As the Aquarium Turns

My adventures with a 5-gallon fish tank turned into a drama I didn’t expect. I purchased a Fluval Spec V with the intention of keeping a betta (Betta splendens, Siamese Fighting fish). I bought live plants and a piece of wood to set up some fancy landscaping.

When I went to purchase the fish at a newly opened Petco, I went back to one fish I’d seen the day before, a blue and yellow Paradise Betta. There was no contest. Alastair was happily adjusting to his new home. I brought him home the day after the 2016 Presidential election. I needed a diversion badly. My fish would occupy time away from the rotten reality we were now in.

A 5-gallon setup is pretty huge digs for a single betta. I did not want to split the tank. After some research, I decided a dwarf African frog or some shrimp would be a good pal for Alastair. Trevor was purchased from a large store with hundreds of frogs. He did great for a while, taking the blood worms right from the tweezers like a beast.
Alastair thought he was interesting but was not the least bit aggressive. Then Trevor stopped eating. His skin started flaking off. At first, I hoped it was molting but it was serious. It was likely chytrid fungus, a plague for amphibians and generally fatal. Chytrid does not affect fish. Since my tank was new, he must have contracted it from the pet trade route. Trevor hung on for a long while in a separate bowl to be sure he could reach the surface to breathe. Scene one closes with the tragic and rather gruesome death. I felt terrible. I would never feel good about getting another frog.

Meanwhile, the plants in the tank were not thriving. They were coated with dark green/black algae. I would take the plants out and clean off the leaves for them to survive and look decent. I was diligent about keeping the tank water fresh with partial water changes. But the algae on the plants was annoying. I decided to get an algae eater. The resident of choice was a siamese algae eater (yep, from the same original location as the betta). The pet store assistant was very helpful in steering me away from a snail and towards this sleek gold and black striped beauty. Unfortunately, the chosen one was a bit larger than I preferred. But I took the critter thinking that he would fair better if nearer the same size as Alastair. Neville was skittish and hyper. Alastair would flare at him if he got too close. It did not take long, though, before he decided he LOVED the betta pellets. Soon, Alastair had to be quick if he wanted to nab one. I only fed 4-5 pellets once a day. Neville’s mouth is designed for algae-vacuuming, which he did, but he figured out how to manipulate the food pellets pretty efficiently. On this diet, and the occasional algae wafer, he grew and thrived.

Then Neville started becoming a bully. Alastair, the mellow, was easily intimidated by Neville’s aggressiveness in obtaining food. If Neville was behind Alastair, he would dart at him. If Alastair faced Neville, he would flare at him. Neville harrassed him if there was a suggestion that feeding was imminent. I decided to separate the two. Neville was banished to a 2.5-gallon tank. He was miserable. His color faded and he was not his ravenous self. But Alastair seemed to enjoy the calmness at feeding time. I had noticed his fins were slightly ragged. At one point I saw a piece of fin loose in the tank and became concerned. The separation helped, I think, but Neville was miserable in the small tank while algae proliferated in the big tank.

I purchased a new light to replace the one that came with the Spec. It had remote control and different colors and settings. I had seen others comment that the factory light was not strong enough for most plants in the tank. That could be causing my lackluster plant growth. The carpeting plants had died and the other plants were not growing well. They were difficult to keep in the substrate as well. I used tiny pots filled with aquarium soil so I could take them out and clean off the black algae. All basic water testing came back within healthy range when I used the testing strips. And my regular partial water changes and tank maintenance meant the nitrates and ammonia were not going to be high. The tank is of a size that it requires quite an effort every few days. I was beginning to see why people say that larger tankers are actually less maintenance and more stable. I was now dealing with a white film on the water surface that was some sort of bacteria growth. If I let the tank go for 4 days without maintenance, I discovered some tiny white “bugs” that darted around. I bought a microscope. But since then, they have not returned for me to capture some to examine. The microscopic examination of the white film showed filaments which I took to be common bacteria growth.

