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Cichlids and Swords

Ted Judy's 75-gallon tank featuring cichlids and swordtails. Photograph by Ted Judy.

Many Mexican and Central American cichlids share their habitats with various species of swordtails. Many hobbyists think the combination is either difficult or impossible to replicate in captivity—and it certainly doesn’t help that many cichlid fans see swordtails as live food!

In the November issue’s “Cichlid World” column, Ted Judy showcases his aquarium that proves the combination can not only work, but work well He makes several key points that are critical to success, including that the cichlid species must not be overly aggressive, large, or a known piscivore. It is also wise to include only adult swords that are not much smaller than the cichlids. Providing plenty of room and hiding places is also a must.

In this  particular tank, the swift current is also a critical feature that is easily noticed due to the sideswept substrate and blowing plants. The current was added because the fish come from a well-oxygenated riverine habitat, but it provides the added bonus of allowing the fish to exercise naturally and to expend extra energy. On the downside, the female swordtails must be rotated out of the tank to give birth both because of the fast current and so the fry can escape hungry cichlids.

So the next time you are considering what to put in with your cichlids, try thinking about swordtails—they are not simply feeder fish!

Posted September 30th, 2011.

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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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An Easier Fishroom

By Ted Judy

With so many tanks in his fishroom, Ted needs to be able to spend less time doing water changes.

When people visit my fishroom one of the questions that usually comes up is how I find the time to maintain more than 60 aquariums. My room is small, compared to many, and I do not have a system-wide automated water changing system. I dream of having one someday, but that will not happen until I build the next fishroom and can start from scratch. At the start of this contest I was draining each tank with a siphon and refilling from a 150-gallon aging vat. The system worked pretty well for five years, but recently (ever since I took a real job), what I thought was an easy system suddenly became a burden.

The most time consuming aspect to the drain and refill system is paying attention to water levels. If I drained 150 gallons of water from various tanks in the fishroom it would take me an hour or more just watching the tanks refill. Other problems with my old system were that I could only change 150 gallons in a session, and I had to carefully plan days for changing soft water tanks different from hard water tanks, because I only have one aging vat. All of the aquariums in my house add up to 1541½  gallons of water, so if I wanted to do a 50 percent water change on all the tanks once each week I would have to refill the aging vat five times. If I am using RO (two vats per week on average) it will take about 20 hours to just fill it up (my RO machine makes 180 gallons per day), plus the time to age it.

The total result was that I was spending time in the fishroom every day doing water changes, and since that was not always possible the tanks were sometimes not getting the regular maintenance they needed. When my time became more limited the problem was compounded, and what was an hour or two per day in the fish room became five or six hours two or three days a week. Unacceptable… to my wife.

The solution was to find a way to multitask. If I could figure out a way to walk away from the tanks as they drained and filled I could do other things in the fishroom at the same time. The answer was to start using a combination of old-school and new technologies.

Before the days of drilling tanks aquarists looking to automate their aquariums used a home-made device built from a piece of flexible tubing coiled into two loops called a self-leveling siphon. This apparatus sits at the top of the tank and will automatically drain water in the tank down to a specific level. The siphon itself has a high loop and a low loop. The high loop sits on the edge of the tank with its open end extending into the water a few inches below the level the water will be maintained at. The lower loop sits outside the tank, and the top of this loop is set at the level the water is to be maintained at. An air hole is drilled in the top of the low loop. When the siphon is started the hole is covered and water is allowed to flow through the loops. Once the water is flowing the hole is uncovered and the flow rate slows down, but it will keep flowing until the water in the aquarium is down to the same level as the hole in the top of the lower loop.

A self-leveling siphon.

PVC pipe fittings make the construction of a self-leveling siphon easier and more adaptable. I know aquarists who have installed them on the back side of every tank in the room with the level set at a couple inches below the top rim of the aquarium. All that is needed to change the water is to add new water to the tank that is slightly cooler than the tank water. The cool new water sinks and worm old water exits via the siphon at the top. An automated refill can be set up so that new water runs into the tank for a few hours on a regular schedule (just like an auto change system with a drilled tank would be set up to do). What a lot of self-leveling siphon users do is go around the room with a hose and fill the tanks up to the brim quickly and let the siphon drain it back to the starting level. Both methods take a lot less time to do than draining and refilling.

