Your role in losing fish

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Photo from http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/living-on-the-edge-may-help-cheat-extinction/?_r=0

Let’s face it. If you keep cichlids, you’re going to lose some. They WILL die. They will die for a variety of reasons.  However, even professional cichlid keepers lose fish. Sometimes cichlids are weak or sick when you get them, and you don’t know it. Sometimes they will kill each other because most species exhibit some level of aggression towards other cichlids. Sometimes they die of old age. Sometimes they will die and you won’t know why.

I HATE losing a fish for any reason, and it bothers me for days when I do. I take the hobby very seriously with respect to the health and longevity of the cichlids I keep. However, I also recognize the risks of loss and I accept those.

Your commitment, your patience, and your skill all play huge factors in both how often you lose them and how many. The point of this post: Always look at the death of your fish from the perspective of your contribution to it. In other words, always ask yourself, “In what way, if any, did I contribute to the death of that fish?” ​Being self reflective and answering that question will make you a better fish keeper.

Cichlid mate attraction

PictureImage from The Mascot Design Gallery – http://www.mascotdesigngallery.com/singing-fish-mascot/.

We already know that courtship rituals for male cichlids often consist of various physical displays and behavior. Add sounds to that mix. According to recent research conducted at Stanford University, male Astatotilapia burtoni utilize low frequency sounds as part of their mate attraction repertoire.

While the news article provides links to the lead researcher at Stanford and his lab, the article doesn’t link to the scholarly publication from which the news article was assembled. This is unfortunate and a problem that often hinders success of science communication.

A shout out to cichlidophile Brandon Sturgeon who posted a link to the Stanford article on the Cichlid Keepers Facebook group page.


Submersible heaters

Over the years, I’ve used various brands of submersible heaters – Eheim Ebo Jager, Hydor, Aqueon, Marina, and Fluval among others. This post isn’t a review nor does it contain any kind of personal heater ranking, however I want to express my overall satisfaction with a particular brand/model.I’ve grown quite fond of the Fluval Digital E series by Hagen. There are multiple reasons for my attraction to and satisfaction with this heater, which are listed below in no particular order.


  • The glass heater resides in a plastic guard, which offers significant protection against large, rowdy fish.

  • The heater has a built in LCD digital temperature display that is easy to read.

  • The temperature settings are in 1/2 degree increments, which will appear on the digital display.

  • The mechanism for changing/setting the temperature is a lever that only requires one hand to operate, unlike other heaters with a dial that, over time, requires two hands to adjust.

  • The temperature display can be set to centigrade (C) or fahrenheit (F).

  • The display utilizes colors to quickly identify temperature ranges - green (safe temp), red (high temp), blue (low temp).

Of course, the most important aspects of a submersible heater are its dependability and accuracy. I’ve owned four of the E series and, to date, I’ve only had a problem with one. Fortunately, it was faulty right out of the box.

The temperature adjustment lever is at the top of the heater, which makes adjusting the temperature really easy and, if you mount the heater vertically, the lever can protrude above the water line allowing you to make an adjustment and stay dry doing it. Also, the colored display allows you to quickly notice a problem with the temperature, especially in the dark.

A word of caution, however. Even though these heaters have been reliable for me, I believe in redundancy. For this reason, I keep separate thermometers on all my tanks and I would encourage you to do the same if you use this heater or any other with a built in temperature display.


Stripping mouthbrooders

This topic comes on the heels of a discussion I recently had about the morals and values of fish sellers. I won’t get into the genesis of that conversation, except to say that it made me think more broadly about my own opinions with respect to keeping and breeding fish.

Anyone who has bred African cichlids to raise fry for sell or trade has ultimately engaged in stripping females of fry or eggs. If you want to learn more about the practice, there are plenty of online articles and videos that describe/illustrate the practice. Though this article on stripping is quite dated, I think it does a nice job of discussing the practice from a broader view. Furthermore, it’s written by someone who’s qualified to discuss it – Pam Chin.

As for my own views, I’m not particularly fond of the practice unless there is some physical reason to do so to protect the female. I’m more of a purist when it comes to the hobby, which means I’m more inclined to let nature unfold as it may.

