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.

Rate that lfs


Photo of Discount Aquarium Fish and Reef in Tempe, AZ.

Having recently visited my local fish store (lfs), I thought I would comment on what, IMO, makes a good one (the photo above is not my local fish store, btw). At the end of the day, where you choose to purchase your fish is entirely up to you. Some hobbyists order online, some buy from their lfs, some buy from general pet stores. Pull back the curtain a bit at an lfs and you’ll figure out quickly who knows what they’re doing, who to trust, and who not to.

Here are some things to look for that, more often than not, suggest that an lfs takes good care of its fish.

  • A uncluttered store

This might seem like a no-brainer, but stores should be easy to navigate w/o stumbling over merchandise that hasn’t been shelved. Sure, any lfs can be understaffed on any given day, but regularly having to step over or around products located on the floor or on carts suggests a lack of attention to detail.

  • Staff that ask YOU questions and listen

A knowledgeable staff member will always ask you some questions when you seek their advice. Staff are there to match you with the right product as much as point you in the direction of their latest sale items. They should assist you in making informed decisions, especially if you’re a novice.

  • Clean aquarium glass/acrylic

If you can’t see the fish because the glass/acrylic is dirty, shop elsewhere. A store that takes pride in the selection and health of its fish will exhibit that pride by having tanks you can actually see into. This is especially important for fish only pet stores. After all, they make a living selling only fish and products for fish.

  • Tanks free of dead fish

Again, this one might seem like common sense, but spend some time going from tank to tank and count the number of dead/dying fish. Good stores have employees that perform a DFC (dead fish check) at regular intervals. Also, if you go into a store and never see a tank with fish that are being treated for something and have been removed from sale, beware. Good stores aren’t afraid to quarantine an entire tank when they discover something amiss. These stores will also indicate, on the tank itself, what the treatment regimen is.

  • Fish in quarantine

Ask your lfs if they quarantine new fish. Reputable stores will often have a whole series of tanks hidden in back where they are treating single fish or groups of fish. Just the fact that they’re willing to invest in and maintain solitary quarantine/sick tanks is typically a good sign.

  • Proper fish mix

Very often different fish will be mixed in a single tank. Nothing wrong with this as long as the mixed species are compatible. Keeping a couple of species of soft water tetras together is fine. Keeping adult Oscars with tetras isn’t. In fact, keeping some adult cichlids with juvenile cichlids isn’t always fine either. I once went into a pet store and discovered adult Oscars mixed in a tank with baby Oscars. The store owner didn’t realize this was problematic until I showed her one of the adult Oscars with the posterior of a baby oscar sticking out of its mouth.

Morrell Devlin interview

PictureMo with one of his favorite cichlids, a beautiful Paratheraps zonatus he called Big Blue.

Let me introduce Morrell Devlin, cichlid keeper extraordinaire and expert aquatic photographer. Better known as Mo or Aquamojo by fellow hobbyists, he has kept hundreds of species. His main area of interest is New World cichlids and for the past 20 years he’s focused on the diverse species from Central America. When it comes to aquatic photography, he has to be one of the finest in the hobby. In fact, you’ve probably seen his photos many times and didn’t know it. He’s a long term member of the American Cichlid Association (ACA) as well as its governing body, so he attends the ACA annual convention regularly. He’s also the proprietor of, a website for those interested in “tank buster” cichlids, as he calls them. I encourage you to visit his website and see some of the finest cichlid photos you will ever see. Check out his Facebook page too!

I met Mo sometime back in the early 2000s at an ACA convention and I have to say he is one of the nicest guys that I’ve ever met. We always enjoy good-natured banter about his love for large cichlids and my love for the dwarf variety.

The Cichlid Stage: How did you get started in the hobby?

My father got me interested at age 13.  He always had fish tanks.  I can remember visiting local stores shopping for fish.  All of my father’s tanks were community fish, but he leaned toward more of the oddball types.  The first one that I can specifically remember was a Congo Puffer that he bought. He kept it in a separate tank and I thought that was pretty cool.  Eventually he gave me my own tank. The first fish I ever “owned” was an albino tiger Oscar…a fish that ate other fish.  I was hooked.