Unfortunately, the expense and space needed to put a siphon on every tank in my fish room was too much. Instead, I made a siphon that I hooked to the end of a drain hose that I could move from tank to tank and have flow through water changing one tank at a time. This is a compromise that allows me to do other things in the fish room while a tank’s water changes.

The problem of having a limited amount of return water in an aging vat was solved by the use of new technology. Instead of using the aging vat for all the water I filled with I set up a filtration system using household water treatment filters. I set up four canisters inline on a hose that I connect to the faucet. The first canister has a 5 micron sediment filter, the second canister has a 10 micron carbon block, the third a 5 micron carbon block and the last canister has a 1 micron sediment filter (to catch carbon dust and anything that makes it through the first three filters). The filters remove all the chlorine from the tap water. I change the front-end sediment and carbon cartridges once each month and the back-end cartridges every three months.

A tap water filter.

I use this new system to change water in all the tanks that do not need soft water or water that has been aged, which includes about 80 percent of my fishroom. All I do is put the self-leveling siphon on a tank and get it started. Then I run filtered water from the faucet into the tank at a rate of about 1½ gallons per minute (any faster and the siphon cannot keep up). A 10-gallon tank gets a 50 percent water change in about 5 minutes… but I do not have to pay attention to it during the process. I will let the system run on a 75-gallon tank for 20 to 30 minutes. I can still use the system to do changes on soft-water aquariums, but I refill from the RO vat rather than the sink.

The system even works for small fry. I cover the end of the siphon tube with a piece of foam and refill the tank from a larger aquarium above the fry tanks using a piece of airline tubing gravity feed water into the fry tanks. The flow of water is very slow, the temperature is the same as the fry tank and the water is well aged.

I like the new system, but it does not take any less time to do the water changes (water flow is water flow). What it permits me to do is other things at the same time, so my overall time spent in the fish room is reduced. I do not even need to be in the fish room. While writing this blog entry I did 50 percent water changes on three 75-gallon tanks.

Posted October 28th, 2010.

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Quick and Easy Egg Tumbler

By Ted Judy

Egg tumblers are a great way to artificially incubate the eggs of mouthbrooding cichlids.

•    1-inch diameter rigid plastic tube (standard lift tubing),  a 2-inch piece, and a 6- to 8-inch piece
•    2 bull’s-eye pieces from sponge filter frames
•    2 pieces of fish net, cut to 2-inch squares
•    2 submersible heater suction cups with brackets (large enough to hold 1-inch diameter tube)
•    Airline and a source of air

The tumbler does not require too many materials to make.

Building and Using the Tumbler:
1)    Place a piece of net over one side of a bull’s-eye and push the longer piece of plastic tubing over it so it is held tightly in place.

Place the fish netting over the bulls eye from the sponge filter frame.

Push the longer plastic tube over the netting so it is securely held in place.

2)    Slip the heater suction cup brackets around the tubing, and then sink the not-quite-finished tumbler into the aquarium you want the eggs to be incubated in.  Secure the tumbler to the glass of the tank with the suction cups (with the open end up) and push it down until the entire tube is under water.

Put heater suction cup brackets around the tubing.

3)    Place the eggs into the tumbler through the open top.  They will fall to the bottom and rest on the netting.

Place the eggs inside the submerged tumbler.

4)    Hold the second piece of net over one side of the second bull’s-eye and carefully insert it (net side down) into the top of the plastic tube.

Cap the tube keeping the net side down.

5)    Slip the airline from the air source through the smaller piece of plastic tube.  Attach the airline to the center port in the top bull’s-eye, and then push the plastic tube onto the bull’s-eye.

Attach the airline to the center port in the top bull’s-eye, and then push the plastic tube onto the bull’s-eye.

6)    Push the entire tumbler down until the top is just under the surface of the water.
7)    Adjust the air flow to the tumbler to a point where the eggs are just visibly vibrating on the surface of the netting.

