What have we done? The Parrot cichlid

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Is it time we took a closer look at hybrid fish? Nathan Hill thinks so, and the results aren't pretty.

Have a long, hard stare at the above. To me, that doesn’t look like a great specimen of a skull. I’d go so far as to say it looked more like a fishy equivalent of the Elephant man.

This is the head of a deceased Parrot cichlid, a hybrid that’s sold in its thousands here in the UK. It’s the result of cross breeding two species that have no inclination to reproduce with each other in the wild. This is what we end up with.

Parrots are the perfect example of how experimenting with novelty fish can become runaway, and quickly to the detriment of the creature involved. Aside the kind of runt that would soon find itself eaten or starved in wild habitats, nature doesn’t tend to toss up creatures like this. And when it does, they don’t survive for very long.

A living Parrot cichlid is a curious beast to behold. It certainly lacks any kind of ‘mother nature’ look, with its garish, bright bodily colours, waddling around aquaria with its squat body.

Admittedly, some of them do incredibly well, but that’s only a testimony to the tenacity of life, rather than any credit to the hand of their manufacturer. They retain their cichlid instincts, showing great surges of aggression and rearranging their tanks. They can be bold and intelligent companion animals, rapidly gaining recognition of their feeders and interacting as far as a fish can.

So to see them like this, quite literally to see what is under the surface, is a tragic image, and I’m forced to enquire – what is the point?

I make no apology if this comes across as arrogant, but I see no place in our hobby for deliberate deformities like this. There are other examples, like the ultra-extremes of fancy goldfish, bulging beyond recognition, or with bulbous, easily damaged eyes.

Why is it that some farms see it fit to compete with the process of natural evolution? Agreed, there are some fish that have thrived from domestication and physical alterations. Just look at the guppy, with its extended finnage, a potential outcome to how males might evolve in the wild without the pressures of predation.

But when we start to create and facilitate the creation of fish that struggle to eat, and are denied the standard living right of reproduction through their sterility, I think that a line has been crossed.

This is a hobby in which we vote with our wallets, but ignorance often makes us vote in ways that we wouldn’t be inclined to if we’d had access to the facts. It was through a lack of knowledge that dyed fish initially proved so popular, but the backlash when it was discovered how tainted they really were is now legendary.

What really gets me is that we’re not even stuck for choice. There are, what? 2000 to 3000 species of cichlid already out there, all of which have their own merits and appeal. There really is no need to snub the entire family, in order to favour a botched Frankenfish. If you like the boisterousness of Parrots, get a Convict cichlid instead. They’re prettier too, and I suspect most people will agree.

Prefer colours? Don’t get me started. There are African cichlids that blow Parrots away on every level. Like the squat shape? Look out for a Ram. They’re similar, in a non-manipulated kind of way, and grow smaller too.

Saying that you can’t find decent cichlids doesn’t wash with me either. Ask the retailer to order you something in. They tend not to turn down business, if they can help it. Stuck for retailers that stock what you need? Join a club. There are plenty of them. Get into the cichlid scene, and someone, somewhere will have exactly what you need.

In the meantime, ask yourself if creating an industry devoted to butchering runts out of thoroughbreds is what you really want, because that’s where we’ll be headed. There are already so many ‘designer’ fish about; balloons, long fins and so on, that we’re in danger of never digging our heels in and saying enough is enough.

Remember, it’s what’s going on inside your fish, in the parts that you can’t see that are going to be the problem. Be aware of what you’re buying. This is what those fish look like once you’ve gotten past the skin deep ‘beauty’. If you can call it that.