In the dangerous expanses of open water, it can pay to be a small fish. So small, in fact, that you can hide in a snail shell. Meet evolution’s curiosities from Tanganyika.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
Based upon chutzpah to bodyweight ratios, the shell dwellers of Lake Tanganyika will always get my vote as the bravest fish in the world. Whether their brazenness really is courage or just stupidity is hard to pinpoint, but they have a vicious streak wider than the lake they inhabit. Keep some at home, and I guarantee that they will bite you one day.
Being bitten by one of the ‘shellies’ is actually pretty cute, thanks to their pygmy statures. The normal impression of a fierce cichlid is some burly, biting submarine of a thing, like the heavyset curs of Central America — the kind of fanged apex predator that has little to fear to begin with.
Shell dwellers tear this impression apart. They are small fish, among the smallest cichlids in the world, and they carry overtones of prey, not predator. But their hearts are those of berserkers, and they will dash headlong into the face of an intrusive human diver, to land a menacing bite upon the tip of the nose. Make no mistake, they want you dead. If every fish in the world behaved like these, then we humans would never have set foot into water. Our boats would be torn out from underneath us, like an aquatic remake of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.
In order to live up to the name of ‘shell dweller’ a fish needs to be pretty small, and their dinky size is advantageous when it comes to seeking out real estate. Curling up inside the curves of a snail shell is a great way to make yourself trickier to swallow.
Tanganyika is the hot spot for fish that live this way, though it’s not the only place it happens. In neighbouring Lake Malawi there’s another cichlid — Pseudotropheus lanisticola — that has also worked out the value of diving into these makeshift caves. Hermit crabs around the world are famous for commissioning shells of all kinds for themselves. But the shell dwellers of Tanganyika take living in old snail husks to an all-new level, making up large urban sprawls — shell cities — with their ad-hoc buildings.
There are different levels of shell dependency between species, and different social structures are built around them. A fish may be facultative, and only use a shell temporarily, if at all. Or they may be obligate, unable to fend for themselves in the lake if they are denied one.
The real surprise of shell dwelling is that it hasn’t evolved as a wider trait. Soft, small fish have long sought solace from larger mouths, and when caves are lacking it’s usually a case of improvise, swim away, camouflage or be digested.
There’s more to shells than just defence. Having all of your neighbours in easily recognisable homes makes it all the easier to keep tabs on who’s who — who has stayed and who has strayed. For the kind of male fish that likes to keep a harem, it’s the ultimate in family enforcement, allowing control and surveillance of a population.
Socially, shell dwellers may live in vast colonies, or they may live in small, pocketed outreaches. There may be a degree of respect for territorial boundaries, or they may behave like warrior tyrants, stealing females and shells from each other, and ravaging their enemy’s fry as they live in a permanent state of hostility.
In Tanganyika, the choice of shell is really only the one: Neothauma tanganyicense. At 6cm/2.4in, this is the largest gastropod in the lake, and the only species in the genus.
Calcium-heavy snail shells are liable to dissolve in fresh water, but because of the intense mineral concentrations within the lake, they last for decades. Neothauma are largish lumps, and successful with it, and their populations can be vast. It’s common to find areas of several square kilometres, with shells strewn like pebbles. In fact, it’s easier to underestimate how vast these shell congregations can be: in places there may be piles of 3m deep. Subsequently, it’s possible to find large areas populated by swathes of shell-dwelling cichlids.
For the aquarist, the appeals are huge. Shell dwellers are, by their very nature, small. That means they don’t require the huge tanks associated with other lake dwellers like mbuna. Because of their sociable natures, species pending, quite large numbers can be kept in relatively small tanks. They feed easily, and breed readily. They have fascinating behaviours worth studying. And if that’s not enough, you can even keep plants in a tank with them. Try that with other African cichlids and see what happens.
To get all of that from one fish, and at the tiny drawback of the occasional comedic nip, I’m surprised that ‘shellies’ are not the most popular African cichlid in the UK. They’re certainly easy enough to house.
Keeping shellies at home
Whichever species you keep, the considerations are basic. First and foremost is tank size, which needn’t be huge. For a single pair of the smallest fish (like Neolamprologus brevis) then a mere 45 x 30cm/18 x 12in footprint is needed. For the largest species, like the beastly, 12cm/4.8in long Lamprologus callipterus, then just 90cm/36in will suffice.
To do things properly, bigger will be better, and will allow you to consider a Tanganyika community with other carefully considered fish. If you want a real good stab at doing a social group of shellies, then consider a tank of 100cm/40in or more. I’ve seen set-ups for these fish of 150cm/60in long, and the fish behaved just like they were still in the lake.
Fine sand is an absolute must. In the wild, these fish dig like crazy. Often it’s the only way they can obtain fresh shells, in the hugely competitive housing market that is shell-dweller city. Avoid coarse coral sand, and plump for one of the finer sands like aquarium silver sand. Some of the ultra-fine, almost dusty substrates like those from JBL are worth a look. Not all of these fish are exclusively shell-inhabitants, and some prefer to dig pits or burrows nearby. A substrate depth in excess of 5–6cm/2–2.4in in some parts of the tank will help them facilitate this.
Decoration is a huge consideration. If you’re housing shellies with other Tanganyikans like Julidochromis, then you need to carefully divide the tank into distinct ‘rock’ and ‘shell’ zones. The problem is this — rock dwellers place an invisible barrier around their rocks, while shellies do the same with their own unique homes. If those territories overlap, the two disputing fish will fight until one backs down or dies.
Just breaking up lines of sight won’t work. If you try placing a visual windbreak between the designated areas, then a rock dweller will try to occupy it, and make a territory around it. It’s considerably safer to leave a clear gap of at least 15cm/6in between the two camps.
Getting the right shells is essential. Too small and the fish will outgrow them rapidly, and then squabble over the remaining few that fit. There will be casualties. Too big or heavy and you’ll deny the fish the ability to move the shells around, ruining a central part of their social dynamic.
It can be tempting to get a bag of assorted marine shells from a retailer and hope for the best, but many of these will be marine whelk types, and far too cumbersome for shellie use. The discarded shells of garden snails can be the right size, though care needs to be taken that they haven’t been contaminated with pesticides. Soaking and rinsing will usually render them safe.
Escargot shells — those from edible snails — are also a near enough size and shape, and can be obtained easily enough from online sources. A soak and a rinse for good measure are still recommended. Whichever shell you opt for, get more than you think you need. Aim for three or four shells for every fish, otherwise there’ll be squabbling.
Being from Tanganyika, the water requirements of all species are the same. You want water that’s harder than trying to read Nietzsche, with an exorbitantly high pH value.
