New Tank Syndrome in Home Aquariums

Eileen here. One of the most common aquariums problem we are asked about is one that is known in the hobby as “New Tank Syndrome” (NTS). No, its not the compulsive tendancy to spend three-months pay on things to fill your new aquarium. “New Tank Syndrome” is caused by the bacteria blooms that occur when a tank is cycling. Both freshwater and saltwater tanks experience NTS when the ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels spike as a result of the cycling process of the tank, but most of the questions come from the “algae bloom” that saltwater aquarists tend to see towards the end of the cycling of their tank.

A few weeks after the tank has started cycling (after live rock, fish or a bacteria culture has been added), you may see a thin brown film covering the surfaces and sides of the tank. This film scrapes or wipes off easily and cutting back lighting doesn’t seem to affect it. No snails, hermit crabs or fish feed on it, but critters moving across the substrate or glass tend to stir it up enough so it “goes away.” So, what is going on at this point?

The “algae” you see is not a type of plant with cells like traditional green algae that most people think of. It is actually made up of diatoms, a type of phytoplankton whose cell walls are primarily made up of the mineral silicate. It blooms towards the end of the cycling process in a tank because of the imbalance of nutrients in the system but will usually die off on its own once the water chemistry in the tank stabilizes.

Here’s an easy analogy for what is happening: Imagine you have a huge set of scales you are trying to balance. To try to get the scales even, you pile bird seed on each side until they are even, but in the process, lots of the seeds spills onto the ground. Flocks of birds come to the field to feed on all that extra seed on the ground but once you have the scales balances, no more seed is spilling on the grounds where the birds can get it so they leave.

The same thing eventually happens in your aquarium. Once the water chemistry balances and there are no spikes in the ammonia, nitrite, nitrate or other mineral levels, the diatoms lose what they were feeding on and the bloom will go away on its own without adding tons of snails and hermit crabs and without doing unneccessary water changes that will just slow down this process.

It takes a little patience to get through the cycling process and the diatom algae blooms we know as “New Tank Syndrome” but less is sometimes more in helping your new tank get established and ready to handle all of the plans you have in store for it!

Do Fish Sleep – Common Aquarium Questions

Melissa here. Have you ever wondered if fish actually sleep? Well, wonder no more. They do in fact sleep, just not the way we typically know of it. Fish do not have eyelids to shut when they sleep do nor do they have characteristic brainwave patterns like REM sleep. Fish do, however, appear to have periods of reduced activity and metabolism.

Many reef fish like damsels and clownfish frolic around during the day, then tuck themselves into a crevice or cave to sleep at night. Parrot fish have an odd way of tucking themselves in bed: they secrete mucus to make a little seeping bag for themselves. Some wrasses tuck themselves under the sand while others are like parrot fish and encase themselves in mucus.

I used to have a clownfish that laid on his left side in the back corner of my tank. The first time I saw him after the lights went off laying on his side I thought he was dead. When I approached the tank I must have startled him enough to make him swim erratically for a few moments then act normal. My blue devil damsels have a particular rock they like to sleep in. As soon as the lights go out you can see both devil damsels turn dark in color and head into their rock.

I am sure many of you reading this have seen interesting behaviors with your fish when the lights go out. Please feel free to share.

Algae and Plants for Brackish Water Aquariums

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

The culture of live algae and plants in brackish aquariums has not been given much attention, and few plants native to estuaries and similar environments are commercially available.  However, as with fresh water tanks, live plants add a whole new dimension to aquarium-keeping, and are extremely interesting in their own right.

In brackish exhibits at the Bronx Zoo and in my own tanks, I have experimented with several varieties of algae and plants.  In addition to mangroves, Java ferns and other such estuarine-adapted species, a surprising number of plants and algae that are typically thought of as either “marine” or “fresh water” can be acclimated to brackish environments.  Following are a few of my favorites.


Plants and algae should be introduced carefully to a brackish water aquarium…treat them as you would a fish or invertebrate.  Particularly as concerns fresh-water plants, sudden changes in pH can wreck havoc with osmotic pressure, causing cell rupture and the death of the specimen.

Marine Algae

Marine algae are commonly referred to as “seaweeds”, but they are in actuality not true plants.  Single or multi-celled, algae lack roots, stems and leaves, but have evolved equivalent structures. For example, holdfasts act as roots in anchoring them to the substrate, but do not absorb nutrients…that role is taken on by the leaf-like portions of the organism.

Caulerpa prolifera

This is the most commonly-available marine algae.  It ranges from Florida and the Caribbean southward, and is commercially cultivated.  Caulerpa spreads via rhizomes, or runners, and, although a true marine algae, it adjusts well to brackish environments.

