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Oscars: An Old Favorite

By Ted Judy

The author's wild-caught oscars imported from the Rio Orinoco. Photograph by Ted Judy.

Nine months ago, I decided to get a group of oscars to grow out, which was when I found out that there are not very many in stores, so I ended up buying some wild fish imported from the Orinoco River in Venezuela. They are probably Astronotus ocellatus, but they may also be an undescribed species. They have a lace-like pattern in their fins that is not seen in the tank strain A. ocellatus, and they do not have as much red (which has been developed in tank strains through selective breeding). I have six of them growing up in a 75-gallon tank. I expect to have to reduce the number eventually, and I am hoping to end up with a nice breeding pair. So far the fish are much more shy than the tank-raised oscars I have kept in the past, but they are no less intelligent. I can tell by the way they look at me.

Check out this video of the author’s oscars as they go through their morning routine, and another of them a year later. Be sure to read all about oscar’s in the September 2011 issue of TFH

Posted August 9th, 2011.

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Goin’ Clubbin’

By Ted Judy

I am often asked what I like best about the aquarium hobby.  I suspect that the expected answer is “dwarf cichlids” or “all the cool tetras.”  What I enjoy most about the aquarium hobby, however, is the personal connections I have with other hobbyists.  Almost all of my aqua-friendships began at an aquarium club meeting, workshop or convention.

Let me get out my soapbox…  If you really like the aquarium hobby and want it to stick around forever, you should join your local aquarium society and participate in its events.  If you do not have a local club (I drive 90 miles to participate in one of my local clubs), start one.  If you do not want to start a local club, join a national club.  Why are clubs so important?  They are the ONLY organizations in our hobby that are owned and operated by and for hobbyists.  When you join a club, get selfish about it.  Work for it.  Support it.  Help it grow.  Make it your club.  Take pride in it.  Because, if you do, the club will pay you back with interest.  To steal a famous thought:  I stand on the shoulders of giants… and those giants are all club members generous enough to give me their knowledge for free.

Around my house we joke that my version of “going clubbing” is taking off for a weekend at a club event either locally or somewhere around the country.  I also joke that the aquarium hobby keeps me off the golf course and out of the bars (but my favorite après-club activity involves microbreweries).  I have been fortunate that for some reason people like to hear me talk, and the advancement of digital photography has enabled me to be able to support verbosity with decent imagery.  The result is that I get to go to a lot of club meetings and have had access to a lot of fish that I would not have access to outside of clubs.

So here are some of the species I have been able to work with in this contest that I owe to club connections.  Some were purchased directly from hobbyists, others in auctions, a few were gifts (thank you very much) and some are loans from friends in my local clubs (Poseidon protect them from my aquaritorial mistakes).

Nanochromis teugelsi: this west African dwarf cichlid is uncommon in the hobby.  Wild fish appeared in 2008 on the lists of importers who specialize in west Africa, but they disappeared from those lists after only a few months and we have not seen them since.  I had a few pairs when they first became available, but I was not able to spawn them.  A friend in the Milwaukee Aquarium Society loaned me his wild pair for the contest.

Nanochromis teugelsi.

Melanotaenia sexlineata: this small rainbow from New Guinea is not one that you will probably ever see in a store.  I am not sure why, because it is as easy to breed as any of the other farm-raised rainbows, beautiful, and stays small.  M. sexlineata is a perfect community tank fish.  My fish came from notable rainbow authority Gary Lange when he visited the Milwaukee Aquarium Society to do a talk and donated a bag of these beauties to the club to auction.  No club, no Gary coming to speak, no rainbows to buy…

Rarely seen in stores, Melanotaenia sexlineata can sometimes be obtained through fellow hobbyists.