Try to get the pH as close to 9.0 as you can without going over. That means you’ll
want some buffering salts, unless you happen to live with the most caustic water supplies in the UK. A hardness level up around 20°H is no problem here; indeed it may be prerequisite.
Some coral gravel and crushed oyster shell mixed into the substrate, or ocean rock as decor will help to keep pH up, while specially tailored mineral supplements can be used to buffer hardness. Some of them are accurate to a high degree, mimicking the composition of Tanganyika closely, and while not cheap, they do come recommended, especially if you’re considering buying up wild caught fish. Seachem, JBL, Continuum and a heap of other companies have their own products in this line.
Keeping the hardness high is as important as getting it there in the first place, so be wary of factors that can force it down. Trapped food and waste between the shells and in the substrate will have an acidic effect, so regular syphoning of the base is needed. This is when you’ll be bitten most, as the fish will see your hand as a carnivorous intruder, heading down to gobble their eggs and upset their loved ones.
CO2 can have a small but chronic effect, as in high concentrations it lowers pH. Effective gas exchange through surface movement will help here.
Remember that plants aren’t ruled out of a shell dweller tank. These fish are carnivores and uninterested in greenery, and so provided you stick with species able to tolerate the extreme water conditions, then go right ahead. Vallisneria, which struggles in soft tanks, tends to fare well (and some kinds are even found in the lake, making it biotope correct) while the near immortal Anubias, as always, will happily tie to any rocks in the tank.
Aim for filters with ample biological capacity (externals rank highly) as the alkaline conditions of the water mean that any ammonia present will be in its most toxic form. Flow needn’t be directed any which way in particular, but aim for good circulation through the tank. If there’s just enough ‘lift’ to carry particles out from between shells and into the filter, then you’ll save yourself a lot of work.
What to keep with them
Tank mates need some forward planning. Julidochromis, and cylindrical Neolamprologus types may seem the immediate sensible choice, but go sparingly. All of these fish live close to the base and can soon get under each other’s skin.
Higher water fish are worth a look, especially in larger tanks. Aulonocranus is a good choice, and will keep out of the shellies’ way. I’ve seen shellies mixed with Tropheus types before, too, though this requires a vigilant eye.
Stick to fish from the lake. The temptation is to add fish like bristlenose Ancistrus to help curb algae growth, but these are soft water dwellers that struggle with the chronic onslaught of minerals working through their little kidneys.
That’s about as difficult as it gets. If you can provide the above, then you’ve got the makings of a generic shellie tank.
Told you it was easy, didn’t I?
4 shell dwellers for your aquarium
The frog-faced, bulldog-chinned baby of the shell dwellers, N. brevis is one of the more peaceful species. Still, they’ve drawn blood from me on more than one occasion.
N. brevis are small, fierce, and the species you’ll most likely meet in stores. At a distance, their beige colours aren’t too endearing, but observe closely and you’ll spot blue undertones and warpaint splashes of colour over the cheeks. There are a few regional morphs with unique markings, such as ‘sambia’ and ‘katabe’.
As shellies go, they don’t live in vast congregations, and are the wiser choice if you struggle to source an abundance of shells.
Pronunciation: Nee-oh-lamp-row-low-gus brev-iss.
Size: To 6cm/ 2.4in in adult males.
Water: Hard, alkaline: 7.8–9.0pH, hardness 15-25°H.
Diet: Go easy on flakes. Offer lots of brine shrimp, Cyclops, Daphnia and Calanus. Frozen is fine.
Sexing: Difficult when young, males will eventually be larger than females.
Spawning: Add three females to every male, get the temperature up to 25–26°C/77–79°F and condition with hearty feeds of Cyclops. She’ll duck into a shell and lay eggs while he waits at the entrance. As she exits, he fertilises them without even entering. Then he’ll be shooed away and she’ll look after the young. Eggs hatch in around 24 hours, fry are free swimming after a week. Ensure lots of tiny food like infusoria.
Maybe the cutest of all, you definitely want deep sand for these fish. They love to bury their shells, making a kind of funnel around the mouths out of the substrate. This has a double effect of concealing the home, and also encouraging tiny organisms to fall in, like a miniature Sarlacc pit from Star Wars. This second feature is especially handy for raising young.
L. ocellatus are good in large colonies, so don’t be shy about stocking. A 120cm/48in tank with a dozen or more of these shellies is a tremendous sight. Smother the base of the tank with shells and leave them to it.
Pronunciation: Lamp-row-low-gus oss-ell-ah-tuss.
Size: To 5.8cm/2.3in.
Water: Hard, alkaline: 7.8–9.0pH, hardness 15–25°H.
Diet: Daphnia, Cyclops and flake food works well.
Sexing: Look at the fin edges. Males have a gold trim, while females have white. Males are also bigger.
Spawning: Just like N. brevis, except the young get a better start by virtue of the funnel shaped shell openings.
More than likely still sold under the older name of Lepidolamprologus hecqui, this is a shell dweller sitting in the middle of the size ranking. These are easily hefty enough to get your finger in their mouths, so while smaller shellies hit and run, these guys grab and swing.
They’ll form harems, with a male dominating, so if you’re keeping groups then keep eyes open for a straggler potentially being bullied. It happens. If you’re tight for space, they’ll behave just fine as a male and female pair. If they spawn, note that nothing — nothing — will be allowed near them, so if your sneaky Julidochromis are getting a hammering, then it’s safe to say there are young around.
Pronunciation: Nee-oh-lamp-row-low-gus heck-key.
Size: To 8cm/3.1in.
Water: Hard, alkaline: 7.8–9.0pH, hardness 15–25°H.
Diet: Daphnia, Calanus, flakes and pellets.
Sexing: Look at adult faces. Males have a bigger, bulldog jaw and a slight bump on the nose. They’re also physically bigger.
Spawning: A conditioned pair left to their own devices at 25°C/77°F will start going through the motions. Fry hatch in 24 hours, free swimming young appear after five days. Feed meaty foods like Walter worms from the free swimming stage.
The smallest cichlid species in the world? At just 4.5cm/1.8in fully grown, it’s a tiny contender for that humble distinction.
For the shellie fan with limited space, this is the fish to go for. A 45cm/18in tank will house a couple of pairs, or a decent harem for one male. They are easy to keep, easy to source, and cheap enough to buy. If you’re looking for a shell-dweller entry point, I’d definitely choose these!
Pronunciation: Nee-oh-lamp-row-low-gus mull-tee-fash-ee-ah-tuss.
Size: To just 4.5cm/1.8in.
Water: Hard, alkaline: 7.8–9.0pH, hardness 15-25°H.