Like all algae, Caulerpa may leak fluids when pruned, so be sure to clip only a tiny amount at a time if trimming is necessary.  Related species, with rounded, pointed or fern-like shapes, are sometimes seen in the trade.

Other Types of Marine Algae

A number of other types of marine algae are sometimes available.  While not as well-suited to a brackish water existence as Caulerpa, several will adjust if care is taken in the acclimatization process.

I and colleagues have had varying degrees of success with sea cactus (Udotea flabellum), Codiacea spp., mermaid’s cup (Acetabularia spp.), mermaid’s shaving brush (Penicillus capitatus) and several types of red algae.

Brackish Water Plants

Java Fern, Microsorium pteropus

To my knowledge, the Java fern is the only true brackish water aquatic plant that is regularly available to aquarists.  In well-lit tanks it will proliferate rapidly.  A number of fishes favor Java fern leaves as food, but its rapid growth rate can accommodate this in many cases.

Red Mangrove Seedlings, Rhizophora mangle

Mangrove seedlings, or propagules, are semi-aquatic, with the roots usually submerged and the plant itself growing above water.  The red mangrove is often sold in the trade and is commercially propagated in Florida, where it also occurs naturally.  Red mangroves are extremely wide-ranging, being found along coastlines in many of the world’s tropical and subtropical regions.  At home in estuaries, salt marshes and along river mouths, they are adapted to fluctuating salinity levels, and fare well in brackish water aquariums.

Mangroves can be planted in mud or wedged into limestone, and, because of their semi-terrestrial nature, are best kept in aquariums housing mudskippers, fiddler crabs and other creatures that utilize both land and water areas.  They excrete salt on the surface of their leaves…this should be washed away with fresh water every few days.

Mangroves often grow slowly in the aquarium, and stay at a manageable size for some time.  There are a few techniques for dealing with tall plants…please write in if you would like further information.

Eelgrass, Zostera marina

Eelgrass is one of the only true plants to live an aquatic existence in marine environments.  It is not commonly kept in aquariums.  I have had mixed success with it, but have observed healthy stands in commercial aquariums (if you are interested in this plant, please write in and I’ll make some inquiries to public aquarium contacts).

Eelgrass populations have plummeted in the northeastern USA and elsewhere, and I encourage those with an interest to work with this plant (please note that collection is prohibited in California and elsewhere).  An incredible assortment of unique fishes and invertebrates, such as pipefishes, dwarf seahorses and eelgrass-shaped amphipods, are always found in association with eelgrass beds.

I commonly observe eelgrass in estuaries, lagoons and other brackish habitats, and it thrives in true marine water as well.

Next time I’ll discuss some of the many fresh water plants that can be acclimated to brackish conditions.  Please write in with your questions and comments.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Brackish environments are home to many fascinating fishes and invertebrates that do well in aquariums.  Please see my article on Mudskippers  for a look at one of the most unusual.

Top 10 Most Overlooked Saltwater Aquarium Tankmates

Eileen here. Thanks to movies like Finding Nemo, Ocellaris and Percula Clownfish, Hippo Tangs, Yellow Tangs and starfish have become must-haves in many home aquariums and we all know that damsels are good hardy fish for aquarists of all levels. But what else is there? A LOT!! When customers ask for my opinion on good fish and invertebrates for their aquariums, I like to recommend something a little out of the norm. Clownfish and damsels are great, but there are a lot of other fish and inverts that deserve a little more respect! Here are a few of my favorites….

1. The “other” clownfish

Forget the standard orange-fish-with-three-white-stripes; there are a lot of other clownfish out there that don’t follow this pattern but are just as hardy and attractive. The Saddleback Clownfish is either brown or black with one white stripe over its eyes like a mask and another that covers its back like…you guessed it, a saddle. The Orange Skunk and Pink Skunk Clownfish are two more that break the mold. Each has a light, pastel body with a thin white stripe along their back. These two are more peaceful and stay smaller than other clownfish species – perfect for smaller or more docile tanks. Nemo is great, but give his “cousins” some attention too!

2.  Bannerfish

Bannerfish are closely related to butterflies but are in a category all their own. The most common type is the Longfin Bannerfish, also known as the Poor Man’s Moorish Idol. This fish looks a lot like but is a whole lot hardier (and cheaper) than the rare and touchy Moorish Idol (y’know, Gill from Finding Nemo?). They aren’t exactly “Reef Safe” and may nip at some polyps, but bannerfish are great for fish-only community aquariums.

3. Cardinalfish

Peaceful. Schooling. Reef Safe. Hardy. Might even breed in your aquarium. What more could you want? Most cardinals stay under about 4 inches and some barely reach two inches so they can be kept in even small aquariums. Most of them can also be kept in small groups so instead of having just one or two big fish, you can have the color and activity of a small school!

