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Issue: Aug 2017

Cichlids from Fast-Flowing Streams: Teleocichla and Retroculus

Author: Radek Bednarczuk


Photographer: Radek Bednarczuk
Teleocichla and Retroculus are two cichlid genera that share a number of common traits, but one in particular distinguishes them from other cichlids. The very first thing any observer is sure to notice is their somewhat clumsy way of swimming. The fish hover in the water column for a few moments, just hanging there, and then sink to the bottom like a stone. Most fish swim smoothly and effortlessly, but locomotion seems to be difficult for Teleocichla and Retroculus. Their characteristically awkward swimming style is an adaptation to the environment in which they live in the wild, typically brisk, fast-flowing streams—an environment that caused a reduction of the swim bladder over time in these cichlids.

These fishes are relatively rare in aquaria. When they’re available, it’s often at great cost, and they have a reputation for being difficult to maintain. Nonetheless, I’ve kept Teleocichla and Retroculus for many years. If you’re thinking of giving either of these genera a try, the information below from my own experiences may prove valuable.

Both genera inhabit warm, fast-flowing waters of the Amazon. The eight described species within the genus Teleocichla are small fish, with the adults topping out at only a few inches (a half-dozen cm or so). Their elongated bodies and general appearance are similar to the popular Crenicichla pike cichlids. Retroculus are much bigger. The adults can reach 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm) and beyond in length. At present there are three described species in this genus.

The characteristic trait of Retroculus is a dark spot on the posterior of the dorsal fin. Their bodies are also spattered with azure-blue scales that opalesce in the light. In fully colored adult specimens this can make a strong impression on the observer.

Aquarium Setup

Providing optimal living conditions for fish improves their well-being and encourages them to procreate, so my advice for keeping these fish is to create a biotope aquarium. In their natural environment, they spend most of their lives in fast-flowing water; wide, sandy stretches with stones or rocks strewn here and there are a typical representation of their biotope.

The aquarium should be relatively long with a large bottom area, but it does not need to be tall, as the fish spend most of their time in the lower levels of the tank. For the same reason, it is advisable to choose tankmates that prefer the middle and top levels to enliven those areas.

The tank bottom should be covered with a layer of fine sand on which you should place stones and driftwood to help the fish establish territories and create hiding places. To lessen the austerity a bit, it might be worthwhile to augment this décor with plants. Anubias and Microsorum are great choices, as they don’t need to be planted and can simply be tied to decorations with fishing line, making it impossible for the fish to uproot them.

These cichlids are warm-water fish, so a heater is essential. An efficient biological filter that will remove any suspended particles is also necessary, as the fish are sensitive to elevated levels of metabolites. Retroculus dig quite vigorously in the substrate and might even bury themselves in it when faced with a threat.

Long, powerful pelvic fins are also a distinguishing trait of both genera. When keeping Teleocichla or Retroculus, you are sure to observe them propped up on those well-developed fins while resting on the bottom or on a piece of structure. Some hobbyists who keep these fish install a powerhead with a diffuser to imitate brisk currents and aim it at a stone or other decoration on which the species like to perch. The diffuser will also thoroughly oxygenate the water, which is helpful in the maintenance of these cichlids. Both genera thrive in soft and slightly acidic water with a temperature of about 82°F (28°C). I used a reverse osmosis (RO) filter to prepare their water.

Care and Feeding

Small crustaceans, such as Cyclops or adult Artemia, should make up the bulk of the diet for these cichlids. They can also be provided glass worms, bloodworms, or mosquito larvae. Augment the menu with Spirulina or vitamin-enriched granulated foods that fall to the bottom. Note that it is easy to overfeed these fish, as they have a good appetite. Retroculus have thick, massive lips, which they use to take up food together with the substrate. They then separate the organic matter and eject the inedible bits through their gills. By contrast, the Teleocichla, with the conical snouts and protruding lower jaws typical of predatory fish, take food found on the bottom.

Teleocichla are territorial, so in their case, a large bottom area with numerous hiding places is ideal for their maintenance. As far as reproduction is concerned, Teleocichla can be monogamous or polygamous, and they usually breed in caves or other hideouts.

Retroculus, on the other hand, have a highly specific reproductive strategy. In their natural environment, the fish dig a hole in the substrate that can be more than a foot (a few dozen centimeters) in diameter. They then carry stones in their mouths over quite long distances and place them around these craters, building a nest of sorts in which reproduction can take place.

A Few Parting Notes

Teleocichla and Retroculus species are best kept in groups of six to eight specimens. On the whole, they are not excessively aggressive when young, but as they mature—and especially when engaged in reproduction—their aggression does increase. As happens in the world of cichlids, there are also some solitary and aggressive older specimens, especially among the Teleocichla, that tend to chase other fish into corners and harass them to death. These fish are rarely bred in aquaria. However, if you like a challenge, maintaining an environment that promotes their reproduction would surely be a great achievement for any hobbyist.

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