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PROJECT YAVIN: Directional Schooling in a Nano Tank?


Bill Smith
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Don't try this at home.
Don't alert the fish police.
Whatever you do, don't feed them after midnight.
 
Look, I've been keeping fish for over 30 years. I like a challenge every now and then, and I need something to help with the occasional boredom. So watch me crash and burn attempt to run a large school of nano fish in a 5 gallon tank, hoping to get them all moving in a single direction around a center island.
 
Why is it a challenge? It's going to be especially difficult because I intend to introduce enough nano fish (probably ember tetras, also considering chili rasboras) to get them to school in a continuous direction. That will likely require dozens, if not more. It breaks all the rules for nano tanks, and guarantees I will be a slave to this thing on a bi-daily basis as long as it is place. Other than that, should be a snap! 😉
 
That's the plan, anyway. So let's talk about the setup.
 
(All links are non-affiliate.)
 
TANK
 
I started with a Fluval Chi 5 gallon tank, simply because I've never played with it before.
 
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This tank presented several challenges that I didn't see coming, and I had to adapt to them pretty quickly. But I chose it because Fluval glass always seems to be clearer than most, and the sharp edges also reduce distortion. That's also is why I didn't opt for a cylindrical tank or one with curved corners, such as the Marineland Portrait.
 
I was also limited by my bedroom nightstand space, otherwise I might have been tempted to use the Aqueon 15 Column instead.
 
FILTER
 
The first order of business was to hot-rod the filter and remove any dependency on consumable materials. This filter lives in a box that creates the illusion of floating in the water. It is combined with a fairly weak light, all in one unit.
 
The filter works by sucking water up through the bottom, next to the light, and then pumps it out the top, where the stream of water hits a plastic dome and waterfalls down the front. Cute.
 
I replaced the filter's flimsy piece of foam and disposable cartridge with a couple pieces of medium-coarse and fine foam that I had left over from my overly-complicated box filter project. I had to cut them to shape, but these should be a permanent replacement. They were also a tight fit, but the foam squeezed in there well enough. Water flow did not seem to be disrupted, but I will need to keep an eye on things.
 
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BACKGROUND
 
Next up, I painted the back with a few coats of black acrylic paint. I do this with almost all of my tanks.
 
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INITIAL SETUP
 
Time for a quick setup to see how it all works.
 
I used sand and water from a fully seasoned tank; hopefully this seeded enough bacteria where I won't need to worry too much about cycling. I also dropped in a few platies from my livebearer Skittles tank. I'll also squeeze in some mulm from a tank cleaning this weekend.
 
Notice how the light is low and weak? Since it's powered by the same cord as the filter, I can't put it on a timer. Must do something about that.
 
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FILTER LID
 
The dome lid and water stream at the top of this tank are a little obnoxious. There's an LED light in there that is turned on 100% of the time and cannot be turned off. I didn't realize this at first, but that feature is totally unacceptable for a bedroom tank. I solved this by removing the dome and applying a trick that many other Fluval Chi owners have done: covering it all with river rocks:
 
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TANK LID
 
This kit needs a serious light upgrade. Knowing that I will be adding lights to the lid, I spray painted it with a couple layers of black primer, followed by several coats of Plasti-Dip. This is my go-to coating for all things freshwater: it's inert when cured, causes water to bead up for easy cleaning, and the rubbery texture hides imperfections.
 
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LIGHTS
 
I was looking for something bright, simple, yet waterproof. After much hunting and searching, I stumbled across the replacement hood for the Aqueon 15 Column tank. At $42, it was more than I wanted to pay, but it ticked all the boxes with NO LABOR.
 
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The lights popped right out of the hood's housing, and as it turns out, they ALREADY HAD DOUBLE-SIDED TAPE INSTALLED ON THEIR BACKS!!
 
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I stuck them to the underside of the lid, and it was ready to go! What I had expected to be the hardest part of this project became the easiest! Such simplicity was worth the extra $20.
 
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HEATER
 
I picked up a generic 25 watt pre-set heater on Amazon for ten bucks. No fuss, no muss.
 
SETUP COMPLETE
 
After installing everything, I threw in a few spare Anubias for temporary cover for the fish, and stepped back to take a look. The light is bright, but looks great! And now I can use a timer.
 
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So that's it for now. The next update will be about making that center island for the fish to swim around. I'm thinking about gluing some Anubias nana petite to a fake tree trunk, bonsai style. I hope that will be full-bodied enough for the fish to want to circle. Plants are arriving from the Coop tomorrow!
 
Thanks for reading!
 
Bill
Edited by Bill Smith
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I can't wait to see the fish merry-go-round video! This is exactly the sort of thing I would try to do.