Chromidotilapia melaniae:   The American Cichlid Association 2004 convention was hosted by the Rocky Mountain Cichlid Association in Denver.  Dr. Anton Lamboj was one of the speakers.  I went to the convention with a few west African cichlids to sell.  At this point in my hobby I was not writing or speaking about fish at all.  Dr. Lamboj bought some of my fish and we became friends.  We started emailing each other about cichlids (and other fish), and did not see each other again until four years later at another club event, the Ohio Cichlid Association’s Cichlid Extravaganza (held each year in November).  Anton invited me to visit him in Austria and then travel to Cameroon in 2009, which I did, and he also helped me obtain C. melaniae while in Austria.  None of this would have happened without the American Cichlid Association.

Chromidotilapia melaniae.

All the killifish I have (and have had) in my fish room: Try to find any killifish other than golden wonder killies at your local store.  There are a few that sell them, but those stores usually get them from a local breeder.  The Wisconsin Area Killifish Organization (yes… WAKO) is one of the most active killifish clubs in the country, and almost all of my killies have come from one WAKO member or another… mostly as gifts or in trade for other fish.

Club members sometimes have killifish they are willing to trade, sell or give away, which is a good thing since killies are a type of fish that are not often found in stores.

Pelvicachromis sp. aff. subocellatus:  Is an Internet forum a club?  In many ways they are.  I run a forum at, which is dedicated to the hobby of dwarf cichlids.  P. sp. aff. subocellatus is a rare cichlid from Nigeria that used to be common in the hobby.  Wild fish only arrive as contaminants in shipments of P. pulcher.  25 years ago this was a common occurrence, but P. pulcher is not exported and frequently anymore, and when they are there are fewer P. sp. aff. subocellatus mixed in.  I have had the species for a few years, but they are line bred from wild fish that arrived in the hobby many years ago.  Over the years the strain has become weaker.  A few months ago a contact on the forum found two fish in a tank of wild kribs at a store near him.  He recognized them immediately and knew that I would want them.  He purchased them and mailed them to me to work into my tank-bred line.

Pelvicachromis sp. aff. subocellatus; Internet forums often allow people to obtain fish that they would not normally be able to obtain.

My latest additions to the fish room came from a trip last weekend to the Columbus Area Fish Enthusiasts convention.  Some of the species were bought from breeders, others in auctions and some were gifts from friends.  I came home with 10 species, including a rare cichlid Aulonocara aquilonium, barbs (Puntius erythromycter, P. bimaculatus), a new danio Danio tinwini, some young catfish (Scleromystax barbatus), a blue-eye rainbow species Pseudomugil ivantsoffi,  some killifish (Aplocheilus panchax, Aphyosemion marmoratum ‘Mundemba’), a very cool yellow form of the new red emperor tetra Inpaichthys sp.  and a dwarf puffer Carinotetraodon travancoricus.  Had I not gone to the club event I may not have found these fish.

The new red emperor tetra Inpaichthys sp.

If you are not involved with a club, give one a try.  A local aquarium society will always provide a lot of value to its members.  National societies are important to the hobby also and need our support.  Many national organizations maintain lists of local chapters or clubs that have members interested in the national club’s focus.  Here are a few clubs and resources that may help you find a local aquarium club:

The Meeting Place page in Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine…  Thank you TFH for supporting local clubs with this free service. –  Most clubs has websites now.  A search for your city’s name and “aquarium club” may find it.

Federation of American Aquarium Societies (FAAS) –

American Cichlid Association (ACA) –

American Livebearer Association (ALA) –

American Killifish Association (AKA)  –

Aquatic Gardeners Association  (AGA) –

International Betta Congress (IBC) –

Midwest Cichlid Association (MCA) –

Posted April 26th, 2010.

