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Could Someone Give me Advice on How to Set Up an Ecosystem Aquarium for South American Fish?


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Hello everyoneūüĎč

I am happy to join this community and explore the amount of knowledge available here. I want to put up an ecosystem aquarium that reproduces the natural habitat of South American fish; and I need some advice to make sure I am on the right path.


  • I have a 55 gallon tank and plan to use a cylindrical filter to maximise productivity and keep the surroundings clean. I am also thinking about adding a sponge filter to improve organic filtration. Does anyone have any suggestions for the best companies and setups for a biotope tank?
  • To recreate South America¬†natural rivers, I am thinking about using a combination of high-quality sand and leaf litter as the base material. I would like to include wood and rocks to provide hiding places and recreate the natural environment. Are there certain types of wood and rocks that are most appropriate to a South American biotope? How can I be sure that they will be safe for my tank?
  • I would¬†like to include plants that are native to South America and very similar to them. I am thinking of adding amazon axes;¬†echinodorus species;¬†and different types of floating plants like salvinia. Are there any other plant species you would suggest that fit into this concept and are pretty easy to preserve?
  • I want to build an equitable community of fish that live outdoors. My shopping list includes neon tetras;¬†cardinal tetras;¬†corydoras;¬†catfish;¬†and maybe a pair of apistogramma. I am also considering adding some otocinclus for algae management. Is this a good combination? Are there any other species I should consider and avoid in order to keep the tank beneficial?
  • I understand that South American ecosystems usually have soft;¬†acidic water. What is the best method for attaining and sustaining these requirements? I plan to use RO water alongside tap water and possibly some peat moss in the filter. How often should I test and modify my water variables? Any suggestions for regular upkeep activities to maintain the tank in good condition and secure?

Also I explored some topics related to this https://forum.aquariumcoop.com/topic/34463-10g-west-snowflake-cameroon-loose-biotope/page/2/#comment-334533 I got valuable information from that post but I would really want to get some help from a more experienced person

I would greatly appreciate any extra information ūüďöand knowledge on setting up and running a South American biotope aquarium.
Thanks in advance for your helpūü•į

Edited by Zadie
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Are you planning to purchase wild caught fish, or tank bred fish?

If they're not specifically wild caught, trying to chase parameters of actual South American waters is a lot of effort and expense that are not needed.


Otocinculus are great little algae eaters, but they can also be hard to care for in a newer tank that doesn't have a lot of algae & biofilm built up. Have you considered ancistrus for your South American algae crew? They're also called bushy nosed plecos, or bristle nosed plecos. They are VERY hardy and come in shades of brown, red, yellow and albino, with standard or long fins. You can occasionally find them in green or white, but those can be expensive.


Good luck with your setup!

Edited by Tazalanche
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Going to second the notion that you may be overthinking this, and don't need to do nearly as much as you are suggesting to keep happy fish.   They are for the most part, far more tolerable of parameter adjustments than one may be led to believe.  Going for only native plants, and trying to recreate a specific look is cool, but you are definitely overthinking things when asking "certain types of wood and rocks that are most appropriate to a South American biotope." There are thousands of specific biotopes in South America, if not more, all depending on how you want to define a biotope.  And things like wood species is going to matter very little.  Rocks in particular are a geological phenomena that are going to be largely globally distributed.

But all that said, getting a bunch of blackwater fish together and putting them in a blackwater tank is certainly something you can do and do well.   Check out youtube for videos on blackwater.  But the basics you will be going for is lots of wood and leaf litter, lots of tannins, and soft water that is otherwise exceptionally clean -that means have very good filtration.  

But blackwater is just one kind of biotope from South America.  Maybe you want to do a muddy amazon tank full of live piranha and some capyabara on the banks, or anything in between.  

I am curious by the way, out of all the biomes in the world you chose South America.  What would a person from another continent think when they saw your tank?  What if there was a turtle in there, but it had fallen on its back, and the heat from the lamp was slowly killing it.   What do you think they would do?

Edited by daggaz
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Knowing your current water parameters at your tap source would be very important to know. Without chasing numbers, this would be your best option in determining what fish will be best for you. Trying to make things as easy as possible. 

Edited by Tony s
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On 6/27/2024 at 5:22 AM, Zadie said:

My shopping list includes neon tetras; cardinal tetras; corydoras; catfish; and maybe a pair of apistogramma.

I have a 55 gallon community tank with mostly this stocking (swap the neons for otocinclus and the apistos for rams, though it happily had apistos for a long time until they got moved to a different tank), though it's not a biotope tank. Just don't add the otos until enough biofilm has built up for them.

As for canister filters, I've got mine running on a Sunsun HW-302, which is working well. If you want to spend a little more, the Fluval canister filters and the Oase Biomaster series seem to be held in pretty high regard, but I've never used either.

I also use a combination of RO water and tap water, remineralized with Seachem Equilibrium. At first it was a hassle trying to get the right mix, and hauling RO water back from my LFS, but I bought an RO filter and a 36 gallon garbage for RO storage and it's not so bad.

In the beginning, you'll want to test a lot more frequently, of course, as part of the normal set-up and cycling process. Peat, wood, and leaf litter can bring your pH down considerably, depending on your KH, so you'll want to keep an eye on that. Eventually the tank will settle in to its natural parameters, though.

I don't know about biotope-correct hardscape and substrate, though. Is it good enough to use materials that look the part or are you set on getting materials that could be found in South America? As for your question about how to know if they're safe to use: generally speaking any fully dried hardwood with the bark removed should probably be safe, and there is the "vinegar test" for rocks. But truth be told, I took the easy path there and just bought hardscape from my LFS.

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