit of peace and quiet and these things had spawned within a week of being added!

The White clouds showed signs of getting frisky in the natural sunlight, and over the few days and weeks I had fry from the Tiger teddies and the Least killifish. I saw a few of the Badis eggs go white and then they, and the male disappeared.

 

Lost land of the giants

Being part lazy, part brassic and part inquisitive I didn’t do any maintenance on the 18” tank. The floating plants flourished and then fought their own battles with each other over light and space. In the Giant duckweed verses Ceratopsis verses Salvinia verses Water lettuce scrap it quickly became a two horse race between the Salvinia and the lettuce as the other two got out competed. Surface coverage became 100%, the bulbs and fern died down in the darkness but it provided excellent cover and feeding opportunities for the two types of livebearer fry.

Nitrate and phosphate were consumed by the hungry floating plants as soon as it was made and the sand began to build up a layer of dead and decaying plant matter.

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The now banned Golden apple snail, Pomacea canaliculata. Picture credit Chapulines [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Wanting to test my tiny ecosystem further I added four now banned Golden apple snails at a size of about a 50p coin each. The juxtaposition of giant snails wallowing past tiny fish was weird but I admit enjoying watching what apple snails do best – eating dead plants. Perfectly designed for their environment they love rotting aquatic plants and can survive very low oxygen conditions in the water by using their special snorkels, protruding them through the water surface and through the floating plants.

The tank included one of those now old fashioned plastic condensation covers which itself helped provide a perfect microcosm between hood and water surface. The air was warm and moist – perfect conditions for apple snails to breed as they lay clusters of pink eggs out of the water. Too dry or cold and the eggs never hatch but again the snails rewarded me by spawning within days of being introduced.

 

Feeding time

Probably the biggest killer of Apple snails in aquariums, when they were available, was starvation. I was a seasoned Apple snail keeper and so new that they loved to eat cucumber. I added the cucumber, the snails ate it, and then their waste went on to fertilise plants. Again no water changes were conducted by me the whole time the 18” tank was running and the only maintenance I carried out was periodically removing some of the floating plants, which themselves then exported nutrients from the system. It was great!

I gave crushed flake to the White clouds and livebearers, which the snails would eat too, but at that time Tubifex supply came sporadic with the Badis getting little if anything for days at a time, which went on to last for several weeks. Despite this the male Badis got over his Apple snail sulk, dug a shallow pit in the sand under the bogwood and then disappeared again to guard eggs. The female didn’t lose weight either despite my not feeding, although my livebearer fry disappeared one by one. The Badis were surviving and thriving on livebearer fry.

 

Upgrading

My one metre tank became available in the living room so I moved all the fish, floating plants and snails downstairs. The Apple snails bred and bred and bred and a good fifty or so would drop down from the now glass cover glasses above into the water. The adult snails were growing and with all the baby snails I upped the snail food massively.

Using wooden skewers I devised a snail Kebab consisting of cucumber, courgette, tomato, green pepper and strawberry. I’d drop a whole human sized kebab in every few days and the now hundreds of snails would demolish it.

Again being old school, skint and lazy, when I upgraded the tank I just moved my small Eheim filter into the larger tank with the snails and fish, and hardly even cleaned it. Unbeknown to me lots of apple snails being fed lots of soft fruits produced a jelly which which completely coated the filter sponge in slime and blocked the filter. The filter stopped and had stopped for days before I noticed there was a problem. I checked because both Badis had taken to “living” in the floating plants which was one to hunt livebearer fry, which they did superbly and very cryptically, and two because there was probably more oxygen there. This is definitely a case of do as I say not as I do!

Reason number three however, the biggest reason for my Badis becoming surface dwelling, was that when a filter stops in a tropical fish tank and you have no water flow whatsoever, the heated water from the heater rises to the top of the tank and the cold water sinks to the bottom. When I put my arm into the tank to remove a kebab stick I noticed the difference immediately and set about removing the filter and cleaning all the slime off the sponge in old tank water.

 

I crouched and observed the filterless tank as some sunlight shone through it horizontally. The water was gin clear apart from a patch of cloudiness around the kebab waste, about a cubic foot in size. I looked closer…and the cloudiness was infusoria! Apple snails used to be used by fish breeders to produce this tiny first fish food by feeding the snails lettuce or by adding a banana skin to a separate breeding tank. Through my neglect, snails and fruit and veg feeding the same phenomenon had happened!

I continued to stare through the water at this miracle of nature. The Badis pair were up at the top keeping warm but the White Clouds were swimming into the cooler, deeper water and spawning in some Ceratophyllum in the sun. Through the gloom I spotted some flashes of blue neon – they were White Cloud fry dining on the infusoria and what was a few inches above them perched in the plants? None other than a fairly well developed Badis fry! So the fruit fed the snails, the snails fuelled infusoria which was not filtered or water changed out, and the infusoria fed the White Cloud fry and the newly hatched Badis fry. The larger Badis fry then fed on newly hatched White Cloud fry, the adult Badis fed on larger livebearer fry and the whole thing continued! I couldn’t tell you water parameters because I didn’t even test, but originally the tank was set up with very soft, near zero hardness tap water and heater set to 24C. Over the following weeks I found Badis fry of several different ages, all thriving on tiny live foods until all the Badis got treated to some much deserved Tubifex worms.

