Because a significant number of aquarium vendors of aquarium products and livestock are based in coastal states like Texas and Florida, you might be wondering what impact the hurricanes had on those businesses. The folks at Reef to Rainforest recently reached out to many of them for status updates. Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher Matt Pedersen then compiled the feedback into a nice four-part piece on the Reef2Rainforest website. Check it out to see how some of your favorite vendors are doing after the hurricanes.
I have posted several times in the past about the fecundity of my breeding pair of Telmatochromis sp. "temporalis shell". I have also posted photos of the parents and their fry. However, I believe this is the first time I've captured a photo of the female next to a shell containing visible eggs. Because adults of this species are often jet black in color and they prefer to remain hidden, it's often difficult to get good photos of them due to their proclivity to use the numerous ceramic caves I provide. This time, though, I was successful...partially.
If you look in the photo above, you can see the eggs in the shell aperture (horizontal arrow) and you can see the female (vertical arrow) to the right of the shell just peeking out from within the cave opening. The photo appears washed out because I had to adjust it to make the female more visible. She's looking straight on at me because I'm right against the front glass of the tank. She's obviously curious about what I am doing, especially since her shell is only about 3-4" from the front glass. If you're familiar with temporalis, both genders have a nuchal hump. You can see hers quite visibly in the photo even though she is looking straight on. Also notice the white of the anterior dentary portion of her jaw (i.e., surface of lower front lip). This is not uncommon and can be especially noticeable in males, as they jaw joust frequently.
It's hard to say if the eggs are fertile and hard to say if there are more inside. As you can see, the visible ones are quite light, almost egg-white in color, which is often indicative of being infertile, since typical temporalis eggs are more of a cream color (at least in my experience). She's spawned probably over 80 times already, so she's not a novice.
Though it doesn't take a hurricane to lose electrical power, Harvey and Irma are further proof that extended power outages can be fatal to your fish. As I've discovered over the past several days, lots of cichlidophiles have suffered extensive fish loss because of a lack of power due to these two devastating hurricanes. While a minimal catastrophe in the grand scheme of things, it is extremely unfortunate yet preventable.
I've posted about how you can be prepared for power outages, at least short ones. See this post from back in March and this post from May for more information on being prepared for power outages.
If you're looking to set up a Lank Tanganyika biotope tank, complete with flora, your plant options may be a bit limited. While the lake is home to numerous plants, the availability of most is pretty sparse within the hobby. Below you will find a short list (in alpabetic order) of what is probably the most easily accessible plant species for your tank.
I bet when you're reading about conservation issues within the context of the aquarium hobby, you probably think habitat and species conservation. Looks like you might want to add sand to that list. That's right, unbeknownst to most hobbyists (I'm betting) is that, by weight, sand and gravel are the most extracted natural resources on the planet, even surpassing fossil fuels. Per this article from The Conversation, the demand for sand is at an all time high. Though based on current sand prices, it doesn't appear that the basic supply for consumers is dwindling. However, it is a bit disconcerting, especially given many of the problems outlined in the article. Lots of cichlidophiles have tanks with sand substrates. All my tanks do.
I don't believe that the hobby demand for sand is currently contributing to the issue. However, it is something that is worth noting based on the information from the article, which I would encourage you to read. I bet you didn't realize all of the things that require sand to produce and/or build.
While there are plenty of videos about cichlids on YouTube, it's often difficult to find many that are both well produced and include commentary about the fish, etc. Furthermore, there aren't a large number of YouTube channels dedicated exclusively to the aquarium hobby, specifically the livestock. However, one that I found which is well done is Fincasters.
Created and run by John Carlin, the Fincaster content is great quality and quite informative. John offers a variety of videos that focus on individual cichlid species that any cichlidophile should find very interesting. In fact, I interviewed John back in 2016, where he talked about his videos, their production, etc. I encourage you to visit his YouTube channel or his website of the same name.
If you've kept cichlids for any length of time, then you can quickly differentiate them from other species of freshwater aquarium fish. It's primarily their behavior that sets them apart. The more species that you keep, the more behavioral differences you'll experience. However, you'll only learn about their behavior, both as a species and as individuals, if you pay attention to them.
I'm not going to tell you how to enjoy your fish because that's not my place. On the other hand, I can't encourage you enough to spend time watching your fish and caring for them. If you don't, you're guaranteed not to understand why something happens to them when it does, whether it's fin/body damage from aggression, illness, or some other issue. It's an unrealistic expectation for novice cichlid keepers to recognize and understand the cause of a problem when they first encounter one - not so for the experienced. Not everyone is an expert, but you don't have to be an expert to be cognizant of behavior that is typical of the species you keep or of your specific fish. Just simply pay attention to your fish, know what's going on in your tanks, and change your water frequently.
