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The First Aquatic Animals in Artificial Habitats

For millennia, humans have caught wild fish with nets in pursuit of food. Many pre-modern societies also practiced aquaculture, managing captive stock in hand-cut ponds and pools. Keeping fish for pleasure rather than nourishment has its origins in ancient Korea, China, and Japan. There, ornamental varieties from the adaptable carp family were cherished and displayed in ceramic bowls.

The first Europeans to enjoy fish as a spectacle watched them swimming in tidal pools and the marble tanks of imperial Roman villas (Brunner, 2011). By the seventeenth century, the fish-keeping culture of East Asia had reached Britain. Diarist Samuel Pepys was shown “fishes kept in a glass of water, that will live so for ever” (Pepys, 1665). It seems Pepys was gazing directly at imported paradise fish.

  • Roman fish-holding pool, A Roman fish-holding pool, Lambousa/Kyrenia, Cyprus., Ulrich Kersting/Flickr (2015)− © Creative Commons licence. Some rights reserved
    A Roman fish-holding pool, Lambousa/Kyrenia, Cyprus., Ulrich Kersting/Flickr (2015)

A century later, most people could still only see and enjoy fish from above when staring down at them in opaque bowls or zoological garden ponds. In the nineteenth century, growing scientific curiosity encouraged a search for a new perspective on life under water. A glass-fronted aquarium, stocked with a balance of plants and animals proved to be the answer. The age of the see-through river and boxed-up ocean had arrived.