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.

A grand experiment


Image borrowed from

Aquarists, by nature, are inquisitive people. Cichlid keepers probably more so. Nearly every cichlid keeper has experienced the “must have more” syndrome or fever. You know what I’m talking about. You get your first tank set up with just a couple of cichlids and very soon you want more….both tanks and cichlids.

As you feed your seemingly insatiable desire to have more fish, you begin to branch out with respect to your aquarist toolkit. You began with a HOB filter and now you want to get a canister filter or even a trickle (sump) filter. You’re attached to one brand but now you want to try another. The list goes on because there are now so many options for heaters, filters, filter media, etc. The supplies available to you are now only limited by your budget.

Herein often lies the problem. As you gain more experience and begin to expand your operation, you branch out into trying new things. This results in fish keeping becoming a grand experiment. From a water parameter perspective, it’s hard to tell if that switch you made in bio-media is really making a difference, especially if your tank is mature and your ammonia, nitrites, and phosphates are zero (the former two should always be but the latter may not, depending on the type of biotope you’re attempting to emulate). Occasionally, you can add media to your filter that you’ve never used before and be able to tell a visual difference in the water, especially with water clarifying media. If you’re really experienced, you can sometimes tell a difference in the behavior/appearance of your fish based on filtration or media changes. However, most often you can’t tell.

Experimenting can be fun and I encourage you to do so, but remember even subtle chemical changes that you can’t visually see or that are exposed during water tests are certainly noticeable to your fish. Many chemical reactions are always taking place that you are incapable of seeing with the naked eye. Be judicious about how you experiment. Trial and error is a good thing….until you lose fish because of it.

Live plants allowed

I’m not sure why, but there are many cichlid enthusiasts, especially novices, who question the compatibility of cichlids and live plants. Anecdotal evidence suggests the controversy about this revolves around the decision to emulate a specific biotope. Trying to exactly match the natural habitat from where your cichlid species originate is really unnecessary and practically impossible. By matching the habitat, I’m referring to the water, the flora, the fauna, the light, etc. Most cichlids on the market are captive bred, which means they were born and raised in tanks that probably lack anything resembling the habitat from which their ancestors came.


Image from Planted Aquariums Central –
So what exactly does this have to do with keeping live plants? A lot, actually. Some cichlids are natural diggers/sifters (e.g., the earth eaters of South America). Others might eat or graze on plants. For this reason, having plants that aren’t firmly rooted might result in a constant battle between you and your fish. For some species, plants are natural. For others, not so much. For example, most New World cichlids come from an ecosystem teaming with vegetation, so plants are the norm. The Rift lakes of Africa also have vegetation, but for the most part it’s not nearly as dense throughout the habitat compared to that in which Central/SA cichlids reside. In fact, many African species inhabit plant free zones all together.Regardless, if you want to keep plants with your cichlids, go for it. Planted takes have many benefits. Plants provide great shelter and they can also significantly diminish sight lines, which can greatly impact a tank with aggressive cichlid species.

​As with maintaining any closed system such as an aquarium, it’s advisable that you do your homework before you make a decision.

Just the flakes, ma’am, just the flakes.

PicturePhoto from

Trying to figure out what the best food is for your cichlids? The choices are extensive. From fresh shelled peas to frozen brine shrimp, from pellets to flakes, you should have no trouble finding the right food for what ever type of cichlids you keep. In fact, you can even make your own if you have the time and the right ingredients.For those more interested in preprepared foods sold at your lfs, there is still an abundance of options. Ever turned around that flake food container or bag of pellets and looked at the ingredients? Do you even care as long as your fish eat it? Hopefully you answered “yes” to both questions. What ingredients are okay and what aren’t? Go to and have a look at their information about fish food ingredients. In fact, they even rate the popular fish foods on the market. Stop by and see what they have to say about the food you’re feeding your cichlids.

Phosphate removal

If you’ve been in the hobby for any length of time, you’ve encountered phosphates at some level or another in your tank water. If it’s not coming from your source water (the water you use to replace your tank water during water changes), then it’s coming from waste decomposition in your tank.

Phosphate is typically a greater problem for saltwater reef keepers, but can be a problem in freshwater systems. Don’t fret, though. It’s non-toxic to fish. However, you don’t want phosphate levels to get too high or you’ll be fighting a never ending battle with algae. Unless you’re keeping Mbuna cichlids from Lake Malawi, which actually feed on algae, or other heavy algae consumers, excess algae can cause all sorts of problems, which is a discussion for another day.