If you're a New Life Spectrum (NLS) fan, then you'll be interested to know that they're about to release a new line of foods containing healthy doses of probiotics, cleverly called Probiotix. Apparently unveiled last month at MACNA '17, the new line isn't available to the public just yet. In fact, as of this post, the NLS website doesn't even have any information about it. However, you can see a photo of the packaging above and read a bit more about the product thanks to this piece by Reef to Rainforest.
I'm on travel again. As such it occurred to me how many aquarists fret about feeding their fish while their away or, upon their return, lament how something has gone awry with their tank because of overfeeding, etc. So this reminds me of my post almost a year ago to the day about feeding my fish while I'm away.
There are many ways to ensure your fish are fed while you're gone. On the other hand, your fish can go several days without food and suffer no ill effects. However, if you're going to be gone for an extended period (e.g., a week or longer), I would recommend that you have a plan for making sure they get fed.
For the Gymnogeophagus lovers out there, a species previously never found in Argentina has been discovered in the río Uruguay basin in Misiones. This beautiful little eartheater, G. lipokarenos, possesses some some striking yellow color on the ventral half that complements a brilliant blue on the body and red/orange on the caudal and dorsal fins. For some great photos, see the short paper "First record of Gymnogeophagus lipokarenos Malabarba, Malabarba & Reis, 2015 (Teleostei: Cichliformes) from Argentina".
All cichlidophiles know how amazing the cichlidae family of fish is just from the incredible diversity of behavioral displays - from aggression to breeding to brood care. There are even studies that suggest quite a range of cognitive abilities, including the one I posted on nearly a year ago that concluded cichlids have the capacity for long term memory. Adding to the cognitive function discoveries of cichlids is another recent study that found male Pelvicachromis taeniatus demonstrate olfactory self recognition. Basically the study found that, given two caves to choose from, one pre-scented with their own chemical odor and one pre-scented with the odor of another male, P. taeniatus gravitated toward their "own" cave versus the cave of a non-family member or even a sibling.
Most of you have probably heard of Greg Steeves, as he is no stranger to the cichlid hobby. A life-time aquarist, Greg has written three books, authored many articles in a dozen languages, and speaks on cichlids internationally. He is the founding member of the Hill Country Cichlid Club, president of the Federation of Texas Aquarium Societies, and coordinator of the Lake Victorian cichlid species for the CARES Preservation Program. In addition, he is a fellow of the Haplochromis Society based in France and has contributed to the Cichlidroom Companion nearly since its inception.
The Cichlid Stage: You’re widely recognized in the hobby as an expert on cichlids from Lake Victoria, one of the Rift Valley lakes of East Africa. Tell the readers what compelled you to want to keep these beautiful fish?
I don’t consider myself an expert of any kind. I have a love for the haplochromine fish from Africa and try to learn all I can about them. Over the years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to be part of a somewhat exclusive group of hobbyists who share my interest and, collectively, we’ve been able to work with some incredible fish. These first-hand observations are what I write about. Hopefully someone can learn from my findings or my mistakes and have success with these beautiful cichlids.
If I may, Lake Victoria is not a rift lake, quite the opposite and a common misconception. Lake Victoria lies between the two arms of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. This is significant because, unlike the other great African lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika, Lake Victoria is a very large, shallow basin mostly fed by seasonal rains. With the prolonged effects of climate change, waters around East Equatorial Africa are shrinking in size, drastically presenting challenges for the species that once inhabited areas that no longer exist.
I can’t recall exactly how I obtained my first Lake Victoria cichlid but I can remember the species and how it led to my haplochromine madness. I had obtained a small group of Haplochromis obliquidens. At that time, I was not a member of any society, and the great reference that was the internet was still in its infancy.I had figured out that H. obliquidens was from Lake Victoria so the quest to learn more was on. I happened upon a mailing list called 'Cichlid-L' and on this list was a very knowledgeable gentleman named Dr. Les Kaufman. On a whim, I emailed Dr. Kaufman asking if he might have any information for me on the beautiful fish I was keeping. Dr. Kaufman had spent the previous ten years trouncing around Lake Victoria relaying the plight of the great lake and its creatures to the rest of the world. To my delight, Dr. Kaufman replied to my novice question and emailed a reply, quickly explaining to me that the fish I had was almost certainly Astatotilapia sp. ‘thick skin’ and that H. obliquidens hadn’t been seen for years and was feared extinct. Dr. Kaufman was very generous with allowing time in his busy schedule to answer my queries for many years after. I consider him one of my two mentors in the fish world and the primary source of my infatuation with Lake Victoria, and really all haplochromine cichlids. I try to model how I treat haplochromine novices, who have questions for me, on how he patiently answered my rookie queries.
