You know how looking into an aquarium is like looking into a completely new, colorful, underwater world? That is what starting up your own new fish tank can be like. You’re entering a new world with strange and unfamiliar terms floating around, like “biotope,” “live rock,” and “brackish.” You used to think that the difference between freshwater and saltwater was just the salt. To put it simply, you might just feel like a fish out of water.
If you’re starting from scratch, here’s a quick breakdown of the common types of aquarium habitats that you could choose from.
Planted Tanks- This is a freshwater tank with living plants, not just those plastic ones for show. The plants can balance water chemical levels and provide shelter and food for your fish. They also are beautiful. Making this type of tank requires choosing lighting, water temperature, and a water type that works both for the different species of plants and different types of fish that will all be living together. Make sure to do your research so you have compatible life forms.
Biotope Tanks- These tanks are more intensive planted tanks. Rather than choosing plants and fish that are compatible, the goal is to create a true-to-life habitat. You can mimic an Asian river habitat, or a mangrove, or a central American lake. This requires that you obtain plants and fish species that would be found in these natural habitats.
Brackish Tanks- Although it is in the freshwater category, a brackish tank actually requires a certain level of salt in the water. Some fish that are usually sold and kept as freshwater fish actually prefer a little bit of salt. If you want to make a tank that these guys would prefer, you’ll be making a brackish tank. Within the subset of brackish tanks, there’s a whole variety of types based on just how salty the water can be.
Predator Tanks- Just like it sounds, these tanks house predatory fish. You can choose whether you want a single inhabitant or if you want to create a community of predatory fish that will of course not try to eat each other. As with most tanks, this type of tank will take some good research to get started since you want to put predators together that will eat only what you give them, not each other. The benefits of keeping this kind of tank are you get to explore some new species that you wouldn’t normally see in your average freshwater tank.
Fish-only Tanks- This type of tank houses saltwater or marine fish that are comfortable in a salty habitat. The tank does not have live plants or live rock in it, but you can include decorative rocks or plastic plants to add variety. Overall, this a pretty straightforward setup.
Fish-only with live rock tanks- These tanks, often called FOWLR tanks for short, are a saltwater habitat that include live rock. The next question then is, what is live rock? The rock itself is not alive. Instead, there are a lot of microscopic life forms living on the rock. In the marine habitat, rocks are covered with tiny little ecosystems, and they contribute to the larger ecosystem by providing nutrients and food while also consuming and breaking down certain wastes in the water. This means that live rock functions as a natural filter. This takes part of the task of filtration off your mechanical filter and can prove more cost-efficient in the long run.
Reef Tanks- A reef tank is basically a FOWLR tank with the addition of live corals. These tanks need to more closely mimic the coral reef atmosphere where corals are able to flourish. This means more intense lighting (to match how natural reefs are closer to the surface of the ocean) and greater water movement (to match the movement of waves over more shallow reefs). These would probably be the most high-maintenance types of saltwater tank. However, the effort is well worth the colorful display of reef fish.
Deciding which kind of tank is right for you
If you are thinking of fish keeping as a hobby but you’re not sure where to start, follow your curiosity. Maybe you first became interested because you saw a particularly beautiful biotope tank. Maybe you’ve always been fascinated by a certain kind of fish. Pick your favorite element (a fish, a plant, or an overall look) and build your tank around that. Good luck!