Headed to the ACA convention

I mentioned in a previous post that I would be attending to the ACA convention in Cincinnati, OH this weekend. If you’re within driving distance and want to enjoy a cichlid-focused event with hundreds of other cichlidophiles, stop by. It’s an awesome convention where you can see hundreds of cichlids, learn more about them, and meet fellow aquarists. The speakers are a who’s who of the cichlid community, at least in the US.

Be on the lookout for lots of new posts. I’ll be blogging about the convention. ​If you are attending and you see me, introduce yourself. I love to meet the blog readers!

Bower building

When you hear the term “bower builder,” maybe your first thought is a bird – the bowerbird. You may then ask, what is a bower? Simply put, it’s a dwelling, often elaborate and leafy in construction. So what’s this have to do with cichlids?

If  you keep African cichlids, especially from Lake Malawi, and you have a sand or mini-gravel substrate, you may end up with a bower in your tank. Within the context of fish, a bower is a typically well-defined depression, often on a raised mound.  Cichlids aren’t the only Perciformes to exhibit bower building, which is primarily a social behavior exhibited by males for mate attraction. Bass, perch, and bluegill are other common freshwater fish that perform this ritual.

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Lake Malawi cichlid bower. Photo from African Cichlid Hub – http://www.africancichlidhub.com/.
If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of bower building by Lake Malawi cichlids, check out this outstanding scholarly article from the journal Frontiers in Ecology an Evolution. Yes, it’s a research article, but it’s readability is rather high for the lay public, in my opinion.

Hidden jaws

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Cichlid cranial image. Photo from journal article – GJ Fraser, CD Hulsey, RF Bloomquist, K Uyesugi, NR Manley, JT Streelman, “An ancient gene network is co-opted for teeth on old and new jaws,” PLoS Biology 7(2), Feb. 10, 2009.

How intently do you watch your cichlids when they eat? If you pay close attention when they eat anything more substantive than flakes (e.g., pellets, discs), you’ve probably noticed the food completely disappear but see little movement in the oral jaws. Why?

One of the defining morphological characteristics of the family cichlidae is the existence of pharyngeal dentition. Huh?

Cichlids have teeth in their throat. That’s right. In addition to whatever oral teeth they may have, all cichlids possess tiny teeth on the pharyngeal plate in the throat that are used to grind up food. This pharyngeal jaw action, often unnoticed to the naked eye, breaks down food for passage through the esophagus into the gut.

Interestingly enough, these teeth aren’t only used for processing food. They’re also used to produce sounds for communication purposes. In fact, if you’ve ever kept clown loaches (Chromobotia macracanthus) and heard the clicking sound they make, you’re hearing the pharyngeal teeth grinding together.

Watch your cichlids closely when they eat and you might just see the pharyngeal jaw muscles at work.

Master explorers and beggars

During my regular water change yesterday, I removed all of the rock work on one end of the 55g tank. I alternate removing the rock on each end of the tank over the course of a month, though I change water weekly. This tank is all mbuna, so they love their rocks.

If you’ve never kept mbuna cichlids from Lake Malawi, I encourage you to give them a try. Start with just few if you’ve never kept them. As a group, they tend to be rather aggressive. That’s not to say every mbuna species is aggressive nor is every fish of a species. However, I would consider it the rule rather than exception.

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Photo of a 55g mbuna tank courtesy of the author.
I always enjoy watching mine after I’ve removed the rock, cleaned the sand, and returned the rocks in a new arrangement. Within minutes, the cichlids are exploring by going in and out of every crevice and hole they can fit into. You can see the many caves and openings in both photos. It’s quite fun to watch. Unfortunately, when I took the photos, a couple of hours had passed since I cleaned the tank. They were more interested in getting fed rather than exploring, because I was sitting in front of the tank. ​Notice in the bottom photo how many of them are facing the front of the tank staring at me.In the top photo, it looks like I captured the red zebra, one of the yellow labs, and one of the “elongatus chailosi”. In the bottom photo, besides a yellow lab, the zebra, and both chailosis, you can see a perlmutt and a “red top Ndumbi.” I believe I also see the demasoni.

In both photos you can clearly see some species that aren’t African cichlids. They are dithers.

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Photo of a 55g mbuna tank courtesy of the author.

Coming to stores soon!

Every once in a while, I’ll receive word of a new product coming to the aquarium market and, sometimes, I’ll even get the physical product to sample and provide feedback or write a review. The product might be a filter, a pump, or anything. I just recently found out about a new food coming to stores within the next couple of months.

AquaLife, which is part of the Aquarium Life Support Systems family of products, is about to begin selling a flake and pellet food, good for both freshwater and marine fish. Though not specifically for cichlids, the new flake is a Calanus Spirulina mix that offers an all natural, rich source of omega-3 fatty acids (both EPA and DHA) together with astaxanthin to promote both growth and maximum coloration.

I was fortunate enough to receive regular 1 oz. samples of the flakes and pellets (the sinking pellets come in two sizes), which I have just started using. Stay tuned. More to come.

New book

PictureBook cover photo from Amazon.com.