TCS: The Victorian haplochromine population has really taken a beating over the past several decades. Can you talk a little about this and what can be done to mitigate continued loss?
It is true that the haplochromines of Lake Victoria have had a rough time, the last 40 years in particular. Years of unchecked pollution and raw sewage being fed directly into the lake are just one of the ecological hardships that come with a rapidly growing population and industrialization around the lake shore. Deforestation beginning around the turn of the 19th century has led to silt and agricultural chemicals leeching into the waters and have drastically decreased water clarity, leading to problems (some think) of hybridization among the many closely related cichlid species. Invasive species such as water hyacinth, Malaysian trumpet snails and of course, the Nile perch, have put much stress on the native fish populations of Lake Victoria.
Perhaps the most publicized invasive that has had a huge impact on the native fauna has been Lates niloticus, the Nile perch. This large, predatory species was introduced into Ugandan waters in the 1950s. The idea was to create a sport fishery for the British colonists at the time. All went well for many years. There was really no observed effect until the early 1980s. Then things changed rapidly. The Nile perch population exploded and they grew huge on a diet of haplochromines. Most open water fish such as the snail eaters, piscivorous cichlids, and open water schooling species were decimated. No one knows for certain how many species were lost, but estimations range from 100-500. As the cichlids disappeared, the Nile perch population began to implode, having eaten all that could be easily taken. They turned to eating native shrimp and then cannibalizing each other. While this sounds good for the surviving haplochromine species, the perch had become a huge fishery. The industry employed thousands. The decline of the Nile perch stressed an already impoverished region, leading to a host of social problems that are still being battled today.
It’s not all bad, though! Many of the furu (a native word to describe the colorful little haplochromines used mainly as bait fish) found refuge among the rocky areas surrounding the lake and its many islands. These fish seem to have withstood the rigors of the past decades largely intact. Recently, some of the fish thought to be extinct have once again shown up in fishermen’s catches. I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful friend who travels regularly to the region and brings me back many wild species from Lake Victoria to work with. As the fry grow, we have found numerous surprises such as Haplochromis lividus, a species that hadn’t been seen for many years. It is now alive and well in the hobby thanks to the work of dedicated hobbyists. Modern Lake Victoria is far from being a stable waterway. The many stressors of the past are still there, and I feel there is a need to establish populations of existing fish in captivity just in case of a sudden ecological disaster. We in the hobby have already proven that a case could be made for our being the best stewards for long-term survival of many aquatic species.
TCS: For readers unfamiliar with the CARES Preservation Program, can you describe what it is, your role, and how cichlidophiles can participate?
My beloved CARES Program! In 2001 Claudia Dickinson had a vision for a hobbyist driven Species Survival Program (SSP). Dr. Paul Loiselle (my other mentor), together with Claudia, set a framework up for what would become, fourteen years later, a highly successful SSP utilizing the tools collectively held by the average hobbyists. CARES is an acronym representing Conservation, Awareness, Recognition, Education, and Support. Early on we recognized that many of the fish we already maintain in the hobby are threatened or even extinct in their native waters. The white cloud mountain minnow (Tanichthys albonubes) is a prime example of this. This fish is all but extinct in the wild but doing well and being reproduced in the aquarium hobby.
Just as my beloved haplochromines are known to do so quickly, CARES too is rapidly evolving. One goal that we are close to realizing is to have a master registry constantly maintained of the threatened species that aquarists are keeping. Ideally, we want the hobbyists to work with the fish long-term and, if possible, reproduce it so that others may also work with the species. Unfortunately, each year we add more fish to the CARES Priority list. This is a listing of species that need our help if they are to survive long-term. It is assembled by some of the top explorers and ichthyologists that have first-hand knowledge of the physical situations where these fish are found. There may well be a time when the fish you keep no longer has a wild habitat left and all that remains are captive populations. This is in fact the case with several species already, and many more on the brink. We, as hobbyists, can save entire species if we are organized and work together and in the CARES program, we can and are.
My contribution to CARES is quite insignificant when compared to some of the others who have dedicated so much time to making this all work. Claudia Dickinson may be the glue that holds everything together but two others, Leslie Dick and Klaus Steinhaus, have put in untold hours towards CARES and remain major pillars in the program. A complete listing of CARES personnel can be found at the CARES website, www.caresforfish.org.
I have been involved in the CARES for Education program and, more specifically, Mountain Valley Middle School CARES. Our program consisted of an ‘After School CARES Aquarium Club’ where we learned about the basics of maintaining an aquarium, caring for fish, and, eventually, spawning endangered species while passing those fry on to other institutions. This was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve ever been involved in. It has been so enlightening to see many of those middle school students of years past remain accomplished aquarists to this day.