Diet: Daphnia, Cyclops and flake foods work well.
Sexing: Look at the upper dorsal fin. If it has a red tinge about it, then you have a male. Aside that, wait for them to grow as males are much larger.
Spawning: Just like N. brevis.
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.
The type of substrate you decide on will have big effect on how much time you’ll need to spend on its maintenance. Our guide will ensure you stay on top of what’s on the bottom.
WORDS: NATHAN HILL
A couple of weeks into owning your set-up, you’re probably looking at the bottom of your layout and thinking ‘that doesn’t look right…’
Different types of substrate need different approaches when it comes to cleaning. If you’ve gone for bleached white sand under a barrage of intense lighting, you’ll probably need to be in there, sifting away daily. If you’ve gone in for a planting substrate, you might never clean it, once.
Here’s how to deal with some of the more readily available substrates out there.
Controversial, but if you have a tank decked out with high-end, high cost planting substrates like ADA Powersand, you either know what you’re doing or you’ve made a big mistake.
Planting substrates are mainly designed to trap and slowly release nutrients to plant roots, and often come pre-loaded with food — that means ammonia. The moment you start trying to rake through them, you release those nutrients into the water column, and that in turn will lead to an outbreak of algae.
How to clean them
- Before going in the tank: Usually you don’t!
- Once in the tank: Some aquascapers suggest removing a section of the substrate every few weeks or months, and cleaning before replacing. Others don’t. My own advice is to run a gravel cleaner about an inch above the surface of any exposed parts, so that you lift any waste without disturbing the substrate itself.
- Heaving with nutrients and perfect for almost all kinds of plant growth.
- Useless for burrowing catfish or excessively dirty tanks.
- Limited choice of colours and grain size.
- Often tends to have a slightly acidic (and rarely alkaline) influence on water chemistry.
Fine natural gravel
Some modern aquarists might be a bit sniffy about this ‘outdated’ substrate, but it still has its place — by which I mean it is a total breeze to clean.
Gravels, and most famously the classic ‘Dorset pea gravel’ became a hobby staple during a time when tanks relied on undergravel filtration. Subsequently they have found themselves on the fringe of fashion, but many tank owners still persevere!
How to clean it
- Before going in the tank: Rinse thoroughly to remove any fine dust. A sieve is fastest, if you blast around 1 or 2kg at a time under a coldwater tap, shaking and swilling like chips in a fryer. Alternatively, place into a bucket and stir continuously while applying running cold water and letting the bucket overflow. Ensure the water is running off clean before draining and adding to the tank.
- Once in the tank: Use a gravel cleaner with syphon to draw water out of the tank and plunge the gravel cleaner deep into the gravel at the same time. The water will lift the gravel, swill and rinse it, then when the gravel cleaner is lifted it will drop back out. A battery or air powered vaccum will do a similar job, but less effectively. You’ll need to do this at least every two weeks, though weekly is considerably better. Monitor how dirty the gravel is each time and adjust as needed.
- The easiest gravel to clean by a mile.
- Inert in freshwater, rarely causes a slight alkaline elevation.
- Looks good in many settings.
- Hides obvious small particles of waste from view.
- Awful rooting medium for most plants.
- Can harm catfish bristles and burrowing species.
- Improper cleaning will lead to nitrate spikes and disease hotbeds.
Silver sand is the choice for numerous biotopes, as it’s similar to substrates found in lakes and rivers the world over. It can be bought in almost any aquatic store, and similar looking substitutes like playpit sand are available where it isn’t.
Despite some detractors claiming potential gut or gill problems associated with using it, it remains one of the most popular modern substrates going.
How to clean it
- Before going in the tank: Slowly, slowly is the key here. Place around 5–8cm depth in a bucket at a time, and stir continuously and vigorously while flushing with cold water. Note, this stage may take a long time, but you need to be thorough as it is hard to remove sand dust once it is in the tank. Don’t try putting it in a sieve as you’ll lose the lot!
- Once in the tank: A gravel cleaner and syphon will just lift the sand out of the tank, though you can use that to your advantage. When particularly dirty, it may pay to remove some sand with a hose this way and rinse it as though going in the tank for the first time — just be careful to limit this to 25% of the total sand, in order not to disrupt filtration. Personally, I like to gently rake my fingers through silver sand on a weekly basis, allowing any muck to lift and drop back down to the surface. Then using a syphon hose, I skim just above the surface of the sand, removing the deposits. This method will result in a fractional loss of sand, which is cheap enough to replace as needed.
- Natural looking.
- Great for catfish whiskers and fish that burrow.
- Almost always inert, doesn’t affect chemistry.
- Many plant roots love it.
- Cannot be used for deep substrates as it can turn anaerobic.
- Can look dirty very quickly.
- Can find its way into filters easily.
- Excitable fish may stir up a tank into a sandstorm.
- Strong filter flows may move it, leaving craters and sand drifts.
Love them, hate them, ignore them, but coloured gravels are often part of the appeal for a new fishkeeper. Not all coloured substrates are the same, either in size, quality or durability, so even cleaning for the first use can be a disappointment.
Before anything, get some of your proposed gravel, put it in a jug with some water, give it a couple of days and test for ammonia. Some coloured gravels are reported to leach ammonia compounds, and if they do, I’d personally bin them — or you can soak them until it goes away.
How to clean them
- Before going in the tank: Rinse gently in a colander or sieve under gently running tapwater. In many cases, some of the colour will run off, leading the aquarist to panic and stop rinsing. You need to keep going until the water runs clear, but do be gentle! The same problem will arise if placing the gravel in a bucket and stirring while gently flushing. Note that some gravels come coated in a resin that will hold in the colour, and for these you can be vigorous, though paradoxically they’ll be amongst the cleanest out of the bag.
- Once in the tank: Gravel cleaners and syphons will need to be used at least weekly to keep coloured gravel clean. The lighter the colour, the quicker algae will start to smother it, and you may find that white gravel only lasts one or two days before needing syphoning again. Be particularly careful with black gravel as it can harbour a lot of solid waste without you noticing, and may turn your tank into a ticking time-bomb of sewage.
- Pretty, if you like that sort of thing.
- Easy enough to clean once in place.
- Some fish will freak out over bright substrates.
- Some types may contain ammonia sources.
- Colours may bleach over time.
- Coarse grains will affect catfish and burrowing fish.
- Can get dirty very fast.
Coral sand has a limited use these days, being restricted to marine set-ups, and hardwater tanks (usually African). It’s actually the product of fish that eat corals, and pass the tiny coral ‘sand’ fragments out in their faeces.