4. Hawkfish

Hawkfish earn their name by perching on rocks and corals, then swooping down on an unsuspecting meal (NOT good tankmates for shrimp or tiny fish), but most of the time they hop around the tank from perch to perch. Tons of personality, generally friendly towards anything too big to eat, and easy to feed. You can find hawkfish in lots of different colors and variety and with maximum sizes ranging from two to twelve or more inches.

5.  Rabbitfish and Foxfaces

These fish are some of the hardest-working but most overlooked fish in the trade! They graze on lots of different types of algae, including the notorious hair algaes and bubble algaes, and will feed on most other aquarium foods as well. They don’t bother inverts or smaller fish and most bigger fish will leave them alone. Just don’t touch their dorsal spines – they’re venomous.


6. Hamlets

Not many fish can get along in larger, more aggressive community tanks, but hamlets are one of them! These fish aren’t for community tanks with small tankmates, but they are interesting and unique additions to larger community tanks with fish like angels, tanks, groupers and triggers.

7. Jawfish

One of my personal favorites! Jawfish might not be the most visible fish for your aquarium but they may be the most fun to watch. Many jawfish will decorate the entrance to their burrow with larger pieces of substrate or shells and will spend their time guarding their little threshold while darting in and out for food. Might not be as flashy as other fish, but a whole lot more fun!

8. Polyps and Mushrooms

These are not so much overlooked as underappreciated. Sure, some hardcore collectors will pay $50+ per polyp of some rare zoanthid polyps, but most polyps and mushroom are just recommended as starter corals or as something for new aquarists to start with as they dabble in the reef side of the hobby. Polyps and mushroom can be so much more! They come in lots of different colors and varieties and will usually spread around your aquarium to form a living mat over the rocks and even on the glass. Polyps and mushrooms both are usually sold on various sizes of rocks with one or more types on a single rock. Easy to care for, undemanding, easy to propogate…polyps and mushroom deserve more respect than we give them!

9. Gorgonians

Yellow Deepwater GorgonianAquarists with low light can be very restricted with what types of corals they can keep in their tank. Gorgonians are an excellent alternative. Some species like bright green Encrusting Gorgonians benefit for decent light, but most species are strictly filter feeders and do not need light to survive. The branching forms like the Yellow Deepwater Gorgonian or fancy Sea Fans have a recognizably “coral-like” appearance with soft branches that can move and sway in the flow of your tank.

10. Leather Corals

Leather corals aren’t as popular as their flashy stony coral counterparts but they can be just as dramatic in a reef tank. Like the polyps, mushroom, and gorgonians, most leather corals are undemanding and don’t need a lot of extra care. With the exception of the rare bright yellow or green leather, most leather are shades of tan, pink and purple and don’t need a lot of light or even pristine water to thrive.

Until Next Time,


NCPARS-That Fish Place Winter Frag Extravaganza Wrap-Up

The big event this weekend was a blast for everyone involved, the crowd was energized, the officials had their work cut out for them, security was on their toes, the half time show was on the big screen, the stars showed up and did their thing when the pressure was on, and I think there was some kind of football game on the next day as well.

Of course I am talking about the first TFP/NCPARS winter coral frag extravaganza (or whatever it was called) this past weekend here at TFP.  Turnout for the event was great, I think we ended up with about 350 guests, as well as quite a few vendors, and some great guest speakers.  I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved, for making this a successful event.  Even through the crowds, the lines, and the noise, everyone really seemed to enjoy themselves and take something out of the experience.  Through the generosity of our attending manufacturers, some guests got the chance to win and take home some great raffle prizes.  Frag traders had smiles on their faces, as hundreds of frags changed hands.  Many people took advantage of our guest speakers, and got some great information on a wide range of topics.  Special Thanks to Anthony Calfo, Steven Pro, Dave Troop, Ike Eigenbrode, and Randy Reed for speaking to the group.

This was the first event of this kind that we have hosted here at TFP, and we really were not sure what to expect heading into things on Saturday Morning.  For those of you who frequent our store, you know how busy things can get in the fishroom on a “normal” Saturday, throwing a few hundred more people into things was a bit of an intimidating proposition. The great turnout was a little much for our miniscule sound system, but we’ll definitely have that remedied next time. Everyone involved showed a great deal of patience, and our staff put in the extra effort that was required to really pull things off, Great Job to all, I think we can look forward to more events of this kind in the future.

In addition to the photos I’ve posted here, you can check out the whole lot of them at our Facebook page: That Fish Place/That Pet Place on Facebook. Please let us know how you felt about the event, or anything you think could be done better too.

Happy Reefing, Dave