I also oversee the Lake Victoria portion of the CARES Priority list and am an active participant in the program itself. I work with several CARES cichlid species (and also a livebearer, but don’t tell anyone).
Many aquarium clubs around the country (and now internationally) have CARES Programs. This is perhaps the best way to become involved in CARES. These clubs (listed on the website) can help you get started and might even be a good source to locate the fish you choose to save. If you are not a member of any local club or regional society that has implemented a CARES program, fear not. There is a CARES for Individuals Program that allows anyone without an organized affiliation to participate. If you require further information, reach out to any CARES team coordinator and we will be happy to help! All registrations are handled online, so we have done all we can to ensure the process is as painless as possible.
TCS: You host an Internet radio show called ‘Let’s Talk about Cichlids.’ For readers who’ve never heard of the show, talk a little about it and where/how readers can tune in.
I love my show! We started a talk show based loosely on cichlid fish, but it usually breaks down into foolishness before we sign off. It’s a lot of fun and all the shows are archived. When we first started, my co-host Ken McKeighen and I were doing them quite regularly. We had a lot of great people on, and it was always a lot of fun. As time has gone on, my life and schedule have changed. I haven’t done a show for some time but I was assured that the door is always open whenever my schedule would allow. I intend to start these up again very soon. I have an idea for a video show as well that I’m still milling over in my head. I won’t get into this too much but I think it would be highly entertaining and more importantly, fun for me!
TCS: For cichlid keepers who primarily house African species from Lake Malawi or Lake Tanganyika, what would you say to convince them to give Victorians a try?
This may seem like a strange answer but, if people are keeping a fish species or are interested in a specific group of fishes, stay with what makes you happy. Don’t try another group of fish just because someone thinks you should. Keep what you enjoy! Many people who see Lake Victoria cichlids for the first time are enthralled by the bright colors. Most are very easy to keep and make good aquarium species. This can be said of the other cichlid families as well. I love haplochromines, but that doesn’t mean you have to. As long as you don’t keep those hideous deformed hybrids, you’re okay with me.
TCS: What Victorian species would you recommend for novice cichlid keepers? How about the more experienced cichlidophiles who’ve never kept any?
There are several Lake Victoria cichlids that would make good entry level species for the novice aquarist. Ideally you would want something with bright coloration and somewhat forgiving when it comes to oversights or mistakes that may harm more sensitive fishes. You also want something that can be easily spawned so you can witness the wonderful breeding sequence that haplochromines have. I would recommend a fish such as Xystichromis phytophagus, commonly called the Christmas fulu or Ptyochromis sp. ‘salmon,’ a beautiful snail eater from the Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria. If a more experienced hobbyist is looking for a challenge, then some of the more aggressive species such as Pundamilia nyererei and Neochromis omnicaeruleus can offer the same challenges that Lake Malawi mbuna do. Some of my favorite fish are the paedophages (fry eaters) from the genus Lipochromis. Many people categorize all Lake Victorian fish together and clump care and tank preparation as if they were all one species. Lake Victoria contains hundreds of species with varied diets, temperaments, and parental care. One should always research before keeping any fish but this is especially true with haplochromines.
TCS: What are some of your favorite cichlid species to keep and why?
I have kind of mentioned that I have an affinity for piscivores and paedophages from Lake Victoria but I really like unusual fish or species for which not much is known. I am currently working with a group of Astatotilapia tweddlei from Lake Chilwa that intrigue me.
My friend Lawrence Kent routinely sends me wild fish from Lake Victoria, which are always fun to grow and to see if they might be a previously described species or one never previously known. Currently I am preparing tank space for several Lake Kivu species. This is exciting, as fish from this lake have not been in the hobby for many years. In all honesty, the fish I value most are the ones that were given to me by my friends throughout the years. It’s nice to gaze into one of my aquariums and realize that a friend thought enough of me to want me to have fish from his or her collection. Those mean the most to me regardless of species.
TCS: I’m going to invent a formal term here and pretend it represents the highest accolade for a cichlid aquarist - Master Cichlid Keeper. If such a title existed, what would you consider some criteria to receive it?
What an unusual question. You have me thinking! I’ve been so fortunate to learn from many people whom I would consider Master Cichlid Keepers so let me think about them and see what I can come up with as criteria.
