Complete Battlestar Revamp

My oldest large fish tank is the Battlestar Aquaria. When we moved into our current home, I decided to go with a soil substrate covered in a clay gravel and have pretty much stuck with that for the last 8 or so years. There was a revamp when the tank got broken by flooring installers about 6 years ago, but I just moved everything to a new tank.

My plants grew pretty well, but the clay gravel was proving to be a giant pain in the ass. The reason I got it from a friend was because it was constantly degrading and creating tons and tons of fine silt. Not a huge problem in a heavily planted 125, I thought. However, I’ve had to replace the axle in my Eheim canister filter multiple times – not a cheap or easy prospect since the only way to obtain the part is mail order and it turns out to work best if you replace the rotor at the same time. I finally gave up after the murk killed a Rena canister as well.

Here are before shots. This is murkier than it generally was because after the Rena died I just ran a powerhead until I revamped the tank. No point in killing my rehabbed Eheims again.

landscape of a large aquarium with wood stumps, plants, and tropical fish

Oblique angle of the same aquarium as above

I was also growing watercress and cherry tomatoes as emergent plants out of the top of the tank. Removing the watercress added a lot of silt that the roots had collected back into the water with no filter to draw it out. The cherry tomato had for some reason decided to drop a lot of roots shortly before undertaking this project. I did end up cutting the plant back significantly though, just to make it easier to move.

That big stump in the middle there has been the happy home of yo-yo loaches and bristlenose ancistrus for years. The ancistrus have been removing a lot of wood over that time as well so while it was a giant pain in the ass to pull out of the tank, it was better than it could have been. I also had a better idea of where all the hidey holes in it where compared to last time I had to move it. I did not get stabbed in the finger by a loach’s eye-knives this time.

Moving tanks is a good time to get a fish headcount, especially in a heavily planted tank. I was thrilled to discover I still had a few kuhli loaches left (one brown, one striped) but saddened to realize I only had a grand total of five corydoras catfish left (three bronze, two skunk). I probably won’t fill the cory or loach shoals out because I’m still pretty well stocked on bottom dwelling fish (six or seven bristlenose ancistrus and a bunch of Botia genus loaches) but still a bit sad. The bronze cories are original to the tank when I bought it and probably all over 10 years old.

I knew when I was planning this revamp that I was going for a soil base again, but this time capped with sand. I also wanted to have a bunch of wood to add hiding places and food for the ancistrus. Thankfully I have a creek that runs behind my house through a forest so I was able to find well weathered logs with lots of hidey holes and crevasses easily. So many other fishkeepers get so freaked out by using natural substances, preferring wood that’s been specially baked for aquarium use and shipped from across the world. It seems really wasteful to me if you have access to other sources. I did also make sure to use logs that weren’t in the water itself so that it wasn’t being used by native wildlife. Did displace a few spiders though. :( The soil was cheap garden soil from a local big box store. I had bought it for garden use before so I knew that it was fine soil with a tendency towards being clay-y. This is actually perfect for aquarium use. Too much wood in the soil leads to really tannic conditions. Great if you’re keeping Amazon blackwater fish. Less so if you’re not and actually want to see your fish. Sand I tried to order online. I wanted to get the same stuff I used on the River Tank (which I still need to write up) but I screwed up. Instead of buying 40 lbs of dry sand, I managed to order 40 of wet sand meaning that I ended up with a LOT less actual sand than I intended and a lot harder to spread around. This of course I didn’t discover until I had already gotten 3/4 of the way through my rescape and it lead to frantic late afternoon big box petstore visits. I knew that House of Tropicals, the best fish store in the DC area, had sand, but they closed in an hour from the time of discovery and it takes at least that long to drive there from my house. So I ended up with the only sand I could find, a bright white courser sand instead of a fine golden. I like the finished look overall but I still would have liked a darker color.

So here’s the finished product!

Large aquarium with a pile of intertwined logs in the back surrounded by white sand and a smaller number of plants

Still a little hazy from the initial set up, but not as bad as it had been. I love the wood pile in the back and the loaches and catfish have been loving it as well. Besides the logs, I also added lengths of capped PVC pipes to act as caves for the bigger fish. The loaches have set up shop in some, the ancistrus in others, and the Striped Raphael catfish (Platydoras armatulus ) in another. I’m glad to finally have a good cave for the Raphael as he’s a nocturnal fish and definitely doesn’t enjoy the high light output from the LEDs. The one nice thing about the white sand is that the PVC blends into it marvelously. It’s harder to spot than it would have been against darker sand.