Because it is riddled with calcium carbonate, it will make soft water hard, and subsequently alkaline. Never be inclined to use it in acidic tanks!
How to clean it
- Before going in the tank: Place around 5–7cm of sand in a bucket and flush with cold water while stirring vigorously. Ensure all the sand is turned over as you do this. When the water eventually runs clear, the sand is ready for use.
- Once in the tank: Use a gravel cleaner and syphon weekly or fortnightly and clean as though you would fine gravel (see previous page). In between syphoning sessions, waste from the surface can be removed with a battery powered gravel vacuum, or by wafting a fine net above it and lifting out any waste.
- Acts as a buffer in hardwater tanks.
- Fine enough for some burrowing species such as eels.
- Very attractive in the right setting.
- Intense light will cause algae growth.
- Useless in acidic and softwater tanks.
- Some grades can be very dusty initially, requiring prolonged cleaning.
- Fine particles are sometimes implicated in gill problems in some fish.
Top tips for healthier substrates
Never leave the roots of plants behind when extracting them, as they’ll decompose and churn out nitrates. Rather than pulling plants out, try digging them out.
When cleaning substrates before adding them to your tank, use cold water instead of hot. Some substrates can give the illusion of cloudy run-off water when hot water is used, when in reality they are clean. Microbubbles may be a culprit here
Use nets to remove uneaten food and debris rather than letting it settle on the base.
For marine tanks, lay your sand out thinly on a tray and run over it with a powerful magnet before use. It’s rare, but occasional metal fragments in substrates are not unknown.
The joy of snails! While poorly managed snail populations can become epidemics, having a few Malaysian trumpet snails among the substrate can help turn it over and prevent stagnant patches.
Mbuna are colourful, hardy cichlids that are easy to breed in the aquarium. But they’re also highly territorial fish, so get things wrong and you could have a blood bath. Here’s how to avoid a rocky horror…
WORDS: JEREMY GAY
Fishkeepers the world over struck gold with the introduction of the small colourful rock dwelling cichlids from East Africa’s Lake Malawi. The mbuna as they are known (pronounced mmm-boon-a or mu-boon-a,) are hardy, easy to keep, easy to breed, and widely available.
One qualification any aquarium fish needs to become really popular is colour, and mbuna deliver this in swathes. Yellow and orange are common mbuna colours but importantly, and rarely for any wild-type tropical fish is blue, and this is where the mbuna excel, with literally hundreds of bright blue species, which have tricked many an onlooker into thinking these totally freshwater fish are in fact marine.
Next is the number of species you can keep together. No other aquarium is capable of holding as many different species of fish per volume as a Malawi cichlid tank. An average mbuna community could hold 30 different species — a large tank 50 or more. You wouldn’t be able to keep 30 Central American species in one tank — it would be chaos — and even a community tank of fish from many different, very varied genera would struggle to hold that many because so many species need to be kept in groups of their own kind. This all adds to the overall appeal of mbuna.
Mbuna in nature
To keep mbuna at their best we must first look at how and where they live in nature. Mbuna are endemic to Lake Malawi in Africa’s Great Rift Valley — a 3,700-mile long trench created by the African tectonic plate tearing apart. Malawi is a gigantic crevice. It filled with river water and fish — and these then changed, evolved and adapted to suit their new, lacustrine environment.
And it’s big. Malawi is the ninth largest lake in the world and the second deepest, at 706m. Its 360 miles long, 50 miles wide and some 11,000 square miles in area. That’s bigger than Wales…
A lake of that size comes complete with waves, rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. Tales abound of early explorers mistaking it for an ocean, which let’s face it, you would.
Cichlids entered Malawi via its tributaries, with two tribes — the tilapiines and the haplochromines — taking up permanent residence there. Things got interesting for the haplochromines however, which went through “adaptive radiation” and today comprise around 1,000 species, which is about as many as live in the whole of the North Atlantic! This was great news for human populations who could then fish the lake for food, scientists who could study evolution — and us fishkeepers, who get to marvel over Malawi’s bountiful beauty in our home aquariums.
So think freshwater reef fish and you would be about right, as the colourful yellow and blue mbuna we keep bask in the clear blue, sunlit waters and live in and around the rocky outcrops. Cichlid paradise!
But the fascination doesn’t stop there, as the mbuna deliver a double whammy of appeal by way of how they breed. All the mbuna, and all the other haplochromines in Lake Malawi are maternal mouthbrooders, meaning that they lay eggs, which are then taken into the female’s mouth where they are incubated, hatched, and then finally spat out as fully formed fry.
This paid dividends for the early cichlid colonisers of the lake bed as even breeding females were not tied down to any one small patch for a month at a time and instead could be upwardly mobile, go forth and colonise. The uninitiated wouldn’t know that a female was with eggs or fry at all, and the males didn’t have to turn into giants who would then have to defend the fry against all comers, whether fish, bird or reptile.
Keep mature males and females together in the home aquarium and they will breed. And for many mbuna keepers the progeny can provide a useful supplemental revenue stream.
Keeping them at home
The good news about mbuna is that although there are so many species, they can all be kept in exactly the same way, eat exactly the same food, and once you have conquered keeping them for the first time you can pretty much keep any of them, as long as you observe the fundamentals.
Coming from such a large lake, the mbuna are used to clean, clear water, which is free of pollutants and rich in oxygen. In the aquarium this means they need lots of mechanical and biological filtration, plenty of water changes to keep nitrate at low levels and extra aeration by way of an airstone or Venturi outlet on a filter.
Next is the chemistry of the water. All that tectonic plate activity under the lake has meant that Malawi is very rich in minerals, which give it a high pH, KH (carbonate hardness,) and GH (general hardness). Those with scaled-up kettles and hard tapwater will do really well with mbuna — these aren’t fish for soft, acidic water conditions. So it’s no to reverse osmosis water without adequate amounts of Malawi cichlid salts first being added, and decor should include calcareous, lime-based decor or filter media to keep those minerals high and pH, KH and GH buffered.
In the wild mbuna rarely top 7.5–10cm/3–4in total length but fed rich foods in the aquarium they can reach 12.5–15cm/5–6in. They are aggressive and territorial and you need to keep lots of them, so a large tank is a must.
To start right with mbuna a 120cm/4ft tank or larger is best. Yes, breeders and the shops keep them in much smaller set-ups but this ability comes with experience, and it’s far from ideal. Some species are classed more as dwarf mbuna, and these might do well in a tank of 90–100cm/36–40in, but even then a taller, wider tank with a volume upwards of 180 l/40 gal is best.
