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Issue: January 2007

The Apistogramma Aquarium

Author: Kevin Plazak


Photographer: TFH Archives
Apistogramma dwarf cichlids are not the type of fish you can just toss in your aquarium—there’s a lot more to keeping these little beauties.

I wasn’t really able to keep Apistogramma properly until I stopped reading about them and started watching people who were able to breed them successfully. My knowledge of cichlid breeding was broad; I knew about Malawi, Tanganyikan, Central American, and larger South American cichlids, but I was a beginner when it came to most of the truly soft-water species. Apistogramma are not the sort of fish you can toss in tap water and simply feed flake food daily.

The common thread with keeping non-dwarf cichlids is providing enough space to keep them from killing each other, but not so much space that they kill each other; aggression can often be managed by finding the appropriate stocking density—neither too low nor too high. Feed them so they don’t eat each other, change the water so they don’t get grumpy and kill one another, and most important, take out the ones that are near death before they are killed. If you can do those things, most large, aggressive cichlids will breed like crazy.

A False Start

I tried Apistogramma cacatuoides because I was told it was the easiest apisto for someone who is a beginner with dwarf cichlids. I used the same methods as for all of the other cichlids from around the globe that I had kept, and the Apistogramma didn’t kill each other, but they didn’t breed either. I was told that I needed soft water (dissolved solids of less than 30 ppm) with a pH in the sixes. So I used soft water with a pH around 6.8, but I had no luck.

During my attempts to breed these fish I would visit a friend who was breeding some of the more interesting and rare Apistogramma, and I suggested he get his filters running faster, stop crowding his tanks, get a light on those plants, and clean those tanks. After all, everything I had read told me that’s how things should be done. But the fact that my friend had thousands of fry in his tanks told me I was wrong. For two years I visited this guy and never caught a clue.

“What we see depends mainly on what we are looking for” is a phrase that really applies to me in this situation. At various times during those two years I would buy a pair and slowly kill them. I think it was the food and my totally lack of paying attention to the obvious.

Lessons Learned

So I set up a tank consistent with the ones my friend kept. I placed a pair of Apistogramma alacrina (sp. “red point” or “rotpunkt”) in a10-gallon tank, reduced the number of bubbles through the sponge filter to around 60 per minute, and added Java moss Vesicularia dubyana to the tank. I also fed a lot more newly hatched baby brine shrimp, as well as ground flake food. The parents spawned within the month.

It had taken me two years to realize that this methodology would produce many fry. Okay, slowness aside, I had finally taken two lessons into account. The first was that breeding the captive stock from a tank I had seen can produce fry if that tank can be roughly replicated. The second lesson was that Apistogramma can be bred by anyone, not just the folks who are really good at breeding fish. With these valuable lessons in my head I promptly packed up my fishroom and moved it to a new house. I decided I would leave all Apistogramma breeding to my friend, and I would stick with what I knew best—the more aggressive cichlids.

Flash forward a few years. I moved to a new area where the water out of the tap was very soft and had a neutral pH. While checking out fish at a local dealer, I noticed in a wild shipment labeled “Apistogramma cacatuoides” (with not even a single A. cacatuoides in the lot) there were a number of A. alacrina. I remembered that I could breed that species, so I fished out the two that looked like they had paired off and gave them a 5-gallon tank and a bit of Java moss. They were fed a few ground-up flakes of fish food and live blackworms. The pair bred almost immediately. The fry were raised on baby brine shrimp and they grew quickly. The water was near 0 ppm hardness and a pH of about 6.5. This is what started the fire to work with these fish.

The Aquarium

If I were to select a good first tank for Apistogramma it would be a 10-gallon tank with a sponge filter. Slow water movement is not essential. To help clarify, let me share a bit of an anecdote. At an ACA convention I was in a room with a number of highly successful Apistogramma breeders. Each was sharing stories (and rumors of neat fish in other rooms), and tales of a “drained tank” method made their rounds. These people had drained a tank down to an inch and refilled it hours or days later only to find Apistogramma that had spawned shortly after filling it up. There are many theories to why this happened, but in all the cases that were shared the fish bred after living in very little water without filtration. This means that they like slow to no water movement.

My friend who has bred many apisto species never had the filters running very fast. His tanks would make me crazy when I visited his fishroom, but they worked on the principle that low water flow was helpful in bringing the fish into spawning condition. I replicated this at home and it worked for me. I will not say that they can’t breed in flowing water, as I have seen it done, but my success rate with faster-moving water has been lower that when I turn down the filters.