 

Escargot

The Tubifex supply once again dried up and then, naturally, so did all the livebearer fry. My Tiger teddy and Least killifish females either jumped out or died off so with them, so did the supply of fry to eat. Weeks went by but my female Badis continued to look well rounded in the body and the male was found in all sorts of places guarding eggs. I replaced the internal filter with a larger model, which had a hole drilled into the back of the chamber containing the pump. While maintaining that filter one day (I thought I better had,) I was surprised that the Badis pair had got into the back of the pump chamber, spawned, and I then found male Badis and the eggs inside the chamber when I took it out of the tank. The Badis were spawning on what seemed like a monthly basis, in different tanks, with different water conditions, but what were they feeding on now with no fry and no Tubifex?

I sat in front of the tank and observed. The baby snails continued to drop from above and I reckon I had in excess of 200 in there. I looked around the Kebab station and although there were loads of them on the fruit there were lots of tiny empty shells. With such soft water I put it down to there being insufficient minerals to facilitate shell growth. I continued my observation.

The female adopted a head down, angled position and hovered over the substrate motionless. Then Whack! She attacked a newly hatched apple snail and removed mollusc from shell in one lethal hit! The Badis pair were gorging themselves on juvenile apple snails 24/7 and it was the food source which kept on giving.

 

A coat of many colours

What was also so fascinating about my Badis were their remarkable colour changes, and I can now see why what look like dull, drab fish in the shops are so called Chameleon fish by those more familiar with keeping them. Like a female lioness on the plains my female Badis was sandy coloured and brown pretty much most of the time, but the male was different.

Going from being a fish which was hard to sex and even put a genus label on, my male Badis became more elongate with a large tail and long, flashy dorsal and anal fins. On a bad day he was brown and stripy with blue fins but depending on mood he could change his body to colour to navy blue and red and even change his fin colour to match his body!

I amalgamated my Badis project with a project where I set out to prove that Tiger barbs weren’t fin nippers or badly behaved if kept in large enough groups. In a separate tank I added the barbs to a one metre tank this time containing just the Badis pair. The male Badis took up residence in a vertical piece of bogwood with a hollow top where he again guarded eggs just like clockwork. The barbs went in and the tranquility was shattered as they raced up and down the tank, fighting, flirting and flashing against each other before stealing everyone else’s food, every time, for the rest of time.

Mr Badis was not amused and raised up out of his hollow jet black all over, with jet black fins with a silver edge. Head down he hovered straight through the group of much larger sparring tiger barbs like an Apache helicopter over a war zone. The Tiger barbs stopped what they were doing to watch this strange floating black thing glide through them. They didn’t attack him, he didn’t attack them, but I’d grown fond of my Ultimate survivor by now so did the right thing and removed the barbs.

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Tubifex worms, picture credit Matthias Tilly [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D
Tubifex treats

I and many others have written warning against the use of Tubifex over the years, as for a long time they were linked with being harvested from polluted waters and with bringing disease into the aquarium. On using it now for a couple of years I can say I now think the exact opposite, and it’s such a perfect food for all those tiny freshwater fish which are prone to not accepting dry foods and slow aquarium starvation.

To prolong the life of the worms in bags I tip them into a plastic jug, discard their old water and fill the jug with rainwater from a water butt. I store the jug outside, open topped, and especially in spring and autumn the worms last days or even weeks instead of just fouling the bag and dying off very quickly. I use a plastic cone worm feeder but also drop a large ball of worms in so that fish can feed from it on the substrate too.

During feeding worms I stumbled upon a few tips and tricks. While the worms are in the bare jug they will huddle together until they can find refuge. I place alder cones into the jug and the worms take up residence in the cones. Place the cones into the tank and you have a slow release sinking worm feeder which also provides environmental enrichment for the fish as the worms need to be hunted out, and can contract into the cone at will.

Trick two is a way of making your substrate become “live” using Tubifex worms. Marine keepers don’t get to have all the fun with their live substrates full of invertebrates as I do it too with Tubifex. Before fish are in the tank, or away from fish, let a ball of Tubifex worms crawl into and naturally colonise the substrate. I found it works best in a planting substrate containing soil as this is how Tubifex live in the wild. Quickly they make tunnels and process the soil like terrestrial earthworms, which must ultimately help the health of the aquatic soil just as it does in our lawns. Some worms poke their heads out and get eaten while others don’t, but as a population it can survive and thrive long term and providing enrichment and natural feeding opportunities for all sorts of fish.

I’ve lifted up bogwood and plants in Tubifex-seeded substrates to find populations of worms much larger and pinker than they were when they went in, and like chickens going over a freshly dug allotment the fish follow me and race to get stuck into the rich pickings. You just can’t beat the expression on a Corydoras catfish’s face when he’s just doing what Corys do, substrate sifting, and then he suddenly comes across a fat juicy Tubifex worm. That to me is what fishkeeping is all about.

 

Exclamer

Due to EU regulation Apple snails are now banned from retail sale in the UK and Europe.     

     

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