Love them or hate them, the bright blue fish are here to stay, but it’s amazing how little is known of these manufactured species. We explore the big three of the electric blue guild – the Acara, the Ram and the Dempsey.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Manipulated fish in the hobby are being increasingly normalised. In some cases, with beasts like the curious and distinctly ‘un-fishy’ Parrot cichlids, they are conceivably more popular than normal cichlids.
Some fish blur the definitions of hybrids or genetic mutations. When we think hybrid, we often think of a collision of species, resulting in some kind of distinct chimera. We imagine the massive pronounced heads of Flowerhorn cichlids, or the novel mind-pickling that comes with seeing a Red tailed catfish with a shovelnose ‘beak’.
That’s not always the case. With modern man-made fish, traits tend to be augmented rather than crudely bolted on and obvious. Given how many times I’m asked the wild provenance of the Electric blue Acara, for example, it seems the breeders have achieved their aim of duping the hobby with an ‘authentic enough to be natural’ fish.
But then not all our aquarium oddities are forced amalgamations of species. The progenitor to the electric blue craze was probably the Electric blue Jack Dempsey, Rocio octofasciata, and what we know of that fish now suggests anything but mixed blood. Instead, the blue of this fish has all the hallmarks of being a mutation, nothing beyond a ‘faulty’ gene throwing up more colour than would be found in any wild fish.
In some cases, it seems blue is an inevitability. With a fish as genetically plasticine as the Ram cichlid, mutations are abundant — that’s why we see the likes of Balloon ram, Long-fin rams, Golden rams, Giant rams and, the stars of today’s retail show, the Electric blue rams. Here, selective breeding along with a chance mutation tossed up the fish we see today.
Regardless how you might feel about ‘fake’ fish like these, they have become an integral part of the hobby. and it’s worth taking time to investigate just what makes them tick…
Electric blue Dempsey
How the debate rages over these. Are they hybrids, aren’t they hybrids? The answer seems to be a contested ‘no’, they are not, based on DNA analyses of females. You’d normally expect a DNA test to put this kind of thing to bed, but the debate goes on that the hybrid gene may somehow linger in the males only. Still, the hybrid case is decidedly weak.
However, that’s not to say that the line breeding position is perched upon an ivory tower. Line breeding usually involves dollops of inbreeding, in an attempt to get the greatest yield from a desired trait. Look at fancy goldfish, for example. There’s no hybridisation involved in the making of a Bubble eye or a Ranchu, but those fish are very far removed from their ancestors.
The downside to the line breeding of the Jack Dempsey is that no two Electric blues ever appear the same. Bent spines are commonplace (and note the slow but obvious appearance of ‘balloon’ morphs creeping in) as is irregular muscle growth, and knife backed fish with a ‘wasting disease’ appearance are all too frequently spotted. Most prominent of all, the heads of the fish are now as individual as any human faces. There are flat faced, long faced, fat, thin, sloped, and squared heads out there, plus more. Jaws may look natural, squat or underslung like a bulldog’s, and everything in between.
The true wild Jack Dempsey is a brute. It was named after a famed boxer of the day, in homage to its predilection for fighting. Rocio octofasciata has drawn aquarist blood before, and will do again. They hail from Central America, namely Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, where they live wherever the hell they feel like it. They are generalists in the truest sense, adopting rivers, ponds, lakes, canals, streams and drainage ditches as their homes. Reaching 20cm/8in fully grown, and being a solid chunk of muscle, little gives them cause for concern.
Which makes the limp nature of the Electric blue variants something of a disappointment, or a bonus, depending which way you look at it. Yes, the aggression is still sort of there, but it’s diluted down; more like a child with a temper than a traditional frenzied Celtic warrior.
The benefit of that is that Electric blues have more than a chance of being housed alongside fish their wild counterparts would demolish. Small fish are a bit of a no-no, and though you might imagine that other cichlids would be problematic, I’ve seen them housed in mixed mid-sized cichlid communities with the likes of Oscars, Convicts and the ever-present Parrot cichlids. I’ve even seen them ignoring big Angelfish and gouramis. These are strange times.
Scientific name: Rocio octofasciata.