When creating a home for mbuna, try to replicate the lake environment — deep and wide. A 120 x 60 x 60cm/48 x 24 x 24in tank will be much more conducive to the lake effect than a 120 x 30 x 30cm/48 x 12 x 12in aquarium, which holds far less water and is much better suited to replicating a small, shallow stream.
Getting started with mbuna can be somewhat of a trap for the uninitiated, as many of the most widely available species are the least suitable for the novice.
Melanochromis auratus is probably the most widely available, with juveniles displaying attractive humbug patterning. It must be said that this is a very hardy, durable species — but it is also one of the most aggressive and will quickly dominate, then terrorise a new, sparsely populated tank. Males and females become duller and more dirtier-marked too, losing much of the bright striping.
A first foray into blue fish can also be folly, with Pseudotropheus socolofi being an attractive powder blue colour, but becoming aggressive and quite large with age, while Metriaclima lombardoi starts life with blue vertical banding on both sexes, the males developing a lovely bronzy yellow as they mature — along with a foul temper! Add a few unidentified hybrids and you can soon end up with an aggressive, nasty set-up, which is anything but relaxing to watch.
Seek out a cichlid specialist who will have more species and better labelling. There you will be able to buy bright yellow but mild-tempered Labidochromis caeruleus and dark blue but small in size and temper, Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos. You can also add a group of lilac-coloured Pseudotropheus acei — the least mbuna-like mbuna of all, being generally placid. Tropheops are underrated, subtly coloured and generally well behaved mbuna, which inhabit the shallows and graze algae. Some are quite collectable and any shop holding several species such as T. chilumba, macropthalmus, microstoma and sp. ‘red cheek’ are definitely worth their cichlid salt.
And if you want to break up the bright blues and yellows, how about a bit of brown? Look out for the subtle beauty of Pseudotropheus elongatus ‘chailosi’ or Cynotilapia sp. ‘Lion’.
Large aggressive species
These fish are best avoided by the novice mbuna keeper:
Smaller, less aggressive species
Try these instead:
Male and female mbuna don’t form mated pairs, and that does mean that male mbuna can be troublesome. To put it simply, every male mbuna wants nothing more than to be the only male haplochromine in the whole of Lake Malawi — or better still, the whole of the world.
Males want to adorn themselves in the brightest colours and live over the best real estate, and their idea of heaven is to be visited every ten minutes of every day by a female looking for a casual fling and who then disappears, never to be seen again!
Hell for a male mbuna is to be surrounded by other males — other better looking, more masculine males — who then eat their food, take up residence in their space and worst of all, take all their women. This results in a typical male response — fighting — and females who don’t know when to leave will get battered, too. If you’re 7.5cm/3in long and aquatic, never get within a few metres of a male mbuna with a rage on. It will hurt!
But of course the problem here is that most of our tanks are only a metre long — maybe a metre and half at best — so with what we now know about mbuna psychology, we can see that we have an anger management problem that needs to be addressed. Rival males and non-sexual females will always be in the vicinity of dominant, sexually charged males, so it’s how we deal with it which will make or break your mbuna “community”.
The first thing to consider is decor. In Malawi the rocks where mbuna are found would need moving with a JCB, but we can use lots of smaller rocks, say 15cm/6in across, in piles in the aquarium. A rock gives a male something to call his own, somewhere to feed and breed — and if you use limestone rock it will even buffer your water and help to make it hard.
Pile the rocks together and females, fry and subdominant males can take shelter in the crevices and get out of the line of sight of the aggressive male. He won’t attack them if he doesn’t know they are there.
Next, pile rocks high to further obscure the line of sight across the aquarium. Make a visual barrier and two males will separate and coexist, each defending his own tiny territory. Add lots and lots of rocks and you can keep even more males in this way.
The next line of defence is to overstock. You have lots of filtration and lots of aeration, so go wild (filter bacteria levels permitting), and quickly build up a high number of similarly sized, similarly aged (ideally young, sub 5cm/2in fish). Twenty individuals should be seen as an absolute minimum, but 30 or 40 is even better. Grow them up in a crowded situation where they all know one other and anger can be managed. Outnumber a male of each species by at least two females, so that one poor female doesn’t get singled out and harassed. Or don’t have any females at all — but you’ll miss out on the joys of breeding.
Like a cockerel with a group of hens, the one thing that’s really going to wind up your male is another male of his own size and kind. He’ll fight to the death to protect what is his, so a newly introduced, disorientated male will always come off worst. Passing on one’s bloodline overpowers every other emotion or driver in nature.
Overstock and the aggressive male can’t spend too long away from his rock chasing other fish, as another fish could take up residence while he is away (or so he thinks). And that’s how Malawi mbuna tanks work.
Feed with care
In nature, mbuna feed on aufwuchs (a German word, meaning surface growth). This growth on the rocks consists of short strands of algae, biofilms and the tiny critters living within it. At certain times of year mbuna will also graze on zooplankton blooms higher up in the water, and massive scale midge hatches which rise up hundreds of metres above the lake like huge plumes of smoke as they hatch and mate.
For the Malawi cichlid geeks it’s the subtle specialisation of the 1,000 species when times are tough and food lean, which is so fascinating. Like zebra and wildebeest on the savannah, which coexist by each eating different lengths of grasses, the mbuna do so by eating different lengths of aufwuchs, and grazing it in different ways. The underslung mouths of the Labeotropheus allow those fish to access and rip off the best algae growths in choppy water with very little levering, keeping their bodies flat against the rocks as they do so. But the more insectivorous Labidochromis have to turn their bodies head first, at 90° to a flat surface, and then expend more energy ripping at the algae.
So, in the lean times, each species uses its specialisation, be it for eating short algae, long algae, invertebrates, insect larvae, eggs, scales or even fry — that’s why there are so many different species in Lake Malawi rather than millions of individuals of just one or two species.
In the aquarium, these specialisations are virtually never called upon, so mbuna grow big and fat on rich diets and regular feeds. This gives rise to so-called “Malawi bloat”, although many other underlying factors probably also contribute to the disease. In a mbuna with bloat, the neck and stomach become swollen and firm to the touch; the eyes pop slightly. It’s almost always fatal.
Popular advice is to avoid rich foods aimed at South American carnivorous cichlids and instead offer mbuna specific diets, which contain lots of algae, vegetable matter, and low animal protein. Frozen bloodworm is also attributed to causing bloat, although it is actually very low in protein and instead high in chitin, and mostly water.
Leave off feeding for one day a week and your mbuna will take to the rocks, cleaning up algae and clearing out their systems.
8 essentials for success with mbuna
- Hard, alkaline water — pH upwards of 7.5; temperature 24–26°C/75–79°F.
- Well-filtered water — zero ammonia and nitrite; nitrate should be below 40ppm.
