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Issue: February 2007

The German Ram Mikrogeophagus ramirezi

Author: Gio Maletti

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Photographer: Horst Linke
Mikrogeophagus ramirezi is often misunderstood and considered to be difficult to keep, but if it’s cared for properly, the ram can provide a beautiful and interesting fishkeeping experience.

The German ram is one of those fish that stops you in your tracks the first time you see it. It’s the one likely to elicit the most “oohs” and “aaahs” when visiting friends and family spot it in your tank, its iridescent blue and gold flanks flashing in the light. An enduringly popular cichlid, the ram is also widely misunderstood and has gained a reputation for being difficult to keep.

Commonly thought of as an Amazonian cichlid, the ram actually occurs naturally in the Rio Orinoco drainage basin of the llanos, a vast savannah spanning the lowlands of both Venezuela and Colombia. It also occurs farther away, in the upper parts of the Orinoco River Delta.

There seems to have been some confusion with the scientific name of this species. Originally described as Apistogramma ramirezi by Myers and Harry in 1948, it has been known varyingly as Papiliochromis ramirezi, Papilochromis ramirezi, and Microgeophagus ramirezi (with a “c”). Fortunately, Dr. Sven Kullander of the Swedish Natural History Museum stepped in and put an end to all of the letter swapping by declaring Mikrogeophagus ramirezi to be the scientifically correct name. M. ramirezi is a dwarf cichlid, growing no bigger than 2 inches (5 cm) in length. Common names include the German blue ram and butterfly cichlid.

Water Quality

Mikrogeophagus ramirezi requires soft, acidic water with a pH between 5 and 6 and temperatures of 80° to 86°F (27° to 30°C). Rams are extremely sensitive to water quality. With this in mind, waste compounds like nitrates and ammonia must be kept to an absolute minimum. The best way to achieve this is by performing regular partial water changes. These should be done at least once weekly. In areas that do not get soft water straight from the tap, you may have to use reverse osmosis water for your changes.

Tank Size

Given their diminutive size, rams don’t require a lot of space. For a species-only or breeding tank, 10 gallons is considered sufficient. For a more impressive biotope, or a community tank in which you can see the nuances of more than one pair of rams interacting with the fish around them, 29 gallons is the minimum.

A Llanos Biotope

Setting up a biotope for rams is not as hard as you think. Use a fine substrate such as natural sand and place rounded water-worn stones randomly on the bottom. Stick-size pieces of driftwood can be scattered throughout this aquarium. Sticklers for realism will opt not to use any plants, and will add aquarium-safe tree leaves such as oak or beech to simulate the layer of debris that collects on the river’s bottom. A few handfuls should suffice. As with any organic matter, these are going to gradually decay in the water, so a close eye will need to be kept on water quality. The upside is that they will help keep the water soft and acidic. Lighting should be kept moderate to subdued. Tankmates for this setup can include Apistogramma species, characins such as the silver hatchetfish Gasteropelecus sternicla, and catfish such as Corydoras, Otocinclus, Hypostomus, and Farlowella.

Community Setups

The ram is mild-mannered enough that it can be a great candidate for a community aquarium. But it must be stressed that they cannot just be added to any community setup. As before, the substrate should be relatively fine, and subdued in hue and color. Round, flat rocks, such as those you’d find in a stream, can be used for the aquascaping. See if you can arrange these in such a way that there are crevices and caves for the fish to hide in. Real driftwood is again recommended—it not only looks great, but also helps to soften the water. Plants that do well in warm and soft water, such as Echinodorus, Cabomba, and Nymphaea should be used. Other fish need to be chosen carefully. Firstly, they’ll need to be species that thrive in soft and acidic water. Fish that are aggressive and boisterous such as other cichlids and larger barbs are to be avoided. Suitable tankmates can include small tetras such as neons, cardinals, and glowlights; small danios or barbs; discus Symphysodon spp.; or angelfish Pterophyllum scalare.

Rams are considered to be shy and retiring fish. That being said, I have a small male who has no problem chasing an angelfish that’s 10 times his size across the tank! Like most cichlids the ram is territorial, but most of this aggression will be aimed at conspecifics (other rams). During spawning and rearing of fry, the required territory and level of aggression can rise considerably. If you plan on keeping more than one pair of rams in the same aquarium, be sure to provide plenty of hiding places.

Feeding

Rams will readily take flake and other processed aquarium foods. But to see your fish’s color displayed in its full glory, the addition of meaty live and frozen foods such as bloodworms, brine shrimp, and daphnia is recommended. Rams that have been fed these foods can be positively incandescent, flashing almost every color of the spectrum.

