How to keep Paratilapia

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Paratilapia have a long history, evolving as spectacular predators with character. Tom Williams explains more about these big and beautiful cichlids from Madagascar.

If there is one genus of cichlid sure to dazzle, it has to be Paratilapia from Madagascar. Large, resplendent in colour and demeanour they are hardy, unusual and sure to earn a place in the heart of any keeper.

Paratilapia are the most widespread genus of cichlid in Madagascar and once found throughout the island. Today they are less common but still extant in the north-west and north-east, and along the entire east coast. There are also relic populations in the Central Massif and in pockets of the south-east.

All populations are at risk from fishing, habitat degradation and introduced exotics, but some species are now being captively bred to maintain aquarium stocks.

A key question discussed by hobbyists and scientists involves the number of species of Paratilapia. Initially only one, P. polleni, was described and the name was mistakenly used to describe small spotted fish in the hobby. it was later found that the true Paratilapia polleni from north-west Madagascar is large and spotted.

A second species was later described as Paratilapia bleekeri and thought to differ from P. polleni in jaw shape, coloration, spot size and genital shape.

Although some authors placed it in synonymy with P. polleni the general consensus is that this is a good species found in the swamps surrounding Antanananarivo, the capital of the island. This species is now likely to be extinct.

A third species of Paratilapia was described as P. typus and until recently this was also placed in synonymy with P. polleni, but again it has recently been suggested that this name should be resurrected to describe large spotted Paratilapia from the north-east. There are certainly more Paratilapia to be described and it will be interesting to see how the future maps out.

There are at least four species currently in the hobby. Paratilapia sp. “Andapa” (which may be Paratilapia typus) is the biggest at over 30cm/12” in length. These have huge white spots on a velvet black body and are extremely popular, although fairly rare.

Paratilapia sp. “East Coast Small Spots” is the species we encounter most commonly (usually under the name polleni) and these rich black coloured fish are overlaid in small white spots.

Paratilapia sp. “Fianarantsoa Green” is also sometimes seen and, as the name suggests, greenish black overlaid with green, blue and white spots. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful.

Also in the hobby is Paratilapia bleekeri, although specimens are exceptionally rare. Again, they are black fish overlaid with large white spots and white dorsal lappets.

Which species to keep depends on what you can find available, though I wonder if some of the species sold in the shops are hybrids. Luckily these are being bred in Indonesia and Eastern Europe, so are not too difficult to find commercially.

Above: Paratilapia sp. 'Andapa'.

Native origins

Marakely, to give them one of their native names, are a basal group likely to have been around for a long time and they appear to have remained fairly unchanged for millions of years. Reports that they may have existed in the age of the dinosaurs may, however, be somewhat overstated.

Although the marakely are called Paratilapia, this does not mean that they are closely related to tilapias of the African mainland. It has been suggested that they are as closely related to Central American cichlids as they are to African — and not closely related to either.

They are closely related to the Ptychochromis of Madagascar and along with these, and the unique Oxylapia, they appear to form a distinct clade of species collectively known as Ptychochromines.

Paratilapia can be generalised as large predatory fish. An adult can approach 40cm/16”, although 25-30cm/10-12” is more usual. They have huge mouths and eyes that make them look like monsters.

However, they are rather gentle fish, somewhat like frontosa in habit. They are crepuscular,  meaning they feeding at dawn and dusk, and this may explain the size of their eyes which need to operate well in low light conditions.

In the wild, their main food appears to be rainbowfish of the genus Bedotia, alongside invertebrates and other small fish. I have heard no reports of them consuming vegetable matter, although they clearly ingest some via the fish they eat.

Interesting hunters

It is interesting to watch them hunt, motionless in the upper water column and tracking prey with their huge eyes. Suddenly they will lunge and swallow it in one gulp.

Although hunting at dawn and dusk I have seen them take prepared food outside these hours. In captivity, live fish foods are not necessary as these will happily take frozen lancefish, prawns, pellets and sticks.

Colourwise, marakely are not really reminiscent of any other cichlids, though there is a slight resemblance to the guapote of Central America. They more closely resemble the sunfish of America in colour and shape.

In relaxed mood they have a dark brown body overlaid with light metallic spots, but this coloration can rapidly change to beige if stressed to become black overlaid with beautiful white, blue or green spots which glisten in the light.

This is a beautiful sight, ranking this fish among the most colorful of all cichlids.

The dorsal surface is normally slightly lighter and often greenish, and the fins are all black with the iridescent spotting carried over to them. The unpaired fins end in long trailers and the strong caudal fin is short and stubby.

Unusually for cichlids, females are often more colourful than the males. I have one male from the east coast which is plain black, apart from a few spots on his tail. On the other hand, his mate is heavily spotted in green and blue and a magnificent sight.

Above: Paratilapia sp. 'East Coast Small Spots'

Home comforts

Despite their size, marakely do not require enormous aquaria. They are fairly sedentary and, once paired, are extremely placid, although juveniles can be hard on each other and an adult male will not tolerate a second male, no matter the size of aquarium.

A good-sized tank should be at least 122cm/48” in length with the other dimensions at least 38cm/15”. A tank this size will allow them to set up a good territory in which to breed.

For décor I find bogwood and slate suitable and these create caves which adults appreciate as they can be shy at times. Flowerpots also make good refuges.

As stated earlier, these fish do not really eat vegetable matter, so plants can be used to good effect as they are normally totally ignored — though they may be uprooted when marakely prepare to spawn.

Good filtration is obviously required as these large cichlids can produce copious waste. I recommend a good external filter that can turn over the volume of the tank a few times an hour. I also use internal power filters to help oxygenate the water.

Water temperature should be at least 26°C/79°F. Madagascan cichlids like their water hot and are susceptible to whitespot at lower temperatures. They rarely recover from this disease I believe due to a complete lack of immunity.

Easy sexing

Sexing Paratilapia is generally fairly easy. Males are usually larger with more pointed fins and, as stated, often lack the vivid coloration of females. At a larger size the genital papillae also give clues, as the male is long and pointed while the female is shorter, thicker, and, in some species, slightly wrinkled.

Males often develop a spectacular nuchal hump in adulthood. Pairing Paratilapia is not hard. Although the males will chase females, they rarely injure them and, once paired, they make devoted couples always close to each other. Display involves jaw locking, body slapping and quivering at a 45° angle.

If you witness any of these behaviours the fish are likely to have paired and spawning is usually imminent.

Prior to spawning the pair will choose and carefully clean a spawning site. This can be a rock or bogwood, but ideally a structure forming a hollow. Paratilapia are unique among cichlids in that their eggs are non-adhesive and formed with a long filament at one end.

After laying, the female will weave these filaments together until the eggs form a large mass, like a bunch of grapes. This moves around freely, hence the need for the hollow.

It is not common to have more than 500 eggs per spawning. These are mouthed by the parents and sometimes moved to different sites.

Sadly the adults can be notorious egg eaters, especially if sharing their tank with other inhabitants. If you are lucky, the eggs hatch in some 60 hours and the young are diligently guarded by both parents. After a few days they become free swimming and take brineshrimp alongside commercial fry food.

They grow slowly, often taking a couple of months to reach 2.5cm/1” in length. The young can be cannibalistic so it may be worth separating different sizes, especially as the females can be identified quite early by smaller size.

This item was first published in the August 2009 issue of Practical Fishkeeping magazine. It may not be reproduced without written permission.