A stunning species, the Angolan barb is not as commonly seen as other species of barbs. If you can acquire some, they make great community-aquarium residents and fascinating breeding subjects.
The Angolan barb (Barbus fasciolatus) is one of the prettiest little barbs on the African continent. The original description fails to point out the extraordinary blaze of color displayed by the barbs. The basic body color, depending on the habitat, is olive/orange to red. During spawning season, the male displays a bright rusty red. A distinctive characteristic of this barb is a series of vertical dark bars (fasciolatus means “with small stripes”), which vary in number (usually 10 to 16) and shape, somewhat reminiscent of the stripes of a tiger.
Females reach a total length of 2½ inches, while males remain smaller (2 inches). In addition to that, the slimmer male barbs are colored somewhat darker. During the spawning season, the sexual dimorphism is quite easy to recognize because of the brilliant-red coloration of the male Angolan barbs.
The name says it all An Angolan barb surely comes from Angola, doesn’t it? The famous ichthyologist A. Günther described this species for the first time in 1868. His work was based on a specimen allegedly caught in “Fluilla” by the explorer Dr. F.M.J. Welwitsch.
Today, you will not find a location of the same name even if you use Google Maps or something similar. Some scientists (e.g., Greenwood, 1984; Bell-Cross, 1965, 1975) suspect that there was a simple typo and the place of discovery of this little barb is situated near “Huila,” a town within the Southwest Angolan district of the same name. That means that Barbus fasciolatus apparently originates from the Rio Cunene in Angola.
The Angolan barb has a large area of origin but is not common anywhere in its range. This nice fish is distributed from Southwest Angola (Rio Cunene) to Zimbabwe (Zambesi), from Zambia (Upper and Middle Zambesi, Kafue) to Botswana (Okavango), even in Lake Kariba and the catchment area of the Congo (Luapula-Mweru-system).
This widespread distribution may also explain the different color morphs of B. fasciolatus. Bell-Cross/Minshull (1988) mentioned that the coloration of this barb may be correlated with habitat and breeding condition. Whether they are different color morphs of the same species or a different species entirely will be clarified only by larger studies. However, it may be assumed that Angolan barbs offered by local pet shops or importers do not come from Angola. They are either cultivated fish or imported from Zambia because of the delicate political situation in Angola.
A Greedy Feeder
B. fasciolatus is a general feeder, and you should take this statement literally. Fans of densely stocked planted aquaria must always remember that and should keep this barb away from their aquariums. I marvelled at how fast a small group of eight Angolan barbs decimated my little star plants (Pogostemon helferi). Only the thick and tough-leaved species like Anubias and Cryptocoryne are left alone at first.
In general, they don’t attack plants as voraciously if they get a small portion of plant-based foods (such as spinach, salad leaves, or vegetable-based dry food) in addition to their daily meal. Apart from that, everything that stays close to or within the substrate is on the menu. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to use medium-coarse/medium-fine sand or gravel (6 to 9 mm) as the substrate. The Angolan barbs will dabble in it nearly the whole day.
Newly hatched brine shrimp are tasty little snacks for the barbs and provide hours of entertainment to them. In addition to that, the highly enriched nutrition improves the color (especially the red and yellow) of our lovely Angolan beauties. The barbs will also take all kinds of dry and frozen foods without any difficulty. However, if you want to get B. fasciolatus ready to spawn, it is absolutely essential to offer a live food (insect larvae, Cyclops, et al.).
A Cozy Aquarium
The Angolan barb is an ideal fish for a community aquarium of more than 20 gallons. When kept in groups of eight to ten specimens, this species is not very shy and other aquarium inhabitants are left in peace.
If you want to replicate their natural habitat or breed them, you must set up a West African biotope aquarium. Besides the already mentioned fine substrate, a carpet of plants is necessary. With some gnarled roots, coconut shells, or rocks for hiding, you can create a naturalistic habitat for the barbs. Dim lighting and some loosely distributed leaf litter will intensify the impression of a West African forest creek.