Origin: Central America.
Habitat: Multiple, from streams to lakes.
Size: To 20cm/8in.
Tank size: Minimum 120 x 45cm/48 x 18in footprint recommended.
Water requirements: Relatively unfussy (especially the Electric blue variants). Slightly acidic to hard and alkaline: 6.5 to 8.0pH, hardness 4–16°H.
Temperament: Varies between individuals. Some are outright psychopaths, others shy and timid. Expect aggression.
Feeding: Sinking pellets, tablets, wafers, frozen bloodworm, Krill, cockle, mussel, fresh prawn, flaked pea.
Availability and cost: Pretty commonplace, from £7.50 upwards. Shop carefully, as there are some bad ones available.
Electric blue Ram
These blew on to the scene in a big way around 2009, and have been melting hearts and confounding amateurs ever since.
To start, the Ram — the standard, mass-farmed, colourful and sprightly Ram — was never an easy fish to keep. Fussy for perfect water, exigent for the finest foods, greedy for compatible tank mates; they are surely one of those fish where failures outnumber successes. You don’t even want to think what the wild ones are like.
The Electric blue Ram is more difficult again. For beginners, they seem to tick a lot of the right boxes — they’re small, bright, bold and showy. The problem then is that they end up in undersized, or insufficiently established tanks, with the wrong company.
Whereas many fish have adapted to tanks over generations of farming, Rams retain a lot of their wild demands. They’re hot-house lovers, requiring a temperature over 25°C/77°F and as high as 30°C/86°F, enough to broil most community fish.
Electric blue Rams are also moodier than a raincloud. Get the genders wrong, and they’ll bash each other. Get them right, and they’ll form an amorous bond and bash everything around them, and then possibly each other too. They might even go on to spawn, which
is a treat, as two blue Rams usually breed ‘true’ — their offspring will be as blue as mum and dad.
But of course that does entail getting males and females, and farmed Rams in general have become notoriously hard to sex. Traditional methods, using belly colours and an elongate dorsal ‘whip’ in the males, have become so diluted as to be little more than a loose guide. You’d probably have more luck using astrology or swinging crystals to tell the sexes. In Blues, the belly colour is a non-starter, and elongate dorsal rays are ten a penny in both sexes, so your only hope is to buy either an established pair (pricey) or a small group and await pair bonds to form organically (also pricey).
Getting the right tank is by far the biggest pitfall for Blue Ram keeping. First up, it needs to be bigger than you’re thinking — 60 x 30cm/24 x 12in on the base will house a single pair at a push, but 75cm/30in long is recommended. Anything smaller and you face two problems — fluctuating temperature, and potentially unstable water quality. Note that at the high temperatures Rams thrive at, filter bacteria can become a little sporadic. In the event of a hot spike, filter activity can be seriously compromised. Note also that at higher temperatures, pollutants like ammonia become increasingly dangerous.
Perfecting pH is critical, and integral to Ram success. Wild fish live from around 4.0 to 6.8pH, and though you won’t want those extremes for farmed fish, you still want to be below 7.2pH. Above that, and you’ll see mucus, scratching, poor colours and general malaise.
Warning bells should toll when a Blue Ram on sale looks too bright. Some fish are artificially induced to show their colours with hormones, which can then wear off leaving a drabber fish with a limp immune system.
At the risk of provoking hysteria, note that anecdotal evidence suggests that Blue Rams (indeed, all of the excessive morphs, like Gold, Balloon and Long finned) have a higher susceptibility to disease than normal strains, and as a former retailer of them, I’d be inclined to agree. Whitespot immunity in particular seems low, so have a decent whitespot medication like those from Waterlife or Interpet on hand, just in case.
Scientific name: Mikrogeophagus ramirezi.
Origin: Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil — farmed blue fish mainly from Eastern Europe or South East Asia.
Habitat: Heavily vegetated streams, rivers, floodplains and flooded forest.
Size: To 5cm/2in.
Tank size: Minimum 60 x 30cm/24 x 12in footprint recommended.
Water requirements: Soft, acidic water; 5.0 to 7.2pH, hardness below 8°H.
