Juan Miguel Artigas Azas interview


Juan Miguel Artigas Azas 

Where do you go for information about cichlids – species profiles, articles, etc.? If you’re like many cichlidophiles, you use multiple resources to satisfy your craving for cichlid knowledge. However, if there is one resource that I would recommend to any and all cichlid keepers, it would be the Cichlid Room Companion (CRC). As one of the largest, oldest, and most comprehensive databases for cichlid information, CRC is perhaps the best online site for cichlid aquarists. Today’s interviewee is the man responsible for it.

For those of you who’ve been in the hobby for a long time, Juan Miguel Artigas Azas really needs no introduction. Not only is he the creator of CRC, but he’s also an expert on Central American cichlids, especially those from his native Mexico. In addition, he is a regular speaker at various tropical fish events around the world. If you’ve ever attended the annual convention of the American Cichlid Association (ACA), you’ve probably also seen him and his extremely informative presentations. Without further ado, let’s gets started.

The Cichlid Stage: As a long time aquarist, how did you first become interested in cichlids?

I have been interested in fish since I was three years old. I saw my first cichlids being six at the lake of Tequesquitengo, south of Mexico City. The cichlids were Herichthys cyanoguttatus, the Texas cichlid, they had been introduced, likely by aquarists since the lake was a popular weekend resort for people of Mexico City, with the shore fully lined with weekend houses. I got fascinated by their curious look as I was watching them, and they were curiously looking back at me, without going away. That was awesome!

TCS: You’re a regular speaker/lecturer at cichlid events around the world. Talk a little about how the hobby in North America differs from South America and Europe.

I believe the aquarium hobby is very influenced by the climate of where you live, for example during very cold winters in cold areas, being a kid who can’t go out to play, is very easy to fall in love with fish in aquarium. Living in a tropical or subtropical country always gives you the possibility to go out and play, and therefore inside hobbies are not something you regularly pursue. Of course, there are always exceptions, like me!

In regards to the differences I see between the hobby in Europe and North America, I believe that in Europe people are regularly more interested in the aquarium as a window to the tropics, or the areas where the fish inhabit. Most people devote a lot of effort and research into making their aquariums look like the natural habitat of the fish they keep. I believe that people are also more interested in the natural history of their pets, and research all they can about them. In North America I see that people regularly is interested in the fish per se, not their environment, people are very practical and keep their aquariums in the easiest way to maintain, like for example bare bottoms and PVC piping or pots for hiding places, you would rarely see an aquarium like that in Europe. This I believe can be understood if you consider that people in Europe normally have less room available to maintain aquariums; people mostly keep just a few of them and make them look the best they can. In North America people tend to maintain many aquariums since they normally have more room available, and therefore have to make them easy to maintain or it would not be practical or even possible.

TCS: From your travels, can you describe some of the most interesting cichlid tanks that you’ve seen?

I will talk about aquariums in general, because all great aquarists I know are generalists and not specialized. I could talk about many great fish-rooms I have been honored to visit, but I will limit to three among those that have impressed me the most:

  1. The setup of my late friend Jean Claude Nourissat in southern France, with thousands of liters of water and several aquariums of up 18,000 liters in capacity!! Plus several ponds (one 30 x 30 meters) to place cichlids in the summer. Jean Claude was a restless explorer and an example of passion, who mainly in the company of Patrick de Rham discovered many cichlid species for science and hobby: Two of his cichlid discoveries (with other people) are named after him: Paretroplus nourissati and Wajpamheros nourissati. Jean Claude paid great care of his collection, with some species being kept for several decades. His 18,000 liters Madagascar tank and his three 10,000 – 15,000 liters Central American cichlid tanks had to be the most impressive in the world.

  3. The fish-room of the legendary aquarist Rosario LaCorte in the New York area; a collection formed by hundreds of sparkling clean tanks, with tetra and rainbowfish colonies that nowadays date back to over 40 years since he started them!! An example of dedication and mastery.

  5. The fish-house of my friend Rusty Wessel in Louisville, Kentucky. An amazing specialized setup with many thousands of liters of water in a fully automated setting; In those aquariums a great collection of many Central American fish (many of them dear to me) thrive. Rusty’s fish are kept with a great dedication and the breeding activity in each tank is a proof of that. Attendees of the 2014 American Cichlid Association convention in Louisville, who joined one of the field trips to visit Rusty’s setup, would most likely agree.

