The World's Most Trusted Source of Information About the Fascinating World of Fish keeping

Jump to Site Navigation


Keeping Altolamprologus Species

by TFH Magazine on August 24, 2012 at 11:12 am

Altolamprologus compressiceps. Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir.

By Chad Christensen

Altolamprologus calvus and A. compressiceps hail from Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. The genus Altolamprologus is limited to these two species. They belong to the family Cichlidae, which has an astounding number of described species worldwide, with many still undescribed and countless varieties and subspecies.

A Complicated History

A. compressiceps was originally described as Lamprologus compressiceps in 1898 by Boulenger. Originally thought to be only one species, it was observed by Pierre Brichard on a 1975 collecting trip that there were some variations in collected “compressiceps.” In 1977, after placing two fish of equal length in a collecting bucket, Brichard realized that he was dealing with two distinct body shapes. He provided Poll with a sufficient supply of speciments and further analysis revealed several more differences which supported the creation of a second closely related species, calvus, in 1978 by Poll. The Latin word “calvus,” meaning bald, was a suitable species name, because, when compared to compressiceps, the calvus lacked scales on the upper portions of the head.

The genus Lamprologus was revised by J. Colombe and R. Allgayer, though Poll later rejected two of three genera and created and redefined the Lamprologus genus. At that time he also erected the genus Altolamprologus for calvus and compressiceps. Most other Lamprologus species ended up lumped into the grab-bag genus Neolamprologus. Dr. Paul Loiselle notes that both studies focus on superficial characteristics and he, and many others, see little value in adopting the name conventions proposed in these destabilizing nomenclature studies until modern methods can verify their validity.

Genus break up and reclassification is a constant game and has been the cause of more than one stern discussion. Remember the ongoing Cichlasoma reclassifications? All the hobbyist can do is be aware of the proposed changes, accepting them gracefully, and realize that a particular fish by any other name is still a fish…the same fish.

Altolamprologus Basics

A. calvus and A. compressiceps share the same basic body shape. They have high bodies and are quite laterally compressed, hence the original species designation of compressiceps. This lateral compression greatly enhances the ability to pick invertebrates and other edibles from the tiniest crevice. Also documented in this genus is the ability to rotate the eyeballs to a nearly 90° angle with the normal plane, allowing these fish to slowly scrutinize the crevices where they might encounter their next meal.

The compressed body shape not only enhances the ability to forage, but permits defensive concealment. Fitting into small crevices is advantageous in avoiding predation. When these fish lodge themselves in these small places, they tense their bodies in such a manner that spiny fins and scales lock them into place and it is nearly impossible for a predator to pull them backwards out of their cover. When confronted by an aggressor, a similar defense is often invoked in open water. The fish turns sideways and curls away from the bite of the aggressor, thus providing a less vital, scale-flared flank as a target. This is apparent in the aquarium when an over enthusiastic male bullies a smaller female.

The two species can usually be distinguished from each other with very little scrutiny. A. compressiceps has a noticeably higher neck/back when compared to A. calvus. A. compressiceps also has a more upturned mouth, giving their head a shorter, meaner, more pug-like appearance. Both calvus and compressiceps come in a variety of flavors. The color variety depends on the geographical location from which they were collected.

A. calvus (pictured) features a shorter neck than A. compressiceps. Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir.

It should be noted that calvus and compressiceps do inhabit the same areas and, to my knowledge, no naturally occurring hybridization has been reported or theorized, though this will occur in the extremely unnatural environment of the aquarium. Some color varieties and geographical varieties of A. calvus include the blacks from Cape Chipimbi, Zambia, and from Zaire (now Congo). Yellows come from various Zambian locations, including Nangu Island, Nkamba Bay, and Chilange Rocks, and whites come from Cape Chaitika, Zambia. Some varieties of A. compressiceps include oranges/golds from Cape Chaitika, Zambia and Kigoma, Tanzania, red-fin varieties from Tanzania, and four gold head varities from Malasa Island, Tanzania, Kalambo, Muzi, Tanzania, and the rarer Mutondwe Island, Zambia, which is the only described compressiceps variety to exhibit blue in the fins.