Trouble Shooting
•    Keep the number of eggs low in a tumbler.  They should not sit more than 3 to 4 eggs deep on top of the net screen.
•    Check the motion of the eggs and larvae often.  They should move but not rise up into the tube more than 1/8 inch.
•    Dead eggs or larvae should be removed.  Turn off the tumbler, remove the top and suck out the dead with a piece of rigid airline tubing.
•    When the larvae are actively swimming up into the tumbler column it is time to move them to a small aquarium or plastic box.

Posted July 29th, 2010.

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The Importance of Observation

By Ted Judy

Some species of aquarium fish are very well documented in hobby (and scientific) literature, and many, many more are not.  What should you do if published advice is lacking?  Use the power of observation to help figure out what the fish wants and needs.  During the entire process of keeping and trying to breed a fish species, learning from the fish themselves may be the best, if not the only, way to get the clues you will need to be successful.

What do similar species do?

Two species that are in the same genus, or even the same family, will have behavioral similarities.  I have kept and bred several species of mouth-brooding Betta species.  When I first obtained Betta krataios I really had no idea if there was anything special the fish needed, so I set up a dark tank with lots of hiding places and a tangled mix of Anubias sp. plants and yarn.  That is the environment that worked well for other similar species such as B. falx and B. edithae, and it worked well for B. krataios as well.

Betta krataios is very similar to other small mouth-brooding Betta species.

Observe during the quarantine period.

I use the quarantine period to make some initial observations of the fish.  This has proven very useful to me when working with small tetras and barbs.  There are so many different species that even some that are closely related will behave differently enough to suggest using a different strategy when trying to breed them.  For example, there are two very similar dwarf barbs from West Africa that are hard to find information about:  Barbus hulstaerti and B. candens.

Barbus hulstaerti males are aggressive towards each other.

I first bred B. hulstaerti and discovered the hard way that in small tanks the males will kill each other.  I chose to use a pair-breeding strategy using one pair in a 2.5-gallon tank with a lot of tangled plants and yarn.  I was able to get a few eggs from the pair, but not very many because the fish only lays a few eggs each day.  When I first obtained B. candens I suspected that they would be the same, but during quarantine I did not see any fighting.  I spawned them in the same 2.5-gallon set up, but with a group of 8 fish instead of just a pair, and they produced many more eggs and fry than a single pair of B. hulstaerti did.

Barbus candens males will live together peacefully.

Learn the language.

Fish communicate with a combination of color pattern and movement.  An observant aquarist will learn to read some of these signals.  Females of the Pelvicachromis genus of cichlids, for example, have a specific color pattern for each stage of their reproductive cycle.  A courting female looks different than when she is tending eggs, and shows a different pattern when she is guarding free-swimming fry.  Once the language is understood a quick glance at a female krib will tell you if there are eggs or fry in the tank, even if the pair is doing a great job of keeping the babies hidden.

This P. sacrimontis female is showing a neutral color pattern.

This is the same female P. sacrimontis defending her territory from another female, but she has not spawned yet.

The same female again, but this time she is defending a cave full of babies.

Learning the signals a fish gives with color pattern and body posture is also important for the health and conditioning of fish.  Most fish have a stress pattern that they express when they are being bullied or the conditions in the tank are not right.  There visual clues for disease or poor water quality, such as clamped fins or “scratching,” the flicking of the body against the substrate or an object in the tank.  Watching the fish is a part of the fun of keeping them, so a few minutes observing for possible problems should not be a burden.

A short pencil vs. a long memory

They say that memory is the second thing to go.  I have forgotten what the first thing is!  Taking notes is especially useful when solving a problem through the process of elimination.  The first time I worked at breeding neon tetras Paracheirodon innesi I found the eggs difficult to hatch and the fry frustratingly hard to raise.  I played with many different combinations of pH, hardness, temperature, food density and light intensity until I found a combination that worked.  Had I not taken notes down I would have repeated some unsuccessful combinations.

This neon tetra fry survived after many weeks of trial and error figuring out what it takes to keep them alive.

Taking note of dates is important as well.  Livebearing fish have gestation periods, and being able to predict when a female will give birth can prevent babies from being eaten by other fish.  When I put livebearers together to spawn I mark the date on the front of the tank, as well as the date of the first possible day fry could appear.  That way I know when to separate gravid females into birthing tanks.