There are other amazing fish-rooms of friends that I have visited over the years and I would like to mention some of them: The fish-house of Pam and Gary Chin in San José California (hundreds of aquariums kept as clean as a surgery room); Rainer Stawikowski in Gelsenkirchen (example of beauty and natural set-up); Patrick de Rham in Lausanne (with the most amazing selection of fish species), Rick Perez and the late Milo Manden in Chicago (impressive collection of cichlids), for example.

TCS: After 22 years, the Cichlid Room Companion has become an invaluable resource for all cichlidophiles. Tell the readers a little about it and perhaps share your vision for it the next 10 years.

I have always been an avid learner and I like to research all I can about my favorite topics. However, to find the information I wanted was not always easy and often required a lot of time and effort. I was trained as an engineer and during my college years I exploited another interest of mine, that of computing systems, to develop engineering applications. With the availability of the Internet and later of the World Wide Web http protocol, I immediately saw the opportunity to make information available world-wide and I wanted to be part of it; the topic of my choosing was cichlids since I had already been distributing information about them in a chatroom. This is how the Cichlid Room Companion was born in 1996, thanks to the generous offer of server space by John Benn, a fellow of the American Cichlid Association and animal lover who ran the Petsforum network. He was instrumental in the creation of the CRC. The development of the site has been continuous since day one and at this point almost 22 years later I know it can never be finished; there is just too much information and new ways to make it available.

My mission for the site is to continue fulfilling its goals in the same way it has been doing until now, presenting interested people with daily updates as it has been doing since 1996. My vision and hope are that this information can be turned into love for cichlids and nature and eventually will play an important part in their conservation and that of natural habitats for future generations, something that every day becomes more urgent.

TCS: I imagine as a naturalist, you might be a little sensitive to the artificial nature of home aquaria. What advice would you give fellow aquarists who want to try and emulate the endemic environment of the species they keep?

I believe aquariums are a wonderful thing; they are an effective way to introduce people to the wonders of nature, particularly in our everyday, more nature-detached way of living. We live in cities every day in a bigger proportion and higher concentrations and we just don’t see nature and don’t learn to love it and respect it. That is I believe a dangerous attitude, because you are not going to be concerned with or protect what you do not love in most cases.

You can give a good life to the fish you keep and learn and feel motivated from them, as well as appreciate nature beauty and complexity in them. My concern is the detachment from nature in our fish keeping habits. People are now maintaining everyday with more regularity hybrids and engineered strains of fish. While I respect everybody’s way to do aquariums, I also believe that by getting away from nature we are also less concerned about it, and less interested and willing to learn about it, an eventually protect it. My hope is that by keeping hybrids and engineered strains people eventually turn to what matter most, our natural environment.

TCS: In your opinion, how can aquarists continue the hobby in a conservative friendly way?

By educating ourselves about the fish we keep. Some fish populations are helped by the demand of wild fish, since that supports the local persons that make that collecting and hence helps conserve the environment, for example many Amazonian fish, which have a large resilience index and by collecting a given number of specimens the populations are not damaged.

For many other species it is much better to obtain just captive bred individuals. Some fish populations are so small that they are quickly decimated by collectors. Think for example in African species like Metriaclima estherae from Taiwanee Reef in Lake Malawi, at the border of extinction because of over collecting. Like that species there are some others in the African lakes alone that are close to disappearing because of over collecting. So it is very important make educated purchases.

I also think that fish species should be kept for as long as possible, for as many generations as possible. This helps the aquarist to learn from them and also in the case of endangered species to make a contribution to their conservation. In this regard I don’t believe in Breeding Award Contests that promote breeding as many species as possible, as fast as possible, since that practice I believe detaches the aquarist from the fish species themselves and involves her or him in a contest. We are all competitive to certain points and want recognition, and so it is easy to get focused on the prizes and forget about our fish and why we are aquarists in the first place.

TCS: Lastly, any other thoughts you would like to share?

Yes, we have a wonderful hobby in aquarium keeping, for me it has changed my life in so many ways and made it so much more enjoyable. Thanks to my early aquarium keeping I got to learn other languages, meet many wonderful people and cultures and make many new life friends. Because of my interest in fish I have learned many new things and travelled to many new places, which otherwise I would have never thought of visiting. All this have brought many wonderful experiences that have amply enriched my life. I have also developed other interests I have like photography, coding, publishing. Of course, one of many other hobbies carried out with passion would give you all that, but aquarium keeping have additionally brought me closer to nature, inspired me into developing an interest into many other ways of life and made me develop an intense love for the natural world and its beings.