The plants look a bit sparse because I planted them in the soil level and then added the sand. I thought it might make them less likely to come out of the substrate as the tank filled and also give them some recovery time. A few weeks later and the crypts and swords are all taking off, lots of new leaves coming up. I added some baby tears from the crab terrarium as a foreground plant after this picture was taken. Not sure how it’ll do, but at least it should get enough light. I’m also hoping I can get some java moss and java fern to take root on the logs, but I have really poor luck with it in this tank. Probably the ancistrus don’t help much. I’m sure they knock things about. I also moved the tomato plant to the far right side of the tank instead of the middle. That way it’ll have a lot more room to grow before it shades everything out and less chance for the roots to end up in the filter intake.

All told, I’m pretty happy with this rescape. It did everything I wanted it to in providing new homes for fish, allowing me to better see my fish, and allowing for better aquatic plant growth. I’m probably going to have fewer spawning tetras until the tomato plant roots come back, but I’ll probably have more ancistrus babies.

Now for miscellaneous fish pictures!

3 Bronze Cory catfish rest on top of white sand 2 Skunk cory catfish, small fish with a pale stripe down their back with a black stripe on either side of it, and two diamond tetra, shimmery silver fish. The tetras are blurry while the catfish are in focus
Raphael catfish and ancistrus in artificial caves with tails hanging out Male Bristlenose Ancistrus. Has a lot of tentacle-like growths on his face, brown skin with yellow spots

Have any questions about how or why I did something? Let me know!


I’ve done aquaponics – which is basically using fish to fertilize the water you use to grow plants hydroponically – out of the Battlestar before but this is the first time I’ve done a fruiting plant. I had a volunteer cherry tomato show up in my back garden thanks to throwing moldy tomatoes out for the squirrels. It got nice tomatoes on it before the end of the season so I decided to take a couple of cuttings and try growing it inside. Basically all I did was stuff the cuttings into some plastic pots with clay hydroponics substrate that I wired up to sit on the top of the tank and then let nature take over. Only one cutting ended up rooting and taking off, but boy has it grown.

tomato plant sprawling on the top of a large aquarium

Here it is 20 days ago, finally  getting its first fruits. The roots are on the other side of the glass tank cover. The light source is a AquaUFO + Red LED fixture.

On the other side of the tank I have my giant mass of watercress and some Garnet Rose Lettuce starting.

Lettuce seedlings sprouting

Here’s a picture of the whole tank. We’ve got the top wrapped with black paper because the LEDs are so bright that they make tv watching impossible. They’re also pretty uncomfortable to look at directly, although not dangerously so. Please excuse the state of the tank as I really needed to clean the filter before I took this picture. The aquatic plants at the bottom aren’t edible and have been in there for years. It’s mostly a mix of cryptocorynes and tiger lotus (Nymphaea lotus) as that seems to adapt best to the constantly changing light conditions and my lack of attention.

large aquarium with plants growing out the top

Twenty days later, we’re really cooking now.

The whole tank

It’s a bit hard to compare because the lighting conditions make photography tricky, but the tomato plant now spreads from one end of the tank to the other and has branches up to almost the ceiling. I did clean the filter so there’s less murk. I also had to change the position of the powerhead I have in the tank so it’s blowing the root ball of the tomato to the front of the tank. Makes for a somewhat less attractive showcase tank, but it’s fun to watch the fish hunt for food and spawn in the roots. My diamond tetras reproduce in the tank pretty regularly. I have less fry lately because of the addition of some more predatory fish, but eventually they’re going to be too big to comfortably be able to fit in all of the root structures and I’ll see more fry again.

Tomato Plant

Behind the light guard, you can really see how the tomato plant is covering the top of the tank. I’ve got tons of flower, young fruit and two ripe tomatoes! Jason tasted one of the tomatoes last night (because I don’t actually like them!) and said it was a completely perfectly ripe tomato with excellent flavor and sweetness. I am very excited to have them continue to succeed!

On the other end of the tank, the Garnet Rose Lettuce is starting to leaf out and turn a beautiful red. This is a new breed for me and I’m looking forward to tasting it.

Garnet Rose Lettuce seedlings

If anyone has questions about fish stocking, feeding, or any other specs, let me know.

Bristlenose Catfish Babies!

The catfish are breeding again. I came down to look at the Battlestar the other day and found a whole bunch of newly released ancistrus fry hiding in various places by the waterline.

These guys were hanging out around the filter return pipe clips.

Close-up of the underside of very small suckermouth catfish

Another set of them were clustered around the giant stump that’s currently growing watercress. These ones I decided to catch out and move to another tank where they were much less likely to be eaten. I moved seven fish but have only seen four at one time since.

