Matt Clarke answers your most frequently asked questions on one of the most overlooked groups of cichlids, the tilapiines.
What is a tilapiine?
Tilapiine (pronounced til-ah-pee-ine) cichlids are endemic to Africa and the Levant (Lebanon and the Middle East), however, there's still a little debate as to what exactly constitutes a tilapiine cichlid.
The late Dr Ethelwynn Trewavas, an authority on tilapiines, tentatively recognised the Tribe Tilapiini but had problems defining the limits of the group.
She included Tilapia, Sarotherodon, Oreochromis, Danakilia, Tristamella, Iranocichla, Pterochromis, Pelmatochromis, the species from lake Barombi Mbo (such as the now Stomatepia and Pungu species), and also rheophilic species such as Steatocranus in the tilapiine group.
What are tilapias, then?
Tilapias is the catch-all name for the tilapiine general Sarotherodon, Tilapia and Oreochromis. These were previously lumped in a single genus, Tilapia, and the name has stuck. The genus Tilapia is now restricted to substrate spawners, while Oreochromis and Sarotherodon are mouthbrooders. Purists or pedants (like me) tend to use the name Tilapia only for members of the Tilapia genus - everything else is a tilapiine.
Where are they from?
Tilapiines are widespread across most of East and West Africa, and up into Lebanon and the Middle East. There are numerous species found in rivers across Africa as well as a number of species found in the Great Lakes, Malawi, Victoria and Tanganyika. Tilapiines have also been introduced into rivers and lakes around the world.
I have seen Red tilapia on sale in Sainsbury's. What are these?
Tilapia are the aquatic equivalent of the chicken and over 1.25 million tons are bred for the table every year. Several species have been hybridised to produce fish that grow faster and bigger.
The Red tilapia is a man-made form of Oreochromis bred specifically for eating. It grows quickly, breeds readily, and looks more attractive to customers than some others.
Why do tilapia have such a bad reputation in the hobby?
Some people have given them a bad press, but really, they're no worse than many other cichlids of comparable size.
The most common one, the Mozambique tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus, tends to dig a lot and breeds rather readily - and from small sizes, so you need to set the tank up accordingly.
On the plus side, it's nowhere near as aggressive as many cichlids of a similar size. But it's really the exaggerated bad reputation of this species that has helped to tar other tilapiines with the same brush. Many of them are lovely fish.
Some of the ones I'm keeping at the moment from Lake Bermin are technically dwarf cichlids. At just 6cm/2" or so, they're fine for a 75cm/30" tank and look stunning.
Are they easy to breed?
Some of the ones from Lake Barombi-Mbo are said to be difficult, but most are pretty simple, and some are extremely difficult to stop breeding. Some tilapiines are precocious breeders and specimens will start to breed at a very early age.
This isn't a good thing in aquarium fish - it stops them from reaching full size as they invest more energy in the production of eggs and sperm rather than body weight.
The mouthbrooding tilapiines rarely cause problems for breeders, but some of the substrate-spawning Tilapia can be trickier since they can be aggressive, and large pairs need very spacious aquaria.
What conditions do they need?
Since they are found over a fairly wide area and come from a range of different habitats, the conditions they prefer will depend on the species.
In general, Tilapia species such as T. mariae, T. joka and T. buttikoferi prefer water on the acid side of neutral, but they are pretty adaptable and will easily tolerate (and breed in) much more alkaline water.
The bulk of the others prefer more alkaline conditions. Some are tolerant of salt, such as S. melanotheron, and others, such as O. leucostictus which live around hot springs, will tolerate high temperatures.
What's on the market?
There are currently (December 2004) loads of unusual tilapiines on sale in the UK, including several species which have never been available before. I've recently managed to get hold of two species from the highly prized Lake Bermin flock.
The Mozambique tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus
This is the most common of the tilapiines and is cheap and easy to obtain. It comes in two colour forms, a pale pinky-red form and a natural blue-black form. It can reach about 30cm/12" in length, digs a lot, eats plants and breeds readily. A pair will need an aquarium of 120cm/48" or larger and can only be kept with other large fishes.
