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Fish Husbandry in a New Aquarium – Common Aquarium Questions

The Marine Bio staff That Fish Place gets a lot of questions about husbandry of fish and inverts in aquariums. When adding any new inhabitant to an aquarium we recommend researching the conditions, max size, and temperament of the species you are interested in to ensure that it will be a good fit for your tank and the other creatures you may already be keeping. And, as always, quarantining new additions in a separate aquarium is highly recommended.  If in doubt, we’re always here to answer any questions you may have so you and your aquarium continue to stay happy!

 One question recently submitted was from Al in New York:

 I’m going to be starting up my 55 gallon set-up with blue rams. My questions are what will make good tank mates? What water conditioners might I need? Should I use live plants, and if so which do you recommend? How many rams should I add?

 Marine Bio Responded:

There are several fish you can keep with rams. Lemon tetras in a school of 6-10 would be nice. Serpae tetras in a large school of 8 to 10, or Brilliant rasboras in a similar school would also work well. These are fish (introduced gradually) that I would start with once the tank is established. Rams should not be added to the tank for at least 2 to 3 months after the introduction of your first fish. So you can maybe start with 6 Serpaes or Brilliant rasboras, and let the tank run for with nothing else added until the cycle is complete.

During this time, you can certainly add plants if you wish, but do not add more fish. I am a proponent of live plants in aquariums. They make for a beautiful and healthy environment, and many fish will do very well in a planted tank that is similar to their native waters. Plants that you can add may include Rotala, Ruffled swords, Ozelot swords, dwarf sagittaria, and Bacopa. These are all nice plants to start with, and there are others you may prefer, it is all according to taste and the lighting and conditions you present. Just make sure you add Flourish Iron or a similar product to your tank to help your plants to stay healthy.  

After you cycle your tank with the tetras or rasboras, you can add some Corydoras Catfish in school of 5 or 6 to help keep the bottom clean. Some smaller pleco species may also be considered.  Rubbernose plecos, for example, are great algae eaters in planted aquariums, as are Bristlnose and Medusa plecos. Gold nugget plecos and Queen Arabesque plecos would also work, and they are really attractive. When you are ready to add rams, I would think a small group of 5 or 6 would work out great for you, maybe 1-2 males and the rest females.

Water conditions? Well, rams prefer warm, soft water. So you want your temperature to be in the range of 80 to 82 degrees, and your pH should be around 6.5 to 6.8. You may need a buffer to maintain the keep the water at this pH and there are several available to choose from and keep on hand for water changes and maintenance including Seachem Discus Buffer.

The Nitrogen Cycle and Conditioning Period in New Aquariums


A thorough understanding of how water quality affects animal life is essential if one is to be a successful aquarist.  This is sometimes a bit difficult for beginners to accept, but please remember that it is a serious mistake to spend time learning about the habits and dietary needs of aquatic creatures while ignoring the “less glamorous” aspects of the hobby.  Once you understand water chemistry basics, your appreciation of how fishes and invertebrates survive in their environments will be heightened. 


The Nitrogen Cycle

The nitrogen cycle is a critical factor in the establishment of a crystal clear, well-balanced aquarium.  Poor functioning of the nitrogen cycle is undoubtedly the most common reason behind new aquarium failures.


Basically, the nitrogen cycle is a process by which nitrogen is converted to other organic compounds that are then utilized by plants and animals as food.  Nitrogen enters the aquarium via dead animals and plants, uneaten food, and the waste products of fish and invertebrates.  The most toxic nitrogenous compound that is added to aquariums in this manner is ammonia.  Ammonia occurs in two forms, ionized and un-ionized, with the un-ionized type being extremely toxic to aquatic organisms.  The proportion of the total ammonia that is un-ionized rises as the water’s temperature and alkalinity increases.


Bacteria and the Nitrogen Cycle

Two types of bacteria control the functioning of the nitrogen cycle.  These bacteria are aerobic, which means that they require oxygen in order to survive.  Bacteria populations develop and thrive on substrates that are exposed to oxygenated water, such as gravel and the filter pads and carbon within filters.


The process by which aerobic bacteria convert ammonia to less harmful compounds occurs in two phases. Nitrosomas bacteria convert ammonia to compounds known as nitrites. Nitrites, while dangerous to aquatic organisms, are less toxic than is ammonia.  In the second stage of the process, bacteria of the genus Nitrobacter utilize these nitrites as food, and in doing so convert the nitrites to nitrates.  Nitrates are the end product of the nitrogen cycle, and are the least toxic of the compounds involved.


Nitrogenous bacteria (the name given to the various species of bacteria that feed upon ammonia-based compounds) exist in huge populations in natural water bodies and in healthy aquariums.  Until such are established in your aquarium, its levels of nitrogen-based compounds will be toxic to nearly all fishes and invertebrates.


The time it takes for healthy populations of nitrogenous bacteria to become established in an aquarium is often referred to as the “conditioning period”. Its actual timetable varies greatly depending upon the unique characteristics of each aquarium and of the animals therein, but usually falls in the range of 1-6 weeks.


Please bear in mind that water clarity is not an indicator of the functioning of the nitrogen cycle.  The only sure way to monitor the cycle is via frequent testing of the water to determine the levels of ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites (please see below).


Altering the Nitrogen Cycle

Your aquarium’s conditioning period may be shortened by the addition live aerobic bacteria.  I have had good experience with Biozyme Freshwater and Biozyme Saltwater, and strongly urge you to use either with all new aquariums.  Products such as Coral Vital LSB Pro, which accelerates the growth and reproduction of bacteria in marine aquariums, should also be considered.


You can also help the process along by adding filter material from a well- conditioned, parasite-free tank into the filter of your new aquarium.  Natural materials such as “live rock and “live sand” also host beneficial bacteria and offer another option.


In the past, it was standard practice to use hardy fish, such as domino damselfish in marine aquariums or guppies in freshwater aquariums, to hasten the conditioning period (their waste products started the process and provided food for bacteria).  However, additives such as those mentioned above are more effective and infinitely kinder, as many of the fish subjected to this process did not survive.


When cleaning your filters, always retain a bit of old filter medium (carbon, floss) and add this to the clean filtering material.  In this way, you will introduce aerobic bacteria into the newly-cleaned filter.  These will reproduce rapidly and greatly increase filtration effectiveness.


Please be aware that the addition of packaged bacteria does not eliminate the need for a proper conditioning period. Water quality must still be monitored carefully, and animals should be introduced to the aquarium in small numbers. 


Measuring the Levels of Nitrogenous Compounds

The frequent use of test kits is essential during the aquarium’s conditioning period, and on a regular basis thereafter.


Ammonia should be tested daily until you notice a sudden decrease in its level.  This decrease signals the presence of Nitrosomas bacteria.  Nitrate levels will then follow the same pattern, as the Nitrobacter bacteria become established.


The conditioning period may be considered at an end once the nitrate levels drop substantially.  You may now begin to introduce fish and invertebrates into their new home.  Be sure to add animals in small quantities, so as not to overwhelm the nitrifying potential of the bacteria present, and observe them carefully for signs of stress.


The pH level should be checked often as well, since the water may become acidic during the conditioning period.


I am very interested to hear about your successes and challenges in establishing new aquariums, and will be sure to pass along your information to my readers in future articles.  Thanks, until next time, Frank.


An interesting technical article on the role of nitrogenous bacteria in natural marine habitats is posted at: