The Designs

The range of creations in this chapter serves to demonstrate the breadth of possibilities for a home saltwater aquarium. Several designs even lend themselves to customization with alternative species, which I note in each model design.

110 Saltwater Aquarium Models

110 Saltwater Aquarium Models


A Minimalist Look

An aquarium like this fits in with minimalist décor. Keeping the white decorations free of algae presents the biggest challenge. You may find, however, that with sufficient light the tank will grow an attractive crop of bright green, filamentous algae. If so, the look may be as pleasing as the original, stark white tank.

This aquarium is a cinch to maintain. It can serve as an introduction to saltwater aquarium keeping for an eager middle schooler. A white aquarium with black and white damselfish creates a study in contrast.

Aquarium Capacity 30 gallons

Aquascape Materials crushed coral rock fine grade coral rock 3 large pieces

Background white


Dascyllus sp. (see text) Special Requirements

A hang-on style filter incorporating a protein skimmer suffices for this tank.

Arrange the three pieces of coral rock along the length of the tank, grouping two to one side of center. Place the third piece on the opposite side of center. Add a thin layer of crushed coral rock to the bottom. A dual-lamp fluorescent fixture with 5000K or higher lamps should make this arrangement look intensely white.

Few saltwater fish surpass the humbug damselfishes in hardiness and spunk. Choose from the striped humbug, Dascyllus aruanus, black-tailed humbug, D. melanurus, or threespot humbug, D. trimaculatus. The latter grows too large for more than one to be accommodated in this aquarium. The other two species, reaching only about three inches, can be stocked with the idea of ending up with a pair. Place five juveniles in the tank, and a pair should form naturally after they have grown a bit. You will note that a pair has formed when two fish take over and defend a territory against the other three. At this point, you must remove the others to avoid a damaging conflict. In the event no pair forms, you will need to remove all but one fish, for the same reason. All three species produce audible vocalizations when courting or defending territory. Development of this trait should signal that the time for a new social structure has arrived.

D. aruanus and D. melanurus differ only in that the latter has a black tail while the former's tail is white. Both are marked in vertical black-and-white bars. D. trimaculatus is solid black with a white dot on the forehead and a larger white spot on each side. Aside from their aggressiveness as adults, they are ideal aquarium fish. Feed them any of the commonly available aquarium foods, making sure they receive a sizable proportion of vegetable matter. In the ocean, individuals defend a coral head and systematically kill the coral polyps to allow algae to grow. This algae "farm" supplements the damselfish's diet. Juveniles associate with large anemones sometimes, revealing their close relationship to the clownfish.

A variation on this model is Keep one large orange-tailed

to substitute a harem of blue damselfish, Chrysiptera cyanea, for the Dascyllus. male with two of the smaller, all-blue females.

Cheerful Yellow


Though requiring a much larger tank, this model design resembles the previous one in that a single color repeats in several elements to maximize the effect.

Only with an extralarge tank can you display yellow tangs in something approaching a natural arrangement of many individuals. Long ranking as one of the most popular saltwater fish, with attention to their minimal needs—a continuous supply of vegetable matter and regular water changes—yellow tangs live five to seven years or more. Although reaching a diameter of nearly eight inches in the sea, aquarium specimens seldom exceed six inches.

Yellow tangs occur from Japan to Hawaii, throughout the Pacific, north of the equator. Typically, they live on outer reefs with dense coral stands, most commonly of branching genera such as Acropora and Pocillopora. They are also found in lagoons. Water depth ranges from about ten feet to over one hundred feet. Conditions in the fish's habitat are relatively constant in terms of salinity, temperature, sun exposure, and turbulence, and should therefore remain stable in the aquarium, as well.

The body of the yellow tang is disk-shaped, with a short, protruding snout filled with sharp teeth adapted for grazing. It is uniformly lemon yellow in coloration, although in darkness the fish adopts a "sleep" color pattern, pale pinkish yellow with a prominent midlateral white stripe. During daytime, the yellow coloration returns. Like all tangs, Z. flavescens carries a razor-sharp scale on the caudal peduncle that it uses both defensively and offensively. The scale, or tang (as in part of a knife), is pearly white, and consequently may be easily discerned against the background of the body. It folds into a groove on the caudal peduncle like the blade of a jackknife. Aquarists should avoid catching this or any other tang in a net. Either the net will be shredded, or the fish will become entangled and possibly injured. Common sense also suggests avoiding this razor-sharp weapon when handling the fish, as it can inflict a nasty wound.

When danger threatens, the yellow tang holds its dorsal and anal fins erect. Apparently, the function of this behavior is to make the fish look larger to a potential predator or rival. Juvenile specimens can appear twice as large as their actual size, and probably benefit more from the deception than adults do. Most Zebrasoma are found in relatively small groups of individuals, and this appears to be true for Z. flavescens over most of its range. Much larger aggregations, however, occur in Hawaii. I suggest purchasing only specimens that you know to have been collected from Hawaii. Not only are they relatively inexpensive, but also their condition is likely to be superior to that of individuals harvested in Asia.

Aquarium Capacity 180 gallons

Aquascape Materials crushed coral rock fine grade coral rock about 100 pounds, assorted sizes artificial branching corals yellow in color, 3 pieces, one large and two smaller

Background black


Zebrasoma flavescens 9

Special Requirements

Tangs do not like water with a heavy load of nutrients. Make sure to perform routine maintenance on schedule.

Set up this system with a large protein skimmer in the sump, and two to four 40-watt fluorescent lamps centered over the tank. Build up a wall of coral rock stretching across the aquarium, with room on all sides for swimming. Build up the ends more than the middle, and position the three pieces of artificial coral slightly off to one side of the midpoint. A big tank like this usually has two overflows, one in each rear corner. The rock wall should reach from one of these toward the opposite front corner. Black overflows with a matching black background become quite inconspicuous, and you need not hide them with more rock if you don't want to.

Run this aquarium for a month with added ammonia in chemical form. By the end of the nitrite cycle, you should start to see algae growing on the rocks. You can speed this along by adding a few algae-covered rocks from your dealer. The algae should be a bright green filamentous type. Keep the lights on continuously for another week, or until a luxuriant growth of algae develops. Then add all of the fish at the same time. Try to find juveniles, each about two inches in diameter. Monitor the water conditions for the next month, to make sure no increase in ammonia or nitrite develops. The group of tangs will establish a pecking order among themselves, and major skirmishes should remain at a minimum.

The yellow tang grazes on filamentous algae, only taking small invertebrates incidentally. Feeding them should pose few problems, as they not only crop algae from the rocks, but also greedily accept many popular and widely available aquarium foods. Numerous diets are commercially available that contain a high proportion of vegetable matter. Supplement the greens with small amounts of animal-derived foods. Always make sure the fish's stomach appears full and round. A hollow-bellied specimen needs immediate attention, as this is a sign of acute starvation. Grazing species typically feed continuously during the daylight hours. While it is not usually possible to feed them continuously in captivity, two or three daily feedings, along with natural algae growth, should suffice. Do not make the mistake of feeding yellow tangs exclusively on terrestrial greens such as lettuce or spinach. While such foods are acceptable from time to time, the fish's nutrition will be incomplete without ocean-derived veggies.

Basic Low-Maintenance Designs 113

Basic Low-Maintenance Designs 113

The hardiness of the yellow tang is legendary, but it is quite susceptible to declining water quality. This is to be expected, considering that their preferred habitat is constantly replenished from the open sea. Failure to carry out regular partial water changes is often responsible for problems. The fish develop reddish inflamed patches on the skin, a sure sign that water conditions are well below optimum. Whether this is due to the accumulation of dissolved organics, metals, some other substance, or a combination, the condition responds favorably to a large water change. Activated carbon filtration will not by itself remedy the problem. Left untended, a tang that exhibits the inflammation will often develop Cryptocaryon, Amyloodinium, or a combination of both of these parasitic infestations. Without immediate improvement in water quality, and a regimen of medication, fatalities often result.

Aquarium spawning of the yellow tang is likely impossible, but the phenomenon has been observed in the sea on repeated occasions. Generally, they spawn in groups around sunset, milling about, their activities increasing until a female dashes toward the surface with one or several males in pursuit. Eggs and sperm are released, fertilization occurs, and the developing embryos are left to fend for themselves.

To customize, you could substitute the schooling bannerfish, Heniochus diphreutes, for the yellow tangs. It even reaches about the same size. Feed this species on an assortment of foods in small pieces suitable for its small mouth.


Regal Tang Showcase

Regal tangs, Paracanthurus hepatus, go by a variety of other common names, including hippo tang and blue tang. They present more of a challenge to the aquarist, and thus do best in a species tank such as the moderately large one suggested for this model design.

Aquarium Capacity 75 gallons

Aquascape Materials crushed coral rock fine grade coral rock a few large pieces branching coral skeleton a large piece, artificial or natural

Background pale blue, or a photo


Paracanthurus hepatus 3

Special Requirements

Tangs do not like water with a heavy load of nutrients. Make sure to perform routine maintenance on schedule.