So how do you control phosphate levels? Actually, it’s quite easy. There are many solutions available to the aquarist. One of the most common is GFO (granular ferric oxide) media, which, as its name suggests, is a loose media that requires media bags.  However, there are other types. Personally, I use Poly-Filter manufactured by Poly-Bio-Marine in Reading, PA. It resembles a scrub pad and comes in a couple of different dimensions. I use the 4″ x 8″ pads (pictured on the right, below) and cut them to fit my filters. I don’t really have a phosphate problem, per se, but Poly-Filter will also remove heavy metals, toxic ammonia, and various harmful organics. It’s more of a safety net for me than anything else.


4″ x 8″ Poly-Filter pad unpackaged
​If you prefer the granular type (GFO), it works very well and can be regenerated. I prefer the pad because 1) I don’t really need it, 2) it’s not as messy, and 3) it’s easier to replace. The downside to the pads is they don’t last as long. Seachem makes some outstanding GFO and GFO composite phosphate removers (PhosBond and PhosNet). Aquavitro is Seachem’s premium line of products and Aquavitro Phosfiltrum is their phosphate remover, which just came to market earlier this year.  If you’re a big fan of Seachem’s water conditioner, Prime, then you’ll love their Aquavitro line.

Leave the Oscar at the store

PicturePhoto of an Oscar from a user post on

This post is atypical of the type that I usually publish because I’m generally loathe to be critical of the choices of others. However, I’m going to get on the stump on this one.

Astronotus ocellatus, otherwise known as the Oscar or Tiger Oscar, is a species endemic to South America. It’s a very attractive cichlid with many color variations and its popularity in the hobby is very high. However, this is a fish that should be left at the store, unless you’re an experienced cichlid keeper and you have a large tank.

Oscars are many things, but one thing they aren’t is an easy fish to keep. I don’t have anything against the species but I do believe its popularity is unfortunate as it too often ends up in tanks of novices. As an avid reader of fish posts on various forums and cichlid groups, the majority of posts I see about Oscars are from keepers who are asking for help with either health issues or aggression, or are upset that their Oscar ate one of its tankmates.

This species gets quite large and it grows fast. It requires a very large tank. In fact, I wouldn’t keep one in less than a standard 150 gallon. Ideally, this species, especially if you keep more than one, begs for something larger.

It’s a very belligerent species with a voracious appetite. It will eat pretty much anything it can fit in its mouth, which is quite large for its size. Juvenile Oscars are just as much on the menu as anything else. If it’s not trying to consume your other fish, it’s pushing its tankmates around. It may not be the most aggressive cichlid, but it’s aggression it often under appreciated. It’s also a messy fish. Because it eats a lot, it produces a lot of waste. However, big fish produce more waste than small fish, so that’s nothing surprising.

In addition, this is too frequently one of the species that I refer to in my previous post. Many cichlid keepers are ill prepared for them.  All too often, Oscars end up in tanks that are too small, they get stressed, and they develop problems such as Hexamita, commonly called hole-in-the-head disease. IMO, this cichlid is best left at the store, unless you’re an experienced cichlid keeper and you have a really large tank for it.

Patience and forethought!


Image from

Though it occurs more frequently with novices, even the experts are subject to “shiny ball syndrome.” Those of you who have kept cichlids for years know what I mean. You happen across a great deal on a species that looks awesome and they suddenly get your full attention. You jump at the chance, buying a group of unsexed juveniles, bring them home, and put them in the tank.

All is great….for a while. Then it happens. You realize you don’t really have the right substrate – you find out the species does better with light gravel/sand and what you have is dark or vice versa. Or you realize these fish will outgrow your tank sooner than you thought. Or all hell has broken loose and you’re discovering that the unsexed group you bought is mostly males. Or you come to realize your new fish aren’t compatible with the fish already in your tank, for whatever reason. The scenarios are numerous but they all have a common denominator. You didn’t think it through and do your homework. You got excited, completely lost focus, and rushed your decision.

There are usually many solutions to these scenarios, but most of them involve spending even more money to resolve. The best two solutions are to slow down and think about what you’re doing. Generally speaking, cichlids aren’t cheap. Furthermore, as a responsible fish keeper you owe it to the fish to provide them with the most stress free environment possible.

An Indestructible Pleco

I went to my lfs to purchase a nice piece of driftwood. They carried a variety of shapes and sizes, and most of them were “tank ready” because they housed them in the fishroom tanks. This made it simpler for me because I knew I wouldn’t have to weigh the piece down in my tank.

I found what I was looking for and paid them. They wrapped the wood in wet newspaper and placed into a styrofoam fish box for the trip home. I don’t live far from my lfs, so the newspaper probably wasn’t necessary. In any case, I got home, removed the box, and placed it on my work bench in the garage. My tank wasn’t quite set up yet, so I just left the box in the garage.

