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Colony-breeding Cichlids Finally Come Through

By Ted Judy

Twenty years ago I kept and bred a lot of Lake Malawi cichlids.  It is hard to beat the riot of color in a well-stocked Malawi community.  Matthew (my 7-year-old fish fanatic in the making) discovered this colorful genre about a year ago, and has been slowly taking over tank space in the house ever since.  We are up to three Malawi community tanks: a 42-gallon bow front in Matthew’s room, a 55-gallon in the family room, and a 40-gallon breeder in the fish room.  I decided to take advantage of these three tanks for the contest by converting the tanks from purely aesthetic communities into breeding colonies.

What is the difference between a community and a breeding colony?  A community can be any mix of fish regardless of sex ratio, age and compatibility (though I would hope they all can get along).  A breeding colony is a group of fish set up to encourage breeding.  There is some cross over.  Purists and serious breeders will usually set up single-species colonies with only one or two males and many females.  These large colonies will usually produce a lot of fry, but only of one species.  Matthew and I chose to sacrifice large numbers of fry in hopes of getting multiple species to breed in the same tank.

The trick is to set up groups of fish that are compatible, but are not so similar that hybridization is likely to occur.  Luckily there are so many different Lake Malawi cichlids that finding a good mix is not too hard to do.  The two main breeding tanks are the 42-gallon bow front and the 55-gallon.  The 40-breeder in the fish room has one species old enough to spawn (Labeotropheus trewavasae “Mphanga”) and a bunch of young fish that are growing up to be the next groups to go into the spawning tanks.

Labeotropheus trewavasae Mphanga.

Labeotropheus trewavasae "Mphanga."

The 42-gallon tank has a quad (one male  and three females) of adult Aulonacara stuartgranti ‘Ngara’ peacocks, a trio of Metriaclima sp. “white top Hara” and a trio of the electric blue “johanni” Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos.  We had to get rid of a few single males of different species and find some females to fill out the colonies.  We also added a lot more hiding places, which we did very inexpensively by asking the local plant nursery for any large damaged flower pots.  Matthew is very good at getting free broken pots, which we broke more until they would fit in the tank.  A big pile of the curving terra cotta pieces is perfect for these cichlids.

Aulonacara stuartgranti Ngara.

Aulonacara stuartgranti "Ngara."

The 55-gallon has a quad of large  OB Labeotropheus fuellebourni, a group of eight (two males, six females) Metriaclima sp. “Msobo,” and a trio of Pseudotropheus sp. “red cheek.”  I am a little concerned about hybridization between the Pseudotropheus and Metriaclima, but I have not seen any evidence of it happening.  In my experience, if there are suitable mates of the same species for all the fish in the tank hybrid breeding rarely occurs.  I will hope for the best and pay careful attention to the fry.

Labeotropheus fuellebourni; offering a suitable number of mates of the same species is often a good way to prevent hybridization.

Labeotropheus fuellebourni; offering a suitable number of mates of the same species is often a good way to prevent hybridization.

Metriaclima sp. Msobo; pay careful attention to the colors and patterns on the fry to check that hybridization has not occurred.

Metriaclima sp. "Msobo"; pay careful attention to the colors and patterns on the fry to check that hybridization has not occurred.

The colonies were set up before the contest started, but we only had one species spawn right away: Metriaclima sp. “Msobo.”  Nothing else spawned in the next two months.  I started feeding more heavily and doing large water changes more frequently.  Once every two weeks I would do a really large water change followed by a 4-day fast.  Sometimes the lack of the diversion of food will trigger fish to spawn.  The weather started to get cooler, and that is not conducive to getting Malawi fish to breed, so I was worried that I would not see any success until spring.  So the first week of December I added a big heater to each tank and jumped the temperature up to 82F in hopes of heading off a winter lull.  I normally do not keep my tanks much above 74F.  I believe that cooler water is better for the health of the fish (assuming the fish are not ‘hot water’ species).  I also went out onto my local club’s forum and asked for advice.  Everyone said to split the communities up and go back to one species per tank.

I was about to do that when everything started to spawn.  Within three days we had holding females of the L. trewavasae “Mphanga,” L. feullebourni, A. stuartgranti “Ngara,” Melanochromis cyaneorhabdos, and Metriaclima sp. “white top Hara.”  Five out of seven is not bad, and since the M. sp. “Msobo” spawned early in the competition we are left with only one species of breeding-age Malawi cichlid to spawn.

The plan now is to rotate the species that have spawned out and new species in.  Matthew is excited… he LOVES to shop for fish (the apple does not fall far from the tree).

Posted January 5th, 2010.