Firstly, you would need experience…and lots of experience! I think another attribute would have to be ingenuity. I have been blown away with some of the inventions and methods of doing things that I’ve witnessed others enacting. I recall a gentleman with a mated pair of Oscars. He had this pair conditioned to raise the eggs of other cichlids as though they were their own. I had never seen that before or since. You can imagine how strange it was to see a large pair of Oscars rearing hundreds of angelfish fry. Another friend was the first to discover that Synodontis multipunctatus, the Lake Tanganyikan catfish, was a cookoo spawner. Not only did he figure this out and successfully spawn them, he knew which fish were the best hosts and how long he could use them for (after several spawns the haplochromine would seem to get wise that she was not brooding cichlid fry). This is Master Cichlid Keeper stuff. I tend to relate success with cichlids to not only keeping them alive but successfully reproducing them as well. I think a Master Cichlid Keeper would have bred a great many species. Also you have to relate your successes in some manner so that others can learn from you. Be it presentations at aquarium societies, writing articles, posting pictures and videos, you can’t keep knowledge to yourself. You must be willing to share with others. I am very lucky to know several people that meet all the above criteria. I have learned much from my fish friends!
If you're setting up a new tank or redoing an existing one and you've decided to use egg crate under your substrate, here's a tip to save you some hassle down the road; for medium to large tanks, don't use a single piece. Consider cutting your crate into sections, depending on the length of the tank. Why? If you decide to change your substrate, but you want to see how it will look before you do the whole tank OR you want to change the substrate in only part of the tank, having a single piece of egg crate will require you to remove everything from the tank. If you cut your crate into two sections or more, you only need to take out the section(s) that you want to redo.
Whether you prefer large or small cichlids, I've found that knowing what behavior you're looking for in new fish doesn't confine you to one category or the other. In other words, cichlid personalities don't differ a whole lot based on the maximum size of the fish. Some dwarf species are just as aggressive and pugnacious as their larger cousins, such as the largest Cichla (peacock bass) or Crenicichla (pikes) species. There are also some very large but reasonably docile species.
Your first decision on what to keep shouldn't center around what behavior you're looking for. What cichlids you keep should be based primarily on one criteria - the size of the tank rather than the personality or behavior of the fish. Large cichlids, aggressive or not, don't belong in small tanks and neither do a handful of small, aggressive cichlids. Even if you want to employ the density method to mitigate aggression among medium sized cichlids, the size of the tank should still dictate how many fish you put in it. Also, if you buy juveniles, know their maximum size so you can factor that in. Therefore, based on your available space and your budget, decide on the size of your tank(s) and then determine what you can put in them. Knowledgeable, experienced, and conscientious cichlid keepers will tell you the same thing.
Normal thought about cichlid fry are that they are cared for by the mother, sometimes the father, or both parents. And such thought would be accurate, but that's not necessarily the complete story.
Did you know an aunt, a cousin, or a next door neighbor might also be involved? Such "parenting" is called alloparental care, or more specifically "any form of parental care, which is directed towards non-descendent young." The phenomena is not unique to cichlids, or even fish, and may not be easily observed. Nor is it restricted to conspecifics. So why does it occur? In his article titled "Allparental care in fishes" from Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, Brian Wisenden provides six scenarios (as summarized below by Hyuk Je Lee, Valentin Helm, and Axel Meyer in this article from Ecology and Evolution):
(1) brood farming out (Yanagisawa 1985) where parents ‘deliberately’ transfer their offspring to be cared for by other parents; (2) kidnapping (McKaye and McKaye 1977) where foster parents kidnap free‐swimming young of other parents; (3) independent offspring inclusion (Taborsky 1994) where deserted or stray juveniles join neighboring broods; (4) brood amalgamation (Eadie et al. 1988) where adjacent broods merge for cooperative care by more than one set of biological parents; (5) philopatric offspring (Taborsky and Limberger 1981) where offspring from previous breeding events stay at their natal territory and help their parents to nurse subsequent broods and (6) extension of alloparental care of eggs (Taborsky 1994). Still, the ultimate evolutionary origins and explanations as to the adaptive or nonadaptive, or maladaptive, natures as well as proximate mechanisms of alloparental care appear to vary at inter and, sometimes, even intraspecific levels (Sefc et al. 2009; Coleman and Jones 2011).
So if you ever notice something weird happening in your tank involving the non-parent cichlids of your fry (besides predation), you could be witnessing some form of alloparental care.
I've posted about this before but I'm going to mention it again. Feed your cichlids a variety of foods. I am convinced that one of the most significant factors contributing to the health and color of my cichlids is the variety of high quality foods that I provide. In nature, cichlids are opportunistic eaters, just like most fish. They feed on what is available, and that can vary. However, only provide foods that are suited to the species that you keep. Mbuna, for example, should be fed a primarily vegetable diet.
There are myriad commercial foods for cichlids, and you can even make your own. You can feed flakes, pellets, frozen, etc. In fact, I would encourage you to try them all. Your fish will tell you what they like.
I never feed my fish the same thing on consecutive days. In fact, you can read more about my dry feeding strategy in the previous post I mentioned earlier. The point is to mix it up.
