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Issue: July 2010

Today in the Fishroom: The Parachromis managuensis Breeding Cycle (Full Article)

Author: Mo Devlin

DEVL T 0710
Photographer: Mo Devlin
An expert aquarium photographer and big-cichlid lover captures the exciting drama of the jaguar cichlid mating ritual.

 

I love big fish. As a kid, I remember my father having a large fish tank in his office. Things always seem bigger to a kid, and I realize now as an adult, “big” for me at the time was a 55-gallon tank. Still, he stocked it with a variety of community fish, and it was great fun going along as he shopped to stock the tank.

At some point he brought home an oscar Astronotus ocellatus, and I was hooked. From that point forward my interest in bruisers grew, as did my ability to feed my cichlid addiction. Today I am a full-blown addict, maintaining numerous tanks full of large, beautiful Central American cichlids.

If you would have asked me a decade ago which I liked better, keeping cichlids or photographing them, I would have said the former. But with the introduction of the digital format, I can honestly say that my interests have flipped. I’ve had a camera in my hands for close to 40 years covering jobs, both civilian and military, from photographing autopsies to photographing presidents and celebrities as a photojournalist. It was a great start, leading to my current passion—I love photographing my cichlids. The digital format has also made it increasingly easy to feed my new addiction under the heading “Today in the Fishroom” on multiple national and international fish forums.

I spend a lot of time just standing in front of my fish tanks observing the behavior that makes them both intriguing and challenging. It’s no secret to those who have kept the larger cichlid species that it’s not always wine and roses with a breeding pair. Cichlid aggression is legendary among those in the hobby, and it’s never more intense or interesting as when the couple is in the process of producing fry.

Over the years, I have had dozens of Parachromis managuensis and many pairs that have bred. I’ve kept both store-bought and wild-caught specimens. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to bring back several managuensis from La Ceiba, Honduras. While found in several countries in Central and South America, the variant we brought back from Honduras was especially beautiful; they have an intense blue coloration across the top of the back and along the dorsal fin. It’s a pair of these that has given me hours of pleasure and hundreds of photographs documenting their beauty and behavior.

The pair I have is currently in a 100-gallon tank and kept by themselves. They spawn regularly and predictably, following what I can only describe as being a well-rehearsed play. What follows is a description, various acts if you will, of the breeding behavior of P. managuensis.

Act One: Indifference

We have to start somewhere, and like many marriages, there are periods of time when husband and wife are living under the same roof and not much other than just living is going on. I’ve found that the reputation for aggression in managuensis is only partially true. Like many large guapotes, they have their moments when they just simply go crazy. This behavior is unpredictable and generally happens when you least expect it. Often it can result in death or, at minimum, a fish that looks like it barely survived a mixed-martial-arts match.

During this period of time I install an incomplete divider with an opening in the eggcrate large enough for the female to escape if need be. P. managuensis, like most of the large guapotes, are sexually dimorphic, with the female of the species being smaller than the male. The incomplete divider is perfectly suited for this situation. I will note that I have successfully kept breeding managuensis in the same tank as other fish, many much smaller and much more docile. The main difference, of course, was that they were in a much bigger body of water—a 1600-gallon indoor pond.

Most often the pair will remain on one side of the tank swimming harmoniously with only some occasional spats. The aggression, when it happens, is not always from the larger male. There are times when the female reverses roles and begins to pester the male. When I see this occurring, I replace the incomplete divider for one that is complete, keeping momma locked in her room on the other side. This generally leads up to the next part of the play.

Act Two: Interest

Depending on what I want to occur, one of two things happens. I either keep the complete divider in place and the pair will breed through the eggcrate. Or, I remove the divider entirely and let nature take its course. For the sake of this article, I will discuss the latter.

As soon as I see the female acting spunky, I know that the pair is ready to breed. Generally it’s the female that will begin the courtship. The male continues to feign indifference to her flaring and nudging, while the female starts to pay closer attention to their regular breeding area: a flat piece of slate near the front of the tank. With one large water change, the male seems to do a complete turnaround in attitude and starts to recognize what’s coming next.