It's not the most attractive of fish when mature, and the fry are virtually unsaleable.
Hornet tilapia, Tilapia buttikoferi
This once expensive West African species is now available at a very reasonable price thanks to breeders in Singapore. Adults are stunning, but can be rather aggressive so they fare best when kept in a spacious species tank rather than mixed with other cichlids.
Large males can reach over 35cm/14", but females are slightly smaller. Buy a small group of youngsters and let them pair off naturally in a big tank (over 120cm/48"), then rehome the spares.
Tiger cichlid, Tilapia mariae
This large West African species can reach up to 40cm/16" and is found in anything from soft acidic waters to brackish estuarine areas. As a result, it's very undemanding in captivity.
Baby T. mariae have attractive tiger-stripes, but these change to a row of dark squares as the fish mature.
I've always found this is a particularly aggressive species and, although it will breed readily, I found it tricky because my 30cm/12" male did not get on well with other fish, including sexual partners. You'll need an enormous tank if you wish to mix them with other cichlids, plus hiding places for the female to prevent her being maimed or
killed by the male.
Females are smaller than males and have an attractive red belly region when in breeding condition.
T. joka is a comparatively small species from West Africa and only reaches about 10cm/4" at most. It's available from breeders in the Czech Republic.
I don't think it is as robust as the bigger tilapiines and prefers softer, more acidic water, especially if you want to breed it. I've successfully kept (and bred) joka in a tank with various West African cichlids using neutral water and found it relatively placid for its size. Worth looking out for.
Black-chin tilapia, Sarotherodon melanotheron melanotheron
This robust and adaptable fish reaches about 25cm/10". It was once a common aquarium fish, but disappeared until fairly recently. A new supply has just entered the trade from Germany.
Unusually, this is a predominantly brackish-water cichlid, but is common in anti-malarial drains around Lagos. There are several subspecies, and there is some variation within these with some fish sporting more black on the 'throat' than others. It's patricavus - only the male broods the eggs. My fish are fairly placid for their size and mix well with other tilapiines from the region.
These are lovely fish, if you can find them... They are apparently available from Czech suppliers, but when dealers order them, they are sent Mozambique tilapia instead.
O. karomo (sometimes called Nyasalapia) comes from the Malagarazi River in Tanzania and reaches about 30cm/12". Males sport a long, frilly genital papilla and have large heavy jawlines.
Non-breeding fish are olive in colour, with a few dark lateral splodges on the flank, but breeding males can look absolutely breathtaking, being a mix of blue, black and orangey-red.
These are on my wish list. Let me know if you find any real ones!
Dwarf tilapia, Tilapia (Coptodon) snyderae
This tiny tilapiine comes from Lake Bermin in Cameroon. Lake Bermin is a tiny 700m crater lake in the top of a volcano and contains around nine species of Tilapia, all of which are in the Coptodon subgenus. They're all on the IUCN Redlist 2004 and are classed as vulnerable, mainly because of the small size of their habitat.
They're exceptionally herbivorous. I bought five of these and added them to a planted tank while I was getting a tank ready for them. A week later all of the plants had gone, but the fish were spawning...
During spawning males and females turn red, black and yellow. A lovely fish.
These are very hard to get hold of. Expect to pay about 20 each.
Tilapia (Coptodon) bythobates
This species is also from Lake Bermin, and it too is hardly ever seen. I've recently got hold of a group of these and they're currently guarding a brood of fry.
Although they're often silvery and bland when seen for sale, they can turn red, olive and black during spawning. They're more aggressive than snyderae and a bit bigger at up to 10-12cm or so.
E. Trewavas (1983) Tilapiine fishes of the genera Sarotherodon, Oreochromis and Danakilia. Published by the British Museum (Natural History), London. 583 pages. ISBN-0-565-008781.