TCS: You once had a huge pond…INSIDE! If you still have it, tell us about your cichlid pond. 

I got rid of the pond several years ago.  I’m pretty sure I was the first, definitely one of the first, to do something that crazy.  It was in my basement.  Eight foot square, four foot deep.  1600 gallons.  I had to modify a Jacuzzi heater to accommodate the pond…used a pool filter to filter it.  It had a skimmer and an intake system that was packed with sponge filters.  Ultimately, I got rid of it because it was too time consuming.  I used to do a 30% water change on it every two weeks.  That plus not being covered it had a big effect on the humidity in my home.  The final straw was a hose busting and emptying half of the water on the floor.  This resulted in a mold problem, a five thousand dollar fix and a very PO’d wife.  SO the pond went.

TCS: What all did you stock in the pond? 

I originally built it to house one fish…a red tail catfish I called “Ming”.  He was growing out in a 180 gallon tank and was about 20” long when I moved him downstairs.  I slowly started adding fish to the pond, fully expecting that most would be meals for Ming.  They were not. In fact the exact opposite happened.  I was able to keep a wide variety of fish without any problems.  At one point I had a 24” Pacu, Ming, Citrinellum and Gourami in the same tank.  Over the years it housed a variety of cichlids including Managuense, Istlantum, Citrinellum, Macrocanthus, Salvini, Convicts, Fredrichsthali, Dovii, and Nicarauguense…to name a few.  Non-cichlids included various metynsis, gourami, silver barbs, and even African Butterfly fish.  The latter a big mistake.  All of them eventually assumed there was “bigger water” on the other side of the pond…and ended up being found on the floor looking like dried up lapel pins.

PictureLongfin albino bristlenose pleco.

TCS: Tell us about your current tank set-up at home.

I have 23 tanks up and running right now…about 2800 gallons of water.  Most of the tanks have cichlids.  I just recently devoted one tank to some community fish (Rainbows, Danios, some Black Phantom tetras). My good friend and aquatic legend, Charlie Grimes, has promised to send me some Killifish and some White Cloud Minnows to try.  The rest of the tanks have a mixture of cichlids.  Most of them are dedicated to one or two single species.  I have one large tank with a mixture of the fish. The list of the tankbusters includes Managuense, Citrinellum, P. Coatzacoalcos, Fredrichsthali, Regani, Cyanaguttatus and Hogaboomorum.  I recently started “downsizing” to smaller species: Heckeli, Salvini, Myrnae, SIquia, Panamensis, Nanoluteus, Cutteri and Sajica. I also have a big variety of Metynsis and Mylosoma that I use as dithers…some quite large…and an assortment of pleco including an 18” Adonis pleco, an awesome long-finned albino bristlenose pleco, green phantom and several others.  One of the fish, a Raphael Catfish, is an almost unbelievable 22 years old!

PictureParachromis managuense with fry.

TCS: What’s your favorite cichlid species and why?

Hands down, Parachromis managuense.  I’ve always had one or more in my tanks.  Right now I have five of them.  Many years ago I had a managuense that I called “Jumbo”.  Without exaggeration, the fish was known by name internationally…no doubt because of all the photos I took of him. Jumbo was the most interactive and entertaining fish I ever owned.  In fact, if you Google “cichlid and jumbo”…his is the first image that comes up.

TCS: For those cichlid keepers who’ve never attended an ACA convention, what would you tell them to convince them they should, at least once?

I’ve been asked this question several times in the past. Hands down it’s to meet with other hobbyists. It’s one of the few places or times that you can get experts from all over the country and sometimes the globe in one place.  Ad Konigs, Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, Rusty Wessel, Anton Lamboj, Pam Chin, Paul Loiselle and more…not to mention people that you may converse with online over the years.  Lots of cichlid knowledge, lots of cichlids to see and buy, auctions, vendors…it’s a blast.  And if you miss one that’s close by…you made a mistake.

TCS: You are an expert aquatic photographer. How did you get started photographing fish?

