The Book of the Aquarium/Part 1/Chapter 5

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I shall here give the names and a few particulars of the history of the fishes that are most suitable for the aquarium, reserving my notes on the grouping and general stocking for a subsequent chapter. It is to the interesting family of Cyprinidæ we are to look for our chief supplies. This tribe of fishes belongs to the great division of Malacopterygii, or those having their fin-membranes supported by flexible rays, which are either pointed or branched, or both.

Cyprinus carpio, the British carp, is a handsome fish, differing slightly in structure from the Prussian and gold carp; yet, in general outline, preserving the true carp type—plumpness of body, iridescence of colour, and ease of movement in the water. This carp has a moderately-developed pair of moustachios, in the form of a barbule, at the upper part of each corner of the mouth, and a second one above it, on each side. Like the rest of its kindred, it is very tenacious of life, and does not quickly suffer from exhaustion of oxygen. It is an old fish, so to speak, for it was a favourite with the ancients. Pliny and Aristotle both speak of it in high terms of praise, and record that it lives to a hundred years of age, becoming, in that time, as white and hoary as an “ ancient mariner ” should. It is not indigenous to our rivers, though, as


far back as 1496, mention is made of it in the “ Boke of St. Albans,” quoted by Mr. Yarrell. It has been known to attain to a weight of twenty pounds, and in Holland is frequently kept alive in wet moss, and fattened on boiled potatoes. In this way it is said to live three weeks.

C. gibelio is the noble Prussian carp, unquestionably the best of all fishes for aquarian purposes. It will survive the wreck of a whole establishment, even if the water gets putrid and almost exhausted of oxygen. The easy, graceful motions, the beauty of the colouring, and the docility, of this fish, must make it a favourite and a pet wherever it is kept. I have always had a large number of them, some of considerable size; they group themselves like friends on good terms of acquaintance, take an interest in whatever goes on in the room where the tank stands, and elegantly poised in mid-water, will watch their proprietor for hours. Small, red earth-worms, young water snails, and home-made bread, are the best of foods for them. They will seldom eat bread at first, but soon get to like it, eat it greedily, “and ask for more.” The Prussian carp may be taught to feed from the hand, even more boldly than the minnow, and readily assemble themselves for inspection when the side of the glass is gently tapped with the finger-nail. None of the carp family are carnivorous in any great degree. Mr. Yarrell says the Prussian carp will recover after having been thirty hours removed from water.

C. carassius.—The crucian, or German carp, is easily distinguished from its compeers by its bream-shaped back, which rises from the nape into a high arch along the line of the dorsal fin. It is to be found in the Thames, between Hammersmith and Windsor, whether for the angler to kill or the aquarian to preserve. It is less hardy than the Prussian carp, and a little subject to fungoid growths.

C. auratus of Linnæus, the lovely gold carp, will hold pre-eminence among domestic fishes for its splendour of colouring, though among true naturalists I think the Prussian carp will always compete with it to advantage, for the gold fish is certainly the dullest-minded of the family, and, like most fops, lazy and unteachable. Pennant says, “In China every person of fashion keeps them for amusement, either in porcelain vessels, or in the small basins that decorate the courts of the Chinese houses. The beauty of their colours and their lively motions give great entertainment, especially to the ladies, whose pleasures, from the policy of the country, are extremely limited.” This carp appears to have been introduced into Britain about 1611, though the precise date is now difficult to determine. Mr. Yarrell leaves it an open question.

A large number of those reared for sale are the produce of waters which receive the waste steam from factories, and which are thus kept to a temperature frequently as high as 80 degrees. In fact this carp is most prolific in tepid water, though those that are bred at a lower temperature are more beautiful. The gold carp is not the only fish that can bear such high degrees of heat, perch and mullet have been found in waters at 86 degrees; live eels were found by De Saussure in water heated to 113 degrees, and other instances, mentioned in Bushnan’s “Study of Nature,” show the adaptability to temperature in fish of many other species. I had minnows frozen into a solid mass last winter, and the same day they were thrown into a tank, in a room where a fire was burning, and in a few hours were sporting about in a genial warmth of 60 degrees, a change of more than thirty degrees in a few hours.

The trade has been so long established that a modern gold fish is truly a manufactured article, and the patterns vary from high class beauty to very decided deformity. Domesticated creatures are all liable to vary from their original type, but in the gold carp this variation proceeds to an extent not observed in any other animal which man has taken under his care. Their colours are as various as their forms; some have stumps instead of dorsal fins, with perhaps tails as large as their bodies; some have triple-forked tails, and perhaps no trace of a dorsal fin at all, and in purchasing, it is as necessary to look to the structure and outline of the fish as to its colours, or, on after inspection, the purchaser may find himself in possession of creatures as bright as morning sunshine, but in form as ugly as toads. There is no better food for gold fish than the crumb of bread. Many writers condemn this; I can only say that they thrive for years upon it, but if more be given at a time than the fish can eat, it soon renders the water impure and does mischief.