4 comments

Preparing the Fishroom

By Mike Hellweg

When Ted first approached me with the idea for this contest, I jumped at the chance to help promote my favorite part of the hobby, breeding fish.  I knew I would have to step up my game a bit (Ted is a fierce competitor!), but that also would require some modifications to my fishroom.

First, I needed to have a place for all of the fry to grow out.  After all, if I was going to participate in this contest, I would also want to support my own club (the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc. [MASI]) in our Breeders Award Program (BAP).  But that would mean holding the fry for 60 days.  I know, our contest rules include growing them out to 30 days, which is generally the safe point from which you know the fry will survive, but my club requires them to be at least 60 days old.  That means I have to tie up tanks for twice as long as Ted.  But it also means my fry will be closer to saleable size when I turn them in, so I can get them to local shops at this time, too.

I know some readers will want to know more about my fishroom.  It is approximately 12 feet by 14 feet.  In the walls and ceiling I installed R-30 insulation to cut down on heating and cooling costs.  It is heated and cooled with our home’s central air and heating.  This means I don’t have to worry too much about temperature control in individual tanks.  For electrical supply in the room, I added three extra ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI)  protected circuits just for the fishroom.  One is on a timer and runs the lights, another is on all the time and is for any extra filters/heaters that I might need, and the third is extra, in case I want to run something extra at some point.  All of the tanks are filtered with air driven sponge filters powered by a linear piston air pump, and all of them contain live plants.

All of the tanks are drilled with overflows that go to a floor drain, so water changes are easy;  I just run a hose from my 220 gallon water holding system to each tank for a few minutes and let the old water flow into the drain.  This system consists of four 55 gallon drums plumbed together.  The water is treated, heated, aerated and circulated between the drums until needed.  If a tank needs a bit more cleaning, I can drain individual tanks into a line that runs around the room and goes to the floor drain.  I can also add hang on filters if needed, but I only use these when I need to clean a tank.  Lighting is supplied by power compact florescent lights and by low power consumption commercial shoplights.  To control humidity and prevent mold growth, I also added an exhaust fan that turns on automatically when the room humidity gets above 50%.  This just dumps the humid air to the outside, and pulls in fresh, conditioned air from the rest of the house.

In my fishroom, I have a dozen 30-gallon breeders.  Those are excellent grow out tanks, each will hold dozens or even hundreds of fry, depending on the species.  I can even grow out fry of several species in one tank, if they are compatible in size and temperament.  But even so, that means I can only grow out a dozen or so species at a time.  I need more room.  Fortunately, I have eight more 30-gallon “box” tanks from a local wholesaler that went out of business a few years ago that have just been sitting there, waiting for me to come up with something to do with them.  They are called “box” tanks because they are shaped like a fish box – just a bit larger – two foot square and just under a foot deep.  They are used in the trade to hold a box of fish each.  With their large surface area and shallow depth, they can be stacked four high in the fishroom.  This rack of tanks will only take up 8 square feet of floor space while giving me 32 square feet of tank floor space!  This is perfect for my fishroom, where space is at a premium.  So I begin this month setting up this rack up and starting to get these tanks ready to go.

Mikes newest addition to his fishroom, a rack for more 30-gallon breeder tanks.

Mike's newest addition to his fishroom, a rack for more 30-gallon breeder tanks.

I also started conditioning fish for spawning.  That means tanks for males and tanks for females in many species.  I have a rack that holds 5 x 10 gallon tanks and 8 x 20 gallon “high” tanks that I designed for this purpose.  It will also give me extra room to isolate new fish (every fish, invert, and new plant coming into my fishroom gets at least one month’s quarantine) and rotate extra pairs in case I have to separate fish from the main pairs in the breeding tanks.

With other fish, conditioning just means setting up a tank with proper conditions and feeding them well, while letting nature take its course.  I have a wall of tanks set up just for this – a 30 long, 6 x 29 gallon tanks, 6 x 20 longs, 7 x 10 gallon tanks and 3 x 5 gallon cubes.  These will be used for most of my breeding attempts.

I have a set of extra grow out tanks in case things get out of hand and I get lucky with spawnings.  This consists of 4 x ½ ten gallon tanks (a specially made tank), 5 x 10 gallon tanks, 2 x 20 flats (made from two ten gallon tanks glued together – one with the back out and the other with the front out), and two fifty gallon flats (essentially a 75 gallon tank cut down to a foot deep).  In addition, outside of the fishroom I have setups for larger fish.  I have 7 forty breeders, a 58 breeder, and two 75’s.

A mated pair of Honduran Red Points Amititlania siquia in Mikes fishroom.