Sexing and Breeding

The accepted wisdom for getting a good pair of breeding cichlids is to buy a group of six to eight juveniles and let nature do the rest. As time goes on, the fish will pair off and you can remove the others to another tank. This is especially helpful with a fish like the ram, which doesn’t have a marked dimorphism between the sexes before maturity.

There are, however, a couple of distinguishing signs. In males, the first rays of the dorsal fin are elongated, forming a little crest. Unfortunately this is not a sure-fire way to tell, because the degree of elongation can vary from brood to brood. Females are also thought to have rosier bellies, but I bought one on that premise and it turned out to be a particularly feisty male. In fact, most of the fish you see in the dealer’s tanks are males only, imported from the Far East. Additionally, imports from the East also have a reputation for fertility problems. If you’re serious about breeding this fish, you may want to contact your local cichlid association and get the names of a few good breeders. You’ll almost certainly end up with better stock.

Rams tend to breed in the open, on large stones or leaves, and sometimes even on the substrate. Up to 500 eggs will be produced, and these should be tended by both parents—although rams are notorious egg eaters. If you want to ensure the safety of the eggs, you may need to remove them to another tank and raise them yourself. Should the parents prove to be conscientious enough not to eat the eggs, they should hatch in about 60 hours and be free swimming three to four days after that. At this point the male usually becomes the sole guardian of the fry until they can fend for themselves, so the female can be moved to another tank.

Strains

The fish described by Myers and Harry in 1948 was the German blue ram we know and love. Of course, we human beings can’t leave good enough alone, and before we knew it, new strains of the ram were being developed. Most notable among these was a xanthic color morph called the gold ram; there is also a long-finned variety known variously as the lyre-tail ram, the veil-tail ram, the hi-fin ram, or the long-finned ram. The gold ram has (as the name suggests) gold pigment replacing the predominant blue on its flanks. The long-finned varieties often have a much stockier, plumper body than the normal fish. They also tend to have distended swim-bladders, causing problems with buoyancy, so check to see that they can swim properly before buying.

Buying Your Rams

As was stated earlier, most of the rams you’ll see in your dealer’s tanks are imported from the Far East, from countries like Singapore. Many of these fish are wonderful, robust specimens. Unfortunately, many are also very weak.

Excessive line-breeding in any species is known to enhance genetic weaknesses in future generations. Rams have been line bred for years to enhance traits such as color and shape, so some of the fish we see today suffer from problems like infertility, and they succumb readily to disease. Additionally, many of the rams shipped to this country are juveniles that have not yet developed their stunning adult coloration, so they’re given hormone treatments before they’re shipped to improve their color. This is also thought to affect fertility, and it can cause other complications. The best farm-raised specimens are thought to come from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Holland. But don’t forget to check if there are any local breeders near you.

Of course, the first prize for any cichlidophile is a wild-caught specimen, and these rams are often the most spectacular of all. But beware—a wild-caught fish will have much more exacting needs than a farm-raised one, needing careful acclimation and pristine water conditions. And you can expect to pay a hefty premium.

Whatever the origin of your rams, be sure that you’re getting the healthiest specimen available. Make sure that your fish is behaving normally and eating well. Avoid fish that are too reclusive, and check for other signs of ill health, such as clamped fins and hyperventilation. Once your rams are home, be sure to acclimate them properly. Methods of acclimation are as varied and eclectic as aquarists themselves, but with rams it really is best to err on the side of caution; this means making the transition from the dealer’s water to yours as gradual and smooth as possible. It will help to ask the dealer about the water parameters the fish has been kept in. If your water is markedly different, you can mimic his parameters in your quarantine tank, and gradually adjust the parameters to resemble yours over the quarantine period.

Problems

One of the most common complaints about newly purchased rams is their penchant for keeling over and dying in the first few days, often without prior signs of ill health. Proper acclimation will go a long way toward remedying this problem. Rams are also susceptible to infestations of both internal and external parasites, the most common of these being Hexamita, a parasite of the gastrointestinal tract. Hexamita and other protozoans can be treated during the quarantine period with the addition of a suitable medication. Finally, prolonged shipping periods are known to adversely affect the fish’s health. It’s almost always better to wait and see how a new shipment of fish does in the dealer’s tank before deciding to buy.

A True Jewel

The ram is one of the true gems of the cichlid family. It has all the beauty, intelligence, and character of its bigger brethren, with very few of the downsides (like rampant aggression and territoriality). It doesn’t dig like so many other cichlids, so your hardware, rocks, and plants are perfectly safe. With a little planning, keeping the ram is a wonderful way to step into the fascinating world of cichlids. If you’re willing to put in the little extra time and care required to keep these beautiful fish, you’ll be rewarded with an experience you won’t soon forget.

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