The barbs will quickly become less shy, displaying their brilliant red colors. Use only a low-flow internal filter (with peat!). Water temperatures may vary from 68° to 77°F. Even temperatures below 68° are more than adequate, as lower temperatures (sometimes under 50°!) are measured during the winter months within the Angolan barb’s natural range.
Although the water is generally soft there, it has a rather high pH value (6.8 to 7.5). In their natural surroundings, they are often found in slow-flowing, calm waters, and it is unusual for the barbs to move into the major African river systems. Only during the spawning time, in the rainy season between January and April, do they move upstream, searching for calm tributaries or flooded areas (such as meadows and reed zones). I presume that these changing conditions are necessary to induce spawning behavior. Although the Angolan barb is widespread all over the African continent, all places of origin have two things in common: an annual cycle with a wet and dry season and the possibility to move to slow-flowing, calm waters with luxuriant vegetation during spawning. That last fact has been an important piece of information when breeding the barbs, which can be a bit tricky sometimes.
Under the Cover of Darkness
When attempting to breed my Angolan barbs, the aquarium water was medium-hard (10° KH, 20° GH) and slightly alkaline (with a pH of 7.3). The temperature was about 78.5°F, and a small internal filter ensured optimum water circulation. I fed only live food (mainly live mosquito larvae and Cyclops) while conditioning the females.
I didn’t find any eggs or larvae, although the males clearly displayed mating behavior for several days. Experienced barb breeders (Stallknecht, 1994) assumed that the males were too young to fertilize the newly laid eggs. Others (Suttner, 1990) noticed that breeding might have been inhibited because there was no change in air pressure due to storms.
After three severe summer thunderstorms (and the associated drop in air pressure), I had almost given up hope, but I decided to give it one last try. I reduced the water conductivity from 600 µS/cm to 70 µS/cm (0° to 1° KH, 2° to 3° GH) over the course of some regular water changes and dimmed the light even more. I also added one small bag of peat (to bring the pH under 6.8) and stopped the internal filter completely.
One day later, in the early morning, I finally achieved success. The males showed a brilliant blood-red coloration and circled very fast around the females. The males tried to expel other male rivals with a trembling lateral display and tensed fins. This courtship behavior is the main reason to use large aquariums (at least 30 x 15 inches) for breeding activities.
Both sexual partners always disappeared into the Java moss, and it looked as if they dug into the plant bushes. In typical barb fashion, the male clasped the posterior part of the female’s dorsal fin with his folded caudal fin and pushed her into the plants. A short time thereafter, I noticed the first eggs laid by the barbs, although the spawn was very tiny and transparent. From then on, they spawned every day. Sometimes one male spawned with one female, but occasionally a few females disappeared with one male into the plant bushes.
I can`t confirm any direct link between spawning behavior and weather conditions because the barbs laid their eggs on sunny days when the atmospheric pressure was high as well as during heavy thunderstorms. In my view, the main spawning trigger for the barbs was the frequent water changes combined with the internal filter being switched off the day before spawning. Even in nature, the spawning of Angolan barbs seems to happen within the rainy season and after a migration into the calm tributaries or floodplains with little to no current.
Development of the Young Barbs
Although the growth rate of the tiny, young barbs differs significantly, some stages of development can be noticed. From the second week onward, the juveniles become low-maintenance fish. At that point, they don’t mind changing from soft to hard water and they hunt greedily for different types of food (e.g., crushed frozen or live food or pulverized dry food).
In the Footsteps of David Livingstone
Angolan barbs may, at first glance, look rather unimpressive. The olive/orange coloration they display outside spawning time and their shy behavior may be the reason that their more colorful relatives from Asia are more popular among aquarists. But if you take the time to set up a biotope aquarium for these little Africans, you will be rewarded with an extraordinary display of color.
On seeing my breeding blood-red barbs, I had to remember a statement of the famous African explorer David Livingstone when he first set eyes on spectacular Victoria Falls in 1854: “A scene so lovely it must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Maybe he had just seen a pair of breeding Angolan barbs!