The regal tang is a distinctive true blue color with a yellow tail. A sickle-shaped black bar on the side completes the dramatic appearance of this handsome fish. It is found almost exclusively in association with the stony coral Pocillopora eydouxi on the seaward side of the reef. When disturbed, the fish has a habit of wedging itself into the coral, lying flat on its side. Its propensity to do this in the aquarium has given pause to more than one novice aquarist. Unfortunately, too many of these fish have been collected by poisoning the entire coral head. This is a good candidate for cyanide, so know your supplier before you purchase.

The coral preferred by the regal tang is favored by collectors, and you should have little trouble locating a piece of skeleton. The species bears stout, somewhat flattened branches, rounded at the ends. It is sometimes identified as cat's paw or big toe coral. Any similar coral that grows as a rounded cluster of branches will do just fine. Create a base for the coral by placing rocks a few inches to one side of the middle of the tank. Place the big coral skeleton on top. If you can find a photo background of dense coral growth, this is a good tank for it. In that case, choose a coral skeleton that matches one in the background.

Follow the instructions given in the previous model design for conditioning the tank. Regal tangs eat considerably more animal matter than other tangs, and their captive diet should reflect this.

Here's an idea for customization: Instead of the somewhat fussy regal tang, this aquarium could house a large school of green chromis, Chromis viridis. This greenish blue damselfish spends most of its time in open water, ready to feed on plankton, and adapts quickly to captivity.


Colorful Community Tank I: Large

In this and the following model design, I present my suggestions for tanks that are both easy to maintain and filled with color and movement. The "large" and "small" designations are somewhat arbitrary. You could combine these species in a variety of ways and still end up with a successful community aquarium.

This model design exemplifies an old rule of thumb about mixing various species of saltwater fish: choose fish as diverse in coloration and lifestyle as possible. Doing so helps avoid conflicts due to overlapping needs. Fish should not have to constantly compete for the same food items or territories. The threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon) picks constantly for small invertebrates. Siganus, the foxface, eats primarily algae. Beware, this species has venomous spines, similar to those of the spotfin lionfish (Pterois). The lionfish feeds on live crustaceans and will swallow nearly any small prey. The harlequin tuskfish (Choerodon) and the Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus) eat just about anything.

Aquarium Capacity 120 gallons

Aquascape Materials crushed coral rock fine grade coral rock assorted pieces branching coral skeletons artificial or natural

Fish pale blue or black

Chaetodon auriga 1

Siganus vulpinus 1

Choerodon fasciatus 1

Rhinecanthus aculeatus 1

Pterois antennata 1

Special Requirements

Owing to the necessary absence of invertebrate scavengers and herbivores, the aquarium will need regular maintenance to remove algae and should have a large biofilter to handle the waste from these large, hungry fishes.

To get this community going, aquascape the tank with rocks and coral so as to provide multiple retreats. If each fish can retire to its own space, interspecies aggression will be minimized. Giving precise instructions as to how to do this challenges my ingenuity, as positioning each rock needs to be judged as the construction evolves. I can only repeat my advice to have a trial run or two with dry rock.

Another longstanding rule of thumb says that to mix fish of different temperaments successfully, place the more docile species into the tank first. For this assortment, I suggest starting with the butterflyfish, although C. auriga usually demonstrates a lot of spunk for a member of its genus. Follow it with the lionfish. You may need to train the lionfish to eat dead food by first tempting it with live foods. If other fish are present, they may intimidate the lionfish and thus get all the food. The butterflyfish, however, is unlikely to be interested in a large feeder minnow or crab. Wait until you have a noticeable growth of filamentous algae before introducing the foxface to this tank. It will spend most of its time grazing, swimming to and fro. Make sure you regularly feed it with sea veggies of all kinds. None of the other fish likely will pay much attention to the vegetarian fare.

When the first three species settle in, you can add the other two, about two to three weeks apart. It makes little difference which one you add first, as both are bold and unlikely to be intimidated by the other fish. The harlequin tuskfish is collected in Australia and elsewhere, and is known for its bright blue canine teeth. Boldly marked with white and red vertical bars and light blue highlights, it is a hardy, vigorous species that feeds readily on a variety of aquarium foods. Ditto the Picasso triggerfish, with its tan and pearly white body marked with blue, black, and yellow in a "modern art" pattern. Though individual fish sometimes have behavior problems, if added last and given plenty to eat, the Picasso trigger ranks among the best of its clan for captivity.

Potential substitutes can be found within any of the families represented in this community. Other butterfly-fishes can stand in for the threadfin. Numerous larger wrasses can replace the harlequin tuskfish, and any species of Pterois will do. Instead of the foxface, you could keep a big tang, such as Zebrasoma veliferum. Other docile triggerfishes can be added instead of the Picasso trigger, for example, Xanthichthys auromargina-tus, the bluechin trigger.


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