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Issue: November 2009

Flower Power: Are Flowerhorns Good for the Hobby?

Author: Tom Lorenz

LORE T 1109
Photographer: Stan Sung
Dismissed as "Frankenfish" by some and prized as good luck charms by others, one consistent theme surrounding flowerhorns in the aquarium hobby is controversy. A researcher explores some arguments for and against these peculiar-looking—and often astronomically priced—show fish.

As I sit here writing this article, I find myself distracted by monsters. One, a nearly foot-long Haitian cichlid (Ike), seems to like eating the faces off of his tankmates and is now alone in a 100-gallon tank. The other, an orange and red flowerhorn (Captain Insano), is over a foot in length and is also alone in a 100-gallon tank for similar reasons. His special pleasure seems to be interrupting filtration and oxygenation by demolishing the filter intakes every chance he gets.

Both are very intelligent, enormous, attractive, and interactive fishes, but the serious hobbyists out there are very divided on how they feel about one of these fellows. I’ll admit that even I’m not sure how I feel about Captain Insano and his ilk, but as you’ll see, the controversy is actually rather complex.

In the last decade there has been a new, showy, boisterous, and somewhat controversial player in the aquarium game, the flowerhorn. These large and aggressive cichlid hybrids have been bred in Southeast Asia with the intent of producing fish of remarkable size, color, markings, shape, and attitude. The large nuchal hump found in some neotropical cichlids has also been included in these projects, creating some impressive animals.

But many traditional aquarists are unhappy with these new creations. They often consider these animals to be abominations and even call them “Frankenfish.” But what is the truth? Where did these animals come from, and what is truly good and bad about them? Overall, do they benefit the hobby, or detract from it?

History

The strong appeal of flowerhorn cichlids exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Prices for these fish were sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (and still are as high as hundreds of dollars each), even though their origins are from common cichlid species. While this seems counterintuitive, flowerhorns are not the first captive-bred, common animals that have gone for such prices. Koi, which are actually just carp, have been selectively bred (although not hybridized) and are sold for amazing prices. Apparently, carp and cichlid hybrids are hot stuff for some folk!

There are two main reasons for this phenomenon. One is a matter of supply and demand: There are some color varieties and sizes of both koi and flowerhorns that make them very valuable. But there is also the issue of culture, especially in some Asian countries. Koi have an ancient history in many Asian cultures. But, by strong contrast, flowerhorns have been on the scene for less than 20 years. There are koi that are at least twice as old as the first flowerhorn ever created! How is it then that flowerhorns can have any cultural significance at all?

Well, for one, they fit into the culture of cultivating strains of fish. Although we have great fishbreeders all over the world, you’ll find the most stunning array of guppy, betta, goldfish, and koi strains all in the Far East. Flowerhorns fit into this well, but they had two additional aspects that make them so highly valued. For one, the large nuchal hump (fatty bump on the forehead) is strongly bred for in flowerhorn cichlids. This trait strongly resembles the exaggerated forehead of Shou Xing, the Chinese god of longevity.

Also, some of the markings on the side of flowerhorns can resemble Chinese characters. These markings are likely derived from the three spots found on trimacs Amphilophus trimaculatum (one suspected parent species of the flowerhorns) and from broken-up remnants of vertical bands of other species. These are the structures referred to as flowers, which is where the unusual name for these fish comes from. There is a rumor that the flowers on one fish actually translated into a winning lottery ticket, which naturally didn’t hurt the popularity of these fish as good-luck charms. A large-headed, colorful, interactive fish with writing appearing all the way down its side is a great thing to have if you place credence in these values.

All Mixed Up

The origin of these fish is shrouded in a considerable amount of mystery. What exactly is a flowerhorn? The shortest answer, although probably not the most accurate, is that they are Mesoamerican cichlid hybrids. Herein lies the complexity and controversy of these fishes. Hybrids in general have been frowned upon in the hobby for many reasons, the main reason being the dilution of true lineages. These problems have been common in many African peacock cichlids, and they have also happened with some New World cichlids (Vieja species are one example).

