Dilemma of acquiring new cichlids

Purchasing cichlids for you aquarium generally isn’t a complicated task…but it can be. If your source for new fish is local then, depending on where you live, limitations on selection may be high. If your LFSs always have what you want at a price you’re willing to pay, then everything is good. However, let’s be honest, most of us cichlidophiles don’t have the luxury of having half a dozen LFSs nearby, each of which carries dozens of cichlid species.

Then there is the matter of purchasing fish replacements (new cichlids to replace some that have died or that you’ve sold, traded away, etc.) versus purchasing for stocking a brand new tank that you’ve set up. The former may be easier to do, especially if you only keep a couple of species and your LFSs always have them in stock. The latter is more difficult, especially when you’re wanting some species you’ve never kept, wanting some species that are hard to get, or both.

If you follow my blog, you’ve seen several posts that mention my intent to set up a new tank. In fact, that day is nearly here. Of the two scenarios described in the previous paragraph, my situation is obviously the second.

There are numerous online cichlid retailers available, many of which are highly reputable.  My LFS has some nice fish, but not everything I’m looking for. It appears that I’ll be able to get some species locally and then have to order the rest online. This introduces a dilemma, especially if your conscientious about supporting your LFS, which I very much am.

Ordering online is most cost effective when you order a higher quantity of fish. This reduces the total cost you pay per fish. Consider an overnight shipping expense of $60, which is probably close to the average for most online buyers. If you buy four fish at ~$10 each for a total fish cost of $40, adding the $60 shipping and dividing that by each fish raises your overall cost for each fish to $25. $100 total divided by 4 = $25. Order 10 fish at $10 each, you’re total fish cost with shipping now becomes $16.

​Here’s the dilemma(s). If you only have room for four new fish, then buying them online might be less cost effective than getting all four from your LFS. Splitting the purchase between your LFS and online doesn’t offer much financial relief either. The solution to the dilemma(s) is to decide what you’re willing to pay, how badly you want the fish, and whether you’re willing to leave your LFS out of the equation.

Swapping substrate in situ

Over this past weekend, I did something that needed to be done though I have never done it before. I swapped substrates with fish in the tank. Normally, I wouldn’t risk wrecking a tank’s water doing something like that. However, I wanted to try out the Versafilter that I constructed a few weeks ago. Based on its specs, I believed it would be up to the task of quickly clearing the water as I moved substrate in and out with my main tank filter turned off. I was correct.

I filled each of the Versafilter’s four bottles with polyfill and capped the ends with cut-to-fit pond filter sponge, which has a nice density. At first, I tried to run the filter horizontally (completely in-line with the pump such that the connection utilized a single short length of hose). However, the filter assembly was more buoyant than I expected, which was surprising because I tested it and don’t recall it being so buoyant. It really wanted to float, even when full of water. In any case, realizing that a horizontal implementation wasn’t going to work, I had to modify it such that the filter assembly stood upright and the hose connections formed a “U” shape between the filter and the pump. Since this was being used in a 75g, I used the tank’s top cross brace as a way to hold the assembly down with the help of a spring clamp.

This worked really well, with one exception. The pump I paired it with, as mentioned in the earlier post about the Versafilter, was a Sicce Synchra 3.5. I did this for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted a high flow rate because I wanted the water cleared relatively quickly. Second, the four bottle concept means, in theory, that you’re splitting the intake power into fourths. Think of it like using your normal vacuum cleaner but having four hoses instead of one. To ensure that each bottle was drawing water at a good flow rate, a powerful pump was necessary. However, the 3.5 turned out to be a bit too much, based on the outflow. It didn’t turn the tank into a whirlpool, but it was close. Nonetheless, the experiment worked and the fish, all 16 of them (cichlids, dithers, and a couple of catfish), seemed none worse for the wear.

Julidochromis transcriptus

PictureJulidochromis transcriptus. Photo from www.photodom.com.

Julidochromis transcriptus are an attractive little fish from Lake Tanganyika that are very inquisitive by nature. Known as the masked Julie because of the stripe around the eyes, these torpedo-shaped cichlids are sexually dimorphic (adult females are larger than adult males) and are considered dwarves within the hobby, with adult females reaching a TL of ~4″. Transcriptus Julies are bottom dwellers, preferring rocks and crevices over open spaces in their natural habitat. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the transcriptus I used to have, but the photo at left strongly resembles mine.

Several years ago, I kept two or three females and a couple of males in a 40g breeder. Residing with them was a breeding pair of shell dwelling Neolamprologus ocellatus. I had a black sand substrate with lots of rocks, slate, some apple snail shells, and a few artificial plants. The Julies naturally kept to the rocks and basically claimed territory on one end of the tank.

After a few months, I noticed a tiny black speck moving between a couple of rocks. The Julies had spawned! Pretty soon, I noticed a few more fry. Eventually, I counted more than a dozen. Since I didn’t plan to breed them, I had no specific plan in place if they spawned. In other words, I had not planned to separate the fry from the parents, so I just left them alone. I figured they would get eaten and I would just net and sell those that didn’t get eaten to my LFS for store credit. I went on to breed them several times.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t long after the Julies spawned that I noticed some movement around one of the shells. Wrigglers! The pair of shellies had spawned also. I now had two genera with fry in the same tank, which is typically an extremely dangerous situation for all tank occupants. However, everything was reasonably harmonious. It didn’t hurt that the ocellatus home shell was a couple of inches from the opposite end of the tank from where the transcriptus had set up shop. Sure, there were occasions when one of the transcriptus would venture too near the ocellatus shell, but a quick rebuke by the female would send all trespassers scurrying back to the rocks in the other direction. Neither of the adult shellies explored far from the end of the tank, at least when I was watching, so squabbles with the julies were infrequent. In fact, I never noticed much conspecific aggression among the Julies either.