Let the fish guide you.

Even when there is a lot of information about a species available to read, sometimes the fish will still surprise you.  I have yet to see a fish read the books.  The fish will tell us what they like and do not like.  All we have to do is pay attention and learn to read the signals.

Posted May 21st, 2010.

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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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Yarn is Easy

By Ted Judy

The store clerk says, “You buy a lot of green yarn.”

To which I reply, “I like the color green.”

“A whole 10 bundles worth of green?” she asks.

“Sometimes I buy dark blue.  But only when you are out of green.”

Miss Nosy presses, “You buy all the green.  I think you are the only person who buys it.  Why so much yarn?”

“Mops,” I replied with a look that suggested it is perfectly normal to buy 10 large packages of green acrylic yarn to make mops.

“You make your own mops?”


“There are better mops in housewares.  Thicker.  Made of cotton.  They hold water better.”

“But those are white.  And cotton rots.  And they’re way too big.”

“To0 big for what?”

“Mops.  And it is too hard to see eggs in a white mop.”

She stares at me for a moment, and turns away as she concludes, “Have a nice day, sir.”

Aquatic plants are the egg depositories, nurseries, and fry-food larders in most of the ecosystems from which most of our aquarium fish originate.  In some places the water is shallow and in a sunny place, permitting dense growths of plants all through the habitat.  Other places have deeper or fast flowing water that limits the vegetative cover to the shoreline.  And there are many places, such as deep under the canopies of forests, where there is not enough light to grow plants well.  And yet, even in these light-starved locations there will be enough plant growth to provide fish a place to spawn and the fry a place to start life.

Except in my fish room.  I am notoriously bad at growing aquatic plants.  I have a few forlorn clumps of java moss here, a bit of various water weed there and some ever-present duckweed on one or two tanks.  I try to grow plants.  I rarely return from an auction without a few bags of vegetation.  I will always buy guppy grass Najas sp., overpay for Java moss, and bid competitively for frog bit and water lettuce; but no matter how much I bring home I am in need of more within a couple months.  So I dutifully buy the plants and they dependably fall apart into lovely detritus (decaying plants that many fish love to eat).  Not a perfect system, but it seems to work for me.

Except that adult fish need plants to lay eggs in and their fry need a place to hide and forage for food.  Since I cannot count on having a dense growth of live plants to provide these places, I have learned that the next best thing is yarn.  Yarn mops are the staple for killifish and rainbowfish breeders, but yarn can be used by any fish that lays its eggs in plants.  The trick is in how the yarn is presented, and to get the presentation right it is important understand how the fish use plants.

Egg Placers

Some fish are very specific about where they lay their eggs.  They do not lay many at one time and will carefully choose where to put them.  Killifish and rainbowfish are good examples of these egg placers.  The eggs are adhesive, and they stick where they are laid.  Males will stake out territories in an area where the females are likely to want to lay their eggs.  This might be a particularly dense growth of plants in nature, but in my fish room it is a strategically placed mop of green yarn.  Egg placers can be picky.  Some species prefer to lay their eggs in the middle of the mop, and will work very hard to get themselves as deep into the yarn as possible.  Other species will barely enter the mop at all, and lay their eggs in plain view on the outside of the bundle of yarn.  Sometimes the place where a female lays her eggs is different between individuals.  I have a colony of pygmy rainbowfish Melanotaenia pygmaea, and some of the females choose the very top of the mop and others prefer the very bottom.

Egg placers like rainbow fish and killifish will readily use a yarn mop.

I was surprised to learn that some species of Corydoras catfish will deposit eggs in a yarn mop.  Cories are one of the most deliberate of all egg placers.  The female will carry a few eggs between her ventral fins, clean a site with her barbels and then meticulously place her very sticky eggs on that spot.  The first cory I worked with that used a mop was C. panda, which is a relatively easy cory catfish to breed and is readily available in the hobby.  Condition them with a lot of high quality food, including live foods such as black or white worms, and give them frequent water changes with cool, clean water of medium hardness and a neutral pH.  Leave a mop hanging from the surface to the bottom in the tank near the current of the filter.  The panda cories will also lay eggs on the sides of the tank, so when eggs appear on the glass there are probably also eggs in the mop.  I remove the entire mop with eggs to a hatching tank and add quite a bit of methylene blue to the water (2 to 3 drops per gallon), and I have found that there is a much greater hatch and survival rate than without the medication.