Act Three: Preparing the Nursery

Now both parents are on a mission. Over the years I have had fish that have bred in pots, on tank walls, and on rocks. It always starts with both male and female grooming the area in preparation for laying the eggs. In this tank I also have an assortment of driftwood and silk plants. While the female grooms the slate, the male busies himself with rearranging plants and anything else that doesn’t seem to fit his grand scheme.

Cichlid lip-locking can occur in many instances in the life of the fish: selection of a mate, guarding territory, or in this case, pre-spawning. The instances can last for a couple seconds or, in some cases, what seems like several minutes. The unique structure of the Parachromis jaw, with its impressive pseudocanine dentition in a large mouth, can often result in damage to one or the other fish. I’ve often stated that if you are going to show your fish, you can’t breed them. The collateral damage, no matter how minor, makes it impossible to keep them pretty.

During breeding, both male and female will jockey for position and dart in to lock onto their mate. While I can’t state it as fact, I think the most desirable grip is one on the upper lip of the other—giving new meaning to gaining the upper hand, or lip in this case. Because of the size difference in the two, the male will sometimes get a lucky shot and completely engulf the female’s lips in his mouth. Occasionally the female will land a lucky shot and just hang on for the ride. It’s big fun for the photographer.

Act Four: The Business at Hand

The breeding itself generally takes place within a few days of the above behavior. The female’s ovipositor will begin to engorge, as will the male’s sex organ, in preparation for the next step. What occurs next is nothing short of an aquatic ballet.

Starting at the center of the slate the female will deposit her sticky eggs, moving in small circles. The male follows behind fertilizing the eggs. His job is not only this but also to stand watch at the immediate perimeter as the process continues. This process can go on for up to a couple of hours, each one taking turns gliding across the breeding area. In the end, the entire piece of slate will be filled with very tiny pearls of a future generation of managuensis.

Intermission

I have often marveled at the sheer volume of fry produced by a single pair of large cichlids. In the wild, this fish is often the apex predator in a watershed. And often, it’s not the only breeding pair of managuensis or even large cichlid in the area. So why the volume, then? Certainly there’s only a certain number of foot-long guapotes that can actually be supported. The answer, of course, is natural selection.

The predation rate on the fry must be incredible in the wild. Not only from the other fish, but also from previous spawns from the same pair. As my father often reminded me, and not necessarily about fish but life in general, big fish eat little fish. And in the end, the strongest survive. I’ve seen older batches of fry eat the younger fry in the tank, sometimes leading to as many as three generations snacking on each other.

Act Five: The Waiting Game

With all eggs down, both male and female will take turns gently fanning their fins to gently move water across the surface of the eggs. The female appears to do the majority of the fanning while the male protects the territory. I have often said that photographing breeding cichlids is the best, because they are at their prettiest, completely insane, and respond to the camera lens like it is an open mouth.

One of the things that I noticed, which really made me laugh, was how every once in a while the female will take a swipe at the big male on guard. It reminded me very much of the “don’t forget to take out the garbage!” that I occasionally get from my wife. It’s just keeping him on his toes—or fins—for the task at hand.

Act Six: Moving Day

At this point it can easily be said that the fry hatch and we’re done. But if you slow down the process, you can see many amazing and wonderful things happen. Not only in the behavior of the fish, but also the physiological magic that occurs in just under a week.

Once the fry start to move in the tiny pearl eggs, the parents will begin moving them from their shells and onto a tiny pile in another part of the tank. This is done methodically and with what would have to be amazing precision. I don’t have an exact measurement, but the fry are around a centimeter in size. If you consider the size of a 10-inch fish’s mouth, you can see that it would be like you manipulating in your mouth something the size of a grain of rice.

All of the wigglers are deposited into a pile; the parents will continue to scour every nook and cranny of the tank for stragglers. One satisfied, they place tiny pebbles among their fry, which I imagine act as some sort of natural barrier to keep them together. A good friend of mine, David Estes, told me that in the fish farm industry they are called “yellow-bellies” during this period. This is no doubt due to their tiny yolk sac. Once the yolk sac is mostly gone, they’re called “black-backers.”