Cyprinus Brama, the common bream, is a fish of bold outline and pleasing habit. The depth from the dorsal to the ventral fin is nearly equal to the length of the body, and justifies the comparison applied to a high-shouldered biped, “backed like a bream.” There is a prettier species called the Cyprinus Buggenhagi, Pomeranian Bream, a specimen of which was lately supplied me, with a parcel of other fish, by Mr. Hall, the intelligent naturalist, of the City Road.

C. Leucisus, the dace, C. rutilus, the roach, and C. alburnus, the bleak, may be classed together, as fishes well known to all who were ever seduced into playing truant, to try their boyish luck with a blood-worm and a bent pin, or who have since sunned themselves in the holiday pages of Izaak Walton, to fall in love with milkmaids, and dream all night of reedy rivers that sing and sparkle, and fishes fried in meadow cowslips. These are delicate fish, whether for the table or the tank. As the latter concerns me most here, let me warn the reader to proceed cautiously, for these lovely creatures have a sad habit of perishing quickly in confinement. In winter time they may be kept with ease, but as spring approaches, the best care for them will only be rewarded by the spectacle every morning of one or two floating on the surface, never to swim again; while they do live, there are no more interesting creatures to be found for the gratification of the domestic circle. Bleak are even more sportive than minnows, and will chase a fly or small spider thrown in to them, till they tear it into shreds, and then will fight like Irish lads for the pieces. An aquarium, stocked with bleak and minnows, is a perpetual Donnybrook Fair, and will provoke the laughter of the dullest melancholic that ever looked at water as a medium wherein to end his imaginary woes. They soon feed from the hand, and eat bread greedily, darting after the crumbs with even more eagerness and vivacity than a party of school boys scrambling for halfpence. Their dazzling silvery scales, marked with the bright lateral line of spectral green, their taper forms, and large bright eyes, enlist all our sympathies, and compel us to doat upon them. If they are the best of fishes in this respect, they realise Wordsworth’s famous passage—

“The best die first,
But they whose hearts are dry as summer’s dust,
Burn to the socket:”

and hence as to longevity they prove themselves the worst. Dace are very tameable, and soon grow bold and familiar in captivity, comporting themselves in their attitudes and motions much like Prussian carp. Of the three, dace are the most hardy; I have some which have survived eighteen months’ confinement, and are now enjoying the sunshine in the garden.

The aquarian, contemplating the silvery spangles of his white fish, may like to be reminded that the scales of dace, roach, and bleak, were formerly used in the manufacture of Oriental pearls, and are still used to some extent in making the imitations of pearl that occasionally gleam under the chandelier upon the brows of laughing belles.

C. phoxinus, the minnow. An aquarium without minnows is no aquarium at all—it is a makeshift. With a shoal of minnows and a few Prussian Carp an aquarium may be considered fairly stocked, because there is really something to look at, something to amuse, and something to instruct. The minnow is a bold and impudent fish; he is at his ease in less than an hour, and in a week will show a sign of attachment and familiarity. They do not live beyond three years, but will reach that age in the confinement of a tank. Like carp and tench (and asses), minnows may be said never to die, for they survive the severest trials of heat and cold, neglect and bad treatment. The colours are pleasing, and bear some close resemblance to the mackerel; but fright will make them assume a pale fawn colour in an instant. Disease seldom attacks them, and when it does, they speedily recover if thrown into a large pan under a jet of water. Minnows spawn in June, and just before that time acquire their gayest mottlings of green, and bronze, and silver, losing colour considerably after spawning.

C. gobio.—The gudgeon is an every-day sort of fish, proper enough in a general collection, but where room is scarce it may very well be spared. In its markings the gudgeon has a striking appearance. It is a hardy fish, and rarely shows signs of exhaustion.

C. Tinea.—The tench is a quiet, shy fish, distinct in outline, and easily recognised; but, like the gudgeon, destitute of any highly attractive features. The tench is the most tenacious of life of any fish in the collection, and never shows signs of exhaustion by gulping air from the surface. Tench are easily tamed, and take great pleasure in nibbling their proprietor’s fingers. Mine eat bread and cheese with me, and nibble my fingers fiercely whenever I permit them.

C. Barbus.—The barbel takes the lead in the aquatic moustache movement. His barbs are really ornamental, and altogether he is a handsome but shy fish. The dorsal and caudal fins are very symmetrically shaped, and the lateral line arrests the eye when we contemplate his pleasing colours. If small newts, small carp, and minnows are kept in the same tank with barbel, they are likely to disappear one by one; for when all is quiet he makes his meal without seeking aid from the culinary art.