Egg Scatterers

Almost all of the characins and cyprinids (tetras, barbs, danios, etc.) like to scatter their eggs over plants.  Egg scatterers fall into one of two categories that I use to describe them.  The first are the true scatterers.  The males of these species chase the females all over the tank until the females give up trying to get away and just dump their eggs.  I do not know if egg release is a stress response or not, but I have had very gravid congo tetra Phenacogrammus interruptus females unload a lot of eggs while being chased around the tank with a net (which does not leave many eggs left for spawning later, so net carefully).  The pairs or spawning groups will dash about all over the tank dropping eggs and milt wherever they go.  The fish in the group that are not spawning will usually scurry around after the spawning fish eating the eggs just as fast as they are laid.  This is when the yarn is useful.  In nature the eggs would fall into dense thickets of plants, but in my tanks the eggs fall into yarn.  Lots of yarn.  When I use a 10-gallon tank for spawning an egg scattering species I will place a layer of tangled up yarn in the bottom that covers the entire surface area to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.  The fish will spawn over the yarn, into which the eggs fall and are therefore harder for the other fish to find.

Egg scatterers that need a large tank will spawn over a yarn egg trap is if it were grass.

The second group is the secretive egg scatterers.  These fish are a bit like the egg placers, but the eggs are not adhesive so they fall into the yarn rather than stick to it.  Most of these species are small and shy.  Some spawn every day and only lay a few eggs at a time.  A good example of this type of fish is the celestial pearl danio Danio margaritatus, which is also called the galaxy rasbora.  These shy little fish are easy to keep and breed in a very small tank.  I use a 2.5-gallon aquarium with a small sponge filter and a dense layer of yarn.  The fish are very shy and the yarn provides excellent cover for them.  I have found that a pair is best in a tank that small because the other fish will find and eat the eggs.  I leave the pair in the tank for a week and then remove the pair.  After a few days I carefully lift up the yarn and use a flashlight to look for fry.  The danios rarely disappoint.

Small scatterers, like these ember tetras, like to bury their eggs deep in dense plants... or yarn!

I also use yarn to build egg traps for larger tetras, barbs, or danios to spawn over in a larger tank.  The trap is basically a plastic box with a wide-mesh top into which 2 – 3 inch pieces of yarn are woven.  I place the box in the larger tank with the fish out in the open.  When the fish spawn they usually make scattering runs over and through the yarn sticking up from the trap.  The eggs filter through the mesh and end up safe and sound inside the plastic box.  This system is especially useful for species that take a while to settle into a spawning tank, so moving them from conditioning tank to spawning tank just upsets them.

Yarn can also be used over a false bottom that the eggs will fall through, protecting them from being eaten.

Traps are also good to use when the species is a very sporadic spawner.  I keep traps in all the tanks I have larger African tetras in.  Species like the yellowtail congo tetra Alestopetersius caudalis, the African red-eye tetra Arnoldichthys spilopterus, or the long-fin Alestes tetra Brycinus longipinnis.  It is hard for me to predict when these fish will spawn, but I dutifully check the trap every day and find eggs in there once or twice each month.


I also use yarn to provide a place for livebearing fish to release their fry.  Some livebearers are notorious for eating their fry almost as soon as they are free swimming.  Guppy traps are useful tools, but try using one for a 4-inch Ilyodon furcidens or other large and powerful Goodeid livebearers.  Even some of the larger female swordtails would challenge the average guppy trap.  I prefer to use a 2.5-gallon aquarium with a lot of yarn.  I use large mops that drape a along the bottom for this purpose.  The mops are thick and take up a lot of space in the water column, but leave enough room in the upper half of the tank for the female livebearer to swim freely.  The bottoms of the mops lie in a heap on the bottom.  When the fry are born they can drop into the yarn at the bottom to hide.