Altolamprologus species come in a number of different color varieties. Photograph by Mark Smith.

Both species have a maximum size of a little over 6 inches for males and 4 inches for females. One noteworthy exception is the dwarf Altolamprologus—one from Sumba Bay, Zambia, and another from Mbita Island, Zambia. These fish may reach only about 3 inches in adult males with the females smaller still.

The species of Altolamprologus, like many other Tanganyikan species, are slow to sexually mature, and they are also an extremely slow-growing fish. Fry of a captive spawn may only reach 5/8 inch in three month’s time 2 inches in a year, and it may take as long as two to three years for the fish to sexually mature, depending on conditions. With this said, it should be no surprise that there is a large difference in price between small fry, larger fry, young adults, and breeding adults. A faster growth rate will be noticed with high quality, a varied diet, and plenty of water changes.

Keeping Altolamprologus Species

Aquarium requirements for Altolamprologus spp. are not unlike those of other Tanganyikan fishes. The extremely hard, alkaline waters of Lake Tanganyika should be simulated in the aquarium. Some people will have local tap water that will suffice, while people from other areas may require chemical manipulation with additives to bolster the mineral content and pH values. The pH of an aquarium housing Tanganyikan species should always be above 7.5, but preferred pH values are between 7.8 and 8.6. It should be noted that ammonia is far more lethal the higher the pH, so great care should be given to providing exceptional biological filtration and regular water changes must be performed.

While hardness is a less critical parameter than pH, achieving water with a medium hardness value or harder is a reasonable goal. Being as Lake Tanganyika is actually so hard that it precipitates calcium, fusing the bounders of the rocky shoreline together, the hobbyist would be hard pressed to provide water that is too hard. Also, the extra hardness provides protection from pH drift and crashes. One important thing to remember is these species are extremely sensitive to chlorine and chloramines, so a suitable dechloraminator should be used.

Lake Tanganyikan cichlids come from exceedingly hard water and therefore require at least medium-hard water in the aquarium. Photograph by MP. & C. Piednoir.

Water temperatures between 76° and 80°F are the best, with 78° proving to be safe medium. Temperatures above 84° are often fatal. The higher the temperature, the more important it is that the water be saturated with oxygen. As the temperature approaches the 84° mark, the fish can and will suffocate if the water is not 100 percent saturated with oxygen. Tanganyikans tolerate temperatures that are too low better than they do ones that are too high. Aquariums will lose heat through evaporation, so they tend to remain several degrees cooler than the room temperature if no other means of heat are provided (heaters, submersed pumps, etc.). If the aquarium is situated in a room that will remain higher than about 85° for any amount of time, such as a non-air conditioned room or a garage in the summer, action should be taken. One way to aid evaporation and help prevent the tank from overheating is to provide extra water circulation with airstones or have a fan blowing across the surface of the water. Opening up the aquarium hood will aid evaporation, although it’s risky with species with that are known to jump. A. calvus and A. compressiceps are not known to be jumpers, except in possibly extreme cases of interspecies aggression or, of course, when being chased by a net.

Most all types of flake foods are accepted. A varied diet will help keep the fish healthy and condition them for breeding. Meat should be added to the diet—live or frozen brine shrimp, as well as bloodworms, are greedily accepted. Live or frozen baby brine shrimp and crushed flake foods are suitable for fry.

Substrate choices are the usual fare of gravel or sand. Crushed coral is another option which helps to raise and stabilize the water’s pH. If gravel is used, a natural brown or darker color is preferred to give a more natural environment. Sand also makes a wonderfully natural substrate. No matter what substrate is used, it should not be deeper than about one inch because without water circulation, the substrate will harbor anaerobic bacteria. An effort should be made to mix up the substrate after siphoning detritus off its surface during weekly water changes. While plants are not a natural part of these species’ biotope, both live and imitation plants may be employed at the hobbyists’ discretion.

