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Friday, April 3, 2009

Breeding of African Cichlids

The Breeding of African Cichlids
by Jon Votraw


1. Introduction
2. Basic topics
3. Advanced topics
4. Comments



Introduction:

Welcome to the wonderful world of breeding African cichlids. I’d first like to start out saying, most of what I’ll be talking about are things that are already known or are in practice for the most part. I don’t want to mislead any reader into thinking this is some new revolutionary discovery. What I’d like to do with this article is take some of the known methods and aspects of African Cichlid breeding, and discuss them in depth as well as go into extra dimensions of the subject.

Basic Topics:

Where to start? How about we first start with sexing? This is one of the subjects that more experienced breeders often use what they have seen through numerous observations in their own stock. Sexing is an important aspect when it comes to breeding for several reasons, but a couple of the bigger points I feel, are that having too many males in one space can be a big problem in the overall health of your stock, and being mislead on the gender of a fish, could have you waiting to see something you won’t be able to see.

A. Sexing:

For the most part, one is going to find over time, the most accurate method of sexing your stock will be venting. In short, you will hold the fish in your hand and look at the underside of the fish, and examine the vent area just above the anal fin and anal pour. The size of the vent will give you a strong indicator of the gender of the fish. I and a few others have written up a basic overview of venting and to assist you with visual input, I’ll link you to that article. Please look on this page.

Sexing/Venting Cichlids

As mentioned above, sexing is something important to do as having too many males in one footprint can lead to fighting and dominance issues among the other males, as well as give you a harder time to determine which females have spawned with which males. If you are trying to rebreed females back with a certain male in hopes to bring out certain traits in your fry, you are likely best only keeping that one male in the tank with the females, and holding the subdominant males in other tanks. However, if you do not know how to sex the fish to begin with, this whole aspect becomes a moot point to discuss. This is just one of many reasons why you would want to sex fish.

When it comes to fish health, stress is a major contributor, among other topics, that can cause poor or degraded health. African Cichlid males really just do not tolerate other males in the same space very well, though, there are some milder aggressive species that don’t seem to exhibit this as much. On this subject, while not directly about sexing itself, it’s important to understand what happens with having multiple males in a tank. Out of a group of males, one male sometimes 2 depending on tank size, will begin to grow stronger and show more brilliant colors. As this male emerges the more dominant of a group, it will become aggressive and assert itself on other males of it’s species, and sometimes other species of similar look. The balance of the other males, will either stay mostly under cover, stay in a corner of the tank, and as well subdue their look to the point you could mistake this fish for a female, or even worse, be unable to cope with the constant stress that a dominant male will exert, and end up dying.

While the first two points deal with for the most part, mouth brooding African cichlids, it is also important for us to consider the aspects of egg laying or substrate spawners too. Knowing how to sex a species like this, while usually dimorphic, is important just as well. While I have no documentation to support this, in my personal observations of Pytchochromis Oligocanthus, in the tank as well as spawning, it does appear very much that substrate spawners of African cichlids imitate or follow much like South Americans in that a pair and bond will form. Sexing a group or species that spawns in the substrate is important to know, as you do not want to try to breed groups like this in the typical harems you breed mouthbrooders in.

B. Tank space


Once you have a grasp on the species you have and how to sex them, you should also be taking into consideration the amount of space you need to keep them. What I find important about this point is there is a difference in many cases, between breeding space, and community space. This subject may end up seeming complex, but it really isn’t. Let’s begin with looking at mouthbrooders, specifically, Mbuna.

Mbuna are for the most part, rather aggressive as a species, with some milder ones mixed in. Males compete for space among the rocks and décor, in the substrate area. Typically a male that is dominant will build or create a nest spawning area in which to lure a female into, for the purposes of spawning. A male will not always make or build a pit as flat surfaces such as slate or other rock types in your tank can be used as well. When a male is courting a female, the area in which he is trying to lure a female into will become a temporary territory in which the male will feel and claim as his, and drive off any other fish, except for females of his species. What I have witnessed in my Mbuna stock, is these area’s are basically temporary. The amount of time or duration it lasts is difficult to say and I have not actually measured the time frame, but at some point after spawning has occurred, males tend to go back to community dwelling boundries.

A male will typical cruise around or patrol a certain area, and the sight of other males when he is around will generally trigger a heightening of the colors, as well as fin flaring, and if the other male does not back down or yield to this male, eventually, either a ramming lip lock fight will ensue, or they may begin to circle each other, similar to a mating circle, but drastically more rapid. There will as well be times in this chase, they break from the chase, and lock lips in a fight of dominance. This is not unusual to see happening in community tanks and with having multiple species as well. Important point to bring up here, is that aggression among males is not at all limited to just within it’s own species, but can just as easily extend into males of similar species too.