If you've been keeping fish for a long time and you have used online resources since the late 1990s, then you'll remember The Krib. I post about this because I can't begin to explain how much this site meant to my early development as a cichlid keeper. Chock full of all kinds of information about the hobby, but specializing in plants and dwarf cichlids, this resource was a mainstay in my library of information.
While the site is no longer active and much of the content is quite dated (the last update was in 2002!), there are still nuggets of gold to be found there. I would encourage you to visit the site for two reasons - 1) you may well find something useful and interesting that you haven't seen before and 2) you can get a good feel for how the hobby has evolved over the years, from aquarium products to processes.
Early in his academic work, Hurd's study organism was birds where he began working on mathematical models, which he eventually parlayed into doctoral studies at Stockholm University in Sweden. It was there he was introduced to cichlids. He went on to do his post-doc work at the University of Texas at Austin where he worked with lizards and also did some experiments with acoustic signaling during fights between firemouth cichlids (Thorichthys meeki).
I reached out to Dr. Hurd to inquire about his interest in doing an interview for the blog. He enthusiastically agreed and here we are.
The cichlid stage: Please tell the readers a bit about your research using cichlids.
I'm interested in the biological basis of personality - why are there consistent behavioural differences between members of the same species. Originally, I was specifically focused on differences in aggressiveness - what are the costs and benefits of being more or less aggressive - but have become interested in the more general question of why different individuals play different strategies in life. Currently in my lab we're doing some work on how stresses during early development shape adult personality using convict cichlids (Amatitlania nigrofasciata), and then with Kribensis cichlids (Pelvicachromis pulcher) we're examining how environmental sex determination might relate to variation in brain and behaviour. We're also examining how some of the gene regulation behind that may be involved in variation in human brain and behaviour also.
TCS: What is so intriguing to you about cichlids to make them a study animal?
Well, the really amazing thing about cichlids is how rich of a social life comes from such a small nervous system. Compared to the rodents favoured by many neuroscientists, so many species of cichlids show much more involved parental care, and a far larger repertoire of social behaviours. And then there are the stand-out cases, for example, the socially breeding cichlids of Lake Tanganyika. Not only do these animals pair up and parent, but they also have extended family structures of unrelated helpers at the nest. Biologists might awe at the complexity of social life in a lion pride, but all the same stuff is going on among really small fish. This blows me away!
This evolutionary transition from pair breeding to breeding within a society, complete with multiple social relationships, has happened many times over evolutionary time. The brain has to manage classes of mates, versus friends and allies, and others that are not friends. The brain has to change the way that it works, from a solitary life to life in a society, and not go extinct while making the transition. The degree of similarity between humans’ brains and fish brains, at least in this part of the social behaviour network, is very very strong. These are not the fancy cortical structures that we associate with abstract thought. These are the evolutionarily conserved brain areas where our motivating emotions seem to come from. The emotions Darwin argued so convincingly that we share with other animals, love and anger, urge us to protect our offspring and our friends. For all the differences between human and fish society, the same bits of brain are working with basically the same chemicals to produce the same emotions.
TCS: What’s your favorite species to work with and why?
My favourite research species is the Kribensis, because of the different male morphs. The yellow males tend toward monogamous breeding, while the reds to polygynous breeding. The blue and green males also seem to have their own quirks. I've also kept many of the Tanganyikan shell dwellers and I'm super-fond of them. I havn't done research with them but I have a few projects that I think would be perfect to do with Lamprolus ocellatus or meleagris.
TCS: Cichlids are known for possessing individual personalities, which sets them apart from most community fish (e.g., tetras, barbs). For those hobbyists who breed cichlids, are there environmental factors that can be manipulated to influence personality development of fry?
I think so. I suspect that manipulating temperature and pH that Kribensis fry are exposed to in their first month of life, or giving convict cichlids cues to lead them to believe that predators are either more or less prevalent, does shape their personality a bit. On the other hand though, these changes are subtle enough that you would need to measure and compare the behaviour of many individuals to see the effect, on average, between the treatments. There would still be a lot of personality variation within each group, and the range of individual personalities would overlap considerably between the two groups. However, I don't think there's really a way to totally change a fish's personality completely dramatically, so that it is far outside the typical range for its species.
TCS: What has your research shown are some of the most influential environmental factors affecting social behavior, in general?
Well, we're looking at the effects of water temperature and pH in the first month of life. This influences what sex kribensis become when they mature. We're also exposing the convicts to environmental cues (damage pheromone) suggesting that the presence of predators is very high over that same early life period for them. Another important environmental variable is biotic, the social environment, such as where a fish is in the size heirarchy of its brothers and sisters. That is another one we come back to, whether being chased around is traumatizing - whether stunting your growth to avoid being a threat to bigger siblings has lasting personality consequences or whether being the biggest fish in the tank for the first few months of life program a bold personality for the rest of life.