I returned Neville to the big tank and the food rivals behaved for a few days. I would chase Neville away from Alastair because he was not going to be allowed to bully my beautiful betta. Alastair’s fin edges became noticeably more ragged and a section of tail disappeared all the way to the scales. That was enough. Neville was out.

Notice the ragged fins now and the large piece missing from the tail.

I evicted him but I couldn’t kill him. I arranged for him to be rehoused in a 30-gallon tank kept by a neighbor a few streets away. It pays to have a community email list for such emergencies. I hope he’s doing well in his new location.

Meanwhile, the battle with algae was taking a new turn. I started using a chemical to boost plant nutrients. New plants didn’t thrive but they seemed to be holding their own. The smaller plants seemed to be improving. The light was probably helping. But I felt there was always this dance between too much light and too little light. Online, there was often directly conflicting advice about cutting back or increasing light. It was frustrating. But the bottom line was that the tank did not seem stable. Within days it would become unbalanced. I remodeled the tank again, adding some bamboo plants. The natural oxygen bubbles soared. It was time for new residents.

I purchased 3 ghost shrimp: Marvin, Karl and Alice (no, I could not tell if they were male or female). At $.49 a piece, ghost shrimp are often used as food. But Alastair was so chill, I knew he’d leave them alone. And he did. As usual, he was intently curious. There was an occasional close encounter where they got on his face but he really didn’t mind. I had remembered that the aquarium person had warned me that shrimp jump and they were able to rocket away from danger. Fascinating. The next day, I went searching for the three new transparent critters. Two were easily located. The third was MIA. With dread, I checked the carpet below the tank. A dried shrimp lay there. I had left the lid off the tank and by some incredible feat of suicide, one shrimp had exited and perished.

Time passed and the two shrimp, renamed Fred and George, had molted several times and grown. They were distinct with Fred more darker, striped, almost bluish. George remained transparent. Both could smell the food pellets the second they hit the water and learned to swim up to the top to nab one. Or, they came across the bits that fell to the bottom. It was not enough to disrupt Alastair. I made sure he ate at least 2 or 3 pellets and got the occasional treat of bloodworms – his favorite. He would regularly retreat to his castle, a floating betta log that he clearly adored. He guarded that log diligently.

Alastair just before he got sick.
He seemed to be loving the new plants.

I added three larger plants as the black algae issue was lessening. A few days later, Alastair hid in them, near the heater, and would not come out. This was unusual. His fins did not look good at all and he was slightly less colorful. He was sick. I treated the tank with some Betta Fix and aquarium salt. I halved the minimum dose. There is a huge dispute over Betta Fix with some people claiming it works miracles and others that it destroys their breathing organ. I was afraid this was fin rot, a common disease for bettas. It was finally getting the best of him. Maybe it hadn’t been Neville attacking his fins after all. He was not improving so I put him in a bowl with a higher concentration of salt recommended to heal him. And then he was placed in what I designated the “hospital tank” alongside the big tank. I kept this tank warm and went easy on the salt, betta fix and stress coat medicine. He got worse and would not eat or move. He wasn’t breathing well and never went to the top for air. I was sure he was a goner. What was going on?

I bought a full water testing kit. Everything was normal, except pH. The pH seemed WAY too high. Was this my problem? Was the high pH causing Alastair to get sick? In a normal environment, bettas live in shallow warm water with a lot of vegetation including rotting leaves. This makes the pH low. My tap water pH was registering above 7, nearly 8. I can’t quite explain why this would be so but, even with the wood in the tank, the pH was above optimum. Lowering pH is much harder than raising it. To lower it, you have to remove some of the minerals in the water causing the problem. We do not have noticeably hard water. It does not leave hardly any white mineralization at all. But something is off. I ran out and got distilled water which has no minerals and purified drinking water (which does for taste). I used this water to immediately start to lower the pH in the tanks by changing out some of the water gradually. I still added a pinch of salt and stress coat. Then I bought a chemical to balance the pH, whether high or low. I ran several tests to see how much would work to normalize the tap water. It was odd, it was not working well no matter how much I used. I tested it with vinegar to confirm that it did work. Finally, I figured out a mixture that seemed to produce a pH of around 7.5. I had already ordered (thanks, Amazon Prime) some almond leaves, native to the betta’s environment that have antibacterial properties and reduce the pH as they decay.