When you have multiple males in a tank, as well multiple species, you must try to provide as much space as possible. The smaller the tank is in terms of footprint (Length x Width) the more compressed the area is and there is not as many chances for subdominant males, even females as well, to seek cover and shelter from stronger dominant males. Let me digress off this for one second here to illustrate why this is a problem. Consider your species in their natural habitat. Water chemistry aside, we are just looking at sheer space. Should any weaker or sub dominant male encounter an area where a dominant male has set up, should a weaker male not be able to compete, it can always take flight in such a large area, it would have a much better chance of finding a safe haven then in a tank. In a tank, the area in which a weaker sub dominant male can run to is drastically limited.

With regards to tank footprint, a secondary subject to consider with respect to your stock, is the area’s in a tank your species would tend to occupy. We first started speaking about Mbuna, but we also have many Haplochromies and Peacocks, which do not tend to dwell as much in the substrate area, but rather the middle and upper levels of a tank. While species like these two tend to improve your abilities to intermix more species in your tank, Haps and Peacocks also tend to grow MUCH larger then most Mbuna, and Haps and Peacocks also spawn in the substrate as well, so keep this in mind when you plan to stock up a tank and start breeding.


C. Water Chemistry


This is one topic area that in the internet and even in live practice of the hobby that is a semi big debate. I personally have found and would advise keeping your stock in water conditions that are as close to the natural habitat the fish have evolved from. My logic and reasoning is this. The species you keep, regardless if they are x number of generations removed from it, have evolved from a certain type of water, and evolution itself has clearly demonstrated, changes occur over the course of many 1000’s of years, if not 100’s of thousands. Your fish are genetically modeled out of certain conditions, and while it is possible they can live and maybe thrive in conditions that are not ideal, I feel it’s just irresponsible and lazy of the hobbyist not to make conditions as close as possible. To be more specific about this, let me explain. If you find your tap water is acidic and soft, and you use suppliments to try to raise them but cannot keep it stable, ideally, you may want to consider different stock, such as maybe Kribensis or Blood Jewels, maybe even going with South American type cichlids.

Generally speaking, the major Rift lakes, Victoria, Tangyangika and Malawi are very hard and very alkaline bodies of water. Tangyangika is worth noting that the water in many parts is significantly higher then both Victoria and Malawi, and may require use of suppliments at a higher level. Please see referenced link on the specifics of Tangyangika 1.

"The Chemistry of African Rift Lakes"

It should as well be noted that your stock being kept in waters not matching with the waters they have evolved from can be a contributor to many illnesses and pathogens. For this reason, respect to the conditions of the natural habitat should be given very careful consideration. Your stock could be at a higher susceptibility to pathogens they normally wouldn’t encounter by being kept in conditions different from evolution. The overall health of your fish as well may become poor when kept in less then ideal water chemistry due to poor electrolyte levels, mineralization of the water, among other factors that one can reference via this link also 2.

AQUARIUM GH, KH, Ph, MINERAL CATIONS/ELECTROLYES


D. Stock Selection

While there is no one sure fire method for picking out quality breeding stock, some common things in general that have been found ideal to look for in adults would be as follows.
1. Overall size – Look for males to be much larger then females and males that stand out among other males are likely to be dominant and possess ideal traits for breeding.
2. Colors – A heightening of colors in a community setting is another strong indicator of a dominant male. You would, based on your goal, want to select males that show the brightest and greatest show of colors.
3. Aggression – Aggression in your stock, for the most part is something you want to avoid, but when examining male stock, if you wish more hardy and assertive offspring, the assertiveness of males is something you may wish to promote in your bloodline.
4. Activity – You would want to look for males that are active in a tank, seeking females, building spawning pits, and keeping control over it’s area.


This is not to say these are the only factors you should or can consider. Much of what you might want to look for is totally up to you. It all depends on what your goals are and what you hope to achieve in your species you select. I am just offering some points on what I have picked up on from interacting with other breeders.

Advanced Topics:

Crossbreeding/Hybrids

Another aspect that really isn’t a category at this time is cross breeding. Cross breeding in itself is highly shunned in the African cichlid hobby, in favor of promoting pure bloodlines. A couple members on Everything Aquatic I have spoken with have brought up some valid points I feel worth sharing.3 Keeping a bloodline pure is vital in this hobby as with political unrest in Africa itself along with continued climate change causing endangerment and extinction of pure species in the wild, in my opinion make keeping fish of pure species even more important. As well, one way to help minimize the odds of cross breeding would be to avoid keeping species where females carry a similar look.

It is important again at this point to note, you cannot watch a tank 100% of the time to know just when someone spawned and with how. Sometimes you are fortunate enough to see a spawn occur which is beneficial in terms of avoiding crossbreeding, but if you find a female to be holding down the road, and didn’t see the spawn, you can detect if the offspring are hybrids by examining your offspring as they grow.