While some hybrids occur accidentally or are a product of ignorance or misleading of potential fish owners, there have also been many hybrids that were intentionally created to produce a more showy fish that is not sold as anything other than a hybrid (to prevent any confusion). Some varieties of platies are good examples of this, where swordtail genes are mixed in to get some different colors. But those are both in the same genus. Flowerhorns actually involve the hybridization between different genera! The level of hybridization and number of species involved with flowerhorns is both confusing and unprecedented.

Okay, that’s fine, but what actually goes into a flowerhorn? Which species are being used?

While some people consider any Central American cichlid hybrids to be flowerhorns, others would strongly disagree. They would state that flowerhorns are the result of complex breeding projects that include trimacs and multiple other species (Amphilophus citrinellus, Vieja/Paratheraps species, Herichthys carpintis, etc.), but you can never find exactly which species are involved in any given flowerhorn strain.

Why so much mystery surrounding what goes into creating each of these flowerhorn strains? Well, part of the reason is certainly financial. If you had a secret about how to make a fish worth almost half a million dollars, you might be tight-lipped yourself! But there’s also the issue of complexity and experimentation, where a lot of trial and error with multiple hybridizations can result in the loss of some of this information.

As a rule, the body form and the red eyes you see in many flowerhorns are from trimacs, the spangles are often from H. carpintis,and the large nuchal hump is from either Midas or Vieja stock. A natural question to ask at this point is if you can do this yourself. Well, some hobbyists are trying to do just that. While there’s debate on whether these homebrewed hybrids are true flowerhorns, who cares? The point is to create an interesting strain, much like one might make his/her own colorful strain of platy with some mix of swordtail and true platy species. But is making this hybrid (or even buying a hybrid) the right thing to do?

Losing Genetic Lines

The ongoing arguments between flowerhorn haters and flowerhorn lovers are much ado about nothing. This is an interesting topic that gets some folks into heated discussions. Flowerhorns are hybrids, meaning that they are not true species. True cichlid species have a special place in the hearts of just about any hardcore enthusiast. The idea of these crossbred fish taking the aquarium industry by storm is perturbing to them, to say the least. Why is it necessary to create these Frankenfish if you consider the fact that there are over 1200 species of cichlids, and dozens of big and tough candidates for pet fish?

This hybrid issue can get ugly and confusing when some flowerhorn fishes look a lot like true species. This is especially true for Amphilophus trimaculatum, a fish often involved in flowerhorn genetics. Some low-grade flowerhorns look a great deal like true trimacs, meaning that those in search of the true trimacs may get duped or confused by this situation.

Also, the hybrid mess means that the genetic lineage of true species in the hobby is at some risk. As fish are crossed with other species they normally would not spawn with in the wild, the genomes forged by millions of years of evolution are lost forever in that lineage. This sounds dramatic, and it definitely is when you take pride in having the legacy of a cichlid’s evolutionary lineage in your aquarium.

Naturalized Flowerhorns

Even the risk of flowerhorns driving fish to extinction is very real! The ecological problem of flowerhorns lies in their unpredictable genetics. The idea is to get a fish with incredible color, pattern, and shape, but the problem is that many offspring will be unattractive.

Anyone who has bred a large neotropical cichlid knows that there is literally an embarrassing number of fish fry to be dealt with. The highest-grade flowerhorns are going to be males that have nuchal humps and great color. If you consider half of the fish to be males and less than half of those males to have nuchal humps, you’re left with at least 75 percent of your fry being relatively useless as show fish. In fact, some estimate that only 5 percent of offspring are quality fish.

Now consider what some unethical people may do with these excess fish that they don’t need or want. You guessed it—fish getting dumped into native waterways. There is no clear record of this happening yet in the United States, but in Southeast Asia there are many released flowerhorns reproducing in the wild. While they don’t have the giant mouth of a snakehead or Nile perch (examples of disastrous invasive fishes), they are extremely territorial and reproduce by the thousands every year. Consider the most invasive cichlid on earth, the tilapia. They don’t affect native species by eating them as much as by outcompeting them. With the introduction of these aggressive flowerhorns, one can only imagine the potential impacts. Don’t be too wistful about the idea of an attractive invasive species either. Like goldfish, the flowerhorns lose their flashiness as they become naturalized. But, to be fair, good hobbyists and good breeders don’t release their fish anyway, so let’s move on.