TCS: With respect to Kribensis and convict cichlids, if there are a couple of main strategies for reducing con-specific aggression with these species in aquaria, what would they be?
Density is key. We either have them in a situation where we expect them to breed or we have them in stock tanks crowded enough to swamp all their territorial ambitions. Most of our tanks are at the sort of densities you would see in a well-run store, rather than a hobbyist's tank. If the tank has a defendable territory, there's going to be sex and violence, you know, biology happens.
TCS: In summary, what are some of the most surprising behavioral findings that you have discovered (in any cichlid species)?
I think the most surprising thing was the very first work I did on cichlids, looking at threat display use in Nannacara anomala. There's some colour pattern changes they go through during territorial interactions that function to facilitate figuring out who would win a physical fight without actually having one, sometimes. If a fight gets really nastily escalated, it will be won by the bigger fish, but many of the less escalated behaviours, such as tail beating, seem to serve the function of giving information about the size of a fish to its opponent. In tail beating, the fish don't actually touch each other. They just shoot a jet of water at the other fish. If that's going to convince the other fish that you are bigger, then it is of benefit to you that the other fish expects you to do this, so they can be well placed and paying attention. I think one of the colour patterns they use, the horizontal line, does exactly that. The idea that some "threats" are actually more like cooperative behaviours, which settle a fight without it turning into a big dangerous physical fight, was really kind of perspective shifting.
TCS: What do you consider the most effective and humane methods for euthanizing a sick or dying fish?
Well, I think the key to humane euthanasia is to stop the brain working as quickly as possible. The ethics authorities require anesthetizing fish before decapitation, so that's what we do. I can imagine slightly more humane techniques, ones that would be faster, but we follow the rules. Anesthetic dose, then decapitation.
Not without perhaps a bit of controversy, there are (possibly) some new mbuna species from the Labeotropheus genus according to this article posted on the Reef2Rainforest website (they're the folks who bring you the Amazonas magazine). Taxonomic changes aren't taken lightly by scientists, as this article bears out.
I'm doing some consulting for an aquarium company that focuses on elegant nano aquariums and accessories. As I was thinking about their website today, it occurred to me that much of what they sell is pretty obscure. In other words, as a specialty company, their products are not name brands. Part of that is due to the very specific type of customer they cater to, but it's also due to very minimal advertising.
Many cichlidophiles are quite loyal to specific brands, and many of the brands are well known and long standing in the hobby. However, there are many aquarium products that are less popular but equal or greater in quality than the mass produced, name brands. New products are coming into the market all of the time and they're not all produced by the big names.
For example, in the filter world, everyone knows about Fluval, AquaClear, Marineland, Tetra, Aqueon, and Eheim. However, there are some other very good, lesser known filter brands that are comparable in price and quality to those. Have you ever heard of Sicce? How about Hydor? In foods, there are popular brands such as Ocean Nutrition, Tetra, Omega One, and Hikari. You ever try Northfin? What about Sera? How about Piscine Energetics or New Life Spectrum?
The point is, there are lots of less popular brands of products available that are every bit as good or better than the ones you hear about all of the time. Consider expanding your horizons and getting out of your comfort zone. You can still remain loyal to your brands yet also branch out and experiment. You never know. You might just stumble across something you really like that's not already being produced by the usual players.
So if you don't know what ethics are, it would be a good idea to look up the definition before proceeding. What follows is sure to challenge the views some hold about fish keeping and may even "ruffle the feathers" of others.
How much do you think about the cichlids that you have? I mean, how much do you really think about them, not as pets but as living creatures that you purchased from somewhere or someone? Do you know where your fish came from? Were they wild caught or tank bred? If the former, does it bother you that you're partially responsible for making a wild specimen captive? Just how much do you think about your fishes' well-being and do you ask yourself if you're doing what's best for them? Are there reasons you keep cichlids other than to satisfy your entertainment needs? Do you tell yourself that they're "just fish"? Do you wonder how many wild caught fish die before they ever make it to you? Do you justify your fish keeping efforts as rescuing them from much worse conditions than you provide? Does it bother you when your cichlids die, especially if you're ultimately the cause (e.g., poor tank conditions, poor tankmate choices)?
The answers to many of these questions are bounded by ethics. This post isn't intended to criticize anyone for his/her decision to keep cichlids. It's intended to convince you to be self-reflective about the choices and decisions that you make.
I readily admit that I sometimes struggle with my own involvement in the hobby. In fact, my fishkeeping interest hasn't always been continuous. There was a period when I questioned the ethics of it and halted my participation in the hobby. After all, I am restricting fish to a small space for the rest of their lives, not to mention that the space bears little real resemblance to their native environment, regardless of my efforts to emulate it. Even though none of my fish are F0 (wild caught in hobby parlance, which means all the fish I purchase are tank bred), they aren't domesticated pets like cats and dogs.
