Sam Borstein interview

PicturePhoto courtesy of Sam Borstein.

With this interview, I went outside the box a bit. I wanted to provide some viewpoints that might differ from the casual hobbyist. As such, I was able to corral an academic. The bonus of this interview is that the interviewee was a hobbyist, like the rest of us, long before he began his scholarly journey.

Let me introduce Sam Borstein, a third year PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His research revolves around using fishes as models to test various hypotheses about what evolutionary and ecological factors generate and maintain biodiversity. Sam is also a 2015-2016 member of the Board of Trustees for the American Cichlid Association (ACA). I was able to spend some time with Sam a few weeks ago and visit the lab where he spends many hours.

The Cichlid Stage: Before you began your graduate studies, you were an avid cichlid keeper and bred many species. What made you start keeping cichlids?

My dad Rick Borstein kept fish all my life, and I always grew up with tanks in the house. He also kept cichlids and introduced me to the hobby. As I started keeping them and watching their behaviors, I got even more interested.

TCS: How many different species would you estimate you’ve kept?

Of cichlids? I don’t really know. I’ve spawned over 130 species of cichlids. I’ve worked with at least another 100 or so live species in the lab. I also took care of a bunch of cichlid species while I was a volunteer aquarist at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

TCS: What is your favorite species and why?

I don’t really have one that stands out to me as a clear-cut favorite. I like cichlids as a family because of the really neat behaviors they have in the wild and how you can witness some of them in captivity. I also like the really cool evolutionary history of the family, as a whole, which has led them to be so diverse. Having dealt with so many different species in different ways probably doesn’t help me in trying to narrow down a favorite.

TCS: You did your undergraduate studies under Dr. Ron Coleman, a cichlid expert himself, at California State University, Sacramento. What’s one single thing you learned from him about cichlids that has stuck with you?

I was lucky in that I got to do some fieldwork with Ron in Costa Rica for a few field seasons. I really feel that going to the field to see cichlids in their natural habitat (or any fish for that matter) is really the best way to truly understand them. The thing that sticks with me the most from going to the field with him is that no matter how hard we try to replicate nature in our tanks and get the fish to display all their natural behaviors, it is impossible to replicate, though we should always try our best to do so.  Fieldwork with Ron also trained me to really read bodies of water and, given what a species ecology is, have a really good sense of when and where to expect and find whatever species I am interested in collecting.

TCS: Cichlid aggression in aquaria is often correlated with the size of the tank, and hobbyists are often presented with multiple solutions to mitigate such aggression (e.g., providing lots of cover, increasing number of conspecifics), assuming that rehousing the tank occupants is not an option. What solution do you believe is most effective?

First off, you can never have too big of a tank. Depending on the species and the situation, increasing the number of conspecifics or providing more cover can both be successful strategies. Some fish, like Tropheus, we keep in very different conditions than in the wild. Tropheus in the wild don’t form colonies like how we keep them in captivity, but rather individuals can hold rather large (over a square meter) feeding territories. This is likely why they are so aggressive in captivity, as most of the tanks we would keep them in really are not big enough to provide the adequate territory size for more than one individual. By both increasing hiding spots as well as keeping them in a colony, you can limit the aggression so that a single fish is not singled out and bullied.  I do believe that providing a complex habitat by having a multitude of hiding spots is a really good way to mitigate aggression in cichlids, in general, and is a safe practice. One of the best methods I found is to really build up cover vertically in a few areas across the length of the tank. Doing this cuts down on sight lines for the fish in the tank and, if an individuals can’t see another, they are far less likely to attack.

I would like to also mention is there are some species that I think are so aggressive that we cannot possibly provide the proper requirements to keep them in captivity. A good example of a species that falls into this category is Parachromis dovii where, in the wild, males hold territories so large that it is pretty much impossible to replicate without having a massive pond.

Additionally, I would like to point out that, in general, I feel hobbyists don’t really appreciate the individuality and variability in their fish. I think this is exceptionally true with behavior and aggression and I think it is important to remember that, while we can generally stereotype a species by aggression level, aggression is really affected by individualism. There will always be instances where one individual is more or less aggressive than the norm.

TCS: What is your view on hybrids?

I feel that, in the aquarium hobby, hybrids have no place. It is already hard to find purebred species and, given that some hybrids can look really similar to purebred fish, hybrids can easily be sold either accidentally or by malicious sellers into the trade as purebred fish. Given that there are a fair number of species in the hobby that are not doing great in the wild, I think we need to do our utmost to make sure hybrids are not created and sold in the hobby. Considering the number of species in the hobby that are not doing too well in the wild, think about if everyone with tanks dedicated to keeping hybrids had fish that were on the IUCN red list or C.A.R.E.S list. That dramatically increases the tank space dedicated to at risk species and is a much more responsible use of tank space.