Temperament: All the rage of a hornet locked up in 5cm of adorable cichlid. Keep away from other cichlids, consider pencilfish and active tetra tank mates.
Feeding: Flakes, frozen Artemia, bloodworm, Daphnia, Cyclops.
Availability and cost: Quite common, price varies hugely with quality, starting from £5 and going up to the £25 mark for magnificent specimens.
Electric blue Acara
If you hate hybrids, you might want to add these to your ‘not to-do’ list right now. While Blue Rams and Blue Dempseys are selectively bred, single species morphs, the Electric blue Acara is apparently not.
To clarify, there are two kinds of Blue Acara. In the first instance there is the standard, naturally occurring Blue Acara, Andinoacara pulcher. Wild types of this fish are gorgeous beyond compare, with streaked blue ‘warpaint’ over their faces, blue flecks and bars down their sides, and striking yellow trim to the dorsal and tail fins. At least, that’s how they were before mass farming overproduced them and turned them into ugly curs with washy colours, stunted bodies and ailments galore.
The Electric blue Acara is quite different. Here, the popular theory goes that ordinary farmed Blue Acara are mixed with Blue Rams to make a new fish. It’s not a natural process, female Blue Ram eggs are fertilised with the sperm of male Blue Acara, giving rise to Electric blue Acara/Ram hybrids. Because of the relative closeness of Rams and Acara, genetically speaking, the new fish are then able to produce offspring of their own.
After that, you can breed Electric blue Acara to your heart’s content, occasionally tossing in fresh Blue Acara DNA to stop inbreeding becoming rampant.
There’s a counterargument by some that the Electric blues are just a line bred mutation, like the Blue Ram, but this seems refuted by people who have bred them with normal Blue Acara and assessed the dominant and recessive traits. The farmers and breeders who sell these fish prefer the lay public (and by extension other farmers) not knowing how these most valued assets are produced, so it’s little surprise that there’s never any clarification when asked.
So here’s a curious thing. If it is a real hybrid, the Electric blue Acara inherits the temperament of neither its Ram mother, nor Acara father, and of all the ‘fake blue’ fish, these are up there as some of the more peaceful. That’s not to say they won’t scoff the occasional small fish, because they do. But anything over the 5cm/2in mark is usually quite safe.
A true Blue Acara can hit around 20cm/8in fully grown, but the electric fish struggle to get close. Most I’ve seen top out around 12cm/4.8in, and females at about 8cm/3.2in. Still, they benefit from a tank of 75cm/30in or longer, and they do gain from being kept away from other cichlids that inhabit the same territory. There will be a degree of aggression at spawning time, but it’s not deeply entrenched.
Sexing Electric blue Acara can be more guesswork than skill, especially when very small. As the fish grow, look for larger, full bodied fish with long dorsal and anal fins — these are likely males. If your fish aren’t too deformed, there are also suggestions that the size of the ‘hump’ on the head is larger in males than females.
As a big downside, these fish tend to have the highest degree of deformities of the Electric blue fish. Look especially to the jaw, which may protrude, slant or fail to open or close properly. Gill covers may struggle to cover the whole gill or close properly (a common problem in overbred fish). Spinal deformity is rife, along with snarled or twisted fins. Shop carefully and reject any fish that doesn’t look pristine.
Quite a few struggle to gain or retain weight, which suggests internal abnormalities, but these may not manifest until later in life.
But, for these problems, a top-end specimen can actually look superb. They won’t be to everyone’s taste and will long have as many detractors as fans, but if they’re your thing, they can make a superb, relatively peaceful addition to a larger community tank.
Scientific name: N/A — likely a hybrid fish.
Origin: Apparently first appeared on an Asian farm.
Size: To 12.5cm/5in.
Tank size: Minimum 75 x 30cm/30 x 12in footprint recommended.
Water requirements: Soft, acidic to slightly alkaline water; 6.0 to 7.2pH, hardness below 12°H.
Temperament: Pretty laid back for a cichlid, usually only aggressive when spawning.
Feeding: Flakes, frozen Artemia, bloodworm, Daphnia.
Availability and cost: Quite common, with prices starting around the £10 mark for small fish. Fork out as much as you can, because you get what you pay for.