An unfortunate discovery

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Though I never posted about it, I ordered some fish back in the summer of last year. In that shipment was six juvenile Julidochromis ornatus. I set up a new 75g tank that would become a Tanganyikan community tank. I put the new ornatus in that tank with plans for them to be an “anchor tenant.” Everything had been going beautifully with them and the other inhabitants (compressiceps, ocellatus, signatus, etc.)….until last night.

When feeding the tanks, I noticed one of the ornatus was dead. I don’t tend to get very worked up when I discover a dead cichlid because 1) I have many of them and 2) many of them are in community tanks. Fish die…sometimes for reasons fishkeepers can’t explain. So, discovering a dead ornatus that, as I mentioned earlier, shares a tank with several other ornatus wouldn’t necessarily cause me concern. However, after netting the dead one out of the tank, I began doing a head-count of the other ornatus. I usually do a head-count every time I feed, but this time I wasn’t paying as much attention. Strangely, I was unable to account for another ornatus. They all should have come out to eat.

A pair of dead Julidochromis ornatus. Photo courtesy of the author.

So the search began. There are quite a few rocks and shells in the tank as well as some terraces made of slate. If you’re familiar with Julies, you know the rocks and terraces are where they’ll be. After a couple of minutes of looking around, including looking through both ends of the tank, I spotted it under one of the terraces. The missing ornatus…dead.

Two dead ornatus in less than 24 hours, neither of which died of old age and neither of which had shown any signs of illness. Furthermore, I can’t say for sure that either was beaten to death.  One of them did show physical signs of a possible altercation, however, that could have occurred post mortem from any of the other tankmates. Also, one of the fish had clearly been dead longer than the other.

The explanation? Hard to say for sure, but my first two guesses are the following:

  • Spawning aggression: I know that there is a breeding pair among the group of ornatus. They have spawned at least once. However, it’s a standard 75g tank, which has a 48″ x 18″ footprint. The rocks and slate terraces are at opposite ends, which means the breeding pair should occupy one end and the others would learn quickly to stay clear. In my experience, Julies, especially those spawning, don’t defend a large territory, at least in captivity.
  • Territory aggression: A single, male Telmatochromis temporalis: He’s a grumpy bastard that has set up shop right in the middle of the tank. He doesn’t like anyone getting near him…and he’s MUCH larger than the Julies. He’s full-bodied with a large nuchal hump and easily 4″ +. The largest ornatus in the photo above might be 2″. Only one of the other ornatus in the tank is that large.

Had there been just one dead ornatus, I could have chalked it up to several things. But two, at pretty much the same time, suggests aggression of some kind, in my opinion. The compressiceps are out of the question because they’re juveniles and smaller than the ornatus. The single signatus? Uhhh…no. The single ocellatus? Again, no. There is also a cylindricus in that tank, but it’s a juvenile and about half the size of the smallest ornatus. So that one is out too. It could always be just a coincidence that two died within 24 hours from different causes.

I’ll never know, but if I was a betting person, I would go with the first bullet above. The ornatus are too quick for the Telmat. I can see him getting lucky and tagging one pretty good, but not both of them in 24 hours.

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