I move the females to a birthing tank when they are three to six days away from giving birth.  How do I know when that is?  I use a calendar.  The gestation periods for most livebearers are well-known, and a little research on the Internet is all that is usually needed to get that information.  Like all of my breeding fish, I like to condition females and males separately, and then put them together when they are fat and happy.  Most livebearers are very efficient when it comes to impregnation, so I mark the calendar on the day I put the males in with the females I want to breed.  I leave them together until the females are noticeably pregnant and then move them back to the conditioning tank; or I leave the females in with the male until the calendar tells me the fry could be born in a few days.  Once the female goes into the birthing tank I check for babies several times a day.  Once the fry are born I try not to leave the female in with them any longer than necessary.  I am also very careful to make sure that a female in the birthing tank is well fed.  I figure that a hungry female is more likely to eat her fry, but I have no evidence to support or refute that claim.  Seems like common sense to me.

The Ease of Yarn

Yarn does not die.  It will stay just as lush and vibrant regardless of the light, pH, temperature or hardness.  It comes in a rainbow of colors (though I prefer dark forest green).  And, best of all, a fish does not care if it has yarn or plants, so long as it has a place to lay eggs and hide its babies.  Yarn is easy.

Posted February 16th, 2010.


The Most Important Aquarium in My Fish Room

By Ted Judy

Here’s a horror story that happened in my fish room that I hope nobody has to experience, although I know that the cause of  disaster is the norm for most people rather than the exception.  I went shopping for breeder tetras or barbs at one of the stores I buy a lot of fish from and found some great looking tiger barbs Puntius tetrazona, lemon tetras Hyphessobrycon pulchripinnis, and head-and-tail light tetras Hemigrammus ocellifer. The fish looked to be in excellent health and were all large enough to try to spawn almost immediately. When I got them home I discovered that I did not have anywhere to quarantine them until I was ready to spawn them, so I took a gamble and put the tiger barbs in a community aquarium with some larger rainbowfish and the tetras in a different community tank with several other tetra species.  I made a poor choice…

Within a week all of the rainbow fish in the tank with the tiger barbs and about half of the fish in the tank with the new tetras started dying. They were attacked by a very rapid infection (probably protozoan parasites, bacteria, or a combination of the two) that caused the fish to start gasping at the surface, develop a nasty mucous all over their body, and pass away within 24 hours of showing signs of the infection.  The really weird part was that most of the new fish did not get sick (only one lemon tetra and one head-and-tail light tetra died).  The losses included an entire colony of adult emperor tetras Nematobrycon palmeri I had for three generations, six of eight adult Melanotaenia sp. ‘Moorhead River’ rainbows and all of my Glossolepis pseudoincisus, the Tami river rainbow, that were almost large enough to spawn.  No other tank in the room was affected.  Whatever wiped out my fish came in on those new acquisitions.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was shipped to the author with both protozoan and bacterial infections.  Since the fish was mailed, an assessment of its health prior to purchasing did not happen.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was shipped to the author with both protozoan and bacterial infections. Since the fish was mailed, an assessment of its health prior to purchasing did not happen.

I am totally at fault for the loss of those fish. I know better than to not quarantine what I bring into the fishroom, especially fish that are purchased from an aquarium store.  This is not a knock on stores.  There is not much a store can do to prevent diseases from coming into their tanks.  To properly quarantine all of their new stock a store would need half as much tank space in the back room as they have in the front.  Plus the store would need the financial security to expend thousands of dollars on fish and hold onto them for two or more weeks before starting to see a return on that investment.  I have only seen a couple stores set up that way, and both were the retail front of a larger wholesale operation.  And even then the wholesale part of the businesses did not sit on fish for two weeks to see if they were clean of infectious diseases.

These Mikrogeophagus ramirezi looked great in the store, but they were all infected with gill flukes and started dying two days after being purchased.

These Mikrogeophagus ramirezi looked great in the store, but they were all infected with gill flukes and started dying two days after being purchased.

Most pet stores will mark a tank ‘do not sell’ when they see signs of sick fish, but in the case of my scenario the fish looked great and did not get sick from whatever they passed on to the other fish in the tank.  There was no way to predict that is going to happen, and the only way to possibly prevent it would have been to quarantine the new fish properly.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was wild caught and came in with black blotches all over it.  This was diagnosed as skin flukes and was easily cured in quarantine.