Interested in discus?

Alenquer Red Discus. Image from https://www.azgardens.com/.

Discus are some of the most colorful cichlids available in the hobby. Though few in species (only three formally recognized), there are multiple types, strains, groups, and classes used to distinguish them. If you’re a fan of discus, then you might consider joining the North American Discus Association (NADA). Founded in 2004, NADA is a non-profit organization whose goals naturally revolve around promoting this beautiful, mostly peaceful fish. Membership is very reasonable at $10 per year. Also visit their Facebook page to see the latest news about the association.

If you want to see some of the most awesome discus assembled in one place, you might also consider attending the 2018 Discus Show being held this year in New Jersey July 12-15.

Call it ‘fatal distraction’

Lamprologus ocellatus. Image from http://www.pinterest.com/.

In the world of cichlids, there are many species that simultaneously occupy predator and prey roles. That means paying attention to what’s going on around you is important. You can get eaten while you’re looking for food. But searching for food is only one predation distraction in the life of a cichlid. They also engage in mating, brood protection, territory defense, fighting, and other activities. Thus being completely distracted could be fatal if you’re a cichlid.

So how do species negotiate the effort they expend doing any of the activities above versus expended effort avoiding being eaten? A Japanese researcher recently set out to  answer that question, sort of. Experimenting with the ever popular shell dwelling, dwarf species Lamprologus ocellatus from Lake Tanganyika, Kazutaka Ota from Osaka City University actually sought to determine if vigilance during interspecific aggression decreased during intraspecific aggression via predation. In other words, how much effort was expended by male ocellatus fighting with other ocellatus versus effort spent looking out for predators.

Citation: Ota, Kazutaka. “Fight, fatigue, and flight: narrowing of attention to a threat compensates for
decreased anti-predator vigilance.” J Experimental Biology. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.168047

Does that flash photo affect your fish?

A recent study published in Applied Ichthyology suggests that flash photography of your cichlids may not stress them. The purpose of the study was to determine if flash photography triggered a stress response in the beautiful and popular Ram cichlid (Mikrogeophagus ramirezi), a dwarf species from South America. Cortisol and glucose levels, post exposure to the flash, were measured using whole-body homogenates (e.g., cells). In other words, the fish used in the study were euthanized shortly after the experiment and chopped into pieces where the body cells could be extracted and broken down.

The results of the study showed that the Rams in the experiment had lower cortisol levels than the Rams from the control group. Obviously, the expectation was that cortisol levels would rise from the flash exposure, indicating a potential increased stressor response.

The authors went on to express that the conclusion of the study should not be generally applied to other fish species. In other words, the authors stressed that, if the same study was conducted on other cichlid species, the same results and conclusion might not result. However, the effect of flash on your own cichlids could be similar.

Citation: Knopf K, Buschmann K, Hansel M, Radinger J, Kloas W. “Flash photography does not induce stress in the Ram cichlid Mikrogeophagus ramirezi (Myers & Harry, 1948) in aquaria.” J Appl Ichthyol. 2018;00:1–7. https://doi.org/10.1111/jai.13673

New fish workshop

One of the reasons for my move to a new(er) house was that I wanted more space for tanks. That wasn’t the primary reason, but…

Anyway, in my previous home I had a small walk-in guest closet where I stored all of my supplies, equipment, etc. Now I have a whole room dedicated to tank maintenance, supplies, etc. The room is roughly 12′ x 12′, which is 144 square feet. It’s actually an unfinished bathroom in the basement. Since I don’t plan to finish it in the very near future, I decided to make a fish workroom out of it.

Note the custom built workbench beside the utility sink in the bottom photo. It’s a simple bench made with 2 ‘ x 4’s and a 4’ kitchen counter top that I picked up at Lowes for $30. I needed something to set my filters on when I disassemble them for cleaning. Also, instead of doing water changes using a hallway guest bath, I can now do them with this sink. If you’ve ever snapped a plastic Python water pump off of your faucet, you’ll understand the purpose of the C-clamp on the front of the sink. It’s low-tech, but very functional. There are many things I could do to make this whole set-up better, but after buying a larger house, I can only get away with so much with the spouse.

A more thorough profile

I have had many pets in my lifetime – dogs, cats, hamsters, gerbils, and fish. One thing I’ve always considered when deciding which breed or species to purchase is its average lifespan. Sadly, our profiles of cichlid species seem to lack this vital piece of metadata.

