Few set ups truly elicit fascination and marvel quite like those done in a biotope fashion. A biotope refers to an area of uniform environmental conditions which provides a specific niche for a particular set of organisms. Because aquarists are spoilt for choice with a plethora of livestock being offered from all over the world, few are able to resist the temptation of mixing species and thus are unable to truly recreate a biotope style display in the strictest sense of the word.
To fully take in the definition of the term and recreate a habitat that matches exactly like that of nature is something that can be breathtaking when done well. A Red Sea biotope with corals and fish that are only found in the area is something that I’ve been wanting to recreate at home for a long time, but can never find the discipline to keep within the list of acceptable organisms to purchase.
During our travels recently we managed to pay a quick visit to the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Science, where we chanced upon one of the most beautiful and true to form biotope displays. Steinhart’s Caribbean biotope is a beautiful representation of the kind of life you would expect to see in the wild.
The Academy itself and Steinhart Aquarium within it is enthralling, with many things to see and explore. Rainforest domes, fossil displays and earthquake simulation rooms are just some of the many exhibits that the public can enjoy. The academy is also home to one of the most extensive ichthyological collections, which Dr. Luiz Rocha is currently curating. We of course got to see the collection, and everything else in the public access area, but really it was this reef display that kept drawing us back.
There is a huge difference between a successful biotope display, and one with all the components but doesn’t quite look the part. Of course one could throw in a couple of Queen Angelfish, a couple Caribbean corals and call it a “biotope”, but that’s not the point.
The point is how do you execute something so nicely and accurately that even for someone like me, a citizen of the Pacific all my life, can say “Hey, that Caribbean style set up is truly wonderful and realistic.”. I’ve never been diving in the Caribbean, and I certainly have never seen what it looks like in person, but I think it’s safe to say this comes pretty close.
I think what truly is most wonderful about this display, apart from the realism, is how everything is so wonderfully placed and grown into. It’s matured and has taken form into something living and breathing as a whole, not something that’s pieced together and hanging on by sticky tape and coral glue.
The gorgonians, Palythoa, Ricordea, the various LPS and especially the Milliepora are all big and robust. We didn’t find anything out of place here, no three digit priced Acropora, no coral that didn’t belong to the Caribbean. Each photograph we took of the various fish living here had the background comprising largely of these corals, which makes for very realistic looking photos, almost like as if they were photographed in the wild.
No Caribbean biotope would be complete without the presence of the Atlantic angelfish trifecta, which of course comprises of the Queen Angelfish, the Rock Beauty and the French Angelfish. Now I’m going to be very honest here. Holacanthus just doesn’t do it for me. I like angelfish, but Holacanthus is my least favourite in the family.
It would come across as an absolute surprise then when I started realising that I couldn’t take my eye off the stunning Queen Angelfish on display here. I was telling Matt Wandell who takes care of this aquarium at Steinhart, how people were going to view me as a damning hypocrite for singing such songs of praise. In fact it’s funny, but I spent an inordinate amount of time just squatting in front of this display all day long sending text messages proclaiming my new love for Holacanthus ciliaris. That is a fact.
What’s more unbelievable is the variety of fish here. Yes we see a queen angel and blue chromis and royal grammas, but this display has a few very unorthodox additions that would come as a huge surprise to anyone who knows their fishes well. Public aquariums tend not to allocate budget for rare and expensive fish, so you’d be hard pressed finding any of your thousand dollar aquarium darlings in such places. Clarions and bandits? Unless they were a donation, don’t get your hopes up.
In this display however, we found three rarities that you’d least expect to see anywhere. Owning one in your home aquarium is difficult enough, so image our absolute delight in finding them here.
Seeing rare fish in a public aquarium is a huge bonus, and the Golden Hamlet pictured above is a real treasure. Of all the Hypoplectrus species, H. gummigutta is arguably the most beautiful. The Golden Hamlet is a rich chrome yellow overall with a very striking black snout laced in metallic blue. The colour combination is very simple but highly attractive and eye catching.