I feel yet another key point to bring up on this topic, is the view and definition of what a hybrid is, seems to be unclear in some circles. For this document’s purposes, we shall say that a hybrid or cross breed is of two fish which are NOT of the same species. I have read topics in other forums to the point that numerous European breeders of African cichlids are under the impression that line breeding or selective breeding to improve color varients of a species is hybridization. I understand the point and logic, but I do not agree with this being cross breeding nor are they hybrids.


Stripping vs. Isolation

Let’s assume that you have selected a species you want to breed, you have the right ratio’s, the proper tank size and water chemistry, and all is going well. You either see a spawn occur, or you find your female to be holding a brood. Now what do you do? Well there are 2 methods that we will discuss on what courses of action you could take.


1. Stripping a holding female


In order to perform this action, you are going to need an egg tumbler set up, and this process is by far, not a simple process, which I would advise some patience, as well as extended research beyond this document. In short, stripping a holding female involves netting up the holding female, having a bowl or small tank filled and ready, holding the female in one hand, while prying open the mouth with the other. This forces out the eggs or fry, depending on how far along the female is in the process. If you catch a female early in the process and they are still eggs, or half egg, half fish, you will want to place them in the tumbler to finish the incubation process. If the fry are already hatched and free swimming, then you would want to isolate the fry into their own tank.

There are two reasons why I personally do not like this process, but it is a valid procedure you can do. First is that this process is very stressful, and can result in fry loss, as well as physical injury to the mother as well. Secondly, again mentioned to me by one of the Everything Aquatic members, is that stripping a female, especially a young female in her first or second spawn, is likely to cause her to lose the innate sense to carry a brood to term. Thus, stripping a female early in her life, is going to likely cause you to have to strip her each and every time she spawns, and in my opinion, creates much more work for you then just isolating her.

2. Isolation

This is the process by which you identify a female holding a brood, and wait about 10-14 days, and move her to a tank by herself. It’s very simple in concept, not requiring much explanation. There is a few things to mention about this. One is that unless you know when, within a few days, the female spawned, you may find you net the female too early. Females in their first few spawns often panic during the netting process and have a high probability of spitting the brood out when in the net. I have had this happen to myself a few times, a few times, the spawn was not incubated fully. I would advise having an egg tumbler handy just in case the female panics.

Another point to discuss about this, is that the advantage I feel to doing this, is you are able to keep the mother isolated and allowing her to recover from holding the brood. Keep in mind, these females have gone over 2 weeks with no food. If you do not isolate a female that has held to term, and allow her to stay in the breeding tank where the male(s) are, you run a risk a male may force her to spawn again too soon, potentially resulting in the death of the female. Isolation allows you to provide some much needed recovery time for the female.


Aggression

For the most part, males are the larger, more active, and highly aggressive between male or female, though there are cases where you can have an aggressive female. Generally, males will fight/challenge other males in a tank on sight, such that in a group setting where there is multiple males of one species present, you generally get one male of the group showing the brightest most distinct of coloration, much larger then the others, and more assertive of the others. This is what many hobbyists have come to know as the dominant male. The degree of aggression you find among dominant and sub-dominant males varies by species, as well as tank size.

We consider tank size in this case, as we compare these same males in a natural habitat, should a dominant male be too assertive against a weaker sub-dominant male, that sub-dominant male would likely seek out a new area to occupy. In a tank, the space itself is limited by glass, and prevents weaker males from escaping a region a dominant male would claim. Caution should be taken when housing multiple males, so make sure you research the aggression levels of the species. Keep in mind, the space that 4 foot or 6 foot tank APPEARS to offer, really is small by comparison to a natural habitat. This is one of the main reasons I do advise, if at all possible when it comes to Africans, to house 1 male of the species only. As you gain experience with keeping your species, you might find yourself in a better position to try introducing more males into your mix.


Comments

As of now, this concludes my introductory document on the breeding of African cichlids. This is not to claim, state, or propose that this is ALL there is to it. There are numerous other sub topics as well as other issues that other keepers may feel would make a great category to discuss and present. For this reason, I am leaving open the comment section to allow for other users to provide constructive criticism as well as offer suggestions and improvements to this document. It is intended to be a basic tool for a beginner in African cichlid breeding. Input is always welcomed, but please mind tone and be respectful. I thank you for your time and attention, and is my hope, this document will evolve with additional input to be more encompassing of this subject, such to offer a beginner all the information they would need.

Footnotes:

1. Search engine reference provided by Carl R. Strohmeyer via email, March 5, 2009, source listed in main body.
2. American Aquarium Products research library, written by Carl R. Strohmeyer
3. Referenced individuals are Everything Aquatic members, Barbara, Brenda, 8 in the Corner, over various e-mail and online chat discussions.

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Recommended Reading:
For an article that addresses the misinformation most internet searches result in for a search of: Aquarium Planaria, Worms

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