Well, about four days went by and I finally got around to getting the tank set up in my home office. I retrieved the styrofoam box from the garage and brought it upstairs. I opened the box, unwrapped the newspaper, which by now was about half dry, and placed the driftwood in the tank. I had already put in my substrate and a heater, filled the tank with water, and had the filter running for a day or so to help clear the water.

I determined in advance that I was going to do a fishless cycle on the tank. I didn’t have any seeded media and I’m not a fan of chemical cycle starters. So I purchased some pure ammonia from the hardware store and began the dosing process. The tank was cycled in less than a month.

Once everything was set up and water parameters were stabilized, I did one last water change before adding some fish. I was vacuuming the gravel and I noticed something move under the driftwood. I couldn’t see anything swimming around so I reached into the tank and turned the wood over. There was a pleco tightly attached to a deep cavity in the underside of the wood, and it was, indeed, alive.

I quickly determined that the pleco must have been in the driftwood when I purchased it and no one noticed. That means that the poor thing survived nearly a week out of the water, with no food, and then endured what must have been pure hell for nearly five weeks before the ammonia and nitrite levels reached zero. I still can’t believed that happened.

By the way, this was in May of 2002. Below is a photo of him taken today with that same piece of driftwood and his little cavity. No, he’s not deformed. The driftwood is out of the water so I could turn it over to get the photo of him. He’s about 4.5″ long and doing fine.


The “tortured” pleco and his forever driftwood home.

From the “I learned something today” department

I have an Eheim Ecco Pro external canister filter on one of my tanks. It’s been running for years and has run flawlessly…..until a few nights ago when it started making clicking noises. With canister filters, such a noise is invariably the impeller. So I removed the pump head, turned it over, and unlatched the impeller unit cover (called the pump chamber). I visually checked the impeller to ensure it was seated correctly. I knew there couldn’t be a foreign body of some kind caught in the impeller because it would be impossible to get there. I prefilter the intake with a high density sponge, which will stop anything the size of a grain of sand or larger. Everything looked fine.

Next, I removed the impeller unit from the pump head and inspected it. The impeller unit for an Ecco is actually made of three parts – a cylindrical magnet, the plastic fin blade, and a plastic insert that the impeller blade slides over and which fits into the center of the magnet (see the photo below). I immediately noticed that the plastic insert had pulled loose from the magnet by about 2 mm.  The plastic insert has four notches at the base where it meets the magnet and the magnet has grooves in which these notches fit. If the notches line up with the grooves, the base of the insert will fit snugly against the magnet (as pictured). If the insert has pulled loose and rotates just a bit, the assembly won’t fit back together cleanly.


Eheim Ecco Pro impeller unit

Whatever adhesive that had been used to connect the insert with the magnet had failed, allowing the insert to pull free from the magnet. It can’t be pulled too far apart once in the pump chamber because there is a round, plastic shaft that goes through the insert and through the magnet. This shaft goes all the way through and snugly fits into a round hole in the pump head. This shaft is what holds the impeller unit in place and allows the unit to rotate.

Unsure whether I could fix the unit or get a replacement quickly. I ordered a new Ecco (my lfs doesn’t carry them). However, I had to run to my lfs for some other items, so I took the impeller unit with me. I showed it to the store manager, who looked at it for about a second and said, “Follow me.” With that, we headed back to their “maintenance” room where she grabbed a little tube of Loctite liquid super glue and proceeded to glue the plastic insert back to the magnet. She said, “that’ll do it.”  Concerned about the chemicals in the super glue, I asked “are you sure about that?” She explained that the super glue is completely inert once it dries. She said “we use it to fix all sorts of things including artificial corals that have broken.”

I had no idea.

ID, Please?


Image is the cover of the 2nd edition book by David Weaver published in 2011.

With increasing frequency, I am seeing Facebook posts that contain photos of cichlids in which the poster asks readers for an identification. Taking possession of an unknown cichlid species can be an unwise decision for several reasons, each of which revolve around compatibility.

  • The unknown cichlid may be incompatible with the tank size in which it initially resides (i.e., the cichlid could be a species that will quickly outgrow the tank). 
  • The unknown cichlid may be incompatible with existing tank mates (i.e, the cichlid could be a species that doesn’t play nice with other species). 
  • The unknown cichlid may be incompatible with the environment in which it resides (i.e., the cichlid could be a species that thrives in soft water but ends up residing in a tank with hard water).

It’s a good idea to have a plan in place that addresses each of the possibilities outlined above. In fact, an even better idea is to ID the cichlid BEFORE you bring it home and introduce it into your tank.