When was the last time you looked up a cichlid species profile and it included lifespan? Sure, all profiles include maximum fish size, behavior, ideal tank size, and ideal tank mates. In fact, they also generally include ideal water parameters such as pH, temperature, and hardness.

While many cichlids aren’t as long lived as cats and dogs, they also don’t cost near as much. Nonetheless, I like to know how long I should typically expect to have a cichlid species before I make the purchase. When you look up dog and cat breed profiles, that information is almost always included. Why isn’t it for cichlids too?

Looking for input

Image from http://freevector.co/.

If you enjoy the blog but would like to see something different in terms of content, let me know. Use the contact form and send me a note. I’m actively soliciting your feedback. After all, without you the reader, the blog isn’t much more than me talking to myself…in print. So shoot me a note and let me know what you would like to read about –  maybe more of this, less of that.

Got someone you would like me to reach out to for an interview? Tell me who.

Got a company or product you would like to know more about? Fill me in.

Have some questions about some specific species? I’ll see if I can track down some experts and get the answers.

Give me a shout and let me know what you would like to see.


New species of Satanoperca

A new species of eartheater was recently identified in Brazil. Satanoperca curupira is the latest South American cichlid to be characterized and named.

From the paper, “Satanoperca curupira, a new cichlid species from the rio Madeira basin in Brazil (Teleostei: Cichlidae)” in Zootaxa:

Satanoperca curupira, new species, is described from the rio Madeira basin in the State of Rondônia, Brazil. It is distinguished from all congeners by the following combination of characters: 3–7 dark-brown oblique stripes on the lachrymal (vs. 2 well-defined dark-brown stripes, or dark-brown stripes absent) and an irregular pattern of dark-brown stripes on cheek and opercular series (vs. cheek without dark-brown markings or with light-beige rounded spots). According to meristic and color pattern characters, the new species is considered a member of the S. jurupari species group, and is syntopic with S. jurupari, which is widespread in the Amazon basin. The restricted geographical range of the new species is congruent to that observed for some other Satanoperca species.

See this entry at Novataxa for some good photos of the new species.

Citation: Ota, Renata R., Kullander, Sven O., Depra, Gabriel C., Da Graca, Weferson J., Pavanelli, Carla S. (2018), Satanoperca curupira, a new cichlid species from the rio Madeira basin in Brazil (Teleostei: Cichlidae). Zootaxa, 4379 (1): 103–112. DOI 10.11646/zootaxa.4379.1.6.

Another successful move

If you remember back right before Christmas, I posted that I was taking a break due to moving across town. I actually moved right after Christmas, December 27 to be exact. What I didn’t mention is that I moved my fish before I actually moved myself. Due to the timing of everything, I was unable to move my fish out and in on the same day. Instead, I moved them to a relative’s house the 2nd week of December. Rather than net the fish, bucket them, take the tanks down then move the tanks and set them back up, I made a couple of tactical decision. What fish did I move? Mbuna in a 55g and 40g breeder (a single male Pseduotropheus sp. “Elongatus Chailosi”),  Tangs in a 75g, and a few non-cichlids.

First, I bought a new 75g and set it up at the relatives. I then transferred all the fish from the home 75g  tank, along with the filters, to the new 75. Second, I set up two 20g longs that I had and moved the mbuna from the 55g and 40g to those tanks. There were only a total of eight mbuna between the 55 and 40, so I split them evenly between the 20s. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend housing any adult mbuna in a 20g long, but I knew this was temporary.

Today, I retrieved all of the fish from the relative’s and brought them to the new place. I’m not really sure what the total number was, but it was in the neighborhood of 40-50 fish. Thankfully, all but one survived both moves. I lost a single non-cichlid (a tetra), but it wasn’t due to the moves. It was an older fish that died last week, I’m guessing from old age.

Anyway, my plan worked. In a couple of days, I’ll post some do’s and don’ts for moving fish, based on this experience.


New pike cichlid

In this month’s issue of Zootaxa, there is an interesting piece on a new Crenicichla species (pike cichlid), named ploegi after Dutch ichthyologist Alex Ploeg. The new species, a member of the saxtalis group, is characterized by a prominent humeral blotch exhibited in both juveniles and adults.

I reached out to the lead author, Dr. Henrique Varella, over a year ago for an interview. He agreed at the time, and I even sent him some interview questions. However, we weren’t able to get it done. I’ll revisit Dr. Varella and see if I can maybe get some questions in on the new ploegi species.

See Leonard Ho’s post at Advanced Aquarist for nice photo of a male and female.