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History of the Aquarium

By: Dr. Amy Wolff

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People have been keeping aquariums as far back as 2500 B.C. The Sumerians, the ancient people of Mesopotamia, have been identified as the worlds earliest fish keepers. Fish keeping in those times served a practical purpose: they were kept in small ponds to serve as a ready food source. The rich land and waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers offered an abundant supply of fish as a renewable resource.

Other ancient cultures appreciated fish not only for their nutritional value but for their beauty as well. Pictures of animals including fish have been found in the art and carvings of ancient Egypt. Records from ancient Rome indicate that fish were kept to sell as a live product in open markets.

Eastern cultures refined the art of selective breeding for color and form with the introduction of the goldfish or carp from China over 2000 years ago. These common goldfish we now purchase for our fish bowls have a long and honored history. They were common in Europe by the 1700s as an ornamental fish, and popular in America shortly thereafter.

The koi was selectively bred from common carp that were raised as a food source. Thought to originate in Iran, these fish were carried through trade routes to Japan, China, and Europe. As a matter of course, carp offspring were often produced bearing color mutations of red, white and black. These individuals were selectively bred for their color traits to produce the recognized patterns of koi fish so highly prized today. As koi keeping grew in popularity, many of these fish were exported to Europe and North America where they are raised and bred.

Aquarium keeping was in its infancy in the 1800s and had an enthusiastic following. England, Germany and France all attempted to maintain exhibits of public aquariums but met with limited success. Water chemistry, the nitrogen cycle, the role of filtration and aeration were poorly understood, and tank size was limited by the holding strength of the construction materials. Once a scientific knowledge base was established, the health and longevity of the fish improved. More attention was spent recreating the native environment of the fish so they could be displayed in natural looking settings. In fact, the goal of some aquarists was primarily to recreate an environment with the fish acting only as an accent to the display and not as the primary focus.

All manner of interest in natural history was demonstrated worldwide with the establishment of museums and public aquariums in the mid 1800s. By the late 1800s and early 1900s scientific interest prompted the establishment of institutions devoted exclusively to the study of fish, the ocean and marine organisms and gave the public their first views of life under the water.

Advances in equipment, filtration, water chemistry, and a better understanding of marine ecology have advanced the hobby to this day. From a simple bowl of water to a living reef, aquariums are commonplace and are considered to be the world's second most popular hobby. (The most popular is gardening.) The varieties of fish available have grown into the hundreds and you can choose from any size of tank. Future advances still center on water purification, nutrition, and lighting. When you set up your own aquarium, you can know that you are carrying on a tradition that is thousands of years old.

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