In Asia, namely Japan, H. gummigutta is an uncommon offering and something that can be obtained with relative ease. In continental America however, the Golden Hamlet is rare and highly prized. Like all members of Hypoplectrus, H. gummigutta is a simultaneous hermaphrodite, which means it possesses both male and female sex organs. To spawn successfully, any two individuals are needed.
Of course, if you remembered our earlier post in 2013 and connected it with Matt Wandell who works at Steinhart, then you’d be correct in that this is that same fish, now all grown up and so luxuriously coloured.
Another rarity of this region that is on display here is Prognathodes aya, the Bank Butterflyfish. This fish shares its aquarium home with another member of the Prognathodes genus, the more common and sombre P. aculeatus. Unlike the latter, P. aya is found in deep waters from 50-200m (160-650ft) and is a relatively expensive offering.
Despite being found in such depths, P. aya is surprisingly hardy and will accept aquarium foods very readily. Although found in cold dark reefs, sometimes in temperatures as low as 19C (66F), the Bank Butterflyfish can easily adapt to and withstand normal reef aquarium temperatures and lighting, such is the case with this individual and its housing system.
Prognathodes aya has a wonderful story behind its name. The butterflyfish was first discovered in 1880 when it was first seen from the regurgitated stomach contents of a snapper. The snapper, then known as Lutjanus aya, was subsequently used to name the unknown butterflyfish, Prognathodes aya. Ironically, Lutjanus aya is now no longer in use, and is a junior synonym for Lutjanus campechianus. The story goes, a grouper spat up a butterflyfish, which was then named after the grouper, which sadly now has a different name.
Gonioplectrus hispanus, the Spanish Flag, is another deepwater rarity that is seen on display here. This fish can be found in waters deeper than Prognathodes aya, and is by far way more expensive and rare compared to the former. G. hispanus is the sole representative of its genus, and is a rarely seen grouper of the Caribbean and other parts of the Atlantic.
The Spanish Flag is horizontally striped in yellow and purple, with a single red spot on the anal fin. This fish is spectacularly coloured and bears very superficial resemblance in terms of its colour scheme to the Pacific Cephalopholis polleni. This individual at Steinhart is still small, and the species gets more colourful with age.
Common fare and rarities aside, this wonderfully diverse biotope is also home to some unusual oddities. The Creole Wrasse is a large and unusual Labrid in the genus Clepticus. The Creole wrasse is common in the wild, and can often be seen in large schools. However it is very uncommon in the trade mainly due to its size and appearance.
A single individual swims in the Caribbean biotope here at Steinhart, and is often seen mingling with another wonderful oddity, the Boga (Inermia vittata), which we did not manage to get photos of.
Another uncommon Labrid that shares this tank is Halichoeres maculipinna. This beautiful species grows to a moderately acceptable size and is a beautiful species found in the Caribbean. Like all other Halichoeres, it requires a sandy substrate to bury in at night, and we only managed to get a quick glimpse of this fish in the afternoon before it retired for the day during the evening.
If you ever get a chance to visit the Academy, really, you have to pay a quick visit to the Steinhart Aquarium. This aside from being one of the nation’s gold standards in public aquarium, is home to a wonderful Caribbean biotope that i’m still thinking about now. This is also the place where you can see Prognathodes aya, Gonioplectrus hispanus as well as Hypoplectrus gummigutta without having to shell out the dough and end your marriage in a divorce.
I’m going to go ahead and end this post off with another shameless promo of my new found love for Holacanthus ciliaris. A big thanks to Matt Wandell, Richard Ross, Charles Delbeek and Dr. Luiz Rocha at the Academy for the hospitality. Bonus special thanks to Matt Wandell for ruining pizza for me with that fusion flavoured Indian inspired grastonomic monstrosity. For more photos of the other fish as well as this queen of a Queen, check out the mini gallery below!