Having said all that, on the research side of things, hybridization is really cool. Hybridization does occur in the wild and can have some major effects on evolutionary trajectories of species. We also sometimes hybridize fish for very specific studies, as they can be useful for understanding how certain genes are inherited and what traits they are responsible for. However, when we are done with these hybrids, they are always humanely euthanized and never leave the lab where they could circulate into the hobby. While it may seem hypocritical of me to say that people shouldn’t hybridize fish or keep hybrids, since hybridization does occur in nature and we hybridize fish for our research, I strongly discourage it in the aquarium hobby. To ensure that fish lines are kept pure and people are keeping the fish they actually believe they are keeping, hybrids should not be encouraged in the hobby. Just because it happens in the wild doesn’t mean someone should go and play “nature” and generate hybrids. Also, I really feel that what I stated above about keeping pure bred species that are not doing well in the wild instead of hybrids is really important, and a hobbyist doing that is going to be much more beneficial and impactful to the hobby as well as aid in preserving biodiversity in general.

TCS: What factors do you believe have the greatest influence on successful tank breeding?

I think a lot about breeding fish is really simple. Just provide them with the best conditions possible to promote reproduction. This means making sure they are being fed enough of an appropriate diet, they are not stressed, and that they have a well maintained aquarium with appropriate water parameters. Another factor is providing the right habitats for spawning. For example, certain species like to build elaborate nests over sand or have moving platforms for their eggs, so have a sand substrate or something the fish can grab a hold off and move throughout the tank. Along the same lines, I always like to add more possible spawning sites for fish than is probably necessary. You never know why a fish may or may not want to spawn in a certain cave, so always give them a variety of options.

TCS: There seems to always be much debate about the most humane way to euthanize sick/injured fish. As a scientist, what, if any, would you consider the single best solution?

Doing academic research on live animals, we have to follow approved protocols from the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at our university. The most humane way to euthanize fish is to use Tricaine methanesulfonate (commonly called MS-222). It is essentially a cocaine derivative and fish are  euthanized with a lethal overdose. It shuts down the brain and nervous system of the fish rapidly. We also use much smaller quantities to anesthetize fish for complicated measurements or other procedures. It is slightly expensive and hard to find, but by far the best option. One important note is that it is highly acidic, so it is important to buffer the water with sodium bicarbonate or something else that is fish safe to raise the pH to ensure the fish doesn’t suffer from pH shock.

TCS: Having been a hobbyist and now having a scientific understanding of fish, what’s one thing you believe most cichlid enthusiasts still do incorrectly while keeping their fish?

I don’t think we provide enough space for certain species. In general, a lot of the species we keep are fairly territorial, and I don’t think we always provide adequate spaces for them to hold territories that would be the size we would find in nature. Another thing I think hobbyists do incorrectly is overfeed their fish. In the wild, fish are getting far less nutrients than what they receive in captivity, and feeding the types of food at the amounts typically fed every day, as most hobbyists do, is likely far too much. I feed fry daily, but my adult fish only get fed around three times per week.

TCS: What advice would you give novice cichlid keepers reading this?

I have three main points of advice I would give to new cichlid keepers. First, spend time reading up on the possible species you want to keep before you decide what species to keep so that you get a species you can provide for properly and have success with (which you should do anyways for responsible, humane animal husbandry). If you start off with inadequate conditions or something really challenging, you are going to fail your first time and likely be discouraged a bit from keeping cichlids.

The second piece of advice is for peoples long term enjoyment of the hobby. Keep fish you are interested and like a lot! It could be you like their colors, behaviors, think they will be challenging to breed, etc., but it is a hobby, so keep what you personally find enjoyable. Don’t keep something just because it is “rare” or you think you can profit from spawning it. It is great if you can breed stuff and sell it on the side to offset your fishkeeping costs, but don’t expect to strike it rich. A good way to make a small fortune trying to sell cichlids is to start with a large fortune.

The third is to join a regional club (and eventually a national club like the American Cichlid Association). A lot of the knowledge in keeping fish is in the village, and many hobbyists are willing to share it. The other great thing about fish clubs is that you can make a lot of friends that last a long time. I also found that I was exposed to more species because my friends in the club and I would constantly trade fish with each other.

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