I have managed to stock my 29g with rummy nose and am finally getting directional schooling. Adding a couple of rams definitely helped them get serious about it though. The rams only tried to chase them for 5 minutes, then they just threw their little fins up in disgust and set about investigating the caves and hunting the baby snails. But for some reason the rummys are still in a gorgeous pack days later. Instincts activated, I guess.

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2 minutes ago, Brandy said:

I can't wait to see the fish merry-go-round video! This is exactly the sort of thing I would try to do.

I have managed to stock my 29g with rummy nose and am finally getting directional schooling. Adding a couple of rams definitely helped them get serious about it though. The rams only tried to chase them for 5 minutes, then they just threw their little fins up in disgust and set about investigating the caves and hunting the baby snails. But for some reason the rummys are still in a gorgeous pack days later. Instincts activated, I guess.

Nice! How many rummies did it take?

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1 hour ago, Nataku said:

Do you have to try and direct the outflow from the filter in a particular direction to get them schooling in a direction, or does it not really matter?

What I've read suggests flow doesn't matter, for the most part. In fact, flow can work against me, because the fish seem to like to swim against it, thus looking like they're standing still. That's not the behavior I'm after.

Edited by Bill Smith
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CENTER ISLAND & FIRST TETRAS

My center island is an Anubias tree!

I started with this overpriced decoration from PetSmart, cut off all the plastic flowers, and sliced off about an inch and a half off the bottom with my bandsaw:

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I then gathered together an assortment of Anubias I had collected over 2-3 orders from Aquarium Co-Op:

1 x Anubias nana
2 x Anubias golden
3 x Anubias nana petite (one had split)

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I superglued the Anubias to the tree. It helps to have a CA glue kicker, if you're into modelmaking or those kinds of things. 🙂

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And here it is in the tank!

I found 8 ember tetras at a nearby Petco, so I pulled out the platies and put those guys in. I will start to build up the numbers over time.

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Water parameters are zero on the ammonia & nitrite, under 20 on the nitrates. I gave it a spritz of Easy Green, and I'll watch those parameters very closely. Tomorrow I'll squeeze in some mulm from one of the other tanks during my weekend water changes.

These guys immediately shoaled together, and that little shoal started to slowly migrate around the center island:

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So far, so good! It will be interesting to learn the quantity of fish at which the group behavior starts to change. The shoal loosens up when I walk away, and tightens right back up when I get close again. What happens when there are so many fish in there the shoal becomes a directional school? Will it?

Thanks for reading!

Bill

Edited by Bill Smith
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I have 9 ember tatras in a 10 gallon tank that shoal. I had 15 green neons in a 12 gallon tank that truly schooled. I think if they shoal or school depends on the type of fish and if the width of the tank allows space for that behavior.

10 gallon dimensions: 19.5 in wide x 12 in tall x 9.5 in deep

12 gallon dimensions: 23.5 in wide x 15 in tall x 8 in deep (I found this strangely proportioned tank that fit perfectly on my 9 in deep fireplace mantle.)

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If I were you and being that the experience is there. I would do School of 10-15 chili rasbora Or CPDs and a single tension fish like a big hillstream loach or mean big male guppy. What I mean by a tension fish is adding a fish like The ram to the school of rummy nose like  @Brandy said it helped them get serious. A fish that is the "boss" is helpful to get real schooling behavior 

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51 minutes ago, Taylor Blake said:

If I were you and being that the experience is there. I would do School of 10-15 chili rasbora Or CPDs and a single tension fish like a big hillstream loach or mean big male guppy. What I mean by a tension fish is adding a fish like The ram to the school of rummy nose like  @Brandy said it helped them get serious. A fish that is the "boss" is helpful to get real schooling behavior 

Yep, I'll definitely be introducing the tension fish at some point to see how that changes things! Thanks!

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On the weekend I made the Petco rounds, and added 33 more ember tetras, bringing the total to 41:

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(I figure once I'm done stocking I'll med-trio the whole thing as its own quarantine.)

No schooling behaviors yet, but plenty of shoaling. But every time I move close to the tank, the fish collect into a tight little school. I think @Taylor Blake's suggestion of a tension fish like a guppy is a really great one, and I think I will be adding that at some point soon.

In the meantime, I honestly think I'm half stocked so far. I've been watching the parameters daily, and while perusing the Home Depot, I picked up a pothos and added about 4 stems to this tank:

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I'm already noticing the benefit of reduced nitrates; although I distributed the pothos among several tanks, I think I'm going to double the number of stems I have in there. This should buy me quite a bit of "wiggle room" in the water changes.

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Update: This experiment is officially over.