A mated pair of Honduran Red Points Amititlania siquia in Mike's fishroom.

Finally, the last group of tanks will be my “secret weapon” that I plan to roll out in month two or month three.  More on that later – I don’t want to give too much away to Ted!

Posted December 30th, 2009.

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Brown, Mean, Expensive and Rare? 1 Dozen, Please!

By Ted Judy

Waiting for fish to spawn and fry to grow is like watching water boil.  It seems to take forever.  This week things are a little slow in the fish room.  The next group of livebearers should be giving birth soon, two more rainbow fish species’ fry are surviving this month (knock on wood) and there are five pairs of characins/cyprinids set up to get some eggs from.  And the waiting is finally over for one of my long-term projects:  Steatocranus gibbiceps.

A buffalo head cichlid Steatocranus gibbiceps

A buffalo head cichlid Steatocranus gibbiceps

S. gibbiceps is one of the buffalo head cichlids from the Congo River.  This is an uncommon import that I purchased almost six months ago and have been waiting for a spawn ever since.  The fish are relatively shy, so waiting for a spawn has been a bit like watching paint dry.  All I really do is feed daily, water change weekly and use a flashlight to check on the fish (and to see if there are eggs in the caves) a couple times each week.  Now that the female is raising a brood they are easier to see, and I have to ask myself, ‘Why do I have this fish?’.  S. gibbiceps is a smaller version on the standard buffalo head, S. casuarius.  The most noticeable difference between the two species, when the fish are young adults, is that the S. casuarius have scales with light edges and dark centers, and S. gibbiceps have scales with dark edges and light centers.  Wow!  Eye popping…  All that color and shy to boot!

Looking around the fish room I can find several other fish that are not going to win many beauty contests.  There are the Poecilia butleri from an obscure river in Mexico.  These mollies are a lovely shade of light gray overlaid on a base of pale white.  The males have a little yellow… very little yellow.  I was gifted some cute little Xiphophurus andersi, one of the true swordtail platies, that is very rare in nature.  Gravid females look like a robust female feeder guppy.  Males have a little curved spike of a tail, but no color to speak off.  Not that you can easily tell, since all they do is hide.

I just picked up two more species of Steatocranus: S. irvinei and S. glaber.  They are still fry and I will probably have them for a year or more before they even consider the opposite sex attractive in a grade school I-slap-you-because-I-like-you kind of way.  The S. irvinei has the reputation of being very, very mean, which is a great compliment to its flat-gray color and potential to grow over a foot in length.

Here’s a beauty!  Xenotoca melanosoma… I am told that when the males of this endangered goodeid livebearer really color up they look like the bluing on a gun barrel.  Apparently the females do not care, because they keep pumping out the babies and the males never seem to have to color up at all.

Why do I have all these fish that are chromatically challenged?  Each species is either a challenge to breed or rare.  The challenge to breed category needs no explanation.  I like a challenge.  Rare is important.  In many cases the species is threatened or endangered in the wild.  Sometimes wild populations are just fine, but they are protected and what we have in the hobby is all we will ever have.  Regardless, it is important to keep, breed and distribute rare fish.  Even though S. gibbiceps is not the most beautiful fish in the Congo River, it deserves a chance to be established in the hobby.  For some species, like the Mexican goodeid livebearers, a chance to stay established in the hobby may be the only chance they have to remain in the world.  So make a little space for the brown, mean and rare (they are not usually very expensive… unless I want them).

Posted December 16th, 2009.

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A Basic Strategy for Spawning Tetras, Barbs and Danios

By Ted Judy

There are many species of tetras, barbs and danios that are not difficult to spawn.  A good rule of thumb to figuring out a species’ difficulty is to compare prices at a fish store.  Fish that are common and inexpensive are most often farm raised and easy to breed.  The poster-fish for this group is the zebra danio Danio rerio.  There are two challenges for the hobbyist breeder when working with these species.  First, collecting the eggs can be impossible if the breeding tank is not set up to catch eggs.  Second, raising the very small fry can be a challenge without the right foods ready when they are needed.

I breed most of the tetras, barbs and danios in 2.5 gallon tank.  When the fish are very small, and lay a lot of eggs, I usually put a lot of yarn mops in the tanks.  After a few days the fish have deposited plenty of eggs in the yarn.  Some will get eaten, but there are enough hidden in the mops to meet my modest requirements (I do not really need or want more than a dozen fry).  Larger species tend to be better at eating their eggs, so I use a false bottom in the tank made from a piece of plastic needle-point mesh cut to fit into the 2.5-gallon tank.  I cut the screen so that it drapes in the bottom.  I use a couple pieces of PVC to hold the plastic off of the glass.

