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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

October 1, 2010

Algae Eaters

By David Lass

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Algae are very often a problem with hobbyists, especially with folks who are just starting out in the hobby. No matter how many times any of us tells them that algae (either growing on things in the tank, or the dreaded “green water” syndrome) comes from too much food and too much light, hobbyists always swear up and down that could not be the case with their tank.

Rather than argue with your customers, it is often easier just to suggest they buy a fish that will eat the algae growing on things. For green water, if they won’t cut down on the food or the light the only remedy is an ultraviolet sterilizer.

When it comes to algae-eating fish, the two most commonly sold fish for this duty are also really the two worst: the Chinese algae eater and the plecostomus. Both of these fish are relatively cute, very cheap and very hardy.

The problem is, they also both a) get much too large for the average tank and b) when they get to know that the Flake Food Fairy is going to drop yummy prepared food into their tank once or twice a day, they stop being at all effective in their algae-eating roles.

There are, however, a number of fishes that do make excellent algae eaters. The first group is any fish of Ancistrus genus. These are usually sold as bristle-nosed plecos, clown plecos or simply Ancistrus. These fish are excellent at eating algae, and their effectiveness does not diminish with age. They also get to be only 4 to 5 inches in size as adults. There is a very easy way to tell whether fish are Plecostomus or Ancistrus.

When in a net, the Ancistrus and their relatives have little bristles that come out from the side of their mouths. These are called “odontodes,” and Plecostomus (or the closely related Hypostomus) do not have them. Good algae eaters stick in the net--bad ones don’t.

The other fish that are really the best algae eaters are the small Otocinclus, commonly known as dwarf sucker-mouth cats. These fish have a bad reputation for being delicate in stores, but this is usually because they are not fed enough. Keep a piece of parboiled potato in the tank with your Otocinclus, and encourage your customers to make sure that any algae eaters in their tanks also be fed--the fish will not be able to thrive on just the algae in the tank.

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