Though Jonathan Balcombe’s new book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins isn’t cichlid specific, it does contain cichlid content. Many of you out there might want to consider giving it a read.​I wrote a short post over a year ago about being a conscientious fish keeper. I don’t know how much of Balcombe’s book is fact and how much is hypotheses, but fish may well be sentient creatures as he describes them. Why fish behave the way they do and how much of that behavior is instinctual versus learned are probably impossible to fully understand or know. We don’t even fully understand human behavior. However, I suspect that the book will provide a perspective that most people, much less fish keepers, have never considered. It may also change how some view and care for their own aquarium fish.


A little added filtration

PicturePhoto of a simple air driven sponge filter. From http://www.fishlore.com/.

If you have air stones or bubble walls in your tank, you can add a little more filtration to your water simply by replacing your air stone with a sponge filter.

Sponge filters are readily available at your LFS or online and they come in all shapes and sizes. You already have all the other components needed if you’re running an airstone (air pump, air line) and you’ll still get the bubble effect but you’ll be adding some biological filtration in the process.

​Even though my tanks are sufficiently filtered with canisters, I often keep small, DIY bottle filters running just to provide a little extra filtration and to provide some redundancy in the event a canister goes down. Though I power these bottle filters with small water pumps, air bubbles from air stones and air driven sponge filters provide another important function – they provide surface agitation, which promotes oxygen exchange. I get the same effect with the outflow of my small bottle filters.

If added filtration peaks your interest but you don’t won’t a sponge, you can take advantage of your already running airstone and create filtration by simply using a small (~16 oz), clean plastic bottle filled with some bio media of your choice and hooking the airline to it. They guys at the King of DYI have produced a nice how-to video for constructing one of these small, air-driven bottle filters.


Change that water!

Perhaps the single most impactful task you can perform as part of your tank maintenance routine is to change your tank water...and do it often. Hobbyist fish tanks are typically closed systems. The water might be circulated through filters but it's still the same water. No old water is removed and no new water enters. So why take out some water and replace it with fresh? Among other things, changing the water does the following:
  • Replaces trace minerals that evaporate or get used up
  • Promotes temporary oxygen exchange
  • Removes nitrates in the water that build up from fish waste
  • Dilutes measurable ammonia/nitrite in the water
  • Helps regulate pH balance

In addition, regular water changes can promote spawning behavior, especially in tough to breed species. Anecdotally, I’ve had pairs that seem to breed more frequently as the frequency of water changes increases.

If you visit online aquarium forums and boards, aquarists regularly espouse water changes to solve all kinds of problems. There is a reason. Regular water changes will play as a large a role in maintaining a healthy tank as nearly anything else you can do.

How often should you change the water? How much water should you change? There are no single answers to those two question because there are many variables that factor in (tank size, tank filtration, tank inhabitants, source water). Performing water changes weekly is a good starting point. Changing a small volume (as a percentage of the total volume in the tank) will have little positive impact. Changing a large volume may have an enormous negative impact. Finding the right balance is where experience comes in. If you’re a new aquarist, begin with ~20% each week. Test your water several hours after each change and see what your parameters are. A cycled tank should register no ammonia or nitrites, but it may take trial and error with the change volume and frequency to get your nitrates down to acceptable levels. The important thing to remember is simply to perform water changes regularly.


Tank decorations

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Photo from Marta’s Pet Shop website – https://thecichlidstage.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/mps-images-fish-products-03-1.jpg

If you’re new to cichlid keeping, one subject you might be trying to learn more about is the appropriate tank decor for the species you keep. There is no shortage of information and advice available online. Plenty of folks have written about decorating a cichlid tank, and much of this consists of do’s and don’ts.

If you’re wanting to emulate a biotope specific to your fish (e.g., Lake Malawi), another natural environment, or provide the optimal aquascape for breeding particular species, then I encourage you to heed some of the information out there. However, if you don’t have any specific intentions other than to keep some cichlids for your own viewing pleasure or that of your friends and neighbors (i.e, a show tank), don’t obsess over the decorations.

For the most part, the choice of ornaments, rocks, plants, etc. that occupy the same tank space as your cichlids are important only to you. Clearly don’t put things in your tank that might affect the quality of the water. Otherwise, make it look how you want it to look.

With that out of the way, I would encourage you to include SOME decorations, substrate, etc. A completely bare show tank provides nothing for your fish and has the potential for adding stress. Cichlids, just like other fish, will instinctually seek shelter to avoid predators, threats, etc. A bare tank offers nowhere to hide other than behind whatever hardware you are using (e.g., filter tubes, sponge filters, heaters). Though my fish will typically congregate near the surface when I approach the tank to feed them, they will also often scatter and or display skittishness many times when I merely walk by. When this occurs, they’re rushing off for a safe place to hide. What comprises that place isn’t really important to them as long as it provides enough shelter to hide them from view.

Therefore, give them some places to go when they’re frightened or otherwise stressed. You can do this with submerged PVC components (tubing, connectors, etc.), ceramic decorations (pagodas and other ornaments), rocks, plants, and other things. Substrate choice isn’t as important except that bare glass is reflective, and reflections might have adverse effects on your fishs’ behavior.

I know some expert cichlid keepers who are a bit whimsical with their tank decorations, some who are minimalists, and others who are naturalists. Largely, your fish don’t care how you decorate their environment as long as your choices don’t introduce additional stress. It’s been proven that stressed fish will typically exhibit muted colors or otherwise won’t look their best.

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.