Slow-moving waters would be consistent with their natural habitat, as collectors who are looking for Apistogramma will look for the leaf littered shores of lakes or big rivers (leaves don’t settle in fast-moving water), small brooks with leaf litter, or small pools. Since they don’t like a lot of water movement in the wild, it would be safe to assume the same would be true in the home aquarium.

The leaf litter need not be replicated with dead leaves; any tank you can create with loads of crevices and spaces for the adult Apistogramma to hide among would be good. Using live plants seems to allow for loads of spaces where a female can set up housekeeping and lay eggs. Since I have used plants in the tank with the absence of caves the fish have taken to spawning on leaves. This is always fun to take pictures of because clay pots or plastic decorations rarely look good in photos, and driftwood discolors the water too much to get a good picture.

Lighting can be as bright as you need for the plants to thrive, but make sure you have a lot of cover for the dwarf cichlids. These fish do not like direct sunlight or bright light, so very bright lights need to be hitting the leaves of the plants without shining directly onto the fish.

Tankmates

When speaking about tankmates for cichlids, generally the advice is to keep them with more cichlids. But it’s not easy to house many fish with an oscar Astronotus ocellatus, or a pike cichlid Crenicichla sp. Generally, spawning cichlids make the situation even worse, as a breeding pair of oscars will kill any tankmate much the same as a pair of pike cichlids might.

Apistogramma, however, are not all that rowdy. Since I started keeping these fish in planted aquariums I have been more and more drawn to community tanks. Some tetras may beat up your dwarf cichlids (blue tetras and Buenos Aires tetras are two examples), so special attention needs to be placed on your selection of tankmates. I am a big fan of rasboras and pencilfish as tankmates—as well as less-aggressive tetras. All are readily available at your local pet stores, and more species of these types of fish are being made available all the time. Many are absolutely beautiful, like the neon rasbora Sundadanio axelrodi, the red arc or coral red pencilfish Nannostomus mortenthaleri, or even the cardinal tetra. They do not disturb the parents when there is fry, and the parents leave the dither fish alone.

I also use Otocinclus spp. to help control the algae on the glass and plants. I have been eyeing some zebra shrimp at my local fish store, and I am told they will leave the Apistogramma alone, but I haven’t been brave enough to put the shrimp in with the cichlid fry. The tank they were displayed in had very small rasboras in with them and they did not interact. I will try it before too long…

Breeding Apistogramma

With most species there is a key factor that will get them to breed. For some fish it takes a spare male, others a spare female. Some need really warm water, some really cool water. With some it is a water change. In the case of breeding Apistogramma I think there are multiple keys. I believe the most critical keys are soft water, a pH below 7, live food, a strong pair bond, a spawning surface, slow-moving water, and plants.

To get apistos to breed it helps to have a pair that has chosen each other. In the absence of that, having the male and female in a tank where they can see a pair of fish like themselves seems to improve their desire for each other; they pair-bond in order to stave off the pair in the tank next door. Both males get to show off defending their female, and I think this improves the odds for the female being attracted to the male. I might be anthropomorphizing a bit, but a strapping male doing his very best to scare off another male really brings out the best in a fish—and this brings out the mating desire in the female.

In most cases the female will turn yellow when she is breeding. If you have juveniles there is a good bet they are captive raised, so choosing the largest and smallest will generally get you a pair. When that fails, look for the fish that the largest male in the tank favors. I look for the leading edge of the ventral fins to be black and, all things being equal, the one with the most black and the one with the least black (or no black) will make up a pair. Starting with six fish is a safer way to go.

Once you have a pair, the next key is putting a lot of weight on both fish. Live food will do this and do it quickly. Feeding blackworms to Apistogramma really has done a lot to improve the number of spawns, the number of eggs, and the survival of the fry in my tanks. I am sure this would work with many other varieties of live food as well, but blackworms are cheap and fairly available in my part of the country, they store easily (and for many weeks), and the fish love them. Fish that are in great shape make better parents; thin fish do not do as well when it comes to fry.

Live plants are something I have been really good at killing in the past, and convincing myself that I need them in the Apistogramma tanks has made me become very tired of Java moss, as that was the only plant I could keep alive. Wanting to mix things up a bit, I eventually started putting all sorts of live plants in the tanks, and the apistos seem to use them constantly for refuge and territory boundaries. The females tuck into a leaf or sit in the roots to escape the males when they get too feisty.

Plants will remove ammonium from the tank, and that in turn reduces the amount of nitrate. Plants can also use nitrate, which is the end product in the nitrogen cycle. The point is the plants will keep the tank water cleaner. I do not think that it is a requirement for plants to be in the Apistogramma aquarium, but they will always be in mine. Since the plants have been growing despite me not feeding them, it suggests they are removing waste to build more plant. Any waste that I don’t have to take out myself is good for me and even better for the fish!