Early last week, I worked up the quantity of fish to a total of 69 ember tetras! I also took the previous advice of adding a tension fish, throwing in an obnoxious male guppy to see what would happen.

The tetras adopted him as one of their own, and they proceeded to shoal together. Adorable, but not the behavior I was hoping for!

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After a few more days and no further change in behavior, I came to the conclusion that the tank is probably too small and (perhaps) the choice of species may not be quite right for directional schooling behavior.

So it was fun, but it didn't make much sense to keep this tank so chaotic for that much longer.

So the tetras have all been moved into the 38-gallon tank I affectionately call DAGOBAH. There were zero fatalities that I am aware of.

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That is now one very overstimulated angelfish! And the embers, now that they're in a bigger space?

They don't school much. 🙄

Hope you enjoyed. Didn't go the way I wanted, but I still learned a lot!

Bill

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On 9/6/2020 at 2:39 PM, genuine_red said:

12 gallon dimensions: 23.5 in wide x 15 in tall x 8 in deep (I found this strangely proportioned tank that fit perfectly on my 9 in deep fireplace mantle.)

Hi @genuine_red! I have a similar-shaped 12 gallon (first tank!), right now I only have five neon tetras in it. Do you keep a community tank in your 12g or only the green tetras? I would love a community tank but trying to figure out what would be best. Any advice would be appreciated, thanks! 

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Edited by tmackenzie
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6 hours ago, tmackenzie said:

Hi @genuine_red! I have a similar-shaped 12 gallon (first tank!), right now I only have five neon tetras in it. Do you keep a community tank in your 12g or only the green tetras? I would love a community tank but trying to figure out what would be best. Any advice would be appreciated, thanks! 

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What a gorgeous aquarium! Your first? Really? Wow!

In mine I also have four honey gouramis and three dwarf chain loaches. The blue color of the "green" neons along with the bright gold-orange of the gouramis and the bold black and white of the chain loaches is quite magical. The loaches are extremely playful, and very friendly among the other fish, but they're expensive (I paid $15 each at my lfs). I first learned about the honey gouramis on an ACO video. They're nice guys, cute as buttons, and don't bother anyone. All my gouramis are males (brighter color) and they don't fight.

In another tank I have golden white cloud mountain minnows (bright peachy-gold) along with ember tetras (bright red-orange). And in a third tank I have a couple of varieties of guppies (all males, no fighting) along with snow white rice fish and pygmy cories.

I would highly recommend any of these nano fish for a community aquarium. As for me, from now on, I will ALWAYS keep guppies. They come in endless colors and patterns, and they are such entertaining and calming fish to watch swimming among an aquascape.

I did a lot of research before buying any fish to make sure there wouldn't be problems like fin nipping or anyone snacking on anyone else. The only impulse-buy fish I ever got turned out to be a real meany and I had to give it away. It was a male dwarf blue gourami. He didn't eat the other fish, but he chased them to the point of their exhaustion and stress. He proved that not all gouramis have the same behavior, and that I should have done my research.

The best info I found was on Rachel O'Leary's Species Spotlight videos and ACO's and Prime Time Aquatics' "best fish for an X gallon aquarium" videos. I learned it's important to know how many of one species to keep as a group so they feel comfortable, which I hadn't considered. I also learned if a species you want is a "jumper," and if you don't have a lid on your tank, the fish may wind up on your floor.

After all your research, your next consideration should be color combinations you find pleasing. Since your neons are blue and red, the bright gold-orange dwarf honey gouramis may be a good choice. They also are a good contrast in size and shape. Mine are about 2 in. and a kind of oval shape. For adorable fun at the tank bottom, pygmy cories are a blast.

Finally, this is just personal preference, but I stay away from shy fish like the extremely popular CPDs, khuli loaches, bristle nose plecos, etc. I mean, no matter how pretty or cool, what good is a fish you rarely see?

Hope that helps! Let me know what you choose!

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Thanks @genuine_red! You sent me on a loache youtube research binge, now trying to find some in my area but coming up short so far. Hadn't really considered guppies, but going to do some more research there too. Many thanks for the thorough answer- so happy to have this new community to foster this new side of nerd in me 🙂 

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13 minutes ago, Brandy said:

so...a thought. I have heard that fish with directional markings like a lateral line stripe (like neon tetras) are better at schooling. If you try this again that might be the trick to try next.

I can't believe the angel didn't drive schooling. good grief if that wont do it it wasn't possible!

LMAO You said it! I have 69 ember tetras happier'n clams in that tank right now. No schooling, no shoaling even! The angel initially would get close to one, but they're far too quick for him. he doesn't care anymore. Thanks for the advice on the striping. That makes a lot of sense. 🙂

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