Dorsal side of catfish fry, brown fish against a white background

The male is still in the catfish cave and guarding it pretty fiercely. May have to keep an eye out for more fry soon. I keep wondering if I had more caves in the tank if there would be more fry. I know I have at least 2 adult males in there. Not sure how many females, although unlike a lot of other species, these ladies pretty much just have to lay the eggs and they’re done. The males do all of the nest guarding. If I had more nests, I’d end up with more catfish though. I even still have three from the last batch that are currently at about an inch and a half long. Not a horrible thing, but I like a bit more variety. Nice thing is that they make good community fish for a lot of tanks and I could probably sell them easily in the future. But for now, they’re just adorable catfish babies.

Aquarium Projects: Crab Paludarium

Whole Crab Set-up
This is my latest aquarium project. It’s actually a paludarium, which basically just means that it’s a terrarium with both land and water area. Because the red devil crabs (Geosesarma spp.) I wanted to keep are primarily terrestrial, I needed to have a lot more land and hidey holes than I needed water. But they do need humidity and moisture and I didn’t want to invest in an expensive fogger like some people do for reptiles and frogs. So I wanted to have a small water area that I could pipe to a spray bar and keep the entirely thing damp.

To start, I picked up an Exo Terra terrarium. I like how it opened both in the front and back. The foot print was small enough that I would be able to find a good place in the house. I also liked the foam background it came with since I figured that would be easy enough to pipe the waterworks through. After this had been up and running for a while, I discovered two things I didn’t like about it. First, it leaks. There’s no good indication of how high to fill the water without trial and error. It’s a slow drip, but it’s a good thing that I’ve got a drip plate underneath it on the stand because it can be a substantial amount of water if I’m not careful. Second, because I wanted to keep the humidity in and not have to worry about topping it up every day, I placed pieces of Plexiglass on top of the screen top. It turns out that even though it’s intended to be used for damp environments, the screen wasn’t rust proof! It started rusting and then disintegrating very quickly. I ended up having to pull all of the screen out of the top and rescreen it with some vinyl coated screen I had bought for our screen doors. Not only was the screen held in with cheap spline, but then the screen and spline was glued into place. It took me ages to get it all removed. I feel very lucky I didn’t end up breaking the top’s plastic frame. However, once I had the screen replaced, the Plexiglass works well to maintain the humidity.

For the waterworks, I’ve got a cheap little aquarium pump to move the water from the bottom to the spray bar. I had a really hard time finding something that wasn’t giant and would work well in the low water level. I found this little one at Petco and only spent $20 on it. However, because I only spent $20 on it, I also don’t expect it to last very long. As another minor grumble about the terrarium, the holes cut into top to pass wires through were cut so that the opening of the hole was smaller than the hole itself. So while the cord for the pump would fit in the hole, it wouldn’t actually get through the opening. And when I tried to press it, the plastic was sharp enough that it started cutting the plastic coating on the cord! That’s not good. I ended up using a razor to cut the opening larger and that solved the problem. One of my design priorities was making sure that I could easily replace things as needed. So I didn’t do anything like glue the background into place like I’ve seen other builds of this type do. The hoses and spray bar are spare Eheim canister filter parts. I did end up having to cut the spray bar down in order to fit it in where I wanted it, but that was fine. I also used plastic zip ties to hold hoses in place against the foam background. Cheap, easy to use and replace, and I don’t have to worry about them corroding.

One very specific piece of hardware I wanted to mention was the heater. I got a Cobalt Aquatics 25 Watt Neo-Therm Heater with Plastic LED for this tank. You can find a lot of betta heaters out there for small volumes of water (and all told this tank holds maybe 2 gallons tops) but most of them just raise the temperature 5°F with the assumption that the tank is going to be somewhere with a steady room temperature of about 75°F. That is not the case in my house so that would lead to a lot of temperature fluctuation and possible overheating. This heater, however, comes with a built-in thermostat. It tells you what your set temp is and what the water temp is, if it’s below or above the set temp. It’s very neat and thus far I’ve been really happy with it. In fact, I really ought to pick one up for my office shrimp tank since my office is quite variable in temp and I just have a static betta heater in there right now. I also like that the heater is fully black except for the LEDs so it’s hard to see in the tank.

Finally, the lamp on the tank is a cheap hanging spotlight that I’ve had for over a decade on an Exo Terra lamp holder. I like how simple the lamp holder was and adjustable. I initially started out with an incandescent bulb in it, but quickly discovered just how much heat the bulb put off when it quickly burned and killed the plants I had highest up in the tank. Oops. Now I’ve got a full-spectrum LED equivalent of a 40W bulb in there. It doesn’t put of nearly as much heat and seems to keep the plants happy.