In small aquariums (20 longs or 29-gallon), these fish are best kept in pairs or trios, although many can be grown to sexual maturity together. Once fish begin to breed, male conspecific aggression escalates to the point that all subdominant males must be removed for their own safety. In a fairly large aquarium (75 to 135 gallons), more than one male can sometimes be kept successfully. With any size aquarium, having a variety of caves of rockwork is the key to success. Males are fairly hard on the fames so, room permitting, more than one female should be kept with the male. A 40-gallon breeder or a 55-gallon tank will house a male and several females, as well as the desirable addition of dither and/or target fish.

The importance of having a variety of caves, rockwork, and shells cannot be stressed enough. These fish are shy and skittish. Having more hiding places available will make them feel secure and you will actually see them out and about more than if you had less hiding places. Knowing a safe haven is close by makes them much bolder.

Having plenty of Caves, rock work, and shells will reduce aggression in the aquarium and make the inhabitants bolder. Photograph by Mark Smith.

Spawning Altolamprologus Species

Providing a variety of caves also gives the females a better chance of avoiding unwanted advancements by the males. Again, this is where having more than one female is a help—it divides the male’s aggression between more fish so no one fish is relentlessly harassed. Shells should be provided for the females to spawn in, though they are not required. Females will also spawn in caves, but shells are often used due to the convenience for the hobbyist.

Using an appropriately sized shell is important: If the shell is too small, the female can’t fit into it but it’s too big the female can fit too far into it. If the female gets too far into the shell, she may become stuck and also, the hobbyist doesn’t know when the shell is occupied since the fish enters far enough into the shell that no part of the fish is visible.

Another problem with having too large of a shell has to do with spawning itself. The male may also try to enter the shell, which may not allow the female the much deserved break from aggression. If the male does not enter, and the shell is large enough to allow the female deep access, the male may be unable to fertilize the eggs, since the males often simply release their milt near the shell entrance and both fish fan it in towards the deposited eggs. Even if the eggs do get properly fertilized, there is still the risk that they will perish. The clutch of eggs needs constant circulation of clean, aerated water, which the female usually supplies by fanning the eggs. If the eggs are deposited too far into the shell, well away from the opening, the female may be unable to provide the required circulation, despite her best efforts.

The best size shell is one that the female’s caudal fin is visible when she is nestled as far in the shell as she chooses to go. This lets the male easily fertilize the eggs while she still is, for the most part, out of reach of his aggression. Unlike in a larger shell, she can block the opening with her body to guard the eggs and fry. The clutch is close enough to the shell opening that the female can fan a respectable amount of fresh water across them, and the hobbyist can rest assured that he or she knows where the fish is located at a glance.

That being said, a properly set up aquarium should provide more cover than only shells. Shells will be used for shelter if nothing else is available, but males and females alike prefer a cave of some type for non-breeding shelter. This also makes it easier for the hobbyist to know when spawning has occurred, since a female will only be in the shell if she is guarding a clutch. At least one cave should be provided for each fish and, in addition to that, one shell per female. Males will spawn with any females that are ready, and if enough suitable spawning sites are provided, there will often be more than one female guarding fry at a time. The last reason that shells can be considered the best spawning site is a selfish one for the hobbyist: Shells are an easy vessel from which to gather fry. After females have been in their shell for eight to twelve days, the fry can be harvested for transport to a small grow out tank.