Recommended cichlid resource

When I first began keeping fish, there weren’t many resources available for cichlids keepers beyond monographs. Now with the Internet, a whole new world of information has been introduced to all fish keepers. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t visit a website looking for some general information about a cichlid species I’m interested in buying or one that I already have.

While I consider the African Cichlid Hub to be a great resource, it’s not just busting at the seams with information. However, I think it does have some very good and very thorough articles on subjects that any fishkeeper should understand.  Because I keep dwarf Africans, I have found the dwarf cichlid species list quite informative.

Breeding pairs of shell dwellers in community tanks

Because my show tanks are community tanks and because I will often house breeding pairs of some shell dwelling species in these tanks, it’s inevitable that some of the pairs will successfully breed. If I’m intent on raising fry, I will keep breeding cichlids in their own tank. Otherwise, I just let nature take its course, while being cognizant of aggression.

Something to keep in mind with this approach is that keeping breeding pairs in a community tank will invite breeding aggression – between the pair and conspecifics, and between the pair and any trespassers/predators. Therefore if you choose to go this route and keep your breeding pair in the community, you should take a few steps to minimize the aggression. Such as, you ask?

Let’s start with conspecifics. Mitigating aggression in this case is highly dependent on the gender and number of conspecifics. Males of many species simply won’t tolerate another male in the tank, especially if there is a female present and a pair has formed. Unless you’re knowledgeable about the breeding behaviors of the shellies you keep, you’re best bet is to simply don’t keep more than the pair of a given species in the community. It’s not worth the risk. Your best bet is to start your breeding with the pair in their own tank.

The trespasser/predator problem is a bit simpler to address. You already know that most cichlids are territorial. Turf defense often becomes more acute when eggs and fry are involved. To minimize aggression toward trespassers and to offer your potential fry a fighting chance (assuming you want the fry to survive to maturity and you don’t take the “let nature take it’s course” approach), make the defense of the space easier. There are many ways to do this but the easiest is to employ some simple military strategy – use the natural surroundings to bolster the defense. In the case of an aquarium, use the glass.

A breeding pair of shell dwellers that have set up camp in the center of a 90g aquarium have to defend from all sides plus from above. I like to use the corners of the tank so the glass protects from two sides. I simply move the shells to the corner. This potentially accomplishes several objectives – reduces the stress of the pair, reduces their protection efforts, confines the space for the fry, and maximizes space for the other fish to avoid the pair.

There are other strategies, but following these will make fish keeping more enjoyable for you and the fish.

Tight space substrate vacuuming

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A short piece of PEX pipe inserted into end of small diameter hose for precision vacuuming. Photo by the author.

For those of you keeping mbuna who have loads of rock from glass-to-glass in your tank (either front to back, end to end, or both), you know how difficult it is to vacuum the substrate around the rocks using a standard Python. Though rock work still needs to be removed and the substrate vacuumed on a regular basis, you don’t have to do it every water change, especially if you do water changes at least weekly. In fact, I would recommend that you don’t. However, there are several ways to vacuum some of the crevices and tight spaces without moving the rock.

You can always employ the old gravity siphon method by simply using just a small diameter hose.  A better solution and one that works quite well is to cut a short piece of PEX pipe and attach it to the small diameter hose. The PEX is flexible but not near as much as the hose itself and it provides just enough rigidity to poke into tight spots without having to grasp it near the end like you would using just the hose end alone. You can also modify your python so that it “steps down” in diameter to a much smaller size and then attach the PEX at the end. This will essentially turn your Python into a super vacuum with significant suction, if you run the faucet while vacuuming!

In the above photo, I’ve cut a 6″ length of 1/4″ PEX which I’ve inserted into a 1/2″ OD hose. You should be able to find PEX pipe at your local hardware store. I got mine at Lowe’s.  I’ve used a zip tie to keep the hose from sliding on the pipe because, though the fit is pretty good, it’s not as tight as I would like. In addition to getting into tight spaces, this works really well when you’re trying to do some real precision vacuuming, especially around shell dwellers with really small fry. I haven’t modified my Pythons to step-down to the small diameter. I’m using it with the standard gravity siphon because I have sand substrate and the gravity suction is just enough.