J. transcriptus are beautiful, sneaky (I call them slinky) cichlids that will cling closely to rocks and outcrops. They will disappear within crevices and reappear somewhere else while you’re watching. They appear to move effortlessly as they are very fluid gliding around and investigating their surroundings. As far as cichlids go, they’re easy to keep, aren’t overly aggressive, and are readily available in most LFSs. Many websites describe them as highly aggressive. My experience differed. Personally, I think they are a great species for cichlid beginners but are also equally enjoyable for more seasoned keepers.

For more information about J. transcriptus (water parameters, diet, etc.), this site seems to be the most comprehensive. I won’t vouch for the accuracy of all the information, but a quick scan of the content seems it’s pretty spot on.

Just in case vs. Just in time

How would you characterize your philosophy on fish keeping supplies? If you’re familiar with supply chain management, you’re familiar with the two philosophies – Just in Case (JIC) and Just in Time (JIT). If you’re not sure, just check your inventory of fish supplies. How much media do you have – mechanical, bio, and chemical? What about hoses, clamps, suction cups, connectors? Have a spare filter lying around? How about heaters? What’s your PVC plumbing supply look like?

If you answered each of these while nodding your head “yes,” then you’re either in the JIC camp, or you’ve scaled back your operation and all those things listed are what you have remaining from the tanks you’ve taken down. If you don’t have many or any of those things in your supply closet or storage bins, you’ve either just begun in the hobby, you maintain only one or two tanks, or you’re a JIT person.

Neither is right or wrong because your philosophy depends on your budget, your proximity to a pet store/fish store, your aversion to risk, and other factors.

I am a JIC guy, no question. In fact, I keep a spare of everything, including tanks. Actually, this philosophy applies to more than just my involvement in the hobby. I keep lots of other things just in case I need them, which I will characterize as “extras.” It could also be that I’m a bit OCD about having what I need when I need it.

Introducing the Versafilter

If you’re like me, you’re always thinking of new, novel, and efficient ways to accomplish something related to your tank maintenance. A few months ago, I redid one of my tanks to house dwarf Tanganyikans. I wanted to change the substrate but not all of it. I subsequently replaced 1/3 of the gravel with sand. I thus emptied about 20 pounds of the gravel and replaced it with fine white sand. Once complete, I liked the look, but the more I thought about what I was wanting to do with the tank over the long term, the more I realized this mixed substrate was a bit impractical.

Typically, when you make any kind of substrate change, you will stir up a lot particulate. This is okay except that you really only have two options with respect to clearing that particulate (unless you do a HUGE water change) – you wait for it to settle or you let your filter(s) do the work. The problem with the former is the time it can take. The problem with the latter is that you probably should replace the filter media you’re currently using with floss and/or other mechanical filtration. Choosing the filter option is fine, unless you’re running a canister and you don’t want to break it down to replace what you have in it. This was the case for me. I didn’t want to replace what was already in my canister just to clear the water. Replacing media in a HOB or sump is a little less problematic because both are more easily accessible.

In a previous post, I showed a small internal filter that I built to add some water polishing or additional filtering capability to my canister. As I continued to think about replacing all my gravel with sand, I realized this small internal would take a while to completely eliminate the particulate and return the water to the sparkling clear condition it was in. This made me think about a way to build on that small filter and construct something that would clear the water really quickly.

Thus, several criteria were required for this new filter.

  1. It had to be reasonably compact so it could be used in a variety of tank sizes.
  2. It had to be versatile to not only accommodate several media types but accommodate all of them concurrently. In other words, it had to be multifunctional.
  3. It had to be easy to change whatever media is being used.
  4. It had to be capable of handling a high flow rate.
  5. It had to be easy to clean.

Mission accomplished! I call it the Versafilter. A good, high flow rate pump will maximize its capabilities. I’m using a Sicce Syncra 3.5 with a listed 660 gph flow rate. Contact me for dimensions and/or questions about its construction.


Four bottle, internal filter side view. Photo courtesy of the author.


Four bottle, internal filter top view. Photo courtesy of the author.


Four bottle, internal filter bottom view. Photo courtesy of the author.

Keep it down!

PictureImage from http://www.iconshut.com/

Stop what you’re doing for just a minute and listen to all the sounds around you. Even if you’re reading this from home with no television or music in the background, you probably still hear the hum of a refrigerator, your computer’s fan, or air blowing from your air conditioner or heater. You probably hear SOMETHING. Now imagine for a minute that you hear that sound 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Think about the sounds your fish experience all day everyday, such as the vibration of the filter, especially if it’s a HOB filter  or an external canister filter. If you have an airstone,  imagine the constant sound of the bubbles. If you have a powerhead, imagine the constant hum of the pump. In a closed environment, resonance is typically greater than in open space due to sound wave reverberation.

Freshwater biotopes from which many cichlids originate aren’t devoid of sound, e.g., waves crashing on shore in Lake Malawi, the current moving through rocks, surface noise from winds. There are lots of natural sounds in freshwater environments. However, most cichlids in the hobby aren’t wild caught. They’re domestically bred in closed systems, typically tanks or small ponds. Thus, anthropogenic (man made) sounds are ubiquitous. They’re also controllable.  Aquarium housed fish typically endure enough stressors without needlessly adding more. Yes, fish can be adversely affected by noise, including damage to their ears. Thus, it’s not a bad idea to be cognizant of how you might be impacting your fish by the choices you make for their environment.

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 Wisegeek.com.

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 – http://www.plantedaquariumcentral.com/
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 http://fishkeepingadvice.com/feeding/.

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 Oscarfish.com 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.