A spawning mops hides the eggs from the parents so they do not get eaten.

A spawning mops hides the eggs from the parents so they do not get eaten.

Creating a false bottom using a screen is another way to separate parents from their eggs, and works best with larger species that tend to eat eggs off the spawning mop.

Creating a false bottom using a screen is another way to separate parents from their eggs, and works best with larger species that tend to eat eggs off the spawning mop.

Once the screen is in place I add plants or yarn as a place for the fish to spawn.  The eggs filter through the plants and then fall through the plastic mesh.  Since the bottom of the tank is bare the eggs easily seen.  After the eggs are laid I remove the fish, screen and pvc.  I leave the plants and add a drop or two of methylene blue.  I cover the top of the tank with a piece of cardboard to block the light.  Most species’ eggs hatch in less than three days, and the fry are ready to eat a day later.

The first food I use is paramecium.  If you do not have a paramecium culture there are products on the market, called fry foods, which are designed to provide small particles for baby fish.  A good supplement to a food product is ‘sponge grunge’.  Squeeze a well established sponge filter into the tank with the fry and some plants.  The microorganisms in the sponge will start a colony that will feed to fry.  After a few days the fry can eat microworms.  One trick I use is to keep my microworm cultures very wet, about the consistency of a thick soup.  The media in the culture contains all different sizes of the nematodes.  When I feed from the culture, I scoop a little of the media onto my finger and swirl it into the tank with the fry.  Yes, it clouds the water… but the fry do not care, and they are getting very small food.

After a week most fry can eat baby brine shrimp and they are off to the races.  With lots of food and frequent water changes they will grow fast.

I have ten 2.5-gallon breeding tanks in my fish room.  From spawn to relocating the fry to a growout tank tanks about 10 – 15 days.  If everything works out perfectly I could breed 20 – 30 species of ‘easy’ tetras, barbs and danios in thirty days.  Plans rarely work out perfectly, however, and I am happy to be successful with 5 – 10 successful spawns each month.

Posted December 8th, 2009.

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Where to put the fry…

By Ted Judy

I am quickly discovering that the limiting factor controlling the number of species that will breed in my fish room this year is tank space.  More specifically, grow out space.  I can set up many species in 2.5 gallon tanks and get eggs within just a couple days.  The fry can stay in the small tanks for quite a while, but I need to move them if I want to use the tanks to spawn something else.  The growing fry get moved to larger tanks, usually 10-gallons, but sometimes into larger tanks where I can mix the babies of different (easily separable) species.  A few weeks ago I hit the wall on tank space.  No more grow out space to move fish into.  So I did what any average fish-addicted hobbyist would do… I built a new rack.

Like most fish room improvement projects the end product usually turns out to be a lot more expensive that what was originally planned.  My intention was to build a rack that would hold up to fifteen 3-5 gallon plastic ‘shoe box’ bins and five 10-gallon tanks.  What SHOULD have cost less than $100 to complete ended up closer to $800.  (Don’t tell my wife!)  Here is what happened…

The initial construction went as planned.  I built a 2×4 rack with dado joints so that the weight of the water is not held by the screws.  Making dado cuts without a radial arm saw is time consuming, but the rack is stronger.  I was able to knock the rack out in two afternoons at a total cost of less than $50.  So far, so good. 

Using dado joints may be time consuming, but it is stronger and will support the weight of an aquarium well.

Using dado joints may be time consuming, but it is stronger and will support the weight of an aquarium well.

I had enough tanks to put a row of 2.5-gallon and 5.5-gallon tanks on top (I had planned to put bins up there, but the glass was empty), and a few older 10-gallon tanks on the bottom row.  I started drilling ports in the air system to run filters in the new tanks and discovered that my 87 Watt linear piston air pump was not up to the job of servicing another two dozen air stones.  That pump is rated for 60 outlets.  Before starting the new rack I was already running 92.  So, in order to continue a new pump HAD to be purchased.  I bought the $435 120 Watt version.  Oh yeah!  Plenty of air now!  (Though the checkbook is a little deflated.)

A 120 watt air pump is used to aerate all of the new tanks.

A 120 watt air pump is used to aerate all of the new tanks.

The plastic bins cost $3 each, and I started with ten.  The size I bought hold about 3 gallons of water, but the surface area to volume ratio is excellent.  Surface area is where oxygen transfer occurs.  The greater the ratio, the better the bin or tank is for raising fry.  A 10-gallon tank has a 20 sq. in./gallon ratio.  My new bins have better than a 50 sq. in/gallon ratio!  That means that with my water change schedule (50% every 2-3 days) I can keep as many fry in a 3-gallon bin as I can in a 10-gallon tank.  Not bad for $3!