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Worth the Wait

By Ted Judy

Mike and I are racing through species trying to see who can get the most to spawn in a year.  I do not want to give the impression that this is the normal work rate we have in our fish rooms.  We are testing ourselves, in a sense, and I am a little surprised at how many species I have spawned so far.  My personal best for a calendar year, before this contest, was 42 species.  I blew by that threshold and will possibly hit 70 species within the first six months.  I came into the contest with the goal of spawning 100 species.  Knock on wood… barring a disaster I think I should raise that bar.  But that is not what this blog entry is about…

A reader sent a question to TFH a few weeks ago asking how Mike and I obtain all these adult fish in order to be able to spawn them right away.  The reader described how he gets young fish, grows them up and then induces them to breed; and in this way works with only a few species each year.  That is how Mike and I do it too.  In fact, that is how I prefer to raise and breed fish.  I usually obtain fry from other breeders.  Sometimes growing them up takes a long time, and even when the fish are mature there is no guarantee that they will breed.  The longer the wait the greater the reward, especially when the reward is how good it feels when the fish produce fry.

A breakthrough spawn occurred in my fish room last week that illustrates the importance of patience very well.  Actually, the spawning took place almost a month ago, but the fish are mouth brooding cichlids and it took almost close to a month before the fry became free swimming.  The species is Chromidotilapia melaniae, which is a medium-sized cichlid from the West African nation of Gabon.  They are very rare in the USA hobby, and to get them I had to travel to… Austria.

Chromidotilapia melaniae.

Chromidotilapia melaniae.

There are two species of this genus that are relatively common in the United States:  C. guntheri guntheri and C. guntheri  loennbergi. There are actually twelve described species in the genus.  The most common, C. guntheri guntheri, is found across a wide range in West Africa (C. g. loennbergi is isolated to one lake in Cameroon).  Most of the others come from Gabon, which is a country without a tropical fish export industry.  All we have are what scientists and traveling hobbyists have brought out and bred in captivity.

I had the opportunity to go to Cameroon in 2009, and I was able to collect C. guntheri guntheri and C. linkei.  I traveled to Africa by way of Europe and sent out feelers looking for hobbyists over there with other species of the genus I might arrange to get fry from on my way through.  All I was able to obtain were five very young, unsexable C. melaniae from the Vienna Zoo.  And I was only able to get those due to the generosity of Dr. Anton Lamboj, my host in Austria, who had gifted the cichlids to the zoo in the first place.

All five fish made it home at the end of February, 2009.  They grew fast and I was able to determine in just a few months that there were two males and three females.  They started courting behavior in July, but I was getting nervous in early September when they had not yet spawned.  The C. linkei pair I made it home with never even started to court, and eventually the female killed the male.  Every day that went by without a C. melaniae spawn became torture.  I was really worried that something bad would happen and another species I waited so long to get, literally traveling across the globe to get, would also be lost.

Getting his C. melaniae to spawn required a great deal of patience.

Getting his C. melaniae to spawn required a great deal of patience.

In November the larger male and female finally spawned for the first time.  The eggs are laid on the inside wall of a half of a large coconut shell.  The eggs hatched after a couple days and the male picked up the larvae to brood them in his mouth.  Two days later there was no sign of the spawn.  I was frustrated, but having a first spawn fail is pretty common.  A few weeks later the pair spawned again.

This time I was very careful not to disturb the tank.  I left the lights off, covered ¾ of the front of the tank with paper and fed very little.  After two weeks I started turning on the tank light for a few hours each day, and in the third week I removed the paper and started to watch the pair.  The male held the larvae most of the time, but I did see the female holding on two occasions.  I never witnessed an exchange between them.  Interestingly, the male would act aggressively towards the other cichlids in the tank even when he had all the larvae in his mouth.  Most mouth brooders try to keep a low profile when they are raising fry.

The first time I noticed the fry free swimming outside their parents’ mouths was on day 20 post spawn.  There are about 20 of them.  The parents will pick them back up at any sign of danger, which includes me trying to look closely into the tank.

A happy family at last.

A happy family at last.

My experience with C. melaniae is much more typical than the purchase and spawn fast-paced pattern that has been the norm for most of the fish I have reported in this breeding contest.  But this cichlid spawn is probably one of the most important in my fish room in the past few years, if not ever.  This is one rare cichlid in the hobby.  And it is well worth the wait.

Posted January 13th, 2010.

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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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