St Andrews Aquarium

Blog: Recognition for the little fish!

Posted: 25th October, 2023

Today for BIAZA Creatures Unseen, we're diving into the aquatic world as Rachel Gordon, St Andrews Aquarium, on some of the fish many visitors never notice... 

The Twig Catfish is popular both within the pet trade and the aquarium industry. The species makes for a very popular ornamental fish but being an exotic fish found in the amazon river basin, they are also popular to house in many aquariums. However, in my experience, they are often overlooked by the casual aquarium visitors.

The twig catfish therefore makes for an interesting species to shed light on during the “Creatures Unseen” campaign. The twig catfish, although not nocturnal, displays an incredible ability to camouflage into submerged foliage. However, in an aquarium setting with food provided and the removal of predation the twig catfish will show some level of activity and yet still appear to be bypassed by many visitors.

It could be argued that the hidden nature of this fish causes visitors to take less time over their display. However, in my experience many visitors would spend larger periods of time searching for better-known animals such as the Chameleon or the Marmosets, but this does not seem to be the case for lesser-known animals, such as the Twig Catfish. 

It is important to address that the position of a display in a facility will play a part in the level of visitor interaction. For example, our Twig Catfish are the initial display when entering the Amazon Area at St Andrews Aquarium, however they are followed by large tanks housing Giant Pacu and Red-Tailed Catfish, an obvious distraction. However, when watching customers interacting with the displays it appears that once absorbed by the larger animals, customers are unlikely to double back to the small tanks they missed to begin with.

On the surface this may seem unproblematic, but the “Creatures Unseen” campaign may help collections highlight gaps in education and conservation within their facility, prompting some to ask how much the smaller, hidden animals are benefiting from their current existence in collections if visitors are still passing them by?

In recent years the ability of zoos and aquariums to provide high quality education has become a huge priority. Notably, BIAZA itself has just made their conservation education documentation a policy for their members rather than guidelines to ensure this quality is being delivered (BIAZA, 2023). Conservation education is being implemented through a variety of strategies whether it’s through school groups or interactive exhibits; visitor-led education, such as reading signage, will be limited by visitors themselves and often will be biased against smaller, hidden creatures, particularly those which are non-mammalian (Carr, 2016).

Many collections, in the strive for better conservation education, have already recognised this bias and are trying to rectify it. For example, at St Andrews Aquarium the “Adopt an Animal” packages were expanded to not only include the charismatic animals (seals and meerkats) but now include species such as the Golden Mantella frog, bringing attention to a “hidden” animal. In addition to bringing more attention to hidden animals, many collections have altered signage and lesson plans from a species-specific approach to an ecosystem-based approach, offering inclusive conservation messages for the large and small creatures (National Zoo Academy, 2022).

However, these changes and the “Creatures Unseen” campaign have further highlighted the lack of representation within the aquarium industry for smaller, hidden species, specifically fish species such as the Twig Catfish. Education touching on lesser-known fish species would typically occur though the previously mentioned formal education (lessons) or visitor-led education, which relies on visitors thoroughly reading all signage which is often not the case (Roe et al, 2014).

A Shark Trust Sign being displayed at St Andrews Aquarium, designed to be eye catching for visitors.
A Shark Trust Sign being displayed at St Andrews Aquarium, designed to be eye catching for visitors.

In terms of promoting conservation education to their general audience (i.e., not formal education), aquariums still seem to be catered towards larger, charismatic species or very broad topics. For example, the Shark Trust is a fantastic charity for aquariums to support and promote to their audience, particularly as the Starry Smooth hound is itself a “hidden” species, but the focus is still on large charismatic fish which most visitors would likely be familiar with to some extent (i.e., a “shark”).

Additionally, campaigns such as “Which Fish?” provide comprehensive education on overfishing and simple advice to help visitors change their own behaviours, an essential component of conservation education, but this is a broad scale topic regarding overfishing.

Upon investigation, there doesn’t currently appear to be any campaigns or charities which are widely promoted within UK aquariums to their general visitors to support the lesser-known fish species. The Big Fish Campaign is important but focuses on hobbyists, the Which Fish? Campaign is vital but focuses on widely commercial species. The “Creatures Unseen” campaign seems to be a fantastic tool for aquariums to shed light on fish species, such as the Twig Catfish, which do not fit in with these other campaigns but that do still deserve recognition.

- Rachel Gordon (She/Her), Animal Keeper, St Andrews Aquarium


BIAZA (2023). BIAZA Conservation Education Policy [Online]. Available at:

Carr, N. (2016). An analysis of zoo visitors’ favourite and least favourite animals. Tourism Management Perspectives, 20, 70-76.

National Zoo Academy. (2022). Education and Learning in Zoos and Aquariums. Unit 3 Student Manual.

Roe, K., McConney, A., & Mansfield, C. F. (2014). How do zoos ‘Talk'to their general visitors? Do visitors ‘Listen'? A mixed method investigation of the communication between modern zoos and their general visitors. Australian Journal Of Environmental Education, 30, 167 - 186.

All blogs reflect the views of their author and are not a reflection of BIAZA's positions. 

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