C. barbatula is perhaps the most interesting fish in the tank, considered as an individual. With no attractive colours, and with an outline as straight and rigid as a piece of bark, he surprises you with his graceful motions as he hawks along the surface of the glass, propelled by the easy undulatory action of the caudal end of the spine. Towards dusk he wakes up from his day-light stupor, and commences his queer, but pretty gyrations; and, after gliding ghost-like all round the tank, suddenly drops down as if dead, and rests on any leaf or stone that may receive him, remaining motionless, and in any attitude—on his head, his tail, or his side—that the power of gravity may give him. Then, with an uneasy fidgetting, he flounders up again, and off he goes, as graceful as before, his pectoral fins spread out like samples of lace, looking as much like an eel with frills as it it possible to conceive. When ascending, his motion is so undulatory that he may easily be mistaken for a smooth newt, going up for a bubble. Nor is our interest in him lessened by his displays of individuality of character. He is a savage on a small scale. When he is quietly dozing, half hidden among the sand and pebbles, throw in a small red worm, and, as soon as the water is tainted with the odour of this favourite food, he is awake and on the search. A triton seizes the worm, and shakes it as a cat would a mouse. The loach hunts him down, snaps at him fiercely, and tears the worm from his mouth, and woe to any minor fish that attempts to remove it from those bearded jaws. He flounders from place to place, shaking the prey as he goes, and stirs up such a cloud from the bottom, that the beauty of the scene is spoiled for an hour; at the end of which time you will probably find him gorging the prog, half of which still protrudes from his mouth, while two or three hungry minnows loiter about, looking wistfully at what they dare not hope to obtain.

It is a pity the loach is so delicate; it shows signs of exhaustion sooner than any fish in the collection. If oxygen fails, it comes to the surface to gulp air, and at last rolls over on its back, and pants in a way that is very


painful to witness. Removed to a pan, under a jet of water, it soon recovers; but if long confined in a vessel the least overstocked, especially in warm weather, finishes his career by convulsive gaspings at the surface.

A curious species of loach, known as the spine loach, is met with occasionally in Wiltshire, in the Trent, near Nottingham, and in some of the tributaries of the Cam. Mr. Yarrell describes it; but as I have not yet had the good fortune to possess a living specimen, I can only refer to it casually.

C. cephalus.—The chub is a good aquarium fish. It is shy, but grows familiar under good treatment. Insects sooner attract it than any other food. Mr. Jesse says, that those in his vivarium throw off all reserve at the sight of a cockchafer, which they devour with eagerness.

Among the Acanthopterygii, or the spiny-finned fishes of Cuvier’s arrangement, the only one suited to the fresh-water tank, is the noble perch, Percidæ. These are bold and dignified, and their decisive markings make them attractive in a general collection. They require plenty of room, or they soon show signs of exhaustion; and, under the best of circumstances, cannot be pronounced a hardy fish in confinement. They are capricious. I have had healthy specimens, taken by net, die off in a week; and weakly ones, taken by the hook, with portions of the lower jaw torn away, recover, and live for a year, after the ragged portions had been removed by scissors.

Gasterosteus needs a word or two. The sticklebacks are all pretty and interesting fish, plentiftdly found on the sea-coast, and in brooks and ponds all over the country. The species most frequently met with are G. semiarmatus, the half-armed stickleback, and G. pungitius, the ten-spined, but G. brachycentrus (short-spined), and G. spinulosus (four-spined), are rare.

Aquarian amateurs seem a little divided about the policy of keeping these in tanks. I can only advise the beginner to be careful, or he may regret having made their acquaintance. They are all savages, untameable savages, that delight in destruction, even if they cannot eat what they destroy. They will attack anything, and, with their spiny armour, dare the stoutest to retaliate upon their mischief-making pertinacity. In fact, they pass all their time in worrying the more peaceful members of the aquarium; and any one who has a few months’ experience of them, will consider them the savagest of imps.

I have tried them on several occasions, and found them at spawning time more savage than usual; but at all other times savage enough. My favourite Prussian carp, that love me as I love them, that come when I call them, that hurry to the side when I fillip the glass with my finger-nail, that watch me with all their eyes when I sit in the room with them, and that feed from my hand as a dog would, show at the tips of their pretty tails the sanguinary signs of gasterostean vengeance. Their transparent tails are ragged through the attacks of those sharp-toothed savages, and more than one has succumbed to their persevering spite since my recent trial of them under the persuasion of a little friend who begged me to put in some “robins” he had caught at the brook. “Robins,” indeed, the red jaws of G. aculeatus are suggestive of his blood-thirsty propensities, and he now does penance with a dozen of his kindred in a glass jar of Callitriche autumnalis. With tench, gudgeons, and minnows they do better, but they are very annoying to carp of all kinds.