- Well-oxygenated water — add extra aeration with an airstone or Venturi.
- A large tank — 180 l/40 gal minimum, but ideally 240 l/53 gal or more.
- Lime based decor — to aid pH buffering.
- Rocks — provide lots of them to offer territories and hiding places.
- Overcrowding — 20-plus fish in every community.
- The right food — offer an algae-based diet aimed at herbivores.
Don’t let them hybridise!
Mbuna will hybridise in the aquarium, and for the sake of other mbuna buyers, this should not be encouraged. Don’t keep females without a male of their own species in the community and if fry are suspected to be of hybrid origin, don’t spread them in the hobby. Although exciting to some, a new species won’t be created in this way. Instead, that world record breaking cichlid diversity will be watered down and diminished — and those unique colours, patterns and specialisations will disappear.
Few tropical fish stir up as much emotion as the Parrot cichlid, says Jeremy Gay. But should they be avoided?
I remember the first time I saw a Parrot cichlid. It was in an advertisement in PFK in 1993, in which some apricot-coloured cichlids were displayed in a rather fine looking Juwel Lido aquarium.
I didn’t know what they were back then. They were new, weren’t in any fishkeeping books and the Internet wasn’t around yet.
Soon afterwards I saw these chunky looking, but cute cichlids, cruising up and down a furnished 120cm/48" aquarium and carrying a price tag of more than £200 for the pair.
First impressions? I liked them. I’ve always liked stocky, deep-bodied fish and this was the start of a love affair with cichlids that would continue to this day. I was a teenager at the time and although I would not be able to afford them back then, I could still daydream about the sort of set-up that I would keep them in.
At the time tropical aquariums were still very much about having the token display fish in your set-up — typically a pair of angels, Discus or gouramis — and these new fish fitted nicely into that display category, drawing your eye to them among the plants and shoals of smaller fish.
Years later I had a bit more money and the price of Parrots had come down to about £40 each. I bought one and kept it as pride of place in my hexagonal aquarium, complete with black gravel — another sign of the times!
My friends liked him, my family liked him and I loved him. I was convinced that this was easily the most intelligent fish that I had ever kept (Oscars included.) He was hardy too, surviving all my various errors and wipeouts, even outsurviving a Common plec.
I woke up one morning, however, to find my beloved Parrot with a piece of the black gravel stuck in its mouth. It could still breathe, but definitely couldn’t dislodge the gravel on its own.
Going on what I had learned from my dad years previously, when the same happened to a family goldfish, I caught the fish, held it in the net and levered the gravel from its mouth with a matchstick.
Luckily it was fine, but I had found out that this was a hybrid fish, with its own set of problems, including a deformed mouth.
I got older, discovered girls, rehomed the Parrot at my local pet shop and shut down and sold the hexagonal tank. I didn’t keep Parrots again until I later worked in an aquatic shop.
By then I had become better educated about fishkeeping in general. The parrots were still stocked, these days selling at the cheaper price of £15 to £25 each.
The shop ordered some Parrot cichlids from Singapore, but instead of getting the usual apricot- coloured fish, we received something listed as "Purple Parrot, ART." What had arrived? About a dozen, deeply coloured purple- dyed Parrots!
The ART stood for artificially coloured, and through our complete naivety we had ordered dyed Parrot cichlids.
We took them off sale immediately, but a clued-up customer spotted them and wrote in, saying how disappointed he was that he had seen them in store.
I wrote back saying that I was equally disappointed to have received them, but did not believe that euthanasia would be right and instead offered them tlc and time, hoping the dye would eventually fade —which it did. I have been particularly twitchy about Parrots ever since.
In 2007 PFK visited the Aquarama aquatics show in Singapore. I’m sure most people are already aware, but Singapore is the largest exporter of tropical fish in the world, and most of the easily bred, community fish we keep have usually come from farms there.
Parrot cichlids are massive business out there. Together with another cichlid hybrid, the newer Flowerhorn cichlid, and the Asian arowana or dragonfish, which may also be a hybrid of several wild species, they make up the big three exports and were a major feature at the farms, the show and in their aquatic shops.
You can see a video showing Arowana, Flowerhorns and Parrot cichlids at the show below:
What are they?
We didn’t know what Parrot cichlids were at first, but many guessed that they were a cross between the Midas cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus) and the Golden severum (Heros efasciatus). More recently the Singaporean suppliers started to list them as such, Heros severus x Amphilophus citrinellus, so it appeared that the guesses were correct. The true H.severus by the way is a mouthbrooder, and the Singaporean severus are all almost certainly efasciatus.
The trouble is that the Singaporean fish breeding industry is very much about selling the next big thing, frequently at the expense of the fish themselves. Singapore brought you the Balloon molly, and the Parrot cichlid itself has a very much shorter, and some would say deformed body, than both the Midas cichlid and the severum.
A shorter-bodied fish means more people can house them in smaller tanks, which in turn means more sales.
The apricot-coloured Parrot quickly became the red Parrot, blood red Parrot and then the purple Parrot. There were even tattooed Parrots with messages and pictures scarred onto them. Even worse is the physical abuse and cruelty involved in cutting the tails off some live fish to create "heart Parrots."
Placed into everything from African cichlid tanks to arowana set-ups these are the clearly most abused of all tropical fish and treated with similar disrespect, by many, to goldfish.
One noticeable factor with Parrot cichlids these days is how large they can grow. Midas cichlids easily top 30cm/12", and Severums 20cm/8"+, and I’ve witnessed many rehomed Parrot cichlids, topping 20cm/8" in length.
Going by this, and working to our six times tank length recommendations, they will need an aquarium of at least 120cm/48” in length, long term, and powerful filtration combined with regular water changes to deal with all of their waste.
In terms of water parameters we must look at the parent’s requirements. The Midas cichlid is native to hard water and Central American lakes, so requires pH in the high 7-8. Temperature can range from low 20s°C to low 30s (72-90°C). Wild Severums are South American so we typically associate them with higher tropical temperatures and softer water, pH 5-7 and 24-30°C/75-86°F.
From this, and adding the factor that the Parrot cichlid is very much removed from wild fish, we can assume that a pH of 7-8 and a temperature of 24-28°C/75-82°F will be fine.
Feeding and friends
Parrots are easy to feed and will accept dry frozen and live foods. As they get larger a main diet of cichlid sticks or pellets will be fine.
As for tank mates, if Parrots grow up with them from small they are generally OK with such as rasboras, tetras and barbs, though add a shoal of small Neons to a tank of large Parrots and they will be eaten.
