Why aren't cichlids hard any more?

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Today's cichlids are nothing but wimps and wussies, compared to how they were a decade or two ago, says Nathan Hill. So what happened to turn these tigers of the aquarium world into pussy cats?


Bullies, bruisers and bad boys. When I started in this trade there were fish that came up to the glass and tried to tear your face off if you looked at them funnily.

It seems that the last two decades of intensive farming have not only produced some runts, but also some wussies, and personally I’d love to know what happened to make them this way.

Here’s a handful of the fish I think have gone totally sideways…

Firemouths

You probably wouldn’t think the Firemouths are that tough a fish, but by jove they used to be. This is the species that would happily flare its throat at an aquarist as much as a rival male, and then back it up with a hefty nip when you tried to do some tank maintenance.

But nowadays, they’re more Ghandi than Ghengis Khan, happy to stay out of trouble’s way, grubbing about for food, and getting roughed up by a passing Kribensis.

In the wild these tough Central Americans are used to holding their own against other fish, and clearing the way when they spawn. But it seems that farming has reduced these once ferocious bulls to the aggression levels of a kitten. After all, when was the last time you saw a wild Firemouth? It’ll be a while, I’ll wager, with almost all the fish we see being raised in the Far East, or Eastern Europe.

All I can guess is that the mass-rearing conditions, combined with a reduced incentive to display traditional behaviours are having a cumulative effect. After all, it’s well understood that many fish learn their behaviours from others.

It seems a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy that we eventually put the ‘meek’ into Thorichthys meeki.

Convicts

What happened here? I used to be scared of Convicts, many years ago. They were the aquatic equivalent of Britain’s most violent inmate, Charles Bronson. In fact, if the two had to share a cell, I know which my money would be on.

The Convict was for years the stereotype of toughness in a fish. A breeding pair would create an impenetrable fortress from their own bodies, and many a tank would be taken over by an amorous couple.

They’d punch above their weight, too. I’d have calls from aquarists that had stuck them in with bigger fish like Jack Dempseys, only for the Dempsey to end up cowering in a corner while the convicts pummeled scales off of it. They could truly stand up for themselves.

But like the Firemouth, it would appear that unless you get a wild one, you’re doomed to have a sap. They don’t even have the colours any more. I remember bodies the sheen of gunmetal, with jet-black stripes and necks of flame. Now it’s a kind of tepid grey on grey with a hint of orangey pink. If you’re lucky, that is…

Oscars

I’m pretty sure I’ll get heckled for this one, but what the hey. I’m saying it anyway. Oscars are wimps these days.

They were always considered a companion animal rather than a fish, but even so they used to have a temper on them. Many times I recall having to separate an Oscar and a plec in one of my sumps, the latter in the mouth of the former, unscathed and giving as good as it got.

But nowadays, aside from a little juvenile inquisitiveness, or maybe the occasional grab when a finger is mistaken for food, they’re about as aggressive as a sheep.

Again, get me a wild specimen, and I’m sure it’d be a different story.

But then, is this even a bad thing? Do we want violent fish if we can have peaceful ones? I know that we prefer peaceful pets in general, and that’s understandable. But I can’t help to think we’ve lost something of the inherent wilderness present in these fish. And wasn’t that the point in keeping fish? To bring a little nature into the home?

I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Green terror/Blue acara

What on earth has happened to these two? I went to a retailer’s a while ago and had to ask what the hell the fish were in the tank. I was told that the vaguely marked, pale, anaemic looking fish on show were Blue acara. I’d always had the impression that these fish were quite stocky, with vibrant markings. I guess I was looking at the wrong species for the previous 20 years.

If ever there was a call to arms for the quality, small breeder in the UK, it must be for these fish. I implore you, import some wild Acara, or Green terror – which have gone exactly the same way – and start a programme of reintroduction into the hobby. Because all the ones I’m currently seeing are pretty awful.

Feel free to send me pictures and prove me wrong, anyone…

Rams

Longfinned, golden, balloon, or just outright disappointing, the Ram is a species that I remember as quite a lairy little fish. When not keeping tetra at bay, mine used to square up to inquisitive Angelfish, relocate stocky Ancistrus, and even have the nerve to flare up at gouramis thrice their size.

But no more. These days the Ram is a shadow of its former self, happy to keep its nose clean until feeding time, and backing down from passing Apistogramma.

Plus, I’m not sure if it’s just me that’s seeing them, but there seem to be an awful lot more runts than I remember, especially around the mouths. To take a close look, head on, one might almost think that you were peering at a deformed Parrot cichlid, rather than these classic aquatic gems.

Over to you

Admittedly, I get out to a lot of shops these days, and see a lot of fish, but I’m sure there are still plenty I’m overlooking. Have you got any cichlids that you can think of that used to be solid, but now seem way too laid back? Let me know, I want to hear about the others I’m not seeing.

Or maybe you just disagree with me. Let me know what you think it is I’m witnessing instead. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining this…