Central American River Biotope Aquarium Setup


A biotope aquaria is an aquarium that is set-up to simulate a natural habitat. The fish, plants, water chemistry, and furnishings are similar to those that can be found in a specific natural setting.

Always check compatibility! Some species from a particular habitat are not suitable tankmates. For example, the Peacock Bass will eat small tetras since they are their natural food in the wild.

The biotope aquarium can be adapted by adding species from disparate areas that have similar water requirements.

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[Photos from various habitats/biotopes]

Freshwater fish species listed by country and ecosystem -- excellent resources for constructing biotope aquaria.

Central American River

Central America is rich with rivers flowing from rainforests and highlands. These rivers are abundant with river shrimp which provide a strong food base for larger fish like cichlids. The cichlids in these rivers are generally not as territorial and aggressive as those of the Central American lakes.

Often Central American rivers are relatively clear as they flow out of the highlands, sometimes blueish or greenish in color with a moderate amount of dissolved minerals. In the lowlands these rivers become increasingly muddy, especially in areas where there has been deforestation (i.e. much of Central America) and after rains.

Typically these rivers are rocky with sand or rock substrates. In rainforests there may be dense plant growth along the edge of the river with some plants rooted underwater but growing out of the water.

The current varies greatly in rivers -- from still backwaters/ponds to swirling eddies to roaring whitewater rapids. For this biotope I suggest low to moderate current.

For a Central American biotope you can either go with an "aggressive" tank with Central American cichlids or a typial community tank or livebearers. It's not a good idea to mix the two since livebearers are often a natural food source for wild cichlids.

pH: 7.0-7.8, 5-10 dH, 72-79 F (22-26 C)

The tank should be large with open swimming areas, submerged wood, river rocks, and a fine gravel or sand substrate. There should be a moderate current created by a filter that can handle large fish that consume lots of food.
The tank should be brightly illuminated.

Live plants will not last long with rough cichlids. An alternative is plastic plants. Rocks can be used to create territories and shelters for cichlids. Be sure rocks are well anchored since Central American cichlids are active diggers.

Vallisneria, Cabomba, Limnobium, Myriophyllum, some species of Sword plant

Remember that live plants will likely be thrashed (both eaten and uprooted) by many Central American cichlid species.

River Cichlasomines, Livebearers, Astyanax, Loricarids, Pimelodids

I suggest taking a look at the following species lists for specific countries to get ideas for biotope tanks. Below is a list for Honduras, but you can pretty much do the same for any Central American country using these links: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Honduran River:
    Blue-eye cichlid - Archocentrus spilurus "Inhabits lakes and rivers, preferring the shallows and bank areas. Found over sand, mud and rock bottoms and prefers the slower moving waters of the lower river valleys" [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Flier cichlid - Archocentrus centrarchus "Inhabits mainly shallow waters or swampy areas of lakes and rivers. Often found in many eutrophic oxbow lakes, ponds, roadside ditches and remnant pools of floodplains with thick vegetation. Prefers warm temperature and thrives in stagnant waters ... Feeds on detritus and insects" [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Jack Dempsey - Cichlasoma octofasciatum "Occurs in swampy areas with warm, murky water. Found in weedy, mud-bottomed and sand-bottomed canals and drainage ditches ... Prefers coastal plains and slow moving waters of the lower river valleys ... Feeds on worms, crustaceans, insects and fish" [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Rainbow Cichlid - Herotilapia multispinosa "Central America: Atlantic slope, from Rio Patuca (Honduras) to Rio Matina (Costa Rica); Pacific slope, from Rio Guasaule (Nicaragua) to Rio Tempisque and Rio Bebedero (Costa Rica) ... Inhabits lakes and swampy areas with muddy bottoms. Feeds on considerable ooze, detritus and filaments of algae [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Guapote blanco, Wolf cichlid - Parachromis dovii "Central America: Atlantic slope, from Rio Aguan (Honduras) to Rio Mo'n (Costa Rica); Pacific slope from Rio Yeguare (Honduras) to Rio Bebedero (Costa Rica) ... Inhabits lakes but also thrives in various lower and middle river valleys. This species is an avid cavern digger. Piscivorous, though also eats crustaceans and insects in smaller numbers. [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Friedrichsthali - Parachromis friedrichsthalii "Central America: Atlantic slope, in Mexico (Rio Usumacinta), Belize, Honduras and Guatemala ... Inhabits rivers and lakes, preferring the slower moving waters. Feeds primarily upon other live fishes. Enters brackish water" [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Blackbelt cichlid - Vieja maculicauda (Machaca, Boca colorada) "Central America: Atlantic slope, from the Rio Usumacinta drainage in Guatemala to Rio Chagres in Panama. ... Inhabits lakes and rivers but migrates to the extreme lower sections of the lower river valleys where current is slow. Prefers muddy and sandy bottoms and lives among submerged trees and logs for protection. Thrives well in shady bank areas of rivers. Able to tolerate brackish and marine conditions. Feeds on benthic detritus consisting of vegetable matter, both aquatic and terrestrial plants, seeds and fruits" [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Blue flash - Thorichthys aureus "Inhabits warm lakes and lagoons but prefers the lower and middle sections rivers" [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Tropical gar -- Atractosteus tropicus "America: Caribbean and Pacific drainages of southern Mexico and Central America ... Inhabit backwaters and slow moving sections of rivers and lakes. Often found in the warm stagnant waters of the lowland." [quote: Fishbase.org] [Picture]
    Yucatan goby - Gobiosoma yucatanum "Known from rivers, estuaries and inland lagoons" [quote: FishBase.org]
    Ariidae Catfish
    Mayan Cichlid - Cichlasoma urophthalmus "Inhabits freshwater marshes and mangrove swamps. Prefers coastal lagoons and rivers and will tolerate marine conditions. Feeds on small fishes and macro-invertebrates ... Spawns in both fresh and salt water" [quote: FishBase.org]
    Cathorops arenatus "South America: Caribbean and Atlantic coastal rivers from Belize to Brazil" [quote: FishBase.org]

Whitewater river: Costa Rica, Costa Rica, Pacuare (Costa Rica), Costa Rica
Mountain creek: Costa Rica, Costa Rica (aerial view), Costa Rica. Few cichlids - smaller characins instead.
Rocky creeks: Costa Rica, Belize, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, Costa Rica (Atlantic Slope), Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica.
Lowland river: Costa Rica Atlantic Coast.
Blackwater river pool: Costa Rica, Costa Rica Atlantic Coast.