This Pelvicachromis taeniatus was wild caught and came in with black blotches all over it. This was diagnosed as skin flukes and was easily cured in quarantine.

Quarantining fish is not as simple as just tossing them into a tank and waiting.  The aquarium needs to have a mature biological filter and be free from diseases to begin with.  Putting a dozen or more fish into a tank that has not been cycled does not have an upside.  You are either going to be doing a lot of needless water changes to prevent an ammonia spike, or you will neglect that chore and end up with dead fish.

There are a couple ways to maintain the biological filter in a quarantine tank between fish purchases.  The easiest way is to keep fish in the tank.  A few zebra danios will do the trick.

You can also maintain the filter with a fishless-cycling system.  This process involves adding ammonia and nitrite to the tank to feed the bacteria, and frequent testing for the nitrogen compounds to make sure that cycling is taking place.  It takes more time, attention and chemicals to go the fishless route.  I make do with danios.

The third option is to just keep buying lots of fish and rotating them through the quarantine tank.  That is the unintended system that I use.  I usually get out to the stores to buy new fish once a month, so the day before I go I evacuate the quarantine tanks (assuming the fish are healthy), do a thorough cleaning and set the tank up for new fish.

The quarantine process I use has two phases.  Phase one is to get rid of all protozoan parasites.  These little unicellular horrors are hard to diagnose until they are so numerous they are hard to kill.  A bad protozoan infection leads to secondary bacterial infections that are even harder to cure.  Ich and velvet are the two protozoan parasites most of us are aware of, but there are actually many species that we should be worried about.  The morning of the day I plan to get new fish I add to the quarantine tank a full dose of medication designed to kill protozoans (I use a product with metronidazole in it), 1 teaspoon of aquarium salt per 10 gallons (most of these parasites prefer soft water) and crank up the temperature to 78° to 80°F.  The heat will speed up the life cycle of the parasites, which is important because the medications will not always work on all the life stages.  The medications need to be in the tank through the protist’s full life cycle to be 100% effective.

After the fish are in the tank I will do a 20% water change every other day and add just enough medication and salt to maintain the proper concentration of each in the tank.  This first phase of the quarantine lasts for 10 days.  Phase two starts with a lowering of the temperature to 73° to 75°F.  I continue doing a 20% water change every other day, but now I do not redose the medications.  If the fish are a hard water species (such as Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika fish) I will continue to add salts, but my tap water is only moderately hard.  Phase two lasts for another 10 days, and at the end the fish (assuming they are not showing signs of poor health) are ready to go into tanks with other fish.  If at any time during the process I see signs of disease I will try to diagnose the problem and treat accordingly.  Once the problem is cured the quarantine starts again at phase two.

A quarantine tank is a simple set up.

A quarantine tank is a simple set up.

The best case scenario is that there is nothing wrong with the fish.  Careful observation of the fish in the store before purchasing will prevent most problems.   I will not buy fish from a tank that has another noticeably ill fish in the same tank.  If there are a lot of tanks in the store that seem to have problems I will pass on buying fish at all that day.  Passing up the opportunity to buy something really rare or cool is something I have had to do many times.

The most important aquariums in my fish room are the quarantine tanks.  They prevent something from coming in a wiping out what has grown to be a large and valuable (biologically and monetarily) collection of fish.  I have discovered that some species, especially egg scatterers, condition very well while they are in quarantine.  I have spawned pairs straight from the quarantine tank, and after they produce eggs it is back into the quarantine tank that they go.   If they happen to end up with some infection I need to get rid of, the small spawning tanks are very easy to disinfect.

Quarantine is as important to the hobbyist with one tank as it is to a breeder with a fishroom.  There is nothing more discouraging than adding a new fish directly to a well-established community and wiping it out.  I have done it more times than I like to remember.  I have a 10-gallon tank with a heater, glass top and air-driven sponge filter is all you need for quarantine.  Even a 10 inch fish can live in a tank that small for the time needed to make sure it is healthy.  If you are not using quarantine, you should be.  The alternative is a gamble that you really do not want to lose… I know.

Posted January 29th, 2010.


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.


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.


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