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Cold Water Aquarium Fishes – The Fifteen Spine or Sea Stickleback

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Sticklebacks hold a special place in fish-keeping history – their fascinating breeding habits are credited with inspiring the development of the aquarium hobby in Europe in the 1700s.  The Sea Stickleback (Spinachia spinachia) is one of the group’s few marine representatives, and a good candidate for one of the most fascinating fish breeding experiences imaginable.

The Sea Stickleback is native to the cool waters of the Northeastern Atlantic Ocean, along the coast of Northwestern Europe.  One of the larger sticklebacks, it attains a length of 8 inches or so and is quite hardy in the aquarium. It stays along the coast, rarely straying into depths exceeding 15 feet.

Underwater “Bird Nests”

Male sticklebacks construct tiny nests consisting of plant material held together by secretions from the kidneys.  Clad in vibrant breeding colors (sea sticklebacks sport bronze and silvery bars and silver-yellow abdomens) they then display for the females, who lay their eggs within the nests.  Females have been shown to preferentially choose water Ninespine sticklebackflowing from nests of unmated males, even when kept out of sight of the nests.

The brooding male guards the nest from any and all intruders, exhibiting aggressiveness that is far out of proportion to their size.  I once observed a male three spine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) chase off a cunner that outweighed him a hundred fold.


In common with their relatives the seahorses, sticklebacks prefer live foods such as brine shrimp, blackworms, Mysids and Daphnia.  I’ve had some individuals take frozen foods, but such is by no means a certainty for all. I’ve found that sticklebacks seem to require quite comparatively large amounts of food, and lose condition rapidly if not fed adequately. 

Sticklebacks are fairly slow feeders, and will be out-competed by active species.  They are also quite pugnacious and prone to “fin nipping” their less agile neighbors.  Marine species get along well with spider and hermit crabs, small puffers and sea stars. 

Spawning Sticklebacks in the Aquarium

We are indeed fortunate that such unusual fishes are rather easy to breed…watching them do so is a treat rarely afforded those who study marine fish.  Although quite territorial, small groups will co-exist if enough nest sites are available.  Be sure to provide widely spaced groups of sticks and plants so that nesting pairs may have the privacy they require. 

Several species will come into breeding condition if their water temperatures are allowed to fluctuate with the seasons, i.e. by keeping them in an unheated tank in a room that experiences seasonal temperature variations.  You should also seek to provide a light cycle tuned to that they experience in nature.  

Native Sticklebacks

Unfortunately, like many temperate species, Sticklebacks get very little attention from aquarists these days. 

Sea SticklebackThe Sea Stickleback is not readily available in the USA, but a number of other species can be collected here and kept in a similar manner.  I have had good luck in breeding the Three-spine Stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) in a densely planted marine aquarium.  This species is usually described as a brackish water fish, but those I collected from the Great South Bay on Long Island, NY thrived under typical marine aquarium conditions.

Further Reading

An informative account of stickleback collecting and breeding is posted at www.glaucus.org.uk.


Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio.

Ninespine Stickleback image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dryke.
Sea stickleback image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Visviva.

Uncommon Facts About Common Aquarium Fish

I’d like to take time to welcome Frank Indiviglio to That Fish Blog. Frank is a former Bronx Zoo Zoologist, author and conservationist who’s worked with everything from fish to elephants. He’ll share his unique insights and work with various species on here, as well as the newly created That Reptile Blog & That Avian Blog. Welcome Frank!

Today I would like to pass along some interesting facts concerning fish you may be familiar with. I’ll focus mostly on aquarium trade species, with a few others added for good measure. I’ll add to the list in future articles. Enjoy, and please share your own store of unusual facts with us.

Finding a mate in the dark, featureless expanses of the deep sea poses quite a difficulty. Male benthic anglerfishes, such as Ceratias uranoscopus and related species, solve this dilemma by biting onto the first female they encounter. Thereafter, the male’s internal organs degenerate and he remains fused, by his mouth, to the female – surviving on nutrients circulating in her blood and periodically releasing sperm to fertilize her eggs!

Unique among the world’s fishes, male sticklebacks (small fishes of the family Gasterosteidae that inhabit marine, brackish and fresh waters), use kidney secretions to glue plant materials together when constructing their enclosed, bird-like nests. This behavior, along with their zealous protection of the eggs, helped spur the development of the aquarium hobby in Europe in the 1700s.

Cichlids found in Africa’s Lake Malawi are among the most enthusiastic of nest builders. Although measuring but 6 inches in length, males of one species create circular sand mounds that can exceed 3 feet in diameter, while another excavates 10 foot wide pits. Up to 50,000 such structures may be constructed in the same general area by a displaying group, or “lek” of males.

Marine damselfish, such as Stegastes nigricans, are unique in practicing a form of underwater “farming”. Pairs form territories around beds of marine algae (“seaweed”) and drive off fishes, shrimp, crabs and other creatures that show interest in this favored food.

Clownfish, such as the commonly kept percula clownfish, Amphiprion percula (or its cousin, the false percula, A. ocellaris, of “Nemo” fame) live unharmed among the tentacles of sea anemones — marine invertebrates that sting and consume other similarly-sized fishes. Anemone tentacles respond with a sting upon contact with any alien body, but are prevented from stinging themselves by chemicals in the mucous that they secrete. The clownfish, it seems, produces the same chemical in its own mucous and hence is not recognized as food.

Fishes lack external ears but do have inner ears that pick up the water pressure changes which accompany sounds. Aided by the Webarian Apparatus, an organ that connects the
inner ear to pressure-sensitive gas in the swim bladder, species such as carp and goldfish hear quite well and can communicate through vocalizations (perhaps it is not so odd to talk to your pet after all!).

Among the animals that are kept by people for their fighting abilities, none are as small as brackish-water fishes known as wrestling halfbeaks, Dermogenys pusilla. These thin, 3 inch-long warriors are the subject of staged matches in betting parlors throughout Thailand and Malaysia. Fights rarely result in injury, except to the wallets of losing bettors!

Despite popular belief, koi, Cyprinus carpio and goldfish, Carassius auratus, are not closely related. Goldfish, the first of any fish to be domesticated, were first kept by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago. Koi (the word means “carp” in the Japanese language) originated in the Black Sea area and arrived in Japan as a food source. They were first bred for domestic traits in Nigata, in northeastern Japan, in the 1820’s.

Ichthyologists discover new facts about fish on a near-daily basis. You can read articles about their findings at:

Thanks Frank,

Until Next Time,