Act Seven: Growth

I had the idea to photograph the babies at this point. The tank with the fish was on an upper rack that enabled me to shoot from the bottom of the tank up to get pictures of the fry. We often take for granted what we can’t witness with our eyes. I was nothing short of amazed at watching the progress of the fry as they developed from yellow-bellies to black-backers.

Act Seven, Scene Two: Blank Slate

After two days, all of the fry lie in a pile that from all outward appearances look like a pile of golden silt. From below they resemble tiny tadpoles, with nothing but a hint of features to come, and a predominant yolk sac that feeds their system.

In just 24 hours eye sockets start to appear on virtually all of the fry. Their internal organs are much more visible and you can see the gills starting to develop. None of the fry are moving yet, but you can see most starting a rhythmic vibrating of what will be the dorsal fin. Their yolk sac starts to contour, looking more like a beer belly.

Day four and they are starting to look more like the swimming fry. From above the entire mass is vibrating. From below you can see that instead of lying flat, the fish are now barely swimming; some are swimming heads-down against the tank bottom.Looking at the black orb, you can see the actual formation of the eye. The mouths also are starting to take shape.

On the fifth day almost all are tails-up and revving. What used to be a very organized pile from above is now a shifting mass of tiny bodies. Both parents work overtime in collecting and restacking their brood. I also noticed what can only be described as fish poo, very heavily distributed among the pile of fish. At the same time, their yolk sacs are getting smaller. I would speculate that they are excreting—possibly the practice run on their waste production system?

Lift off! On day six I did as I had the previous couple of days, getting the camera ready and then turning on the tank lights. It was obvious that today was their maiden voyage by the amount of movement. From above it looks like they are popping off the bottom. After a few minutes, as if on cue, the mass of black-backers lift off and head for mom.

Act Eight: Crowd Control

Anyone who’s ever had an infant can appreciate that stage where they just start walking and are basically two legs in constant motion. It’s a lot of work to keep just one under control. For the managuensis parents, the job is multiplied several hundred times. Yet more often than not, the cloud of free-swimming fry stick together, taking subtle cues from the parents on where to be and when to move.

On occasion one or more fry will stray too far and either mom or dad will gently collect them in their mouth, swim back, and spit them back into the group.

Act Nine: Finale

At first, new fry will feed on the algae of the tank walls. And during the first couple of days, they will actually contact-feed off of one of their parents, zipping in to take tiny bites of their slime coat. I don’t know why they do this, but I would again speculate that it could very well be something of nutritional importance that would help them grow and survive.

The first time I noticed this behavior, the parents were in a partially divided tank. Both male and female lay on each side of the tank on their side, making what looked like a yawn-like snapping motion with their mouths. It appeared at first that they were eating the fry, but it was actually a dinner bell. Each time one or the other would perform this, the fry would switch sides and zoom in for a bite of mom or dad. This went on for only a day or two. During this time I continued to provide them with a fry food, which I would squirt into their midst with a turkey baster.

Curtain Call

Underneath the tank on the stand is a sign that says “warning, attack fish.” Without a doubt, the interaction you receive from keeping a species like Parachromis managuensis can easily convert it from fish to wet pet. Not too long ago, I had one managuensis in particular that I was quite fond of. “Jumbo” lived for 13 years and was photographed thousands of times. One of the highest compliments I have received was from folks who have written me and said, “I got a managuensis after I saw that picture of Jumbo.” And for me that’s what it’s all about.

We all share a common bond with our aquarium hobby. I’m honored to be this year’s Chairman of the American Cichlid Association. As such, I would invite any and all that are interested in advancing our goals of conservation, fellowship, and knowledge to visit our website at cichlid.org.

At one of Wayne Leibel’s talks at a convention, I remember him stating that while it’s the scientists that are out there naming, splitting, and lumping the cichlids, it’s the hobbyists like you and me that are sitting in front of the tank observing their behavior. Being able to observe and share what we all enjoy most only serves to keep the hobby more interesting.

For more of Mo’s work, visit his “Today in the Fishroom” threads in the Photography Studio section of the TFH Forum at forums.tfhmagazine.com.

See the full article on TFH Digital http://www.tfhdigital.com/tfh/201007/#pg83

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