So that’s the hardware. Now for the hardscape. I used plastic hydroponics cups and PVC pipe as the bones of the hardscape. Again, I wanted something that I could move in and out easily in case of needing to do mechanical repair. Everything is held together again with plastic zip ties. It’s more mobile than something glued together would be and probably a bit more unstable than some people would like in their tank. I wanted the flexibility more than anything. Then I covered everything with bark glued on with silicone. Since these are rainforest crabs, I wanted them to have “trees” to hide in. Also having the texture gives them more things they can climb. At the time I was setting this up, my local fish store didn’t have any cork bark in stock for ages. I ended up heading out to the back woods and picking up bark pieces out of the driftwood piles left by our local creek’s floods. This lead to some really interesting mushrooms and fungi growing when I got water and heat running in the tank. There’s also some tiny insects that may have come with the bark that are too small for the crabs to be interested in eating, it seems. They do act as a decent clean up crew right now since there’s not snails or similar scavengers in the paludarium. Since then I’ve picked up some cork in case I need to replace things in the future. The wild bark is holding up okay, but I suspect it may break down faster than cork would over the long term. Also, it turns out, silicone doesn’t hold things together particularly well once it gets wet. I’ve had a couple of pieces of bark come off the cups since I started running the tank a few months ago. They’re thankfully in the back of things and are quickly being covered in moss. The cups’ mesh would have let too much of the peat/soil/sand substrate out so they’re lined with the same vinyl screen screen I used on the lid. I wanted to keep the drainage without having too much substrate leak out. This seems to have worked pretty well. The places where it came up past the top of the cup have also become great places for moss to grow.

Finally, the substrate on the floor is just plain black sand. I figured that there would be a decent amount of organic material washing out of the cups as things settled so I didn’t put dirt in the bottom of the tank like I do with almost all of my other planted aquariums. This might end up working against my plans of having aquatic plants on the bottom in the long run, but you can’t really see much down there anyway with the cups taking up so much of the tank.

It’s currently planted with java moss, cryptocorynes (C. wendtii, I think), and some Cape sundews (Drosera capensi). I did have a Nepenthes pitcher plant in there, but it was unfortunately one of the plants that ended up cooked by the incandescent bulb. I also tried to get some baby tears (Hemianthus micranthemoides) going, but I don’t know if it just didn’t like conditions or what, but it’s mostly all disappeared since the picture at the top was taken. The crabs do dig, move things around a bit, and possibly eat plants, so the only sundew that seems to be hanging on is one that hangs off the top of a cup. The java moss is covering everything quite nicely. I planted the crypts in the water with a bunch of their leaves emersed. I hoped that since a lot of the aquarium plants you buy are farmed emersed that the crypts would keep their leaves but thus far they’ve died off to below the water line. Perhaps as they grow they’ll start putting out leaves above the water line. I have some bladderworts on order to try out in this tank. I wanted some more carnivorous plants and decided bladderworts would be something different to try. I have Utricularia longifolia and Utricularia sandersonii coming this week. The first is supposed to have nice large leaves which would be a nice look. The second is supposed to be quite an aggressive grower (possibly even invasive) but I’d like to get some good growth going and the possibility of a lot of flowers in the tank sounds really nice.

This set-up has been running for over four months and has had crabs in it for over three. There were initially 8 crabs in there which was probably a few too many, but since they’re kept at the fish store in a purely aquatic tank, I was concerned (rightly) that not all of them would adapt back to the mostly terrestrial environment well. I know I’ve lost at least three of them so far and have only been able to spot four of them at one time recently. You wouldn’t think bright red and purple crabs would be so hard to spot in the tank, but once they retreat to the shadows, they’re almost impossible to spot. I was hoping to keep six so that I’d have the best statistical chance of having a male/female pair but four is good too. They’re generally pretty shy about movement in front of the tank. They’ll either go into hiding or freeze for a long time if you move suddenly in front of the tank. However, if you approach carefully and keep still, you can often observe them climbing around the cups, looking for food. I’m feeding them pellets formulated for crabs and shrimp and those seem to work pretty well. They will also hunt live crickets very successfully. These little guys can really move when they want to. It can be a bit disconcerting sometimes because their movement is a lot like that of jumping spiders. They’re really neat little critters. I’m hoping that they may start breeding eventually, but if they don’t, they’re still neat to watch.

Close up crab

Crab standing on some bark and moss