I’d also ordered some clove oil. This is used as an anesthetizing agent for fish. A fatal dose can then be applied. It seemed the most humane of ways to put Alastair out of his misery. It had been days now. Addition of the distilled water seemed to perk him up just a bit. But he was still basically not moving except in a jolt to start breathing again. Several times we were sure he had finally expired. Closer examination showed he was still hanging on. I put half an almond leaf in the hospital tank. The tannins turned the water slightly brown but they would be beneficial. With 24 hours, Alastair was showing marked improvement. The next day, he was swimming around and eating. It was amazing.

Back in the Spec V, the shrimp were thriving even without their daily steal of betta pellets. I had removed almost all the small plants and bamboo. I was tired of the difficulty maintaining them all. One night, I noticed something on a leaf that was NOT supposed to be there…

It was a snail. A very tiny snail about the size of a grain of couscous. He was a hitchhiker from the new plants, obviously. It had taken a week or so for him to become large enough to notice. He tripled in size quickly and has been zipping around the tank (for a snail). Ok, I am resigned to this. Errol was now an accepted resident, but I was uneasy. What if the shrimp mated and laid eggs. What if more snails appeared?

I returned Alastair to the main tank after a week. He was entirely back to normal. Yet, his fins had not yet healing. I mixed up a batch of water that includes a bit of salt and adjusted for pH. I’ll be watching this closely. I add three drops of betta fix to the water as an antibacterial. This is about 5% of the dose recommended to treat fin rot so I know it won’t hurt. The plants are doing fine but I have a good bit of brown algae on them and some green spots on the glass. I blow it off the leaves and wood and vacuum the gravel so it’s not that difficult. But without the active algae eater, it’s a hassle. Something tells me there is still this thing with the tap water. A phosphate test kit and hardness test strips are on their way as I continue to try to pinpoint why the water is conducive to algae growth and high pH.

In examining the plants, one of my original ones is finally doing well, the leaves are green and expanding. But what is that on the underside? EGGS! Eggs in a slime bubble! Oh, man this is NOT good. Break out the microscope again! I pull out the plant and remove the slimy egg case. It was a chore to try to get the eggs onto the glass slide with the hope that I could determine if these were snail or shrimp eggs. We’d never seen eggs visible in the shrimp bodies but we weren’t sure if we missed it. And the snail had only been there a few weeks, it was still small. The eggs were situated on an OLD plant, not a newly purchased one. How did they get there?

I managed to get about 4 or 5 eggs on the slide. The first egg was a mass of something. The second one I got into the lens was very clearly showing a whirl and a heartbeat. This was definitely a snail. Eventually, we found what appeared to be a hatched egg and a microscopic Errol moving around like a monster. I captured pictures and videos of this before I got rid of them down the sink. I hope I got all the eggs. After searching online, based on Errol’s characteristics, I believe he is a Physella snail also known as a tadpole or bladder snail. The bad news is, these snails are hermaphroditic and they can reproduce on their own. This likely means that the snails in the eggs, which greatly resembled Errol, were indeed the same kind.

What happens next? I don’t know. Errol remains in the tank. I will try to be diligent in removing eggs and new snails that appear before they get too big. I can’t have the tank overrun and once the animal is named, it becomes very hard to kill it.

So, this saga shows this fish tank has been a constant soap opera, far more than I bargained for. Some people will wonder why I spent so much effort on a $15 fish, his environment, and well-being. But he’s got a personality, he’s pretty smart, and he was my responsibility to keep safe and healthy when I got him. It was stressful at times (and the surprises haven’t stopped), but I learned much about each of the animals who inhabited the space over this past 10 months. I’m glad Alastair is still with me and hopefully, he’ll be around another year, now that we’ve made it through this rough learning stage.

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