The large surface area to volume ratio in the plastic bins is great for fry since it promotes better oxygenation.

The large surface area to volume ratio in the plastic bins is great for fry since it promotes better oxygenation.

I planned to use some sponge filters I have laying around to filter the bins, but discovered that the filters are too tall.  I had to go out and purchase filters with a lower profile.  $5 per filter… that’s another unexpected $50 expense.  (Do I have to count the cost of the fish I bought when I went to get the filters?)

Ten days after buying lumber I finally had the rack up and running.  I immediately transferred the fry from all my 2.5-gallon breeder tanks into bins.  Some of the rainbow fry need heat to grow well early in life, and I realized that a submersible thermostatic aquarium heater is probably a bad idea in a plastic bin.  My room temperature stays in the mid 70’s (F), but I need to keep those ‘bows up in the 80-82F range.

I settled on trying to use commercially available heat cables that are marketed to reptile keepers.  These are rubber-coated wires that do not get hot enough to burn wood or flesh, so they will be safe for plastic.  I wanted to put the wire under the bins so the heat will rise into the water, but placing the weight of the water directly onto the wires is not a good idea.  To create a gap for the wires I placed three strips of 3/8” thick wood slats under the bins.  The wire will run under each bin twice, once in the front and once in the back.  I needed two heat cables, one for each shelf of bins, and a rheostat to control the heat of the cables (in case they get too hot).  Total cost for all that:  about $100.

To avoid having the water crush the cables, the author used pieces of wood on underneath each bin.

To avoid having the water crush the cables, the author used pieces of wood on underneath each bin.

In the end:  $770

  • $50 for lumber and hardware
  • $435 for a new air pump (it really blows!)
  • $25 for air valves, pvc to extend air system, and other ‘air supplies’
  • $30 for the bins
  • $80 for three new 10-gallon tanks with glass tops
  • $50 for filters that fit
  • $100 for heat cables and rheostat

Grow out space so I can continue to rack up spawns and bury Mike:  priceless

I am happy with the new bins.  The fry are growing fast in them.  However, it only took two weeks to end up right back where I started… too many fry and not enough tank space.  I need another rack!

Teds completed DIY fishroom rack, ready to take on more fish!

Ted's completed DIY fishroom rack, ready to take on more fish!

Posted November 30th, 2009.

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Hobbyist Profile: Mike Hellweg

Craig Sernotti

photographs by Mike Hellweg except as noted

Anyone who reads this magazine somewhat regularly will no doubt recognize the name Mike Hellweg. Mike’s writings appear in Tropical Fish Hobbyist and many other publications. He is a lifelong aquarium hobbyist, an expert breeder, and an aquatic horticulturist who shares his knowledge at clubs and conventions. He has one book out now, and a second will be released later this year. It all began with a single goldfish.

Betta channoides in Mike Hellweg's fishroom; unlike the ubiquitous hobby betta B. splendens, B. channoides is a mouthbrooder.

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Posted November 18th, 2009.

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A Little More About Ted

An avid participant in the American Cichlid Association (ACA), Ted Judy has earned a reputation as a skilled fishbreeder and incredibly knowledgeable aquarist who not only enjoys the hobby at home, but has traveled far and wide to see the natural environment of his fish.

Ted's fishroom boasts 65 tanks that are mostly less than 30 gallons, all of which are aquascaped with driftwood and gravel or sand.

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Posted November 18th, 2009.

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Mike vs. Ted: A Breeder’s Challenge (Extended)

This year Ted Judy, in a moment of utter foolishness, challenged Mike Hellweg to a one-on-one fish breeding contest. The rules are simple: spawn fish, raise the fry to an age when they can be safely given to another hobbyist, and repeat. The species that are spawned will be assigned point values based on the system used by the Missouri Aquarium Society, Inc.’s (MASI) Breeders Award Program (BAP), which ranks fish based upon their breeding difficulty.

The contest is to span one year, beginning with the January 2010 issue of TFH and ending with the December 2010 issue. Ted and Mike will submit a spawning report to TFH each month, as well as talk about the strategies, successes, and failures they experience during the competition. Our intrepid breeders will also update a blog at www.tfhmagazine.com/blogs so readers can get more frequent updates on what is going on in Mike’s and Ted’s fishrooms. TFH recently sat down with these master breeders to get some information about the contest, and learn a little more about the contestants:

Continue Reading…

Posted November 18th, 2009.

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