Other Ethical Issues

Even though we have discussed the purist angle and a couple of conservation angles, the ethics question is not over yet. Painted and tattooed fishes make fish lovers all over the world cringe, and to some extent there has been a successful outcry against this. Painted glass fish are sold less in the United Kingdom, and hopefully you readers are continuing to educate those who don’t know better in your own neighborhoods. The high number of deaths and disease caused by these practices is sad, as is the extremely unnatural look of these creatures.

Now, how is it fair to bring flowerhorns into this discussion? Well, on one level it isn’t. Most flowerhorns you see will be extremely healthy fish that haven’t been injected or dyed and won’t have the health problems that go along with those practices. In fact, there’s always been discussion of hybrids actually having a hybrid vigor to them, which may or may not be true in this case. The issue of ethics arises in regard to some hybrids, like the blood parrot cichlids, which are now being sold with tattoos, including heart-shaped ones! The appeal to people who don’t know better is obvious, and of course ethically questionable.

There’s also the issue of hormones, which have been used to help color up African haplochromines (which have colorful males and drab females). The nuchal hump of flowerhorns is a hormone-related feature that can actually come and go with breeding cichlids. Using hormone-laced foods or injections is a questionable practice that may get short-term results, but it can have a variety of long-term health effects that will shorten a fish’s life and affect its capacity to reproduce.

One last ethical issue involves deformities. There are flowerhorns that have been bred to have a shortened, stunted body, and some are even bred to not have a tail fin! Such practices can be considered genetic mutilation and cross a clear line of ethics because of their impacts on the health of the individual fish.

Do You Want to Keep One?

So, what if you want to keep a flowerhorn? A likely question you may initially have would be, are they worth the hype? The short answer is sure, because most of these are as advertised: large, colorful, active, aggressive, and actually relatively tough fish! The ones that are sold for a decent price are often well on their way to having good color, with the large nuchal hump on their forehead and in good health. Also, if the good luck of the characters along the fish’s sides and its nuchal hump affect your feelings of feng shui or good fortune in general, who am I to argue against that!

If you’ve ever kept a large cichlid, their care is easy. If not, you need to learn about the feeding, aggression levels, and large amount of waste-output issues involved. For those who enjoy keeping a community of fishes, flowerhorns are not the best choice. Some folks think they have been bred for aggressive behavior, but anyone who has kept a trimac or Midas cichlid (or even a full-grown Vieja species) can tell you that flowerhorn aggression can be from their component species as well. Flowerhorns are not the easiest fish to breed, and they sometimes have infertile young. They can also have aggression levels so high that only experienced hobbyists can breed them with divider techniques.

There’s also this question: Why not a natural-species bruiser? Before you decide you want a flowerhorn, you may want to ask some old-school hobbyists to see their trimacs, red devils, Midas cichlids, etc. A full-grown Haitian cichlid Nandopsis haitiensis has characteristics that many—myself included—think make it one of the most amazing and beautiful (and evil) bruiser cichlid species out there.

Regardless of what you choose (natural or manmade bruiser), the important thing is not to contribute to the negative. Choose only healthy fish, ones not tattooed or so mutated that they have fin or body shape issues. Keep these and any other fish out of native waters, and support fish stores that are very clear about what is a hybrid and what is a true species.

Having done that, you’re not hurting anyone by getting a flowerhorn. There won’t be any permanent decrease in the interest of true species either. There will always be a supply/demand cycle where many people will get bored with flowerhorns and thirst for things like true wolf cichlids, trimacs, green terrors, etc. I’m not sure if I look at Captain Insano or Ike differently after writing this, but I hope the information here helps many of you to become better aquarists and how to enjoy the hobby in additional and deeper ways.

Now let me go fix that mangled filter intake!

See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/200911/#pg77

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