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Consider the joys and responsibilities of both types before taking the plunge.

Whether they live in a simple goldfish tank in a child's bedroom or an elaborate saltwater environment, fish provide beauty and companionship. And many aspects of fish keeping are the same for both freshwater and marine aquariums. There are, however, important differences, and they're worth considering before you stock a tank.

The Basics

No matter which type of fish you choose, you'll need a glass or Plexiglas tank with lighting, filtration, heating and aeration equipment to create a balanced ecosystem. Water maintenance, proper nutrition and selecting healthy fish will be the keys to your success.

Creating a Freshwater Paradise

Freshwater aquariums usually house tropical species whose colors span a rainbow. These exotic beauties love warm, island-water temperatures ranging from 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit - so supplemental heating is a must.

The two exceptions: goldfish and koi. These cool-water species don't demand high tech aquarium accessories. In fact, koi happily live their lives in outdoor ponds. Goldfish are an eternal favorite and a good choice for a child's first fish tank.

Many people fill tropical aquariums with these vibrant species:
  • Characins (or tetras) come from Africa and Central and South America. Neons, cardinals, serpaes and black skirts belong to this group.
  • Carps and minnows are native to North America, Europe and Africa and are popular because of their small size and brilliant colors. Goldfish, zebra danios, white clouds, rasboras and many barb species - including rosy and tiger barbs - are among the members of this, the largest, fish family.
  • Catfish are whiskered, bottom-feeding scavengers often added to community tanks to help maintain a clean environment. While corydoras are the most popular, banjo catfish, upside-down catfish and plecostomus are also common.
  • Gambusinos (or live-bearers), including guppies, black mollies, swordtails and platys, deliver live young. These fish incubate their eggs internally and then give birth. This reproduction method gives them a head start over their egg-laying tankmates.
  • Cichlids are the big boys of the aquarium world. These are perch-like fish with a long row of spiny fins on their backs. This group includes Jack Dempseys and oscars.
Savoring an Ocean View

Marine aquariums bring an ocean's beauty and diversity right into your home. These ecosystems require more attention but also support more kinds of creatures including fish, anemones, shrimp, octopuses and algae.

You'll need to check the salinity, or salt concentration, in a marine aquarium during weekly water changes. For biological filtration, you can choose from many traditional undergravel systems or natural reef systems. A reef system also uses live oceanic rocks or coral to help filter decomposing organic waste.

While sea urchins, octopuses and angelfish are beautiful, they're also trickier to keep alive than their freshwater cousins. Tangs and damsels are good picks for beginners.

Other common marine fish are clownfish, wrasses, lionfish and triggerfish. But before you invest in these underwater creatures, research their territorial tendencies to determine whether they're compatible. Chances are your fish won't all get along - some may just need a rock to call their own.

If you still can't decide on a freshwater or a marine tank, continue your research by checking out one (or some) of the numerous books available on keeping fish, or consult an aquarium shop or fish veterinarian.

Choosing your fish carefully ensures you and your underwater menagerie enjoy a long and happy relationship.