The standard mix with Parrot cichlids typically includes Angelfish, Silver dollars, Tinfoil barbs, Convicts, Severums, Jewel cichlids and hardy medium-sized catfish such as Doras and Synodontis.
Depending on where you shop, these are sometimes kept and sold alongside Malawi cichlids.
They tend to do OK even in these chaotic set-ups as the mbuna just think they are a large Red zebra — though I don’t advise that you take this route, as if the dominant mbuna does take offence, the Parrot — with its deformed mouth — does not have the dentition to fight back.
One thing that often happens with Parrot cichlids is that they spawn. They are substrate spawners, like their ancestors, cleaning a rock or piece of wood on which to lay hundreds of adhesive eggs.
If the fry hatched they would protect them too, only they never do, and despite being one of the most likely cichlids to actually spawn, I have never seen or heard of the eggs hatching, instead going white due to being infertile.
And here’s a word of warning…Parrot cichlids will try to breed with almost any other substrate- spawning cichlid.
Midas and Severums would make sense, though I have seen them spawn with any number of other Central American cichlids, from Jaguars to Convicts, luckily with the eggs never hatching.
What may start off as an interesting chance spawning may become tiresome as your singular Parrot lays batch after batch of eggs that prove infertile.
Where we stand...
We actively campaign against the sale of dyed fish, as we know through our own research that the dye is injected into these fish or tattooed onto them. We therefore in no way condone the sale of dyed Parrot cichlids and don’t recommend that you keep them either. Heart Parrots are treated even worse, though we have not seen them for sale in the UK.
Hybrids cause us problems too (see below) when it comes to identifying fish.
So although they are cute, clever and generally good fish for the community, we would recommend that you try some other fish instead.
If you still want to buy Parrot cichlids avoid all but the apricot coloured ones, or rarely, the olive coloured ones, as these are not dyed for appearance. However, I can’t help but feel that the purchase of any Parrot cichlid is fueling the demand for more, including those that have been dyed, tattooed or tail-docked.
Why are hybrid fish such a problem?
Hybrids are found everywhere in the animal world and are especially common in the terrestrial plant world.
It could be argued that domestic Discus are probably hybrids of the three wild species, as are some forms of platy (crossed with swordtails) and lots of Malawi cichlids, like calico Aulonocara. If you knowingly buy hybrids and breed them, as long as the buyer knows what they are there may not be a problem.
Hybrids do, however, cause problems when you want to positively identify fish (like the very similar Vieja cichlids from Central America or Metriaclima cichlids from Lake Malawi) and when it becomes paramount to keep a species absolutely pure, as in conservation.
As any seasoned Malawi cichlid keeper will confirm, if left to hybridise the hybrid progeny becomes increasingly large, drab and similar, and if left for years a Malawi tank can change from a colourful, diverse mix of many different species to one, singular hybrid mass. Imagine that happening in the wild?
Hybrids may then, unknowingly, make their way back into the shops and have the fish buffs puzzling over them, misidentifying them and then unknowingly crossing them again. This creates a headache for the home collector and loss of the true species that we sought out and brought into the hobby in the first place.
Some argue that hybrids are sterile, as Parrot cichlids in particular seem only ever to produce infertile eggs. This doesn’t seem to be the case however with Discus if they are hybrids, livebearers, with most Central American species, or with most Malawi cichlids. So beware.
Hybrids are also known to have something called 'hybrid vigor' with a new injection of foreign blood making them larger, more aggressive potentially and more successful than either single parent species. This again could be catastrophic if hybrids are released into the wild.
What of the true Parrot cichlid?
There is another Parrot cichlid — not a hybrid, but a true species — called Hoplarchus psittacus from South America (pictured above).
This large, softwater fish is peaceful and until recently very rare in the hobby. It is becoming increasingly more available, however, and being tank bred it can be kept with other, large, peaceful South American cichlids like Uaru, Severums and Satanoperca.
Dr Alex Jordan, of the University of New South Wales, Australia, takes a look at the interesting social life of the Tanganyikan cichlid Neolamprologus pulcher.
Neolamprologus pulcher is endemic to Lake Tanganyika, a region in which fish have filled the majority of ecological niches. Perhaps as a result of competition, the fish there have evolved a wide range of interesting life histories.
N. pulcher is rare among lake fish because it lives in groups with ‘helpers at nest’ — non-breeding individuals that help rear the brood of the dominant pair as well as undertaking territory maintenance and defence. This is known as alloparental care.
Are group members related?
Relatedness within groups is quite low on average, with large males usually the most distantly related to others in the group.
Obviously when born the young are related to their parents, but as they mature they typically move away from their natal group into a new one.
What affects their choice as to what group to join?
I have been conducting experiments in Lake Tanganyika looking at factors that influence the decisions dispersing helpers make when joining new groups.
These include social rank in the new group, because access to food, shelter and mates depends on social position, likelihood of acceptance or rejection — and external factors such as predation risk in different groups.
What challenges do they face when they join a group?
N. pulcher are very territorial so visitors to groups are often vigorously driven away. There is evidence that fish visit a group many times before attempting to join it, perhaps to become familiar with the group’s members, which may reduce aggression.
In my own experiments I expected N. pulcher to join groups in which they would be most senior and therefore receive the least aggression — but they did quite the opposite!
When I gave the fish a choice between groups of smaller or larger helpers they chose those with larger helpers, thereby accepting a lower social rank and receiving far more aggression.
It seems they tend to pick groups offering the greatest safety from predation, even though they receive aggression from their own species as a result.
How is their chance of breeding success affected and what does this research show?
By joining lower down the ranks the new fish have a longer wait to obtain a breeding position and also possibly reduced access to food, which would further slow their growth.
However, they are likely to enjoy higher survival rates in groups of fish larger than themselves, so it might seem a well thought out trade-off to lay low for the time being and surviving as against going straight to the top and probably getting eaten before getting a chance to breed.
This result demonstrated a very complex reasoning process in these groups, which is not entirely unexpected given the complex social structure of N. pulcher groups.
Is it possible to keep Neolamprologus pulcher in social groups in the aquarium? If so, how do I go about it and what's the minimum sized tank I would need?¨
It certainly is, but if you have too small a tank you will soon see a darker side to the inappropriately named 'Princess cichlid'!
Both N. pulcher and N. brichardi form extended social groups in the wild, but there is often conflict within these groups, and members join and leave periodically.
In the wild this isn’t a problem as the lake is big enough for them to move away, but in captivity if a group member wants to leave, or is forced out, they may have nowhere else to go. Indeed, even in a 180cm/6' tank it would be difficult to peacefully maintain two separate groups of N. pulcher.