Most of the fry will take a larger baby brine shrimp as a first meal, but it never hurts to have smaller live foods available. Some of the smaller species like A. diplotaenia breed at ½ inch, so the tiny mouths on the fry won’t handle the larger baby brine shrimp. Vinegar eels are easy to culture and may be a good choice as well.

Adjusting the Apisto Tank

Your fish aren’t breeding and you are doing everything this article suggests. If this is the case then there are a few possible problems. Your fish may not be of an age to spawn (too old or too young), they may want different water, or, in the case of wild fish, they may have an internal disease. There are other possible issues, but these are the most common, and there is one solution that may solve two of these problems.

If your water is not soft enough or acidic enough, it may be worth getting some distilled water; for a 10-gallon tank buying a one-gallon bottle per water change may be enough to slowly soften the water to your needs. As you soften the water, keep an eye on the pH because it is more likely to crash at this time. Plants will help with pH regulation to a point, but don’t count on it if your tank has a lot of decaying organic matter.

If you are not keen on buying a bunch of water, you can age water in a large vessel and add a nylon stocking full of peat moss. Make sure the water is circulating well in the vessel, and in a week your water will be ready to add to the tank. If you change about 25 percent of the water a week you will have much softer water in a month. A pH below 4 can sometimes cure disease, but I would use that as a last resort and only if your fish come from a habitat near with a pH near 5.

Some apistos really prefer water that is nearly neutral, and a very low pH may kill them. Again, keep a close eye on the pH as you are lowering the buffers that keep your pH from becoming toxically low. Daily readings morning and night would not be excessive. You can use some acid-based product to break down your water’s natural buffers, but you run the risk of using up the remaining buffer in a single dose and killing your fish. All pH manipulation should be done slowly and with care.

If your fish still have internal parasite problems after a greatly reduced pH, then medication may be in order. Consult your local pet store for which medications might be appropriate in your situation. If you have plants, make sure the medication will not kill them.

The upside of changing the water’s chemistry slowly is that you get to learn the best ratio of tap water and peat water for getting your fish to spawn. In many cases a single peat water change will induce spawning in fish that are ready. This will probably be the case for you as well. Some Apistogramma come from very acidic water and will need a lower pH and water softness. There are many reliable books and magazine articles out there that can guide you in your understanding of the habitat. As for websites, I have found too many out there that misidentify the fish and give odd information about the species they are talking about. As with all web information take it with a grain of salt, as it is not generally reviewed by anyone, and the information is only as good as the data it draws from—in the case of much of the web it is drawn off of the list they used to buy the fish.

Conclusion

The hunt for Apistogramma species is a lot of fun. It is not like tracking down a kenyi Pseudotropheus lombardoi because Apistogramma are not being mass produced. The few species that are available are rarely for sale in the local fish stores. The few apistos that are more regularly available are good starter species for anyone interested in seeing if they can keep them alive. Once you are hooked and willing to track down more species, you will find that your hobby has expanded, and the folks you will meet along the way are going to be worth knowing.

Some people are so fanatic about this species that they travel to South America to find them. Uwe Romer is one hobbyist who put together an all-Apistogramma atlas. This is wonderful in that it gives you access to information about many species of Apistogramma, as well as a number of very good photo references for you. The frustrating part is reading about a fish that you have to have, but learning that is not available anywhere—well, maybe for the price of a plane ticket to South America, lodging, transportation, and then shipping them back home…it has been done, I assure you!

The easier response is a trip to a local fish club (if you can get to the meeting within a day’s drive) to find someone who might lead you to a guy in Canada who knows this fella in Germany who flew to Iquitos and has photos from the habitat two kilometers from where your fish is said to come from…

The sleuthing, the reading, the sharing of stories, the finding, the acquiring, the breeding, the fry—it is all what makes the Apistogramma hobby such a wonderful branch of the tropical fish hobby as a whole. And a big slice of joy can be served up when you finally get to hand over a bag of fry to the guy who tipped you off to the guy in Canada in the first place…priceless!

Simply put, you will need help from your fellow hobbyists if you want many of the rare Apistogramma species. You will need to read magazines and books that detail the habitat of the species, as you will not be able to succeed with rare species of Apistogramma without speaking to a number of people and educating yourself. And the great bit is many of those people are a joy to just talk to, and many of the articles and books will enrich your life.

That’s why the aquarium hobby is only as limited as its means and goals. If your goal is working with Apistogramma, you are opening yourself up to a treasure hunt, a biology and geography lesson, and a circle of some of the most interesting friends you may ever meet.

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