New Lake Malawi cichlid book

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Cover image from Amazon.com.

 Ad Konings’ long anticipated 5th edition of Malawi Cichlids in Their Natural Habitat has been released. Pick up your copy from The Cichlid Room Companion! You can also get it from Amazon.

Containing well over 1000 amazing color photos of cichlids in their natural habitat, this is the first new edition since 2007. All keepers of Old World cichlids should have this book in his/her collection. 

A few observations of a community Tanganyikan tank

If you follow the blog, you know I have a 75g Tanganyikan tank. Here are the current cichlid inhabitants:

  • Altolamprologus calvus (black) x 3
  • Callochromis macrops x 1
  • Eretmodus cyanostictus x 1
  • Julidochromis marlieri x 3
  • Neolamprologus tretocephalus x 2
  • Neolamprologus leleupi x 2
  • Telmatochromis sp.  “temporalis shell”x 3
  • Telmatocrhomis vittatus x 1

​Based on sizes, I would say they’re all sub-adults. None of them are quite full-grown. There are also a couple of bottom feeders and 8 or 9 dithers. You can see a photo of the tank below.

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75g Tanganyikan tank. Photo courtesy of the author.

As you can see, it’s heavily decorated with substantial rock work. This provides an enormous amount of hiding places. As I discussed in a previous post, a pair of Telmatochromis sp. “temporalis shell” have commandeered the lower left front corner of the tank, where they’re currently tending to some fry. Most of the cichlids give that part of the tank a wide berth, for obvious reasons. Both parents are pretty intolerant of trespassers.

I spend a considerable amount of time observing this tank, both with the tank light on and off. Below are some of my observations.

As I’ve also discussed in a previous post, one of the male A. calvus is pretty clearly the tank boss. He’s not super aggressive but he makes his presence loud and clear when he wants, and he doesn’t get displaced by anyone. However, he doesn’t push the issue with the temporalis pair. He and the male have been nose to nose a couple of times, but he goes on about his business after a few seconds. One of the leleupis is what I would call the associate tank boss with respect to overall aggression, which again runs counter to conventional knowledge of typical N. leleupi species behavior with tankmates other than its own kind.

Cichlid keepers with a fair amount of experience know that individual cichlids possess unique personalities. Sure, there are species specific behaviors that are typical, but not every cichlid in a given species behaves the same. So when you’re doing research about a cichlid that you’re interested in keeping, don’t expect what you buy to be a carbon copy of what you read. They will clearly exhibit some of the behaviors that you read about but ultimately how they behave depends on multiple factors – tank size, tank mates, number of tank mates, tank decorations, gender mix, etc.

I am constantly amused at folks who say things like “Don’t expect to keep <<insert species A>> with <<insert species B>> and expect species A to survive.” Case in point, pretty much everything you read advises against keeping multiple N. tretocephalus together unless you keep many or have a really large tank because they are quite belligerent and aggressive. As you can see from the inhabitant list above, there are two in this tank and, frankly, neither one of them are aggressive. In fact, the larger of the two is scared of his own shadow. He doesn’t come out a great deal and, when he does, he often gets run off if he ventures too close to one of the leleupis or even the non-paired T. “temporalis shell”, the latter of which is about 1/4 his size.

The two most non-aggressive cichlids in the tank are the goby (E. cyanostictus) and the C. macrops. In fact, the macrops is really pretty shy and just doesn’t like to get in the mix with the other cichlids. The goby roams all over and, though it gets chased every once in a while, it never seems to get rattled. It just comes right back and resumes whatever it was doing.

The three Julies aren’t very aggressive either unless someone gets too near their “overhang” or cave. They spend more time chasing each other than paying much attention to their tankmates. They and the T. vittatus don’t always see eye to eye, but I believe that’s more because they’re similarly colored and shaped. Overall, none of the four are bothersome.

Overall, this is a pretty placid community tank, containing species that are both typically viewed as aggressive and rather docile. Other than general discord between the two leleupis, which is well known for conspecific behavior of the species, everyone is tolerant of each other.