For a single group I would suggest no smaller than a 90cm/3' tank, but given that groups in the wild can be as large as 15-20 individuals, you might be better with an even larger tank.
To form a group, first make sure you have a pair (obtained most easily by rearing a group of young and waiting for the first pair to form, then removing all others), and then wait for them to spawn.
As they grow, remove most of the young, but leave some behind to help rear subsequent broods.
You could try to introduce smaller adults to the tank with an extablished group, but in my experience in aquaria and the wild, the pair will probably react very aggressively and may kill the newcomer, so be careful! Otherwise enjoy keeping a marvellous natural spectacle.
John Rundle explains how to breed this popular dwarf cichlid.
When visiting a new fish shop in my area my attention was drawn to a tank of fish that were shining like brightly coloured butterflies. Mikrogeophagus ramirezi, commonly known as the Ram or the Butterfly cichlid, comes from Venezuela and Colombia and reaches around 7cm/2.75".
When I first started breeding fish the Ram was considered difficult to breed. Now if you can supply them with fairly soft water you can breed them without too many problems.
Since its introduction into the hobby in about 1948 the Ram has been bred and developed by commercial fish breeders in a variety of shapes and colours including gold, long-finned and albino.
The Rams I bred were young adults. I was told that they were German bred; they had brilliant normal colour, normal shaped fins and were in excellent condition. Because of these facts, I decided to buy two males and three females. Female Rams are smaller than the males and the second ray of the dorsal fin is shorter. The male dorsal ray extensions (third and fourth rays) are longer than the female's.
When in breeding condition, the female's belly area will be a brilliant red in normal coloured fish.
Aquarium literature cites that the Ram should be kept and bred in water that is acidic and soft. This would be best if you have wild stock, but fish from commercial stock will do well in water with a neutral pH of 7, moderately soft 3 to 6 GH.
However, it will not do well in hard water. In my case I have tapwater that is neutral pH and very soft, which is ideal for keeping Rams.
The five Rams were housed in a 76 x 30 x 30cm/30" x 12" x 12" tank along with six Rosy tetras.
The tank had no substrate, but there were groups of Java fern and small clay plant pots laid on their sides to provide shelter.
The temperature was set at 26°C/78°F and filtration was a homemade gravel filter.
The fish were fed a diet of dry foods, frozen bloodworm and live foods such as grindalworm and whiteworm. On this varied diet I hoped they would come into breeding condition and start to form pairs through natural selection.
I didn't have long to wait... One morning I went to feed the fish and noticed something was going on; a male and female Ram were being very active over the top of one of the plant pots at one end of the tank.
All the other fish, including the tetras, were at the opposite end of the tank, well away from the Rams.
On closer inspection I could see the male guarding a large batch of amber coloured eggs that were placed on the plant pot.
I decided to leave the situation as it was and allow the pair to guard their eggs. They did very well and within eight days there was a large brood of about 200 tiny fry free swimming around the proud parents who still kept the other tank inmates at bay.
Rams can become unsure and panic and then eat their young, so need peace and quiet when they have eggs and fry. That's what happened in this case as I think they felt insecure with the other fish in the tank and devoured the fry – I know because I watched them.
My next move was to set up a 60 x 25 x 25cm/24" x 10" x 10" tank with a mono-layer of aquarium gravel, plants such as Java fern and Java moss, flat stones, small clay flower pots and a sponge type filter.
A heaterstat was added set to 27C/80F and there was no overhead tank lighting, just daylight from a nearby window.
Into this tank the pair of Rams that had previously spawned were placed and fed the same diet as before. The tank was the uppermost in a bank of four – I thought that this would allow the pair seclusion from seeing me pass by each day.
Within a few days the pair began to clean a flat stone and I could clearly see the genital papilla (the tube extending from the urogential opening, used for egg or sperm deposition) on each fish starting to show. On the female it was smaller and more rounded than the male. The colours at this time were brilliant on the male and the female, as they showed off to each other and prepared to breed.
I was able to watch them breed, with the female passing over the stone and laying a few eggs. The male would follow closely behind to fertilise them. This action continued until there were about 200 amber coloured eggs on the stone.
The Ram is monogamous, with the care of eggs and fry shared by both parents. In four days they were a wriggling mass. I did panic on the fifth day when I peeped into the tank – the stone was bare, no mass of hatching eggs and no parents!
On closer inspection, there in one of the plant pots that was turned on its side was the male and the tiny wriggling larvae. Within another four days the male was seen swimming with a large brood of very tiny free-swimming fry all around him. The female was close by and lost no time in coming to the front glass to tell me to go away!
The fry appeared to be smaller than other dwarf cichlids I have bred and I wondered if they would take brineshrimp nauplii for their first food. I use San Francisco strain brineshrimp which produces smaller nauplii than the Utah strain, so I decided to try it for their first feed.
I had no need to worry for they were soon seen feeding on the brineshrimp with the parent still in attendance. Within another week I was feeding brineshrimp nauplii, microworm, and a ZM fry food called ZM-000 which is 30-90 microns in size and ideal for tiny fry.
When the fry were three weeks old, I removed the parents as I was concerned they would take fright again and eat the brood. After another two weeks I carefully moved the whole brood from the breeding tank into two 60 x 30 x 30cm/24" x 12" x 12" bare set-up tanks to grow on.
Baby Rams look nothing like their attractive parents and indeed have no sign of colour until they are about 12mm long.
Heiko Bleher describes two new species of cichlid he discovered in the Rio Jari river system in Brazil.
Origin: I found both in a stream called Igarape Miguel, a Rio Jari right bank tributary in the Rio Purus basin.
Water: They were discovered in a blackwater habitat full of leaves and branches. When I visited the pH was 5.61, <1GH, and water temperature 27.3°C/81.1°F. Fish found amid dense, untouched high primary tropical rainforest.
Habitat: Very shallow leafy shore regions and alongside many small characoid species such as Iguanodectes, Hyphessobrycon, Copella and Moenkhausia cf. collettii. Area is full of leaves and branches.
Aquarium: Ideal for small aquariums and should enjoy a biotope set-up. Add driftwood, leaves and a small rocky cave if wishing to breed these fish.
Notes: There are now at least 73 species in the Apistogramma genus, but there seems no end to numbers being found. These cichlids are distributed in South America east of the Andes from Venezuela to Argentina.
Few collections have yet been made from the Rio Purus and this is the first evidence from the upper Jari basin.
There are still many undescribed species in this vast river basin.Many look similar or live together and may simply be colour morphs. This could even be the case with sp. ‘1 Jari’ and sp. ‘2 Jari’.
They are being bred extensively in Germany and Sweden, so will hopefully appear in the UK.