Raising the Fry

When gathering the fry from the shell, care should be taken not to let the fry be out of the water any more than can be helped. One of the easiest ways to remove the fry is to prepare a container with water from the aquarium from which the fry are being removed. A clear specimen container works well for this and has the added benefit that it can be hung on the aquarium, preferably on the inside. Grasp the shell and hold it at or near the water’s surface over the container. Rotate the shell in the proper direction to flush out the water. More than likely, the female will remain in the shell, but this is a minor inconvenience since the fry will flow past her and out into the container. To decrease a mother’s physical stress, however, one should attempt to capture the shell while the female is away. After each flushing the shell should be immediately dunked into the container, allowing the shell to refill with water. Rotate the shell to let the air out if necessary. Again, the shell should be raised to just above the surface and flushed. This can be repeated until no more fry flow from the shell.

At this age, the fry still have the sticky area on their heads which allows them to stick to the cave or shell walls and one will notice as they are flushed out into the container that many of the fry are also stuck to each other in little masses. This also makes fry removal a bit harder, but it is helpful to shake the shell, with some water in it, between dunks to free the fry from the shell wall. One could wait and let the fry develop another four to six days into free-swimming fry, but then the hobbyist runs the risk that the fry will swim out of the shell or be flushed out during a water change—been there, done that. Once removed from the safety of the shell, the miniscule fry can easily fall prey to other aquarium inhabitants, perhaps even to dad. While the fry-eating propensities of parental Altolamprologus spp. have been greatly exaggerated, it should be realized that every fish is different and some fish may graze on their offspring. As a friend once told me, the fish don’t read the books, so experimentation would be the only way to discover each fish’s parental abilities.

There is no doubt that some spawns will be lost before the parents settle down and become better parents, but this is often true for many other species. Most hobbyists will not be willing to risk losing the fry to overly predacious parents and will want to remove the fry before they are free swimming. While I currently follow this line of thinking, I must say that watching a pair of Altolamprologus with a tank full of offspring can be very interesting.

To this regard, I can give an account of a wild-caught pair of A. calvus that I kept many years ago. Fry were allowed to grow to nearly ¾ inch before the parents were removed and no cannibalism was detected. I observed, however, that the movement of the fry on the substrate would elicit an immediate predatory reaction from the adults until the fry was recognized as a son or daughter rather than a tasty little invertebrate hors d’oeuvre, at which time the fry’s life was spared.

If a pair is kept alone, there is the risk of the pair bond breaking down due to over aggression. Again, this is where it is beneficial to have several females to one male. An alternative is to use some type of target fish. Target fish will also double as dither fish, giving the Altolamprologus an added sense of security and keeping them far more active and visible. Species that prefer the upper portions of the water column are preferred since there will be no direct competition for territory. There are many species that would be suitable, including various danios, rainbowfish, and larger varieties of killifish. For the Tanganyikan purist, Lamprichthys tanganicanus killifish would be a good choice. An equally appropriate choice would be a group of Cyprichromis or Paracyprichromis. No matter what species are selected, ensure that they are large enough or quick enough to avoid becoming a meal.

Get Your Own Altolamprologus Tank

Species of the genus Altolamprologus are a real joy in the aquarium and easy to keep. They make a great species tank, but do equally well in a community situation. The unique body shape and interesting behavior make it well worth the effort to acquire and keep them. The only hard part is deciding which one geographical color variety you like the best. Well, okay maybe just two tanks with different varieties. Do I hear three?

Posted in TFH Extras by TFH Magazine on August 24th, 2012 at 11:12 am.

2 comments

Previous Post:   Next Post:

2 Replies

  1. Dave O'Bryant Aug 26th 2012

    I love Altolamprologus, from the beginning of my fish keeping adventure they have always without a single doubt been my favorite fish. No fish is quite as intelligent as the Alto, IMO. Sad thing is they love to jump out of the tank, there goes 3 to 5yrs down the drain waiting for them to mature. So I advise everyone make sure there are no openings at the top of your tank. Trust me!

  2. Dave O'Bryant Aug 26th 2012

    I disagree, they are notorious jumpers, my experience and other breeders experience. As bad as ornatus and flame dorsals from my perception.


Leave a Reply


Back to Top


Back to Top


Back to Top


Site 'Breadcrumb' Navigation:

Back to Top