Sure, I could argue that because my fish are tank bred, they have known no other environment than one similar to what I provide them. So they really have never known anything other than living in a glass box or similar confined space. Does that make it okay? If no one ever purchased tropical fish (for the hobby, public aquariums, research, etc.), the fish would never have been bred in a tank to start with. The fact that I (and other hobbyists) provide a market for them is what allows them to be bred in aquaria and sold. The exact same reason some are wild caught and sold. Supply and demand.
I won't lie. Sometimes I watch my fish and wonder how their life would be different if they were in the wild with unlimited space to swim, explore, forage, breed, etc. It's often a bit sobering to think about. Do I feel guilty? Sure, sometimes. Do I feel like I'm depriving a living creature a "better" or "normal" life. Sometimes. Are my fish bored, are they depressed or sad being confined to a limited space in which to live? Those are anthropomorphic concepts. However, cichlids are sentient. They feel pain, they experience fright, and they express other behaviors that humans relate to.
Ultimately, my decision to keep them comes down to reconciling that the life I provide them may well be "better" than the one they would have otherwise (e.g., with another aquarist, in the wild). I consider myself a responsible aquarist and thus I don't believe I contribute to a lesser existence for them.
I just read about a cichlidophile who lost every fish in his large tank. The reason? Apparently a lightening strike. I'm suspicious of that explanation for several reasons, especially given the description provided and how the aquarist reached his conclusion. Regardless, this reminded me of a precaution that you can (and should) take in your efforts to protect your fish.
Invest in some good surge protectors. Ideally, all of your electrical aquarium hardware (heaters, pumps, filters) should be plugged into surge protectors. In fact, all of your most sensitive electronic equipment should be. While these devices aren't fool-proof by any means, they certainly can save you a real head-ache in some circumstances. Good aquarium components are just as susceptible to electrical surges as your television, Internet router, etc. And lightening isn't the only source of such surges.
As you may have noticed, I sometimes post about scientific research by referencing specific scholarly articles. Since these articles are written by scientists for scientists, there is no expectation that you will understand the content unless you're a scientist yourself (or you understand statistics and scientific methods). In fact, if you read the articles by starting at the beginning, it is pretty easy to get overwhelmed by the jargon and language, thus the "meat" of the article will be of little value to you.
So here's some advice. Only pay attention to two components of the article - the abstract, which is typically on the first page, and the conclusion/discussion, which is at the very end or near the end (sometimes the last section is about future directions or future research to be conducted based on the findings in the article).
By not getting bogged down on the actual science that is described in the article, you can focus your attention on the results (i.e., what the research found), which are usually easier to read. Furthermore, attempting to read the other sections is likely to increase the probability that you will give up on the article and move on to something else.
If you didn't have an opportunity to attend this year's ACA Convention, you can still get your cichlid social fix in a big way. The Ohio Cichlid Association's (OCA) annual Extravaganza is November 17-19 in Strongsville, Ohio (just outside Cleveland). Celebrating 23 years of cichlids and catfish, this year's event boasts a top-notch lineup of speakers, in addition to the enormous fish auction on Sunday. Furthermore, I've heard expert fish photographer Morrell "Mo" Devlin will be giving a photography workshop at the event. If you're really wanting to learn how to take expert quality photos of your tank's inhabitants, Mo can teach you. See the interview I did with Mo a couple of years ago.
Plan now to attend. The registration cost is a small price to pay to see more cichlids and catfish than you'll probably ever see in one place. On top of that, you get to meet many other people who share your interest in and passion for the hobby. Go ahead and make your reservations now to be sure and get a room at the convention hotel.
More information about the Extravaganza can be found on here on the OCA website.
Disclaimer: Bad photos ahead. Coupled with my poor photography skills and bad lighting, it was difficult to get a good shot of these fish because there were lots of people milling. I didn't want to hold people up who were trying to look in the same tanks I was.
Yes, the ACA is about cichlids. However, cichlids don't live alone in their environment. They share their lake/river/pool with a variety of other fish, including bottom feeders such as Corydora, Synodontis, Ancistrus, and Hypostomus species. Many cichlid keepers maintain tanks containing these types of fish. To that end, there are always bottom feeder species available for sale at the convention, either in the fish room or in guest's rooms.
Above is a photo of juvenile Pineapple plecos (both long and shortfin). The Pineapples are a beautiful orange/yellow in color, and you can see a longfin on the glass near the top.
Below is a photo of juvenile Red Calico plecos (longfin). These are a stunning reddish orange color.
The Cichlid Room Companion
Tropical Fish Hobbyist
American Cichlid Assoc.
African Cichlid Hub