Q&A - Difficult Species
by Rob Toonen
I have been trying to find out all I can about how to set up a reef tank, and aside from reading aquarium books, I have been trying to find information on the internet. My local petshop tells me that I shouldn't trust anything I read on the internet because you never know who posted it. I have seen articles by you, Ron Shimek, and Craig Bingham among others on the internet, though, so I was wondering how you feel about researching questions on the internet. Is there any way to be sure of what I learn there?
With the spread of the Internet, and the easy availability of the World Wide Web, there are more sources of information available to aquarists than ever before. Doing a search on the Web for “marine aquarium” pulls up over 6000 potential links to explore. The amount of information is almost overwhelming, and it’s wonderful to be able to find so much information so easily. Unfortunately, there is no editor of the Internet, and your local shop is absolutely correct that there are no quality controls out there for who is allowed to put up a web page and who can not. I can post a web page saying that seahorses are simple to keep in a goldfish bowl and tell you how to do it, but hopefully you’ll know better and ignore my web page. That doesn't mean that you should not trust anything you read on the internet, however.
Obviously, as with anything you read, you have to decide how trustworthy that information is. I don't think there are people out there trying to deliberately mislead you with incorrect information. The real question is how do you decide whether the information that you find on the internet is is true, or whether the person who posted it has simply been convinced of incorrect information and passed that mis-information along with the best of intentions? Many times, it is difficult to tell which information is good and which is not, but here are a few hints for “testing” what you read. None of these methods are fool-proof, and each on it’s own is pretty weak, but by checking four or five simple things, you can get a pretty quick idea of how reliable new information may be to you. I would suggest that you never accept any information without questioning whether or not that information makes sense to you. Authors are human, and like everyone, are capable of making mistakes from time to time. So don’t turn off your brain just because I told you something – think about what you’re being told and if it doesn’t make sense to you, double-check the information and ask from where that info is coming.
There are several good ways to determine how likely is it that the information you are receiving is correct. First, do you recognize the author’s name from their writing elsewhere? For example, posts by Ron Shimek or Craig Bingham on the web are pretty likely to be just as reliable as their numerous aquarium articles, so you probably don’t have much to worry about in that case. Second, on which site did you find the information? If you found something useful on the TFH web site, there is a much higher chance that the information is accurate than if you found it on a page put up by someone you've never heard of from their home. Third, if you don’t immediately recognize the name of the person who put up the web page, and it is not on a site that you recognize as being reliable, you can still determine a lot by looking at how much information is presented on the page? Does it just have very brief explanations of “how it is” without any supporting evidence or explanation? If so, you ought to be wary. If there is a lot of information presented and the reasons for recommendations are clearly explained, the information may still be inaccurate, but at least you know that the person writing the page has thought about the subject carefully. Fourth, you can check what else the person has written – a simple search on the name of the poster should give you an idea of how much they post and what sort of experience they have aside from the page that you happen to have found. Again, just because the person has written a lot of other articles does not necessarily mean they are an expert (just that they have a lot of free time
I think that the Internet is a great place to exchange information, and bulletin boards like the pet Forums on the TFH web site allow people to discuss their tanks and get feedback from a variety of sources and much more quickly than would have been possible just a few years ago. Personally, I spend a fair bit of time on the web, and it’s what got me started on writing articles like this. The main drawback of the Internet however, in my opinion, is that many people associate computer literacy with expertise, but having a fancy web site does not make people an expert in any subject other than web design. As long as you realize that, and evaluate what you are reading as outlined above, I do not think there is anything wrong with using the Internet as a resource for learning more about your hobby!
The other problem is that everyone in the world is connected to some of these bulletin boards, and inevitably there is someone who disagrees with the majority of people about something – this is just human nature. I think this is particularly true for difficult to keep species. There was recently a post on an internet mailing list about keeping difficult species in aquaria – it went something like this:
I think your one failing, if you could call it that, is that you are an advanced hobbyist. Advanced hobbyists can keep difficult critters in some cases, but even then, they are only a very small fraction of the "aquarium world." Perhaps 5%
I've recently had the pleasure of interacting with hobbyists much more advanced than myself, (>10 yrs exp.) and I've learned one thing that I would like to share. When such people share the fact that they can keep animals like Goniopora, Dendronephthya, cleaner wrasses, regal angels, and the like, they only hurt the hobby at large. When you say that you keep cleaner wrasses, others will try it - after all, they admire your experience and think of you as a role-model. What they might not realize is that you have a 450g tank with a lot of other fish in it.
Believe me, I am not trying to insult you at all. I'm just airing a frustration that I have with the hobby in general. Every time someone starts a difficult to keep animal thread, such as Goniopora, explaining that there is probably less than a <1% success rate with these animals, there is always someone who chimes in saying that they have been keeping them for 2 yrs without problems. Well, I don’t know how to reply to that other than, "Thanks a lot buddy – that is so helpful! So, do you know why you are successful?" Well....No...
It may give you profound satisfaction to keep difficult animals, and it may also give you satisfaction to post your experiences about it. While I agree that it is likely helpful to do the former, I don't think it helps the hobby at all to do the latter.
John Q. Average”
I think that this letter really makes an important point -- there are many people on the Net who like to post about their success with difficult species. While it is difficult to determine how many of those posts are true and how many may be exaggerated, even if they were all accurate, I still agree with original poster of the letter above that simply boasting of success is not helpful at all, and in fact may be ultimately detrimental because beginners like you may be misled into thinking that you are failing somehow because your flowerpot corals died when Joe Blow said that Goniopora are so easy to keep.
When someone asks about a difficult animal, a reply of little more than: “Yep, I've done it. My feather star lives in my sump” or “Yes, I’ve kept a flowerpot coral for years and not done anything special for it” is worse than useless, because it doesn't give any indication to the inexperienced reader that it is difficult to keep these species or why. A reply like that would undoubtedly leave the impression that you ought to give it a try. But, chances are that your attempt would be unsuccessful because there was no exchange of information – the reply was simply boasting of success with a difficult species. It is those sort of replies that I think are harmful, and which your local pet shop is trying to protect you against. That sort of information is misleading because it both encourages the person asking the question to try (Hey, others are doing it, I should be able to as well, right?), and ensures their failure (because they haven't been given any information about how to keep the animal, why it's difficult, or what the chance of success are). That is why I suggest that you try to evaluate all the information you locate and try to confirm it from multiple sources before you get carried away.
Personally, I enjoy trying to push myself and see if I can keep difficult animals. I try not to encourage others to do it (as I'm sure you'll realize if you've read any of my responses to requests for information on various difficult species), but if someone is determined to try, I will try to provide them with as much information as I can to give them the greatest chance of success. By explaining the difficulties involved and what I think is necessary to have success with that species, it gives the person asking the question a chance to make up their own mind about whether or not to try it. There will always be people who want to push the envelope, and if they succeed and can figure out why and how, that helps everyone, and that's how our hobby advances. The last paragraph of the above letter reads a little harshly, but I suspect that the intention of the author was along the same lines – a short response saying "I've had lots of success keeping Dendronephthya" (or Goniopora or whatever difficult species you choose) is harmful rather than helpful to both the animals and the person asking for help, because the vast majority of people not only fail to repeat that success but will likely get discouraged by the failure. When I provide the biology for animals in my replies, I am trying to give you the background necessary to make these sort of decisions about your setup, your ability, and the likelihood of success on your own – I can try to discourage you from getting an animal, and I can give you all sorts of logical reasons to never buy one, but the ultimate decision on what you'll buy and stick into your tank always lies with you....