Once again…my father. My dad was a collector of cactus.  He loved photographing them.  I got interested in photography watching him in action…picked up the camera and never put it down. It was just a natural progression to turn the lens toward the fish tank.  A lot of my skills in aquatic photography came from my experience with photography taking lots of other photos, including a military career where I used the camera to photograph autopsies.  If you want to hone your skills at getting the photo right the first time, that’s the place to start.  My boss used to say, you have to get it right the first time.  You can’t dig them back up for a second sitting.


Hericthys labridens

TCS: What advice would you give someone wanting to take up aquatic photography?

Start taking photos and put the camera in manual mode.  You’re much smarter than the camera.  Get the photo you need, then the photo you want, then take the photo that you didn’t expect.  That can only happen by taking lots of photos and a lot of chances.  Many of my very best photos “happened” and were not planned.  I was just at the right place at the right time with the camera in hand and ready to record the moment.

Got wood?

Aquarists add wood to their aquariums for many reasons. Some seek to emulate the natural environment of the fish they keep, some want to help buffer their water in a natural way, and others use wood as natural shelter for their fish. Whatever the reason, there are many benefits to adding wood decor to your tank.


Photo from
I have seen many questions by novice aquarists about what wood to use, when to use it, and how to prepare it for the tank. The latest issue of the Tropical Fish Hobbyist contains a great article about driftwood where many of these questions are answered.

Cichlids on Facebook

In a previous post, I mentioned online forums for cichlid enthusiasts. The forums I mentioned in that post are the typical bulletin board types. For those of you that use Facebook, there are also some really nice cichlid groups. Many of them are closed (i.e,, member-only, you must request to join), however joining them only requires a single click. I follow several of these and I must admit there are some knowledgeable members who are happy to help with all types of issues (fish compatibility, water quality, fish selection, fish identification, etc.).

A few of the groups I follow:

I encourage you to join one or more of these groups and participate. Whether a novice or expert aquarist, you can always learn something new. I certainly have.

Interview with Don Zilliox

 Don Zilliox

Not long after beginning in the hobby, I took a determined path toward keeping and breeding cichlids. My interests originally focused on colorful dwarf species of Central and South America. Very quickly I was starving for knowledge, having already consumed nearly every monograph and magazine article I could get my hands on. It was then I began reaching out to the experts.  One of my very first contacts was a kind gentleman by the name of Don Zilliox, otherwise known as Z-Man in the aquarium hobby. I can’t count the number of times I e-mailed him with questions. He responded to every e-mail and was quite patient with me.

A quick Google search for Don will yield a plethora of links to all kinds of information about cichlids. He has written numerous articles covering a variety of dwarf species, including Ctenopoma ansorgii and Crenicichla regani. He’s also written a great piece about keeping and breeding Apistogramma in general. Through decades in the hobby, he has bred more than 100 species. Suffice it to say, he has forgotten more about fish keeping than I’ll probably ever know. I recently got in touch with Don, who has mostly retired from fish keeping. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the blog.

Continue reading this post…Interview with Don Zilliox

Log that data!

When it comes to pretty much any maintenance activity that involves my tanks, I always take notes. Whether it’s adding/removing fish, testing the water parameters, doing water changes, or anything besides feeding the fish, I always write down what I did. Why? Many reasons.

The day will come when something will go wrong in one of your tanks – water problems, livestock issues, etc. Rather than trying to rely on memory as to what you might have done or not done to contribute to the problem, often times a simple check of your notes will reveal the issue.

Do you remember how many of those black skirt tetras you added as dither fish three months ago? Do you do a dfc (dead fish check) nightly, such that you’ll quickly recognize one is missing before his carcass becomes so decomposed that he blends in nicely with the substrate?

Or how about noticing that your pH has been slowly rising with each water change and subsequent test?

There are lots of reasons to take good notes about your maintenance activities. Use whatever method works best for you. I’ve used a pencil and little notebook (or several of them) over the years. Now I use a nifty little app on my Macbook called Evernote. Though not specifically for logging aquarium data, it’s a great tool for keeping, storing, and searching notes of all types. Trust me, over time you will come to realize the value in keeping notes on your aquarium activities.